Reader Brett left an interesting comment on the last post — which has, since the start of me writing this post, been buttressed by even more commentary — in which he posits that, perhaps, Appalachian State's upset of Michigan wasn't such a monumental upset after all. It brings up the question as to how, exactly, I-AA football teams — at least the best ones, like the Mountaineers, Montana, Maine and North Dakota State — stack up against I-A opponents, in terms of win probability.
I don't know how one can take an analytical approach to this question, because we simply don't have the tools available to do the work. Football Outsiders are attempting to bring a sabermetric-like approach to the NFL, but the analysis suffers from the inherent issues brought about by small sample sizes and the fluid nature of the sport itself. College football is an even less forgiving terrain, thanks to the sheer number of teams; it's difficult to establish controls when teams that are vying for the National Championship rarely play each other, or even common opponents.
Turning to anecdotal evidence, it's tempting to think that Brett's close to being right. In the last four seasons, there have been three victories by I-AA teams in guarantee games: Appalachian State's win over Michigan, Montana State's win over Colorado in 2006 and Maine's victory over Mississippi State in 2004. However, one has to remember that there are upward of 40 of these matchups per year (46, by my count, this season), so the approximate odds of a I-AA "upset" are 53-to-1. But I don't think there's very far to go with this number; no one's arguing that the majority of I-AA teams stand a chance against I-A opposition, just that the very best I-AA teams can hang with the big boys.
We have some proof that they can, obviously, with the three "upsets" mentioned above. I use quotation marks because I think part of the snag here is the definition of an "upset" itself: I think it's best to say that a win by any double-digit dog is an upset. And, make no mistake about it, virtually any I-AA team is going to be a double-digit dog to virtually any I-A team, or at least any major-conference I-A team (it's too difficult to get into the particulars of teams in the Sun Belt, for instance, since many of them were I-AA programs not too long ago and are barely hanging onto I-A status). The reason for the bookmaker's view is simple: I-AA doesn't have the soldiers, and I don't mean that in the Windslowian sense.
A I-AA football team gets 65 scholarships, compared to 85 for a I-A school. More than any other factor, this is what would make it impossible for an Appalachian State to compete with any kind of consistency against I-A opponents. Those 20 scholarships are what would usually go to third-string linemen, an extra kicker/punter, perhaps a dedicated long snapper, or a sixth wide receiver. People don't often consider these players, but that's because most people don't really understand what all goes into creating a football team. Injuries cause massive attrition over the long haul, and fatigue does so within a game, particularly on the lines. Your average I-AA team is lucky to have one backup for each spot, not to mention two or three. And while many of the starters on a I-AA are "good enough to play with the big boys," the backups often aren't anywhere close. Thusly, in a guarantee game, you'll have fourth-quarter situations where a defensive tackle who has played every down of the game is going up against a center or guard who might have played 2/3 of the offensive team's snaps. That's a massive difference, and the main reason why most I-AA teams that are able to put some points on the board early tend to "fade" as the game goes on. It's not that the bigger/better team got any more wise to what the smaller team is doing ("halftime adjustments" are the most overrated things in football); it's just that the smaller/overmatched team gets too tired to actually do it.
I used to have a picture that could illustrate this point perfectly, taken on my cellphone from the press box of the ISU-SDSU game a couple of years back. The ISU sideline looked about half as populous as SDSU's, and I'm pretty sure the numbers themselves weren't that far off.
The fact that Appalachian State's starting lineup, particularly on offense, is probably I-A quality doesn't mean it's a I-A-quality team, despite the fact the Mountaineers played like one for a day. If we're talking about determining where a I-AA team fits in the national picture, regardless of classification, than we've got to consider what would happen if that I-AA team played a 12-game schedule against 11 or 12 I-A teams. If that happened, the I-AA team would be lucky to win one game, not to mention two. It's virtually impossible. If Arizona, a team I'm convinced is either the 9th- or 10th-best team in the Pac-10, played Appalachian State 10 times, the Wildcats would win 9.5 times, and Willie Tuitama would look like Brian Brohm. This may sound like hyperbole, but it's the nature of football. Speed may kill, but depth is what determines the battle.
Situations like the Appalachian State are what hooks bad gamblers into betting boxcars at the craps table: When you see it hit once, you tend to forget that 30:1 odds means that it's supposed happen at least once if you roll the dice 31 times (actually, the true odds of rolling boxcars are 35:1, but we'll not enter into a discussion of vigorish right now). Instead of simply viewing it for what it was — an occurrence that isn't all that surprising if you see guarantee games not as isolated events, but as part of a larger, continuing series of games — it's tempting to ascribe more to this win, such as a skill level on Appalachian State's part that justifies the victory. But while it may not be intellectually satisfying to attribute events to luck, or the probability that a super-outside shot comes through every so often, it's nonetheless the case.