Who’s the “strongest” Big Central team heading into ’22? We take a deep dive into the numbers

We are less than four weeks away from Week Zero – Opening Day for not all, but a good number of high school football teams across the state, and in the Big Central Conference, which will be playing its second full season this year.

And with our Central Jersey Sports Radio play-by-play schedule reveal kicking off our third straight season of high school football coverage on the site, it’s time to delve into some of the numbers before we start previewing teams, the season and looking at some of the new head coaches around the league.

The 2020 season was supposed to be the first season for the Big Central, a merger between the Mid-State and Greater Middlesex Conferences. COVID-19 had other ideas, but officially the league is now in its third season, and second full season. That third year prompted a reshuffling of the divisions, and the schedule-makers in the conference say the aim was to create more balance and evenly-matched teams.

The first two years, divisions were determined primarily by group size, but some of that has been abandoned to more accurately reflect the skill and success level of certain teams, like Somerville – which has moved to a division with larger schools and a non-public after going 14-0 the past two seasons in actual games played on the field against Big Central competition, not including forfeits or non-league/out-of-state competition – and JP Stevens, a Group 5 school with dwindling turnout which has lost 23 straight games overall, spanning four seasons. The Hawks’ last win was on October 26, 2018, a 29-14 home win over Monroe, and they’ll now be in a division with smaller schools, and will face off against Group 2 programs like Metuchen and Spotswood this year.

So, let’s first take a look at the new Strength Index ratings that we’ll be starting 2022 with. Strength Index is a formula used by the NJSIAA, calculated by the website Gridiron New Jersey, which aims to identify how strong a team is. The higher the ranking, the better they are supposed to be.

A team’s ranking changes after every game, depending on how it performed against its opponent, relative to the opponent’s strength.

For example, two teams rated a 60 are considered identical. In a matchup where one team is rated a 70 and the other a 60, the team rated 70 is considered to be ten points better. If it wins by ten, its rating – and that of its opponent – would stay the same, because it matched the expectation for the game based on its rating.

If it won by 20, it “outperformed” its ranking, and the formula says the team that outperformed increases by 1/5th the difference. So, if a team ranked 70 beat one ranked 60 by 20 points, they outperformed by ten. One fifth is two, so the winning team becomes a 72. The losing team drops the same amount, and becomes a 58.

This formula also says that a team that “underperforms” – a higher ranked team losing to a lower ranked team, or even not winning by as many points – would see a reduction in its Strength Index number. So, technically, the winner of a game doesn’t always go up. Their Strength Index could go down, and the losing team’s SI could go up.

But unlike the similar Born Power Index formula, Strength Index isn’t what determines playoff standing (along with traditional power points) anymore, after one rather controversial year in 2018. It’s the OSI, or “Opponent Strength Index.” And the idea is that if you beat better teams, you’ll be seeded higher, but there’s no advantage to winning every game by 40 points. In fact, it’s often a disadvantage, because making your opponents “underperform” makes them less valubale. And if you’re playing weaker teams, that hurts your playoff chances. In this way, the formula encourages sportsmanship.

But let’s get back to Strength Index. Here are the 59 Big Central teams (North Warren left the original 60 teams for this year) ranked from top to bottom:

2022 START
St. Thomas Aquinas72.84
North Hunterdon69.49
North Brunswick69.09
Delaware Valley68.01
New Providence66.80
East Brunswick65.19
St. Joseph-Metuchen63.77
Old Bridge61.78
Watchung Hills60.21
South Brunswick59.62
Scotch Plains59.60
South Hunterdon59.36
New Brunswick58.07
North Plainfield56.78
Bound Brook54.26
Hunterdon Central54.25
South Plainfield51.96
South River47.85
Governor Livingston44.80
Perth Amboy42.43
Roselle Park39.91
JP Stevens33.37
Highland Park26.32

It should be noted that each year’s starting Strength Index is based on the final SI value of the previous year, centered one-third of the way to 60 in order to lessen the impact of the previous year. For example, a team finishing with a rating of 90 would be reduced by one-third of the distance to 60, which is 10 points (90 to 60 is 30, and one third is 10).

It would make sense that Hillsborough and Cranford – both of whom won state sectional championships last year, and the Raiders a regional crown while going 13-0 – would be among the top three, despite the fact both lose almost every significant statistical contributor from 2021. Union was also a heavy postseason favorite before COVID cases controversially sidelined the Farmers’ playoff run.

But the Strength Index doesn’t account for the future. It will let that play out through the 2022 season. While the preseason SI numbers are historical and a starting point, some carryover has to be assumed. Not every player on the roster graduates every position player. There’s carryover in rosters, coaching and even program tradition – or not. Eventually, Strength Index will play out on the field.

While there’s some historical context to the Strength Index, it’s a key difference from power points, which are based on wins and residuals. But Strength Index does not factor in group size, like power points do. An 8-0 Group 3 team could be just as strong as an 8-0 Group 5 team.

One example is St. Thomas Aquinas. The Trojans bulldozed their way through 2021, racking up shutout wins in their first seven games of the season, tying a playoff-era Middlesex County record set by Piscataway in 2004. They didn’t play a schedule like Hillsborough – with teams like Westfield and Phillipsburg on the docket – but they dominated their competition, and their SI improved from a 52.93 at the start of 2021 to a 79.26 at the end of the season. (Don’t forget, the starting SI numbers are centered closer to 60, which is why Aquinas begins at 72.84

The Trojans made the biggest gain in SI in the 2021 season, jumping 19.91 points. Other big gainers in 2021 (meaning they were much improved, according to the Index) were Colonia (+17.77), Metuchen (+17.01) and North Hunterdon (+12.36). Locally, though not in the Big Central, Immaculata also made a huge gain, with a +16.97, playing in the North Jersey Super Football Conference, where they will be again this season.

So how does the Big Central stack up statewide?

Hillsborough is No. 10 in the state overall, according to the Strength Index, just behind Donovan Catholic and Red Bank Catholic at nine and eight. Union is 16th, while Cranford is No. 32. The top five teams in the state are Bergen Catholic, Millville, St. Joseph-Hammonton, Camden Eastside (formerly Woodrow Wilson) and West Morris Central, a decidedly South Jersey lean.

Interestingly, if you broke the rankings into thirds, 30 percent of the Big Central lands in the top third. That’s 18 teams, and the same as the 2021 preseason. But the bottom appears to have slipped. Of the 59 Big Central teams, 20 are in the middle third, four fewer than last year. And 21 are in the bottom third, three more than last year (the difference being North Warren leaving). Essentially, the BCC had more “middle of the pack” teams heading into last year than heading into this year.

Later this week, we’ll take a look at Strength of Schedule, and whether the Big Central’s new divisions achieve parity among the teams. And when the NJSIAA comes out with its football classifications for 2022, we’ll give you our all-too-early playoff projections as to the minimum wins each team should need to get in the playoffs, based on their strength of schedule.

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