A Word on SEC Championship Game Rematches

The conventional “wisdom,” if you can call it that, from the ESPN pundits is that Auburn so thoroughly dominated Georgia the first time around, that there isn’t much Georgia can do if they play again. If you watched the game, and I did, that is certainly the way it looked. Auburn’s defensive line dominated, their offensive line won the battle, Auburn moved the ball, Georgia didn’t, and they led the game 40-10 before a meaningless late touchdown. So… case closed right?

Well, that’s an interesting theory, or, uh… hypothesis, if you will. How does it hold up to further analysis, or, uh… data. Yes, data. Let’s see. Like many things in college football, the data is limited. Small sample size yada yada yada. The sample size is 7. But here they are. All of the SEC Championship game rematches in history (plus LSU-Bama in 2011, rematching in the national title game):

Year Teams Regular Season Postseason Difference
1999 Florida/Alabama Alabama by 1 Alabama by 27 26
2000 Florida/Auburn Florida by 31 Florida by 22 9
2001 LSU/Tenn Tenn by 8 LSU by 11 19
2003 LSU/UGA LSU by 7 LSU by 21 14
2004 Auburn/Tenn Auburn by 24 Auburn by 10 14
2010 Auburn/S.Car. Auburn by 8 Auburn by 39 31
2011 LSU/Alabama LSU by 3 Bama by 21 24

First things first, only 2 times in 7 rematches has the result changed, in that the loser of the regular season matchup won the postseason game. Those occurred in 2001 and 2011. However, perhaps the biggest takeaway is that 6 times out of 7, the game changed significantly. Only in 2000 was the result basically the same – that being a comfortable win for Florida both times. The other 6 games all went from a close game to a blowout, or vice versa. The average difference in score is over 19 points. Maybe the first game is not a very strong predictor of the second game?

Well, hold on you say. This is only 7 games. And you’d be right, it is a small sample size, but you work with the data you’ve got. Here, I can also add this list of bowl games that have been regular season rematches. Going back to the same starting point (1992, beginning of the SEC title game), there have been 14 such games, and only 4 of these 14 bowl games were won by the team that won the regular season game (excluding the 1995 Sugar Bowl, the “Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter,” because the two teams tied the regular season game).

So, still a small sample size. But the data certainly suggest the first game is not a good predictor of the second game. Not at all. Stated differently, the hypothesis that the first game played between two teams will be a reasonable predictor of a hypothetical rematch has very little support. Thus, when two teams play twice in the same season, the first game is not a good predictor of the second game. That is the “what.”

The “why” is just speculation. We don’t have any data that goes to the cause. However, I can guess as to some reasons. First of all, I’d simply say that the logic is wrong in the first place. Most fans seem to think that a football game is good evidence of something. It shows you who the better team is. I’d argue that’s wrong. Maybe a team’s 12 or 13 game record is good evidence (maybe it’s only so-so evidence). But I’d argue that one game isn’t good evidence of anything. Too many variables, too much luck. In other words, the first game might be a poor predictor of the second game because the first game has a significant luck factor, and so does the second game.

Other possible explanations for this phenomenon are psychological. The players and coaches from the winning team feel like all they have to do is not make any mistakes, and they’ll win again the same way they won the first time. They may have a hard time getting up for the game. The coaches may feel pressure not to change their scheme. After all, it worked the first time. Meanwhile, the second team is adjusting. Its players are angry, and out to prove the first game was a fluke. The opposite can also happen. Consider 2010 – Auburn may not have thought it was a great team during the first matchup, early in the year, when they beat South Carolina by 8. But after finishing the year unbeaten, Auburn was in a different mental state, and out to prove they actually were much better than a 3 loss South Carolina team.

Those are my two best guesses, but there are other conceivable explanations. However, the facts are what they are. And the facts suggest that if Auburn and Georgia play in the SEC Championship game, Auburn may not be as big of a sure thing as the media thinks. In fact, Auburn did get a number of apparently lucky breaks the first time around (fumbled punt, the “leaping” personal foul) which resulted in extra possessions. For whatever its worth, the computers mostly think Auburn would be favored by about a field goal and would have perhaps a 55-60% chance to win. That doesn’t sound very much like the first game. Based on the above, that probably means its exactly right.

Perhaps UGA fans should be cheering for Auburn to win this weekend, so they get a rematch, rather than playing Alabama for the first time.

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