Probably the biggest knock against Boise State and its chances of playing for a national title is the "Strength of Schedule" argument. Boise plays "only" one or two games a year. They never schedule "anyone." Their conference is weak. "Anyone" could go undefeated with the schedule Boise State plays. Fans of the Broncos have heard all these arguments and more.
A couple of weeks ago, I examined these arguments in detail using the rankings of the CBS 120 to see what validity they had. In that article, "Two Real Games and Eleven Cupcakes?" (also found on Bleacher Report) I did a comparison of Boise's schedule against that of all 30 teams then undefeated. What I found was that the argument had some validity, but not as much as many critics would have hoped.
There were perhaps 10 teams that, if undefeated, would have a claim ahead of Boise for the title. Of those, five could possibly sneak ahead of Boise with one loss, depending on who that loss was to, and only one, Alabama, could get by with two losses.
The argument that Boise State played all cupcakes was demonstrably untrue and many of the other top teams also played three or more really weak teams. I stand by the analysis I offered then.
Now that Week 5 has passed, however, I want to examine the question of whether or not Strength of Schedule is itself simply a matter of perception. Obviously, to some extent, it is. Whenever you hear a critic claim that Boise simply could not win six games in any AQ conference, you know the critic is simply uninformed.
These critics believe that, just by membership in an AQ conference, any team is, by definition, a more talented and "stronger" team. One need only look to Minnesota, Washington State, and the entire Big East conference to realize that is not true. (Sorry Big East Fans.)
But does the argument have some degree of truth? I shall argue here that it does, but not to the degree that many would hope. Indeed, for fans of the Big 12 and Big 10, one has to accept the reality that the strength of these conferences is almost entirely by perception.
Like my previous article, this one will involve a fair amount of math and statistical data, which I find more objective than simply assertions that Boise State would or not win all their games if they played in the (fill in the blank here) conference.
In order to determine whether Strength of Schedule really is just a matter of perception, I had to make a number of assumptions. Of course, everyone makes assumptions, but if you are going to be objective, you need to spell these out in advance.
The first assumption I make is that a team who wins on the field is (usually) better. This may seem self evident, but it is not. Last year, Oregon beat then No. 6 California soundly, 42-3.
At the time Oregon, with one loss (to Boise State) was unranked. After the game, Oregon found itself ranked in the top 25, but still ranked behind California, who also had one loss. Why was that? Because the "perception" was that by losing to Boise State, Oregon had shown they were not a good team even though they had gone on to win all their remaining games including by that point two games against ranked opponents.
It would not be until the following week, with a decisive victory over USC, that Oregon would be highly ranked. In this analysis, however, barring unusual mitigating circumstances, a win on the field shows superiority.
My second assumption is that some wins are more impressive than others. Beating a team with a series of impressive victories is more significant than defeating a 1AA opponent.
My third and final assumption is that some conferences feature stronger teams than others. For better or for worse, some conferences feature more wins than losses and play better teams to get those wins and losses. To preview my conclusions a little. If you are in the Pac-10 or SEC, you play in a deep conference where every week is a challenge. If you play in the WAC, Big East, Mountain West, or Big Ten (no, that is not a misprint!), this is not so much the case.
The third assumption is the hardest to test. How do you measure the success of a conference? The answer, in brief, is by their out of conference games and record. Who did the teams play out of conference, and how did they do. By contrast, games within conferences are subject simply to perception. If, for example, we believe the Pac-10 is a strong conference (and I do believe that) we will rank wins there higher.
On the other hand, if we perceive the Big East as weak (I also believe that) then we will tend to discount those games. So the only accurate measure of SOS is out of conference play. Week 5 is an excellent week to take stock of this question because, for the most part, out of conference games are over with and conference play will be the dominant theme for the rest of the year.
In this article, I will examine out of conference records and the strength of schedule. I will use the Sagarin ratings of SOS to date for each team in a conference, and take an average for the conference as a whole. I will also consider the win loss records of each conference.
After that point, I will draw conclusions about which conferences really do deserve serious consideration, and which are filled with teams who are there solely by perception. In general, some of the AQ conferences really are better. But not all.
III. The Data
Boise State plays in the WAC, but it is worth noting that the WAC is not quite the pushover many assume it is. Coming out of Week 5, with very little conference play, the WAC has a winning record with 22 wins and 20 losses. No other non-AQ team can make such a claim at this point (the Sun Belt, for example, is 10-28).
But what is the average SOS for the conference? After all, don't WAC teams play a week schedule? Well, not really, at least not in their out of conference games. Their SOS as a conference is 65.33. What that means is, out of 120 teams FBS teams (and assorted FCS opponents) there are only 65 teams in the country who have a stronger schedule, on average, than the conference as a whole.
That may seem like a lot, but when you compare their results to other conferences an interesting picture begins to emerge.
The SEC, usually regarded as the strongest conference, does indeed show well when these types of numbers are looked at. They have a conference record of 38-19, and their average SOS is 41.66. In short, the SEC is almost as good a conference as they are perceived to be. Or, to put it another way, perception is reality. A team that wins the SEC has shown they are truly deserving of a national title, even with one loss.
Still, it should be noted that part of the reason the SEC has such a high ranking is that two of their teams, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, have played very difficult schedules to date with ranks of 4 and 2. Neither has done well with these schedules but they have pulled up the SOS for the whole conference. The next best team, to date, is Alabama with an SOS ranking of 26.
A surprise for many is that the Pac-10, this year, is even stronger than the SEC. Their record, to date, is 29-17. Out of conference play is over, and with their round robin schedule, Pac-10 teams have more built in losses than any other conference. But in their Out of Conference schedule, the Pac-10 has averaged an SOS of just over 26! This is absolutely incredible.
The conference is helped by Oregon State, who has the number 1 ranked schedule in the country (of course: they had to play Boise State and TCU, both on the road!) while Washington and UCLA have also turned in top 10 schedules in difficulty. Anyone who wins in the Pac-10 is truly a champion.
But what of the other so-called Power Conferences? How do they fair? Not as well. The Big 12 has a great record, 41-12, but to turn the question always asked of the Broncos around, who have they played? No one to speak of. Their SOS average is 73.08. To date, Nebraska, their highest ranked team, has played a schedule ranked 134 (!) which is below many FCS teams.
No wonder they are undefeated! I will come back to Nebraska later in the conclusions, but for now it should be noted that in the Big 12, strength comes from perception, not reality. Those who argue Boise State would not win more than six games in a "real" conference may be correct, but only if they did not include the Big 12 in the list of "real conferences."
The situation is even worse for the Big Ten. Their record to date is 39 wins against only 13 losses. They have five teams ranked in the top 25! They must be a great conference. Surely wins against top competition within the conference shows how worthy they are of a national title! Actually not. Their SOS to date, as a conference, is 91.54! It is by far the worst of any AQ conference, and likely the worst of any FBS conference.
In short, the Big 10 has a lot of wins with a lot of teams, but it is because these teams truly play cupcake out of conference schedules (and still manage to lose some of those games!).
So when No. 2 Ohio plays No. 17 Michigan State, readers should be aware that in this instance, ranking is all perception and not reality. The computers are not fooled, and you shouldn't be either (Sagarin has Ohio No. 6, for the record, and all the rest of the Big Ten teams are lower).
What does all of this mean? In the Big Picture, it means that some of the power conferences really deserve their reputation. The Pac-10 is a strong, deep conference and an undefeated team there has a good claim for the national title. The same is true for the SEC.
But it it not true for the Big Ten and Big 12, both of which have sent teams to the title game on a regular basis only to lose to the SEC team. And no wonder. These teams are getting to the title game more on perception than actual skill.
As for Boise State, where does this leave them? If we consider SOS without mitigating circumstances, then Boise probably will not play for the title unless there are no other undefeated teams and only a handful of one loss teams. But when we consider the degree to which SOS is based on perception, not reality, then Boise's claims become stronger.
An undefeated Boise State out of the WAC does, in fact, have a more legitimate chance to play in the title game as an undefeated Ohio State from the Big Ten or Oklahoma from the Big 12.
Indeed, only the Pac-10 and SEC conferences can seriously make the claim that they deserve to play ahead of Boise State. But if the Pac-10 champ is Oregon, as appears likely, that claim is muted. They after all, lost to Boise State twice in the last two years, badly, and should not go ahead of Boise no matter what they do this year.
The bottom line is this. Many of those who claim Boise does not play a strong enough schedule because they play in the WAC are simply using whatever argument is at hand. Do they really believe it? Well, yes they do, if they are willing to admit that the Big 12 and Big 10 champs should also be excluded.
But I don't think they really believe that. What they really believe is that Boise should not be allowed to play no matter what because, let's face it, they aren't part of the old boys club. The ultimate proof of this claim can be found in Kirk Herbstreit's post game analysis after the Oregon-Stanford game last night.
Herbstreit announced that he already had Oregon ahead Boise on his AP ballot. Why? Had they played a stronger schedule? No. Even after the Stanford game Oregon's schedule was ranked 57 while Boise's was ranked 38, even though they had just played New Mexico State. But still, given how strong the Pac-10 is, Herbie could be forgiven for factoring in future games. But then he went on to whine.
Poor Nebraska! They will likely play their entire regular season without facing a single ranked team now that Texas had lost twice! And it was no fault of their own! How sad. But Nebraska, who nearly lost to an FCS opponent a week earlier, has an SOS of 134 to date. Yes, it is beyond their control.
Even two weeks ago, their schedule looked better. But the fact is, Herbie wanted to give Nebraska a shot at the title even as he was throwing Boise under the Oregon bus. Strength of schedule, it seems is an argument that really only applies to Boise State.