Does Phil Steele Over-Emphasize Strength of Schedule?

If you've been visiting for more than a few weeks, you will remember our article on scheduling and projections.  Take a look at that if you haven't seen it.  

Today, I want to look at Phil Steele, the premier college football expert.  Phil's magazine is a must for every serious college fan, and he has been by far the most accurate prognosticator over the past ten years.  Simply put, the guy works harder than anyone else, covers the game year round, and is smarter than any of the other pre-season magazines.  I always buy two Phil Steele magazines because I know that I will tear one up by mid-season.   

Phil seriously accounts for scheduling when he makes his predictions, as do I.

Why does this concern Florida State?  Steele believes that the 'Noles are the 24th best team nationally, but projects them to finish 34th, mainly due to playing the projected 2nd toughest schedule in the nation (11 of FSU's 2009 opponents made Bowl Games last year).  

In the tables below, I have compiled the data from 2008, 2007, and 2005.  My 2006 magazine is missing.  


  • Power Poll: Phil Steele's preseason power ranking.  This is how good he thinks a team is, and does not include schedule.
  • Schedule Difficulty: this is how tough Phil Steele believes a team's schedule will be.
  • Projected Finish:  where Phil projects a team to finish.  This obviously accounts for scheduling.  
  • Difference:  The difference in the projected finish and the power poll ranking.  
  • Finish:  where a team finished in the Pre-Bowl ESPN/ USA Today Top 25 (obviously you can't predict who a team will play in a bowl game)

For this analysis, I did not include teams who did not make the power poll top 25 or the projected finish top 25.  To qualify, teams must have appeared in one or both lists.



Power Poll Schedule Difficulty Projected Finish Difference Finish
UCLA 25 5 35 -10 17
Tennessee 9 31 15 -6 NR
Ohio St. 4 17 9 -5 4
Miami 2 23 6 -4 9
Oklahoma 13 18 8 5 26
Purdue 12 40 3 9 NR
Fresno State 33 96 23 10 29
Louisville 16 79 4 12 15
Miami, Oh 54 107 23 31 NR

Steele nailed Tennessee, as the pre-season top Ten Vols finished the season unranked.  He also pinged Miami for a drop, and the pre-season top 10 Hurricanes similarly finished much worse than the public expected.  

He whiffed on UCLA and Ohio State, however, and I note that the UCLA and Ohio State projected subpar seasons seem more schedule based (projected SOS of 5, and 17) than the projected declined of Tennessee and Miami (projected SOS of 31 and 23, respectively).  While top 30 schedules obviously played some role in this projection, it seems the teams Steele pegged to decline also had other factors working against them.

As for projected "final ranking will be better than power poll", this was quite the poor year for Steele, as his 5 greatest disparities all finished significantly lower than he projected.  



Power Poll Schedule Difficulty Projected Finish Difference Finish
Texas A&M 12 10 20 -8 NR
California 22 8 28 -6 NR
Nebraska 17 17 22 -5 NR
Florida 10 21 14 -4 9
Virginia Tech 13 58 9 4 5
Penn State 14 68 10 4 34
USF 30 70 24 6 23
Hawaii 23 116 12 11 10

Teams to finish worse than their power poll ranking:  Steele had a tremendous year here, as the teams he felt would finish lower than the public expected did just that.  Each team suffered through rather precipitous drops.  Unlike 2005, where the successful predictions seemed less related to schedule and more so to other factors, these predictions seem very schedule based and the constant attrition of a difficult schedule pushed these teams way down in the rankings.

Teams Steele projected to do better than his Power Poll (aka their true talent/ ability):  Mixed bag here.  Steele absolutely nailed Hawaii, calling for a BCS game back in June, and they went to the Sugar Bowl, where UGA ultimately exposed them as a fraud.  Virginia Tech did finish higher than most expected.  Penn State and particularly USF enjoyed moments of success (USF was #2 in the country at one point) before their true ability levels brought them back down to earth.  



Power Poll Schedule Difficulty Projected Finish Difference Finish?
Kansas 22 25 30 -8 NR
Tennessee 16 16 23 -7 NR
Texas 10 23 15 -5 3
Oregon 17 33 22 -5 15
Georgia 5 3 9 -4 16
Auburn 8 32 12 -4 NR
LSU 9 19 13 -4 NR
South Florida 13 60 8 5 NR
Notre Dame 24 67 19 5 NR
West Virginia 12 35 6 6 30
California 27 38 20 7 25
Utah 23 99 14 9 7

Teams projected to finish worse than their power poll ranking:  Steele really killed it again; nailing Kansas, Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, and LSU.  He missed on Texas.

Teams Steele projected to do better than his Power Poll (aka their true talent/ ability): If there is a clear conclusion to be drawn here, it is that major conference teams with supposedly easy schedules are not good bets to have tremendous seasons, but if Steele says that a mid-major is going places, bet the house on those guys.  He whiffed badly on South Florida, Notre Dame, and West Virginia, but was dead on with Utah.  In fairness, West Virginia and Cal do not appear to be schedule picks, but USF, Notre Dame, and Utah definitely were.


I don't know if this is a sufficient sample set, but Steele has been right in calling for disappointing years (relative to the preseason expectations of the general public) 10 of 15 times in the three years I looked at, and his prognosticating skills have improved in this area each year.  Of course, there are multiple factors teams could finish worse than their power rating, scheduling being only one factor.

There seems to be very little trend when Steele predicts a team to do better than their ability level because of a soft schedule when that team is in a major conference.  He has been quite good at picking the mid-major go to a BCS game.


Looking ahead to 2009

Power Poll Schedule Difficulty Projected Finish Difference Finish??
Florida St 24 2 34 -10
LSU 8 21 17 -9
Arkansas 25 6 33 -8
Pittsburgh 29 54 23 6
BYU 22 71 15 7
Boise St 20 117 12 8
Rutgers 37 106 16 21


FSU and Arkansas are definitely schedule picks as Steele believes both are top 25 caliber teams but projects them to finish the regular season unranked, and schedule likely plays a major part in Steele's call for LSU to finish outside the top 15.

If there is a saving grace for Seminoles fans, it could be that Steele's projected schedule difficulty was calculated before BYU, Boston College, and USF suffered major personnel losses.  Additionally, while UF is likely to be the most dominant college football team ever, they can only account for one Seminole loss.  

Still, past precedent does not bode well for FSU.  When Steele projects a fall due to a murderer's row schedule, the team usually suffers. 

It seems likely that Pitt or Rutgers will win the Big East due to scheduling, and Boise is the only Mid-Major likely to crash the BCS party (unless you count Notre Dame) 

What trends do you notice here?  Let us know.



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