The Northern Illinois Huskies are headed back to the MAC Championship game for the sixth straight season. An amazing accomplishment given the coaching changes they've endured over that time. One of the most difficult things in all of sports is consistency. Yet as amazing as this is for NIU, they are not the first MAC team to accomplish this feat. Former MAC member Marshall, now a member of Conference USA, pulled off the same six season streak from 1997 to 2002.
With two such juggernauts standing atop the conference's history, it raises the question of which team was truly the most dominant?
These things are hard to clearly answer given the speculation involved with a nearly decade long gap in their respective seasons. But with the help of the Simple Rating System (SRS), we can get an idea of which team was better relative to their time in college football.
The SRS basically uses a team's point margin against their opponent who has been measured by the same point margin standard against all their previous opponents. Every team is measured by every team your opponent has played, and those teams are measured against all the opponents they played, and so on. Ever hear that you've slept with every person your partner has slept with, and every person those people have slept with? It's like that, only safer.
For reference, an average team should score around 0. Last year's Ohio State Buckeyes had an SRS of 20.4, meaning they would be 20 points better than the average team. Northwestern Wildcats (5-7, 3-5 Big Ten) had an SRS of .80, placing them almost right at average.
The SRS can also be applied to the entire conference to get an idea of how well a conference was in a given year relative to the other conferences.
While there is no true formula for determining a teams exact quality, I'll try to put these two school's streaks into some perspective for their overall performance as well as just their MAC play. I'm not trying to say which of the two programs were better; I've always hated comparing teams who didn't play during the same time because of the constant change and evolution of the sport. But we may be able to see which team was more dominant in regards to their own given time.
Let's just start with the most obvious, their records. Over Marshall Thundering Herd's six-year run at the MAC Championship (1997-2002), they've accumulated an overall record of 65-13 (.833) and a conference record of 42-6 (.875). NIU's current run of success has produced an overall record of 65-17 (.793) with a conference record of 45-5 (.900).
The Herd's overall SRS average for those six years was 4.28, while the Huskies was 3.66. So Marshall was slightly better than NIU during their span as it pertains to the entire schedule they played. The Hurds 4.28 average placed them as the 45th best of 115 teams. That is the 39th percentile. NIU's 3.66 average had them at 52nd best of 125 teams (42nd percentile).
Very close, but the edge goes to Marshall.
Looking at conference play only, the edge shifted to the Huskies. The MAC's SRS during the period of 1997 to 2002 was -8.3. This placed the MAC in the bottom 10% of the conferences. From the period of 2010 through this season, the MAC's SRS was -6.69. Placing the MAC in the bottom 12%, just slightly better. When you combine NIU's better conference record with a slightly more difficult MAC, the Huskies were a tad better in conference play than Marshall. Very close again, but the edge went to NIU.
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Do these small percentages matter? Has this really helped differentiate one team over the other? Not one bit. What these SRS numbers do is help clear up any debate about either teams quality relative to college football during their individual streaks. It's not about the actual quality of your team, but rather your team's quality as measured relative to all other teams.
So If you'd like to say Marshall was slightly better than NIU overall, or that NIU was slightly better in MAC play, you could. I'm just not sure what you can argue to make either statement profoundly true. Zealous fandom aside of course.
So why bother with using this to compare the two programs? I wanted to find something that would give me a little more information than just their records and reputation.
I must admit, my first thought was that Marshall would clearly be the better squad. It's hard to think of Marshall without jumping right to names like Randy Moss, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich. I wanted to get past that reaction and see what just the numbers said. The SRS seemed the most unbiased, logical and easy to understand measure. And once i had that data, my mind had swung back towards NIU some more. Now I started to realize things like Randy Moss was only at Marshall for one year. That while Pennington and Leftwich had nice runs in the NFL, I'd put Jordan Lynch's college resume up against almost anyones.
Consistent winning like these programs displayed aren't just about a couple of big names anyway. Sure a superstar can lift you up, but the program will have to do the carrying to keep it going.
Other areas had the Huskies and Herd very close as well. The Huskies spent 13 weeks ranked by the AP over three of those seasons with the highest ones being 24, 16 and 16. The Thundering Hurd managed 15 weeks ranked by the AP in three of their six years with high marks of 10, 20 and 16.
Against power conferences Marshall was 3-6, while NIU was 5-9. Marshall had an 0-3 record against ranked opponents in that time while NIU managed a 2-3 record verse ranked opponents.
One obvious difference is that Marshall did win five out of the six conference championship games they played in. NIU has won three of five and can close that gap to four of six with a victory over Bowling Green this Friday.
I hope I didn't disappoint anyone who was looking for a definitive winner in this MAC matchup of titans. And no, the Boca Raton Bowl last season may not be used as a tie breaker. But after sorting through a lot of data, the only conclusion I could come up with is, damn, these teams kicked a lot of ass for six amazing seasons.