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A Historical Perspective of College Football (Part 1 -- TCU-centric)

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Duquesne Frog

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If you liked my last post, you're gonna love this one.

 

Prior to looking at college basketball team performance metrics from a historical perspective, I started by looking at the same numbers for college football.  Using the same fantastic site, College Football Reference, I pulled the yearly SRS (Simple Rating System) and a 5-year moving average for each team over their history and plotted them over time.  Unlike the basketball numbers which only go back to 1950, the college football SRS scores have been calculated throughout most of the whole history of college football, even back into the 1890's in some cases.

 

This first post will look at the conferences that TCU has been a part of.  The next post will look at the rest of college football.  We'll start the same way we started the basketball post, by looking at the Texas colleges

 

Texas Schools

Here is the history of Texas college football teams going back to 1903, when the first SRS scores for Texas, A&M, and TCU were calculated.  According to the SRS metric, the 1947 Texas team is the best team in the history of the state while the Longhorns of the early 1970s was the best program.  The 1955 Horned Frogs were the best TCU team by the SRS metric, followed closely by the 1938 MNC team and the 2014 team.  Also note that other than the Houston Cougars of the early 1970s, those late 1950's Frogs were the best program in the history of the state that didn't wear burnt orange.

 

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Acknowledging that this is a busy chart, we break up this history into 3 eras.  The first couple of decades of the 20th century were dominated by Texas and A&M, but things start getting a little more competitive around the time the Great Depression hits:

 

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There have only been 3 significant eras in which Texas was not the dominant team in the state.  The first two, from 1930-1940 and from 1956-1961, were dominated by the Horned Frogs.  World War II was bad for every Texas team, except the Longhorns, the only school whose moving SRS trended up during the war.  Another interesting trend is that the performance of the private schools seems to be pretty closely correlated during this time.  While TCU tended to peak higher than the others, when TCU was good, SMU, Rice, and to a lesser extent, Baylor (they got good in the '50s, not so much in the '30s) were also good.  When TCU was bad, all the private schools tended to be bad.

 

Then comes the protracted dismal mediocrity of TCU football leading up to the dissolution of the SWC ...

 

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This period of time shows most of the third era not dominated by UT, the Sherrill/Slocum A&M years which emerge from the precipitous decline of SMU after the death penalty and the wild oscillations of Houston, caught in a morbid cycle of cheating and draconian punishment.  We'll talk a little more about the collapse of the SWC in the next section.

 

Then we have the post-SWC years:

 

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This era is notable for the slow and steady rise of the Frogs, the bottoming out and then rapid ascent of Baylor, and then the emergence of perhaps a 4th era of non-Longhorn dominance with Baylor, TCU, and A&M outperforming Texas over the last 3-4 years.

 

SWC

Again, since the SWC was pretty much the same schools as above, sans UTEP, UNT, and Texas State, avec Arkansas, and Tech and Houston only appear after they joined, respectively, this will look similar to the above chart.

 

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Perhaps the thing that stands out the most to me is the fact that Arkansas was a non-factor in the conference until 1960 or so.  And they had fallen off significantly from their early 80s high before they left for the SEC in 1992.  Which indicates that it wasn't the move to the SEC that hurt the Hogs; they had been sliding toward mediocrity for the better part of the decade prior.

 

The next chart shows the early years.  The short tenures of the Oklahoma schools are included, but not Southwestern's sole year as a member.  SMU was added as Oklahoma left and TCU was added as Oklahoma State (nee Oklahoma A&M) left.  Not surprisingly, the AP MNC teams (1939 A&M and 1938 TCU) were the best teams of this era.

 

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Next we see the true heyday of the conference, from the end of WWII through the early 1960's.  From 1947-1961 (and if you ignore Tech who struggled for a number of years after being admitted to the SWC, you can expand the time frame out to 1968), not a single program in the conference had a below average 5-year MAV.  By the end of this heyday, Texas and Arkansas had clearly separated from the rest of the conference and the other schools were all in states of relative decline, but until the late 1960's, every program in the conference was better than most.  Despite the parity during these years, Texas was the dominant program throughout, save for the brief era of Frog predominance in the late 50s -- the seven best individual seasons during this time were all by the Longhorns, the best being the 1947 team.

 

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Then we come to the end.  If you take a snapshot of the early 80s, the conference still looks pretty salty.  Texas and Arkansas have come back to the pack a little bit but are still very good.  Jackie Sherrill has begun to make A&M relevant, Houston comes into the league immediately competitive, and SMU gets really good.  Of course, in hindsight, we know why this all happened ... A&M, Houston, and SMU were all blatantly cheating.  But setting that aside, the SWC circa 1980 is still a damn fine football conference.

 

But then things go bad quickly.  A&M, Houston, and SMU all get hit with NCAA sanctions and fall precipitously.  Texas and Arkansas continue to slide.  Then Arkansas bolts to the SEC.  Houston miraculously starts getting good again, then gets busted for cheating again, and then gets really bad very quickly.

 

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A few notes about the 1984 TCU team.  A common mythology about the Wacker-led Frogs is that the team was on the verge of ascendancy before the NCAA levied the "Living Death Penalty" on the Frogs in 1985.  However, based on the SRS metric at least, there isn't a lot of evidence to support either an emerging Frog powerhouse or a sharp decline after the sanctions hit.  The 1984 team was the beneficiary of a particularly weak conference that year.  TCU had an SRS around 6 (i.e., the Frogs were about 6 points better, on average, than an average college football team), which is good, especially compared to the teams immediately before and after, but not spectacular.  The teams with higher SRS that season, SMU, Arkansas, and Texas, were all only a few points higher than the Frogs that year.  And when looking at the 5-year MAV, the Frogs had climbed a little from their late 1970s low, but the program was remarkably and consistently mediocre from 1979 through the end of the conference, staying between an SRS of 0 to -5.  Compare the Frog's MAV to Houston's over the same time period.  Cougar fans could reasonably argue that they suffered two "Living Death Penalties" over a 15-year period, with two performance declines that followed NCAA sanctions that rivaled the decline SMU suffered after the Actual Death Penalty.

 

Which leads to another point.  At the time when the conference collapsed, there were four teams with above average MAVs and four teams with below average MAVs.  All politics aside, it was the four above average teams that were invited to the Big 12 and the four below average teams that were left behind.  In some alternate universe, if Houston had not suffered the severe NCAA sanctions imposed during the Jenkins era and had remained at least above average for the remaining half-decade, would the Cougars have bumped Baylor or Tech as the fourth invitee to the Big 12?  Houston never had the political clout that Baylor had, and probably not even the clout Tech had, but would the legislature have felt pressure to get the other state school invited?  Enough to get five Texas teams invited to the Big 12?  Or would that have caused Nebraska to blow the whole merger up before it started?  If Houston had stayed good, would there have been a Big 12?

 

All told, the SWC at the time of the collapse was an awfully mediocre football conference.  Probably more on par with the MWC conference we played in (perhaps not even as strong at the top as that conference, but probably not quite as weak at the bottom either) than with the current slate of "Power 5" conferences.

 

But of course, that alternate universe is not ours.  In ours, the Frogs then joined the ...

 

WAC/MWC (preceded by the Rocky Mountain/Mountain States Athletic/Skyline Conference)

 

As was the case with the basketball charts, the WAC/MWC chart is a holy mess of schools across multiple conferences.  Since I was primarily interested in the dynastic strength of programs over time more than a rigorous history of conference membership, I thought it more interesting to look at programs across conferences.  So forgive the messiness ...

 

The first chart shows the conference around the time of TCU's inclusion.

 

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As we entered, BYU was still king with an emergent Colorado State and Air Force.  And you can see right off the bat why the "Gang of 5" might have been less than enthused about the teams added to their conference.  Rice, TCU, SMU, Tulsa, San Jose, and UNLV all come in in 1996 as well below average teams; of the members prior to that season, only the soon-to-be abandoned UTEP was as bad as the six new teams.  The MWC splits after the 1998 season, leaving all the new additions behind and Urban Meyer's Utes begin to ascend, topped off by the best ever WAC/MWC team in 2004.  Boise joins the WAC after we leave in 2000, becoming with Fresno, the only good WAC programs for much of the 2000s.

 

TCU joins the MWC in 2005 and the conference quickly becomes the three-headed Hydra monster of TCU, Utah, and BYU.  A declining Fresno leaves Boise as the only good team in the WAC and they join the MWC after Utah and BYU bolt in 2011.  The WAC folds as a football conference after the 2012 season and the MWC is left with a declining Boise, and a sharply ascendant Utah State and San Diego State.

 

The next chart shows the WAC prior to the failed 16-team experiment.  This conference started out as the Rocky Mountain Conference and included Colorado, Colorado College, Colorado School of Mines, Denver, and Utah State.  The Colorado schools were all pretty dominant in the early days of the conference but began to decline rapidly as World War II approached and were not invited to the Mountain States/Skyline Conference when it formed in 1938.  Utah had the first period of dominance in the early Depression era.  BYU was surprisingly uncompetitive and remained so all the way into the early 1970s.

 

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After WWII, Colorado leaves and joins the then Big 7 and is replaced by Montana.  In 1963, the WAC was formed, leaving out Montana, Denver, and Utah State and adding New Mexico, Arizona, and Arizona State.  ASU is one of, if not the, dominant program in the conference (bumping Wyoming's decade-long run of relative dominance) until they and Arizona leave for the PAC 10 after the 1977 season.  UTEP joins in 1968, and after the Arizona schools leave, San Diego State, Hawaii, and Air Force join in consecutive years.  At this point, BYU emerges as the dominant program.

 

CUSA/AAC

 

Ever so briefly, the Frogs were in Conference USA.  CUSA was formed the year after the SWC dissolved, with Houston landing there while the rest of the SWC rejects went to the WAC.  Many of the founding members of CUSA were playing as football independents prior to forming the conference, but most had spent some time in the Missouri Valley Conference at some point.  A lot of teams have come in and out of CUSA and most of the original members are now in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) which formed after the dissolution of the Big East as a football conference.  In the chart below, the schools shown after the formation of the AAC are a hodge-podge of teams currently in both conferences, but I didn't include many of the WAC and Sun Belt teams that moved to CUSA after the AAC split.  The chart is busy enough already, and those teams are accounted for in Part 2.

 

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When the conference formed, USM, ECU, Louisville, and Memphis all enter having been consistently average over the previous decade.  Cincinnati had been pretty bad in the early 1990s but had pulled themselves up to nearly average by the time the CUSA formed.  Tulsa, who had largely been in league with these other schools, went to the WAC initially, but joined CUSA with SMU and Rice after they defected from the WAC.

 

The first decade of CUSA was dominated buy Southern Miss.  Tulane was bad at the outset of the conference, but became competitive in quickly with the Shaun King-led undefeated 1998 team, then quickly faded back into mediocrity.  Louisville was becoming ascendant just as they left to join the Big East, culminating with the best ever CUSA season in 2004.  The ascendant Louisville years coincide with TCU's brief tenure in the conference, and USM, Louisville, and TCU all battled for conference supremacy in the early 2000, but all three programs were far from world-beaters at the time with SRS MAVs around 5.

 

In 2005, the conference underwent a wholesale change of members as Louisville, Cincinnati, and USF went to the Big East, TCU went to the Mountain West, and Army went Independent.  Tulsa, SMU, Rice, and UTEP came over from the WAC; UCF joined, and Marshall moved from the MAC.  From this point, the conference has seen the emergence of Houston, Tulsa, and UCF.

 

The next chart shows the history of most of the founding members of CUSA before starting the conference.  This history includes a very incomplete history of some of the Missouri Valley teams that showed up on their schedules often throughout their histories.

 

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Of all the CUSA founders, Tulsa has been playing "big time" college football the longest, dating back to their inclusion in the Missouri Valley prior to the Great Depression.  At that time the conference included former SWC outcast Oklahoma State/A&M and schools like Grinnell, Creighton, Drake, and Washington(Mo).  Tulsa largely dominated these early years.  As many of these schools began to drop down in classification and Oklahoma State left to join the Big 8, Cincinnati and North Texas appear in the mid 1950s followed by Memphis, USM, Louisville and New Mexico State in the 1960s.  Tulane leaves the SEC and starts playing many of these schools in 1966 and East Carolina appears in 1977.  Memphis was the strongest team of the group during the 1960s.  The 70s saw Memphis, Tulane, and ECU battling for supremacy and the 80s saw the dominance of USM.

 

Tune in next week when we talk about the Big 6/7/8/12/XII-II and the rest of college football.

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Great post!

 

I don't think Houston would have stood a chance to get invited to the Big 12 back in the mid-'90s. The Big 12 might have taken the four best football schools from the SWC, but we all know they only wanted two. Baylor and Tech had political connections Houston didn't have, and UH always had the reputation of being an SWC outsider, anyway, having only joined in 1976. Houston's location and student body might have been a bit urban for the Big 12's taste the time, too. 

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24 minutes ago, Boston Frog said:

Great post!

 

I don't think Houston would have stood a chance to get invited to the Big 12 back in the mid-'90s. The Big 12 might have taken the four best football schools from the SWC, but we all know they only wanted two. Baylor and Tech had political connections Houston didn't have, and UH always had the reputation of being an SWC outsider, anyway, having only joined in 1976. Houston's location and student body might have been a bit urban for the Big 12's taste the time, too. 

 

I agree with all of this.   The flip side of this though was that the state legislature was always going to threaten to turn the screws on UT and A&M if they left on their own.  I just wonder if things would have turned out differently if the timing had been such that Houston didn't make it easy on them to make the "we took the 4 best teams" argument.  Even though being one of the 4 best teams really had almost nothing to do with it ...

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4 minutes ago, Duquesne Frog said:

 

I agree with all of this.   The flip side of this though was that the state legislature was always going to threaten to turn the screws on UT and A&M if they left on their own.  I just wonder if things would have turned out differently if the timing had been such that Houston didn't make it easy on them to make the "we took the 4 best teams" argument.  Even though being one of the 4 best teams really had almost nothing to do with it ...

I see what you're saying, but I think Houston would have been easy to dismiss. SMU, TCU  or Rice might have been different, especially if Gib Lewis had still been speaker of the house and not in prison, but Houston had no history and very little love. I can't imagine that there have ever been that many UH grads in the legislature. Houston also never had many fans. If another of the privates had had a successful, well-attended program at the time to go along with Baylor, that would have been a different story. Especially Rice given the academic profile there. 

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