Does Auburn have a BCS title case? An analysis by the numbers
It's unfortunate for Auburn that its athletic director, Jay Jacobs, got caught up in the moment following last weekend's Iron Bowl. He called the prospect of a one-loss SEC champion being excluded from the BCS title game "un-American." In a climate where SEC fatigue already runs high in most parts of the country, such hyperbole and arrogance did not sit well.
The truth is, Jacobs does have a reasonable case, but not because of some perceived SEC birthright or because another team "struggled" last Saturday (as opposed to the Tigers' successive miracles to win their past two games). Actual data confirms that the two undefeated teams currently ranked ahead of Auburn in the standings -- No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Ohio State -- have played historically soft schedules by BCS-era standards. Auburn's, even when docked for a loss, is pretty darn good.
Jerry Palm, formerly the publisher of CollegeBCS.com and now a writer for CBSSports.com, has compiled strength-of-schedule rankings for 16 seasons using the same formula the BCS included as a component in its standings from 1998-2003 (two-third opponents' records; one-third opponents' opponents' records). According to Palm's projected rankings after this weekend, Ohio State -- even with a game against 11-1 Michigan State factored in -- will finish with the 55th strongest slate. Florida State, which faces 10-2 Duke on Saturday, is projected to finish 59th. The only team ever to play in the BCS championship game with a lower SOS rating than this year's Florida State team was Oregon in '10, which finished 72nd.
Of course, formulas are not the most common way most fans perceive a team's competition. Opponents' records are. The number of ranked foes a team has defeated is another often-cited figure, as are victories over bowl teams. So following up on a study I first put together during the Ducks' 2010 run, I've compiled a list of every BCS title game participant's SOS credentials, sorted by opponents' records, with '13 Florida State and Ohio State included for comparison's sake.
Note that Palm's data (based on the RPI formula in basketball) does not include wins over FCS foes. I used the final BCS standings for each season to qualify opponents as "ranked" (and the current BCS standings for this year's teams). Since some teams made it to the national championship with no losses, others with one loss, and 2007 LSU with two, I'm only counting ranked/bowl opponents that a team actually beat. I'm also counting all bowl-eligible teams as bowl teams to account for the fact that there used to be fewer bowls.
|Most difficult path to title game during BCS era|
Should both teams win this weekend, the Seminoles and Buckeyes will join just two other BCS title game participants that played opponents with a combined sub.-500 record (excluding FCS wins). They'd also become two of 10 squads to beat fewer than three ranked foes.
The data could theoretically serve as fodder for SEC commissioner Mike Slive and others arguing that a one-loss champion from that league -- either Auburn or Missouri -- should be selected for the title game over an undefeated Ohio State team. But where do those teams stand historically? For a point of comparison, here is the equivalent data for Auburn and Mizzou (based on a projected victory over the other), as well as that of current BCS No. 6 Oklahoma State, which could theoretically have a case if it beats 9-2 Oklahoma to finish 11-1 as the Big 12 champion.
Of the three, Auburn has the strongest case. While its 2013 road was not quite as taxing as its '10 championship path, it would still rank among the top half of all BCS title game participants. It would become just the 10th of 32 teams to beat at least four ranked squads, and it would tie for the second-most wins (9) over bowl opponents.
While I've been of the opinion the past few weeks that a one-loss team should NOT pass an undefeated Ohio State team, it's hard to deny that these numbers are eye-opening. The Buckeyes' schedule isn't just bad; it's historically bad. And Auburn's schedule -- even without credit in the last two columns for facing (and losing to) 9-3 LSU on Sept. 21 -- is tougher by a substantial margin.
There's just one problem: It would be hypocritical to suggest Auburn should leap Ohio State based on the Buckeyes' weak slate without also making the case the Tigers should bypass Florida State. After all, the Seminoles' strength of schedule is nearly identical to that of the Buckeyes. There's virtually no chance pollsters will consider moving Auburn to No. 1, even if it somehow beats Missouri 56-0, because the 'Noles have been so dominant all season.
Jacobs will have some nice data at his disposal if he'd like to make a more reasoned case come Saturday night. But those numbers would carry more weight next year, when a selection committee will replace the BCS standings. The pollsters, as they've done for more than 75 years, will rank teams based on which played the best on the field -- not which look best on a spreadsheet.