Monday, September 03, 2007

My afletes is mo numerously than yo's

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.


Brett said...

Diesel -

You brought up the one part of the argument I hadn't thought of - the depth issue, and for that, you're correct that my logic is flawed.

Does ApSt. Have the talent to hang with mediocre I-A Schools, and occasionally give shock to a school like Michigan, yes. But you're right, based on numbers, it shouldn't be that often of an occurance.

Your assessment of SDSU/Idaho St is probably correct. I'm assuming that game was at Jack Murphy, which means IDSU had two/thirds the schollies as the Aztecs. Add all of San Diego State's walk-ons to the crowd on the sidelines, and yes, it's twice as many. Great point.

Do I think Oregon State last year was better than Appalachian State? I do. But i was trying to correlate the nature of the "upset" with the nature of the "outrage."

Let me pose another question, and maybe I'll be lucky to get another entry from Diesel or Pepe about my musings. (Wow, that would make my day.)

Is Michigan one of the top 25 teams in the country right now? With Mike Hart and Chad Henne, I resound to say yes. Maybe they're 19, 21, 23. But if you count "those receiving votes", the Wolvies are 27th in the coaches poll and 33 in the AP poll.

I'm not saying they don't deserve to get stepped on and slapped around by us, pundits, the media, their own fans.

And keep in mind, I LOVE the bowl system and would hate a playoff (i don't defend that my reasons are rational; quite the contrary, i just love the bowls, which is why i never argue this in public)...

But is Michigan really the 33rd best team in the country? With voters deciding the national championship, etc., it's crap to me that they are acting so much on the emotion and - i use this word again - outrage of Michigan losing to a I-AA team, that they don't realize the Wolvies laid a huge egg and is probably the 20th best team in America right now.

Again, as a bowl fan, this is the kind of crap, to me, that makes a playoff worth while. The problem with that, the air-head votors will STILL be deciding who the top 8-plus teams are.

Diesel said...

Are the Wolverines the 33rd-best team in the country? I don't know. And neither does anyone actually voting in the polls, no matter what they say. I find its better to worry about things I can control, like when I'm getting my next delivery of the construda.

Brett said...

touche, diesel.