Tuesday, July 02, 2013


Our final SDPI entry of the offseason takes us out west to a conference that will be among the dearly departed in 2013. The WAC enjoyed a fitting sendoff in 2012, featuring two ranked teams, three bowl-eligible teams, and a quartet of teams that won at least eight games. To see last year's post on the WAC, click here.

First here are the 2012 WAC standings.

And here are the 2012 WAC SDPI standings. The standings are sorted by SDPI with ranking for each category (out of seven teams) in parentheses.

Raise your hand if you had Utah State winning their first conference crown since 1997 and finishing ranked for the first time since 1961. Do the same if you had San Jose State winning eleven games for the first time ever and finishing ranked for the first time in school history. The WAC was surprisingly successful in its last season of existence, and its a shame the band can't get back together for one more song.

So Who Was Better Than Their Record Showed?
No school really fits the bill here, and the SDPI ratings line up reasonably well with the actual standings. If forced to make a choice, I suppose the answer is New Mexico State. While the Aggies rated out quite poorly in SDPI, they were actually ahead of Idaho. The Aggies lost the only close game they played (perhaps not coincidentally versus Idaho) and had an almost comical in-conference turnover margin of -18 (in just six games!). That means the Aggies averaged three more tunrovers per game than their conference foes!

So Who Was Worse Than Their Record Showed?
Again, not a whole lot to quibble with here. But if one must choose, take Texas State. The Bobcats were just a smidge better than Idaho and New Mexico State, and did manage to beat both on the field, but teams with an SDPI this low don't usually win a third of their league games.

Conference Superlatives:

Best Offense: Louisiana Tech 1.73
The Bulldogs put on quite a show in 2012, gaining at least 500 yards in every conference games, and put up an absurd 839 yards and 70 points on Idaho in their conference opener.

Worst Offense: Idaho -1.18
The Vandals were held below 400 yards of offense in every conference game save one, and were held below 300 yards twice.

Best Defense: Utah State 1.59
Louisiana Tech and San Jose State were able to move the ball (1100 combined yards), but the Aggies tightened the noose against the weaker foes on the schedule, holding their other four conference opponents to 988 total yards.

Worst Defense: Texas State -0.96
Three league opponents gained over 500 yards against the Bobcats, and only Idaho failed to top 400 yards.

Strong Mid-Majors
The 2012 WAC was quite stong by mid-major standards at the top. Based on the Simple Rating System, a quick and dirty method of ranking teams, three of the seven league members ranked in the top-40. Utah State led the way with an SRS of 10.71 meaning they were about 10.71 points better than a prototypical 'average team'. This number ranked 19th in the nation in 2012. San Jose State was next with a rating of 7.90 which ranked 33rd, and Louisiana Tech was next at 6.33 which ranked 38th. This relative heft prompted me to look at other mid-major leagues to see how often a conference had at least three members rank in the top one-third of the country in SRS. All told, in the BCS era (1998 through the present), nine conferences, including the WAC in 2012 had at least three schools rank in the top third. We'll go through them in chronological order and see that it appears the mid-majors have staged a mini-revolution in terms of producing quality teams.

At the turn of the century, Conference USA was the first mid-major league to produce at least a trio of teams with quality SRS ratings. While Southern Miss actually finished fourth in the conference with a 4-3 mark, they were the top team in SRS thanks to their non-conference performance which included a tight loss to Tennessee and wins over weak BCS-conference opponents Alabama and Oklahoma State (both finished with identical 3-8 records). They also beat a quality mid-major in the bowl game, runing Gary Patterson's debut as head coach of Texas Christian in the Mobile Alabama Bowl. Louisville, the actual conference champion, was just behind Southern Miss in SRS. The Cardinals also beat an SEC team, outlasting in-state rival Kentucky in the season opener. They were also ranked at the end of the regular season, but fell to a strong Colorado State team in the Liberty Bowl. East Carolina rounded out the Conference USA triumverate. Led by quarterback David Garrard, the Pirates finished second in Conference USA, handing Louisville their only league loss and beating Southern Miss for good measure. The Pirates ended their season with a win over Texas Tech from the Big 12 in the Gallery Furniture Bowl.

The mid-majors took an Olympic (or election cycle) sized break after 2000, and did not have a conference finish with a strong trio of teams until 2004. In Dan Hawkins penultimate season as head coach, Boise State went undefeated in the regular season before falling to a Louisville team that had just a single loss in the Liberty Bowl. Fresno State finished third in the WAC, but beat three teams from BCS conferences. They won on the road at Washington and Kansas State in the regular season (those teams finished with just a 5-17 combined record), but did grab a quality scalp with their bowl win over Virginia. In the first year of the Mike Price era, UTEP finished alone in second place in the WAC. The Miners did not grab any impressive wins outside the conference, but they did upset Fresno State and played Colorado tight in the Houston Bowl.

Once again, the mid-majors took some time off before returning to the limelight in 2008. Utah finished unbeaten in 2008 and won three games against BCS-conference opponents. They opened the year by dousing any optimism that Rich Rodriguez would not miss a beat as Michigan coach and followed that up with a midseason win over Oregon State. Their moment in the limelight would come in January in the Sugar Bowl, when they ambushed an Alabama team that had finished the regular season unbeaten. TCU lost twice in 2008, with both games coming on the road. Once to a team that played in the natioal title game (Oklahoma) and then to a team that finished unbeaten (Utah). The Horned Frogs rebounded to knock off an unbeaten Boise State team in the Poinsettia Bowl. BYU lacked the eliteness of their conference mates, but did manage to go 2-1 against Pac-10 foes, beating Washington and UCLA in the regular season before losing to Arizona in the Las Vegas Bowl.

The Mountain West remained strong in 2009. This time it was TCU finishing the regular season unbeaten. The Horned Frogs beat Virginia and Clemson on the road in the regular season, but were upset by Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl. BYU opened the year with a shocking upset of Oklahoma, but were upset at home by a mediocre Florida State team (7-6 record) just two weeks later. Their only loss after that debacle was a drubbing at the hands of TCU. The Cougars capped the year by winning the Las Vegas Bowl over Oregon State. Utah lost to both TCU and BYU, with their only non-conference loss coming at the hands of the eventual Pac-10 champions, the Oregon Ducks. Utah got revenge on the Pac-10 by beating Cal in the Poinsettia Bowl to give the Mountain West three ten-win teams. The Mountain West upped the ante in 2009 by having Air Force join the trio. The Falcons did not grab any marquee scalps until the bowl game when they crushed a ten-win Houston team in the Armed Forces Bowl.

For the third straight year, the Mountain West had three quality teams, and for the second consecutive year, they added a fourth for good measure. TCU once again finished the regular season unbeaten, with wins over BCS-conference foes Oregon State and Baylor. They capped off their dream season with a win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Utah won their fist eight games and climbed as high as sixth in the country before losses to TCU and Notre Dame crushed their national aspirations. They were then blown out by Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl to drop them out of the final polls. Once again, Air Force did not have any marquee scalps, but the Falcons did lose by just three at Oklahoma in the regular season and then beat the ACC's Georgia Tech in the Independence Bowl to win nine games for the first time since 2007. San Diego State joined the Horned Frogs, Utes, and Falcons in the top third of college football. On his way to capturing the Michigan job, Brady Hoked led the Aztecs to their first bowl game since 1998. Like the Falcons, the Aztecs didn't have any amazing wins outside the conference, but did lose a tight game to a Big 12 team (Missouri) before winning their bowl game to give them an even (or as it were, odd) nine wins overall.

Joining the Mountain West with three strong teams of their own in 2010 was the WAC. Boise State, Nevada, and Hawaii all finished in a three-way tied with identical 7-1 league records. Boise beat Virginia Tech and Oregon State in the non-conference and won each of their league games by four touchdowns until they were upset in overtime at Nevada. While the loss knocked them out of contention for a BCS bowl, the Broncos took out their frustrations on Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl. Nevada beat Cal in non-conference action and suffered their only loss of the year in a tight game at Hawaii. With a shot at history on the line, the Wolfpack knocked off Boston College in the Fight Hunger Bowl to win thirteen games for the first time in school history. You may have heard of the gentleman they had playing quarterback. Hawaii dropped a relatively close game to Southern Cal to open the 2010 season, and were then blown out by a mediocre Colorado team two weeks later. Their only loss the rest of the way in the regular season was to Boise State. With a shot at eleven wins and a possible finish in the top-25, the Warriors fell apart in the bowl game on their homefield and were crushed by Tulsa on Christmas Eve.

Having seen enough of the Mountain West and WAC, Conference USA returned to prominence in 2011. Houston finished the regular season unbeaten with a home win over UCLA their shining acheivement. However, the Cougars lost at home in the Conference USA Championship Game to Southern Miss that cost them a BCS bid. They rebounded to beat Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl and finished ranked for the first time since 1990. Speaking of Southern Miss, the Eagles beat Virginia from the ACC, but suffered two questionable defeats to league opponents Marshall (7-6 record) and UAB (3-9 record) to miss out on a BCS bid of their own. After upsetting Houston, the Golden Eagles seemed disinterested in their bowl game, but managed to beat Nevada and finish ranked for the first time since 1999. Tulsa endured a brutal non-conference slate, losing to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Boise State, three teams that combined for a 34-5 overall record in 2011. After their loss to Boise, the Golden Hurricane reeled off seven straight wins before succombing to Houston. They then lost a nailbiter in their bowl game against BYU to make them one of the best five-loss teams in the nation.

After a nearly a decade in the doldrums, the MAC broke out somewhat in 2011. Toledo, while they were unable to win their division, played Ohio State and Syracuse tight and suffered an understandable defeat to Boise State in non-conference action. Their other loss came by three to Northern Illinois and ultimately cost them a shot at the MAC title. Temple lost a tight game to Penn State and crushed Maryland in non-conference action. However, the Owls lost to Bowling Green and Ohio in MAC play (not to mention Toledo), so they were also not able to play for the MAC title. Northern Illinois did not acquit themselves well in non-conference play, losing to a bad Kansas team (2-10 record), and getting blow out by Wisconsin. The Huskies also lost their first MAC game (to Westen Michigan) before winning their final seven in the regular season and beating Ohio in the MAC Championship Game.

In the first ten seasons of the BCS era (1998-2007), there were only two instances of mid-major conferences producing a trio of teams that ranked in the top third of college football. In the past five seasons (2008-2012) the mid-majors have accomplished that feat seven times. It does appear that despite the apparent consolidation of power at the very top (seven straight national titles for the SEC), mid-majors are thriving in the upper-middle class of college football.

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