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Hot Reads: Which Big Ten West Teams Play the Best at Home?

May 27, 2020

Schools and conferences began rolling out their plans for allowing student-athletes to return to campus last week. More, including the Pac-12, are expected to announce this week.

That answers one question about the return of college athletics, maybe more if you read, perhaps to closely, a line from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey's statement announcing his conference would resume voluntary activities June 8. "At this time, we are preparing to begin the fall sports season as currently scheduled, and this limited resumption of voluntary athletic activities on June 8 is an important initial step in that process." Emphasis obviously mine.

There are still, however, many more questions than answers at this point. One that's sure to draw a ton of interest in the months ahead (because it involves the most people directly)––fans in the stands. How many? Any? Business as usual?

Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said last week that his department has "played a little bit with the social distancing concept." The Buckeyes are at least contingency planning for a reduced-capacity option that Smith said could leave 20,000 to 30,000 fans in the 102,000-seat Ohio Stadium. If Ohio State, one of the three or four most powerful athletic programs in the country, is having those talks, it's safe to bet it's happening most everywhere else.

Including Nebraska. Athletic Director Bill Moos said this week that if there are restrictions on crowd size that Nebraska will comply, though he’s hoping that could be a local decision rather than a top-down decision from the conferences or the NCAA.

The actual fans-in-stands answer won't come for some time and the answer might change as the season goes along, but it prompted (for me at least) another question. What happens to home field advantage? That, too, is somewhat impossible to answer at this point.

But we can take a simple look at which teams play the best at home. For now, I'm going to keep this local and limit it to the Big Ten West over the last seven seasons. The method is super simple, compare results to expectations. That is, what were teams' average scoring margins in games compared to the average point spreads? If the State Tech Slide Rulers outscored opponents by four points at home on average and they were favored by two (-2) on average, the Slide Rulers were two points better than expected at home.

Using the point spread gives us an evolving and accurate baseline. If a team is a preseason darling and heavily favored in September, but crap by November the lines would reflect that. Strength of the opponent is also built in. Those advantages, in my opinion, are enough to outweigh the one potential disadvantage with using the lines––the potential that a team is consistently under- or overvalued. 

On a broad scale, that doesn’t appear to be happening. Since 2013, across FBS football, the home team in a regular-season game has been favored by an average of 7.8 points and won by an average of 7.5 points. The point spreads, folks, are good.

Here's that method applied to the Big Ten West teams.

TEAM POINTS +/- SPREAD
Iowa 2.7
Wisconsin 2.3
Minnesota 2.1
Illinois -0.8
Purdue -2.6
Northwestern -3.2
Nebraska -3.9

Any surprises there? Not at the top, I don't think, though if you'd asked me to name the best home field advantage in the division I would've picked Wisconsin. The Badgers came in second to Iowa, which isn't a huge shock. Minnesota is a bit more surprising. There aren't well-worn tales yet of the horrors of going up to TCF Bank Stadium. But that illustrates a key point about home field advantage and what we're actually measuring here. They're not necessarily the same. Iowa and Minnesota are two teams that, since, 2013, have consistently outperformed spread expectations in any venue. (More on that at a later date.)

The real surprise is Nebraska. In his 2019 preview, Phil Steele graded the Huskers' home field edge as the third-biggest in the West Division (behind Wisconsin and Iowa). But Nebraska, over the last seven seasons, has the biggest gap between spread and results. On average, the Huskers were favored by 9.7 points over that stretch and had an average actual margin of 5.8. In many cases, those games were still wins, which is all that matters in a nuts-and-bolts sense, but if we're trying to take a cursory look at how much home field factors into things the numbers show a team that has underperformed in its own stadium.

Northwestern is the team closest to Nebraska in this race, which conforms more closely with the perception of Ryan Field. The Wildcats play a ton of road games at home when you consider the composition of the crowd. Northwestern is a team that, for the last seven years, has underperformed relative to the spread in September and October, but over-performed in November.

Again, we don't know what Saturdays will look like this fall so it's hard to guess how home field advantage may or may not be impacted. This exercise was more just to establish the stakes. Which teams have been good at home? Which haven't?

Maybe it's a starting point for discussions once we have a better idea what "home" even looks like in 2020.

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