Yesterday, some network (TVLand?) ran a Cheers! marathon starting with the first ever episode which aired on September 29, 1982. On that Wednesday, the American TV audience, one limited to an unthinkable half dozen TV channels from which to choose, stood up from their couches, walked over to the TV, and turned a knob to whatever number corresponded to their NBC affiliate station, and "Must See TV" was born.
On the Saturday prior, SMU's Pony Express, ranked 6th in the country at the time and on their way to a SWC title and number 2 ranking in the AP at season's end, beat TCU in Texas Stadium by a score of 16-13. This was a TCU team still a few years away from the Unbelieeeeevable! Jim Wacker-led team of 1984; it was in fact, what would be 3-8 TCU team, in F.A. Dry's last season as coach, with wins over Utah State, Rice and Baylor.
This wasn't SMU's only less-than-impressive victory on the year. SMU only beat Baylor by 3, a team TCU beat by 24. They beat a .500 Houston team by 6 at home. They beat a 4-7 Texas Tech team by 7. Yes, they won, but these were mediocre-to-bad teams in a mediocre conference.
The only genuinely good teams in the conference and on SMU's schedule (their non-conference schedule consisted of Tulane, UTEP, and North Texas State, all of whom were about as good then as they are now) were Texas and Arkansas. And SMU did beat Texas by two scores, 31-17, (although they were outgained by Texas slightly) and tied Arkansas, 17-17 (again, outgained slightly).
Cause They're Still Preoccupied With 19 ... 19 ... 1982
This was a pretty fascinating year in college football, and the stuff of a lot of future ESPN 30-for-30 documentaries. This was the season before the famous Elway-Marino draft of 1983. Herschel Walker won the Heisman at Georgia. Auburn had some freshman kid named Bo lead their team in rushing. Howard Schnellenberger, in his 4th year at Miami, was one year away from launching the next college football dynasty. Marcus Dupree was leading college football in yards per carry at OU and would blow out his knee the next season.
Schnellenberger's starting quarterback was current Georgia coach Mark Richt (Jim Kelly spent much of the year hurt and Vinny Testaverde was 4th string). Fresno State's starting quarterback was recently fired Cal coach Jeff Tedford who was throwing to Henry Ellard. Rick Neuheisel was backing up at UCLA. Steve Young was calling the signals in Provo. Doug Flutie was starting for Boston College, still two years away from throwing the most famous Hail Mary in college football history. Randall Cunningham and Boomer Esiason were calling the plays for UNLV and Maryland, respectively.
The game was played quite a bit differently then as well. Despite the much vaunted class of quarterbacks who were drafted that following spring, only 5 threw for more than 3000 yards in 1982: Todd Dillon, Long Beach State, 3517 (yes, they were D1-A then); Tony Eason, Illinois, 3248; John Elway, Stanford, 3242; Steve Young, BYU, 3100; and Ben Bennett, Duke, 3033 yards. Only three receivers had 1000 yards: Ellard, 1510; Mark Clayton, Louisville, 1112; and Darral Hambrick of UNLV, 1060. In 2012, thirty-eight quarterbacks threw for over 3000 yards and thirty-six receivers had 1000 or more yards.
The landscape was quite a bit different as well. Obviously the SWC existed and Arkansas was still there. There were twenty-five Independent D1-A programs including most of what would become the Big East and CUSA. The ACC only had 7 teams. The Big 8 had, well, 8. The Big 10 had ... 10. This was the era when the number in an official conference designation actually meant something. The SEC only had 10 teams.
And the "minor" conferences were completely different. The MAC still existed, albeit with only 10 teams. The WAC was the original WAC before it sorta became the Mountain West by a process that most of us remember all to well. The other two conferences were the Missouri Valley Conference, dominated by Tulsa, but also including Wichita State, West Texas A&M, and New Mexico State, among others, and the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, which would morph into the Big West Conference and included at the time Fresno, the Jack Elway led San Jose State (who beat his son's Stanford team that year), UNLV, and others.
At the end of the season, the nation rejoiced as living legend and man of unassailable character, Joe Paterno, won his first national championship in his 17th season at 55 years of age. Going into January 1 (back in the stone ages when the season ended on New Years Day), undefeated and #1 Georgia was playing 1-loss #2 Penn State in the Sugar Bowl. #3 Nebraska, who Penn State had beaten 27-24 in State College in week 4, was 10-1 and in the Orange Bowl against 13th ranked 8-2-1 LSU.
Penn State went on to beat Georgia 27-23 to claim the MNC.
However, based on the DUSHEE metric, Nebraska was far and away the best team in college football that year. Here is the DUSHEE top-25 for 1982:
Rk Team PD YD Score
1 Nebraska 29.87 253.14 100.00
2 Penn St. 23.93 103.87 67.21
3 North Carolina 18.11 202.49 67.02
4 Florida St. 19.95 149.10 64.18
5 Pittsburgh 17.87 149.38 59.56
6 Texas 17.91 139.10 58.31
7 UCLA 17.52 115.82 54.39
8 USC 17.88 108.35 54.23
9 LSU 16.42 124.80 53.09
10 Maryland 15.76 116.93 50.58
11 Oklahoma 13.76 138.22 48.87
12 Arkansas 14.40 125.99 48.73
13 Arizona St. 14.68 118.28 48.35
14 BYU 14.35 122.58 48.16
15 Alabama 14.60 106.68 46.64
16 Georgia 17.04 33.05 42.52
17 Ohio St. 13.93 76.66 41.23
18 SMU 13.54 66.86 39.08
19 Southern Miss 12.93 77.34 39.07
20 Washington 12.87 76.73 38.86
21 Michigan 14.33 49.06 38.53
22 West Virginia 12.35 76.24 37.64
23 Florida 10.87 83.26 35.24
24 Illinois 9.88 81.26 32.75
25 Clemson 13.26 20.42 32.39
Table 1: Top 25 in DUSHEE score in 1982
A few things jump out about these numbers that we'll discuss further:
1) Why is Nebraska so much higher than Penn State when Penn State beat them?
2) 4-loss North Carolina? WTF, DUSHEE?
3) Why are Georgia and SMU so low?
1) Nebraska-Penn State
As mentioned above, Penn State and Nebraska played on the field and Penn State won. That's all that needs to be said right? Penn State was better.
This is sort of the paradox of using a scheme like this to evaluate performance. Ultimately, the win is all that matters. And in determining who should play for a national championship, what happened on the field probably is all that matters.
But the question of "who was better" is more nuanced. Both teams played 10 other games prior to their bowl game. For each team, their game against each was only roughly 8% of what they did that season. All their other games contributed the other 92%.
Penn State lost a game as well ... to Alabama. Alabama wasn't a bad team in 1982; they wound up 8-4 and unranked (although 15 in DUSHEE). But Penn State lost 42-21 to a team not nearly as good by every quantitative standard you wish to use as Nebraska's loss.
And then there was the rest of the season. Seven of Nebraska's 10 wins on the year were among the top 5 DUSHEE rated performances for the week in which the game was played. Penn State had 2 wins (including Nebraska) rank that high in a given week.
In other words, on a week-to-week basis, Nebraska was playing on a more consistent, high level than Penn State was.
Figure 1: Histogram of week-to-week DUSHEE performance scores for Nebraska, Penn State, North Carolina, SMU, and Georgia during the 1982 season. On the y-axis label, "wins" should be "games"
So you can see that from this chart, Penn State only had 2 games where they scored out better than 100, including the Nebraska game. Nebraska, on the other hand, had 7 games where they scored out 100 or better. The Penn State game for them was one of the games in the 0-50 block. The Alabama game is the game in the < 0 block for Penn State.
So was Penn State the better team? Maybe. Were they a little fortunate to have played one of their best games against Nebraska at the same time that Nebraska played one of their worst? Maybe. Or was there just something about the matchup between the two where Penn State had an intangible advantage that doesn't necessarily show up in a box score?
Hard to say definitively. But if I were a betting man and the two played 100 times that season, my money would have been on Nebraska to win more than they lost.
2) 4-Loss North Carolina
As I mentioned in the last entry, every year there is at least 1 team that DUSHEE places in significantly higher esteem than pretty much anybody else in the world. In 1982, that team was North Carolina.
UNC's 4 losses were: 1) a 1-point loss to Pitt (#5 DUSHEE), 2) a 7-point loss to Boomer Esiason's Maryland team (#10 DUSHEE), 3) a 3-point loss to Clemson (#25 DUSHEE) and 4) a 6-point loss to Duke (#47 DUSHEE). So all of their losses were close games and, aside from Duke, to high quality opponents. UNC also outgained Pitt (by 50) and Clemson (by 123).
They pounded everybody else on their schedule, including a bunch of so-so teams, but also including three good to really good teams: 1) A 24-point win (313 YM) over Vandy (#40 DUSHEE), 2) a 19-point, 261-yard win over Bowling Green (#31 DUSHEE) and a 16-point, 125-yard win over Texas (#6 DUSHEE) in the Sun Bowl. In their 8 wins, they beat their opponents by an average of 36-9.
So North Carolina was a case of a good team doing what it should against bad teams (beating the hell out of them), beating the hell out of most of the mediocre teams it faced, and going .500 against the good teams, blowing half out and losing to the others in squeakers.
If a team plays a good team closely, the difference between a 1-point win and a 1-point loss is the difference between a PD of, say, 16 rather than 14. It has very little overall impact on the DUSHEE score the team earns on that day.
A fatal flaw in the system, some might say. I say that the system is measuring average capability in a noisy data set. A one-point loss today could have easily been a 6-point win if played the next week.
3) Whither Georgia and SMU?
How can 4-loss UNC be so high when one-loss Georgia and one-tie SMU were so low?
Well, I've already spoiled the SMU analysis. Unlike North Carolina, SMU struggled to beat some bad teams in 1982. Here is how DUSHEE scored the Southwest Conference that year:
Rk Team PD YD Score
6 Tex 17.91 139.10 58.31
12 Ark 14.40 125.99 48.73
18 SMU 13.54 66.86 39.08
65 Bay -3.96 -30.84 -12.91
66 Hou -7.53 24.95 -13.63
70 Tech -4.92 -51.01 -17.68
85 TCU -9.47 -71.74 -30.60
86 A&M -8.97 -97.44 -32.83
104 Rice -20.03 -89.80 -56.62
Table 2: DUSHEE ranking of the SWC in 1982
The SWC was very Mountain West-esque in 1982. In fact, on average, the WAC was a slightly better conference in 1982 than the SWC was. The average opponent beat Baylor by 4, Tech by 5, Houston by over a TD, TCU and A&M by 9, and Rice by 20. SMU managed to outdo the average opponent against A&M and Rice but underperformed compared to Baylor's, Houston's, and TCU's average opponent. SMU was outgained by Tech by 72 yards. SMU had three games with negative DUSHEE scores, UTEP, Baylor, and Texas Tech
So compared to UNC, SMU did not do what good teams should do ... beat the hell out of bad and mediocre opponents. And they didn't have enough good opponents to make up the difference on that end.
Georgia's lower than expected score comes from their YD shortfall. Georgia was outgained by their opponent in 5 of their 11 wins. Georgia was 9th in the country in PD, 39th in YD. Nonetheless, even if one dismisses the low YD, Georgia was still far from the top in PD. Georgia also failed to blow out several weak opponents including Kentucky (13-point win against a team that got beat by an average of 18 points against everybody else) and Mississippi State. Georgia just kinda plodded along, good but not great, but winning every game. The exception to that was a 44-0 blowout of a good Florida team. That was the only game where Georgia's DUSHEE score exceeded 65. Compare that to how Penn State and Nebraska did in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Figure 1 with North Carolina, SMU, and Georgia added
And in the end ...
So what does all this mean? The results of the 1982 season are bogus? Penn State should return their MNC trophy and Herschel Walker should give his Heisman to Mike Rozier?
Probably not. Penn State beat Nebraska. They might have won on "puncher's chance" type odds, but they won nonetheless. Was Georgia clearly the best team in the country going into the bowls by virtue of being undefeated? Maybe not.
College football teams are erratic. Their performance varies greatly from week to week. If a lowly team has the good fortune to pair its best game of the season against the powerhouse's worst game, then upsets happen. Play that game again and the lowly underdog probably gets treated like the lowly underdog.
In a league where a lot of teams play such a small schedule, you have to live with the variability. If a team gets lucky and wins an improbable game, you live with the result. And with such a short schedule, the odds of that improbable result affecting rankings and standings are very high. In major league baseball, the random improbable win over C.C. Sabathia is irrelevant over a 162 game season.
Or as Coach would say, "I'm not a rich man, I'm not a young man, I'm not a handsome man, I'm not a tall man, I'm not a strong man, I'm not a talented man, I'm not a well travelled man, I'm not a smart man, I'm not a milk man, I'm not a fat man, I'm not a gingerbread man, I'm not a..."