No sport embraces and identifies itself with history and their numbers quite like baseball. Ted Williams’ .406 batting average in 1941. Hank Aaron's 755 career home runs. Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak. The "Iron Man" Cal Ripken Jr.'s 2,632 games-played streak. Baseball fans identify with these numbers. These numbers are what make these men the "legends" of their sport.
College football fans don’t really wear their numbers on their sleeve in the same manner. But what if they did? What numbers would define which programs are the legends of college football? All-time wins? Bowl wins? Titles? For this discussion, we're going to use all-time winning percentage.
Guessing the handful of teams that top the all-time best winning percentage list isn't difficult. It's no surprise that programs like Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas, Alabama, Nebraska, USC, etc., top the list. Just like Hammerin' Hank established himself as a baseball legend by sending 755 over the fence, the winning percentage of these programs validates their status as the legends of college football.
Or does it?
At the end of last week’s column, I noted that, in college football, more than any other sport, who you play matters. In a sport with 120 teams, each of which only plays 12 or 13 of the other teams, which 12 or 13 teams you play makes all the difference.
See 2010 for a perfect example. On the road to the BCS Championship game, Auburn faced six opponents that finished in the top 25. TCU, who also went undefeated on its way to the Rose Bowl, faced zero opponents of such quality. That's correct, TCU didn't face a single opponent that finished in the Top 25 until the Rose Bowl. Both teams were undefeated, but their accomplishments in 2t10 were as different as climbing Stone Mountain and climbing Mt. Everest.
This cold hard fact of college football applies to individual seasons like 2010, but it also applies to the 1,000 games in any given programs' entire history. Who you played matters this year, next year, and every year a program has ever played.
To illustrate, we'll go up into the rarified air of college football greats and select a blue blood, a legend for comparison. Nebraska is considered by many to be an all time great program, and sits at a respectable No. 8on the all-time winning % list.
For the comparison, we will only use each program’s record against the current 120 Division 1-A (FBS) programs, thereby excluding past foes such as the Carlisle Indian School (yes, that's an actual opponent of both Auburn and Nebraska).
Here are Auburn and Nebraska's totals against these 120 programs:
Auburn - 972 total games: 562-370-40 - .599 winning %.
Nebraska - 1059 total games: 702-323-34 - .679 winning %.
Listed below, each program’s opponents are broken down into groups. The first group of opponents are programs #1 through #30 on the all-time wins list (the top 25 percent of the 120 programs). The second group are programs No. 31 through No. 60 on the all-time wins list (or the next 25 percent of the 120 programs). The last group are the bottom 60 programs.
The numbers can be a bit overwhelming. But take a moment and digest what you see and look for the following info: How many games did each program play against the top teams? How many games did each program play against the bottom half of all of football? The answers to these questions do a lot to explain why each team has the winning percentage that they have.
AUBURN - 972 total games - Record: 562-370-40 = .599 winning %
566 games vs. programs #1 to #30 (288-256-25 - .526 winning %)
191 games vs. programs #31 to #60 (133-53-5 - .709 winning %)
215 games vs. programs #61 to #120 (144-61-10 - .693 winning %)
Auburn has played 58% of their games against Top 30 programs.
Auburn has played 22% of their games against the bottom half of college football.
NEBRASKA - 1059 total games - Record: 702-323-34 = .679 winning %
351 games vs. programs #1 to #30 (174-163-14 - .516 winning %)
344 games vs. programs #31 to #60 (240-93-11 - .714 winning %)
364 games vs. programs #61 to #120 (288-67-9 - .804 winning %)
Nebraska has played only 33 percent of their games against Top 30 programs. Nebraska has played 34 percent of their games against the bottom half of college football.
Many of you are probably saying, "well no wonder Nebraska has won nearly 68% of their games, only 33% of their games have come against Top 30 competition". Or some of you might be saying, "wow, Auburn has done really well considering nearly 60% of their games have come against Top 30 competition.".
So now we know the caliber of the opponents on which Nebraska's .679 winning % was built. We also now clearly see the incredible challenge (566 games against Top 30 programs) that Auburn has had in achieving a .599 winning %.
So how do we compare them? How do we make sense of what we now know about their opponents? There is one relatively easy way to clearly illustrate how much difference "who you play" truly makes. Simply take each program's winning % against each group of opponents and switch them.
Auburn played 58% of their games against the Top 30. Nebraska only played 33% of their games against the Top 30. Auburn beat tier two programs over 70% of the time. However, only 20% of their games were against such opponents.
As you can imagine, swapping these numbers between the two programs would make a big, big difference in each team's overall winning percentage.
Here's what the records would look like if swapped.....
NEBRASKA with Auburn's schedule:
616 games vs. programs #1 to #30 (306-286-24 - .516 winning %)
209 games vs. programs #31 to #60 (146-56-7 - .715 winning % )
234 games vs. programs #61 to #120 (185-43-6 - .803 winning %)
1059 total games - 637-385-37 = .619 winning %
AUBURN with Nebraska's schedule:
322 games vs. programs #1 to #30 (162-146-14 - .525 winning %)
316 games vs. programs #31 to #60 (220-88-8 - .709 winning % )
334 games vs. programs #61 to #120 (224-95-15 - .693 winning %)
972 total games - 606-329-37 = .642 winning %
So? How does "who you play?" affect Auburn and Nebraska's all-time winning percentage? Had Nebraska played top quality opponents as often as Auburn, their overall winning percentage would take a hit from .679 down to .619.
And on the opposite end of the spectrum...if Auburn had played only 33% of their games against Top 30 programs instead of 58%, their overall winning percentage would jump from .599 up to .642.
Auburn's winning % with Nebraska's opponents - .642%
Nebraska's winning % with Auburn's opponents - .619%
Nebraska is historically a college football "blue blood", obviously, and has earned much of their status as a "legend" program. But when the little detail of "who you play" is brought to light, the validity of that status is at least debatable.
And as no surprise to many Tiger fans, when "who you play" is factored in, the respected, but often overlooked Auburn program turns out to be "legendary" in their own right.
Next week we shift from "who you play" to "who played for you?". There will be a little less math and a lot more history. Using Pat Dye's arrival on the plain as a starting point, we'll look at the NFL draft and where Auburn stands among other top programs at sending players into the league since 1981.