To the everyday college football fan, a team winning a conference championship should indicate that the team had a very good season. Dramatic touchdowns are scored, shutdown defenses make goal-line stands, and the team wins more games than they lose. When the Miami RedHawks won the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in 2019, they must have played a consistently dominant season, right? Well, not exactly.
Last season, the RedHawks achieved a rare feat: the team gave up more points than it scored yet were still good enough to win their third MAC championship in school history. This difference in points, referred to as a “point differential”, was -56 last year, the lowest among all conference champions declared via conference championship game. Such a strange occurrence may confuse you, and rightly so. Winning teams are expected to score a lot of points while simultaneously holding their opponents to fewer points. The RedHawks did the opposite last season.
The figure above shows the point differentials of all D-1 FBS conference championship game winners from 1992 to 2019. For a more in-depth look at this graph, visit https://rpubs.com/fortune_auto/688739. In 1992, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) hosted the first-ever Division-1 conference championship game to decide the SEC Champion in 1992. This was a change from the previous method of crowning conference champions based on whichever team had the best conference record that year. Since then, all other Division-1 FBS conferences have begun hosting conference championship games. This graph does not contain conference champions decided by record. For example, the Big 12 hosted conference championship games from 1996 to 2010 and then again from 2017-present. Therefore, the 2011-2016 Big 12 champions are not displayed in this graph.
As shown, the 2019 RedHawks were one of only five teams ever to win their conference with a negative point differential. Even more remarkable, those other four teams (‘18 Northern Illinois, ‘10 Miami, ‘07 Central Michigan, and ‘05 Akron) are all in the MAC, which is definitely some quintessential “MACtion”! So how exactly did Miami win the MAC in 2019 with such a negative point differential? The answer lies beyond the numbers.
On September 21, 2019, the RedHawks made a highly anticipated journey to Columbus for a game against Ohio State University. Miami unexpectedly started the game well by forcing a safety on defense and making a field goal shortly thereafter. This 5-0 lead did not last long, however, as the Buckeyes stomped all over the RedHawks’ defense scoring 76 unanswered points en route to a 76-5 beatdown, resulting in a point differential of -71. Factoring this game out of the schedule, the team would have finished with a +15 point differential, a much more normal yet still below average point differential among teams who won their conference.
Coupled with the outlier game against OSU, there are a few other things that help explain Miami’s unlikely championship. According to Football Outsiders, Miami had the 118th worst offense out of 131 eligible teams in 2019. Simply put, the team struggled to put up points while in possession of the football. On the flip side, though, Football Outsiders ranked the RedHawks’ defense in the top half in the country (60th) and ranked their special teams in the top 10 (9th). In other words, the team did well in limiting their opponents’ scoring and excelled at making field goals and preventing long kick or punt returns.
“Contextualizing sports data is crucially important,” notes Dr. Adam Beissel, an assistant professor in the department of Sport Leadership and Management at Miami University. Dr. Beissel believes that it is often beneficial to factor out “garbage time – the period of the game where the game is seemingly out of reach.” Doing so would be especially applicable to the Redhawks’ loss at OSU. “This would give you an ‘adjusted’ expected wins and would be perhaps more instructive for measuring team performance than taking total points for/against across every minute of the season.”
The story of the 2019 MAC Champion Miami RedHawks will likely live on as one of the oddest conference championships won by a team in the modern era of college football. More importantly, though, the narrative serves as a testament to the perpetual need for human intuition when interpreting data in the context of a given situation. Humans will nearly always be there to find practical meaning and communicate it to others.
Here’s to hoping I can write another story on the “2020” MAC Champion Miami RedHawks!
-Griffin Lester and Peter Fortunato