Wednesday, October 1, 2008

One Loss Should Be Good Enough

Good news, if you root for USC, Georgia or Florida - your team's disheartening loss last week most likely meant squat.

Bad news, if you pull for Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU, Missouri, Texas or any other BCS conference team that hasn't lost a game this season - your team committed a royal faux pas by still being undefeated. Should've found a way to get that loss out of the way.

As we enter October, only 13 teams in the six BCS conferences have yet to lose a game - and none in the Pac-10 and ACC. Mathematically, the maximum possible number of BCS conference teams remaining undefeated at the end of the regular season is 5. But according to our projections, that number will be 0 - or at the most optimistic, 1.

On the other hand, five non-BCS conference teams are still unbeaten and it's likely that 3, or maybe even 4 of those teams still will be undefeated at the end of the regular season.

So what does all that mean?

For starters, having 13 undefeated BCS teams at this juncture of the season is not an anomaly - it's about average. Over the past five years, 13.4 BCS conference teams have remained unbeaten at the end of September. So we're just about right on the number.

What's tricky is that the number of unbeaten teams - from this point of the season and on - have decreased steadily since 2004. Here's the breakdown:

2008 2007 2006 2005 2004
End of September 13 13 11 16 14
First BCS Standings 6* 5 6 7 10
End of October 3* 2 4 3 4
End of Regular Season 1* 0 1 2 3

Of those 13 unbeaten teams, five are in the Big 12 - four in the South Division. Only one team from this conference may emerge unbeaten, in a best-case scenario. The same goes for the four teams in the SEC. South Florida and Connecticut, the only remaining unbeaten teams in the Big East, will have to face each other.

That leaves the Big Ten, with Northwestern and Penn State unbeaten and missing each other on the schedule, as the only conference that may produce more than one unbeaten team. But with both teams still having to face Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State (and also Wisconsin for Penn State), the odds aren't good that either team will finish the season unscathed.

So what does that leave us?

That means just about all the teams with one loss are in pretty good shape - assuming they run the table from here on out. While that's not saying a two-loss team is completely out of it (see LSU, 2007), a second loss will leave any team to the whims of the voters and idiosyncrasies (some of you may think it should be idiocy) of the BCS formula. Furthermore, the system favors teams that lose early rather than late.

Voters are notorious for their lacking in recall. While computers make no distinction of when a team loses a game, any team that loses late in the season always will be punished more severely in the polls than another one that loses earlier. If you're going to lose only one game in a season, be advised to lose it in September rather than December.

With that in mind, which of the one-loss teams is in the best shape?

It's USC, of course.

The Trojans began the lost weekend with that stinker at Oregon State, but they're now the first team on the road to recovery. The simple reason why the scenario favors USC is the schedule: It doesn't have to play in a conference championship game and the Pac-10 is incredibly mediocre, as is Notre Dame, USC's only remaining non-conference game.

While Georgia, Florida, and every team in the SEC and Big 12 still have to slog through tough schedules mined with highly-ranked opponents and treacherous road games, the Trojans' biggest remaining obstacle is this Saturday's home game against No. 23 Oregon.

The Bulldogs may be the highest ranked one-loss team in the unofficial BCS standings right now, and they certainly will have ample opportunity to improve both their poll and computer rankings. But with road games at LSU and Auburn, the Cocktail game in Jacksonville against Florida, and if they get through all that, the SEC championship game against either Alabama or LSU again, Georgia will be pushed to the limit.

Florida has an easier road, but at the same time, its weaker schedule means it will have a harder time making its way back up the ladder from the current No. 15 position. Ohio State lost even earlier than USC, but it will not move past the Trojans if both teams finish with one loss each because, well, the Trojans thumped the Buckeyes, 35-3.

One last thing, though, before you Trojan fans get all excited and start making travel plans to Miami once again. There is one team USC has yet been able to beat, three years running. That would be USC.

Yes, the Trojans have been quite adept at beating themselves. They have nine more chances to do it again.


dethwing said...

"While computers make no distinction of when a team loses a game..."

False, some do. In particular, those that use pre-season rankings [Sagarin, Billingsly] use date-of-game heavily in their systems.

Colley for sure does not. The other 3 I don't know because they are very secrative about their formulas.

The Guru said...

Sagarin takes some considerations of date of game, but not completely consequential.

I don't even want to get started on Billingsley. It's not a computer rating, it's a one-man poll. He said it as much himself -

I don't know how he's been getting away with this all these years.

dethwing said...

Amen to that.