I shouldn’t listen to sports talk radio. Every time I do listen, I find that the numbers I collect are in total conflict with what the talking heads are telling fans. It’s as though the radio personalities operate in some alternate universe of their own construction and that theme song from The Twilight Zone begins playing in my head.
Twice recently I’ve caught the Jason Horowitz/Danny Kanell show on ESPNU radio and have had to pull off the expressway to take notes about the wonderfully odd things they said. As you all know, Danny is so nice you’d approve of him dating your sister (if he’s single). And Jason was clearly the smartest kid in his grammar school class. However, these guys are paid to give you a view from inside the game while I freely give you an objective view from outside the game. Here are four examples of their pronouncements that simply don’t match up with the numbers.
- On a balmy Friday, Danny was predicting the weekend’s winners. Danny’s approach reminded me of the schemes gamblers employ in Vegas. He said he would choose teams that have momentum. As a former player Danny has experienced that feeling you get when your team gets an unexpected break and then you make a big play and things seem to be going your way. It’s a mixture of rising self-confidence and serendipity. Call it momentum because your opponent is likely experiencing the opposite feeling. There is no denying that this feeling exists within a game, but is there such a thing as momentum across multiple weekends? The numbers say “No”. I plotted the raw, unadjusted playing performance grades of highly ranked teams on a graph and the result looks like a map of the Rocky Mountains–peaks and valleys. TCU, a team that Jason likes very much, has had successive grades of 125, 82, 91, 86, 74, 90 and 117. Oklahoma has gone 117, 82, 113, 89, 61, 75, and 86. Alabama, the consensus best team in the country and the gold standard, has recorded grades of 82, 105, 90, 129, 125, 80, 90, and 107. Miami, those lovably overrated Hurricanes, have gone 100, 79, 93, 71, 79, and 68. Team playing grades are affected by only two factors: strength of opponent and playing location. Teams play 11% better at home than on the road and they play better against weak teams than against strong teams. The good grades we see above came against weak opponents and the poor grades came against tough competition. Sorry, Danny, there is no such thing as momentum.
- In recapping Oklahoma State’s serendipitous escape against Texas (13-10 in overtime), Danny said that getting the win was “all that matters.” He’s right, of course, if you are comparing records to determine a conference champion. He is wrong, however, if he’s comparing teams across conferences to make a playoff selection. Most ranked teams win on most weekends. Therefore, there must be a way of distinguishing one win from another to make a judgment about which teams are better than other teams. We grade playing performance to do just that. Oklahoma State received a grade of 80.16 for its miraculous escape while 9 other winners recorded higher grades for their victories. Four teams had byes, one lost and Miami recorded an even lower winning grade. Winning isn’t all that matters. Playing well matters more.
- Jason and Danny, like hundreds of other guys, rank teams each week. They stick to just the top eight teams which provides plenty of fodder for lighthearted argument. Danny ranks Clemson No. 2 in his Power Rankings because they have the “best resume bar none.” When we calculate strength of schedule we include the locations of the games played and we count games against all opponents, including cupcakes and lollipops, and not just notable or ranked opponents. Using this scientific method, Clemson’s SOS is third best among the teams we rank, behind Notre Dame and Michigan. By resume, I’m sure Danny means wins and losses and not just opponents so throw Michigan out and you still have one-loss Notre Dame ahead of one-loss Clemson. And, let’s not forget that Notre Dame lost by one point to a terrific Georgia team while Clemson laid an egg against unranked Syracuse. So, playing performance must also play a role in determining how good a resume might be. Clemson’s raw performance grade for the season is 86.36, better only than multiple losers Michigan, USC and LSU, and those lovable Hurricanes. Because of their good SOS, Clemson’s performance grade is adjusted upward to 92.19 and places them at No. 9 in our rankings. Contrast that with Wisconsin which has a raw grade of 94.33 which is adjusted downward to 91.51 due to their weak schedule. This discussion included criticism of Alabama’s schedule but that is also not supported by the facts. Alabama is the only top ranked team that has not played a cupcake or lollipop. Its schedule ranks seventh among the top sixteen teams we follow, ahead of Georgia, Miami, Penn State, TCU, LSU, Washington, Ohio State, Washington State and Wisconsin, in that order.
- Both Jason and Danny ranked Wisconsin No. 8 this week while justifiably criticizing their schedule. We are even more realistic about the Badgers, ranking them No. 10 on a scientific basis. We use science to rank Miami, too. As mentioned above, Miami has a poor performance grade for the season, 82.00, because they haven’t played great football. But, they are undefeated and the shiny new object and so Danny and Jason both ranked the ‘Canes No. 6. We have them at No. 14, ahead only of Michigan and LSU. (And, USC, whom we’ve dropped from our rankings.) Jason likes TCU because of their good resume but a win over Arkansas is no longer something to brag about and SMU has bounced in and out of the top fifty week after week. As mentioned above, TCU has played the eleventh toughest schedule. We have the Horned Frogs at No. 6, pretty darned good, but not yet worth a head-over-heels reaction.
Tomorrow I’ll be in the car for two hours. I will have to decide whether to listen to sports talk or music. If sports talk, I’m sure you’ll hear about it here.