Friday, August 22, 2008

The Contenders

Let’s cut to the chase – who is it going to be?

It’s often said “Preseason polls don’t matter”.

Actually, they matter almost more than anything.

Sure they rarely get the top team right, at least as far as predicting the eventual mythical national champion goes. What preseason polls do accomplish, however, with an almost ironclad precision, is the elimination of the vast majority of the teams from any “national championship” consideration.

Speaking to a near statistical certainty, 100 of the 119 BCS teams already have no chance of winning the 2008. As in nil. Zip. Nada.

Who are the fortunate 19? Well, take a look at the top 20 in the preseason Coaches Poll, with one exception –

1. Georgia (22) 0-0 1,438
2. USC (14) 0-0 1,430
3. Ohio State (14) 0-0 1,392
4. Oklahoma (3) 0-0 1,329
5. Florida (5) 0-0 1,293
6. LSU (3) 0-0 1,163
7. Missouri 0-0 1,143
8. West Virginia 0-0 1,008
9. Clemson 0-0 999
10. Texas 0-0 979
11. Auburn 0-0 888
12. Wisconsin 0-0 747
13. Kansas 0-0 714
14. Texas Tech 0-0 644
15. Virginia Tech 0-0 568
16. Arizona State 0-0 560
17. Brigham Young 0-0 547
18. Tennessee 0-0 506
19. Illinois 0-0 422
20. Oregon 0-0 399

The exception is BYU. Sure they eked out a “national” title back way back 1984, but the current BCS system makes it abundantly clear they have no chance of playing in this year’s title game, undefeated or not. Why? Because there is a virtual certainty that there will be either 1 or more undefeated teams in the 16 ranked ahead than them, or at least two 1 loss teams in the same group. And two one-loss teams from the major conferences listed ahead of BYU will play for the title before an undefeated BYU will. By way of example, an undefeated Hawaii was kept from the BCS title game by a one single loss and one twice beaten major conference team last season. BYU can hope for a BCS bid, at the very best – but I’ll state it with certainty here – they will not be BCS champs.

The choice of the top 20 is hardly arbitrary either, for in the past 15 years, only a single team has come from a preseason ranking as high as 19th to win the MNC, Oklahoma in 2000. We will arbitrarily throw in Oregon anyway at 20th.

So which of these 19 has the best chance? Well based on our research into defense winning championships, we know that teams that can hold their opponents to an average of less than 14 points per game have the best chance. The standard deviation of the last 8 BCS title winners in defensive points allowed is 3.5, so a range of anywhere from 10.5 to 17.5. (Obviously less than 10.5 wouldn’t hurt either). 68% of BCS title winners should fall within this range.

Let’s take a look at the "fortunate 19’s" defensive scoring last season –

Ohio St. 12.8
Southern California 16
Virginia Tech 16.1
Kansas 16.4
Auburn 16.9
West Virginia 18.1
Clemson 18.7
LSU 19.9
Georgia 20.2
Oklahoma 20.3
Illinois 21.8
Arizona St. 22.5
Wisconsin 23.2
Missouri 23.3
Oregon 23.6
Texas 25.3
Florida 25.5
Texas Tech 25.9
Tennessee 27.3

Only the top 5 meet our stated criteria (remember – LSU played 2 overtime games, skewing their results).

Now comes the speculative part – which of these teams can we expect to improve on their defensive scoring. And, which might regress.

Obviously this is open to debate and interpretation. I like to look at the number of returning starters on defense. Florida last year had only really 2 returning defensive starters, and we regressed a miserable 47% from 2006 to 2007. From the best information I can find, the teams have the following in the way of returning starters on defense –

Missouri 10
Wisconsin 9
Georgia 9
Kansas 9
Ohio St. 9
Texas Tech 8
Florida 8
Clemson 8
Tennessee 7
Oregon 7
Arizona St. 7
Auburn 7
Southern California 7
Illinois 6
Oklahoma 5
Texas 4
West Virginia 4
Virginia Tech 4

Here’s guessing that Oklahoma, LSU, Texas, WVU and VT will regress on defense. Since the only one of this group to come in less than 17.5 last year was VT, and by just over a point in that case, I’m going to toss all of them from serious contention, leaving (with returning starters on D) -

Missouri 10
Wisconsin 9
Georgia 9
Kansas 9
Ohio St. 9
Texas Tech 8
Florida 8
Clemson 8
Tennessee 7
Oregon 7
Arizona St. 7
Auburn 7
Southern California 7
Illinois 6

Next, are the remaining teams that met the criteria last year likely to regress?

Ohio St. – if anything they will be better.
Southern California – probably about the same
Kansas – perhaps better
Auburn – probably the same.

Thus the top 4 are solid BCS contenders.

Now we need to ask ourselves, can the other over 17.5 point teams IMPROVE on defense and get them below where then need to be. My opinions –

Missouri – with 10 returning on D 23.3 ppg last season, definitely
Wisconsin – 9 returners, 23.2 ppg, probably
Georgia – 9 returners, 20.2 ppg, mark it down as highly likely
Texas Tech – 8 returners, but to go from 25.9 to 17.5? Call it a maybe
Florida - 8 returning starters, same problem as Texas Tech at 25.5, maybe.
Clemson – with 8 back, and 18.7 ppg last season, definitely.
Tennessee – 7 back on D, but a terrible 27.3 ppg last year. I don’t see it.
Oregon -7 back on D, has to improve from 23.6. Maybe
Arizona St. – 7 back on D, 22.5 ppg last season. A decent maybe.

Let’s eliminate Tennessee here.

Our list, by conference and my guess of their defensive strength in conference –

Big Ten

Ohio St.

Pac Ten

Southern California
Arizona St.

Big 12

Texas Tech





12 serious contenders of 120 prospects. We’ve eliminated 90% of the teams.

Not good enough for you? Well then, from here forward is strictly speculation –

I think Ohio State will sweep the Big Ten easily. The Buck’s entire season will likely come down to the game at USC. If Ohio State loses there, the stigma of the last 2 BCS blowouts will keep them from the title game. However, I don’t think they will lose.

Southern Cal should win the Pac Ten, but Arizona State may be a little better than anyone gives them credit for, and could challenge the Trojans.

Everyone seems to think Oklahoma's a lock for the Big 12. I’m going with Missouri to win the Big 12 over Oklahoma in the championship game.

The SEC will be the usual bloodbath. I do not see an undefeated team coming from the conference. And in a year that should see at least 2 undefeated teams, maybe more, I think it costs the conference.

Clemson is an interesting situation. With the basket case that is the ACC, I think they might run the table. Wins over SEC foes Alabama and South Carolina will give them the “cred” they need to jump a one loss SEC team. I know this team seems historically cursed, but if any year is there year, it is this year.

Ohio State verses Clemson for the BCS title.

Take it with a grain of salt.

Update: From the commentaries some folks evidently don’t like my BCS prediction.

I don’t really “like” it either, as in the preseason too much remains uncertain. Hence the "grain of salt" comment.

However, I stick by my assessment that defense matters most, and that of the 12 I list as contenders, 2 will be in the BCS title game. I plan on refining my choices as the actual defenses make themselves subject to examination.

But as far as predicting goes on a defensive basis, remember I pointed out after week 2 that Louisville was going to lose several games, when they were still undefeated . It may seem obvious now, but at that point they were ranked 9th nationally.

I also pointed out – while these teams were undefeated in late September – that Cal, Oregon, Kentucky and Nebraska were all headed for disappointment, and that Texas, Wisconsin, Florida and even USC weren’t likely to run the table based on their defensive stats at that point.

My prediction for the BCS winner as of September 27th 2007? Well, I said in the same article that I would “mortgage the house with a bet on LSU” in the title game.

Sadly, I didn’t make that bet. My wife didn't let me.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with your statement that a Brigham Young or a Boise State cannot win a national championship under the present system. If they followed the correct path they could get into the game. In fact the media would demand it.

All any of the non-power conference teams need to do is schedule two quality teams from the power conferences and beat them, along with otherwise going undefeated in their regular season schedule.

Remember the media hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over Boise State a couple years ago? Ultimately, Boise State had no real argument that year because they had played a cream puff schedule. What if Boise State had beaten two teams ranked between 12 and 25 from the power conferences? The media outburst would have been deafening. There would have been a congressional nvestigation if , under that fact pattern, Boise State had been denied. Until one of the mid-majors undertake ths type of scheduling they will be forclosed from playing in the Championship game.

But it is their own fault, not systemic failure.

Mergz said...

So you are saying BYU has a chance?

Anonymous said...

that prediction might be the only thing worse than your poll

Mergz said...

You sir haven't seen my golf game.

Anonymous said...

Does BYU have a chance this year to make the big game? Theoretically, yes because they attempted to schedule two good teams from a power conference. In actuality, no because the two teams they scheduled outside their conference are Washington and UCLA.

However if both UCLA and Washington have better than expected years it is not beyond the realms of possibility. I admit it is a big stretch.

It is not about conferences -- it is about who teams beat. In order for a mid-major team to be seriously considered they are going to have to beat upper tier teams in power conferences.

Unfortunately for BYU, this year UCLA and Washington will not be upper tier teams so even if BYU goes undefeated, probably no shot at the big game.

Henry Louis Gomez said...

Anon, you just explained why in practical terms BYU could never win the BCS title. Major conference teams that are good have NO incentive to play the best teams from the mid-majors. That's why this system sucks. The reason BYU could get UCLA and Washington on their schedule is because UCLA and Washington aren't going to contend in their conference.

The odds are just stacked too high against them.

TomReagan said...

I have to differ with the notion that you've got no shot at a title if you start the season outside the top 20.

Just last season, Mizzou went from unranked to number #1 in the nation--with a loss already under their belt.

BC and South Florida rose to #2 after being unranked to start the year.

Kansas made it to #2 after receiving zero votes in either preseason poll.

All four of those teams could have played in the title game despite being unranked to start the season.

Just because no team has managed to win a title after starting the year outside the top 20 doesn't mean that the system prevents it.

Henry Louis Gomez said...

You can differ with the notion but you do understand that last season was one of the wackiest I can remember in 20 years of following college football. I mean if it had not been for the top teams getting upset on almost weekly basis, the teams you mentioned would have had no shot at all. The eventual champion was a 2-loss team. That tells you all you need to know.

TomReagan said...

It's not differing with any notion, it's the truth. It is obviously possible to come from out of the top 20 to play in the title game.

Take Michigan, Miami, or FSU this year for example. If any of those teams goes undefeated in the regular season, the only thing that would keep them out of the title game would be a 2004 type scenario, which was, historically, even more of an oddity than last season.

Starting out low is not typically (sorry Auburn) not a problem for BCS schools and certainly not a problem for 'name programs'. It will only come into play for programs like Boise, Tulane and Hawai'i.

dethwing said...

So...about that Clemson pick...