As I’m sure you know, the conference schedule for the Pac-12 this year is a bit different from past conference schedules because it is now the Pac-12 and not the Pac-10. Like years past, each team will play an eighteen game conference schedule, but, unlike years past, teams will play unbalanced schedules. Rather than play every other team in the conference twice, each team will play seven teams twice and four teams once.
I dig around in Pac-10 history quite a bit to try and get a sense of how the current season might play out, but, every time I do, I get this nagging feeling that it’s not quite right. Sure, it's mostly the same teams, but the structure is different this year. Will that affect the outcome?
My curiosity on the matter flirted with my free time for a while, convinced it to go on a few dates, drank a little too much one night, and, voila, it’s a post!
As it turns out, there is extremely little precedent for the conference slate the Pac-12 is about to play. Since the Pac-10 became the Pac-10 in the 1978-79 season, there has been an approximate poop-ton of individual conference schedules. Of those, 116 were played by a group of twelve teams. Of those, only seventeen used an eighteen game conference schedule. That’s just seventeen seasons out of about a thousand that used a 12-team, 18-game schedule. That’s not very many to draw a conclusion from, but I tried to do it anyway.
For completeness, the seasons are:
Colonial: Six seasons from ’05-’06 through ’10-’11.
MEAC: Three seasons from ’07-’08 through ’09-’10.
Northeast: Four seasons, ’99-’00, ’02-’03, ’09-’10, and ’10-’11.
MAC: Two seasons, ’97-’98 and ’05-’06.
Southern: Two seasons, ’09-’10 and ’10-’11.
That’s it. Unfortunately, none of those conferences match the quality of the Pac-12 so it’s not prudent to draw any conclusions about a 12-team, 18-game schedule’s impact on NCAA tournament selection. As far as power conferences go, the Big 12 had twelve teams from '96-'97 until last year, the ACC has had twelve since '05-'06, and the SEC has had twelve since '91-'92. However, all three of them play 16-game conference schedules plus the SEC plays a horribly unbalanced division schedule. I really don't want to go through the chaos of trying to compare any of that to this year's Pac-12.
So instead, I looked at something very simple. I looked at how many wins the second-place team accumulated in a 12-team, 18-game conference schedule. Why? Well, if you want to finish first, you have to win at least one more game than the second-place team. It is possible to tie for first, obviously, but I was interested in how many wins it takes to win the conference outright. If there was a tie for first, I used the record of the teams tied for first, the reasoning being an outright conference title would have taken one more win. I hope that makes sense. Here’s the breakdown of wins by the second-place team:
15: Three times
14: Six times
13: Five times
12: Two times
11: One time
That’s an average of 13.47 wins by the second-place team.
I then looked at all 33 seasons of the Pac-10 to see if things were any different. Here’s the breakdown:
16: One time*
15: Eight times
14: Five times
13: Twelve times
12: Six times
11: One time
That’s an average of 13.48 wins by the second-place team.
So how much does the new schedule change the wins needed to finish first? Apparently not a whit. It looks like 13-5 still probably gets you second place. 14-4 might get you second or it might get you first. 15-3 and better probably gets you first. Of course, in any given year, there's so much randomness that 12-6 could get you first and 16-2 could only get you second.
Neat. We now know that what we already knew was right all along. Isn't it nice when that happens?
*In 1980-81, Arizona State finished 16-2 and only placed second in conference. The first place team? I'm sure you already know, but it was Ralph Miller's Beavers at 17-1 whose only regular season loss came in their last game to... Arizona State.