Hokepoints: Debating SRS and ESS-EEE-SEE

Submitted by Seth on June 24th, 2014 at 10:29 AM



Last week I did the thing you're not supposed to do: I got into an argument with a Tennessee fan about conference strength. Actually it started as a conversation about how cute my 1-year-old dog is but all conversations with SEC fans are really conference strength conversations. Before the inevitable deterioration into Woodson-Manning (which is particularly impossible with him because he knew Peyton in school and has an incredible story about how nice of a guy Peyton Manning was) I thought to test his assertion that the SEC has been dominant, except for 2005, since Bear Bryant's day.

Attempting to debate this, I stumbled onto sports-reference.com's SRS statistic. It stands for "Simple Rating System" and was borrowed from the NFL guys. What it represents is how much that team should beat an average team:

So every team's rating is their average point margin, adjusted up or down depending on the strength of their opponents.

This generally works for the NFL because of relative schedule parity. But it proved useless for comparing college football teams and conferences over history because they lacked that. I'll explain why, but first lets apply SRS averages of the conferences since 1964 to our debate, which demonstrates… that I just totally screwed myself:


Cliggens embicking.

Well yeah, but we admitted this: until Penn State joined and some of the dreks got their acts together it really was the Big Two-Little 8. Let's see mostly Michigan-Ohio State against Alabama et al.:


It stayed pretty even except when Michigan wasn't good. There's a reason for that: Michigan (35 times) and Ohio State (33) teams account for over two thirds of Big Ten's 100 representatives from the last 50 years. Alabama teams are counted 28 times, with Florida (18), Tennessee (15), Georgia (12), Auburn (11) and LSU (11) all ahead of the next Big Ten team, which is Penn State (8). Until the '90s, the bottom half of the Big Ten sucked way worse than the bottom half of the SEC, according to SRS:


What really happened here: the SEC teams were playing easier schedules until the Big Ten caught on and started scheduling bodybags, and then things were even until the Big Ten started actually sucking. I explain, after the jump.

[The jump, after which I explain, as I just explained]


Comparison of Sched makeup: 1964-2013
Type Bama Mich
Conference Games 362 (65%) 397 (72%)
Other BCS/majors 88 (16%) 107 (19%)
Mid-majors 94 (17%) 47 (8%)
FCS/D-IAA 13 (2%) 4 (1%)
Total 557 555


Uneven Schedules

The problem with that is they weren't playing equivalent schedules. Alabama's reputation among the SEC is they will play big games while others (looking at you, Ole Miss) constantly schedule cupcakes. Since 1964, it appears a challenging schedule for an SEC team clearly doesn't match up with the Big Ten team that used to make similar claims. A big chunk of those mid-major games were Bama's 32 years of playing Southern Miss (Michigan had 30 years of playing Notre Dame).

It could have skewed further if I chose to count Michigan's quasi-annual series (11 games from 1963-1981) with Navy as a major opponent—they certainly weren't by the time the series ended in '81, but when it started the Midshipmen were perennial powers, having lost the (de facto) national championship game to end 1963 and coming into the '64 Michigan game ranked #6 nationally (that team finished 3-6-1 and unranked).

1974 Opponents SEC Big Ten
Conference Games 60 80
Other majors 27 (21-5-2) 26 (14-12-0)
Mid-majors 17 (16-3-0) 3 (1-1-1)
D-IAA 5 (5-0-0) 1 (1-0-0)
Total 110 110


Let's look closer that that 1974 season when the SEC reached some sort of peak (12.9 average SRS, to the Big Ten's 7.27). That's the year that Michigan beat Ohio State with a last-second field goal except it was called wide just so Michigan's seniors could get screwed once again. Since that epic stupid fuckery was allowed to stand M and OSU tied for the Big Ten championship, and Archie Griffin and co. made another undeserved trip to Pasadena, losing to USC so the Trojans could be crowned national champs by everybody but the AP, which justly chose Oklahoma.

That year SEC teams played just six conference games to the Big Ten's eight. As a result 73% of the Big Ten's games were against each other while only 55% of SEC schedules necessarily resulted in a conference loss. All but one of those conference games were replaced with body bags.

Dennis Franklin in 1974, driving toward an ultimate ref-hosing. [UM Bentley Library]


The Big Ten's mid-majors were Navy, #10 Miami (NNTM) and Arizona, plus Minnesota played North Dakota. The SEC also caught Miami (NNTM), which beat Kentucky (they tied Purdue). The rest were Army, Houston, Louisville (x3), Memphis (x3), Southern Miss (x2), Tulane (x4), Tulsa, and Utah. To that they added games against Chattanooga and one each versus Lamar, William & Mary, and the Virginia Military Institute. None of the SEC's mid-major opponents were ranked at the time they played but a few cracked the top 25 at various points.

The SEC indeed did better against real competition—they went 21-5-2 against other majors, versus the Big Ten's 14-12-0. Even there the Big Ten's opponents were way tougher. Only five of the SEC's major non-conference foes were ranked at the time of their game, the highest #12 UCLA. The Big Ten meanwhile played national championship contenders Nebraska and Notre Dame thrice apiece plus eventual #2 USC and #7 Penn State.

It makes a huge difference. The SEC and Big Ten teams beat mid-major and lower division teams by an average score of 32-13 as opposed to 22-18 versus major conference foes, but SRS treats them as the same.

Also making a difference, probably, was the tendency of crotchety Woody Hayes acolytes who peppered the Big Ten keeping scoring margins artificially low by grinding away the end of games, running out 4-point victories as gentlemen do. The did this, and it bit them on occasion, so I don't know how to calculate it. Perhaps percentage of all points (for example a 13-10 win counts as much as a 52-40 one) instead of scoring margin?

I don't know hot to fix it without downloading all of their data. But average SRS is a useless stat.



June 24th, 2014 at 12:06 PM ^

SEC teams also got to play Vanderbilt and Kentucky.  And while Northwestern and maybe Indiana served as similar punching bags, with fewer conference opponents in general, the better teams in the SEC also had easier conference schedules on that account.


June 24th, 2014 at 12:26 PM ^

Is it just me, or does the topic of weather and bowl game location not get enough credence on the subject of win/loss record? I know it is not popular to bring up because it sounds like we are making excuses, but that has to be a huge difference based on NFL statistics.


June 24th, 2014 at 12:53 PM ^

I think it gets brought up enough, but then fans of ACC/SEC/Pac-12 teams just close their ears and act like it doesn't matter because it's a "neutral" game and both teams have fans in attendance.  But yeah, it does matter when kids used to playing in 40-degree weather have about 4 days to get used to playing in Tempe or central Florida.

Avon Barksdale

June 24th, 2014 at 2:05 PM ^

They really don't care. I live in Tennessee. I once had a friend argue with me that LSU vs Iowa in Florida and Alabama vs Michigan in TX was not a disadvantage to either team. He also pumped his chest and exclaimed that "Tennessee, last year, would have won the B1G, because that's just how dominant the SEC is."  


June 24th, 2014 at 4:32 PM ^

1974 Opponents SEC Big Ten

Conference Games 60 80

Other majors 27 (21-5-2) 26 (14-12-0)

Mid-majors 17 (16-3-0) 3 (1-1-1)

D-IAA 5 (5-0-0) 1 (1-0-0)

Total 110 110

Great read! Small tidbit, the numbers don't add up for the sec column/mid major section here.


June 24th, 2014 at 11:50 PM ^

If the SRS system isn't a good metric (and I agree it's not), I'd like to hear everyone's ideas on how to best match up conferences. My general feeling is that the Big Ten was underrated in the late 1990s and first few years of the 2000s. We've been in a tailspin since then. And adding Rutgers and Maryland is just causing us to sink faster. Anyways, what about a comparison of the Vegas line for each game compared to the outcome? It would show that the conventional wisdom could likely consistently underrate Big Ten teams.

Also, many of those Big Ten/SEC bowl games involve lower ranked BigTen teams playing relatively higher ranked SEC teams. Not to mention that we play the games down in SEC country. So any metric should keep in mind that we are often set up to lose. What if every year our best Big Ten teams played in bowls in the north against teams that finished lower in the SEC?

It gets me to what I think would be a good replacement for the conference championship game. I hate conference championship games, in part because of the prospect of a rubber match, in part because it is a weekend in which all the conference teams ought to be playing rather than only the top two. Here's what would be a lot more exciting: all Big Ten teams lined up top to bottom playing against all the SEC teams lined up top to bottom. The next year, we could switch and do the same with the Pac 10 or Big 12.




June 25th, 2014 at 12:03 AM ^

I don't get how Seth is discounting the SEC's ranking based on schedule strength; SRS is supposed to account for that. It may well be that SRS is a dumb stat, but that's not evident from this post.

More importantly, he's discussing the 70's, but when people nowadays talk about the SEC being the best, they're talking about...nowadays. I mentioned in the airing of grievances thread how it's true that Michigan fans live in the past and this seems like a prime example.


June 25th, 2014 at 11:15 AM ^

Nowadays the Big Ten schedules like the SEC. Also the point I was arguing was about whether the SEC was historically better, just more ignored. Their scheduling practices back then aren't taken into account by SRS, which rates SOS by the SRS of opponents. SEC teams effectively got the same credit for beating a 7-5 Sun Belt team as Michigan got for beating a 7-5 Big Ten team because Big Ten teams didn't have MAC opponents to draw an equal number of MAC wins into their equations.

Nowadays the Big Ten is worse than the SEC. That's been discussed so much that there's little point to discussing it further, so the intrepid SEC fans looking for ways to expand the concept of SEC dominance to every aspect of daily life could glom onto SRS to prove they were always better.

Also, you know, this is a free blog with other content on it, so if you don't like content that discusses the past I'm not at all offended if you just don't read it.