Four-Year F/+ Averages

In all of our Summer Vacation profiles, we make mention of four-year F/+ Average as one of the best predictors available.  As I've said a thousand times over the last couple of years, the best predictor of college football success is past success, and four-year history has nearly equal correlations to future success as last year's performance.  Though obviously the quality of a 2011 team has little to do with who may have been in uniform in 2007 -- Pat White has little to do with Dana Holgorsen and the 2011 WVU offense, for instance -- four-year history paints a pretty clear picture of overall program health, depth and potential.

So ... what else can four-year history tell us?  For starters, it's a pretty good tool for evaluating conferences as a whole.  And it certainly gives us interesting results.  In the future, we're going to look at this to review some conference realignment scenarios, but we should start with the basics. Below is a look at conferences ranked by four-year averages; for this example, I removed each conference's maximum and minimum, but the order remains almost the same if you count all teams.

And as a reminder, F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Top Four Only
SEC 11.3% 20.7%
Pac-10 7.0% 15.5%
Big East 6.4% 11.8%
ACC 6.3% 13.3%
Big Ten 5.4% 15.7%
Big 12 4.4% 15.9%
Mountain West -3.7% 10.8%
Conference USA -7.1% 0.0%
WAC -9.7% 2.6%
MAC -10.8% -6.7%
Sun Belt -13.2% -8.3%

So here's a question right off the bat: how do you evaluate conferences?  Top to bottom?  Top only?  Because looking at things simply as a matter of average (even with max and min removed) gives us some odd results.

The Big East's top four barely average better than those of the Mountain West ... but top to bottom, they are actually stronger than quite a few conferences -- only one team (Syracuse) has a four-year average below Louisville's minus-0.9%.  As it was constituted last year, the Big 12 had four teams below minus-0.9%, five below zero.  But the Big 12's top four teams were quite a bit better than the Big East's.

Comparing the Big East to the Big 12 is but one example, obviously.  The Big Ten is generally considered stronger than the ACC -- and indeed, the Big Ten's top four teams are superior -- but while the ACC has one team with a four-year average below zero, the Big Ten has four.  So is top-to-bottom depth a very good thing, or do you need some potential title contenders to be considered strong?

After the jump: a conference-by-conference look.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
Florida SEC 26.4% 1
Alabama SEC 23.5% 4
LSU SEC 18.3% 10
Auburn SEC 14.4% 14
Georgia SEC 12.8% 16
Arkansas SEC 12.3% 18
South Carolina SEC 12.0% 19
Tennessee SEC 7.6% 37
Ole Miss SEC 5.7% 42
Kentucky SEC 3.4% 46
Mississippi State SEC 3.2% 48
Vanderbilt SEC -5.5% 77

Four-year average gives you a decent look at how teams might be expected to finish in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections.  Last year does carry more weight than four years ago when all is said and done, but this does hint that Auburn, with only a good-not-great four-year average and a low number of returning starters, will not be starting out too high.

How does the SEC get to a comfortable No. 1?  Just look at the seventh-place team.  The SEC's is South Carolina at 19th.  The ACC: 39th.  The Big Ten: 45th.  The Pac-10: 47th.  The Big 12: 56th.  The Big East: 66th.  All 12 teams have made bowl games in the last 12 years, and 11 rank 48th or better.  But you already knew the SEC was No. 1.  It's everything after No. 1 that is interesting.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
USC Pac-10 20.9% 6
Oregon Pac-10 20.2% 7
Oregon State Pac-10 10.9% 25
Stanford Pac-10 9.7% 28
Arizona Pac-10 8.6% 34
California Pac-10 5.7% 41
Arizona State Pac-10 3.2% 47
UCLA Pac-10 0.3% 58
Washington Pac-10 -3.1% 69
Washington State Pac-10 -17.3% 114

After the results of 2009-10, it's almost possible to forget how good USC has been within what is still a rather small frame of time.  They were great in 2007 and 2008, and they're still the conference's pre-eminent program from a 20,000-foot view.  At least for now.  Oregon's catching up awfully quickly.

In all, though the F/+ formulas (particularly those making up the S&P+) were not impressed with Oregon's schedule last year, the numbers do respect the Pac-10 as a whole.  Removing the maximum and minimum helped the Pac-10 more than any other conference, since their 'minimum' team (Wazzu) has been incredibly awful.

Two other notes here: 1) Oregon State is an extremely underrated program, and 2) Stanford was really, really good last year -- they had to be to counter some awful 2007 numbers.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
West Virginia Big East 15.7% 12
Pittsburgh Big East 11.7% 22
Cincinnati Big East 10.8% 27
South Florida Big East 8.8% 31
Connecticut Big East 5.8% 40
Rutgers Big East 1.9% 52
Louisville Big East -0.9% 66
Syracuse Big East -7.6% 81

Like USC, we forget how good West Virginia was not very long ago.  They were a top team in 2007, and because of that, they still hold a solid edge overall.  And in all, the balance of power has shifted just enough from year to year that only one team finishes in the Top 20 ... but five finish in the Top 40.

Again, I'm not going to try to tell you that the Big East is the third-best conference, but if we value quality at the bottom as much as quality at the top, the Big East's depth of solid, unspectacular teams helps them out from a numbers perspective.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
Virginia Tech ACC 19.4% 8
Clemson ACC 13.3% 15
Florida State ACC 11.7% 23
Miami ACC 8.8% 32
Boston College ACC 8.7% 33
North Carolina ACC 7.2% 38
Georgia Tech ACC 6.6% 39
Maryland ACC 2.5% 50
N.C. State ACC 2.5% 51
Wake Forest ACC 1.4% 54
Virginia ACC 0.1% 59
Duke ACC -6.9% 79

Both east coast conferences are helped out by the top-to-bottom look.  Florida State may be surging, but their four-year history is still only solid; meanwhile, Clemson's ability to simultaneously look great and underachieve gets them a spot in the Top 15 while averaging fewer than eight wins per season over the last four years.  Again, there is only one elite team here, but there are also seven in the Top 40, and only one below 60th.  Virginia has looked mostly terrible the last couple of years, but their 2007 season keeps their numbers propped up at least a hair.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
Ohio State Big Ten 23.6% 2
Penn State Big Ten 15.5% 13
Iowa Big Ten 11.9% 20
Wisconsin Big Ten 11.8% 21
Michigan State Big Ten 7.9% 36
Illinois Big Ten 5.2% 43
Michigan Big Ten 4.2% 45
Purdue Big Ten -0.9% 65
Northwestern Big Ten -2.6% 68
Minnesota Big Ten -4.4% 72
Indiana Big Ten -7.3% 80

The Big Ten's No. 1 team is obvious, but the rotating cast of No. 2's has hurt a bit.  When a potential No. 2 tumbles, they tumble pretty far -- Iowa went 6-6 in 2007, Penn State 7-6 in 2010, Wisconsin 7-6 in 2008.  The lack of a clear No. 2 hurts when the bottom of your conference is pretty awful.  Indiana places 80th despite their decent 2007 season, Minnesota has been mostly bad, and the numbers just really don't like Northwestern very much, even when they're winning games.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
Oklahoma Big 12 23.5% 3
Texas Big 12 16.4% 11
Missouri Big 12 12.5% 17
Oklahoma State Big 12 11.2% 24
Texas Tech Big 12 9.4% 29
Nebraska Big 12 8.9% 30
Texas A&M Big 12 0.5% 56
Kansas Big 12 -0.6% 62
Kansas State Big 12 -4.5% 73
Colorado Big 12 -4.7% 75
Baylor Big 12 -5.2% 76
Iowa State Big 12 -10.2% 91

Ah, the Big 12.  The conference ranks second if you look at just the top four teams -- only the Big Ten and SEC can also brag of four Top 25 programs -- but the bottom needs some work.  The loss of Nebraska is tempered by the loss of mostly lowly Colorado (I know people still consider CU a budding power because they were once great, but with their current talent and cashflow, they've got a large uphill battle; their problems went beyond simply "Dan Hawkins was their coach" in recent years), but even without the Buffs, no other major conference has three teams ranked 70th or worse.  And that doesn't include the fact that Kansas is, like Virginia, propped up by their 2007 season.  A&M is putting things together again, and that will help quite a bit (as will the nine-game conference schedules, really), but the Big 12 is the hardest conference to read.  One of the strongest at the top, one of the weakest at the bottom.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
TCU Mountain West 21.1% 5
Utah Mountain West 10.9% 26
BYU Mountain West 8.5% 35
Air Force Mountain West 2.7% 49
Colorado State Mountain West -11.1% 94
San Diego State Mountain West -11.3% 95
Wyoming Mountain West -12.7% 99
New Mexico Mountain West -12.8% 100
UNLV Mountain West -14.5% 109

The Mountain West, then, is the Big 12 squared.  Strong at the top, awful at the bottom.  The net result of adding Boise State and losing Utah and BYU magnifies this feature.  With Boise, the MWC has two Top 10 programs ... and then Air Force at No. 49.  And then a bunch of teams worse than 90th.  Yikes.  I'm interested to see if Rocky Long can keep San Diego State pointed in the right direction; Brady Hoke recruited well enough to potentially sustain their momentum for a bit, but they're still paying for being atrocious in 2007-08.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
East Carolina Conference USA 0.8% 55
Central Florida Conference USA 0.4% 57
Tulsa Conference USA -0.4% 60
Houston Conference USA -0.8% 64
Southern Miss Conference USA -1.1% 67
SMU Conference USA -7.9% 82
Marshall Conference USA -8.1% 84
UTEP Conference USA -11.0% 93
UAB Conference USA -12.3% 98
Rice Conference USA -14.2% 104
Memphis Conference USA -15.9% 112
Tulane Conference USA -17.5% 115

CUSA is not nearly as top-heavy as the Mountain West -- there's more balance and less elite talent.  Five teams have been a step ahead of the rest, though the conference would be well-served if a team like UAB or Marshall would start making the same type of progress that SMU has made in recent years.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
Boise State WAC 18.9% 9
Nevada WAC -0.7% 63
Fresno State WAC -3.5% 70
Hawaii WAC -4.5% 74
Louisiana Tech WAC -9.2% 88
Utah State WAC -14.4% 107
San Jose State WAC -17.1% 113
Idaho WAC -18.4% 117
New Mexico State WAC -23.4% 120

Without Boise State, this conference becomes below average in a hurry.  Without Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii, this conference is much worse than even the Sun Belt.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
Central Michigan MAC -4.1% 71
Northern Illinois MAC -6.3% 78
Temple MAC -7.9% 83
Western Michigan MAC -8.5% 85
Bowling Green MAC -8.6% 86
Ohio MAC -9.2% 87
Ball State MAC -9.7% 89
Buffalo MAC -11.5% 96
Toledo MAC -13.1% 102
Kent State MAC -13.2% 103
Miami-OH MAC -15.5% 110
Akron MAC -15.5% 111
Eastern Michigan MAC -19.4% 119

The MAC has seemingly regressed in recent years; the bottom of the MAC is always pretty bad, but the top of the conference isn't quite as good as it used to be.  Central Michigan and Northern Illinois have taken turns performing well, and Temple's obviously improved, but still ... yuck.

Team Conference 4YR F/+ Avg Rk
Troy Sun Belt -0.5% 61
Middle Tennessee Sun Belt -9.9% 90
Arkansas State Sun Belt -10.9% 92
Florida Atlantic Sun Belt -11.9% 97
Florida International Sun Belt -13.0% 101
UL-Lafayette Sun Belt -14.4% 106
UL-Monroe Sun Belt -14.5% 108
North Texas Sun Belt -17.6% 116
Western Kentucky Sun Belt -19.1% 118

I talked up the Sun Belt quite a bit in recent Summer Vacation profiles, saying the conference was getting its act together.  I believe that, but there are still quite a few miles to walk.  Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State, Florida International and UL-Monroe all look like teams pointed in the right direction, but they're still 90th or worse frmo a four-year perspective.  I do think the Sun Belt can catch the MAC at some point, and lord knows the WAC is falling apart quickly, but the Sun Belt does still have last place wrapped up for now.

So now that we've laid out how four-year history sees the world, we can look back at last year's conference realignment drama, see what impact it had, see what impact it could have had, and see what impact it still might have.

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