Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tuesday Trivia: Not All Undefeated Teams Are Created Equal

Going undefeated over the course of a college football season is a daunting prospect, and few teams have made it through a full season unscathed. Normally a team that finishes the regular season undefeated has a strong argument for inclusion in the national title game, and usually the human voters and computers sort out which of the undefeated teams should play for the title. Over the last few years, though, we've seen teams from outside the six BCS conferences make it to mid-December with a perfect record and argue they deserve a spot in a BCS bowl, if not the title game itself.

Do these claims have any merit?

Some say "no" just on the face of it. They argue that because of the weak schedule these teams face during the regular season that it'd be a surprise if they didn't go undefeated. They say that teams shouldn't be rewarded for playing a schedule full of New Mexicos, Utah States, and Louisiana Techs, no matter how well they do against them. They argue that even if such a team managed a victory against a BCS opponent early on in the season that it doesn't matter since it doesn't reflect sustained performance.

And in many cases they point to the 2007 Hawaii team, a team that went 12-0 in the Western Athletic Conference, only to be ground to a pulp by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. It was the classic David versus Goliath story, except in this case David's sling broke and Goliath had ten of his closest Goliath-sized friends teach the pipsqueak a lesson, sending him back to his tribe as a warning to other potential upstarts. You mess with the bull, you get the horns.

That leaves us wondering, though: are all undefeated teams from outside the BCS conferences created equally? Was Hawaii representative of what an undefeated small-conference team looks like when they take on the might of the dominating SEC? Or are other teams from recent years and the upsets they accomplished the true story?

In order to answer this we took the seven non-BCS teams to finish undefeated in the regular season since 2003 and ranked them from worst to best. We'll look at their schedule, how they played through the year -- the whole body of work, as it were -- and the prediction facing that team as they entered their bowl game.

The full story is after the jump.

Hawaii Warriors
Year WinPct SoS Off. Def. Pace
2007 0.602 44 0.405 84 25.4 12 21.5 79 172.4 25

Date Away Team       Home Team Odds Plays
2007/09/08  33 Hawaii 45 at 113 LA Tech 44 91.3% 202
2007/09/15  45 Hawaii 49 at 100 UNLV 14 76.5% 170
2007/09/29  37 Hawaii 48 at 111 Idaho 20 86.2% 180
2007/10/06 116 Utah St. 37 at  40 Hawaii 52 96.4% 162
2007/10/12  50 Hawaii 42 at 108 SJSU 35 79.8% 205
2007/10/27  94 New Mexico St. 13 at  51 Hawaii 50 87.3% 173
2007/11/10  56 Fresno St. 30 at  45 Hawaii 37 62.7% 162
2007/11/16  46 Hawaii 28 at  68 Nevada 26 63.7% 160
2007/11/23  10 Boise St. 27 at  45 Hawaii 39 25.6% 172
2007/12/01  53 Washington 28 at  38 Hawaii 35 59.8% 168
2008/01/01  40 Hawaii 10 vs  11 Georgia 41 30.0% 169

We start our journey with the 2007 Hawaii squad that went a perfect 12-0 in the WAC and was rewarded with an invitation to the 2008 Sugar Bowl. Just glancing over their schedule we can see not just one but three close calls against teams in the bottom half of the FBS rankings. Hawaii may have gone 12-0 and snagged a 12 point win against (10) Boise State, but just a week earlier they'd snuck past (68) Nevada by two points. The Warriors started out the season ranked 45th, and didn't do much throughout the year to deviate too much from that ranking. Bouncing around between 37th and 50th all year, the Warriors were ranked 40th when they squared off against 11th-ranked Georgia. It doesn't take a math genius to know that when you pit the #11 team against the #40 team that things aren't going to go well for the one outside the top 25 (although someone needed to tell these guys that). Hawaii finished the season ranked 44th, and provided a warning to any team coming from the WAC that simply "undefeated" wasn't good enough.

Boise State Broncos
Year WinPct SoS Off. Def. Pace
2006 0.797 18 0.414 85 27.3 5 15.8 38 169.2 51

Date Away Team       Home Team Odds Plays
2006/09/07  55 Oregon St. 14 at  30 Boise St. 42 77.9% 144
2006/09/16  27 Boise St. 17 at  57 Wyoming 10 64.8% 148
2006/09/23  60 Hawaii 34 at  26 Boise St. 41 82.3% 153
2006/09/30  28 Boise St. 36 at  25 Utah 3 37.7% 143
2006/10/07  98 LA Tech 14 at  17 Boise St. 55 95.5% 164
2006/10/15  17 Boise St. 40 at 108 New Mexico St. 28 94.6% 172
2006/10/21  20 Boise St. 42 at 110 Idaho 26 93.5% 164
2006/11/01  57 Fresno St. 21 at  25 Boise St. 45 78.7% 145
2006/11/11  20 Boise St. 23 at  91 SJSU 20 86.9% 135
2006/11/18 117 Utah St. 10 at  24 Boise St. 49 98.1% 142
2006/11/25  24 Boise St. 38 at  39 Nevada 7 61.7% 139
2007/01/01   8 Oklahoma 42 vs  18 Boise St. 43 40.5% 170

The second team on our countdown is the 2006 Boise State Broncos. You've probably heard of this team. Three trick plays and one overtime against traditional powerhouse Oklahoma catapulted the Broncos and coach Chris Petersen into the national spotlight. This squad started the year in the mid-20s and slowly climbed their way into the top 25. Notice the difference between this team and the Hawaii team that flamed out against Georgia: only three close games all year, and the only "bad" one there was a 23-20 victory on the road against (91) San Jose State. These Broncos had a solid season that included convincing wins against (55) Oregon State, (25) Utah, and (39) Nevada. This team didn't have the defensive skills we've come to expect from more recent Boise State teams, as even (108) New Mexico State and (110) Idaho put up 20+ points. Going into the now-legendary Fiesta Bowl the Broncos were slight underdogs -- TFG would have given them a 2-in-5 shot of winning -- and the results bore out the reality that this Boise State team was extremely good but not truly elite.

Utah Utes
Year WinPct SoS Off. Def. Pace
2004 0.799 14 0.433 81 28.8 4 16.6 42 169.9 65

Date Away Team       Home Team Odds Plays
2004/09/02  70 Texas A&M 21 at  31 Utah 41 86.2% 185
2004/09/11  33 Utah 23 at  93 Arizona 6 81.5% 140
2004/09/18  29 Utah 48 at  93 Utah St. 6 84.2% 162
2004/09/25  60 Air Force 35 at  22 Utah 49 84.7% 180
2004/10/01  19 Utah 28 at  46 New Mexico 7 61.2% 175
2004/10/16  71 North Carolina 16 at  15 Utah 46 90.9% 176
2004/10/23  77 UNLV 28 at  12 Utah 63 92.7% 172
2004/10/30  13 Utah 51 at  79 SDSU 28 83.7% 186
2004/11/06  59 Colorado St. 31 at  14 Utah 63 82.5% 170
2004/11/13  15 Utah 45 at  79 Wyoming 28 86.4% 162
2004/11/20  61 BYU 21 at  15 Utah 52 78.2% 160
2005/01/01  14 Utah 35 vs  38 Pittsburgh 7 70.6% 158

The first of back-to-back Utah entries, this 2004 squad helmed by second-year coach Urban Meyer was the first non-BCS team to receive a BCS invitation. Their final regular season ranking of 6th in the BCS was a bit higher than their TFG ranking, but the Utes had the good fortune to be paired against a mediocre Pittsburgh team in the Fiesta Bowl. This team finished their regular season with no final scores closer than two touchdowns, and was never an underdog at any point in their schedule. Like the previous Boise State team, this one faltered on defense occasionally -- truly elite teams don't give up 28 points to (79) San Diego State or (79) Wyoming -- but had more than enough offensive firepower to get the job done. Coach Meyer left for Florida the next year, but Utah was able to rebuild and run the table again ....

Utah Utes
Year WinPct SoS Off. Def. Pace
2008 0.841 10 0.494 68 24.9 15 12.8 10 169.4 39

Date Away Team       Home Team Odds Plays
2008/08/30  24 Utah 25 at  14 Michigan 23 41.5% 178
2008/09/06  94 UNLV 21 at  24 Utah 42 93.4% 159
2008/09/13  25 Utah 58 at 114 Utah St. 10 89.9% 158
2008/09/20  21 Utah 30 at  41 Air Force 23 53.7% 155
2008/10/02  34 Oregon St. 28 at  21 Utah 31 67.7% 163
2008/10/11  22 Utah 40 at 115 Wyoming 7 93.3% 162
2008/10/18  85 Colorado St. 16 at  17 Utah 49 91.8% 162
2008/11/01  15 Utah 13 at  57 New Mexico 10 73.3% 157
2008/11/06   7 TCU 10 at  15 Utah 13 39.8% 171
2008/11/15  12 Utah 63 at 116 SDSU 14 96.3% 167
2008/11/22  17 BYU 24 at  12 Utah 48 58.9% 169
2009/01/02  10 Utah 31 vs   8 Alabama 17 39.3% 158

... in 2008. This team lacked the offensive weapons of the 2004 team (-3.9 PPH), but made up for it by clamping down on defense (-3.8 PPH). This team also played a slightly tougher schedule, including a game at (14) Michigan, and hosting (34) Oregon State, (7) TCU, and (17) BYU. One year after Georgia demolished Hawaii in the Sugar bowl, another SEC team took a crack at a BCS buster and learned what this computer could have told them: this Utah team was not Hawaii. This Utah squad was closer to the Georgia squad from the previous year, and Alabama found themselves on the losing end of this realization. Utah jumped out to a 21 point lead in the first quarter, and their top-10 defense held the Crimson Tide to 17 points, the fewest Alabama had scored all year. The Utes -- complete with some fun trickery -- emerged as the only undefeated team in FBS for the 2008 - 2009 season. While TFG thinks they were just barely inside the top 10, there's still an argument to be made that Utah manhandled Alabama more thoroughly than in their other loss to eventual champion Florida.

Boise State Broncos
Year WinPct SoS Off. Def. Pace
2009 0.866 7 0.398 90 26.9 7 12.7 12 168.1 53

Date Away Team       Home Team Odds Plays
2009/09/03  16 Oregon 8 at   8 Boise St. 19 77.0% 158
2009/09/12 116 Miami-OH 0 at   7 Boise St. 48 99.0% 151
2009/09/18   3 Boise St. 51 at  70 Fresno St. 34 89.9% 155
2009/09/26   5 Boise St. 49 at  73 Bowling Green 14 87.5% 166
2009/10/14   5 Boise St. 28 at  52 Tulsa 21 83.5% 158
2009/10/24   6 Boise St. 54 at  91 Hawaii 9 93.7% 165
2009/10/31 102 SJSU 7 at   5 Boise St. 45 98.2% 162
2009/11/06   4 Boise St. 45 at  85 LA Tech 35 94.7% 171
2009/11/14  96 Idaho 25 at   8 Boise St. 63 95.9% 160
2009/11/20   7 Boise St. 52 at  91 Utah St. 21 93.9% 170
2009/11/27  49 Nevada 33 at   7 Boise St. 44 83.3% 161
2009/12/05 120 New Mexico St. 7 at   8 Boise St. 42 98.8% 156
2010/01/04   2 TCU 10 vs   8 Boise St. 17 30.9% 166

Boise State makes their third and final appearance on our countdown with their 2009 team. The 2009 squad was about 3.1 PPH better on defense while only slipping 0.4 PPH on adjusted offensive efficiency. This squad was much more dominating against middling and inferior opponents, and boasted regular-season victories over (16) Oregon, (49) Nevada, and (52) Tulsa. Unfortunately those three teams were the only ones in the top half of the FBS echelons that the Broncos played. The rest of their schedule was filled with basement-dwelling WAC teams, leaving Boise State to play the numbers game and pound their opponents as much as possible to get the respect they wanted. From there they could hope for a BCS bid against a "Big Six" conference opponent.

Unfortunately for Boise the game doesn't quite work this way, and the Broncos got shuffled into what some fans called the "Plessy v. Fergeson Separate But Equal" Fiesta Bowl against (2) TCU. The Horned Frogs had just completed their own undefeated regular season (hold that thought) and were hoping to take on Florida or Cincinnati in a BCS bowl. Conspiracy theorists argue that the Fiesta Bowl bit the bullet for the entire BCS system and invited both outsiders to the same bowl in order to prevent the spectacle of Boise and TCU prevailing over two BCS conference teams. In any event, the Broncos were slight underdogs when they pulled off a stunning upset over TCU to avenge a loss the previous year in the Poinsettia Bowl.

TCU Horned Frogs
Year WinPct SoS Off. Def. Pace
2009 0.923 2 0.501 67 26.1 9 9.6 1 166.8 63

Date Away Team       Home Team Odds Plays
2009/09/12   5 TCU 30 at  65 Virginia 14 84.6% 148
2009/09/26   7 TCU 14 at  18 Clemson 10 56.8% 162
2009/10/03 112 SMU 14 at  10 TCU 39 98.5% 157
2009/10/10   8 TCU 20 at  53 Air Force 17 79.8% 166
2009/10/17  65 Colorado St. 6 at   8 TCU 44 92.9% 152
2009/10/24   7 TCU 38 at  22 BYU 7 68.7% 160
2009/10/31  92 UNLV 0 at   6 TCU 41 97.4% 149
2009/11/07   2 TCU 55 at 106 SDSU 12 97.4% 163
2009/11/14  17 Utah 28 at   3 TCU 55 82.6% 176
2009/11/21   2 TCU 45 at 108 Wyoming 10 98.4% 153
2009/11/28 108 New Mexico 10 at   3 TCU 51 98.1% 178
2010/01/04   2 TCU 10 vs   8 Boise St. 17 69.1% 166

Here we have the flip side of the 2009 Boise State team. TCU didn't quite have the offense that the Broncos did, but it certainly had the better defense. In fact, TFG rated the Horned Frogs as having the best defense in all of FBS. Their strength of schedule might not have weighed in impressively, but they held (65) UVa to less than 10 PPH, (18) Clemson to 6.2 PPH, and (22) BYU to 4.4 PPH. Their worst defensive showing was to (17) Utah, giving up 15.9 PPH. This is the same Utah squad, by the way, that put up 13.6 PPH on the road against Oregon early in the season when home field advantage is worth more. So when TCU and their defense marched into the Fiesta Bowl against Boise State, they did so as better than 2-to-1 favorites. As noted, though, Boise had a few tricks up their sleeve and walked away with the win. Which brings us to ....

TCU Horned Frogs
Year WinPct SoS Off. Def. Pace
2010 0.934 1 0.452 78 29.3 5 10.1 1 161.4 99

Date Away Team       Home Team Odds Plays
2010/09/04   2 TCU 30 vs  27 Oregon St. 21 85.0% 156
2010/09/18  68 Baylor 10 at   4 TCU 45 95.1% 153
2010/09/24   4 TCU 41 at  74 SMU 24 92.1% 162
2010/10/02   4 TCU 27 at 108 Colorado St. 0 97.2% 153
2010/10/09 102 Wyoming 0 at   2 TCU 45 98.6% 135
2010/10/16  51 BYU 3 at   1 TCU 31 95.9% 156
2010/10/23  39 Air Force 7 at   1 TCU 38 94.7% 137
2010/10/30   1 TCU 48 at 102 UNLV 6 98.3% 155
2010/11/06   1 TCU 47 at  10 Utah 7 78.1% 148
2010/11/13  80 SDSU 35 at   1 TCU 40 98.3% 173
2010/11/27   1 TCU 66 at 116 New Mexico 17 99.5% 170
2011/01/01  15 Wisconsin 19 vs   1 TCU 21 81.2% 138

... the 2010 TCU Horned Frogs. They were the 2010 TFG/RBA Consensus National Champion. Their defense might have slipped a half-step from the previous year, but QB Andy Dalton managed to find another 3.2 PPH on offense. Their schedule wasn't as tough as the previous year, and TCU once again plowed their way through a perfect regular season. This time they got pitted against Big 10 champion Wisconsin -- another team that had stormed through the regular season -- in what looked to be an interesting referendum on our computer predictions. The computers declared TCU to be the heavy favorites while Vegas cautiously listed the Horned Frogs as a favorite by a field goal. (The moral of this story is: Vegas knows what it's doing.)

So Now What?

This was close to being a contrast of this year's Boise State and Houston teams. I say "was" because Boise's kicking woes continued, and they lost to TCU, 36-35 this past Saturday. (Silly Mountain West Conference; biased refereeing in order to protect your undefeated teams should be left to the SEC.) But why don't we have a go at it, just for the sake of comparison?

Houston Cougars
Year WinPct SoS Off. Def. Pace
2011 0.652 32 0.297 116 26.0 14 20.2 65 180.0 5

Date Away Team       Home Team Odds Plays
2011/09/03  78 UCLA 34 at  63 Houston 38 74.5% 170
2011/09/10  65 Houston 48 at 109 North Texas 23 73.3% 186
2011/09/17  63 Houston 35 at  77 LA Tech 34 51.2% 205
2011/09/29  63 Houston 49 at  96 UTEP 42 62.1% 178
2011/10/08  80 East Carolina 3 at  66 Houston 56 67.1% 182
2011/10/22  94 Marshall 28 at  52 Houston 63 84.8% 169
2011/10/27  98 Rice 34 at  46 Houston 73 87.2% 179
2011/11/05  40 Houston 56 at 112 UAB 13 89.2% 176
2011/11/10  35 Houston 73 at 114 Tulane 17 91.3% 187
2011/11/19  65 SMU 32 at  32 Houston 38 68.8% 170
2011/11/25  32 Houston 37 at  30 Tulsa 38 48.9% 178

This team is much closer to the 2007 Hawaii squad than even the 2006 Boise State team. A good offense paired with an incredibly suspect defense (20.2 PPH) is cause for alarm. Houston plays fast, too, which only boosts the hype of this team by inflating the sense of accomplishment on the offensive side. Winning by 4 against (78) UCLA, by 1 against (77) Louisiana Tech, and 7 against (96) UTEP does not engender much confidence. The Cougars finally started to play some defense in the last two games, but even then they let two of the ten worst teams in FBS average a shade better than two touchdowns. When you're not even the favorite in your season closer against a team outside of the top 25, don't expect much respect when you ask to be let into the BCS. The #11 ranking the Cougars have in the BCS is pure illusion, and they would crash and burn hard if they ever ran into a real team.

Boise State Broncos
Year WinPct SoS Off. Def. Pace
2011 0.898 3 0.481 70 30.7 5 12.9 6 163.5 81

Date Away Team       Home Team Odds Plays
2011/09/03  23 Georgia 21 vs   2 Boise St. 35 84.9% 159
2011/09/16   2 Boise St. 40 at  65 Toledo 15 89.8% 181
2011/09/24  52 Tulsa 21 at   2 Boise St. 41 93.1% 162
2011/10/01  45 Nevada 10 at   2 Boise St. 30 91.2% 159
2011/10/07   2 Boise St. 57 at  72 Fresno St. 7 90.9% 161
2011/10/15   2 Boise St. 63 at 109 Colorado St. 13 98.2% 162
2011/10/22  62 Air Force 26 at   3 Boise St. 37 95.9% 158
2011/11/05   3 Boise St. 48 at 113 UNLV 21 98.6% 158
2011/11/12   9 TCU 36 at   3 Boise St. 35 71.4% 162
2011/11/19   3 Boise St. 40 at  63 SDSU 25 90.6% 166
2011/11/26  93 Wyoming 23 at   3 Boise St. 43 95.5% 166
2011/12/03 120 New Mexico 17 at   3 Boise St. 48 99.4% 163

Ah, what could have been. A 14 point victory against SEC-title-bound Georgia. A 20 point victory over now-30th-ranked Tulsa. A good win against Nevada. A dominating performance against (9) TCU. Well, two out of three isn't bad. This Boise State team is better than the one that beat TCU in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl. Before you scoff, read the first answer here, and then tell me that Texas Tech would beat Oklahoma again. The better team doesn't always win, but Boise State really needed to thump TCU in order to make their case for a BCS bowl.

The bottom line is that not all non-BCS challengers are created equal, and answering cries of "2007 Hawaii" with retorts of "2008 Utah" are perfectly valid (we'll also take "2010 TCU" as an acceptable answer). Bear that in mind in two months when "2011 Houston" joins the ranks of non-BCS teams that get thrashed in a BCS bowl. Unless they have the good fortune to get paired with the Big East champion; I'm pretty sure even Houston would have a fighting chance there.

Follow us on Twitter at @TFGridiron.

No comments:

Post a Comment