Thursday, September 29, 2005

Football Wonk: Distance comes in droves

A dollar to the first commenter to recognize the title...

Last week before the Mississippi State-Georgia game, I was talking to someone about how Starkville isn't all that far away, and my mind started racing, as it's prone to. The question running in my mind is this: Does the location of particular schools within a conference provide an advantage or disadvantage as compared to the other schools? Or in another way, do the most central schools, with shorter travel requirements, have an advantage over the schools on the extreme reaches of the conference, due to the natural hassles, expenses and time problems with longer trips?

So first I plotted all the schools in the SEC and compared the travel requirements as compared to each other school (miles between each school via Google Maps driving directions). The results show the following rankings of trips to the 11 other schools (added together, one way), longest to shortest:

1. Arkansas: 7,428 miles, 625 miles average
2. Florida: 6, 159 miles, 560 mile average
3. LSU: 5,936 miles, 540 mile average
4. Kentucky: 5,359 miles, 487 mile average
5. South Carolina: 5,173 miles, 470 mile average
6. Tennessee: 4,233 miles, 385 mile average
7. Mississippi: 4,118 miles, 374 mile average
8. Georgia: 4,067 miles, 370 mile average
9. Vanderbilt: 3,985 miles, 362 mile average
10. Mississippi State: 3,929 miles, 357 mile average
11. Auburn: 3,747 miles, 348 mile average
12. Alabama: 3,541 miles, 322 mile average

Some comments on the raw mileage data:

  • Arkansas is really damn far away from everyone else. I used to use the fact that Fayetteville is halfway to Denver from Atlanta as proof. Another example: Arkansas' closest rival is Ole Miss (7 hours away!), while Ole Miss has 6 closer rivals. Athens is as far from Oxford as Fayetteville. The three longest trips for any SEC team are to Fayetteville (UF, UGA, USC), each over 800 miles.
  • The closest two schools are Mississippi State and Alabama (83 miles). That said, the shortest distance a team has to travel for a "road" game is actually Florida for the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (70 miles). Keep that in mind, Dawg fans who are opposed to leaving Jacksonville for a home/home series (and I'm one of them).
  • One odd quirk: LSU is exactly as far away from Vandy as they are from Florida.
  • The 5 closest rivalries: Alabama-Miss. State, Ole Miss-Miss. State, Tennessee-Kentucky, Georgia-Auburn, Alabama-Ole Miss.
  • The 5 most distant rivalries: Arkansas-Florida, Arkansas-USC, Arkansas-UGA, LSU-Kentucky, LSU-USC.
  • Each SEC team from either division is matched up with an opposing team as an annual rival. Here is how they rate by mileage (and more on this in a minute):
    1) Arkansas-USC (970 mi.)
    2) LSU-Florida (586 mi.)
    3) Miss. State - Kentucky (540 mi.)
    4) Alabama - Tennessee (314 mi.)
    5) Mississippi - Vanderbilt (275 mi.)
    6) Auburn - Georgia (179 mi.)

The next step is to see whether the data shows that the disparity of travel requirements has any effect on the playing field. This is tricky. First off, there's no clear way to quantify travel in terms of wins and losses. And the data is subject to literally tons of external factors affecting any real analysis (i.e., a team could travel thousands of miles to play inferior opponents and a win might not show how the travel affected the team, or a team could travel short distances and play a national title winner and get beat badly - where the travel has nothing to do with it). Also it's difficult to say whether a team "would've been better" had they all played all the games under controlled scenarios. For example, if Arkansas travels 3000 miles for their 4 road SEC games, goes 4-4 in the SEC, it's hard to say they would've gone at least 5-3 if they had a more reasonable travel schedule. It's hard to say, but it's also what the data I looked at hints toward.

There are numerous examples of shorter schedules resulting in somewhat surprisingly successful seasons for particular teams. There are also examples of extended road trips resulting in seasons a little bit worse than usual.

My methodology was to look at each SEC team's schedule and record over the last 10 years, add together the miles traveled for the road games in the SEC, and see if it makes a difference, trend-wise. Breaking every team down would take up the bulk of this page, so I'll look at in individual comments:

  • Alabama: Due to their relative centrality, even years when Alabama travels far for them, they don't travel all that far. No real trends show up in the data, and in fact one of their worst years in recent memory was their shortest traveling year. Range in season travel goes from 721 miles to 1667 miles. This year: 863 miles.
  • Arkansas: naturally, has had the longest trips over the course of a season. Range goes between 2025 miles and 3166 miles. Interestingly, in seasons when they travel less than 2500 miles, they're over .500 in SEC play. In seasons when they travel more than 2500 miles, Arkansas is under .500 in SEC play. Last year's team nearly knocks off Texas, but then goes only 3-5 in the SEC. I think it may have had something to do with their travel schedule, the most miles traveled in any single year by any single team. This year, they travel 2,328 miles, most in the SEC.
  • Auburn: Another relatively central school. Typically either travels about 1000 miles or 1500 miles, depending on whether they have a trip to Arkansas. Trends slightly worse on the longer trip years. Range: 1064 miles to 1749 miles. This year: 1749 miles (something to watch for).
  • Florida: No real trends because they have been strangely consistent, in two year segments (12-1 for two years, 10-2 for 2 years, 8-5 for 2 years), covering both ends of trips. 2003 was a very long year, traveling 2685 miles, and they went 8-5. Range: 1684 miles to 2685 miles. This year: 2144 miles.
  • Georgia: Perhaps the most central of SEC East schools. No real trends because the range isn't very great. Range: 912 miles (only 3 away games) in 1995 to 1574 miles in 2000 (Donnan's last year- strangely, the longest traveling years for several schools coincides with the firing of a coach). This year: 1208 miles.
  • Kentucky: Pretty wide range of mileage, but the trends don't show much because Kentucky's sucked nearly every year anyway. Range: 1477 miles to 2372 miles. Their longest traveling year was also one of their most successful (Outback Bowl year). This year is short: 1504 miles.
  • LSU: Wide range, trend slightly worse in longer traveling years. Shortest traveling year in the last decade was their National Title year (2003). Range: 1730-2347 miles. This year is even shorter: 1562 miles, but their traveling to ASU disrupts that a bit. DiNardo fired after one of their longer traveling seasons.
  • Mississippi: Very narrow range, so nearly impossible to find any trends. Range: 1199-1459. That 1459 is the only one outside of a 150 mile range between 1200 and 1350. Interestingly, that 1459 was also the year Cutcliffe got canned. This year: 1141, shorter than normal.
  • Mississippi State: No real trends, since they've had good and bad years on the field in both longer and shorter traveling years. Sherrill fired after their longest traveling year in the last decade (and way outside their normal range). Range: 806-1702. This year: 1877 (something to watch for as the season wears on).
  • South Carolina: There is a trend here. When USC travels over 1900 miles over a season, they're 15-31-1 in the SEC in those years. When they travel less than that, they're 13-19. Their range isn't that wide, but that 1900 mile threshold seems to make a difference. And it's not just that their 0-11 year was a long traveling year (they went 1-10 the year before and it was a short traveling year). Range: 1543-1983. This year: 1735.
  • Tennessee: No real trends here because they've been pretty consistent over the last decade, having good seasons regardless of travel. The only odd comment is the 2001 season, which was one of their longer ones (Tenn. alternates between 1735 miles and much lower depending on a trip to Arkansas and Florida). That year they had traveled the long distances already, then they had to travel to Gainesville at the end of the year for the rescheduled 9/11 game. They won it, but had no gas in the tank to fend off LSU the next week. Perhaps the travel wore on them? Range: 966-1735. This year: 1504.
  • Vanderbilt: Also no real trends because they're consistently bad. Another school that fires the coach after a long traveling year (Widenhofer in 2001). Range: 1066-1529. This year: 1729 (and naturally, their best year in 60).

And there you have it. I think there might be some trends that say a longer traveling season might lead to more difficulties on the field, but nothing shows it to be a clear rule. It's just something to think about. I know when I travel a lot over the course of a month or so, I get worn down from the hassle and the time it takes away from doing other things. I could see the longer travel being a long-term problem for Arkansas, because they're so much farther away from everyone else. However, LSU and Florida are two of the less central teams, and they've done pretty well for themselves over the last decade. In any event, it's something to consider when making preseason predictions. I'd be interested if other conferences have any trends or quasi-trends in a similar way. Also, I suppose this could be used as a reason for praising the balls (or questioning the brains) of those who schedule the "inter-sectional" road games some pundits seem to be very fired up about. I focused on conference matchups, because I thought it's closer to comparing apples to apples (though I know it really isn't).

Anyway, let me know if I've made any flaws in the math or reasoning, if anyone wants to factcheck me. I ain't sensitive. Have at it, hoss.