The National Championship Game, Part II

In the first post titled “The National Championship Game,” the most interesting stat (to me, anyway) I uncovered was that since 1992, only 12 unique teams have participated in the college football national championship game. Now, part of that is because from 1992-97, no Big Ten or Pac 10 teams participated in the Bowl Coalition or Bowl Alliance. If you go by who finished #1 or #2 in the AP Poll for 1992-97, that number increases to 15.

It still made me wonder whether this was on par with other sports. After all, a common complaint is that baseball lacks of competitive balance with major market teams outspending the smaller market teams. Plus, since 1988 only 6 different franchises have won NBA championships. I want to see how much variety some other sports get at the end of the season compared to college football. So, I looked at the participants in the finals of the MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL, plus the championship game of the NCAA D-I tournament. In addition, I threw in I-AA football since it is somewhat similar to I-A. Any division lower than that is beyond my realm of familiarity.

How does the polls-and-bowls system stack up against other sports in variety of finalists?

I-A College Football

15 Unique Teams: Alabama, Miami, FSU, Nebraska, Penn State (AP #2 in 1994), Florida, Arizona State (AP #2 in 1996), Michigan (AP #2 in 1997), Tennessee, VT, Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU, USC, Texas

Percentage: 15/32 = 46.88%

This is our baseline. Only 46.88% of the top 2 at the end of the season have been unique teams. College football is known for having marquee teams dominating, but as mentioned above other sports have the same perceptions. If we assume that college football’s top teams come and go at the same rate as other sports’ do, we can now determine whether the variety is lower or higher than other sports’ varieties.

NBA Finals

17 Unique Teams: Chicago, Portland, Phoenix, Houston, New York, Orlando, Seattle, Utah, San Antonio, LA Lakers, Indiana, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Detroit, Miami, Dallas, Cleveland.
Percentage: 17/32 = 53.13%

Jordan/Pippen. Olajuwon. Stockton/Malone. Duncan. Shaq/Kobe. Kidd. Of all the multiple appearances of teams in the finals, only Detroit didn’t have at least one superstar or superstar combo leading the way. With basketball, that’s almost all you need since only 5 guys from a team participate at a time. Sometimes, all you need is one transcendent star and a grab bag of guys who don’t care about their own shot to get to a Finals – think Iverson and 2001 Philly or LeBron James and 2007 Cleveland – though you’re not likely to win the title once you get there.

Div. I College Basketball

18 Unique Teams: Duke, Michigan (vacated), UNC, Arkansas, UCLA, Kentucky, Syracuse, Arizona, Utah, UConn, Michigan State, Florida, Maryland, Indiana, Kansas, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Ohio State

Percentage: 18/32 = 56.25%

Despite college basketball’s tournament being known for upsets and chaos, when it comes to the final game the cream rises to the top. Some of the lack of variety can be attributed to the fact mentioned above that with basketball, you can ride 2 or 3 outstanding players to the finals or a championship. After all, Michigan, Duke, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Florida all had teams in back-to-back championship games or at least two in three years.

Major League Baseball

17 Unique Teams: Toronto, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cleveland, NY Yankees, Florida, San Diego, NY Mets, Arizona, Anaheim, San Francisco, Boston, St. Louis, Chicago White Sox, Houston, Detroit, Colorado

Percentage: 17/30 = 56.67%

Remember, there was no 1994 World Series due to the strike, so there’s only 30 possible teams since 1992.

Baseball has seen some remarkably consistent winners in the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees. Some teams bought their championships and were really good for only one year (’97 Marlins, ’01 Diamondbacks), some got hot at the right time (’98 San Diego, ’07 Colorado), and others just made timely pitching acquisitions (’05 White Sox and Astros). In the end, only the Yankees’ hegemony over the AL and Braves’ hegemony over the NL (6 and 4 Series appearances, respectively) kept the number so low; besides them, no team has appeared more than twice in the World Series, with only Toronto doing it in back-to-back years.

National Football League

21 Unique Teams: Washington, Buffalo, Dallas, San Francisco, San Diego, Pittsburgh, Green Bay, New England, Denver, Atlanta, St. Louis, Tennessee, Baltimore, NY Giants, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Carolina, Philadelphia, Seattle, Indianapolis, Chicago

Percentage: 21/32 = 65.63%

The NFL is supposed to be built for parity, and you can see that reflected in the larger number of unique Super Bowl participants. This time period does include 4 visits by the Patriots and 3 each by the Cowboys and Bills, but only Favre’s Packers, Elway’s Broncos, Warner’s Rams, and Cowher’s Steelers made multiple visits. The league got what it wanted for the most part, though the current Colts and Patriots seem to be increasingly resistant to the parity virus.

National Hockey League

20 Unique Teams: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Montreal, Los Angeles, NY Rangers, Vancouver, New Jersey, Detroit, Colorado, Florida, Philadelphia, Washington, Dallas, Buffalo, Carolina, Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottowa

Percentage: 20/30 = 66.67%

Remember, there was no 2005 Stanley Cup playoffs due to the lockout.

I must confess I’m not really a hockey fan; I attempted to get into it when the Lightning went to the finals a couple years ago, but I just couldn’t watch an entire game on TV. I think part of the problem was the neutral zone trap, a defense of which I have a tenuous grasp; basically it sucks the like out of the sport. It was one of the things fixed as an aftermath of the lockout, along with the institution of a salary cap. It’s too early to say what effect the salary cap will have on competitive balance, but no sport in the past 16 post seasons has produced more finalists than the NHL has. It’s mainly due to parity in the early ’90s; since 2000, only 6 of the 14 finalists have been newcomers, whereas 1992-99, 14 of the 16 finalists were newcomers (Detroit being the only returner).

Div. I-AA Football

13 Unique Teams: Marshall, Youngstown State, Boise State, Montana, McNeese State, UMass, Georgia Southern, Furman, Western Kentucky, Delaware, Colgate, James Madison, Northern Iowa

Percentage: 13/32 = 40.63%

Here, we see that I-AA football actually produced fewer finalists than I-A did. Looking at the results, I can tell you that it’s because of coachesĀ  cultivating dynasties: Jim Donnan at Marshall, Jim Tressel at Youngstown State, Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern, and recently Jerry Moore at Appalachian State.

Why so few finalists in college football?

As stated above, the I-AA championship game can be dominated for years at a time by excellent coaches that are too good to stay at the I-AA level for long (such as Donnan, Tressel, and Johnson). Opponents of a playoff might try to point out the fact that from year to year, the best teams change more slowly in college football than other sports, so picking a top two should be easier than in the NFL for instance, where recent Super Bowl losers have been prone to falling off the map.

Consider this though. The I-AA football playoffs since 1992 have all consisted of 16 teams apiece, and while the number of teams seeded has changed, the top four seeds every year are enumerated. The teams are determined by a playoff committee, similar to the basketball tournament. Only 5 times in the past 16 years have two teams from the top four played each other, and only once (1996) have the top two seeds played each other. That fact shouldn’t come as a surprise when you remember that never have all four #1 seeds made the Final Four of the men’s basketball tournament.

The Coaches’ Poll, Harris Poll, and computer poll average of the BCS make up the de facto I-A football playoff committee, whose job is simply to pick out #1 and #2. Records and stats alone aren’t enough, because teams from different conferences play completely different schedules, and comparing conferences is difficult when so few of the elite of any of the conferences play each other.

Even the committees, who are made to be balanced and whose members watch more film than any pollsters do, can’t accurately guess the best four teams most years, much less the best two. Can the choice of the two teams that play for the championship really be made by people who may or may not watch film of more than 13 teams (the coaches), people who may or may not watch more than a game a weekend (the Harris Poll voters), and those who may or may not have hidden bias incomprehensible to common people (the computers)? Almost certainly not if you’re going for accuracy.

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