College football is here! During the very first game I channel surfed on (WY@NMST), the announcers were already discussing which conference was better this year – the Big Ten or SEC. It is always a spirited discussion. This year has to play out, but to provide some fodder for the discussion— let’s reflect back to last year’s bowl season. The question I would like to focus on for the purpose of this blog is: Who had the better bowl season last year? The Big Ten had a fantastic bowl appearance at 7-1 whereas the SEC seemingly struggled at 5-6, except for the obvious: Alabama and Georgia played for the National Championship. Looking for clear evidence that the Big Ten is on par with the SEC, I did some homework and put Graph A together. It seemed like it would validate the apparent results that the Big Ten had a better bowl performance. But as Thomas Jefferson stated, “Not so fast my friend”.
Graph A (Click image for more detail)
The bowl games for each conference were plotted using game performance (GP) which breaks down the Sagarin Predictor into a per-game estimate, see Graph A. Better competition along with a higher margin of victory provides a higher game performance. (One game performance point equals one Sagarin point equals one football point.) Black labels are wins and red labels are losses. The average game performance for each conference is the horizontal line(s). For example, the Big 12 is ~83. Placing all of the games into a simple visual with unbiased data leads to a better understanding versus the win-loss records alone. I say unbiased data because Sagarin does not weight the SEC higher. All teams and games go into the computer and come out without regard to conference. Bottom line? It’s about quality of performance. While we could whine that the national media treats the SEC special, Sagarin’s computer code does not. Plus, by putting all of the information into a visually-friendly graph, it is harder to cherry pick a few facts to support our argument while ignoring other pertinent information.
The graph is like Prego tomato sauce: “it’s in there”. Surprisingly, it shows the SEC average is 88.02 whereas the Big Ten average is 87.26. The scores are about equal with a slight edge to the SEC. Does this make sense given the record for each conference? Let’s calculate the average another way. We will throw out the high and low performance in each conference. The end result is similar with the Big Ten at 87.45 and the SEC at 87.83. If we use the Central Mean method (weighted average), again the results are about equal with the Big Ten at 87.75 and the SEC at 87.70. The three horizontal lines in each conference section are all around the 87-88 range.
Does it make sense that the Big Ten bowl average is not higher than the SEC and actually slightly lower? Yes, because that is what the facts indicate with Sagarin as the source. But does this really make sense? If it’s all about winning, how can this be so? Remember, it’s not just Ohio State (Big Ten Champions) dismantling USC (PAC 12 Champions) 24-7. We have to consider all of the games from both conferences, even the lower-tier bowls. The SEC did get two extra games by winning the two CFP semifinals, and then went 1-1 in the final as Alabama beat Georgia for the title. (Can’t blame them for that loss). The best performance of the bowl season was Bama’s win over Clemson, 24-6 (113 GP). This win helped offset Missouri’s loss to Texas 16-33 (65), the worst performance among the two conferences.
For the sake of this discussion, let’s use 90 as the impressive-performance threshold. Concerning impressive performances, the Big Ten had four wins above 90 GP while the SEC also had four performances over 90 GP. But one of those was a loss (GA 23, Bama 26 in NC game) plus the SEC had 11 bowl games versus only eight for the Big Ten. Concerning game performances less than 90 GP, the majority are losses for the SEC but are in the same performance range as the Big Ten’s wins. Examples of equivalence are LSU’s 4-point loss to Notre Dame (#10 ranking) which is roughly the same game performance (~85 GP) as Iowa’s 7-point win over Boston College (#36 ranking). Auburn’s 7-point loss to UCF (#15 ranking) is approximately the same game performance (~78 GP) as Purdue’s 3-point win over Arizona (#45 ranking). This is not a knock on Iowa or Purdue but rather reflects the strength of their opponents and the margin of victory.
Let’s return to the main question, “Who had the better bowl season?” Convincing or not, this model shows that the SEC overall had a slightly better (we’re talking less than a point on average) performance in the bowl season than the Big Ten. This was based on all of the games under consideration, and more importantly, based on all of the game performances. This model takes a deeper look than merely wins and losses. Because of the Bama vs Georgia CFP performance, I’ll give the SEC the nod but again not by much. Maybe you have done some analysis— please share your thoughts and conclusions.
Note 1: You could argue with the accuracy of the game-performance method. However, Sagarin is a long-respected computer ranking. His numbers are a time-tested metric. While it is easy to disagree with a few of the individual outcomes, taking an average tempers the effect of a given team’s odd performance or two within the season.
Note 2: For an odd occurrence, (the Northwestern-Kentucky game), Northwestern won 24 -23 but Kentucky has a higher-game performance. Why? When determining performance, you are compared against the opponent’s average performance. Thus, Kentucky losing to Northwestern by one is a better performance than Northwestern beating Kentucky by one, strange as that may seem. This outcome doesn’t seem intuitive because it happened in the same game. For an exaggerated example to clarify this point, would you think your favorite team had a better game if you (a) lose to Alabama (#1 in the Sagarin ranking) by one point or (b) beat Valparaiso by one point (#245 in the Sagarin ranking)? It’s obvious that losing to Alabama by only one point is the much bigger accomplishment.
Note 3: Don’t confuse game performance with ranking. Both are used in the discussion. For ranking, lower is better (i.e. Alabama is ranked #1). For game performance, higher is better (i.e. Alabama’s win over Clemson had a GP of 113).
2017 Bowl Bragging Rights
SEC Bowl High Points
- National Champion Winner Alabama
- National Champion Runner-up Georgia
- Bama beat Clemson (ACC Champ) 24-6
- Georgia beat Oklahoma (Big12 Champ) 54 – 48
- South Carolina beat Michigan 26-19 (Head-to-Head comparison)
Big Ten Bowl High Points
- Ohio State beat USC (Pac12 Champ), 24 – 7
- Michigan State beat Washington State, 42 – 17
- Penn State beat Washington, 35 – 28
- Wisconsin beat Miami, 34 – 24
- Northwestern beat Kentucky, 24 – 23 (Head-to-Head Comparison)
Written By: Ray Hartnett, Project Engineer
Ray has a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Nebraska with almost 30 years of automotive experience, primarily in interiors (door panels, overhead systems, plastics, and vinyl wrapped components). He has also worked with power steering systems.