Saturday, June 21, 2014

The 8 vs 9 conference game fallacy

           Ever since the College Football Playoff was announced there has been a never-ending debate about conferences, specifically the Power 5, playing 8 vs 9 conference games.   The Big 12 went to a 9-game full round-robin conference schedule in 2011 after Nebraska & Colorado bolted while the Pac-12 kept its 9-game conference schedule after it expanded the same year.  The Big Ten last year announced it would switch to a 9-game conference schedule starting in 2016, two years after it expanded (again) to 14 total teams.  However, this spring both the ACC & SEC decided to stay at 8 conference games for the near future (Note: the ACC did setup a scheduling alliance with Notre Dame in 2013 where it would play five games vs ND each year but those games would not count as conference games).   With the College Football Playoff set to begin this year (finally!) the 8 vs 9 conference game debate has been taken over by idiots and has focused on all the wrong issues.  Allow me to explain.
                The 8 vs 9 conference game debate is generally meaningless for two reasons.   First, the conferences themselves have varying levels of ability.  It’s generally been true that over the last 5-7 years the SEC has been the strongest conference followed by the Pac-12 and then some combination of the Big 12, Big Ten, and ACC (Note: While there were some years that the case could be made for the Big East being stronger than one or more of those conferences, the American does not appear to be such going forward).  You could also make a legitimate argument that in top to bottom strength the Pac-12 was better than the SEC last year.  But the point is, you can’t say with certainty that a team which played a 9-game conference schedule should be ranked ahead of a team who played an 8-game conference schedule without considering the quality (or lack thereof) of both conferences.  Also, you can’t reasonably compare schedules without looking at the specific teams played within the conference, which brings me to the second point.  You can’t accurately compare an 8-game vs a 9-game conference schedule (or any two schedules for that matter) without looking at the actual teams on the schedule (Note: In a separate post, I will expand further upon this idea, specifically the one situation where an 8 vs 9 game conference schedule actually matters).  For teams that play in a conference with divisions (every Power 5 conference except the Big 12), the crossover opponents from the other division (2 or 3) and the strength of a team’s division (which can vary greatly year to year, see SEC East 2012 vs 2013) have much more weight in determining the strength of a team’s conference schedule than solely the number of conference games played.  Yet, analysts and media personalities repeatedly discuss how an 8 vs 9 game conference schedule will affect a team’s ability to make the College Football Playoff while completely ignoring the factors mentioned above.
                Finally, there is one factor that is being completely overlooked by ignorant analysts (Trevor Matich & Joe Schad, I’m looking at you).  Frequently, the Big 12 & SEC are compared in that the Big 12 plays 9 conference games vs the 8 for the SEC; additionally, the SEC has a conference championship game in addition to 12 regular season games.  Thus, we frequently hear the conclusion that the SEC’s schedule is tougher or better than that of a Big 12 team due to having a conference championship game.  However, if you compare the SEC CG winner vs the Big 12 Champion you have the following:  13 total games vs 12, 9 conference games vs 9, and the only difference is the number of non-conference games at 4 vs 3.  Thus, when you’re comparing the Big 12 Champion to the SEC Champion, the only difference is one extra non-conference game.   Now, obviously as was mentioned earlier, when comparing the resumes of two teams one should look at a bunch of factors (overall strength of conference, the specific teams played—or not played, etc).  However, another factor that needs to be remembered, but which you never hear discussed, is that the difference between these resumes is simply a single non-conference game, most likely against a non-Power 5 or FCS team.  So to claim that 2014 Alabama deserves to be selected ahead of say,2014 Oklahoma, for the CFP because Bama played in a conference championship game and Oklahoma didn’t is ludicrous as they each played 9 conference games.  Bama’s 4 non-conference opponents are from Conference USA (2), Big 12 and the FCS while Oklahoma’s are from the SEC, Conference USA and the American.  So (again, ignoring the overall strength of each team) does the fact that Bama blew out an FCS team in a 13th game make its overall resume better than  Oklahoma’s 12 game resume?  Of course not, yet no one ever mentions this.  Except here.