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Stats O’ War: The Most Interesting Divisions in College Football, 2019 Edition

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Which Division Races Should be the Closest this Season?

Dave Hyde column Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images

Hello, friends. It’s time to get excited - the beginning of college football is within our grasp. Looking ahead to this fall, let’s see how some advanced statistical projections think about the upcoming season.

In the past, I’ve used S&P+ projections to start the season, but this year, I’m going to try out some different numbers, just for fun. We’ll use the Beta Rank, created by friend of the site Rob Bowron, which is “several interlocking models that produce better predictions using better math that attempts to replicate the relationship between plays to yards to drives to points.” There’s a deep explainer at the link above, but suffice it to say it’s a pretty mathematically advanced projection system.

I’m going to define “most interesting” in statistical terms as “conference with the lowest standard deviation.” Standard deviation, you remember from that one stats class you had to take that one time, is just a measure of how spread out a number is. Here, that number is Beta Rank’s projected “points above an average team” number. So, conferences with lower standard deviations should have more teams at similar quality levels, which corresponds to tighter championship races, more meaningful games throughout the season, and more fun for us, the viewers.

Lastly, I need to think Andrew Percival for the links below - each conference is linked to his composite conference schedule, which is a nice visualization of an entire conference’s schedule each week. Andrew put in a bunch of work to do these handy visualizations, and they’re a great resource for week to week and season long analysis.

Without further ado, let’s rank the conferences. I’ll add some commentary as I see fit:
CONFERENCE (Standard Deviation)

1. MAC EAST (.2866)

2. ACC COASTAL (.2868): The ACC Coastal has had six different champions the last six years. The ACC Coastal has seven teams. The conference is always wild - in 2018, five teams had at least a five hundred record, in 2017 six teams with at least 3 conference wins, and in 2016 5 teams with at least 4 conference wins. It’s not the definition of quality, but it certainly is the definition of parity. Plus, there are some supremely watchable teams: Pitt is always good for some weirdness, UVA returns a decent quarterback, and Miami under Manny Diaz might actually be the U yet again. Your rooting guide for the division is Bronco Mendenhall and Virginia, just to unlock the “Seven Division Champions in Seven Years” achievement. The conference ranges from #25 Miami to #68 Georgia Tech. The spread is tight, and the floor is high, even if the ceiling is low.

3. PAC 12 SOUTH (.2980): The Pac 12 South is the ACC Coastal’s bedfellow - the division has sent 6 different teams to the championship game in the last 8 years. Granted, they’ve only won the conference once in that span, but still, this is wide open; plus, they’ve got story-lines. USC, trying to spread out their offense with Kliff Kingsbury-lite, Utah, trying to take advantage of returning production and a weak schedule, UCLA and the return of Chip Kelly, Kevin Sumlin/Khalil Tate’s road to redemption in Arizona, and Herm being Herm at ASU. All of those are intriguing in their own right, and while Utah is the consensus favorite, basically no one would surprise you as the division winner, really. Which is fun. The PAC 12 south has four top fifty teams, and Arizona and Colorado are in the top 60. There’s quality, competition, and good story lines - what else do you want?

4. MOUNTAIN WEST WEST (.2986): An underrated Fresno State team, a scrappy Nevada, and an always-competitive San Diego State? Sign me up. Sure, you’ve got your San Jose State and your UNLV, but don’t sleep on Cole McDonald and Hawaii’s arc option. Plus, the matchups of the big 4 (Hawaii, Nevada, Fresno, and SDSU) are spread out across weeks during the season, so there is always a big game to watch. Fresno boasts the 14th highest projected defense in the country, and they’re the clear favorite, but San Diego State and Nevada project right up there with them, so it’ll be a close race with high potential for upset fun.

5. SUN BELT GROUP B (.3159)

6. MAC WEST (.3279): Ok, I’m waiting until the both divisions of non-P7 (yeah, I said it. Power Seven.) conferences to make any comments, but I’ll keep my MAC comments brief: the MAC puts the fun in fundamental football. The MAC features a bunch of run-heavy teams who have very limited recruiting potential, plus Buffalo. Buffalo loses the dynamic Tyree Jackson, but Lance Leipold’s program continues to be one of the most compelling stories to watch in CFB - the Division 3 football tycoon has gone from 2 to 10 wins at Buffalo, and still seeks his first bowl game win. Watch the make, for Buffalo at least, but also for Nathan Rourke and Ohio’s meaty offense, or for the Akron Zips. The MAC is always up for grabs, but especially more so this year, as conference powerhouse NIU’s coach left for Temple.

7. CUSA E (.2582)

8. BIG 12 (.3874): Here it is, the main event. Well, the 8th-listed event on the card. The Big 12 features 6 top 40 offenses, and surprising to those who don’t watch Big 12 football, 6 top 60 defenses. There’s quality off the board, and the Big 12’s middle class is as stout as any conferences: Iowa State (28th), Oklahoma State (31), Baylor (32), WVU (40), KState (45), and TCU (48) all have championship-game upside, and Texas (15th) and Oklahoma (11th) will have their hands full fending off competition. For the record, I think this ranking is high on WVU and low on TCU, but even so, 80% of the conference is in the top 50! Plus, this is the only power conference with a round robin, which is always good for some weirdness, but I don’t have to convince y’all to watch the Big 12. Let’s move on.

9. BIG 10 WEST (.4673)

10. AMERICAN ATHLETIC WEST (.4712): The Big 10 West and the American West deserve to be written about together. Both conferences feature a number of high floor, quality teams, who have been overshadowed by the eastern counterparts for a couple seasons now. They both feature intriguing mixes of consistent contenders (Wisconsin, Northwestern, Iowa, Memphis, Houston, Navy) and wild card upstarts (Purdue/Minnesota/Nebraska, Tulane/Tulsa/SMU) who are good for some chaos, if not for a division title. The Big 10 West features 5 top 35 projected teams, whereas the AAC West features four top 100 teams. As for individual units, in the B1G W, you’ll see Iowa’s 4th ranked defense vs. Purdue’s 23rd ranked offense, and in the AAC W, you’ll see Memphis’s 38th ranked offense take on Tulane’s 50th ranked defense. Quality matchups abound in both divisions.

11. MOUNTAIN WEST MOUNTAIN (.4746): The MWC Mountain has played Big Brother the the MWC West the last few seasons, as Boise has had it’s run of the conference, aside from some scraps with Fresno and Utah State. This division is decidedly less interesting than it’s counterpart, though, as the quality divide begins to rear its head: Boise State is projected at 55, Utah State at 72, and then no other teams are inside the top 90.

12. CUSA W (.4789): The CUSA, both West and East, is one of the hearty, fine-looking low-tier conferences that make D1 great. There are plenty of opportunities to watch weird weekday games, and a bunch of nice filler. The CUSA, much like the MAC, is wide open most years, although the continuity at the Florida schools and the relative lack of elsewhere probably means this race is limited to a few teams: the conference does not feature a top 60 team in preseason projections, but FIU, FAU, and USM are the clear favorites, ranking in the sixties.

13. SUN BELT GROUP A (.5036): Watch the B group of the Sun Belt, if you watch the Sun Belt at all.

14. BIG 10 EAST (.60822): Chalk. Don’t bother until the inevitable Michigan collapse.

15. PAC 12 NORTH (.6385): While there are a few storylines worth watching, this division race really seems to be Washington’s to lose, yet again.

16. SEC EAST (.7284)

17. SEC WEST (.7319): Chalk.

18. AMERICAN ATHLETIC EAST (.8659): Can USF finally overcome their in-state dominant rivals? (Spoiler: probably not).

19. ACC ATLANTIC (.92746): Could there be a more boring division than Clemson just murdering dudes and biding its time till the playoffs?

And there you have it, friends, a guide for which conferences you should seek out in the lulls between games you really care about.