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Friday, August 22, 2008

Ready To Nerd Out?

Statistics isn't usually my thing. That's typically Steven's domain, not mine.

But lately I've been trying to figure out a quantitative way to show just how much worse of the Coastal Division is this season than the Atlantic... More specifically, I needed a way to fight all this preseason hype the Tar Heels have been getting.

The preseason AP Top 25 poll was released this week, and Carolina earned 14 points (points are awarded based on where a team is ranked in the top 25. #1 ranking=25 points; #25=1 point).

The only two things I can attribute these votes to are:
  1. Butch Davis is their coach
  2. They were picked 2nd in the Coastal Division at the ACC Media Weekend a few weeks back*
*And 2b, there's Carolina's name recognition. All things being equal, every Carolina football team on the border of football success seems to get a few votes here or there on account of Dean Smith and Michael Jordan's past success...


But this is a Carolina team coming off a 4-8 record in 2007, led by a quarterback who sat out the spring recovering from a shoulder surgery (sound familiar?).

Sometimes teams just have a "buzz," and "buzz" often counts for a lot in the preseason, where every matchup is played out in the minds of sportswriters instead of football fields. This Carolina team has "buzz," and it's showing in the AP poll.

So I set out to put together a spreadsheet to see if the Coastal division sucked as bad as I suspected it did in relation the Atlantic, and to see if Carolina's Top 25 ranking should hold water.

What you see below you is convoluted, colorful and somewhat confusing, but there's a method to this madness. It's up to you to decide if it has any merit.

This spreadsheet is based on the average preseason rankings of five major publications/ranking services (CFN, collegefootballpoll.com, Rivals, ESPN, SI.com and Athlon) that put together a comprehensive 119-FBS-team preseason list. A full 119-team list eliminates the split division "boost" that Carolina is getting for its second-place ranking in a lousy division in the below-par ACC; it gets you nowhere here. This spreadsheet compares your strength relative to the rest of the Div. I-A programs out there to see how you would fare in a bigger, more-talented pond of fish.

Now given that I'm using numbers from the media, I needed a way to weed out the idiots. After all, this is the media we're talking about here. Preseason football polls are fertile idiocy breeding grounds. So, in the Olympic spirit of fairness (right, gymnastics judges?), I've eliminated the highest and lowest rankings for each school. The remaining three rankings are averaged together, and the list is sorted according to this average.

Right off the bat you can see that Atlantic teams, highlighted in orange, are dominating the top half of the leage. It's not that surprising, of course--that's what we expected to see. But outside of Va. Tech at #2 there's not much meat at the top from our friends in the Coastal division. And as I suspected, Carolina would be a middle-of-the-road team in a 12-team division-less ACC; no more, no less.

The rest of the chart, as you head from left to right, gives you an idea as to which teams would be favored head-to-head against others in the league based on their average national rankings. The numbers in red represent the average number of slots down the rankings a team is compared to its opponent; the green how many slots higher. In the first team column, for example, you can see that Boston College is ranked an average of 26 slots lower than Clemson, but ranked higher than Maryland by an average of 8.33 spots.

I marked teams more than 25 slots apart from their opponent as either solid underdogs or solid favorites. Teams within 5-25 slots either way are mild underdogs/favorites, and teams within 5 slots in the rankings I considered a toss up.

Finally, you can see how a hypothetical 11-game slate of in-conference games would shake out, assuming all the favorites won. This, of course, does not take into account the fact that not all of these teams will face one another during a single season (oh to dream), nor does it give teams any sort of homefield advantage. Imagine every single game played at Bank of America stadium, and you'll get the idea.

So there it is. Individually, these rankings from the media can make some pretty bold predicitons (N.C. State as the 110-th ranked team, according to CFP?) , but when you blend them together and average them out, they tend to make a lot more sense and confirm what I suspected all along: the Atlantic is not just a better division than the Coastal, it's night and day.

And Carolina may very well end up second in the Atlantic, but don't believe the hype just yet.

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