Like everything else in college football, a sport driven as much by eye tests and branding as on-field results, bowl season is something of an inkblot for fans, pundits and P.R. flacks.
Clearly, the losers of the games were all overrated. Unless they didn’t care about the game. Or maybe the games just don’t mean anything at all.
Once upon a time, we looked at a bowl result as a referendum on a team, one piece in the collage of a season. The era of conference pride has sent the post-bowl spinning into overdrive.
Now league records are a big deal, apparently. So, as we sift through press releases and chest-beating about conference bowl records, I thought it might be instructive to assess the difficulty of the different league’s postseason slates. Given that poll numbers and win-loss records often say as much about who you’ve played as how good you really are, I used the Football Outsiders F/+ ratings to measure the quality of teams’ opponents.
Below are the profiles of the Power 5 conferences, including:
- Their overall bowl record;
- The average F/+ ranking of their opponents;
- The number of opponents ranked 50 or below (i.e., between 50 and 128);
- The number of opponents ranked in the top 25 (i.e., between 1 and 25); and
- The number of matchups in which an opponent had a better F/+ ranking.
Overall record: 4-5
Opponents’ average F/+ ranking: 36.1
Opponents 50 and below: 3/9
Opponents ranked in top 25: 4/9
Matchups in which opponents had superior F/+ ranking: 6/9
Overall record: 5-5
Opponents’ average F/+ ranking: 27.5
Opponents ranked below 50: 2/10
Opponents ranked in top 25: 4/10
Matchups in which opponents had superior F/+ ranking: 6/10
Overall record: 3-4
Opponents’ average F/+ ranking: 17.5
Opponents ranked below 50: 0/7
Opponents ranked in top 25: 6/7
Matchups in which opponents had superior F/+ ranking: 4/7
Overall record: 6-4
Opponents’ average F/+ ranking: 47.1
Opponents ranked below 50: 4/10
Opponents ranked in top 25: 1/10
Matchups in which opponents had superior F/+ ranking: 2/10
Overall record: 8-2
Opponents’ average F/+ ranking: 42.5
Opponents ranked below 50: 3/10
Opponents ranked in top 25: 2/10
Matchups in which opponents had superior F/+ ranking: 0/10
Looking at the bowl results through this lens gives us a richer sense of what took place in the bowl season. Nothing about the Big Ten or ACC really stood out to me, but I did have a few observations about the other three major conferences:
*The SEC’s strong showing should have been expected.
SEC teams deserve kudos for showing up this bowl season and taking care of business. Their eight wins included some emphatic blowouts, such as Alabama demolishing Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl.
Yet, we should also acknowledge that the pairings broke favorably for the conference. Not one SEC team faced a team with a better F/+ ranking. Opponents included two of the lowest-rated Power 5 teams to make the bowls, No. 60 Texas Tech and No. 81 Kansas State. If Mississippi State drew Michigan and cratering Florida got North Carolina State, maybe the final results look different.
Of course, matchups tend to work out in your favor when your conference is loaded with quality teams. Six SEC teams finished the year ranked in the top 25 of F/+, so it’s no surprise many of those games pitted them against outclassed opponents.
*The Big 12 played a killer slate of bowl teams.
While the Big 12 teams finished below .500 in their games, they unquestionably faced the most difficult matchups. All but one of their opponents are ranked in the top 25: No. 2 Clemson, No. 5 Ole Miss, No. 9 LSU, No. 11 Arkansas, No. 23 Oregon and No. 24 North Carolina. The lone exception was No. 49 Arizona State.
Additionally, the fact that the league’s fourth-best team per F/+, No. 40 Oklahoma State, received its second place slotting skewed the pairings. That created a major mismatch in the Sugar Bowl between the Cowboys and Ole Miss.
All in all, bowl season didn’t go so swell for the Big 12, especially when you factor in the four losses came by a minimum of three touchdowns. On the other hand, the total performance wasn’t so bad relative to the quality of the matchups.
*The Pac-12’s bowl record is pretty fluffy.
Overall, the Pac-12 faced the weakest compilation of teams. Competition included the likes of No. 99 New Mexico, the worst squad to qualify for a bowl this year, according to F/+. In the end, the league notched four wins over non-Power 5 teams.
Stanford crushing Iowa put a little shine on the Pac-12’s bowl season, but the conference as a whole didn’t accomplish much. If your opinion of the league changed significantly for the better this postseason, you probably like shiny things.