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16 Dec 2010
by Bill Connelly
In analyzing bowl matchups, every one of us does the same thing: We think of teams as they were at the end of the season instead of as they were for the whole season. In terms of injuries or defections, this makes sense. If the personnel is different at the end of the season than it was earlier on, then you have to take that into account. But I have long wondered if we overstate end-of-season momentum. With a break of anywhere between three and six weeks before a team's bowl game, does momentum really play any part in bowl performance, or do all teams return to room temperature? Do hot teams cool off over the December breaks while cold teams warm back up?
The original intent with this column was to determine if momentum is maintained over the holiday break. The result, however, did not exactly match the premise. It turns out that everybody cools off, whether they were hot or not. Bowl breaks typically produce relatively bad football.
Using single-game S&P+, I looked at all bowl teams from 2005-2009 to gauge how they performed on a week-to-week basis. I looked at their overall performance, and I looked how they did in three sections of the season: early (first five weeks), middle (middle four to five weeks) and late (final five weeks). Did each team's bowl performance more closely resemble its performance as a whole, or its performance in the late portion of the season?
Late performance wins by a nose, but when talking about teams' bowl performances, nobody really wins.
|Median Performance Change in Bowl Game, According to Single-Game S&P+ (2005-09)|
|Off. S&P+||Def. S&P+||Overall S&P+|
|Change from Late-Season Performance||-4.7%||-12.5%||-8.9%|
|Change from Full-Season Performance||-6.9%||-14.9%||-9.0%|
Now is a good time for a reminder that S&P+ has no sort of zero-sum effect. It is entirely based on opponent averages, so both teams can achieve above (>200.0) or below the norm in a given game. And, as it turns out, both teams can improve or regress at the same time.
According to single-game S&P+ performances, both offenses and defenses regress after the bowl break. Surprisingly, defenses cool off even more. I long supposed that offenses were more vulnerable to long breaks, but as usual, my inclinations were apparently incorrect.
Let's dig a little deeper into the offensive and defensive numbers to see where regression is most common.
|Median Offensive Performance Change in Bowl Game (2005-09)|
|Change from Late-Season Performance||-6.1%||-9.7%||-3.5%||-11.2%|
|Change from Full-Season Performance||-3.2%||-10.8%||-4.0%||-6.6%|
While offenses regress at a small rate in terms of efficiency, their explosiveness gets hampered quite a bit by the bowl layoff. It is the same story with defense, only magnified.
|Median Defensive Performance Change in Bowl Game (2005-09)|
|Change from Late-Season Performance||-9.6%||-17.8%||-9.3%||-20.3%|
|Change from Full-Season Performance||-12.0%||-20.1%||-12.0%||-22.5%|
After a long break, everybody is dumbed down a bit. Explosive (i.e. high-PPP) offenses find it tougher to make big plays, while even excellent defenses are more vulnerable to big plays themselves. In other words, it gets sloppy, and the big plays become much more random.
This makes sense, of course. They say weather is the great equalizer, but really, early December is. Players are studying (in theory) for finals, and when they're not, they're probably a bit bored. Plus, Team A is really excited to be playing in the Random Bank Sponsor Bowl while Team B is disappointed that it was disrespected and passed over for the Regional Fast Food Restaurant Bowl in favor of a rival. You never know who is going to handle the break well and who isn't. And sloppiness is, on average, the result.
There's a reason why the AP used to determine its final rankings before bowl season. Bowls are poor judges of a team's quality, but we put more weight into teams' performances -- both for final poll results and next season's expectations -- now than ever. I'm not proposing that we go back to the old way, of course; there is already ridiculous outcry when a Heisman winner struggles in his bowl game and people clamor for a different winner. Plus, I typically lean toward whatever results in a larger sample size for evaluation. There are just drawbacks to doing it, is all. Bowl results typically muddy the evaluation waters more than they help clear them.
If you are a fan who is always looking for the latest reason to say, "See? This is why we need a playoff," this might or might not give you ammunition. With a big, 16-team playoff, the layoffs between games would be minimal. You could have the first two rounds take place in December, with the semifinals and finals taking place after a layoff of just a week or two. That could minimize sloppiness. Of course, with a Plus One playoff or a six- or eight-team bracket, you would not really be able to avoid a layoff.
What would happen if we used the information above -- offenses regressing by five to 10 percent from their late-season performance, defenses regressing by 10 to 15 percent -- and applied it to bowl predictions? We'd get some creative results. If I were to use these numbers to make bowl predictions instead of the F/+ ratings that, let's face it, are almost guaranteed to hover right around .500 (I can't wait to make offseason adjustments to the predictions process), there would be some pretty eye-popping projections.
For all we know, things will unfold exactly as projected there. But a) we are not far enough along in this data to determine the difference between two- or three-week breaks and the six-week breaks, and more importantly, b) the extreme outliers in the data are staggering and scare me off from making any confident projections with this information.
The median performance for bowl teams might be an 8.9-percent S&P+ regression from their late-season play, but the standard deviation is enormous. Of the 320 teams that played in bowl games between 2005 and 2009, 40 regressed by 30 percent or more in their bowl game, and 92 regressed by 20 percent or more. Meanwhile, 30 improved by 30 percent or more while 48 improved by 20 percent or more. For every game that goes according to plan, there will be at least one utterly baffling result. This is college football, of course, and there are always baffling results, but the bowl season draws them out at a much higher level.
If anything else, these numbers could be used to look at which games might be played at the highest (i.e. highest combined S&P+) and lowest level of performance:
Since we have this single-game performance data, let's look at which teams have typically overachieved or underachieved during bowl season. Below are teams who have played in at least three bowls in the last five seasons (not a very high standard these days, considering a staggering 81 of 120 FBS teams have played in at least two in that span).
|Team||Bowls (Since 2005)||Avg. S&P+|
When it comes to bowl performances, three teams stand ahead of the pack: LSU, Florida, and ... Rutgers? Say this for Greg Schiano and his staff: They know how to motivate their team through the bowl layoff. The same goes for Tulsa's Todd Graham and his predecessor, Steve Kragthorpe. Not that this helps Schiano and his 4-8 Scarlet Knights this time around.
If you are looking for another game to add to the Watch List, Iowa and Missouri are the only two teams on the list above that are facing off this bowl season -- they play in the Insight Bowl on December 28. They have both had the same coach during the entire 2005-09 span, and aside from Missouri's Texas Bowl outlier last season (they were whipped by Navy), these two teams play at a pretty high level each December/January.
So which teams are most pre-disposed to getting fat and falling out of performance shape over the holidays?
|Team||Bowls (Since 2005)||Avg. S&P+|
Thankfully, none of these teams play each other.
So what about the BCS Championship Game participants? In four bowl games, Auburn has averaged a semi-miserable 186.3 single-game S&P+, barely missing out on the bottom 10. In five bowls, Oregon has played at a thoroughly mediocre 204.8 level. This means next to nothing of course -- both teams had different coaching staffs for three of the five years in the sample, and neither had their current starting quarterbacks -- but it was interesting.
Since we are all on break from college football right now (until Saturday) ...
"Break," by Jurassic 5
"Break 'Em On Down," by Big Joe Williams
"Break Free," by Dave Matthews Band
"Break My Heart," by Common
"Break This Time," by Alejandro Escovedo
"Break You Off," by The Roots
"Break Your Heart," by Barenaked Ladies
"Breakdown," by Handsome Boy Modeling School (or Guns N' Roses, or Mos Def, or Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers)
"Breakerfall," by Pearl Jam
"Breakout," by N*E*R*D
15 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2010, 1:29am by Jeff Fogle