02 November 2016

On the Imbalanced 2017 B1G Schedule

With 14 teams in the current conference configuration (when will we get to 16 and fulfill those clever graphic artists' end game for the B1G moniker?) a true round robin schedule would require a 26 conference game schedule.  With just 18 conference games on the schedule that means each team has just five opponents to play both at home and away, and 8 teams which are played just once during the regular season.  

A byproduct of these imbalanced schedules is that some schools will be beneficiaries from the vagaries and randomness of the B1G schedule makers while other schools will be victims.  Some fans -- typically those of a program perceived to have received the proverbial short end of the schedule makers stick -- get all bent out of shape about their schools' B1G schedules.   It's becoming an annual ritual around these parts to take an objective look at the effects of the imbalanced B1G schedules on a team's conference workloads.  See our post from two years ago here for a discussion of our methodology which was prompted by much bellyaching from NU fans about the 2015 B1G schedule.

If you look at the kenpom rankings data you find there are two primary factors driving this year's beneficiary/victim analysis.  The more obvious factor is whether or not your team plays outlier #191 Rutgers once or twice.  The 2nd worst ranked B1G program is #98 Penn State which is a huge gap.  The second and less obvious factor is how often a team must play the top teams.  This concept may elicit a "no shit" reaction and rightly so.  But complicating the equation is the presence of five top tier teams that are bunched together in the kenpom rankings.  If you believe kenpom there are just four teams across the land that fall in somewhere between top B1G dog #8 Wisconsin and the B1G's fifth strongest program #16 Indiana.  In theory a B1G team could play over half of its games (10 of 18) against this narrowly bunched top tier while another could play less than a third of its games (5 of 18) against the creme de la creme.  That's a pretty big disparity.

Enough of theoretical mumbo jumbo.  Behold our 2017 analysis:

The analysis mostly speaks for itself, but would like to point out a few anecdotes.

  • Of the top tier teams Wisconsin is the only beneficiary.  Coincidentally just as with the kenpom rankings the other four top tier teams (Purdue to Indiana in the table) form a continuum of victims to the B1G schedule makers.
  • Two of the second tier programs (Iowa and Maryland) are the big winners in the 2017 B1G schedule lottery.  Conversely the other second tier program (Michigan) is the biggest victim.  This disparity helps to explain why #31 Michigan is expected to win 10.1 games while #55 Iowa is expected to win just 0.7 less games (9.4 wins).  To put that differential in perspective, Iowa is expected to win 1.1 more games than much more closely ranked #61 Northwestern (which like Iowa is a big beneficiary from the 2017 schedule). 
  • Amongst third tier program #98 Penn State is the fourth biggest beneficiary while #87 Nebraska is the second biggest victim.  This disparity results in Penn State having an expected win total of 6.2 games which edges out Nebraska program ranked 11 rungs higher by 0.1 wins over the course of the 2017 B1G schedule.
  • Projected cellar dweller Rutgers is a modest beneficiary but even the most favorable B1G schedule would not have been enough to lift Rutgers out of its status as clear favorite for last place.
  • In the notes we show that NU had an average B1G opponent ranking of 89.4 for 2016.  In 2017 the average B1G opponent ranking is projected to be 60.9.  In both years the B1G schedule maker were similarly kind to NU.  While there are other analyses that could more clearly quantify this final conclusion these data are an indication of just how improved the B1G is expected to be this year.  That's not to say 2017 is expected to be a great year for the conference but at least the B1G is expected to be back to 2015 which wasn't exactly a banner year. If Rutgers were to fall off the map again then about 7 rungs of these gains would be given back.
On a Northwestern-centric note much of NU's beneficial schedule happens to fall during the first half of the B1G schedule with 2 games against Tier A opponents, 4 games against Tier B opponents, and 3 games against others; in the back half NU has 5, 2, 2 games against those categories of opponents, respectively.  The dream for NU fans is for NU to position itself for the NCAAs during Dec/Jan by TCOB and then solidifying that resume with a couple notches in its belt against Tier A teams toward the end of the season.

Lastly, this all based on pre-season expectations.  Of course the final analysis of the beneficiaries/victims will be quite different as teams inevitably surpasses or fall short of these expectations.