Varsity Numbers: A Couple of Goodbyes
by Bill Connelly
Here are 10 thoughts to commemorate the end of the 2015 college football season:
1. This Alabama run is just preposterous.
In an era with 85-scholarship restrictions, teams aren't supposed to accomplish what the Crimson Tide have accomplished over the last eight seasons. Since the start of 2008, they have lost just 12 games -- as many as both Kansas and UCF lost in 2015 alone. And they have finished either first or second in the overall F/+ rankings for seven straight years after ranking a mere eighth in 2008.
In an era of parity, this isn't supposed to happen. USC did something similar during the height of Pete Carroll's run, but that lasted just seven years. And while they won a ridiculous number of games, the computers didn't like them as much. We obviously don't have F/+ rankings from before 2005, but even if they were in the top two each year from 2002-04 (and I doubt they would have been in 2002), they were only seventh in 2007 and fourth in 2008. At most, that's a six-year run. Alabama is at seven and counting. And the odds of the Tide pulling off an eighth straight top-two finish in 2016 are quite obviously strong.
This is "only" the 48th-best eight-year SRS in the sport's history, but looking at things in this way tells us a lot about the current era. The last team to pull off an eight-year SRS this high was Florida State between 1993-2000, a run that ended 15 years ago. FSU also did it in 1992-99.
Before that? Nobody had done it since Oklahoma from 1974-81. The 1970s were the final high point for the blue bloods, and the last 40 years have mostly been dynasty-free. Until now.
3. Only 11 programs have pulled off an eight-year run of this level, by the way.
In terms of frequency, Alabama is fourth on the list. In terms of eras, however, Bama is one of only three schools to unleash a run like this outside of one specific streak.
Here's what I mean:
- Michigan (10): 1939-46, 1940-47, 1941-48, 1942-49, 1943-50, 1944-51, 1945-52, 1969-76, 1970-77, 1971-78
- Notre Dame (9): 1940-47, 1941-48, 1942-49, 1943-50, 1944-51, 1945-52, 1946-53, 1947-54, 1964-71
- Oklahoma (8): 1967-74, 1968-75, 1969-76, 1970-77, 1971-78, 1972-79, 1973-80, 1974-81
- Alabama (6): 1970-77, 1971-78, 1972-79, 1973-80, 1974-81, 2008-15.
- Nebraska (4): 1968-75, 1969-76, 1970-77, 1971-78
- Yale (3): 1884-91, 1885-92, 1886-93
- Army (2): 1942-49, 1943-50
- Florida State (2): 1992-99, 1993-00
- Ohio State (2): 1968-75, 1969-76
- Texas (1): 1968-75
- USC (1): 1972-79
For everyone but Michigan, Notre Dame, and Alabama, the accomplishments were congruent to each other.
(Seriously, the blue bloods were loaded in the 1970s, weren't they?)
4. Looking for an underdog to back next year?
Start, as always, with this year's F/+ rankings. LSU, Arkansas, and Washington were all probably better than you think, and two of the three (LSU and UW) return most of their key stars. Who knows what might happen with LSU after this year's soap opera -- Les Miles was all but fired following a disappointing 8-3 regular season, but at the last minute, during LSU's win over Texas A&M, the Tigers' athletic director had a change of heart -- but on paper, they'll be absolutely loaded.
Washington, meanwhile, was a year ahead of schedule. Chris Petersen's Huskies were great in a way that young teams often are -- incredible one week, very much not the next -- and will obviously need to figure out how to win close games at some point (record in games decided by 11 or fewer points: 1-5). But they were absolutely loaded with freshmen and sophomores, and not only did they avoid sinking, they soared for large portions of the year.
[ad placeholder 3]
5. Sell: Iowa, Oklahoma State, Northwestern.
All three teams were exposed pretty drastically against good opponents in their respective bowls, but they each managed to win enough close games to finish with double-digit wins and F/+ rankings 38th or worse. The Hawkeyes were a particularly good story, reaching 12-0 and coming within a few seconds of beating Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. But on a down-for-down, play-by-play basis, they were lacking. And their best win was against No. 32 Wisconsin.
It gives full weight to only the final eight games of the season, and I think it's very useful in telling the tale of the season. For instance, look at Michigan and LSU. Both teams finished in the S&P+ top 10, but over the last eight weeks, neither played at a top-20 level. So when you ask, "How in the hell is Michigan that high?," realize how much the numbers liked them in the first half of the year.
A better example: Florida -- 18th overall but only 43rd in Weighted S&P+. We tend to only remember how a team was at the end of the year, but while that could be very meaningful, the full-season numbers are, too. Jim McElwain did a hell of a job in his first year in Florida, but the Gators couldn't hold up after Will Grier's PED suspension.
7. Also noteworthy in the weighted department: Oregon.
Even despite their second-half bowl collapse against TCU, the Ducks were very nearly a top-10 team over the last half of the year. When quarterback Vernon Adams was healthy (and he wasn't for much of the first half of the season … or the second half of the bowl), the Ducks looked very much like the Ducks are supposed to look, even despite a woeful defense.
I'm going to try to incorporate these weighted figures into the offseason projections, because your late-season performance should probably carry a little bit of extra weight. But that's going to require far more tinkering. In the meantime, I figure it's still a decent, descriptive tool.
8. To change gears rather significantly, this is my final Varsity Numbers column.
I began at the start of the 2008 season -- apparently I'm responsible for Alabama's run -- and got a full-time job with SB Nation (writing for SBN and managing both Football Study Hall and Rock M Nation) in 2011, but I kept writing weekly fall pieces for FO out of pure, uncut loyalty.
While Varsity Numbers technically wasn't my first paid gig, Aaron Schatz and Football Outsiders gave me my first exposure to a broad audience. The importance of the feedback I received in the coming years was immeasurable. SBN wouldn't have hired me when they did if Aaron had not responded to an email I sent him earlier in 2008. I've gleaned ideas and, more importantly, learned a lot about how to communicate numbers through words. I can't thank him enough for responding and sending me down this path.
9. It became pretty clear to me over the last year that I wasn't giving myself enough time to properly maintain a place at FO and give this column the attention it deserves.
I began to take on bigger pieces at SB Nation (European soccer features, larger coaching features) and was attempting to continue creating content for Study Hall. I basically had a set amount of time on Fridays to crank out a VN, and that was it. That's not very good for creativity.
This was probably the case before 2015, too, but it had become all too clear. My presence in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2015 was limited to just providing data (Chad Peltier did a lovely job of taking on most of the conference writing), and though I had ideas, I never had time to build a fun feature for the Almanac after my full-time hire. So yeah, it's time.
[ad placeholder 4]
10. The list of FO alums is staggering.
The Schatz Tree has branches in just about every company in sports media. He has made a lot of people a lot of money. This is one hell of a farm system. He has had a good eye for talent, and his editing (which can be harsh at times!) makes you a better writer.
The writing is what this site is about. Football analytics have caught on to some degree, and FO isn't the only data show in town anymore. But as Aaron himself would tell you, the numbers aren't the story -- they only help someone tell it. And FO tells pretty damn good stories. Thanks for the clicks and eyeballs through the years. I'll still be pretty easy to find. Take care.