Tuesday, November 01, 2011

An Exercise in the Importance of Playing Nobodies

Team A and Team B are fairly similar this year.  They both have good defenses and weak offenses.  They both play in major conferences.  Behold, the majesty of a chart showing their similarities:

  Team A Team B
Sagarin Predictor 80.40 78.24
Sagarin SOS 68.38 75.20
SRS 9.9 6.12
SRS SOS 2.75 5.86
Pts Per Game 21.4 26.0
Pts Allowed Per Game 12.4 19.5
Scoring Margin +9.0 +6.5
Yards Per Play Gained 5.1 5.6
Yards Per Play Allowed 4.2 4.5
Yards Per Play Margin +0.9 +1.1
Turnover Margin +6 -8

Overall, the picture you would draw from this table is that these teams are pretty close to one another.  Team A would be a 2-3 point favorite on a neutral field according to Sagarin and SRS.  Team A’s scoring margin is a little better, but their yards per play margin is a little worse.  Team A is definitely better in the turnover department, which reflects good luck, weaker opponents, some sort of skill at protecting the ball and preventing opponents from doing the same, or some combination thereof.

Am I going to give it away by saying that both teams have been suspect at the quarterback position this year, with Team A relying on a walk-on and Team B relying on true freshmen during the meat of their schedule?  How about if I said that Team A lost a home game to Alabama by 16 after scoring a garbage touchdown and two-pointer in the final minutes, while Team B lost to the Tide by 28 after losing their quarterback midway through the proceedings?  And for a final connection, the offensive coordinator of Team A’s meager attack used to be the head coach for Team B.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Team A is Penn State and Team B is Florida.  Penn State is 8-1 and ranked 16th in the BCS rankings.  They lead their division by two games. They are three up in the loss column.  If they can simply avoid a three-game losing streak to end the year, they will play in the first Big Ten Championship Game.  The narrative for their season is “Joe Paterno, still getting it done” (at least by reporters who are relying on the fact that their readers haven’t actually watched Penn State play this year).  Florida is 4-4 and unranked.  In fact, I doubt that may voters even gave them a second thought when filling out their ballots.  Their most famous fan in the blogosphere is writing this obituary:

But don't say this is all necessary. It's not. Meyer's struggles in his first year got him to nine wins. [NAME REDACTED] learned and unlearned basic arithmetic on the job and still won seven games. This team will lose to Vanderbilt. This team will lose to South Carolina. This team will lose to Florida State, and they will miss a bowl game for the first time since the pre-Spurrier era. That is not good coaching. That's failure, and boring, depressing failure at that. At least fight James Franklin at the fifty when you're done losing to Vandy, Will, and thus give us something to cheer about. Gut a reporter mid-question, or sleep in a tree stand on campus and when someone asks you what you're doing, whisper "hunting, son. Hunting."

Go mildly insane just to keep us all awake. Don't go pointing to a crack in the model and tell us it's a goddamn feature. That's bullshit, and there's enough of it on the field to feed us all for the next year or so with ease.

Isn’t the major difference between these teams their schedules?  If Florida played three creampuffs plus Alabama in the non-conference slate and then feasted on a pu-pu platter of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, and Northwestern for league opponents (with the two most “challenging” opponents at home), wouldn’t it stand to reason that the Gators would also be 8-1 (5-0)?  And if Penn State had an October of Alabama at home, LSU and Auburn on the road, and then Georgia at a neutral site, isn’t there a very good chance that they would have gone 0-4, especially if they would have played at Auburn without their starting quarterback?  I’m as guilty of this as anyone, since I ranked Penn State (albeit 8/9 spots below the human polls) and not Florida, but is there really a major difference between the teams?  If they met in a bowl game, wouldn’t we just expect a 16-13 type game that would swing on one or two big plays?  Yes, there is a good chance that the big play would be a Florida turnover, but it is just as likely that it would be RaiDemps getting loose.  After all, I doubt that Penn State encountered players like that when they were running rampant through the lower half of the Big Ten.

Now, an obvious counter to what I’m saying is “there are a lot of teams that would be 8-1 against Penn State’s schedule or 4-4 against Florida’s, especially when you factor in Florida’s quarterback situation over the course of October.”  That’s a variant of the “what would our record be if we played Boise State’s schedule” argument.  It has a certain degree of merit, but it points to the importance of looking at how a team won or lost its games.  Boise State was a legitimate national title contender last year because they dominated weaker opponents in a manner that one would expect from a top five team.  To a slightly lesser extent, the same is true this year.  If Penn State were 8-1 with a loss to Alabama and comfortable wins over a stretch of bad-to-mediocre opponents, then the comparison to Florida would be invalid.  That’s not the case at all.  PSU needed a late touchdown to come from behind against Temple.  They led Indiana 6-3 until the end of the third quarter.  They led Iowa 6-3 until the fourth quarter.  They beat Purdue by five and Illinois by three, both at home.  Conversely, Florida won their four games in September comfortably, they were blown out by Alabama and LSU (as would just any any team in the country), and then they lost close games to Auburn and Georgia.  The way that Florida and Penn State have played this year lends to the conclusion that they are very similar teams with very different records.

One final thought: if you think that this is just another attempt by me to show my disdain for Penn State football as currently constituted (namely as an homage to the dotage of a once-great, but now irrelevant coach) and the Big Ten as a place where serious competitive pressures are a thing of the past, you are absolutely right.


Adam Malka said...

Doesn't the Penn State schedule/record this season also illustrate, in some sense, the problem with trying to evaluate merit across conferences in such a small sample size? As a fan of baseball first and basketball second, I find myself continually amused at the complicated metrics college football employs to "determine" who is 9th, and 15th, and 23rd, when such an exercise is inherently silly. Moreover, most non-partial college football fans would probably take Florida in a head-to-head matchup anyway, which only further underscores the absurdity of the ranking system.

On another note, doesn't your argument lend support to the notion that major conference, non-championship contenders should schedule cupcakes? Penn State has benefited from beating the soft underbelly of the Big Ten, but they are also benefiting, more generally, from beating up bad teams. Penn State now has a chance to go to a BCS bowl game and reap the cash rewards. Had they actually planned this out, one would be tempted to say that the plan was a good one.

Matt Skalecki said...

This comparison really doesn't say so much about the importance of playing cupcakes as the importance of lucking out in close games.

The expected result of feeding on cupcakes is inflated margins in scoring, yardage, and TOs. Wisconsin is a MUCH better example of this effect than Penn State.

Penn State is what happens when you have a team who plays near the level of its competition and simply has excessively good luck in close games.

This isn't to suggest that the Big 10 isn't pretty weak this season. It is. Penn State's luck just isn't particularly strong evidence for it.

PS: It should be noted that Penn State was less bad against Alabama than Florida was by 12 points. The fact that Florida has had similar statistical advantages over its opponents might actually cause a naive person to conclude that Florida's schedule had MORE cupcakes.

Anonymous said...

"Isn’t the major difference between these teams their schedules?"

I suppose we'll see once Florida goes el foldo against Vandy in the Swamp.

PatinDC said...

Please. UF has had plenty of years with 7 home games and 4 cupcakes on the schedule. Every team benefits from a good schedule.

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