College football's greatest myth

Home-field advantage has plummeted across the sport's major conferences, especially in the Big Ten. What’s turning it upside down?

By Dirk Chatelain / World-Herald staff writer

Thursday, September 1, 2016


The evidence has trickled in the past couple years, quietly and mysteriously.

Oct. 3, 2014: Five Pac-12 road teams — all unranked — swept the conference slate, including upsets of No. 2 Oregon, No. 8 UCLA and No. 16 USC.

Nov. 21, 2015: Ohio State and Wisconsin, within an hour, surrendered to double-digit underdogs Michigan State and Northwestern.

Last year, Power Five teams that finished in the Top 25 collectively lost more home games (21) than road games (20).

Alabama's last three national championship teams (2011, 2012 and 2015) lost one game apiece — all at home. Same goes for Ohio State's 2014 title team.

Coaches and analysts churn out the same old talking points about the rigors of winning road games. They're becoming harder to believe. College football is changing. Home-field advantage has nearly disappeared.

Across the five major conferences, from 1996 through 2013, home teams won 56.5 percent of league games. There were a few ups and downs, but the rate was pretty steady.

Now look at 2014 and 2015, the two most balanced seasons in the 20-year span. Power Five home teams won just 50.8 percent. Their total record: 267-259.

"Wow," said Phil Steele, the college football author who makes a living studying numbers like these. "You would think it would be a bigger factor. I'm surprised."

"Really?" said Nebraska offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, when told the numbers. "That shocks me actually."

Nowhere have things shifted more than the Big Ten.

Home teams dominated conference play from 1996-2011, winning 57.9 percent of games. The past four years, Big Ten home teams are 102-105 — 49.3 percent. It's a stunning departure from tradition.

It's also the first layer of a geeky college football mystery.

   



Annual cumulative Power 5 home-team winning percentage



2015: 52.3% (137-125)
2014: 49.2% (130-134)
2013: 55.5% (142-114)
2012: 53.2% (132-116)
2011: 58.4% (139-99)
2010: 53.1% (120-106)
2009: 57.0% (130-98)
2008: 57.0% (131-99)
2007: 58.7% (135-95)
2006: 55.0% (127-104)
2005: 56.2% (127-99)
2004: 57.7% (128-94)
2003: 64.0% (137-77)
2002: 54.7% (117-97)
2001: 52.8% (113-101)
2000: 57.0% (122-92)
1999: 56.3% (120-93)
1998: 59.7% (126-85)

Home-field heroes



Which programs have the best home-field advantage? The question can be tricky. Obviously Alabama and Ohio State are great at home, but they’re also great on the road. We examined the past decade and broke down which programs have the best home-win percentage, which programs have the most dramatic gap between home wins and road wins in conference play and which programs are better on the road.

Toughest places to win (home record, 2006-15):

Ohio State, 35-5
Oklahoma, 32-5
Clemson, 33-7
Oregon, 37-8
Alabama, 32-8
Wisconsin, 32-8
LSU, 32-9
Florida State, 30-10

Home sweet home (biggest difference between home and road performance, 2006-15):

Cal (24-21 home, 13-32 road)
Kansas State (27-15, 17-24)
Arizona State (29-16, 19-26)
LSU (32-9, 22-17)
Wake Forest (20-20, 11-29)
Wisconsin (32-8, 24-16)
Clemson (33-7, 25-15)
North Carolina State (19-21, 11-29)
Baylor (23-16, 15-25)

More comfortable in road whites (home and away records, 2006-15):

Wash. St. (10-35 home, 14-30 road)
Northwestern (16-23, 19-20)
Texas A&M (19-22, 21-18)
Texas (23-15, 25-13)
Duke (11-29, 13-27)
Virginia Tech (27-13, 28-12)
Michigan State (26-14, 27-13)

My curiosity began with Nebraska.

From 2008 through 2015, Husker football went 21-11 in conference home games. And 21-11 in league road games. Hmmm ... was such uniformity unusual? I started digging through the Big Ten and didn't stop until I compiled 20 years of data for the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — more than 4,500 total games.

The peak of home-field advantage during the 20-year span was 2003, when Power Five home teams won 64 percent of conference games. It's hard to relate to those numbers now.

In 2014, Pac-12 home teams went 21-33, the worst mark of any major conference in 20 years of study.

Big 12 home teams, who won 64.4 percent of league games from 2002 through 2009, have dropped to 53.5 percent since 2010.

ACC home teams won 56.8 percent of conference games from 1996 through 2012. The past three years: 51.8.

Arbitrary starting points tend to distort statistics, but there's enough numbers to see a pattern.

Who's losing more often at home? According to research, it's primarily the bad teams. Who's winning more road games? The top tier, but especially elite teams like Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma.

Is it possible the gap between great programs and bad programs is growing?

To get closer to the target, we need to look at close games. Games decided by eight points or less. Maybe we can learn something.

The percentage of one-possession games hasn't changed much from a decade ago. Home teams are still winning a similar percentage outside the eight-point frame.

Here's what did change: From 2004 through 2011, home teams won 52 percent of close games (367-339). About what you'd expect, right?

Contrast that to 2012 through 2015, when home teams' win percentage in close games dropped to 41.6 percent (162-227).

"Over four years, to have that big of a discrepancy, that doesn't seem random," said Las Vegas handicapper Preston Johnson. "You have something there."

And here's the real trend within the trend. The two leagues most responsible for the dip in home-field advantage are the Big Ten and Big 12. Look at the win percentage of home underdogs in those two leagues.

BIG TEN

» 2004-07: 36 percent (27-48)

» 2008-11: 28 percent (21-53)

» 2012-15: 15 percent (11-60)

BIG 12

» 2004-07: 34 percent (23-45)

» 2008-11: 25 percent (19-56)

» 2012-15: 19 percent (13-54)

In 2015, Big Ten home underdogs went 3-18; Nebraska was involved in all three games: Purdue, Illinois and Michigan State. In the Big 12, they went 3-14. In the Pac-12, 1-12.

Point spreads are similar to a decade ago, but the upsets aren't happening. A home underdog's backyard may be influential enough to keep games close, but it's not enough to swing a result.

Which makes you wonder about college football's most popular narrative in the 21st century — parity.

The past few years, that's mostly hogwash.



The Big Ten's slipping advantage at home




   



Close games



One of the strangest trends is one-possession games in the Big Ten. Traditionally, home teams win slightly more than 50 percent in those scenarios. Look at the past four years:

2015: 6-16
2014: 10-11
2013: 6-11
2012: 6-14

Home teams are only winning 35 percent of games decided by eight points or less. How is that possible? Again, it goes back to struggling teams’ inability to close the deal. Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland, for instance, were 0-8 in close games last fall. In 2012, Michigan State went 0-4 at home, losing by margins of one, three, four and three.

Crunching the numbers



Home-field advantage in college football is dwindling. But how do we find out who’s losing more home games and winning more road games?

My data-savvy friend, Josh, suggested quintiles. Break the results into four-year spans. Break the programs into five tiers. Then compare the win percentages in each tier from one period to another. You may be able to get inside the trends.

He was right.

Who’s losing more home games? It isn’t programs like Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State — the top tier is still winning 83 percent at home. The second tier — programs like Oklahoma State, Ole Miss and Nebraska — are still winning 65 percent. The third tier — Iowa, Penn State, Missouri, etc. —was still at 53 percent.

The drop comes from the bottom tiers. The fourth quintile, for instance, dropped from winning 46 percent in 2008-11 to 35 percent the past two years. The bottom quintile dropped from 28 percent to 15 percent.

Take the Big Ten bottom feeders, for instance. Last season, Rutgers, Indiana and Maryland were a combined 0-12 at home in league play. (Rutgers won at Indiana, which won at Maryland, which won at Rutgers).

Who’s winning more road games? The top four tiers have all risen about 10 percentage points from 2008-11 to 2014-15, but the most dramatic jump — from 73 percent to 83 percent — happened in the first quintile. What’s it mean?

Powerhouses aren’t being ambushed on the road as much. Look at the Big Ten the past two years. Only two ranked teams lost as road favorites — Michigan State at Nebraska in 2015 and Wisconsin at Northwestern in ’14.

In 2004-05, by contrast, 11 ranked teams in Big Ten lost as road favorites.

Why leave out the Big East?


It’s true that for most of the 20-year period, college football had six major conferences, not five. The Big East had an automatic BCS bid. However, one point of the study was to chart a league from beginning to end and Big East football no longer exists. It seemed more accurate to omit it altogether.

How did we calculate the conferences?



Teams weren’t counted until they joined a major conference. So Utah, for example, wasn’t factored into the Pac-12 data until 2011. Rutgers wasn’t counted in the Big Ten until 2013. Nebraska and Colorado, for instance, were with the Big 12 until 2011.


What about the odds?


According to Las Vegas gambling expert Todd Fuhrman, home-field advantage is still worth an average of 3½ points. And a 3½ point favorite is expected to win approximately 55 percent of the time.

The trends are confounding because they lack an obvious cause.

I interviewed a sports handicapper, a gambling guru, two officials, five coaches and several analysts. What the heck has changed the past four years? With their help, let's throw some theories at the wall.

1. Crowd noise isn't as detrimental



Mack Brown remembers hearing the horror stories — and experiencing a few himself. If your team traveled to places like Texas A&M or Nebraska, LSU or Clemson, you couldn't hear your own voice. Brown used to tell officials they might have to calm the crowd if his offense couldn't hear the snap count on third down. Officials actually stopped play and obliged.

"There were times that you could not hear at all 10 years ago," said Brown, whose Texas teams were usually better on the road than at home.

"Now you don't have to hear. You communicate with hands instead of voices. Very few people are calling signals, very few people are huddling and most people are going at a faster tempo. There's very few communication issues on the road, where it used to be a real problem."

The difference isn't just silent snap counts. Attendance at most Power Five schools is dropping. In the Big Ten last season, nine of the 14 Big Ten schools averaged smaller crowds. The Big 12 average was at its lowest point since 2005.

Those who do show up are less engaged. Who could possibly commit to hollering with all the smart phones, replay boards and commercial breaks?

2. Games are longer, which helps favorites



Remember when an underdog could control the ball, eat clock, shorten the game and steal a win? That's not so easy anymore. In 2011, Power Five teams were averaging 69.3 plays per game. By 2014, they were up to 72.3. High-speed offenses give good teams a greater margin for error.

Look at it like this: If Oregon is one point better than Washington per possession, the Ducks' chances improve the more possessions they play. A 15-drive game — rather than 13 or 14 a decade ago — helps the more talented team.

3. Kids aren't scared anymore



High school prospects compete all over the country in camps and combines. They train harder and smarter than ever before. They are inundated with social media attention. Thus, they're more prepared for the pressure of college football road trips.

"Look at all these IMGs that are traveling cross-country," said Langsdorf, Nebraska's offensive coordinator. "It used to be a lot of local games, so getting on a plane and going somewhere was a big deal. It's different now."

Moreover, maybe the disturbances of playing at home — hosting family, coordinating tickets, sharing the sideline with redshirts and walk-ons who never play — have begun to outweigh the advantages.

"You get on the road, there's less distractions," Langsdorf said. "You're in a hotel, you got 'em all where you want 'em."

4. Officiating is more balanced



Big Ten data, which only goes back to 2009, doesn't reveal a notable change in flag distribution between home and road teams, but maybe it's more complicated than penalty counts.

Power Five officials, under more scrutiny than ever, are raising their standards and collaborating more. And perhaps the ability to review controversial calls has diminished the "homer" factor. Officials never intended to make mistakes, but it's human nature to let a home crowd influence a whistle or two.

Starting in 2004, calls were subject to replay. Do road teams benefit more than home teams from technology?

"Typically, a home team might get a 50-50 call 60 percent of the time," said Preston Johnson, the Vegas handicapper, "but when you get to review, it's back to a 50-50 call."

5. Realignment jostled the norms



The demise of home-field advantage doesn't correspond with the birth of no-huddle offenses, scouting combines or challenge flags. It does, however, correspond with Power Five reshuffling. Is there a connection?

Do bigger conferences diminish the mystique of a once-frightening venue? Is it easier to win at West Virginia or Texas A&M or Nebraska when you're unaware of its history? It's possible.

Since 2011, 12 programs have switched Power Five leagues (like Nebraska and Colorado) or joined Power Fives (like TCU and Pitt). Since jumping, they're collectively better on the road (81-99) than at home (77-104). That includes Texas A&M and Missouri, who both have better road records since joining the vaunted SEC.

Gerry DiNardo, Big Ten Network analyst, wondered if it's simply a scheduling imbalance.

The Big Ten has mostly separated the West's and East's best teams the past two seasons. Wisconsin, for instance, went on the road and whipped Maryland and Rutgers, avoiding Ohio State and Michigan State. The theory makes sense — until you remember that the Badgers' home-field advantage should've also improved without visits from the Buckeyes and Spartans. It didn't.

The past four years, Wisconsin's conference record is better on the road. So is Iowa's. So is Northwestern's. So is Ohio State's. So is Michigan State's.

Surely other factors contribute. Mike Riley suggested field conditions are no longer an advantage for the home team because they're all so similar now. Another coach suggested improvements in travel — teams have mastered the efficiency and organization of a road trip.

There is one exception to the trends, one league where traditional patterns haven't changed much, if at all.

The SEC.

   



What about the NFL?



Are college football’s home-field trends mirroring the next level? Not exactly. NFL home-field win percentage dropped the past two years, but it’s been pretty consistent since 2000.

2015: 54.2%
2014: 57.7%
2013: 60.4%
2012: 57.6%
2011: 56.9%
2010: 55.7%
2009: 57.3%
2008: 57.6%
2007: 57.6%
2006: 53.1%
2005: 59.0%
2004: 56.6%
2003: 61.3%
2002: 58.4%
2001: 54.8%
2000: 56.5%
1999: 59.7%
1998: 62.9%
1997: 61.5%
1996: 62.1%

Perhaps we can use the nation's most prestigious, most tumultuous, most analyzed conference as a clue for what's happening elsewhere.

From 1996 through 2011, SEC teams had the worst home winning percentages of any major conference — 53.5 percent. The past four years, SEC home teams have risen to 55.3 while their peers have dipped. Now the SEC is No. 1 in home-field advantage.

Why? Well, the SEC occupies the traditional flank on several spectrums.

Unlike the other Power Fives, SEC attendance rose in 2015 — six of the top nine nationally in attendance were SEC teams. Its offenses are running fewer plays per game than Power Five peers — seven fewer plays, in fact, than the average Big 12 team. Its point spreads are tighter and its home underdogs are actually winning more than five or 10 years ago.

The SEC still represents parity. Everywhere else, the gap between haves and have-nots seems to be growing. And home-field advantage is hardly an advantage at all.

Back in Lincoln, Mike Riley's team faces arguably their toughest road schedule in school history: Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa. Husker fans should enter 2016 with a sense of peace.

If their team loses, location won't be the reason.

Contact the writer:



402-649-1461, dirk.chatelain@owh.com, twitter.com/dirkchatelain






Annual cumulative Power 5 home-team winning percentage



2015: 52.3% (137-125)
2014: 49.2% (130-134)
2013: 55.5% (142-114)
2012: 53.2% (132-116)
2011: 58.4% (139-99)
2010: 53.1% (120-106)
2009: 57.0% (130-98)
2008: 57.0% (131-99)
2007: 58.7% (135-95)
2006: 55.0% (127-104)
2005: 56.2% (127-99)
2004: 57.7% (128-94)
2003: 64.0% (137-77)
2002: 54.7% (117-97)
2001: 52.8% (113-101)
2000: 57.0% (122-92)
1999: 56.3% (120-93)
1998: 59.7% (126-85)

Home-field heroes



Which programs have the best home-field advantage? The question can be tricky. Obviously Alabama and Ohio State are great at home, but they’re also great on the road. We examined the past decade and broke down which programs have the best home-win percentage, which programs have the most dramatic gap between home wins and road wins in conference play and which programs are better on the road.

Toughest places to win (home record, 2006-15):

Ohio State, 35-5
Oklahoma, 32-5
Clemson, 33-7
Oregon, 37-8
Alabama, 32-8
Wisconsin, 32-8
LSU, 32-9
Florida State, 30-10

Home sweet home (biggest difference between home and road performance, 2006-15):

Cal (24-21 home, 13-32 road)
Kansas State (27-15, 17-24)
Arizona State (29-16, 19-26)
LSU (32-9, 22-17)
Wake Forest (20-20, 11-29)
Wisconsin (32-8, 24-16)
Clemson (33-7, 25-15)
North Carolina State (19-21, 11-29)
Baylor (23-16, 15-25)

More comfortable in road whites (home and away records, 2006-15):

Wash. St. (10-35 home, 14-30 road)
Northwestern (16-23, 19-20)
Texas A&M (19-22, 21-18)
Texas (23-15, 25-13)
Duke (11-29, 13-27)
Virginia Tech (27-13, 28-12)
Michigan State (26-14, 27-13)

Close games



One of the strangest trends is one-possession games in the Big Ten. Traditionally, home teams win slightly more than 50 percent in those scenarios. Look at the past four years:

2015: 6-16
2014: 10-11
2013: 6-11
2012: 6-14

Home teams are only winning 35 percent of games decided by eight points or less. How is that possible? Again, it goes back to struggling teams’ inability to close the deal. Indiana, Rutgers and Maryland, for instance, were 0-8 in close games last fall. In 2012, Michigan State went 0-4 at home, losing by margins of one, three, four and three.

Crunching the numbers



Home-field advantage in college football is dwindling. But how do we find out who’s losing more home games and winning more road games?

My data-savvy friend, Josh, suggested quintiles. Break the results into four-year spans. Break the programs into five tiers. Then compare the win percentages in each tier from one period to another. You may be able to get inside the trends.

He was right.

Who’s losing more home games? It isn’t programs like Alabama, Ohio State and Florida State — the top tier is still winning 83 percent at home. The second tier — programs like Oklahoma State, Ole Miss and Nebraska — are still winning 65 percent. The third tier — Iowa, Penn State, Missouri, etc. —was still at 53 percent.

The drop comes from the bottom tiers. The fourth quintile, for instance, dropped from winning 46 percent in 2008-11 to 35 percent the past two years. The bottom quintile dropped from 28 percent to 15 percent.

Take the Big Ten bottom feeders, for instance. Last season, Rutgers, Indiana and Maryland were a combined 0-12 at home in league play. (Rutgers won at Indiana, which won at Maryland, which won at Rutgers).

Who’s winning more road games? The top four tiers have all risen about 10 percentage points from 2008-11 to 2014-15, but the most dramatic jump — from 73 percent to 83 percent — happened in the first quintile. What’s it mean?

Powerhouses aren’t being ambushed on the road as much. Look at the Big Ten the past two years. Only two ranked teams lost as road favorites — Michigan State at Nebraska in 2015 and Wisconsin at Northwestern in ’14.

In 2004-05, by contrast, 11 ranked teams in Big Ten lost as road favorites.

Why leave out the Big East?


It’s true that for most of the 20-year period, college football had six major conferences, not five. The Big East had an automatic BCS bid. However, one point of the study was to chart a league from beginning to end and Big East football no longer exists. It seemed more accurate to omit it altogether.

How did we calculate the conferences?



Teams weren’t counted until they joined a major conference. So Utah, for example, wasn’t factored into the Pac-12 data until 2011. Rutgers wasn’t counted in the Big Ten until 2013. Nebraska and Colorado, for instance, were with the Big 12 until 2011.

What about the odds?



According to Las Vegas gambling expert Todd Fuhrman, home-field advantage is still worth an average of 3½ points. And a 3½ point favorite is expected to win approximately 55 percent of the time.

What about the NFL?



Are college football’s home-field trends mirroring the next level? Not exactly. NFL home-field win percentage dropped the past two years, but it’s been pretty consistent since 2000.

2015: 54.2%
2014: 57.7%
2013: 60.4%
2012: 57.6%
2011: 56.9%
2010: 55.7%
2009: 57.3%
2008: 57.6%
2007: 57.6%
2006: 53.1%
2005: 59.0%
2004: 56.6%
2003: 61.3%
2002: 58.4%
2001: 54.8%
2000: 56.5%
1999: 59.7%
1998: 62.9%
1997: 61.5%
1996: 62.1%

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