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Football Schedules — The Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong Again

- December 29, 2007

Among sports fans, everyone seems to have an opinion about everything, including some of the more arcane strategic aspects of the game — whether the team should have punted on fourth and short or gone for it, whether it should have worked the ball into the post or sent up a barrage of three-pointers, whether it should have hit-and-run or gone for the long ball. Bill James makes a nice living doing the numbers on issues like these in baseball, and Jamesian modes of analysis have spread into other major sports as well.

In college football, a team’s chances for end-of-season glory raise another set of strategic issues about which conventional wisdom speaks confidently — so confidently, indeed, that it almost seems like a waste of time to check things out systematically. Sometimes, though, what is widely regarded as fact turns out, upon closer inspection, not to be true at all.

The pieces of conventional wisdom under consideration here arise because in big-time college football the final national standings are determined by poll rather than directly by on-field performance. That being the case, every year controversies flare about why certain teams end being ranked higher than other, ostensibly equally deserving teams. And every year, too, pundits and everyday fans trot out the same tired pieces of conventional wisdom.

In a recent paper, economist Trevon Logan (a faculty member at, appropriately, TOSUFF [The Ohio State University Football Factory]) puts this conventional wisdom to the test. His conclusions?

* Contrary to the conventional wisdom, a late-season loss is preferable to an early-season one. (Perhaps this is because early-season losses occur before impressions of a team have begun to solidify — so Michigan’s opening-game loss to Appalachian State could be interpreted as signifying that Michigan simply wasn’t very good, an impression that then became a hurdle to overcome. By contrast, late-season losses are easier to dismiss as aberrations, off-weeks by proven teams.)

* Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it’s no better, pollwise, for a team to have beaten good teams than bad ones. (That is, it’s whether you’ve won, not whom you’ve beaten.)

* Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it doesn’t help for a team to have run up gaudy scores. (That is, the bottom line is whether you’ve won, not how much you’ve won by.)

In short, the conventional wisdom is wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Notwithstanding Logan’s number-crunching, his findings will almost certainly be ignored by sportswriters, who will continue to purvey the conventional wisdom, and by fans, who will continue to parrot what they’ve been hearing on sports-talk radio and read on the sports pages. After all, everyone’s entitled to an opinion.

[Hat tip to Jim Lebovic]

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