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Introducing RUTGERS GAMES, a new way to appreciate “power-conference” blowouts

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You know that feeling when a Power 5 team has no hope whatsoever of competing against a supposed peer?

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A Rutgers fan at a game vs. Michigan in 2016 Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

College football’s power conferences take the vast majority of the sport’s dollars and produce virtually all of its recognized champions. The group’s very best teams are almost always the best in college football. That “power” designation for the entire group has always been a little off, though.

It’s not that most powers aren’t better than most non-powers. They are, as recruiting rankings suggest and as is usually made clear when a team from one group plays a team from the other. The all-time extreme is Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0 in 1916, while a more typical example is Big 12 team 42, Sun Belt team 10. The haves typically beat the have-nots.

But the multi-tiered setup of Division I belies the gulf between the good powers and the bad powers. In select cases, there’s even a wider chasm amongst blue-bloods themselves than between the Power 5 and what’s now called the Group of 5. While excellent non-power teams have their championship arguments ignored, far worse teams get to enjoy power-conference money and status.

Consider the 100 FBS games from 2005 to ‘19 with the widest scoring margins. (That’s roughly when the latest realignment era began and about the time FBS went to 12-game schedules.) Of those 100, almost all were powers beating non-powers, including a bunch of FCS teams.

But in that haystack, you find nine examples of “power-conference teams” looking like some of the worst teams in all Division I.

Now let’s go one step farther: hunting for games in which a “power” team not only lost huge, but was absolutely assured of that fate even before kickoff. These games lay bare how little “power-conference” status says about all the teams that have it. Every “power” conference is only powerful because of its elites, and these games reveal the hangers-on.

I introduce a specific type of game: a RUTGERS GAME.

It doesn’t have to literally feature Rutgers. It just has to meet these criteria:

  1. It’s a massive blowout.
  2. It’s extremely easy to see coming.
  3. It involves a team from a power conference getting drubbed, likely by a team actually worthy of being called a power.

If we mix these ingredients, we can identify the purest mismatches in the recent history of top-level college football. This should ensure we’re not talking about fluke games in which one team surprisingly dismantled another.

Thus, a RUTGERS GAME is any in which a Power 5 (or equivalent) team was an underdog of at least 40 points (something that almost never happens to a team with such status) and then failed to cover that enormous spread.

You can use your own point-spread threshold, though. The spirit of the thing is what’s most important.

We’re trying to empirically capture the feeling of a really bad power being simply unworthy to compete. A power beating up on a non-power in a paycheck game is a healthy (albeit macabre) part of the sport’s money cycle, but a power delivering a totally expected rout of another power shows someone’s out of place.

Such epic power-on-power mismatches are not frequent, and some of these underdogs put up respectable fights in these games, despite being otherwise bad.

Since 2005, only 13 power conference squads have been underdogs of 40 points or more, according to data from John Ewing of The Action Network. Six covered the spread and are therefore spared from shame in this post:

  • 2015 Kansas, 46.5-point underdog to TCU, lost by just six (!)
  • 2009 Washington State, 45-point dog to USC, lost by 21
  • 2017 Illinois, 40-point dog to Ohio State, lost by 38
  • 2017 Kansas, 40-point dog to Oklahoma, lost by 38
  • 2013 Washington State, 40-point dog to Oregon, lost by 24
  • 2008 Wazzu, 40-point dog to Arizona, lost by 31

Instead, we’re going to talk about 40-point powerdogs who did not cover these huge spreads. These are the half-dozen most notable destroyed powers of this era.

Think of them like you would think of a scarlet knight riding off to fight a dragon.

I am naming these games RUTGERS GAMES because Rutgers is the team that has most frequently captured the spirit of hopelessness, even if its pregame point spreads have been slightly less drastic. Also, Rutgers’ 78-0 loss to Michigan in 2016 is the biggest power-conference loss in several decades, and I refuse to omit it just because Rutgers was merely a 30-point underdog. If I need to rename the phenomenon in honor of the 2008 Apple Cup, I might do it.

But I expect Rutgers to formally join the list in 2019 anyway, likely as a 40-something-point underdog at Ohio State.

2012 Colorado (+47) lost by 56 at Oregon

This easily anticipated, but somehow still jarring, loss served as the perfect flagship for Jon Embree’s farewell voyage.

The Buffs went 1-11 and were the worst team in the power leagues, per SP+ (112th overall), despite existing when the Big East was still a “power” and had lots of crummy teams. In fact, this was the worst team in the century-plus history of CU football by both winning percentage and SP+.

2015 Kansas (+46) lost by 59 to Baylor

Baylor was at the peak of its scoring powers, and Kansas was amid a long run of Kansas-ness. This one feels like it should’ve been a 55-point spread or something, though computer systems say something in the 40s would’ve been reasonable beforehand. There is no rational support for a more massive spread other than “uh, look at these teams.”

2017 Kansas (+40.5) lost by 41 at Oklahoma State

We could easily enough calls these KANSAS GAMES. But the Jayhawks have two top-10 seasons in recent memory, while Rutgers has none ever, and we’re going with a Rutgers theme for a bunch of posts right now, so this is the way it is.

The Mason Rudolph-James Washington Pokes offense was an absurd on-paper mismatch for the nation’s #110 defense by SP+. But this game stands out for its high betting drama. Nothing else here came down to the wire for spread bettors like this one.

2008 Washington (+45.5) lost by 56 at USC
2008 Washington State (+43) lost by 69 to USC

The ‘08 Trojans beat the state of Washington’s powers by a combined 125-0.

That is 96 more points than the Huskies and Cougars combined for in that season’s Apple Cup, which was the only game that prevented Wazzu and UW from having matching one-win totals. 2008’s Apple Cup is quite possibly the worst power-conference game of all time.

That both schools managed to be national contenders within a decade later should be an inspiration for others on this list.

2019 Maryland (+42.5) lost by 59 to Ohio State

Ohio State was up 42 at halftime, which was enough to cover at some places. The Buckeyes pulled a lot of their starters at that point but still added to their lead.

Maryland and Rutgers were great additions to the Big Ten’s football slate, not for TV money reasons but for “spot all the big teams scrimmage weeks” reasons.

2018 Oregon State (+40) lost by 46 to Ohio State

These schools aren’t in the same conference, but this is still a great example of the wide range of meaning the word “power” can convey.

The Beavers were coming off a 1-11 season that prompted Gary Andersen to quit halfway through. The orange, non-Oklahoman OSU probably should not have been participating in this game.

But the 31 points Oregon State put up was pretty good! In fact, that was their fourth-highest scoring total in 11 FBS games, and everybody deserves to have their accomplishments praised. It probably helped that Ohio State had seven TD drives of less than three minutes, but we’re not here to concern ourselves with such details.

And it’s important to set aside a section for 2016 Michigan-Rutgers, which doesn’t meet our rigorous point-spread threshold but — more importantly — inspired this post.

A power-conference team lost 78-0. It was even worse than it sounds:

  • Rutgers had six yards in the first half.
  • The Knights lost seven yards on the first five plays of the second half, crossing into negatives.
  • They didn’t for good get into the black in total yardage until about midway through the third quarter.
  • They finished with a sterling 39 yards of offense. Michigan had 600.
  • Rutgers did not get a first down until the fourth quarter, at which point Michigan fans in the stands hugged Rutgers fans in mutual celebration. ESPN reported the last team to finish a major college game without a first down was Western Carolina (against NC State) in 1990. WCU is not an FBS team, much less a Power 5 team.
  • Among games involving at least one FBS team, this was the fifth-ugliest loss of the millennium. The four teams “ahead” of Rutgers on that list were in especially challenged FCS conferences, and one has since joined the NAIA. Rutgers, meanwhile, remains in one of the NCAA’s richest and most prestigious conferences.
  • Rutgers also suffered the third-worst loss by a power in this millennium, 80-7 against West Virginia in 2001. That’s just outside our sample, but worth noting. (Here’s where we must note 2003 Texas A&M lost by 77 to Oklahoma.)
  • That part gets even worse: 2016 Rutgers became “only the fourth team since 1974 to lose back-to-back shutouts while allowing 50 or more points in each game. One of those other teams? Rutgers in 2001, which lost 61-0 to Miami and 50-0 to Virginia Tech.”
  • And:
ESPN

That right there is what it looks like when two teams that should not be in the same subdivision — as in, the Football Bowl Subdivision of NCAA Division I — are actually in the same freaking division — as in, the Big Ten East.

To be clear, this isn’t meant to mock these players and coaches, but rather to point out a glaring inequality within college football.

There are few greater indignities than being told you’re extremely worse than a peer. Kudos to these teams for taking that feedback from Las Vegas odds makers, then going out and getting lots of exercise.

If they need a financial incentive to feel less bad, remember how much money they make by remaining in power conferences (unless they’re players, who are not paid). Rutgers receives a full share of Big Ten TV money every year starting with 2027.

Meanwhile, elite teams who lack power-conference status are usually rewarded by ... being told they should’ve taken on the challenge of facing more power-conference teams.