In the lead up to this year's Stagg Bowl, I was impressed by the apparent ease with which Mount Union and St. Thomas earned their trip to Salem. Both teams trailed for the first time all season in the finals, and the final score was also the closest game for either team this season. Obviously it takes a great team to make it through the playoffs, but I wanted to find out where this year's matchup compares to some of the other outstanding championship games of the last seventeen years.
Yes, Mount Union usually makes it look easy every year, but this year seemed different. With a fairly soft schedule in the regular season (SoS = 0.458 this year), and paths to the finals that usually aren't the hardest in the country, it can sometimes be hard to get a good read on them until the championship round. But by playing UW-Whitewater in the semifinals, and by beating them handily at 36-6, the Purple Raiders proved that they weren't the "soft" team that had lost to the Warhawks in the championship in 2014 & 2013 (as a caveat: I don't think any team that makes the national championship game should ever be considered soft). In fact, this year's Mount Union squad may be the most consistently excellent team since 1999, with their rating never dipping below 0.9996 throughout the season.
When comparing St. Thomas to their 2012 Stagg Bowl team, this year's squad had a better offense (AdjO from 42.70 to 57.61) and defense (AdjD from 4.47 to 1.06), a more difficult regular season schedule (SoS from 0.621 to 0.669), and a tougher path in the playoffs. Had the 2012 Tommies played the same playoff schedule as the 2015 Tommies, they would have only had a 5.8% chance of making the finals. With the wealth of returning talent, the Tommies were projected as the #4 team in the country in my model, and they quickly overtook UMHB and UWW to assert themselves as one of, if not the most dominant team in the country for most of season.
For some perspective on how consistently excellent each of these teams were this season, here's their season-long rating progression:
Well, that's not very helpful. Maybe if I zoom in to the range of ratings from 0.900 to 1.000 (which is about equivalent to where you would expect the Top 20 to fall), We'll be able to get a better visual of their rating progressions:
Well, there definitely was some early improvement for St. Thomas, but after midseason, both teams are still basically a straight line at 1.000. Perhaps I need to zoom in a little more:
Finally, some up and down, but I had to zoom in to 0.995 - 1.000. Historically, only about one team every other week would fall into this range, but St. Thomas and Mount Union maintained their overwhelming dominance of the rest of the Division for an entire season.
To see how favorably Mount Union and St. Thomas compared to Stagg Bowl matchups of years past, I plotted every team's pregame ratings on one bubble chart, seen below. The size of each team's bubble corresponds to their rating relative to the thirty-three other teams who have played for the championship since 1999. Teams below the dashed grey line are better than an average Stagg Bowl team, while teams above it are worse than average. Keep in mind that an average Stagg Bowl team is still a very good football team.
While neither Mount Union nor St. Thomas this year were the best team to ever play for the Stagg Bowl (they rank 5th & 6th, respectively), as a combination they tend to stand out. To get a better idea of how balanced and outstanding both teams were this year, let's eliminate matchups where either of the teams playing were "worse than average."
Only the games in 2009, 2010, and 2015 made the cut, and this year's team's were rated higher than any of the four teams in 2009 or 2010.
All of this analysis, just like any rating system or statistical analysis in general, should be taken with a grain of salt though. It's worth noting that Mount Union had the five top pre-Stagg Bowl ratings in my dataset, but they only went 2-3 in those games, including a 2003 matchup against St. John's that gave the Johnnies only a 4.5% chance of winning. Stats are fun for comparison and analysis, but they don't win championships; the teams do.