I have a ton of respect for what Chris Petersen has accomplished with that program, and the Broncos have proved they can beat just about anybody in a one-game situation. But playing in the WAC simply doesn’t compare to playing in the SEC. It’s apples and oranges. It’s like asking where are you most likely to be attacked by a Great White Shark: Swimming in your neighbor’s pool or swimming off the coast of South Africa? - Chris Low, ESPNRaise your hand if you've heard it before. Yeah, BYU beats Oklahoma, Utah beats Alabama, Boise St beats Oregon ONCE, but they don't have the NFL caliber athletes and depth to do it week in and week out. The argument makes sense, but its garbage. And I can prove it.
The first part of this argument is that playing a tougher schedule wears down players, leading to injuries and missed starts. False. Pac-10 teams led the nation in 2009 by missing an average of 23.3 starts, driven largely by Washingtson St.'s 67 (#1 in the nation by 23 missed starts)*. The SEC is second, but then come the MAC, Sunbelt, MWC and C-USA at 3, 4, 7, and 8, respectively. Big Ten and Big 12 teams missed the fewest games. Three of the 4 conferences to miss the most offensive players were non-AQs. BCS conference teams missed 6.6% of starts to 6.4% of starts for non-BCS teams. If we throw out Washington St., which only masquerades as a Div I football program, non-BCS teams were more injury prone.
Using regression, we have another method for measuring the effect of strength of schedule (SOS) on missed starts. In the model above**, we see that as SOS increases by 1 ( = the average opponent is 1 point better), teams miss 1 more start every 5 games (.18) on average. To put this in context, Alabama missed 29 starts in 2009 and TCU missed 12. Of the 17 extra missed starts for Alabama, one of them can be explained by Alabama's tougher schedule. More importantly, SOS does not significantly effect injuries (p=.419). In other words, its also possible that a tougher schedule reduces injuries, but last season teams with tougher schedules just happened to have more injuries. The same is true of missed starts on offense with a tougher defense SOS and vice versa (not shown).
We can also measure the effect of playing ranked teams. The regression results suggest that teams miss an extra start on average for every 2 games they play against top 25 teams. When we consider that most teams have 286 starts, missing 1 just doesn't seem like that big of a deal. And again, the variable is not significant. While ranked opponents may have produced a handful of injuries in 2009, it is also very possible that playing ranked teams protects teams against injuries.
But the effect of a tough schedule is more than injuries, right? Turns out, we can also measure the effect of a tough schedule one wins and losses. The logistic regression model below looks at all non-bowl games between 1980 and now in which teams played a top 20 team. After controlling for the quality of the team (TRate) the opponent (ORate) and the location of the game (Home), we look at the effect of having played games against other top 20 teams. Seq is the number of games against top 20 teams the team has played before the current game, and Sep is the number of weeks since that game.
There is a good chance that having time between tough games is an advantage - having an extra week between top 20 teams helps a team win as much as playing the game at home instead of at a neutral site (about 3 points of advantage). But their is a large standard error (Std. Err.) for this effect, meaning that while on average it is probably good, it could be very good or not important at all. Having played more games against top 20 teams before the current game has no effect on a team's chances of winning (p=.794, Seq is not significant). On the other hand, playing more games against top 20 teams over the entire season actually increases a teams chances of winning any one of those games (below).
What does this mean? A tough schedule does not, on average, lead to injured teams. Injuries are pretty evenly split between BCS and non-BCS teams, and considering BCS teams should have more depth, injuries over the course of the season are undoubtedly more damaging to non-BCS teams. Playing a lot of top 20 teams does not hurt a team's chances of winning, and may actually help them win. Its like RockBand. When I move from Hard to Expert, the change of pace always messes me up. The same is true when Kellen Moore or Matt Barkley are reading a defense. But having a little time in between showdowns does seem to help, and since injuries are not the issue, we can only assume that time helps for game planning and emotionally preparing for big games.
Could Boise St. survive in the SEC? Well, I don't see any reason why they couldn't. If you can do it once, you can do it a million times.
*Missed start data comes from PhilSteele.com
**I have removed Washington St. because it is an outlier that unfairly influences the results without substantially changing them.