The injustice of schedule in college football – how analytics can determine conference win probabilities

Brass Scales Of Justice Off Balance, Symbolizing Injustice, Over WhiteCollege football has a short season. Eight or nine games determine whether your teams wins its division or conference.

This conference schedule used to include all other teams in the conference, a round robin format. Then SEC commissioner Roy Kramer added Arkansas and South Carolina so his 12 team conference could hold a championship game. The Big Ten added Penn State to grow to 11 teams.

When conferences get bigger and separate into divisions, your team can no longer play every other team in the conference. While each team plays a round robin in its division, the cross division schedule can vary greatly.

For example, consider the Big Ten Legends division. Michigan plays Ohio State, a national title contender for most people, Penn State and Indiana from the other division. Michigan State plays Indiana, Purdue and Illinois, arguably the worst 3 teams in the conference.

The schedule imbalance is worse for LSU in the SEC West, as they face Georgia and Florida, two national championship contenders, from the other division. Alabama faces Tennessee and Kentucky instead.

This imbalance in schedule greatly affects your team’s chance to win its division.

Let’s put some numbers behind this injustice.

How to determine win probabilities for a conference

The game of football is inherently random. A fumble or a tipped pass can flip the results of a game in a single play. It can even derail Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty for a few weeks, as AJ McCarron thew a goal line interception to seal their loss to Texas A&M last season.

To account for this randomness, I use the Monte Carlo method to simulate the 2013 college football season. This method employs random numbers to sample the many outcomes that can happen during the season.

Monte Carlo is the same technique Ed Thorpe used to test how his black jack strategy would perform in a casino. He did pretty well in those casinos, inspiring a generation of kids like Jeff Ma to win millions in Las Vegas.

How does this work for college football? Suppose Michigan has a 53% chance to beat Nebraska at home this season, as my preseason rankings predict. In a simulation, Michigan wins this game with 53% probability. Just like an actual football game, the simulation takes the uncertainty heading into the game and turns into the certainty of a win or loss. The simulation repeats this random picking of game winners for each game.

Flipping coins is the easy part of simulating the college football season. The computer then calculates the win loss record from the game results to determine the winner of the division. In the case of a tie, this gets complicated. The computer looks at head to head records and division records to determine a champion.

This simulation is repeated many times, and the win probability for a team is the fraction of simulations that it wins its division or conference.

The win probabilities for each game come from my preseason rankings. These are based on a regression model that considers a team’s rating in The Power Rank, turnovers and returning starters.

SEC West

This is the toughest division in college football. In my preseason rankings, three of the top 5 teams in the nation come from the SEC West. LSU brings up the rear behind Alabama and Texas A&M at 5th in the nation.

The schedule will make life even more difficult for the Tigers this season. Here are the cross division games for the top 3 teams; the first team is a rivalry game played every year.

  • Alabama – Tennessee, at Kentucky
  • Texas A&M – at Missouri, Vanderbilt
  • LSU – Florida, at Georgia

LSU faces Florida and Georgia, two teams that could contend not just for the SEC East title but also the national championship. Instead, Alabama faces two struggling programs in Tennessee and Kentucky with first year head coaches. This discrepancy surfaces in the win probabilities for the SEC West.

The Power Rank's preseason prediction for SEC WestAlabama has a 62% chance of winning the SEC West, while LSU has only a 9% chance. LSU coach Les Miles has complained about the schedule before, even suggesting that a “random computer draw” pick the cross division games. You know something is wrong when a football coach suggests using computers.

Big Ten Legends Division

Each Big Ten team also plays a fixed cross division game each year. For the three teams expected to contend for the Legends division, this game is first in these lists of cross division games in 2013.

  • Nebraska – at Penn State, Illinois, at Purdue
  • Michigan – Ohio State, at Penn State, Indiana
  • Michigan State – Indiana, Purdue, at Illinois

Michigan plays Ohio State, a potential national title contender, while Nebraska and Michigan State duck the Buckeyes this year. Michigan and Nebraska both play at Penn State, a program still in good shape despite the devastating sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Instead, Michigan State gets arguably the 3 worst teams in the conference.

The Power Rank's preseason prediction for the Big Ten Legends Division.This division is an interesting case study for schedule imbalance since my preseason rankings rate these 3 teams so closely. Only a point and a half separate Nebraska from Michigan State, with Michigan in between.

In my simulations, Michigan State has a 34% chance to win the division. Michigan has a 19% chance despite a higher rating than the Michigan State. Nebraska, which has a home game against Michigan State, has 38% chance. The schedule does no favors for Michigan.

These odds are calculated from my preseason rankings, which rank Ohio State 16th in the nation. This is contrary to the national consensus that the Buckeyes will contend for the national title. If the Buckeyes are actually one of the top 3 teams in the country, the gap in win probability between Michigan and Michigan State will get larger.

Pac-12 North

Out west, teams play a nine game conference schedule. This includes the 5 teams from within the division and 4 of 6 teams from the other division. The California schools (Stanford, California in the North, USC and UCLA in the South) play each other each season.

These schools insisted on keeping these rivalries intact when the conference grew from 10 to 12 teams. And no one will argue against playing a historic rival every year, especially with the ticket sales these games generate. However, these games will have an impact on the Pac-12 North division.

Here are the cross division games for Oregon and Stanford, two highly ranked teams expected to contend for the division.

  • Oregon – at Colorado, UCLA, Utah, at Arizona
  • Stanford – Arizona State, at Utah, UCLA, at USC

In essence, Oregon plays at Colorado, the worst team in the South, while Stanford plays at USC, the best team in the South. As a result, Oregon has a 73% chance to win the division, while Stanford has a 19% chance.

The Power Rank's preseason projection for the Pac-12 NorthA big part of this discrepancy is that the preseason rankings have Oregon rated a touchdown better than Stanford. Whether this holds up depends on how well new Oregon coach Mark Helfrich does after Chip Kelly left for the Philadelphia Eagles. However, schedule also plays a role in these odds.

How to fix the imbalance in schedule

With today’s mega conferences in college football, your team no longer plays every other team in the conference. This can lead to an imbalance of schedule across teams in a division, as you can see in SEC West, Big Ten Legends and Pac-12 North this 2013 season. This imbalance will affect your team’s odds of winning the division.

In my next blog post, I’ll suggest how to fix this problem. There’s no perfect solution, except for going back to 1991 and convincing Roy Kramer not to add to additional teams to the SEC. But fans deserve better.

Do you have any suggestions for how to fix the imbalance in conference schedule? Let me know in the comments.

Comments

  1. Mr Football says:

    Schedule imbalance is probably worse in the NFL.

    Of 16 games, ONLY 6 are in your division. There are 10 win teams, sometimes 11, being bumped form the playoffs because some 9 game division winner. Or the hilarious year, 2011, where the Seahawks “won” the division and playoff spot with just 7 wins and a losing record. LOL. They actually hosted a playoff game that year vs a team, the Bears, with 11 wins, they got crushed by during the regular season. Yet Seattle got to host….and win a playoff game.

    No schedules are a joke discussion is complete without talking NFL.

    • I agree that schedule imbalance is bad in the NFL. This keeps me in business, as methods were designed to account for strength of schedule.

      But the NFL has that salary cap thing, which levels the playing field. You can’t get the honor playing an Ohio State in the other division instead of Illinois, two teams that I rate 20 points differently on a neutral site.

      • Mr Football says:

        College, with +100 teams, even major college with 60 teams, is inherently different. It’s fruitless and I think a big mistake to push to make college more like a mini NFL. College football is superior in many aspects and does not need to emulate the NFL in much….if anything the NFL should learn more from college. Anyway, college schedules do even out year to year, as you swap home/away and over time, you rotate out cross division teams. Yes, there are some protected rivalry games. Great, glad college football cares about those games. The NFL would like for like….one. One real rivalry game. They try to fake 6-7, but it’s all lies.

        As for talent distribution….don’t even think college sports should have even talent distribution. These are universities, they are by nature very different from one another, they offer wide ranges of value for an athlete or a student. It is also pointless to harp on this. Alabama is going to be Alabama, Nebraska is going to be Nebraska. No way a rule change is going to result in Minnesota suddenly having the support of either of these blue blood programs. That’s the way it is, and should be in college. It’s great there are elite historical programs with intense fan bases.

        Frankly, I am of the believe that the fan base of a team, college or pro, is the #1 factor in determining winning and losing. If a fan base is extremely demanding, they will win more than one that is not. See Yankees vs Mets. See Cardinals vs Cubs. See Nebraska vs just about anyone. See Lakers vs Bobcats. Some markets are bigger, yes, some are not, some are much smaller.

        Frankly the NFL hasn’t done that great of a job on “level playing field” compared to MLB over the past 15 years. MLB has no cap. Cap is overrated…..NBA has two caps.

        • But does a fan base result in winning, or does winning result in a big fan base? I think the latter but have yet to put any data behind it.

    • That’s not an example of schedule imbalance. That’s a league structure/playoff format issue. You think winning a division at 7-9 is bad? There are high school football teams that win two games all year, but due to them being the best in a “sectional” of just four teams they advance to the playoffs.

    • For the love of Christ... says:

      NFL teams in the same division have 14 of 16 games in common. There’s no argument to be made that the imbalance is worse. None. You’re complaining about something entirely unrelated.

  2. 1) SEC never played a round robin schedule. In fact teams could decide what games counted in SEC standings. I think some years Bama played Ole Miss and yet it did not count in the standings. (Or it might have been other teams).
    2) Not sure football games are really “random” are they? Does Georgia State really have an equal chance of beating Bama every time out? I would say no.

    • Sam, thanks for the SEC education. I had dinner with some folks who cover college football, and they didn’t know about the SEC.

      Random does not mean every team as a 50-50 chance to win. Random does mean that FCS team do have a small but finite chance to beat Bama, much like Georgia Southern harassed them two years ago with their triple option.

  3. Tony Moses says:

    Ed, what would happen if you used a “Monte Carlo” method to make schedules? Had a game or two within the conference that was random, even if it meant an occasional rematch?

    Mr Football, thanks for your props to Nebraska. Go Big Red!!

    • So you like Les Miles’s idea, Tony? I’m not sure it should be random, but I think computers should play a role in scheduling. More soon.

  4. Good stuff, and this is coming from an LSU fan. Entering into the 3rd week of the season, I believe LSU’s chances are a little better now. In fact, we may be the most complete “looking” team in the West right now.

    Thanks,
    Bill

  5. I’m not sure how to fix the imbalance of the scheduling but it sure isn’t fair, that the number one team in the the poll plays such an easy schedule, and maintains their rank. I think they should have to be matched up against
    other teams in their division. Playing the lesser teams shouldn’t count . Not sure if the powers that be will ever
    get it right. It would be lilke the NFL playing a college team in the midst of their season. Somebody please get it right.
    Thanks.

  6. Parrish Barwick says:

    I feel schedule inadequacies can be corrected with basic simplicity but problems will remain. Most difficult part of this idea will be multiple conference buy in.

    For a team to compete for a national title they must schedule a top half ranked team from each major conference from the past 3 years. Scheduling is done years out but with conference buy in the schedules can be altered to ensure your team plays a proper strength of schedule. if your goal for your college is to compete for a national title the schedules can be altered.
    Requiring competition between the major conferences puts to bed a lot of discussion about conference superiority and strength of schedule. Scheduling multiple conferences top teams will also diminish strength of schedule arguments like FSU and Ohio State this year 2013. To keep scheduling as appropriate as possible the NCAA must get involved in the scheduling of teams out of conference.

Trackbacks

  1. […] through a Monte Carlo simulation. I wrote about this previously when complaining about the injustice of schedule in college football. However, I have not yet checked the accuracy of these results against the data of Stassen. It will […]

  2. […] For more on how the win probabilities are calculated, click here. […]

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