The Big Ten, built mostly in the Steel/Auto/Corn Belt, has survived on the proverbial "three yards and a cloud of dust" for over a century. While this appears to be slowly evolving, to this day the the lineman and running back have always been the focus of game planning. The Mid-West Conference has sent four top-five lineman to the NFL since 2004; only two skill players have gone top-five from the conference in the last decade.
The Pac-10 represents a different philosophy. The term "West Coast Offense" can mean a lot of different things, but one is constant: the focus changes from the traditional 'establish the run' to a more wide open, less predictable attack. Most West Coast teams can also count on playing in virtually perfect conditions for the entire season; most Big Ten teams have come to expect at least one game to be played in dead of winter weather.
The stadiums themselves are quite different as well. Penn State, Michigan, and Ohio State (listed in order of capacity! ha!) all have larger stadiums than any Pac-10 venue. Rivals lists three Big Ten stadiums in their Top Ten Toughest Places To Play, but just one Pac-10 school. EA Sports agrees.
22. That's the percentage of the time a Big Ten team wins when traveling out west for non-bowl games since 1980. I found that a bit shocking. The conventional wisdom in Vegas is that home field is worth three points, so to drop a winning percentage that should be around 50% down to 22% means something else is going on here. What is just as interesting is that the percentage doesn't hold true in reverse.
To try and narrow this down, I took the 173 games played between the two conferences and segmented the populations. All games played as part of the Rose Bowl were eliminated because that is considered a neutral site game (even though it isn't). All other bowl games were also removed (the Big Ten is 8-11 in non-Rose Bowl bowl games). In addition, the handful of games that were played on neutral sites as part of the Kick-off and Pigskin Classics were also taken out.
This leaves 126 games (note: there are two ties that are excluded from this analysis).
|Overall - Non-Bowl||W||L||%|
|Big Ten Home||43||32||58%|
|Big Ten Away||11||39||22%|
|Big Ten Overall||54||70||44%|
As you can see, that is a pretty embarrassing drop in winning percentage and fairly poor show from the Big Ten.
My concern was that the data, which is admittedly susceptible to sample size issues, may have a large number of mismatches. If the Pac-10 teams are often times stronger than their Big Ten foes, well then that percentage doesn't actually tell us anything about how teams from the Midwest perform near the Pacific. To help try and curve this I went through the ridiculous exercise of labeling each team depending on whether they finished the season above .500, exactly at that mark, or at least one game below it. From there, the data was sorted so that we were comparing teams that are relatively close to each other in ability.
I understand this is not a surefire way to determine if the teams are actually evenly matched. A person could go through and write in each record, but that has it's own problems: it totally over-segments the population and, most importantly, doesn't actually leave us any better informed. Comparing records in college football is a futile exercise; out of conference teams almost never share more than one or two like opponents. Games are hardly ever a Vegas 'pick' anyway, so we can rest assured that at almost no point during the last 28 years were two teams ever truly equals, therefore we have to hope the number of games we are looking at will balance that bias out.
We now have two different charts to look at. At no point did two .500 teams play each other, so we are looking at games between ".500+" and "<.500" (aka Bowl Eligible and Non-Bowl Eligible, respectively). In theory, this will give us a better idea of how home field advantage can be applied to more evenly matched teams.
|Big Ten Home||19||12||61%|
|Big Ten Away||3||17||15%|
|Big Ten Overall||22||29||43%|
More bad news for the 2008 Buckeyes and Spartans. When more competitive teams are matched up, the Big Ten actually performs worse than the overall percentage, down 7 points to 15%.
Since the data is already sorted, let's look at the other set:
|Big Ten Home||4||3||57%|
|Big Ten Away||2||4||33%|
|Big Ten Overall||6||7||46%|
Not even close to enough data to draw any conclusions here, but the trend still holds: The Big Ten has issues playing out west.
No naturally the question is this: Why? While the Big Ten has a winning record on their own turf, what in the world causes those same teams to barely show up at Pac-10 venues? A 22% winning percentage, 15% when only looking at bowl eligible teams, means something is up. A look at venue capacity and intimidation value doesn't help us at all, if anything it would lead you to think the opposite is true.
I could go into a subjective look at the weather, the field turf, the drain of long distance travel, even style of play issues...however all of this probably wouldn't amount to much. The truth is probably, as is often the case, a combination of quite a few different things. One is for certain, however, the Big Ten coaches need to address it because the conference is looking at two big hits if they come back to the Mid-West 0-2. While the data doesn't give Penn State fans anything to worry about (outside of the actual match-up, that is), Wisconsin has a game out west against Fresno State, another potential credibility buster.
I'm not usually one to make a big deal out of conference status. I like watching our rivals lose and, based on the youtube video of the App St game, I'm not alone. Ohio State will probably be the more talented team when they travel to LA. You could argue the same for Michigan State's west coast trip. The concern is that both teams will fail to show up, fueling the "my conference is better than yours" debate and potentially affecting what is looking like a competitive race to finish the regular season 1-2.