There is no perfect way to compare college football teams from different decades with each other. The game has evolved so much in the century-plus of its existence that, at some point, you’re in an apples/oranges situation where crucial context about the two, or three, or four teams you’re talking about gets lost in the numbers.
Sports Reference, though, has one of the better formulas I’ve seen for accomplishing these comparisons. It’s called the Simple Rating System, and I’ll let its website explain how it works:
“The important thing to know is that SRS is a rating that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule. For instance, the 2006-07 Spurs won games by an average of 8.43 points per game and played a schedule with opponents that were 0.08 points worse than average, giving them an SRS of 8.35. This means they were 8.35 points better than an average team. An average team would have an SRS of 0.0. The calculation can be complicated, but the premise is simple and it produces easily interpreted results.”
Simple is good. So is evaluating teams by how they performed against the peers of their era. It doesn’t completely eliminate the apples/oranges problem. A team from a lower-scoring time in the game’s history still might not stack up as well against one from a high-scoring period. But it’s not a raw comparison of points allowed or scored per game. It better puts the teams in the proper context of their seasons.
So how did Penn State stack up against its historical peers in 2016? And how do other teams from Penn State history compare by this metric? Here are some interesting nuggets. (And here’s a link to the team’s index, where you can play with the numbers yourself.
Eight is still great
The Nittany Lions posted a SRS of 15.72 points this season, which sounds pretty good. However, it’s actually just the eighth-best mark Penn State has posted since joining the Big Ten for football in 1993. It slots in behind the non-championship squads in 1993, 1995, 1996 and 1999, as well as the title-winning squads of 1994, 2005 and 2008.
But 1994 was really great
That group posted the highest SRS in Penn State history at 26.02 points, nearly 11 points better than the 2016 team and at least a point better than every team from the 1980s, when the Nits won national championships in ‘82 and ‘86.
Speaking of top teams
Penn State’s top five is not what you’d expect if you looked at its national championship count. Behind the 1994 team we have the 1981 team, which finished No. 3 nationally with a SRS of 25.02. The title-winning 1982 team slots in third with an SRS of 23.10. The 1973 team, which finished No. 5 nationally, has the fourth-best SRS in PSU history at 22.78. (Which, hmmmm …) And the 1986 champs round out the top five with an SRS of 22.16.
A fat SRS is probably small consolation for the 1994, 1981 and 1973 teams, but it is a nice reflection on where they belong in Penn State history.
2016’s historical comparisons
Believe it or not, this season’s team slots in all the way down at No. 27 all-time, hurt in large part by its average victory margins, which were unimpressive for most of the first half of the season. So what teams is it closest to? Other teams that finished in the 15-16 SRS range include the 1974 group, which went 10-2 and won the Cotton Bowl; the 1979 team, which went 8-4 against a brutal schedule and won the Liberty Bowl; and Rip Engle’s 1962 team, which went 9-2 and won the Gator Bowl.
Shades of 2002?
The 2016 team’s closest peer from the last 30 years is the 2002 team (14.59 SRS) that went 9-4 and lost to Auburn in the Capital One Bowl. It’s an interesting comparison to make, because that 2002 team, led by 2,000-yard rusher Larry Johnson, famously played a lot of close games and got the bad end of many of them. All four losses came by seven points or fewer. And that seven-point loss was in overtime against Iowa in one of the games that eventually prompted the Big Ten to adopt instant replay.
The 2016 team played a lot of close games, too, so maybe it was blessed with a little of the good luck that the 2002 team never had.
The 2005 and 2008 Big Ten title teams are the only ones since the turn of the century to rank in Penn State’s historical top 20. The 2005 team, led by quarterback Michael Robinson, comes in at No. 9 at 20.41 points, and the 2008 squad, quarterbacked by Daryll Clark, is 15th at 17.82.
The unbeaten squads of 1909, 1911, 1912, 1920, 1921 and 1947 post ratings no better 17.61 and rank no better than 17th in Penn State history. It hurts a little that they don’t hail from tremendously high-scoring eras to pad their margin-of-victory figures. But they’re mostly undone by bad schedules. Four of the six had negative SOS figures, meaning the teams they faced were, on average, worse than the average team nationally. This hurt the 1912 team most. Its average opponent was 5.02 worse than the average team nationally. This shaved what could have been a 22.63 rating with even an average schedule to a 17.61.