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17 Oct 2008
We're going to take a week off from the wonkiness of S&P, "+" Numbers, and Win Correlations to address an ongoing theme in college football in the wake of yet another Saturday shakeup: Have we really entered a new level of parity in college football, or has this all happened before? Is it a new age of evenness, or is it part of a cycle?
The last year and a half of college football have been amazingly unpredictable. This year has already seen an "unbeatable" No. 1 team (USC) lose to a team with a losing record (Oregon State) and two top 5 teams (Florida and Missouri) lose at home to decent-sized underdogs. The season has shaped up as a decent encore to last year's unprecedented unpredictability. After years where the top teams seemed on a crash course for the title game from beginning to end (Oklahoma and USC in 2004, Texas and USC in 2005, for example), it has been hard to keep up with the insanity.
But is this actually a sign of a "new age" of college football, or is this just part of another cycle? With the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia in hand, we can attack this question in a couple of different ways. First, with last year's upset specials and two-loss national champion in mind, we can look at how many losses teams near the top of the polls have had from year to year. Second, we can look at how many undefeated teams have survived, on average, seven weeks into the season. Until a deep pool of in-depth data is compiled, these are probably the best ways to look at this question.
|Total Combined Losses in the AP Top 10 (End of Regular Season)*|
|* This list looks at every season since 1960. Before 1996, there existed the possibility of a tie. For the purposes of this list, a tie is considered 0.5 losses.|
The 2007 regular season ended with one undefeated team (Hawaii), two one-loss teams (Ohio State, Kansas), and that is it. Heading into the bowl season, the AP Top 10 had combined for 17 losses, and as you see, only one year since 1960 had seen more than that. That year was also from this decade (2003). Is this part of an upward trend? Since 1960, the average number of losses for teams in the top 10 has been 12.2; in the last nine years, that average has climbed to 13.9. That average would be even higher if not for the outlier that was 2004, which produced a whopping five unbeaten teams (USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah, and Boise State) in the regular season. So we may have something here.
|Undefeated Teams in the AP Poll after Week Seven|
|8||10-way tie (including 2006, 2005, and 2000)||7|
This table suggests that the number of remaining undefeated teams in 2008, despite the interesting upsets, is not much different than in previous years or decades, nor was the number in 2007. (Of course, upsets can happen at any point in the season -- we could just be getting started on another upset binge.) But the strength of teams' non-conference schedules were much tougher in the 1970s (represented well in the table), so that might explain the lack of undefeateds in that time period.
What has made the last couple of seasons so interesting is, in part, what has seemed like a large number of unranked teams knocking off those in the top 5. For instance, a few weeks ago USC became the first No. 1 team in 18 years to lose to a team with a losing record. Last year, as the No. 2 team in the country, they lost at home to 1-3 Stanford. Is that something more unique to more recent seasons?
So far in 2008, this level of upset has happened twice:
Last year, it happened a ridiculous 13 times:
Thirteen is an outlier, without a doubt. How many times in the last 40 years has this sort of upset happened more than even five times in a season?
1974 (six times)
1981 (seven times)
1982 (six times)
1984 (seven times)
1985 (seven times)
1990 (seven times)
2002 (eight times)
There was a tremendous power shakeup in the early '80s, but since then the strings of upsets have been few and far between.
In all, the evidence of a trend toward a new level of parity isn't tremendously strong. We haven't seen yet whether last year's upsets were an outlier or a bellwether. But there is an argument to be made for a trend toward parity. Thousands of words could be spent explaining why this may be happening, but I will offer a few thoughts and move on for now.
Meanwhile, emerging powers took at least a small step backwards recently. USC was fantastic from 2003-2005, and there's no questioning that the 2005 Texas team was unbelievable. But in the last three years, USC has not been able to avoid random setbacks, and Texas has returned to their pre-Vince Young level of good-but-not-unbeatable stature. Miami-FL was outstanding from 2000-2002, but Butch Davis jumped to the professional ranks, and the program tailed off a couple of seasons later. Oklahoma, too, has yet to quite reattain (and hold onto) the high level of play that it experienced from about 2002 to 2004.
And beyond all this, there is the cannibalism that takes place in the SEC on a yearly basis. The conference is competitive enough that a true dominant power cannot emerge from there for more than a year or two at a time. The same thing might be starting to happen in the Big 12 as well.
But I'll stop there -- otherwise this column could reach 10,000 words quickly. The bottom line is that upsets are exciting, and the lack of a true above-all-others powerhouse only increases the public outcry for a playoff. The powers that be have resisted that outcry so far, but it is only a matter of time, is it not?
13 comments, Last at 20 Oct 2008, 9:27am by mrh