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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Vanderbilt vs. UGA: A day to be reckoned with

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As promised, we were in Athens last Saturday for Vanderbilt-Georgia, a game in which the homecoming Dawgs were favored by more than two touchdowns. Instead, the Commodores eked out a one-point victory on the road. Although it probably wasn’t too exciting on television, this was an entertainingly tense game to attend in person.

Two game notes, and then I’ll turn it over to the Vandy football video crew:

  1. The Vanderbilt defense is excellent against the run, which happens to be Georgia’s offensive strength, but they were helpless against the pass. UGA should’ve called nothing but pass plays until VU forced them to do something else.
  2. This was Vandy head coach Derek Mason’s first conference win, which is nice, but it probably should have come sooner. Like, maybe the week before in Lexington? Neither Georgia nor Vanderbilt are making much football sense in 2016.

ALDLAND goes live to the Battle of Athens

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We will be in Sanford Stadium tomorrow when Vanderbilt, based in Nashville (i.e., the Athens of the South), faces Georgia, based in Athens, in a game that will decide which city will retain its Southern Athenian identity and, maybe, third place in the SEC East.

Thus far, this season has been a disappointment for both schools, but tomorrow’s game should at least allow fans a nice look at each team’s stars. For Georgia, that means the return of the combined running attack of Nick Chubb and Sony Michele. For Vanderbilt, it means the return of the SEC rushing leader, Ralph Webb, who, I am told, will play tomorrow after suffering an injury during last week’s loss at Kentucky.

The star power of Webb distracts from the Black & Gold’s numerous deficiencies and, in some sense, Webb reminds me of Earl Bennett, a Vandy wide receiver who, ten years ago, became the SEC all-time reception leader. Following the exciting and brief James Franklin era, the Commodores have regressed under Derek Mason to a team reminiscent of those overseen by Bobby Johnson: above-average defense that worked hard to keep the team in games while the offense, with its lone leader (then Bennett, now Webb) tried to keep pace on the scoreboard until the overworked defense eventually gave out and the opposing team ran away with the game. Mason and his assistants have better resumes than Johnson and his assistants did, but the results have been the same.

During the last ten years, though, Vanderbilt has played Georgia close and even stolen a few wins. Those have tended to come in home games for the Commodores, though; the Dawgs typically have routed them in Athens. Vanderbilt nevertheless goes on the road tomorrow in search of its first conference win of 2016. Kickoff is at noon on SEC Network, and we’ll be there. Follow along here for live updates.

Reading the Richter Scale: Week Nine

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After entering yet another season with high hopes, the Georgia Bulldogs have limped to a 5-3 start, with all three losses coming against SEC opponents. Like last year, they lost their star running back to serious injury and Florida embarrassed them in Jacksonville. Matching last year’s 10-3 record will require the Dawgs to win out– they’ve already equaled 2014’s loss total. With remaining games against Kentucky, Auburn, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech, as well as a presumptive bowl opponent, that’s not an impossible task, but without Nick Chubb or any coherence at quarterback, it is far from guaranteed, especially without a bailout defense. In terms of end-of-season incentives, that bowl-game appearance is all the team has to play for, though, the Florida loss having eliminated UGA from contention for the SEC championship. Before the season started, Georgia’s representation of the SEC East in that game was a foregone conclusion.

Now, a groundswell seems to be building against Richt, with demands for a change coming from across the spectrum: Finebaum callers, the beat writers, and “major” boosters. It’s the last group that really moves the meter in situations like these. Richt is under contract through 2018 thanks to an extension he signed in January. If the school wants him gone before then, a buyout, likely funded with booster money, would be necessary.   Continue reading

Even a broken clock is right sometimes: Michigan State to #2 in the AP Poll

I have to agree, because the man said what I’ve been saying for a week now: Michigan State looks like the best team in the country at this moment. Both teams in the Oregon-MSU game looked better than anything the SEC had to offer through the first two weeks of the season.

Week three saw the Spartans struggle against Air Force’s triple-option offense, but, one has reason to expect, that data point will have little meaning going forward. Meanwhile, Georgia dominated South Carolina in what easily was the Dawgs’ best game of the year, and Ole Miss made it two straight over Alabama.

The Black Bears’Rebels’ win certainly was exciting, and it’s led some to argue that they deserve the top AP spot. Their sixty-four points per game and undefeated record that includes a win in Tuscaloosa merit a top-tier ranking, but home wins over UT-Martin and Fresno State aren’t terribly revealing.

Terribly revealing? Missouri’s ugly win over UCONN is a strong indication that the two-time SEC East champions are unlikely to defend their consecutive division titles in Atlanta this December. Ohio State had a similarly weak victory over Northern Illinois, but those Huskies are better than the ones from New England, and the Buckeyes’ recent track record suggests they’ll be fine going forward.

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College football wrapup: 2014-15

The 2014 college football season is in the books, and Ohio State is the first school to win a national championship determined by a postseason playoff system.

Beyond the usual discussion of champions and coaching legacies (quickly: Urban Meyer– three national championships at two different schools, evil; Nick Saban– four national championships at two different schools, merely soulless), one of the central season-in-review topics of conversation, at least in these parts, is whether the SEC is over. Surprisingly but also not surprisingly, Paul Finebaum, voice of the SEC, answers the question implied in the previous sentence in the affirmative. (UPDATE: PFT Commenter emphatically concurs.) Although he’s been developing his position over the course of his daily radio show since roughly the first of the year, he summed up the general point in his appearance on Keith Olbermann’s show just before the national championship game:

In short: “It was a pretty bad year for the SEC.”

Although I contemplated the notion of Peak SEC at least as early as December 2012 and later pegged the possible date somewhat more recently, I’m not sure I agree that the SEC is over.

The SEC’s bowl record was 7-5. (They were 7-3 last year.) The Pacific Twelve was 6-2 (exclusive of Oregon’s national championship loss), the Big Ten was 5-5 (exclusive of Ohio State’s national championship win), the Big XII was 2-5, and the ACC was 4-7. In other words, among the power five conferences, the SEC had the most teams playing in bowl games and notched the second-best winning percentage.

What seems to concern Finebaum, though, is a sudden lack of championships. That people think the SEC is done for because one of its members hasn’t played for a national championship in a whole year and hasn’t won one in a whole two years is a testament to the never-before-seen degree of dominance the conference produced during the BCS era. Prior to Ohio State’s inaugural CFP championship on Monday, the Big Ten had 1.5 national championships since 1970. The SEC had nine in the BCS era (i.e., since 1998) alone. The ACC had two BCS championships, the ACC had two, the (now-defunct for football purposes) Big East had one, and the then-Pac Ten had one, since vacated.

After the hunt for Mississippi October turned up empty and OSU knocked Alabama out in the semis, the SEC may need to do a little more to earn its seeds next year, but I’m not sure we can say the conference is measurably weaker simply because it failed to produce a national champion this year. If anything, the above suggests the conference is as deep as ever.

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Transitioning toward the offseason and the 2015 season, I’ll use this space to remind everyone that Michigan State’s only losses in 2014 were to Ohio State and Oregon. The Spartans face both teams again in 2015, albeit without the aid of their departed defensive coordinator, Pat Narduzzi. Continue reading

College Football Playoff Selection Committee takes credibility hit with Manning departure

With news that Archie Manning is leaving his role as a Selection Committee member, the College Football Playoff © has taken another credibility hit. Despite his personal and familial ties to Ole Miss and the SEC, Manning actually was one of the less-concerning members of the Selection Committee from a conflict-of-interest standpoint. From that perspective, his departure will serve to magnify the already significant conflicts existing with the remaining committee members.

Read more about the potential problems with the new College Football Playoff, including conflicts of interest, here.

The committee will issue its first rankings after this week’s games.

Football: America’s Sport

Everyone knows that football, even college football, is all about the money. The SEC finally figured it out with their own TV network. Heck, even the Northwestern football players themselves figured it out.

What makes any sport America’s sport? Football often requires the word “American” in front of it to differentiate it from the football that the rest of the world knows. What about an option for enterprise? In major league sports, players, coaches, and the media all make buckets of money, but not the players in college football. Until recently.

Let’s take a step back. Imagine needing a source of cash flow and having some experience with the collegiate football process, but not enough skills (or motivation) to necessarily get hired anywhere as a coach or athletic director. Where is there an open source of money to be made? Well, there are those games where one team plays another of a vastly inferior caliber and division and pays that team for the right to lay the smack down. The lower tier conferences and divisions don’t rake in the cash like the top tier leagues do, so they are happy to take a loss for the money before going back to playing teams their own size (North Dakota State aside). Who is to stop me from making my own football “team” made up of eleven dropouts and getting paid to get smashed to bits every single week? Everyone else is raking in the dough in this industry, why not me?

What sentiment could be more American than that?

Of course, no legitimate team would schedule such a disreputable opponent, and there must be rules against that sort of thing, right?

The frontline journalists at reddit‘s college football discussion group, /r/cfb, uncovered just such an enterprise. User Honestly_ posted his/her findings yesterday. The post and many of the top comments are worth reading, but I will summarize a few of the highlights here.   Continue reading

Book Review: Paul Finebaum’s Conference has Beaten Your Conference (Probably)

IMG-20140814-00138For someone who spends twenty hours a week on national airwaves as the host of an eponymous radio show, now simulcast on cable television, and makes regular television appearances on a major network, Paul Finebaum sure does manage to keep himself hidden.

I am not a longtime listener of Finebaum’s show by any means. I first remember hearing about him when I moved back to SEC country during the 2012 football season and he was still broadcasting on Birmingham’s WJOX. Due largely to my own preconceived misconceptions, I was surprised when I first heard the show following its move to ESPN Radio in 2013 to find that it was an extremely caller-driven show, to the point where Finebaum rarely asserted his own voice for purposes other than briefly sparring with or otherwise egging on his admittedly bombastic callers. At that time, the majority of those callers remained Alabama-based, and the Alabama-Auburn football rivalry served as nearly every item on the host’s go-to menu.

While a lot of this struck me as fairly standard cheap talk radio tactics, I remained intrigued by this person, who had risen to such prominence and reported influence, despite, I thought, hardly taking active steps to exert much in the way of influence. I therefore read the then-recent and still-surprising long feature on Finebaum in The New Yorker with great interest and anticipation. I found the piece to be more an introduction for Manhattanites to the other SEC and its attendant culture than a deep dive on Finebaum himself. Finebaum as access point, rather than Finebaum as subject. (A long Deadspin feature from the same year had a similar effect.) It’s a worthwhile read if you like college football. Still, I did not feel like I knew or understood this man, though, or why he was so widely regarded.

Fast forward (the lazy blogger wrote) to August 14, 2014. The SEC Network, an ESPN entity, launches (on Tim Tebow’s birthday, naturally), and Finebaum’s book, My Conference Can Beat Your Conference: Why the SEC Still Rules College Football, arrived in my mailbox.

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Vanderbilt wins the College World Series, claims its first-ever mens’ national championship

After struggling through the first two games of the College World Series, Vanderbilt came out looking like a team that belonged in the final pairing in a much tighter game three. The Commodores drew inspiration from energetic and emotional starting pitcher Carson Fulmer, who really limited the Virginia bats for the first time this series. Timely hitting finally arrived for Vandy as well: Although they only plated one run in an extended first inning, the only inning for UVA starting pitcher Josh Sborz, VU claimed the only home run of the series, John Norwood’s solo blast that proved to be the game winner, in the eighth. After that, Vanderbilt reliever Adam Ravenelle dealt two innings of solid relief to close the door on Virginia and secure the 3-2 victory. (Fans of the MLB team that drafted Ravenelle, the Detroit Tigers, are already asking whether he’s available to help stem the club’s bullpen woes this season.)

For Vanderbilt, a charter member (1932) of the Southeastern Conference and a university with an interscholastic athletic history dating to the 1800s, last night’s win was especially remarkable, because it was the school’s first-ever national championship for a men’s team, and just its second national championship overall. (The women’s bowling team claimed the school’s first national championship in 2007.) This win certainly feels like the culmination of the steady development of the VU baseball program by coach Tim Corbin, and with a very young roster, it shouldn’t be surprising if his Commodores are back in Omaha next year to defend their title.

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Postscript: Like any overdue collegiate athletic victory, last night featured a post-game marriage proposal. After his team won it all, Vanderbilt pitcher Brian Miller came away with a win of his own as well. Long live college sports.