Sunday, November 21, 2010

Who is the best one loss team in college football? Rational analysis says Stanford

There is much debate going on about who the best one-loss team is right now, and if they are good enough to move ahead of Boise and/or TCU to get into the BCS championship game.  The simple answer is Stanford, and yes (just look at my current ratings), but let's take a closer look at who the best one-loss team is.

First, who are the candidates?  Candidates include the aforementioned Stanford, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, LSU, Nevada, and Michigan State.  Let's take a look at each one individually.

Stanford's sole loss came at #1 Oregon and they actually led pretty big early before Oregon came roaring back. As can be seen in their chart below, they have one of the toughest schedules in the nation, presently #8, and have played a bunch of meaningful games (larger green dots) and won impressively in a bunch of them, many on the road (five conference road games, ND on the road).  Stanford is also finishing strong after having their three worst games mid-season.  Other than the close games against USC and WSU, which they justifiably get dinged for (green dots well below their current rating), a pretty impressive performance.

Ohio State has some similarities to Stanford, but a key few differences.  First, their one loss is to another one-loss team.  Second, their overall schedule is not nearly what Stanford's is ranking only #55.  Third, they've had the advantage of playing at home more going on the road only four times compared to Stanford's six and their big non-conference game was at home.  They also benefit from their schedule not including Michigan State this year.  Put that all together and Stanford seems to be the more impressive team.

Oklahoma State has a lot of similarities to Ohio State.  Their schedule is similar (#47), no road non-conference opponent, had the majority of their games at home (on the road five times), but their loss was at home and to a team that now has 2 losses.  They also didn't have a good non-conference opponent and benefited from the Big-12 South being down this year.  Last, they beat a 5-5 Troy at home by only 3.  A good performance this year, but not as good as Ohio State or Stanford.

Wisconsin primarily cares about being the best in the Big-Televen so let's look at how they compare to Ohio State.  Yes, they beat them head to head, but they had them at home, and they themselves lost to another one-loss Big-Televen team, so we have to look beyond that.  Overall, their schedule is a little weaker although they did go on the road for one game but against a very weak UNLV.  But their good non-conference win was just by a single point at home against a 4-6 Arizona State compared to Ohio State more easily handling Miami.  This seems to clearly indicate that Ohio State is the better one-loss team when the whole body of work is considered.

LSU is the team everyone is crowing about being the best one-loss team, primarily because they play in the SEC and particularly the SEC West.  They, like Stanford, have their one loss to an undefeated team, but their schedule is quite a bit lower at #40.  Their non-conference schedule included a 7-3 West Virginia they beat by only 6 at home and a 6-5 North Carolina decimated by suspension at a neutral site that they also won by only 6.  So they didn't play a non-conference road game and have only had three road games in total thus far, a big advantage.  Their only convincing (2 TD or more) wins are against 2-9 Vanderbilt, 7-4 Miss St., FCS McNeese State, and Louisiana Monroe, only the MSU game standing out.  Couple that with narrow wins at home over a 4-7 Ole Miss, Alabama, and a 5-6 Tennessee and their resume does not seem as impressive as many of the others.  And if you want to play connect the dots, Boise State just beat Fresno State 51-0, a Fresno State that scored 38 at Ole Miss, a team LSU just struggled to beat at home.

Nevada probably has the most up and down chart of all the teams in question, due in part to their best win being over a schizophrenic California.  Their only loss was on the road to a good Hawaii team, but their only other good opponent was Cal and they got them at home.  Their schedule is clearly weaker at #101 and some closer that expected wins against San Jose State and Utah State don't help their case.

Michigan State is perhaps surprisingly the lowest rated of the one-loss teams, even behind Nevada.  This is due in part to them amazingly having only three road games thus far, but also some mediocre results against not the best schedule (#62).  They beat 4-6 Florida Atlantic by only 13 in a virtual home game in Detroit, nearly lost to a 6-5 Notre Dame at home, and had a tough time with a 4-7 Purdue team this weekend.  Couple that with their loss being a 31 pointer to a now 7-4 Iowa, and you can see why they are clearly behind Ohio State and Wisconsin in the Big-Televen.

So there you have it, an analysis of the one-loss teams.  Stanford seems to clearly be the best according to the computer and also if you look at the results and aren't blinded by specific conference bias.  But here is a summary if the above didn't convince you.  The best in each column is highlighted in green, the worst in red.

TeamRoad WinsConvincing Wins1Narrow Wins2Schedule StrengthLoss Opponent Record3
Ohio State3215510-1
Oklahoma St532479-2
Michigan St222627-4

1 - Win by 14 or greater against FBS team with winning record
2 - Win by 7 or less
3 - Current record of team lost to

This also makes it pretty clear.  Yes, you can debate the schedule strength since it uses my ratings, but the rest is unrelated to my ratings and seems to clearly show Stanford is ranked at the top or well in each category.  LSU is best in one, but worst in three of them which is why they are justifiably lower ranked.