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How Much Do Bye Weeks Matter?

I'm personally staying out of the debate about whether or not the SEC should move schedules around because Alabama is facing six teams coming off of a bye week. I haven't followed the whole process closely enough to give an informed opinion on it.

What I can do is pull out some stats (and if you've read this site much in the past, the only surprise is that I haven't done so already). I took a look at SEC teams coming off of bye weeks from 2002-09, an eight-season span. I excluded all games where both teams had a bye week before the contest as that, in theory, would negate any advantage having a bye week presents. I also threw out any games against non-BCS opponents because I don't care how you did against Tulane or Western Kentucky after a week off.

There were 109 games that fit those criteria. I am using the same rules as I did in my piece from a couple years ago on upsets in the SEC. A game where the teams finished with the same number of wins plus or minus one is a tossup; if the final win difference between teams is two or more, then it's a mismatch. I'll also reference those numbers when comparing teams coming off of bye weeks versus overall games; they don't quite cover exactly the same data set, but they're close enough for my purposes (since I don't have time at the moment to add to them).

Mismatches where the team coming off the bye week was favored.

There were 40 such contests in the span I looked at, and the favored team coming off of a bye week went 34-6 (.850). In overall games from my last upset study, the favored team went 203-22 (.902). The sample set sizes are a bit different, so it may just be noise that favored teams ended up doing worse coming off of a bye week than overall games. Either way, it is certainly not a clear advantage to be coming off of a bye week as the favored team.

The upsets, if you're curious, are as follows: 2002 South Carolina (5 wins) over Kentucky (7), 2003 Vanderbilt (2) over Kentucky (4), 2003 Florida (8) over LSU (13), 2003 Texas Tech (8) over Ole Miss (10), 2005 Tennessee (5) over LSU (11), and 2008 Tennessee (5) over Kentucky (7).

You'll note that only two games actually involved a difference in total wins of more than two, and both times it was LSU losing. In 2003, the loss to Ron Zook's Gators is inexplicable on just about every level. The loss to Tennessee in 2005 came just a couple of weeks after Hurricane Katrina, so I think the Tigers can be forgiven for that. In either case, a titanic upset only occurred when a freak of nature was involved.

Mismatches where the team coming off the bye week was not favored.

There were 37 such contests in the span I looked at, and the underdogs coming off of bye weeks were 6-31 (.162). In overall games, underdogs were 22-203 (.098). The same caveat about sample size applies, so again, the difference could just be noise. Still, it would appear that there is some kind of advantage presented for underdogs coming off of bye weeks versus underdogs overall.

Let's take a look at those six wins, shall we? They were: 2002 Florida (8) over Georgia (13), 2003 Florida (8) over Georgia (11), 2004 Mississippi State over Florida (7), 2008 Mississippi State (4) over Vanderbilt (7), 2008 Tennessee (5) over Kentucky Vanderbilt (7), and South Carolina (7) over Clemson (9).

Half of these six games involve the random number generator that is the Zooker, with his two wins over UGA and the game that cost him his job. The other three were all very close in win count, with the widest gap being a game where Vanderbilt, of all teams, was the one getting upset. In the most recent one, it wasn't even an SEC team that lost. So while it initially appears that coming off a bye week helps underdogs, I don't know if we can say that strongly after looking at the actual upset wins.

The tossups.

Here's where the rubber meets the road. With the mismatches, the team that was supposed to win did so more than 84 percent of the time regardless of the situation. Underdogs coming off bye weeks maybe were helped out a little bit, and favorites if anything underachieved.

In tossups, we should see teams coming off of bye weeks winning more than half of the time if there really is some kind of advantage. Right? Right.

Unfortunately, that's not what the numbers say. Teams coming off of bye weeks in tossup games are just 13-19 (.406). At home, they're an even .500 (8-8) and on the road they're just 4-11 (.267). There was one neutral site tossup where Florida (9 wins) beat Georgia (10) in 2005, but D.J. Shockley's injury played a much bigger role in the Bulldogs' loss than UF's bye week did.

I know some of you might think that home field advantage is hurting the road teams here, but home field advantage is not that strong. If anything coming off of a bye week in a tossup is a clear disadvantage, because what little home field advantage exists has disappeared and road teams perform dismally.

So how much do bye weeks matter?

In three of the four situations I looked at, coming off of a bye week was a hindrance if it had an effect at all. In the case of underdogs, coming off of a bye week might help if it does anything at all. While for the most part bye weeks make little difference, the fact that Alabama is projected to be really good actually puts them into the one situation where opponents off of bye weeks are more dangerous than usual.

Let's look at the five teams coming off bye weeks that Alabama currently has scheduled (I'm ignoring LSU since the Tide have a bye week before that contest too). They are: Auburn at home, Ole Miss at home, Mississippi State at home, South Carolina on the road, and Tennessee on the road.

You might disagree, but I think Alabama will end up as a favorite in at least three of those games. I don't see Bama winning fewer than 10 games this fall, so even at the most pessimistic projection for the Tide a squad would have to win nine games to get to tossup range. Mississippi State and Tennessee definitely aren't getting to nine, and South Carolina probably won't either. Ole Miss might I suppose, since the Rebels have gotten to nine each of the past two seasons. Auburn has the best chance of them all, so I'm going to pencil that in as a tossup and the rest as mismatches.

Based solely on the numbers above, Alabama has a 36.1 percent chance of winning all five games if only the Iron Bowl (a road game for the Tigers) is a tossup. What if none of those teams came off of a bye week? Well, let's use the .902 winning percentage for overall favorites and give home teams in tossups a 55 percent chance of winning (a mild home field advantage). In that case, Alabama has a 36.4 percent chance of winning all five. In this instance, there's no real difference.

But supposed Alabama is a true favorite in all five games. If no opponents came off of bye weeks, the Tide's chances of a sweep are 59.8 percent. With all five coming off of a bye, their chances of a sweep fall all the way to 41.3 percent.

Paradoxically, the argument could be made that Alabama probably being good is a reason in favor of moving some opponents' games around instead of against it since that gap is gigantic. If all five were tossups, Bama would actually have a better chance of a sweep (9.9 percent) if all five opponents came off of a bye than if none did (3.4 percent). Go figure.

Overall counts.

Last section, I promise.

Here's how many games each team has had to play against another SEC team coming off of a bye without coming off of a bye themselves:

  1. Alabama: 18
  2. Florida: 13
  3. Tennessee: 11
  4. Auburn: 9
  5. Vanderbilt: 8
  6. Arkansas:7
  7. Georgia: 7
  8. LSU: 7
  9. South Carolina: 6
  10. Kentucky: 5
  11. Mississippi State: 5
  12. Ole Miss: 4

The SEC scheduling program seems to give Alabama and Florida the most of these types of games, though with the Tide clearly out ahead. If I had to guess, I'd say it's because Alabama and Florida are alphabetically first in each division and Alabama first overall, but that's completely conjecture.

Anyway, only two teams have had four of these kinds of games in one season, making Alabama's current five unprecedented. The first was 2003 Alabama, which lost the three games it was supposed to lose and won the one game it was supposed to win. The second was 2008 Tennessee, which was an underdog in all four but did pull one upset. Five teams have had three of these games: 2002 Florida, 2005 Arkansas, and 2007-09 Alabama.

Now, I don't know how and when the SEC tweaks its scheduling algorithm, but it seems to be getting worse about matching teams up with those coming off of bye weeks. Four of the seven occasions since 2002 where a team has faced three or more teams off of bye weeks have happened in the past three seasons, and it cued up a whopping five for the Tide in 2010.

Something needs to be done about this regardless of whether Bama's 2010 slate gets tweaked or not. If nothing gets moved, Alabama's lead over Florida in this department swells to ten over nine years. When No. 1 is out in front by more than a game per year, something is definitely wrong.