Ranking the toughest schedules in the Big Central for 2021

Predictions can sometimes be a fool’s errand.

As Marty McFly said to Doc Brown, “Since when can weathermen predict the weather, let alone the future?”

Well, Marty, to quote Doc: “You’ve given me something to shoot for.”

The weatherman uses various models, but the best tool we have in high school football is the Strength Index. Of course, these numbers will change over the course of an eight- or nine-game regular season, and they’re only based on history, but they’re still the best predictor we’ve got.

We calculate strength of schedule simply based on the Strength Index rating of a team’s opponents, or the Opponent Strength Index. During the season, teams get the full SI value of a team they beat, and half the value of a team they lost to. (The rare tie gets 3/4 the value.)

For our purposes, we take the full SI value of each opponent, and find the average, and consider that the strength of schedule. But then we go one step further.

We take a look at what we call the “Up or Down.” That is to say, is a team “playing up” or “playing down”?

A team that plays up is playing teams rated higher than them. A team playing down is playing weaker teams. We calculate this by looking at a team’s Strength Index, and then determining if the average of their opponents – you could also call it their “Potential OSI” – is higher or lower. If the average is higher, their opponents are considered stronger than them, on average. If it’s lower, their opponents are considered weaker.

Keep in mind that you can’t really look at the extremes. The best five teams, for example, are generally going to “play down” because there aren’t many teams better than them to play. Likewise, the five lowest rated teams are going to generally “play up” because almost every team is ranked higher than them.

It’s the teams inside those extremes that are interesting to note. We’ll explain more below.

Strength of Schedule

The Big Central team with the toughest Strength of Schedule is Westfield. The Blue Devils have a potential OSI of 70.46. That means if they were to win all their games – and all the teams they played kept the same SI, which of course, won’t happen – they would finish with an OSI of 70.46.

Note that we do not consider Thanksgiving Day games on the schedule – such as Westfield’s annual matchup with Plainfield – mainly because the OSI comes into play for playoff seeding, which occurs weeks before Turkey Day. We also did not include SI for the handful of out-of-state games, like Somerville’s matchup with Olney Charter (PA).

In the chart below, the colors represent divisions. For example, all the teams in Red are Division 5D. The Green is Division 5C.

And what’s interesting to note are two trends:

The first is where teams are bunched together in the rankings. For example, 5C has its six teams ranking anywhere from 4th to 13th. That’s pretty good balance for the Strength of Schedule, and since most games are divisional and those teams are playing each other, that means that – on paper, where games are not played – it’s a pretty even division.

Same goes for Division 4, where the eight teams – Montgomery, Linden, Colonia, Cranford, JFK, North Hunterdon, Scotch Plains-Fanwood and Woodbridge – are bunched in a span of 12 teams.

On the other side of the spectrum, Division 5D’s six teams are spread out among almost half the conference. St. Joseph of Metuchen’s SOS is 68.82 with Piscataway right behind them at 68.25, while Edison is down at 60.53.

Big Central Strength of Schedule Rankings for 2021

Also of interest: which division has the toughest schedule? Little surprise, the top three spots are taken by the “Group 5” divisions, but look at who’s next? Divisions 3, 4 and 2A all rank higher than 5C. That division’s biggest issue is that JP Stevens and Perth Amboy have low Strength Index values. Stevens is in the 30s and Amboy is just over 40. That could hurt other teams in the division come playoff time. The system rewards wins over strong opponents.

Playing Up or Down?

So now the question is, what teams are challenging themselves? After all, they are the ones that will get rewarded come playoff time. Wins are obviously better than losses, but wins over stronger teams are better than wins over weaker ones.

First, let’s look at the extremes.

Some of the best teams in the league are playing way down. Why? There are few, if any, teams above them in the league to play. And it’s slimmer pickin’s when you have to play teams in your division. In fact, the five teams who “play down” the most are all in different divisions, and have the highest SI’s in their divisions: Woodbridge (-17.22), Phillipsburg (-16.89), Somerville (-16.30), Hillside (-15.02), and New Providence (-12.20).

In the example of Woodbridge, it means the Barrons are playing teams that, on average, are ranked just over 17 points lower than them. If Woodbridge were to go undefeated, and beat those teams by more than 17 points, the SI value of those teams might go down, meaning Woodbridge’s OSI might go down, which hurts them in the playoff chase. Ideally, Woodbridge wants a better schedule – not too good that they lose half their games, but good enough to keep a good OSI.

On the other end of the list, we have the teams playing “up.” JP Stevens plays up the most, at +21.7, meaning the average SI of the teams they face is almost 22 points higher than them. That makes sense, with Stevens having an SI in the 30s and most of the rest of the teams in their division in the 50s or 60s (besides Perth Amboy, in the 40s).

Who’s right in the middle? Well, of the 60 teams in the Big Central, 38 play up or down within 7 points. And since SI is calculated by how the higher-ranked team does against the lower ranked team, relative to the difference between the two, that means 38 teams in the middle of the league are within a touchdown of each other, strength-wise.

We call that balance.

Big Central Strength of Schedule “Up or Down” for 2021

Next week, we’ll play the hypothetical game. What if the Big Central made its divisions solely based on the Strength Index values of teams? With ten divisions among the 60 teams, we wondered – what if the top six teams formed one division, the next six formed the second division, and so on? There could be exceptions and variations, too.

Food for thought!

Leave a Reply