Football

Bowls, Bias And Why Some Results Matter More Than Others

Kirk Herbstreit SEC Bowls 2019

How much do bowl results matter when measuring the relative strength of one conference against another? It depends.

The “my conference could beat up your conference” debate is an annual fixture in college football more so than almost any other sport. There are a couple reasons why this is true.

One is that there are relatively few inter-conference games to provide data points. Professional baseball teams play every other team in their league and a handful of teams in the other league. Professional basketball and hockey teams play every other organization in the league. Professional football teams play more than half of their conference and a handful of teams in the other.

In college football, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the regular season is made up of intra-conference games. In most cases, two of the other three, or three of the other four regular season games a team plays are against a team from a non-power conference. That leaves just one – or in some cases zero – samples of a power conference team playing one from another power league.

In 2018, the Buckeyes played only TCU from the Big 12 and Oregon State from the Pac-12. In 2016 and 2017, they faced the Big 12’s Oklahoma. They played the ACC’s Virginia Tech in 2014 and 2015. In 2012 and 2013, it was Cal from the Pac-12.

OSU schedules as aggressively out of conference as almost any major national power, but hasn’t played a regular season game against an active member of the SEC since facing LSU in 1988.

Penn State hasn’t played an SEC team during the regular season since a home-and-home with Alabama in 2010 and 2011. Before that, they faced the Crimson Tide in 1990 when the Nittany Lions were still an independent.

Michigan has played a pair of one-off neutral site games against Florida (2017) and Alabama (2012), and one home game against Vanderbilt (2006) since the mid-1980s.

In 2019, the Big Ten and SEC played exactly one regular season game against each other: Purdue 42, Vanderbilt 24 in week two.

This lack of hard information matters because unlike in a lot of those other sports, the perception of the strength or weakness of a conference can make or break a college football team’s season.

When the College Football Playoff committee is weighing the resumes of the nation’s top teams, they have to decide the relative worth of a pair of resumes with basically no overlapping data.

If Team A and B are both 11-1, then a potential shot at the national title could come down to which team has piled up more impressive wins in their conference. Without a lot of results to measure the two leagues head-to-head, it becomes something of a guessing game.

Everyone has their opinions, of course, and data to back them up. But it’s largely a subjective, theoretical exercise all the way through college football’s Selection Sunday.

Then come the bowl games. The Big Ten and SEC clash in multiple games, ranging from the Citrus Bowl and Outback Bowl to the Gator Bowl. Sometimes they meet in higher profile matchups such as the New Year’s Six (or earlier, in the BCS), or even the College Football Playoff.

The results of these games all provide more information than we had before about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the teams and leagues.

But how much do those really matter? Some teams are more motivated than others to play. Some have star players sitting out to protect their draft status. Some have lost their coaches and are playing under interim staffs. Bowl season can generate some weird and unpredictable results.

So do a strong set of bowl results conclusively prove that one league is better than another? ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit seems to think so. He tweeted this out on Tuesday, after LSU’s national title win gave the SEC a 9-2 record.

Herbstreit, of course, has maintained for a number of years that the SEC is clearly the strongest league in the nation. He lobbied for the SEC to get multiple teams in during several seasons, including 2018 conference title game loser Georgia.

To Herbstreit, the SEC’s 9-2 record in this year’s bowl games was all the proof necessary to prove his point about the league’s superiority.

But what about when bowl results suggest something else? In 2017, Herbstreit felt the SEC deserved to get two teams in the Playoff over the Big Ten Champion Buckeyes. 
That bowl season, the Big Ten went 7-1. The SEC went 4-5. Here was Herbstreit’s reaction at the time.

Here’s a list of all of his tweets from December 29 through January 4 of that bowl season.

What’s interesting is what isn’t there. There are plenty of tweets congratulating Big Ten teams on their wins, but nothing about any broader meaning these results might have.

Herbstreit’s partner in the broadcast booth, Chris Fowler, also took note of the league’s success that postseason. So did fellow Gameday contributor David Pollack.

So what did that dominant season mean in the big picture?

One year earlier, in 2016, the Big Ten had been in the conversation as the best league in the nation. They then went 3-7 in bowl games. Pollack’s analysis?

Two years before that, Pollack felt “January Bowl Games Beginning with 2007 Rose Bowl” was the best metric to determine conference strength.

Five years before that, bowls were once again not a good indicator of conference strength.

When a conference loses bowl games, they have something to prove, and have to prove it in bowl games.

When the Big Ten went 0-5 on New Year’s Day 2011, Fowler definitely noticed.

Herbstreit, Pollack, and Fowler are different people, of course. Despite sharing a common broadcast booth, they’re entitled to have different opinions. But it’s also reasonable for fans of Big Ten teams to wonder why their league’s bowl wins don’t ever seem to count quite the same way the SEC’s do.

Herbstreit has long mocked the idea that ESPN was propping up the SEC.

A search of his tweets, Fowler’s, Pollack’s, and Rece Davis’ did not turn up any indication that strong Big Ten bowl results were ever treated as evidence of the league’s supremacy in the college football landscape over the past decade. On the other hand, it’s remarkable simple to find examples of the opposite – either a weak Big Ten bowl record being used as evidence of the league’s struggles, or a strong SEC bowl season being used as conclusive proof of that league’s superiority.

This is generally treated as proof that ESPN is biased toward the SEC for financial reasons. While it’s a popular theory on Twitter, the idea gets pretty significant pushback from personnel at the network.

Ohio State is one of the most-watched teams in the nation, and as Herbstreit, Fowler, and others have pointed out, TV ratings are usually better with the Buckeyes in a game.

It’s far more likely that confirmation bias is at work. If you haven’t taken a psychology class recently, confirmation bias is a subconscious process in which someone seeks out and evaluates information in a way that reinforces their previously held beliefs.

This is an almost universal issue, and has been for centuries. The 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion (either as being the received opinion or as being agreeable to itself) draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects; in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.”

Bacon died 276 years before the first bowl game, a 49-0 Michigan win over Stanford in 1902, but he also did a pretty good job of breaking down the college football postseason zeitgeist.

When you’ve spent the month of December 2018 thinking that Georgia should have been included in the College Football Playoff, a loss to Texas in the 2019 Sugar Bowl doesn’t prove anything, even if they were behind 28-7 in the fourth quarter.

When you’ve spent the whole season thinking that the SEC is the best conference in the nation in 2019, then a 9-2 record in the bowl game just proves it.

And when you’ve spent the whole season thinking that the SEC is the best conference in the nation in 2017, then the Big Ten’s 7-1 record in that year’s bowl games doesn’t mean as much as you’d think.

This isn’t a conscious choice. So when Herbstreit mocks the idea that he’s intentionally boosting one conference for financial reasons, he’s probably right.

But when fans of Big Ten schools say their successes are treated differently than the SEC’s, there’s also clearly some truth to what they’re saying.

The personalities highlighted above aren’t unique in this.

If you entered the 2019 Fiesta Bowl thinking that Ohio State was a better team than Clemson, then you very likely came out of the game with the same opinion.

It was just the stupid refs. If only this one play had gone differently. If only this player hadn’t been hurt. Of course they were the better team – no matter what the scoreboard said.

If you entered the 2019 Fiesta Bowl thinking that Clemson was a better team than Ohio State, then you very likely came out of the game with the same opinion.

They had a postgame win expectancy of better than 60 percent. They closed the game on a 29-7 run. They held the Buckeyes to just 95 yards rushing in the final three quarters. Of course they were the better team – just look at the scoreboard.

This same concept carries over to all facets of life. Maybe you have been exceptionally loyal to one car brand, even though it’s not always the best-rated.

Or perhaps it’s some aspect of raising your children: What time should they go to bed? How much TV can they watch? When should they start playing travel sports? There’s plenty of research, some of it conflicting. Do you change? Or do you throw up your hands, assume you’re right, and move on?

You can feel free to mentally insert your own political equivalent here (but not in the comments!).

Changing your mind means recognizing that you were wrong about something. Keeping your opinion the same means you clearly must have been right all along. It’s more fun to be right then wrong, especially when you’ve had people screaming at you about that opinion for months or years.

Being wrong means being somewhat humbled. Being right means getting to shove it right back into their stupid faces.

This is something that can happen to everyone.

It’s not a sign of moral weakness. But it’s something that can happen to everyone, and without them necessarily realizing it.

Herbstreit and his colleagues would do well to understand that.

People on Twitter would do well to understand the second part of it, as well.

13 Responses

  1. It’s media guys jobs to talk about CFB, plus they can monetize their social media if they get a large enough following. You don’t grow your following by posting melba toast stuff. I can’t hate on guys doing their job and making money.

    I can criticize their hot takes though. LSU was the best team in the country this year. They proved it on the field. That has little to do with the SEC, but more to do with a son of Ohio having the best QB season ever.

    If one wants to assert that the SEC is the best conference, it’s an opinion, and the bowl record would be a good piece of evidence for that opinion, but games are about matchups and whether you are playing “up” or “down”. The best measure of a conference is probably how they fare in light of whether they are advantaged, even, or disadvantaged in the match up.

    Regardless, the thing that drives me nuts about the SEC ass-kissing that goes on is that almost every year, Auburn, a team that will end the year with 3-5 losses, is ranked #6-8 at the start of the season and usually maintains a ranking around there until SEC play. The first time they lose they drop to 9-10 and after the second loss they stay in the top 15. By the time Alabama beats them, they are still in the top 20, so all these other SEC teams who beat them end up with wins over a top 10 Auburn or a top 20 Auburn at worst.

    Auburn and, say, Sparty, could be compared (not lately, but in years past). Sparty starts off the year at #18. After a loss they drop to 24. After their second loss, they are out of the rankings and whoever beats that two loss Sparty team doesn’t get much of a resume boost. In that case, my theoretical Sparty and Auburn teams may be every equivalent, or Sparty may be better, but the SEC opponents get way more credit and boost from beating Auburn than B1G opponents get from beating Sparty.

    In this past year, I thought Georgia was a little over-rated. Good team, great defense, bad offense. Florida was probably the most over-rated. It’s hard to over-rate Bama, but the injuries they had on defense and the loss of Tua dropped them a bit. Who else is any good in that conference? They have several teams that are hot garbage, several more that have potential but are presently dumpster fires, and the rest is a bunch of mediocre teams.

    I will give LSU its due, but resume PERCEPTION for the SEC as a conference begins with the presumption that they are the best conference in the summer of every season, and that perception benefits them throughout the actual season.

    End of rant. Thank you. I feel better now.

    1. Buckeyenut- your rant was on the money but for the remark about guys like Herbstreit, who are a focal point of the article. Herbstreit doesn’t need to monetize social media, he makes great money without it. The problem with guys like him is that they sacrifice core principles of reporting/analysis such as objectivity, consistency, and flat out accuracy. It’s not only Herbstreit, he just happens to occupy a special low place in the minds of many OSU fans due to his apparent glee at ripping/disregarding/ minimizing his alma mater for the transparent purpose of towing a company line. He’s a sell out, in other words…
      Regarding your SEC perception comments, you couldn’t be more correct. Teams like Tex A and M, Auburn, etc are 5 game losers per season- yet they are propped up in every way. I remember a few years back when Fla was 9-4 and kept the #10 spot in the season end poll. They carefully cultivate regular season conference and non-con schedules to their advantage, can hitchhike to their bowl games they are so close, and absolutely ignore NCAA recruiting rules to boot (take a look at that feel good LSU team and their athletic department’s involvement in the FBI wiretap stuff). Again, if you have EVERY advantage and cheat on top of that, you SHOULD win- right?

  2. take the allstars of the SEC and the BIG and play eachother otherwise it’s just a matter of opinion a team winning a bowl game only means that team was better than the other that particular day…nothing more nothing less

  3. LSU ’88 was one of my first games as a freshman student just out of the Army (4 yrs). Greg Frey, Jeff Graham, and others of course. I believe we were down like 3 scores with about 5 minutes to play or thereabouts……….half the stadium had already left….they missed the greatest Buckeye comeback I had seen before or since. GO BUCKS!

  4. Hey Tim Weaver, what does that have to do with anything? So what do you know? And he wasn’t the worst, he surely wasn’t one of the best, but never the worst! Kirk has done quite well for himself! What have you done? Furthermore, I do not claim to be an expert on college football, but know that he was not the worst ever QB at OSU! I did play 4 years of college baseball and a few years of semi-pro baseball. Also played high school football, basketball and baseball. So I do know a little about the sporting field.

  5. SEC refs in Fiesta Bowl. ACC refs in Peach Bowl. PAC12 refs in the championship. Teams represented in the playoffs from SEC, ACC, B1G and Big12. Crews from those 4 represented conferences should not have been working any of the games.

    As for bias by ESPN, what conference do they have a tie-in? SEC and ACC networks are theirs… B1G is Fox’s…

  6. What I would really like to know is what conference referees were at each of the bowl games. From what I understood, and I could be wrong, was that the SEC reffed the OSU-Clemson game. And there were questionable calls as we all know. If that is the case, the Big10 and the NCAA should be ashamed of themselves to let that happen. Various teams of referees from NON-interested conferences should have been chosen. This would be common sense and perhaps decrease the chance of bias. But if it is not, I suppose the rumors that money and ESPN rule the entire playoff series is true.

  7. Wow…must be off season. Let’s try to nip this in the bud: 1st- an examination of tweets is pretty sad. It is not possible to have a meaningful conversation about any matter in tweets. Twelve word sentences with # and vague exclamations are worthless. 2nd- citing Herbstreit as reliable in any capacity is a non starter. He’s had an agenda ever since his putrid OSU days and deliberate baiting and favoritism for SEC. 3rd- there is no conspiracy, as that term implies a well hidden agenda known to few. The SEC nonsense is common knowledge, the opposite of conspiracy. Give up on clowns like Fowler and titmcoat Kirk-you will live longer.

    1. Herbie’s a good guy. He’s been an amazing ambassador to the game since he went to espn. His so-called “agenda” didn’t begin to manifest until he began receiving death threats from some of the worse of the Buckeye faithful for doing his job and answering a loaded question with a less-than-glowing, albeit if I recall 100% accurate and correct observation about an overrated osu player or team. Been like that ever since. If those whack-job, death threat making morons had done us all a favor, and swallowed their own tongues (preferably at birth), Herbie wouldn’t have been made an espn martyr, and he’d probably still be a Buckeye homer working for Fox. Death threats? Really? For doing one’s job and making an observation? It’s disgusting. Dude was/is human. Gotta expect it to have had an effect on his outlook on things. Can’t blame him if it did. I’d keep my children as far away from that place and those people as possible. Unbelievable.

      1. Michael- okay, I’ll jump down this rabbit hole…

        1) Since I didn’t make death threats or know anyone who did, it’s tough to address that issue. Did Herbstreit deserve threats? No.
        2) Does he deserve criticism for his integrity? YES. Herbstreit is a shill who can’t be taken seriously. His employer has financial ties to certain interest and he falls in lockstep.
        3) Is he a “good guy”? I’ve been told he is arrogant and tough to approach. Lots of jerks can be successful, doesn’t make them “good”.
        Anything he says should be taken with a huge grain of salt.

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