OPINION: What if the Big Central created divisions solely on Strength Index?

Bernards likes to challenge itself on the field. What if it played Group 5 schools in a world where divisions were based entirely on Strength Index?

The Strength Index is a good calculator and way to rate opponents, and the way it’s used to create the Opponent Strength Index – where it doesn’t reward teams for running up the score – is a big improvement over using the pure numbers of the similar Born Power Index.

It’s also a good tool to tell how tough a team’s schedule is, and to track their progress throughout the year. Are they just skating by? Are they challenging themselves? Is their schedule too difficult?

We’ve already looked at some of that this year, including the fact that top teams often have to “play down” because they have no equivalent in their division. That can make it difficult to make the playoffs – as often is the case for a school like Bernards – or to get a top seed, as happened to Somerville a couple of years ago.

On the flip side, it can also be a detriment to a team playing way above its station. Should a struggling program have to play really tough schools just because they happen to be the same size.

The Big Central Conference was created a couple of years ago to alleviate some of those scheduling concerns, but the inequities still exist. As a superconference – a merge of the Skyland and the GMC – it’s still relatively small.

There are 60 teams in the Big Central. Compare that to the North Jersey Super Football Conference with 113 and the West Jersey Football League with 94.

But there’s such a wide range of teams in the Big Central that the groupings – still mainly based on geography and longtime rivals – often have teams that don’t belong because they’re too good, or not good enough.

And while the league realigns its divisions every two years (or plans to, since it’s only in its second year of existence) it allows one to wonder: What if the Big Central adopted a scheme that would base divisions on Strength Index numbers, and nothing more?

Similar to what’s done in football (soccer) in Europe, teams can move up or down based on their results. And the Big Central does that in a way, too.

The NJSFC also did something like that, creating a division with struggling programs to allow they to play each other rather than getting whooped by someone much better who just happened to be local and an old-time rival.

We took a look at a couple of sets of numbers, keeping in mind the data is limited because Strength Index has only been used for two seasons, and last year was not a typical or full season. But for our purposes, we used a two-year average of starting Strength Index: the preseason 2021 and preseason 2022 values.

Since the league has 60 teams and ten divisions (mostly with six teams each, but one with eight and a couple with five) we decided to make ten even divisions of six teams each. Since geography and rivals weren’t a factor – we went strictly by math here – we figured this would give each team five divisional games, with a chance to schedule three or four more games against traditional rivals or more local teams.

Here’s what we came up with:

Division 1: Somerville (81.67), Hillside (79.54), Phillpsburg (79.32), Union (76.12), Hillsborough (73.26) and Ridge (72.48).

In this division, we’ve got four Group 5 schools, a Group 3 in Somerville and a Group 2 in Hillside. All are excellent teams. They went a combined 31-12 last season in a wacky year. Somerville finished 7-0 and beat Woodbridge in a highly anticipated matchup, though we never got to see the next game – ‘Ville-Phillipsburg – due to COVID. This division would see some really good games.

One might suggest from a numbers standpoint that Hillside is playing way out of its league. But minus its season-opening 14-9 win over Bernards, they romped through Roselle, Johnson and Middlesex by a combined 141-14, including a shutout over the Rams.

Would the Comets like that challenge? Maybe, maybe not. But it would be interesting to think of.

What about Somerville? They have challenged themselves in non-divisional games over the years. They played at Delbarton in 2018 and won 35-7, and this year will play at St. Joseph-Metuchen.

Division 2: Rahway (72.45), Woodbridge (72.19), North Brunswick (71.09), Cranford (70.21), Bernards (68.51), Piscataway (68.50).

Woodbridge, North Brunswick and Piscataway are the largest schools here, in Group 5. Cranford is in Group 4, Rahway in Group 3 and Bernards in Group 2. The Mountaineers might be the most interesting, as Jon Simoneau loves to challenge his group, too.

They’ve also been among the teams battling for playoff position, in such a weak division that they often need to win 6 or 7 games to just sniff the playoffs, while other teams skate in with a tougher schedule but three wins. The problem for Bernards is there are few similar size schools worth a lot of power points or with high enough SI values to get them in. The answer may be playing the big boys.

But are their opponents too strong?

Before we get to the rest of the list, you could also have an appeal process, or come up with some algorithm that says you can’t be in a division where the average of the other group sizes is over X amount. Take Bernards for example. The average Group size of the other five teams is 4.4. So, maybe that average can’t be more than two full numbers above your Group size. Since Bernards is a Group 2, the average of the other teams couldn’t be more than 4. That could be achieved with one Group 5, two Group 4s, and two Group 3s (5+4+4+3+3=20, 20/5=4).

Or maybe teams could be allowed to move down a couple of divisions if they aren’t happy, much like the appeal process that currently exists.

But remember, with only six teams per division, you would have five divisional games, that means an opportunity to schedule three or four other opponents that maybe aren’t as strong. Or just as strong, depending on what you prefer.

And remember, if you had a couple of rough years, your SI will go down, and you’ll naturally fall into a division that’s more even. You can play your way up or down every couple of seasons.

The middle divsions will be a little more even in terms of Group size, so let’s jump for a moment to the last hypothetical division.

Division 10: Dayton (41.64), Dunellen (39.59), Roselle Park (38.29), JP Stevens (34.84), Metuchen (30.98), Highland Park (20.31).

Of course, the one that jumps out at you is JP Stevens. But again, maybe a safeguard works in the opposite direction to keep a Group 5 team out of a division where the rest of the teams all average more than two whole numbers lower. (These five division-mates average a 1.2. Group value.) Or maybe you can’t be in with any teams that are more than two or three groups above you.

But for the rest of the teams based on recent results, it’s right about spot on.

Here are the hypothetical Big Central Conference divisions, marked by color, using the two-year average of 2020 and 2021 preseason Strength Index Values:

Here are the divisions using just the 2021 preseason Strength Index values:

While it’s far from a perfect system and not one I’m advocating, it’s an interesting jumping off point. Perhaps with some tweaks and safeguards, it could be a good guide to divisions and scheduling in the future.

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