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Who is truly elite? Big Ten Football Rankings a la Sagarin

[BH: Bumped because I like multi-color graphs with my coffee]

In the Big Ten football, Ohio State is king, and has been for years.  Postulating who amongst their Big Ten brethren are also elite in the league, well that's debatable.  

Is Iowa elite?  How about Penn State?  Both teams struggled last year compared to their own relative success in recent years.

Where does Nebraska fit in to their new conference?  Are they on the same level as Ohio State or are they more comparable to Wisconsin?

Michigan State is coming off their first championship (shared or not) in 20 years.  Are they worthy of being mentioned when discussing the conferences elite?  They may deserve the status of potential contenders, but in my opinion it takes more than one good season to join the ranks of the conferences elite.

To be truly elite, a program must sustain success over time.

Where would you rank each team in the conference?

Here follows my rankings which I've attempted to derive in a semi-objective manner by analyzing the Big Ten using a six year rolling average of the Sagarin Rankings.

Why use the Sagarin Rankings?

  • It's relatively objective... more so at least than the rankings generated by human voters which are entirely subjective.  Information explaining Sagarin's methodology (the exact methodology is a carefully guarded secret) are available at bcsknowhow.com and wikipedia.
  • The data for the entire BCS era is readily available for the Sagarin Rankings and it is inclusive (242 teams on average are rated each year and include all BCS programs).  

More on my methodology follows the rankings as well as comparisons using 5, 7, and 8 year periods (why did I choose 6 years... would you choose differently?)

Without further adieu, here are the results followed by some brief comments (the good teams are good, the bad teams are not, and the middle is illuminating, in my view) as well as some seasonal summary data (as a comparison to the aggregated data) on each team in order of their current rank.  

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via i1206.photobucket.com

Individual team analysis and more after the jump.

The Elite: Ohio State

Ohio State is in a class by itself.  Tressel-gate and everything else aside, they are still the standard bearer in the Big Ten.  No one in the Big Ten comes close.  Even their down years would be considered good seasons for most programs, and you have to go back more than a few years to find one.  6 consecutive conference titles say it all.  

Ohio State

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

11-1

7-1

1

1999

6-6

3-5

29

2000

8-4

5-3

21

2001

7-5

5-3

35

2002

14-0

8-0

3

2003

11-2

6-2

11

2004

8-4

4-4

21

2005

10-2

7-1

3

2006

12-1

8-0

4

2007

11-2

7-1

11

2008

10-3

7-1

14

2009

11-2

7-1

6

2010

12-1

7-1

7

Perennial Contenders:  Penn State, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Iowa

Over the past six season's, the Big Ten's second most successful team has been Penn State.  Even with a sub-par 7-6 record last year, the years prior make a convincing argument for the Nittany Lion's place amongst  the Big Ten's elite.  

For all the teams ranked lower here than PSU, take note of their trend line.  Stringing together several quality seasons moves the needle quite nicely.

Penn State

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

9-3

5-3

11

1999

10-3

5-3

7

2000

5-7

4-4

71

2001

5-6

4-4

44

2002

9-4

5-3

16

2003

3-9

1-7

71

2004

2-6

4-7

63

2005

11-1

7-1

4

2006

9-4

5-3

18

2007

9-4

4-4

26

2008

11-2

7-1

8

2009

11-2

6-2

10

2010

7-6

4-4

50

Wisconsin has been one of the Big Ten's most consistent teams in the BCS era with only one losing season in thirteen years.  With the Badger's joining Ohio State and Penn State as the most elite teams in recent years, the top of the Leaders division looks stacked.  Good luck Purdue, Illinois, and Indiana, you'll need it to vault these three stalwarts.

Wisconsin

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

11-1

7-1

6

1999

10-2

7-1

8

2000

9-4

4-4

24

2001

5-7

3-5

53

2002

8-6

2-6

32

2003

7-6

4-4

38

2004

9-3

6-2

27

2005

10-3

5-3

14

2006

12-1

7-1

9

2007

9-4

5-3

36

2008

7-6

3-5

61

2009

10-3

5-3

23

2010

11-2

7-1

12

Nebraska's profile, particularly over the past six years, most closely resembles Wisconsin.  Admittedly using BCS era data only and then focusing on the last six years in particular neglects Nebraska's Five National Championships.

Bwaa-hahahaha!  (Just kidding.)  However, even with a narrower view of just the recent past, Nebraska rates as the most elite program currently in the Legends division.  It might be interesting to compare the Big Twelve to the Big Ten to get an even better idea how Nebraska will compare to it's new conference foes (and vice versa), but that's another post (please let me know in the comments section if you'd be interested in seeing it... I have the raw data).

Nebraska

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

9-4

5-3

9

1999

12-1

7-1

2

2000

10-2

6-2

4

2001

11-2

7-1

5

2002

7-7

3-5

41

2003

10-3

5-3

23

2004

5-6

3-5

68

2005

8-4

4-4

24

2006

9-5

6-3

30

2007

5-7

2-6

61

2008

9-4

5-3

23

2009

10-4

6-2

14

2010

10-4

6-2

27

Iowa rounds out the group of teams who qualify as elite over the past six years.  Aside from very good seasons in 2008 and 2009, Iowa's overall and conference records over the past six years seem to border mediocrity.  

Sagarin disagrees.  Here is our first empirical evidence that the Sagarin rankings are keenly aware of margin of victory/losses.  While some on the interwebs have engaged in the rather meaningless argument as to whether 2009 Iowa was better or worse than 2010 Michigan State, consider the following:

2005, 2008, and 2010 Iowa, with 7-5, 9-4. and 8-5 records respectively all were rated higher than the 11-2 2010 Spartans (31).  It matters to Sagarin if you win or lose big.  Close wins and loses are clearly weighted less.  Schedule strength is also very important to Sagarin.

My take?  Sagarin socked it to MSU taking their close wins lightly and hammered them even more in their two lopsided loses, as well as weak strength of schedule due to the underwhelming parity of the Big Ten (more so than not playing tOSU or Indiana).  Iowa, when they do lose, are still competitive and do so generally vs a better regarded conference  slate.  I don't know Sagarin's formula, but the results are telling.

We could quibble over the results of individual seasons, but I think that would be a pointless endeavor.  Sagarin is not the be-all end-all of rankings.  There will be statistical outliers every year.  But if you look at it aggregately over time I think one of two things will happen... there will be either regression to the mean or a clear indication of a trend.  Iowa represents the latter.

Iowa's place among the Big Ten's reflects more than just W's and L's.  Their Sagarin ranks are consistently high relative to (and sometimes despite) their record indicating a consistent level of competitiveness unmatched by any of the teams that did not make the grade of elite.

Finally, for those teams that missed the cut, take a look at Iowa's trend-line and take note of years 2002-2004.  That's the type of consistent success necessary to join the ranks of the elite.

Iowa

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

3-8

2-6

72

1999

1-10

0-8

97

2000

3-9

3-5

76

2001

7-5

4-4

31

2002

11-2

8-0

8

2003

10-3

5-3

9

2004

10-2

7-1

12

2005

7-5

5-3

26

2006

4-8

2-6

51

2007

6-6

4-4

79

2008

9-4

5-3

22

2009

11-2

6-2

9

2010

8-5

4-4

21

The middle of the pack:  Michigan, Michigan State, and Northwestern

Michigan was once elite in the Big Ten.  They were elite nationally and were true rivals to Ohio State.  What happened?  Two words:  Rich Rodriguez.  The Rich-Rod era was an unmitigated disaster for the maize and blue.  Never in Lloyd Carr's tenure was Michigan ever rated lower than 21 by Sagarin.  Rodriguez's best?  60.

Michigan used to win at least 6 conference games every year (excepting 2005 when they did collapse all the way to 5).  Rich-Rod needed three years to match that total (in contrast, little brother (MSU) notched 7 conference wins in just one year).  Michigan has earned its fall from the ranks of the elite.  Do they deserve to be even this high based on glories past?  Perhaps not, but I'm willing to give Brady Hoke some lee-way here.

Hoke could potentially restore Michigan to prominence.  Just take a peek at where Michigan was when Hoke last roamed the sidelines in Ann Arbor (1995-2002 as an assistant coach).

Early returns show Hoke is faring well recruiting-wise.  To those who would aggregate his head coaching record to a single data point (47-50), shame on you for being irresponsible consumers of statistics.  You're missing out on the obvious trends that tell a broader story of his career.  He turned around a floundering Ball State program.... the first years were rough (they were still Ball State) but the team progressively got better culminating in a perfect regular season for the Cardinals in 2008.  He then moved on to San Diego State and turned the program around in just two years,  Check wikipedia if you want to view Hoke's head coaching record.

Bottom line, Hoke is no-where near as bad as a career .500 coach as his loudest critics would lead you to believe.

I'm willing to reserve judgement, but for now.... having Michigan in the middle of the pack seems about right.

Michigan

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

10-3

7-1

18

1999

10-2

6-2

6

2000

9-3

6-2

12

2001

8-4

6-2

18

2002

10-3

6-2

10

2003

10-3

7-1

8

2004

9-3

7-1

19

2005

7-5

5-3

16

2006

11-2

7-1

7

2007

9-4

6-2

21

2008

3-9

2-6

95

2009

5-7

1-7

81

2010

7-6

3-5

60

Despite winning a share of the conference crown, Michigan State remains where it has been for the past decade: stuck in the middle.  

Personally, if I were being completely subjective I would rank Michigan State ahead of Michigan.  Their trend-lines are currently headed in opposite directions.

Remember when I compared Iowa teams to 2010 MSU?  Well just compare Michigan State with Michigan State!  Check out the 1998 Spartans vs the 2010 version below.  Taken separately, I can only shake my head in befuddled confusion.  Aggregately, however, it tells a story of mediocrity.

It takes more than one successful season to elevate a team to elite status.  MSU need only look to Penn State and Iowa to see what it will take to get to the next level (3 out of 4 years with double digit wins would probably do it... MSU has only one).

Michigan State

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

6-6

4-4

31

1999

10-2

6-2

5

2000

5-6

2-6

54

2001

7-5

3-5

38

2002

4-8

2-6

79

2003

8-5

5-3

34

2004

5-7

4-4

66

2005

5-6

2-6

35

2006

4-8

1-7

80

2007

7-6

3-5

47

2008

9-4

6-2

33

2009

6-7

4-4

55

2010

11-2

7-1

31

Northwestern rounds out the middle of the pack.

Why draw the line at Northwestern?  Take a good look at the records for the last six years.  If your team had at least five seasons with at least six wins I subjectively would consider admitting your team (if not ranked higher already) to the middle of the pack group (Minnesota had four, barely, along with two abysmal years).  The rest of the teams not making the cut made it easy on me by not having more than three moderately campaigns over the last six year span.

Like Michigan State, it appears that Sagarin disfavors Northwestern for winning some close games and losing some not so close games.

Again, viewed aggregately, this seems reasonable.  Of course it would help the Wildcats and Spartans both out if they bothered to win a bowl game occasionally.  

Northwestern

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

3-9

0-8

86

1999

3-8

1-7

86

2000

8-4

6-2

27

2001

4-7

2-6

67

2002

3-9

1-7

100

2003

6-7

4-4

58

2004

6-6

5-3

56

2005

7-5

5-3

34

2006

4-8

2-6

93

2007

6-6

3-5

86

2008

9-4

5-3

44

2009

8-5

5-3

61

2010

7-6

3-5

71

Honey, we need to talk:  Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana

Purdue has been trending downward steadily for the past decade.  Interestingly, their top performance in the Sagarin rankings wasn't one of two 8 win seasons, but a 5-6 campaign (their schedule strength was impressive at 15... some of their wins were impressive too).  

Torn acl's aside, Purdue has still slipped to the bottom third of the league.

Purdue

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

9-4

6-2

13

1999

7-5

4-4

19

2000

8-4

6-2

19

2001

6-6

4-4

51

2002

7-6

4-4

38

2003

9-4

6-2

22

2004

7-5

4-4

24

2005

5-6

3-5

37

2006

8-6

5-3

62

2007

8-5

3-5

57

2008

4-8

2-6

78

2009

5-7

4-4

75

2010

4-8

2-6

96

Minnesota has waffled between mediocre and awful in the past six years.  

Minnesota

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

5-6

2-6

44

1999

8-4

5-3

16

2000

6-6

4-4

62

2001

4-7

2-6

69

2002

8-5

3-5

46

2003

10-3

5-3

24

2004

7-5

3-5

38

2005

7-5

4-4

27

2006

6-7

3-5

48

2007

1-11

0-8

123

2008

7-6

3-5

75

2009

6-7

3-5

64

2010

3-9

2-6

93

Illinois has been the Big Ten's most inconsistent team over the past decade.  They yo-yo interspersing very good seasons amongst atrocious ones.  Here, that is only better than Indiana.

Illinois

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

3-8

2-6

90

1999

8-4

4-4

15

2000

5-7

2-6

63

2001

10-2

7-1

15

2002

5-7

4-4

57

2003

1-11

0-8

116

2004

3-8

1-7

101

2005

2-9

0-8

96

2006

2-10

1-7

108

2007

9-4

6-2

30

2008

5-7

3-5

68

2009

3-9

2-6

94

2010

7-6

4-4

39

Indiana has one winning season in the BCS era.  Kevin Wilson, you have your work cut out for you.

Indiana

Overall W-L

Conference W-L

Sagarin Rank

1998

4-7

2-6

55

1999

4-7

3-5

72

2000

3-8

2-6

82

2001

5-6

4-4

48

2002

3-9

1-7

98

2003

2-10

1-7

121

2004

3-8

1-7

98

2005

4-7

1-7

74

2006

5-7

3-5

84

2007

7-6

3-5

72

2008

3-9

1-7

125

2009

4-8

1-7

98

2010

5-7

1-7

98

 

Methodology

I copy/pasted the Sagarin Rankings into a spreadsheet and combined 13 years of data (1998-2010).

Then I took rolling averages of varying length.  They were 4, 6,  and 8 year periods initially... I later discarded the 4 year average and examined 5 and 7 averages.  After the rolling averages were calculated, I sorted by period and re-ranked by the order of the averages.  

You can find the whole mess here.  I created in Excel and converted it to a google document, which effectively strips it of most of Excels nicer features including formulas.  I know next to nothing about google docs so... it is what it is.  The raw data is there in various stages on separate tabs.  With some work you could check it over or you could merely trust that I am competent with a spreadsheet.

Caveats about the data:

  1. If a team has changed conference affiliations in the BCS era, columns intended for filtering are not entirely accurate.  For example:  I made Nebraska part of the Big Ten without regard for the fact they were actually in the Big 12 (I left Colorado there though).  Bottom line: be careful if you wish to analyze the data via conference.
  2. Each year small football programs join or drop out of the rankings (i.e.  Siena dropped out of the rankings in 2004; Winston-Salem State joined the ranks in 2006).  I callously fabricated data (a fictitious rank of 250); to eliminate formula errors I accepted data errors.  Fabricating data is never a good idea generally, but in this case it was fast and simple, even pragmatic (but still dirty).  This was lazy.  However, it has miniscule to zero effect on analysis of the BCS conferences (which dominate the top 100... even the likes of Indiana).  The programs affected, conversely predominantly rank in the bottom 100 anyway (think strength of schedule) so I had no qualms weighting them to the bottom.  If you were interested in analyzing small conferences/programs, this monkey business would be a valid concern and thus it deserves disclosure.  It does not affect the big boys.

Let's get back to examining the different periods.  I looked at the 4 year averages and Toledo immediately jumped out at me.  It turns out that in 2000 they had a very good season finishing with a Sagarin rank of 16.  This skewed their four year average and placed them ahead of Michigan State and Penn State.  This so offended my sensibilities... the objective part of this endeavor was over.  (I am not well versed enough in statistics to derive the proper period mathematically.)

Expanding the rolling average period to six years would sort out the MAC schools (which rarely sustain success over time and are therefore rarely elite... if they do their coaches tend to get hired away).  It did.

I compared it to a period of eight years.  The longer period did not appear to accurately reflect recent trends... particularly I thought Northwestern has been better recently than Purdue and Minnesota.  Reviewing their overall records confirmed my suspicion: 8 years was too broad to reflect current trends accurately.

Then I added 5 and 7 year rolling averages, and compared them all to each other as well as summarry data for each team (all those tables in this over-long post).  In my subjective opinion, 6 year averages best depicted reality.

I'll leave you with the graphs for each respective period for your perusal.  Do you agree or disagree with the rankings in this post?

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via i1206.photobucket.com

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