Bowl Math

Nov 22, 2021

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No need for an intro here. We need to go straight to the math. You want to know one thing: if Illinois wins on Saturday against Northwestern, is there a chance at making a bowl at 5-7? Minnesota and Nebraska made it to a bowl in 2015 when they finished 5-7, and this year there are 82 bowl slots. Would it be possible for Illinois to bowl at 5-7?

It's complicated. But here's ALLLL the math.

This year there are 41 bowl games. That means 82 spots. So for starters, if 82 teams get to six wins (still quite possible), then there's no conversation to be had here. Those 82 teams will go bowling. If there's more than 82, Athletic Directors at random 6-6 Sun Belt and MAC schools get really nervous.

If 82 teams do not get to six wins, then some 5-7 teams will get the opportunity to go bowling. Those teams are chosen by their most-recent APR score (Academic Progress Rate). Highest APR on the list of 5-7 teams gets first dibs.

Let's just go through 2015 and talk about how it went. That season, there weren't enough 6-6 teams to fill all of the bowl slots - three spots were open. Those spots were then handed out in APR order.

The highest APR among the 5-7 teams was Nebraska. They got the first slot. The second-highest APR was Missouri. But they didn't want to go to a bowl. Gary Pinkel had just retired, and they were in the process of hiring Barry Odom to be the next coach, so they passed on a bowl. That meant that the two remaining spots went to the 5-7 teams tied for third on the APR list: Minnesota and San Jose State.

OK, yes, I probably do need a little more in this intro. You might not remember what "Academic Progress Rate" means. I'll just do a rough overview.

The NCAA needed a way to punish teams that weren't meeting academic standards. A worst-case scenario there: a coach who keeps his players eligible by having them take the minimum number of classes and then cuts them loose (without their degree) and brings in more players to be "temporary students". APR measures the academic progress of every individual program, so there's an APR score for Illinois football and Illinois golf and Illinois volleyball. And if those programs fall below a certain line (930, I believe), there are sanctions.

The most recent sanctions to make the news: Stephen F. Austin had internally calculated APR the wrong way since 2013. They thought they were on track in all sports with every program hitting their goals. They were not. That meant that football, basketball, and baseball were all suddenly ineligible for the postseason during the same year. Oops.

With Covid, the NCAA has suspended APR calculations for two years (how would they track it if every school handled spring 2020 grades differently?). So the number that counts for these bowl spots is the 2019 APR. The 2019 APR for Illinois football: 970.

That's actually a dip from previous years. Here's the Illinois football APR the last six years:

2014: 973
2015: 982
2016: 984
2017: 986
2018: 982
2019: 970

OK, now we have enough background information. IF Illinois beats Northwestern to get to 5-7 and IF there are open bowl slots, where does Illinois stand? Here's the math:

As of right now, with one week to go, there are 72 bowl-eligible teams (at least six wins after 10-11 games). There are 41 bowls, so 82 bowl spots. 82-72=10 spots with a week to go.

There are four five-win teams who are ahead of us no matter what. They already have five wins, and they have an APR higher than Illinois. Those teams:

Florida (974)
Memphis (980)
Middle Tennessee State (985)
Rutgers (979)

So if all four win on Saturday to get to six wins (and lock up a bowl spot), or if all four lose on Saturday and stay at five wins, they're still ahead of Illinois because they already have five wins and an APR above 970. 10 available spots just dropped down to six.

Next we need to look at all of the five-win teams. The four spots above are already gone (whether those teams win or lose - we can't pass them). So if six of these 16 teams win on Saturday, it's likely over. Those six would take the final six spots.

The 5-win teams:

Ball State
Florida Atlantic
Florida State
North Texas
Old Dominion
San Jose State
South Alabama
Virginia Tech
West Virginia

So to recap real quick, there are 20 teams with five wins. Four of them have an APR higher than Illinois and are locked into spots above Illinois. Sixteen have an APR lower than Illinois and are locked into a spot below Illinois (if we get to five). But if they win their sixth game, obviously, they'd jump over us.

And then there's a few wild cards here.

Texas, like Illinois, is currently at 4 wins. But if they beat Kansas State on Saturday, they'd get to five wins and pass us because their APR is 974. 5-win Texas gets a spot over 5-win Illinois.

USC and Cal are also at four wins and they both have two remaining games. So either of them could win two to get to six wins. The Pac 12 has a rule that 5-7 teams can't go to bowl games, so if both USC and Cal lose this weekend (USC has BYU, Cal is at UCLA), both are eliminated. But they play against each other on December 4th, so if one of them wins this weekend, that team could potentially get to 6-6. And if both of them win this weekend, then that's another spot gone because the winner of their December 4th matchup would go to a bowl.

There's also the reverse wild card here: teams might pass on a bowl at 5-7. An example: Florida fired Dan Mullen today. They'll be tied up in a coaching search for a bit. If there are a few 5-7 spots available and the Gators get one of them, they might just pass on a minor bowl to concentrate on their transition. (To make matters more complicated, Florida plays another 5-6 team - Florida State - this weekend.)

Because of that, there's no true checklist here. It's not a clean "these 16 teams need to go 5-11 on Saturday" because a 5-7 Florida might decline a bowl and open up a spot. Virginia Tech could get to six wins and then decline a bowl due to their search and another spot is open. Or both Florida and Virginia Tech might want to go bowling.

I'd hate for this article to be taken as "just need these teams to go 5-11" and then A) Texas beats Kansas State or B) Cal beats both UCLA and USC or C) uh, Illinois loses to Northwestern. I'll go through the full list below, but promise me you won't make a checklist and then declare Illinois a bowl team when you have enough checkmarks. Because it's not possible to make this into a checklist yet.

Actually, make me two promises. One, the promise I just mentioned (no checklists). Two, when we beat Northwestern on Saturday and some random Twitter account claims we've clinched a bowl game, come check with me. It might be a developing situation all the way up to the conclusion of the Cal-USC game on December 4th (a week after our Northwestern game). And if you see some tweet saying "that's it - Tulsa won so there's only four 5-7 spots and we won't get one", don't buy that either. There's still a chance that eight days later, Florida declines a bid due to their coaching search and Middle Tennessee State declines a bid because the travel would be too expensive and Illinois slides into one of those spots..

The only way we will know anything definitive by the end of Saturday: 1) There's enough 6-6 teams and all 5-7 teams are out. And 2) Illinois loses and finishes 4-8. And, I guess, 3) basically every 5-win team loses on Saturday, there's a plethora of 5-7 spots available, and Illinois is assured one of those spots regardless of anything that happens with a Texas or a Cal.

OK, so now that you've made these BINDING AND UNALTERABLE PROMISES, here's what we're hoping to see:

First, the head to head matchups. Old Dominion plays Charlotte. Both teams are at 5-6. The winner gets a bowl spot and the loser is out. Five theoretical 5-7 spots remain.

Then three teams above us on the 5-win list (Rutgers, Florida, and Middle Tennessee State) play three other 5-win teams (Maryland, Florida State, and Florida Atlantic, respectively). We absolutely want Rutgers, Florida, and MTSU to win since we have no chance to pass them. Whether they have five wins or six wins, they still get a spot ahead of us. So we want them to eliminate the other three.

Now the rest of the games. Regardless of anything else that happens, you want the second team to win every one of these matchups:

Ball State vs. Buffalo
LSU vs. Texas A&M
North Texas vs. UTSA
San Jose State vs. Fresno State
South Alabama vs. Coastal Carolina
Syracuse vs. Pitt
TCU at Iowa State
Troy at Georgia State
Tulsa at SMU
Virginia Tech at Virginia
West Virginia at Kansas

And then, of course, we want Cal to lose to UCLA and we want USC to lose to BYU. If either one wins, they could still get to six wins with a win in their 12th game and steal a spot on the final weekend.

A quick recap which will really emphasize that it's still very difficult to say anything definitively:

  • 82 spots available. 72 are taken. 10 remain.
  • Old Dominion and Charlotte play a deathmatch. Winner is in, loser is out. 9 spots remain.
  • Four 5-win teams will remain ahead of us no matter what happens this weekend (Florida, Memphis, MTSU, and Rutgers). The Memphis result doesn't matter to us this weekend, but we really want Florida, MTSU, and Rutgers to eliminate three other 5-win teams. After these results, somewhere between 4 and 7 spots will be taken. Which means that somewhere between 2 and 5 spots will remain.
  • Then there's the 11 matchups I just listed. If there are five spots remaining, we need the teams in bold to go at least 7-4 in those games. If there are two spots remaining, we need the teams in bold to go 10-1.
  • And then there's the wildcards. Texas could win and take a spot. Cal or USC could win two games and take a spot.
  • And don't forget the reverse wildcards. A Florida or a Virginia Tech might say "you know what? We're focused on our coaching search. Someone else take the spot."

I think that's it. Need anything else? You still want the checklist? Fine, I'll give you a checklist. But remember, you promised not to say "that's it - we're in" (or "that's it - we're out") because the wildcards could still happen.

So I'll just close with your rooting interest this weekend. There will still be math to do, and there's no number of wins we can put to this yet, but here's who you want to win:

Go Kansas State beat Texas.
Go UCLA beat Cal.
Go BYU beat USC.
Go Rutgers beat Maryland.
Go MTSU beat FAU.
Go Florida beat Florida State.
Go Buffalo beat Ball State.
Go Texas A&M beat LSU.
Go UTSA beat North Texas.
Go Fresno State beat San Jose State.
Go Coastal Carolina beat South Alabama.
Go Pitt beat Syracuse.
Go Iowa State beat TCU.
Go Georgia State beat Troy.
Go SMU beat Tulsa.
Go Virginia beat Virginia Tech.
Go Kansas beat West Virginia.

And go Illinois beat Northwestern.

I don't tag posts with this nearly enough. I'm in my hotel room in Kansas City. Iowa City yesterday for the football game (where I wrote this story) and now Kansas City for the next three days to cover the basketball games. Then Thanksgiving in St. Louis on Thursday followed by basketball in Champaign on Friday and football in Champaign on Saturday.

I guess I'm going for "how 'bout a little something for the effort?" here. If you like what you just read and would like to become an IlliniBoard subscriber, sign up for a username and password in the top right corner (that part's free) and then click though our subscription options. In the immortal words of Bartles (or was it Jaymes?), thanks for your support.


Nall23 on November 22, 2021 @ 04:16 PM

Nall23 on November 22, 2021 @ 04:19 PM

Just wanted to share that this was very well done. Having read this several times now, reading between the lines, it is clear that you also believe that we are a 100% lock for the Quick Lane bowl :)

Dr. Chim Richalds on November 23, 2021 @ 11:12 AM

This type of deep dive is why you are the best. Thanks for summarizing all of this and saving me 12 hours of research.

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