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Big 12 Pre-Cap and the Most Interesting Divisions in College Football

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A look around the College Football landscape - and which divisions will make for appointment viewing games.

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-Virginia vs Navy
Does Navy hold the keys to the most interesting division in college football?
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s Note - This is the second in my string of summer stats columns, regular on Thursdays. Last week, I used the Gini Coefficient to examine the state of parity in the NCAA’s recent history. This week, I use spread and standard deviation to highlight the most interesting divisions in college football. As the summer continues, I’ll wander through some thoughts about football and analytics generally - “state of the game” kinds of things - and some more specific previews looking ahead to this fall, both in the Big 12 and around the NCAA. I’m always open to suggestions about college football data projects, so feel free to reach out in the comments.


Our friend and local hero Bill C. has finished his Big 12 Preview. In the link, you’ll find his thoughts on the distribution of the league’s power and team by team portraits. Read the whole thing, but you’ll see that the Big 12 has an incredibly deep middle class, even deeper when you consider the fact that the league favorite - Oklahoma - is far from a known commodity:

“OU is 1.4 projected wins ahead of the second-place team, but only 1.6 projected wins separate No. 2 from No. 8. Meanwhile, team No. 9, KSU, pretty consistently overachieves its recruiting rankings and wins more close games than it loses. So games between No. 2 through 9 could be week-to-week bloodbaths. (And it’s not like No. 1 isn’t vulnerable itself.)”

2018 looks to be the first time the Big 12 is back to its old chaotic ways in a long time, but with a new spin: the conference features an odd symmetry of power defenses (Texas, TCU, Iowa State) and power offenses (OU, WVU, Tech, WVU), poised for a stylistic struggle for the soul of the Big 12. You have grizzled veterans (Wild Billy Grier at WVU) back for their shot at glory, and some lovable losers-turned-winners (Iowa State) on the verge of contention. Sprinkle in another season-long discussion about whether Texas is “back”, and the Big 12 is highly watchable from a story standpoint. The finishing touch is a Kansas State team no one sees coming, and we’re looking at a gauntlet of a season.

The fireworks will be season-long, and they get started early. When much of the nation is “finding itself” against lesser competition, Big 12 contenders have some tests. TCU plays a neutral site against Ohio State, Texas hosts USC, and Kansas State heads to Starkville. Beyond the “marquee” match-ups, though, lie a few quiet-but-dangerous games; an Oklahoma State victory over Boise State is no sure thing, and if there’s anyone who can ruin Oklahoma’s season, its Lane Kiffin and the boys.

I plan to work through the schedule in more depth closer to season, but, all of this to say - the Big 12 has its intrigue, both in storyline and in stats. Those two elements more or less frame how I’ll watch non-Big 12 games this fall. With a nod to Bill C’s preview work, I dive into divisions across the nation and highlight a few that pass the story and stats test to highlight some of the most interesting and watchable (non-Big 12) divisions this fall.

The Most Interesting Divisions, in terms of S/P+

Ranked in order of Range (distance between top and bottom of each division):

  1. American West (14.3 point differential)
  2. Big 10 West: (14.8)
  3. MAC West (15.9) and East (15.4)
  4. Sun Belt (16.4)

In order of spread of distribution of teams, calculated by standard deviation:

  1. Big 10 West (st. dev. = 5.335)
  2. American West (5.348)
  3. MAC East (5.978)
  4. ACC Coastal (6.015)
  5. Big 12 (6.053)

A lower number here indicates a more competitive division, at least in terms of grouping of quality towards the mean.

For succinctness, I’ve removed the list of Best Divisions by Average S&P+; that information can be found here.

  • The American West is going to live up to its historical name - much like Texas in 1880, there will be fighting, there will be shootouts, and there will be roving wild bandits coming to steal and plunder. The AAC West has its rivalries, and it has its powers. Some combination of UCF, USF, Memphis, Houston always seems to be at the top. But don’t forget about Navy, who is always good for a landscape altering upset (in their favor or otherwise) and Temple, who went from abysmal in the first part of last year to sneakily decent! And yes, the Ponies lost their coach, but they still have talent and a great offensive mind. There are legitimately seven teams who can win this division, and all will do it while scoring approximately 40 points a game*. Watchability: A+ (Weekly must-see games).

*Seriously, this is worth a note: The AAC scores so much! Even Navy, that of the triple option fame, scored 40 points five times last year! The downside, is, of course, the games take about ten years to play. But, life is full of tradeoffs.

  • The Big 10 West: Upon calculating the final results for this post, I did a double take - surely my computer meant to point me to the Big 10 East, the Murderers’ Row of college football, the “toughest division” in football. Well, my computer and I are here to let you in on a little secret: the Big 10 East is an awfully boring division. In the Big 10 East, you can watch three games and be caught up on the entire season. Granted, they’ll be entertaining games, but I’m here for the week-in-week-out watchability. The Big 10 West, on the other hand, is a treasure trove of power football uncertainty. Yes, you’ve got Wisconsin, poised to grind out a ho-hum 10 win season yet again, and you’ve got Iowa, who will get a fun upset under the lights at least once. You also have upstarts Nebraska, who would’ve been improved this season even without the boost from Scott Frost as Head Coach, and Jeff Brohm’s immensely watchable Purdue squad both looking to claw their way into relevancy. Minnesota is rowing the boat, that’s fine, we like PJ Fleck. But you’re forgetting about the Big 10 West’s Ace in the hole.

Quick, no googling: Do you know many games the Northwestern Wildcats won last year?

Ten!

Quick, no googling: Do you know how many games the Northwestern Wildcats won in 2015?

Ten!

Pat Fitzgerald has produced a bout of quiet success, a string of “we’re not great but we aren’t bad” consistency, a surprisingly fun team. Even their losses last year (of which there were only three!) were exciting. Don’t forget about the Big 10’s sleeper team, Northwestern.

Watchability: A-

  • Watch the MAC. Just, do it. Both divisions of the MAC came down to the last week of the season, and much like Middle-America itself, the MAC is a melting pot of pretty talented kids all trying their best, darnit. Is there anything more heartwarming than the Akron Zips coming from behind to beat the Ohio Bobcats on a Tuesday in October? Not to mention, most of the MAC games get through the first three quarters in about 45 minutes, then the fun stuff begins. A 7-7 team won the East last year! It was a dream. And for those of you still fixated on your notions of “quality” and “good football”, the MAC West features a real, live, actually good team in Toledo, and a Northern Illinois squad who isn’t that far removed from the national stage. Watch the MAC. Watchability: B+
  • I’ve made my case above for the Big 12. The Big 12 in 2018 is like a recently-divorced family member showing up to Christmas with a bottle of tequila; it’s going to be wild, contentious, and mistakes will be made, but we will remember it fondly. Watchability: A
  • The Sun Belt, here, is a function of a lot of low-quality teams, and so while many of their match-ups will be competitive, they will be on the lower end of quality. Troy, Arkansas State, and ULL Louisiana all figure to be scrappy, salt-of-the-earth kinds of teams, and so the marquee match-ups in the Sun Belt are worth a cursory glance, as at least one of them is bound to be a barn-burner: Troy played games against Arkansas State and Louisiana last year where both teams scored in the high thirties, and points were decided in the last minutes. Watchability: B- (No one gets less than a B-. It’s football).
  • I want to sit here and tell you that the ACC Coastal will be fun. Miami has the turnover chain, and Virginia Tech basically only played underclassmen last season. UNC can’t be as bad or injured as they were last year, and Pitt looked like it was putting things together down the stretch. But life is short - am I really going to advise that anyone willfully consume more Duke Football? Yes, Bronco is building a program at UVa. And Paul Johnson has at least one more year of chaos in him before he retires, but that definitely involves spoiling Georgia’s undefeated season in its last week, so that doesn’t help the division watchability. TBH, I’d rather watch the Sun Belt than a bunch of mediocre teams punching each other in the face for the privilege of getting stomped by Clemson. Watchability: B- (I’d rather watch the Sun Belt).
  • Honorable Mentions (aka, divisions not on the “interesting list” you should watch):
  1. The SEC West: This is the Colossus of college football, once again. My roving SEC correspondent (read: friend who went to Arkansas and watches football with me a bunch) clued me into the landscape, and it’s pretty appealing: The perennial champs, Alabama, face a field of unknown upstarts. LSU’s Coach O has a quarterback and another year of his recruits. Arkansas is going to score 56 points every game under Chad Morris; they will probably lose most of them 57-56, but it’ll be fun. Auburn returns a powerhouse team, and both Mississippi schools have some fresh momentum moving forward. Jimbo has the chip of all chips on his shoulder, and there, you have an extremely talented conference full of intrigue. Watchability: A- (Sorry, but that afternoon CBS slate has been awful.)
  2. ACC Coastal Just kidding.

2. The Mountain West West: One, it’s fun to say, just try it. Two, Wyoming might be doing some addition by subtraction, getting that monkey of pressure off its back, but Boise State seems on track to snipe the NY6 bid from the American conference. Basically, what the MWW lacks in quality compared to the AAC West, it makes up for in random snow games. Watchability: B+.

And there you have it - a scatterbrained, far from comprehensive guide to what I’ll be watching for this fall.