Roy Exum: The NCAA’s “Division IV”

Friday, July 25, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Jonathan Jensen and Brian Turner are two very smart guys. Not long ago the two sports researchers at Ohio State authored a story that appeared in the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports that focused on the most successful college football teams in the country and, earlier this week, a writer named Ben Cohen broke it down in understandable terms for a fascinating Wall Street Journal graphic so guys such as myself might enjoy it.

Everybody knows the NCAA, the governing body of collegiate athletics, has been broken for a long time. When I started covering college sports almost 40 years ago it was warped then, allowing an unfair democratic process where many smaller colleges could, and would, pull the few big universities down to their level. Finally the top five athletic conferences, rich in TV money and with annual revenues in just football alone now dwarfing the entire annual budgets of most colleges, are demanding autonomy at a huge gathering on Aug. 7.

As a matter of fact, members of “The Big Five” – the Pac-12, Big 12, ACC, SEC and Big Ten – have all but said if the NCAA doesn’t approve the idea, they’ll form the “own governing body” and the NCAA can then do what it cares. (Without the big guys, the NCAA goes bust!) Trust me, there is a lot in the wind and radical change is certain; a prototype could be revealed as early as today. With the NCAA having division I, II and III, will this be Division IV?

Nobody knows what will really happen and it is a given that each individual conference will stick together but the Wall Street Journal story, inspired by the work of Jensen and Turner, offered what was headlined, “A Radical Realignment Plan for College Football.” The subheading added, “What If Schools Were Sorted Based on Football Strength?”

To find out, the two guys from the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports, in Cohen’s words, “chose to ignore geography and tradition, the typical forces in conference realignment. Instead, they focused solely on football and its financial implications, coming up with a formula that factored in every team's football revenue, winning percentage, computer ranking and attendance between 2003 and 2013. Then they sorted teams into clusters to figure out which schools were most alike—and should be playing each other.”

Based on what has happened in the past 10 years, the researchers came up with four “clusters,” with Cluster 1 by far the strongest. Here we go, which each group in alphabetical order:

CLUSTER 1 – Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas.

CLUSTER 2 –Clemson, Florida State, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Oregon, Penn State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Southern Cal and Wisconsin.

CLUSTER 3 – Arizona State, Arkansas, California, Georgia Tech, Kansas State, Miami, Ole Miss, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington.

CLUSTER 4 – Boise State, Brigham Young, Louisville, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas Christian, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

Don’t worry – this isn’t going to happen. This is just an exercise to show what might transpire if football was the lone criteria. The first thing a SEC fan notices is Vanderbilt, Mississippi and Kentucky aren’t included, nor are 20 other member schools of the so-called Big Five conferences. Boise State and Brigham Young – not members of a Big Five conference – are included in the Cluster format because they have football revenue, winning percentage, computer ranking and attendance that is better than 23 universities in the Big Five.

You have to admit “Cluster 1” is 10 heavyweights. And the biggest thing to remember if they were in the same conference, half of them would lose conference games. Which one of them would be willing to run that gauntlet? Whew! And the same could be said for any of the other three clusters.

Look at Tennessee in Cluster 2. How many games would the Vols be favored in if it were in effect this year? Right now the Las Vegas bookies say Tennessee will win between four and five games this season but against the rest in Cluster 2, the prediction right now would be a lot worse.

Yeah, we’d have a dandy national champion alright if the winners of each cluster got in a four-way playoff but there would be a steep price to pay for the rest of the cluster members. Anytime two teams play in these uncertain times, there is a winner and there is a coach-in-trouble.

What do you want to bet there are some folks who wish the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports would just as soon keep to themselves?

Cluster 1 by far the strongest. Here we go, which each group in alphabetical order:

CLUSTER 1 – Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Texas.

CLUSTER 2 –Clemson, Florida State, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Oregon, Penn State, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Southern Cal and Wisconsin.

CLUSTER 3 – Arizona State, Arkansas, California, Georgia Tech, Kansas State, Miami, Ole Miss, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA and Washington.

CLUSTER 4 – Boise State, Brigham Young, Louisville, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas Christian, Texas Tech, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.

Don’t worry – this isn’t going to happen. This is just an exercise to show what might transpire if football was the lone criteria. The first thing a SEC fan notices is Vanderbilt, Mississippi and Kentucky aren’t included, nor are 20 other member schools of the so-called Big Five conferences. Boise State and Brigham Young – not members of a Big Five conference – are included in the Cluster format because they have football revenue, winning percentage, computer ranking and attendance that is better than 23 universities in the Big Five.

You have to admit “Cluster 1” is ten heavyweights. And the biggest thing to remember if they were in the same conference, half of them would lose conference games. Which one of them would be willing to run that gauntlet? Whew! And the same could be said for any of the other three clusters.

Look at Tennessee in Cluster 2. How many games would the Vols be favored in if it were in effect this year? Right now the Las Vegas bookies say Tennessee will win between four and five games this season but against the rest in Cluster 2, the prediction right now would be a lot worse.

Yeah, we’d have a dandy national champion alright if the winners of each cluster got in a four-way playoff but there would be a steep price to pay for the rest of the cluster members. Anytime two teams play in these uncertain times, there is a winner and there is a coach-in-trouble.

What do you want to bet there are some folks who wish the Journal of Quantitative Analysis in Sports would just as soon keep to themselves?

Royexum@aol.com



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