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Competitive Conferences

Publication Date: January 7, 2003

Not Them Again

I'm going to ease back into with an easy one, sort of stretching my brain gently after a period of inactivity before ramping it up to full speed. I got into a discussion of which conferences were most competitive over the holidays, and I want to share a few thoughts on that. We'll put some of it in the form of trivia questions for those of you who want to think a bit yourself before progressing. I'll hit the answers as I go:

There are actually several ways to look at the competitiveness of a conference. You could do some sort of subjective determination of the quality of the conference race each year, including things like how many games the winner ends up ahead and how soon they clinch. You could look at how predictable the finish is by looking at preseason predictions.

If you wanted to be more objective, you could do a more analytical look by taking the standard deviation of the winning percentages over a number of seasons. The problem with that measure, besides its stark numericality, is that it rewards conferences where everyone's mediocre every year. What you really want to keep the maximum number of fans happy is a conference where there are a couple of good teams every year to stage a race, and the identity of those teams rotates around each year. There are some problems with this approach, especially in large conferences -- if the MAC began a strict rotation, Kent State should expect their next title in 2016 -- but overall, it gives the impression of competitiveness over time, especially if everybody gets a second or third a couple of times in between titles.

This doesn't happen in the real world, of course. Team quality tends to go in two or three year cycles with recruiting classes, at the least, so repeat champions aren't unusual. Some programs have advantages both on and off the field, both in facilities and coaching, so there are some natural leaders. The most common pattern seems to be for two or three schools to take over a conference and divide the titles among them for a decade or so, although there are all sorts of variations on that theme. Interestingly enough, overall conference quality doesn't seem to play into it (although there is an advantage for an average team in a really bad league), as championship turnover varies equally among both bad or average leagues (the SWAC and CAA, for opposite examples) and good leagues (the ACC and Big 12, again on opposite ends).

Anyway, we'll get to the trivia questions by beginning to look at the uncompetitive end of things. Rice has now won six consecutive WAC titles, last losing to Utah in 1997 back in the twelve-team version of the league. They get an asterisk in two directions, though. First of all, there are leagues where there is no interdivision play. In those, although I only recognize the team with the best regular season record, it's not unusual for the winner of the tougher division to be a better team with a worse record. Along those lines, Southern has won every SWAC Western Division title since at least 1990 (I can't find records before that) but has had a worse record than the Eastern Division champ a few times despite being better. Rice's second asterisk is that San Jose State managed to tie them in 2000.

The winner of the no-ties division is Oral Roberts, which has won every Mid-Continent title since they joined the league in 1999, never really being seriously challenged in the five years. If conferences were single-sport affairs, I'm sure they'd look elsewhere, but they seem to be a good fit in all other sports, so I suspect that state of affairs will continue (now watch them announce next week they're joining the ACC or something).

On the other end of the spectrum, the longest streak of non-repeaters stands at four, which frankly isn't very long, and there's a three-way tie there, which is even less thrilling. There are interesting stories on all three of them, though, so it's redeemed a bit.

Who wins the Big West every year? Fullerton, right? I mean, they're an elite program, one of the best in the nation, so they've got to be winning it every time, right? Well, actually, no. The Titans did manage to win in 2001, but that followed a Nevada win in 2000 (yes, I've been predicting them to break out for a very long time now). The last two years have gone to Cal State Northridge and Long Beach. Contrasting this to the ACC, for example, where Florida State has won 5 of 6, gives an interesting contrast, although I can't quite come up with a conclusion on what it says about relative strength.

Next up is the satisfaction of the annual requirement that you think about the MAAC at least once a year. It's a small league, but it's been nicely balanced over the last few years, as four different teams have won. That streak is unlikely to continue, as I don't see anyone outside the club breaking through, but that's as close to a preseason prediction as you'll ever see from me.

Finally, we have the one which is, frankly, approaching extreme statistical unlikeliness. The Mountain West Conference is four years old. It has six teams. Yet, somehow, the conference championship has already gone to New Mexico, BYU, San Diego State, and UNLV. I suppose Air Force and Utah have to feel pretty good about their chances this year. This one does pretty well by any measure; the races have been competitive each year, and virtually every team has had a shot at both the top and the bottom along the way. When you add to that the fact that the league actually seems to be improving overall with better facilities and coaching, it might be worth your while to cast an eye that way.

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Boyd's World-> Breadcrumbs Back to Omaha-> Competitive Conferences About the author, Boyd Nation