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Revisiting the 2004 college football season: Picking Oklahoma over Auburn was justifiable

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That settles that then, right?

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

For years at Football Outsiders, I've been posting my S&P+ ratings, which I have calculated back to 2005. The formula has changed drastically through the years, and the latest version features lots of bells, whistles, and factors. The oversimplified version: You get an overall rating for each game (based on factors like success rate, IsoPPP, field position factors, etc.), I apply an opponent-adjustment, and ... voila! Ratings!

While promoting the Kickstarter for my upcoming book, The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All-Time (which isn't actually about the 'best' teams at all), my SBN editor Jason Kirk and I thought it would be fun to discuss the actuali best teams in some way. Nothing like confusing people even further, right?

So this month, I unleashed a five-part series (links in the sidebar) rating teams and games based on an estimated S&P+ rating for the seasons before 2005. Since the only data points I have for those games are points scored and points allowed, I tweaked the game rating idea from above, applied similar opponent adjustments, and voila.

The feedback on this series -- both in the comments sections and *cough* my email inbox -- was pretty immense, so I thought it would be fun to share more data moving forward. As time permits, I thought I would take a view of one specific season at a time, moving backwards from 2005. First up, then: 2004.

***

Below are the full-season Est. S&P+ ratings for the 2004 season. The ratings are shared, as always, in two different forms:

  1. The 'official' rating, which is presented as a point differential based on average points scored and allowed that season (so, No. 1 USC was 24.4 points better than the average team that year).

  2. The team's percentile rating, which communicates their place on the bell curve. Since scoring averages change from year to year, this is the rating that was used for the Top 50 Teams and other lists in the SBN series. So USC was right on the borderline of the 99th percentile, OU was about the 98th, Auburn 97th, etc.

Offensive and defensive ratings are also communicated as scoring averages of sorts -- adjusted points scored and allowed, if you will.

I'll share the data first, then make some comments.

S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
1 USC 13-0 24.4 98.94% 37.8 5 13.3 4
2 Oklahoma 12-1 21.3 97.79% 36.5 7 15.1 10
3 Auburn 13-0 19.8 96.94% 31.8 23 12 1
4 Miami-FL 9-3 19.2 96.54% 33.9 14 14.7 7
5 California 10-2 19.0 96.32% 35.9 10 16.9 15
6 Texas 11-1 17.6 95.13% 35.4 11 17.8 18
7 Louisville 11-1 17.1 94.70% 43.5 2 26.4 67
8 Utah 12-0 16.6 94.16% 40.9 3 24.3 49
9 Georgia 10-2 15.0 92.20% 28.2 41 13.1 3
10 Arizona State 9-3 14.3 91.10% 34.3 13 20.1 29
11 Florida State 9-3 13.7 90.15% 26.3 53 12.6 2
12 Iowa 10-2 13.6 90.08% 27.6 43 14 5
13 Virginia 8-4 13.6 90.00% 30.7 30 17.1 16
14 Virginia Tech 10-3 13.5 89.89% 28.5 40 14.9 9
15 Texas Tech 8-4 13.0 88.93% 37.8 6 24.8 53
16 LSU 9-3 13.0 88.93% 29.3 35 16.3 12
17 Boise State 11-1 12.8 88.65% 44 1 31.2 89
18 Texas A&M 7-5 12.1 87.43% 32.5 19 20.3 32
19 Purdue 7-5 12.0 87.08% 30.4 31 18.4 20
20 Oregon State 7-5 11.5 86.20% 31.3 27 19.8 27
21 Michigan 9-3 11.5 86.16% 32.8 18 21.3 36
22 Ohio State 8-4 11.5 86.10% 26.8 48 15.3 11
23 Florida 7-5 11.1 85.32% 32 22 20.9 34
24 Tennessee 10-3 10.3 83.56% 31 28 20.7 33
25 Arkansas 5-6 9.9 82.60% 32.2 20 22.2 38
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
26 Fresno State 9-3 9.6 81.75% 36 9 26.4 68
27 Oklahoma State 7-5 8.4 78.68% 32.9 17 24.5 51
28 North Carolina 6-6 8.2 78.15% 32.1 21 23.8 47
29 Notre Dame 6-6 7.9 77.29% 28 42 20.1 30
30 Georgia Tech 7-5 7.7 76.54% 24.4 70 16.8 13
31 Bowling Green 9-3 7.3 75.37% 38.2 4 30.9 88
32 Minnesota 7-5 6.2 71.95% 29.3 37 23.1 43
33 Wisconsin 9-3 6.1 71.65% 20.9 100 14.9 8
34 UCLA 6-6 5.7 70.40% 30.8 29 25.1 57
35 Kansas 4-7 5.6 70.09% 25.3 61 19.7 25
36 Alabama 6-6 5.2 68.97% 22.1 87 16.9 14
37 UTEP 8-4 5.0 68.10% 34.4 12 29.4 78
38 Boston College 9-3 4.6 66.69% 23.2 81 18.6 21
39 Stanford 4-7 4.4 66.14% 23.7 77 19.3 23
40 West Virginia 8-4 4.3 65.72% 27.2 45 22.9 42
41 NC State 5-6 4.3 65.70% 24 73 19.8 26
42 Kansas State 4-7 4.2 65.40% 33.4 16 29.2 76
43 BYU 5-6 4.1 65.05% 27.6 44 23.5 46
44 Colorado 8-5 4.1 64.93% 26.4 52 22.4 39
45 Penn State 4-7 3.6 63.46% 18.1 113 14.4 6
46 Clemson 6-5 3.4 62.63% 22.7 85 19.3 24
47 Cincinnati 7-5 3.4 62.61% 29.4 34 26 62
48 Pittsburgh 8-4 2.9 60.70% 25.7 59 22.8 41
49 South Carolina 6-5 2.9 60.62% 22.8 84 19.9 28
50 New Mexico 7-5 2.3 58.57% 20.5 103 18.2 19
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
51 Maryland 5-6 2.1 57.95% 19.7 107 17.6 17
52 Michigan State 5-7 1.9 57.00% 29.7 32 27.8 73
53 Troy 7-5 1.7 56.35% 21 98 19.3 22
54 Syracuse 6-6 1.5 55.46% 27 47 25.6 58
55 Northern Illinois 9-3 1.4 55.39% 31.7 25 30.3 82
56 Northwestern 6-6 1.2 54.56% 27.2 46 25.9 59
57 Iowa State 7-5 1.2 54.56% 22.4 86 21.2 35
58 Oregon 5-6 1.1 54.10% 26.2 56 25.1 56
59 Louisiana Tech 6-6 0.9 53.43% 29.3 36 28.4 75
60 Arizona 3-8 0.7 52.70% 21 96 20.3 31
61 Memphis 8-4 0.6 52.42% 33.8 15 33.1 99
62 Nebraska 5-6 0.0 49.97% 25 62 25 55
63 Marshall 6-6 -0.4 48.67% 23 83 23.3 44
64 Missouri 5-6 -0.6 47.56% 21 97 21.6 37
65 Toledo 9-4 -1.0 46.14% 31.8 24 32.8 96
66 Miami-OH 8-5 -1.2 45.32% 26.7 50 28 74
67 Connecticut 8-4 -1.3 45.05% 24.6 66 26 60
68 Southern Miss 7-5 -1.6 43.82% 24.4 69 26.1 63
69 Washington State 5-6 -1.7 43.71% 25.6 60 27.3 71
70 Wake Forest 4-7 -1.7 43.65% 20.9 99 22.6 40
71 Colorado State 4-7 -1.7 43.64% 25.8 58 27.5 72
72 Air Force 5-6 -1.7 43.54% 29.5 33 31.3 90
73 Wyoming 7-5 -2.2 41.93% 24.1 72 26.3 65
74 Ole Miss 4-7 -2.2 41.79% 21.2 93 23.4 45
75 Hawaii 8-5 -2.8 39.74% 36 8 38.8 113
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
76 UAB 7-5 -3.4 37.57% 28.5 39 31.9 92
77 Navy 10-2 -3.5 37.14% 21.5 89 25 54
78 TCU 5-6 -3.9 35.48% 31.6 26 35.6 108
79 San Diego State 4-7 -4.0 35.12% 20.7 102 24.8 52
80 New Mexico State 5-6 -4.2 34.47% 26.5 51 30.7 86
81 Mississippi State 3-8 -5.2 31.04% 19.1 109 24.4 50
82 Vanderbilt 2-9 -5.4 30.46% 20.8 101 26.2 64
83 Houston 3-8 -5.5 30.26% 23.8 76 29.3 77
84 Rutgers 4-7 -5.6 29.86% 24.9 63 30.5 83
85 Kentucky 2-9 -6.0 28.56% 20.3 105 26.3 66
86 Indiana 3-8 -6.1 28.25% 24.5 68 30.6 85
87 Duke 2-9 -6.3 27.55% 20.1 106 26.4 69
88 Baylor 3-8 -6.6 26.57% 26.2 54 32.8 97
89 South Florida 4-7 -7.6 23.77% 26 57 33.6 100
90 Washington 1-10 -7.8 23.03% 18.2 112 26 61
91 Kent 5-6 -7.8 22.99% 23.7 78 31.5 91
92 Akron 6-5 -8.5 21.07% 23.9 75 32.4 95
93 Illinois 3-8 -8.6 20.82% 21.3 92 29.9 79
94 Florida Atlantic 9-3 -8.9 19.96% 15.3 118 24.2 48
95 Middle Tennessee 5-6 -9.1 19.63% 21 95 30.1 80
96 North Texas 7-5 -9.1 19.62% 23.3 80 32.4 94
97 Temple 2-9 -9.3 18.95% 24.4 71 33.7 101
98 Rice 3-8 -9.8 17.70% 24.7 65 34.5 103
99 Tulsa 4-8 -10.3 16.55% 26.2 55 36.5 110
100 Tulane 5-6 -10.5 16.05% 24.9 64 35.4 106
S&P+ Rk Team Record Est S&P+ Percentile Off. S&P+ Rk Def. S&P+ Rk
101 UNLV 2-9 -10.6 15.74% 21.3 91 32 93
102 Ohio 4-7 -11.2 14.51% 16.1 116 27.3 70
103 Army 2-9 -11.9 13.14% 23.6 79 35.5 107
104 UL-Lafayette 4-7 -12.3 12.33% 18.5 111 30.7 87
105 SMU 3-8 -12.8 11.41% 21.9 88 34.7 104
106 UL-Monroe 5-6 -13.5 10.07% 16.5 114 30.1 81
107 Utah State 3-8 -14.1 9.13% 16.4 115 30.5 84
108 Ball State 2-9 -14.6 8.39% 21.4 90 36 109
109 East Carolina 2-9 -14.8 8.19% 23.2 82 37.9 112
110 Nevada 5-7 -15.0 7.82% 24.6 67 39.6 115
111 Arkansas State 3-8 -15.5 7.15% 18.6 110 34.1 102
112 Eastern Michigan 4-7 -15.9 6.61% 28.6 38 44.6 120
113 Western Michigan 1-10 -16.6 5.84% 23.9 74 40.5 116
114 Central Michigan 4-7 -17.2 5.21% 20.3 104 37.5 111
115 Central Florida 0-11 -17.2 5.17% 15.7 117 33 98
116 San Jose State 2-9 -17.4 5.02% 26.8 49 44.2 119
117 Idaho 3-9 -17.7 4.75% 21.2 94 38.9 114
118 Buffalo 2-9 -20.9 2.40% 14.4 119 35.3 105
119 Florida International 3-7 -21.1 2.30% 19.7 108 40.9 117
120 Florida A&M 3-8 -29.3 0.28% 13.6 120 43 118

Three teams on one field

Obviously the big memory from this season was the fact that USC, Oklahoma, and Auburn all finished unbeaten. As I always like to say, the BCS' biggest problem was that it never figured out a way to fit three teams on the same field, and this was the prime example of that problem.

Auburn's strength of schedule wasn't great this year, and the Tigers' deficiencies in the BCS computer ratings damaged them in this race.

For that matter, so did teams' preseason rankings: defending national co-champion USC began the year No. 1, BCS runner-up OU started No. 2, and Auburn was 17th. Since USC and OU never lost, No. 3 was Auburn's ceiling. That's the way life was with the poll system in 2004.

These ratings do justify the selection of the OU pick, though. Keeping in mind that, since I can only use points scored and allowed here (and therefore cannot dive into efficiency issues or filter out garbage time like I do with the real play-by-play numbers), it makes sense that these figures would place USC and OU a step ahead. For every awesome performance Auburn produced, the Tigers also had an only good performance against mediocre teams -- they beat 5-6 Arkansas 38-20 (that Arky team was actually pretty good), 6-6 Alabama 21-13, etc. And while we're at it, they struggled to put away a good-not-great Virginia Tech team (No. 14 in Est. S&P+) in the Sugar Bowl.

Oklahoma, meanwhile, was also excellent (pre-USC). The Sooners played six teams that finished with six or fewer wins and beat them by an average score of 39-9. They shut out an awesome Texas team, and while they also struggled to put away decent teams (7-5 Oklahoma State, 7-5 A&M), their schedule strength bumped them slightly ahead of AU.

I'm sure that settles the debate for all-time, right?

Other notes:

  • I was really curious where Utah would rank here. The Utes finished unbeaten and were so good against Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl, and if the College Football Playoff had existed that year, they would have had at least a shot at the fourth spot. I figure they would have come up short, though. They didn't get to face a single ranked opponent in the regular season, and we know that the committee would have dinged them for that, even if the intentions were there -- they played A&M, Arizona, and North Carolina in non-conference play and crushed BYU in the regular season finale. These ratings give this hypothetical committee some cover, though. Utah was awesome, but so were quite a few other teams that would have been considered for that No. 4 spot in the playoff.

  • This was the year California got totally screwed. The Golden Bears lost only to USC and finished the regular season 10-1 and fourth in the polls. They would have gotten serious Playoff consideration, but because they're Cal and not a big name with a big fan base, they got passed over for a BCS bowl slot, then laid an egg against Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl. These ratings remind us that that team was really damn good, Holiday Bowl aside. The race for the No. 4 spot would have probably been between Cal, Texas, and Utah, and my hunch is that Cal would have gotten a rematch with USC.

  • Also good: Miami, which beat Florida State, handed Louisville its only loss, and pummeled Florida in the Peach Bowl. But the flaky Hurricanes managed to also lose to 6-6 UNC and 6-5 Clemson. To say the least, that would have eliminated them from Playoff consideration. But since ratings like this measure overall quality of team and not the quality of the season they were having, Miami ranks well because the awesome performances outweigh the bad ones.

  • Here's where the Big 12 North really took a step backwards. After years of producing at least one or two really good teams, it produced none in 2004. The top two teams, per these ratings, were actually Kansas and Kansas State, which both finished 4-7 with a couple of decent wins and a bunch of bad losses. For KU, that was a hint of things to come under Mangino, but for the North, that was a pretty damning ranking. The two teams that actually came closest to the North title -- champ Colorado and nearly-champ Iowa State -- ranked 44th and 57th, respectively.

  • This was Year 1 of 1 in the grand "Florida A&M to FBS" experiment. More on that here.

Anyway, enjoy. 2003 is on the clock. We'll see how frequently I can knock these out.