Media bias and strength of schedule

AndyVance's picture
December 3, 2012 at 11:05p
The Big Ten Conference

Buckeye fans and those who root for other teams in the Big Ten Conference have long assumed there is a built-in media bias against teams in the flyover states. Unfortunately, the existence of this bias has become irrelevant as the conference has really turned in a string of subpar performances in recent seasons.

Aside from Ohio State, which has been relatively dominant in the league - 2011 excepted - for the past 12 years, the teams in the B1G have not performed up to their traditional powerhouse status:

  • That Team Up North  wandered through the wilderness for the better part of the Jim Tressel era, especially during its dark night of the soul, also known as the Rich Rodriguez years.
  • Wisconsin is on the verge of dropping its third Rose Bowl in as many seasons.
  • Nebraska hasn't won a league title (in either the B1G or the Big 12 conferences) since 1999.
  • Michigan State continues to fall short of expectations despite hope renewed seemingly every season.
  • Despite three 11-win seasons and four bowl victories, Penn State has lost an average of 4.6 games per season since 2000.
  • Iowa is still coached by Kirk Ferentz, B1G COY for life (but I digress...).

The league is a combined 82-62 this season... Take out the two squads ineligible for the conference title or other post-season appearences and that record falls to a pathetic 60-58... a paltry .508 batting average. That's right, the league members that could play for a title this season essentially lost one game for every contest they actually won... which is why we're all so excited about this. (Oh, and add the two newest members of the B1G into the mix and you come up with a slightly better record of 73-69 sans OSU and PSU... Rutgers added a strong performance this season; Maryland, not so much.)

Where this really comes home is in looking at the Sagrin ratings data. Since this is one of the factors in the BCS formula (yes, I know the BCS is going the way of the Dodo, sort of), it's useful to see what the data says about how bad our league really is. Sagrin ranked each conference based on its simple average, a central mean that gives the most weight to the teams in the middle of the pack, and also by what he calls the "Win 50%," defined as "the rating required to win 50% of the games if playing an infinite number of round-robins in the given group at a neutral location."

Here's what we discover:

Ranking Conference Central Mean Simple Average (Rank) Teams Win50% (Rank)
1 Big 12 82.31 82.05 (1) 10 82.23 (1)
2 SEC 81.16 80.89 (2) 14 80.99 (2)
3 PAC-12 79.64 78.62 (3) 12 79.09 (3)
4 Big Ten 75.92 75.17 (4) 12 75.36 (4)
5 I-A Indies 73.54 73.77 (5) 4 73.52 (5)
6 Big East 70.13 69.49 (6) 8 69.54 (6)
7 ACC 68.94 69.27 (7) 12 69.16 (7)
8 WAC 64.09 64.33 (8) 7 64.24 (8)
9 Sun Belt 63.60 63.43 (10) 10 63.47 (10)
10 Mountain West 63.19 63.97 (9) 10 63.78 (9)
11 MAC 61.70 61.85 (11) 13 61.84 (11)
12 Missouri Valley 61.43 60.53 (12) 10 60.75 (12)
13 Conference USA 59.65 59.85 (13) 12 59.81 (13)


Sagrin's rankings go on through #25, but for purposes of our discussion this breakdown is actually about seven more than we need. The stats, my friends, don't lie: while the B1G isn't as bad as the Big East (yet), we're a far cry from the vaunted SEC or *gasp* the Big 12.

Strength of schedule, obviously, is important, and not just for the obvious reason that perception quite often equals reality. Conference strength is important in the longterm view because of the wisdom from Proverbs: As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. The SEC is so darn good because the teams in the SEC are so darn good... Ohio State, one could argue, is good on the one hand because it beats up cupcakes every weekend, and on the other hand you could argue Ohio State is so good in spite of playing cupcakes each weekend.

In fact, more than one observer on this site has noted that the 2012 Buckeye squad tended to play to the level of its competition, which may actually reinforce the iron on iron theory of strength of schedule.

A word about Sagrin's methodology, from the wizards at Wikipedia

Sagarin, like the developers of many other sports rating systems, does not divulge the exact methodology behind his system. He offers two rating systems, each of which gives each team a certain number of points. One system, "Elo chess," is presumably based on the Elo rating system used internationally to rank chess players. This system uses only wins and losses with no reference to the victory margin.

The other system, "Predictor," takes victory margin into account. For that system the difference in two teams' rating scores is meant to predict the margin of victory for the stronger team at a neutral venue. For both systems teams gain higher ratings within the Sagarin system by winning games against stronger opponents, factoring in such things as home-venue advantage. For the Predictor system, margin of victory (or defeat) factors in also, but a law of diminishing returns is applied. Therefore, a football team that wins a game by a margin of 7-6 is rewarded less than a team that defeats the same opponent under the same circumstances 21-7, but a team that wins a game by a margin of 35-0 receives similar ratings to a team that defeats the same opponent 70-0. This characteristic has the effect of recognizing "comfortable" victories, while limiting the reward for running up the score.

So back to the greatness of the Big 12... don't take my word for it - let's look at the Sagrin numbers to devine specifically why the schools in the middle of the country are the best of the best this season (rankings for strength of schedule, ELO and Predictor are in parenthesis following the rating):

Team Rank Rating W-L schedule vs top10 vs top30 Elo Predictor
kState 5 93.09 11-1 76.58 (19) 1-0 6-1 92.81 (4) 93.06 (4)
Oklahoma 9 90.31 10-2 78.57 (5) 0-2 6-2 89.93 (11) 90.40 (8)
OK State 14 84.93 7-5 78.15 (8) 0-2 3-5 82.30 (19) 87.93 (11)
Texas 15 84.59 8-4 77.95 (11) 0-2 3-4 84.27 (14) 84.59 (17)
Baylor 20 82.60 7-5 78.68 (4) 1-1 3-4 81.01 (23) 84.07 (18)
TCU 26 80.82 7-5 77.45 (14) 0-2 3-4 80.15 (31) 81.20 (27)
TX Tech 27 80.65 7-5 76.20 (21) 0-2 2-5 79.82 (33) 81.21 (26)
WVU 28 80.61 7-5 76.34 (20) 0-2 2-5 81.92 (21) 79.12 (32)
Iowa St 38 78.10 6-6 78.13 (9) 0-2 2-6 78.27 (37) 77.63 (39)
Kansas 85 64.76 1-11 80.61 (1) 0-2 0-8 64.90 (89) 64.31 (87)

Take a look and see if anything pops out at you... Two things I noticed right away: Five of the Big 12 teams have schedule strenght ratings in the top 10 in the country, and all have a SOS ranked in the top 25! Secondly, All Big 12 teams played at least seven teams in the Top 30, while four play an astounding eight teams ranked among the Top 30. When Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee infamously referred to the B1G as a veritible "murderer's row" a season or two back, he could have easily been talking about this year's Big 12.

Much to the chagrin of the much-hated Southeastern Conference, the Big 12 looks much better on paper than the self-appointed greatest conference in the known-universe:

Team rank rating W-L Schedule vs top10 vs top30 Elo predictor
alabama 1 96.26 12-1 74.15 (35) 1-1 3-1 94.00 (3) 98.96 (1)
florida 4 93.18 11-1 77.16 (16) 2-1 4-1 95.11 (2) 91.32 (6)
TX A&M 6 90.76 10-2 75.43 (27) 1-1 1-2 88.86 (12) 92.75 (5)
georgia 7 90.48 11-2 73.07 (41) 1-2 1-2 90.04 (9) 90.63 (7)
S Car 10 89.23 10-2 74.11 (36) 1-1 2-2 90.71 (8) 87.67 (12)
LSU 11 88.61 10-2 75.13 (28) 2-2 2-2 90.94 (7) 86.45 (13)
Vandy 31 79.52 8-4 72.64 (42) 0-3 0-3 80.32 (30) 78.46 (35)
OLE MISS 37 78.54 6-6 75.79 (24) 0-3 0-5 78.33 (36) 78.44 (36)
miss st 39 78.05 8-4 69.97 (53) 0-2 0-3 78.38 (35) 77.43 (40)
Mizzou 43 75.76 5-7 79.81 (2) 0-5 1-5 75.80 (41) 75.43 (46)
Tenn 56 73.00 5-7 74.82 (31) 0-4 0-4 72.67 (55) 73.02 (56)
Arkansas 67 70.05 4-8 76.03 (23) 0-3 0-4 70.54 (60) 69.27 (67)
auburn 83 65.43 3-9 77.68 (12) 0-3 0-5 66.03 (82) 64.55 (86)
Kentucky 92 63.56 2-10 76.16 (22) 0-3 0-3 65.62 (85) 61.27 (104)
Haters gonna hate...

Key observations here (aside from the fact that there is a team worse than Auburn, that is)? As another observer pointed out, the top half of this league is loaded for bear while the bottom third or so is pretty weak. It is interesting that former/sorta-still rivals Missouri and Kansas have the #1 and #2 toughest schedules in the country... Mizzou played more Top 30 teams than any other team in the SEC this season.

The question of tough schedules always seems to come back to which is better: playing tough teams or winning all your games, which is a trick question, of course. The truth is that it is better to win all of your games while playing tough teams - a la Alabama or Florida, who beat 3 and 4 teams, respectively, in the Top 30.

A bigger point comparing the SEC to the Big 12 this season is that aside from the aforementioned Tigers, the SEC's schedule isn't nearly as "tough" as you think when you look strictly at strength of schedule rankings. Most of the teams in the league play one of the 30 toughest schedules, though statistically Alabama's is only 35th toughest and only three teams have schedules in the top 20 of the SOS rankings (Mizzou, Auburn and Florida). Looking at those rankings, one could say that Florida is a little underrated in this year's media and Georgia is a little overrated.

So how do these figures compare with our home-sweet-home conference, the "three yards and cloud of dust" Big Ten?

team rank rating w-l schedule vs top10 vs top30 elo predictor
ohio st 13 85.55 12-0 70.30 (51) 0-0 3-0 89.95 (10) 82.14 (23)
mich 19 82.74 8-4 74.20 (34) 0-2 0-4 83.12 (15) 82.05 (24)
wisc 21 82.01 8-5 73.65 (38) 0-0 2-3 80.49 (26) 83.39 (20)
nebraska 22 81.65 10-3 74.70 (32) 0-0 2-3 83.12 (16) 80.04 (29)
nw 32 79.50 9-3 70.45 (49) 0-0 0-2 80.48 (27) 78.29 (38)
Penn st 35 78.68 8-4 70.21 (52) 0-0 1-2 77.85 (39) 79.24 (30)
mich st 41 77.67 6-6 75.04 (29) 0-1 1-4 78.02 (38) 77.02 (43)
purdue 61 70.73 6-6 70.98 (44) 0-1 0-4 71.49 (58) 69.70 (66)
iowa 70 69.14 4-8 73.42 (39) 0-0 0-2 69.50 (64) 68.48 (69)
minn 72 68.50 6-6 69.89 (54) 0-0 0-3 70.21 (62) 66.59 (73)
indiana 73 67.82 4-8 71.12 (43) 0-0 0-2 69.11 (68) 66.28 (76)
illinois 126 58.09 2-10 73.28 (40) 0-0 0-4 59.66 (123) 5.21 (131)

There is is folks, in all its ugly glory. The saddest part of this graphic for me, in all honesty, is that our Buckeyes actually play the third-weakest schedule in the B1G! That School Up North gets credit for playing two schools in the Top 10; of course Ohio State is the only school in the league to go unblemished against ranked teams, Wisconsin and Nebraska each won two of three in the top 30, and they played schedules comparable to an average SEC team.

Out of conference scheduling is clearly the millstone around the Buckeyes' neck this season, however: those four teams earned a combine record of 19-30 this year, a miserable .388 for the season. The conference schedule was marginally stronger, with a combined record of 52-46; the Buckeyes opponents in total recorded 71 wins to 76 losses, or .483 for the year. It's no wonder 50 teams had tougher roads in 2012.

The data underscores the importance of some of Gene Smith's recent scheduling moves. Unfortunately, college football scheduling is done so far in advance that football fortunes change in a relatively short time-horizon. Will TCU be a powerhouse in five years? Good question.

Not to be the bearer of bad news, it's likely going to get worse before it gets better. While many of us are nestled all snug in our beds with visions of national championships dancing in our heads, next season will present a challenge relative to the strength of the Buckeyes' schedule. Out of conference, our fortunes may be slightly better - San Diego State, Florida A&M, Cal and Buffalo notched a combined 20-27 record this year... SDSU essentially takes the place of UCF in the 2012 schedule as the respectable OOC opponent; Cal should have filled that role as a member of the PAC-12, but its 3-9 record this year was only bested by the 2-10 Illini.

Based on this year's records, the 2013 Buckeye opponents enter the season a combined 69-75; not playing Nebraska or Michigan State next year is actually a bad thing given that we're still saddled with Illinois and Indiana. The hope for Ohio State clearly has to be that Beckman and Wilson get better, and fast. Similarly, it would be nice if whomever takes the reins at Cal picks up the pace in a Cinderella season... Oh, if only they'd hire Darrel Hazell... I'd say that Iowa getting better would help, but who are we kidding, right?

With conference realignment talks continuing and specualtion over the B1G's next two additions rampant, it's easy to see why fans want another Nebraska and not another Maryland. (On that note, 9-3 Rutgers would fall in Sagrin's rankings behind Michigan State and ahead of Purdue in the Big Ten this season... It's 2012 SOS is 84th in the country - obviously that will improve with a move from the Big East to the Big Ten, but it is interesting to see how our new brothers compare.)

As I discussed previously, the study of conference expansion is interesting in and of itself, and defies fan logic. Even so, one has to hope Jim Delaney has seen these numbers as he plots to annex Virginia and/or North Carolina.

The good news? We have empirical evidence that the SEC is not the greatest conference in college football. Let's enjoy that for a moment, shall we?

Comments Show All Comments

theDuke's picture

Well played, AndyVance. Well played indeed!  
One question, how many other teams went undefeated this season?


AndyVance's picture

I prefer not to think of the team to which you refer...

Hoody Wayes's picture

"The hope for Ohio State clearly has to be that Beckman and Wilson get better, and fast."
What about the developing calculus that's part Urb (invoking what he learned from Chip Kelly, regarding "style points" - i.e. running up the score) and part being highly-ranked (Top 3-5) from the pre-season, onward? Some have suggested if Ohio State starts in the Top 3 and wins via devastation, SOS won't undefeated Buckeye team will be hard to pass up for the BCS CG. Personally, I would amend this notion, by stating the U.M.Q. (Urban Meyer Quotient) bolsters the Bucks' cause, even further. 
Love your work. You need to be elevated to 11WStaff-level. 

AndyVance's picture

Great point, and personally I agree with that calculus... Although I'll always remember those years Ohio State "backed in" to the NCG and we heard over and over again in the media how OSU was "less deserving" than this two-loss SEC team or USC or pick anyone else who wasn't Ohio State...
If we had been eligible this year, would we have earned enough "style points" vs. UNL for that to have been a strong enough "signature" win? Everyone outside of Columbus seemed to forget about that offensive achievement awfully fast. Hopefully we can look back in 12 months and say your point was accurate and we're on the way to Pasedena for the New Year :)
And thanks especially for the compliment on my work. I've very much enjoyed writing here.

Hoody Wayes's picture

Contemplating would-be eligibility brings me back to Urban Meyer's effect on the polls, something he shares with Nick Saban and the SEC, at-large.
If the 2012 Buckeyes were eligible, I suspect they would have enjoyed higher poll positions throughout the season, due to the looming possibility of a "rematch" between Saban and Meyer in the BCS NCG.
In this scenario, I'd bet on the eligible Buckeyes, rather than ND, getting the invitation to face Alabama.  

DetroitBuckeye's picture

Michigan State I would think would be the exception to this rule except for this year.  

theDuke's picture

Derp. It was right there! 
My thought, SOS is important for an entertaining season, for championships, not so much. You need a chip and a chair, a la Boise or Utah, and a *Playoff. Even with the 51st hardest schedule, we were only one of two teams to go undefeated. That in itself is quite a feat. I know you're not taking away from what our beloved Buckeyes did on the field this year, and YO! #s don't lie, bruh, but i feel like there's just something more intrinsic to the B1G's shameful ways of the crappiest of crappy coaching that is in our conference right now. there's just too much that's wrong with B1G football to dwell on it. So, i guess it'll be like it's been for the last 12 years, OSU carrying the torch while the other programs keep playing JV. Oh, and we have basketball too.../end rant... and I'll shut up because i don't even know what i'm saying anymore.  
Really liked your post though.ahhh #s. 


Toilrt Paper's picture

The B1G is what it is and isn't going to get better until 10 years from now, IF Penn State can recover from being Sanduskyized. There is no way in hell ANY of the following: Maryland, Rutgers, MSU, Indiana, Purdue, Illinois, Northwestern, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin or Minnesotta can consistantly pulll in top 10-15 recruiting classes


I would've hoped we got ND for the national title this year and shut the SEC completely out. Not that I dont think we could play with them (we could) but because spanking ND for all the marbles has always been a dream scenario.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

d5k's picture

OSU is obviously going to play a weaker schedule relative to other teams in the B1G because they didn't get to play the best team in the conference (OSU).  The only way to technically make our schedule tougher is to have played Northwestern instead of Michigan State although then both teams might have been 7-5.
And if you have a smaller conference where more teams play each other, the overall record of the teams is going to be closer to .500.
In contrast, the SEC has 14 teams, and the schedule worked out where you had 3 good teams in each division and not a lot of interdivisional play among those 6 teams due to playing 6 games in the division and 2 vs. the other division.  So while they are good teams, their records were inflated, inflating their SOS in the rankings.  For example Georgia didn't play any of the top 3 in the West but they played 1 loss Florida who played and beat 2 of the 3 boosting Georgia's SOS (via opponent's SOS).  This is an unacknowledged reason to add teams to the conferences.  But it will definitely hurt OSU relative to Wisconsin as we are locked in to play Michigan every year while Wisconsin could very possibly have a schedule where they don't play any of the top teams in the Legends.
The B1G out of conference schedule was murdered mercillessly by Illinois and Penn State (yet they get credit for "turning it around") and then you had good B1G teams losing on the road or neutral vs. other good teams such as Michigan-#2Alabama and Wisconsin @ #15Oregon State and #1 Notre Dame 3 times of course.  Iowa losing to Iowa State is also relatively meaningless.

chicagobuckeye's picture

While I agree that some media antagonism of the BIG is warranted.  What bothers me is that everyone complains about OSU's easy schedule when I believe Alabama and Georgia had pretty comparable SOS.  That could have changed last week due to them playing each other, but regardless it is the fact that because they are in the SEC they must have played a difficult schedule.  While Alabama did play some good teams, choosing to play Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, and Western Carolina make it so that they can pretty much chalk up 3 wins regardless of the year.  While OSU's schedule turned out to be easier than predicted, choosing to play Cal and UCF early in the season isn't a guaranteed win in some years. I understand that they didn't end up being as good as they can be, but while the SEC may overall be a hard conference, their SOS isn't blowing people out of the water.

Menexenus's picture

Even so, one has to hope Jim Delaney has seen these numbers as he plots to annex Virginia and/or North Carolina.

Sorry, but the B1G is a Northern conference.  No secessionists allowed!  My hope is that all this Virginia/North Carolina talk is just a feint to keep people from recognizing what he's really after.
Seriously, I'd much rather see the B1G gobble up Syracuse and UConn.  Talk about wrapping up the NYC cable market!  I also wouldn't mind getting Pittsburgh, Kansas, Boston College, or ND (as much as I hate them).
I don't have any love for Bert Bielema.  But even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  Bert was right when he said that we don't want to become the SEC "in any way, shape, or form."  We have a different culture and a different history.  Trying to woo Southern schools into the Big Ten would be a betrayal of its own identity.

Real fans stay for Carmen.