Underrated bowl teams

A new metric reveals why Oklahoma State, others should be ranked higher

Originally Published: December 28, 2012
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine
Isaiah AndersonBrett Deering/Getty ImagesOklahoma State has been a better team in 2012 than the Cowboys' record shows.

Usually, arguments about who is underrated or overrated are among the most hackneyed in sports; when a fan claims a player is "underrated," he's usually just trying to grab credit for recognizing his favorite athlete before the rest of us. But for college football teams, this is the season when it truly pays to be overestimated. If you're a Division I football squad, you'll have no playoffs, nor any knockout tournaments -- your postseason validation and reputation depend on public opinion. Dazzle the voters, and you'll celebrate New Year's by raking in cash from a major bowl game. Leave your party dress at home, and you might end up playing the Sun Belt runner-up before the winter solstice.

A whole range of statistical factors can make teams underrated, thereby creating intriguing bowl contestants whom many fans will unjustly ignore. And at the moment, just about all of them are suppressing a proper appreciation of the Oklahoma State Cowboys, who are undoubtedly the nation's most underrated team.

Before we make that case in detail, and look at other underrated bowl teams, let's establish a couple of benchmarks. For a team to be underrated, its ranking in mainstream opinion must be lower than an objective evaluation of its true strength. To measure the former, we can simply look at a team's position in the BCS standings, which determine bowl matchups. And for the latter, we will use its national ranking according to the Simple Rating System (SRS). SRS rates a group of teams by their margin of victory, adjusted upward or downward by the strength of their opponents. That's it -- nothing about school traditions or polls or conferences or momentum or Heisman Trophy candidacies enters into SRS calculations. SRS is essentially a form of network analysis that answers the question: How strong would every college football team have to be for all of their scores, week by week, to come out the way they did in 2012?

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.