After both teams emerged victorious in their season finales, the Princeton and Penn football teams were awarded the honor of Ivy League co-champions. While this obviously represents a major accomplishment for both teams, it also presents several conundrums. Does a team celebrate a tie for the conference championship with the same vigor as it would an outright win? Were players and fans even aware that a tie was a possibility, or did they make the same mistake as Donovan McNabb in 2008, who admitted that he didn’t realize an NFL game could end in a tie? (“I hate to see what happens in the Super Bowl… you have to settle with a tie,” he remarked). Anyways, ties are no fun, so in this article, we will explore whether Princeton or Penn is the “true” Ivy League champion.
Most conferences, or at least in the ones that don’t have a conference championship game, will employ tiebreaker methods to determine a conference champion in the event of a tie. For these conferences, such a procedure is necessary for determining which teams should be sent to which bowl games or to the FCS playoffs. Since the Ivy League is far too superior to participate in events as plebeian as bowl games or playoffs, it has no need for a tie-breaking heuristic. However, the first tiebreaker is always head-to-head record, which Princeton would hold, due to its 28-0 romping of Penn on Nov. 5.
Thus, although Princeton would win the tiebreaker in practically any other “normal” conference, this alone is not enough to declare that Princeton had an objectively better season than its co-champion. Perhaps Penn simply performed atypically poorly during the head-to-head matchup and was more dominant than Princeton through the rest of its games. To examine this possibility, we can look at metrics such as non-conference record, point differential (particularly against common opponents), and strength of schedule.
In the realm of DI football, a popular method among pundits for comparing two teams with similar records to determine which one belongs in the playoffs is strength of schedule. However, since Princeton and Penn played essentially the same schedule, this metric is not particularly useful. For the record, Penn went 1-2 in non-conference play against foes with a combined record of 19-15, while Princeton went 2-1 against teams with a combined record of 14-20. On the other hand, Princeton and Penn’s similar schedules allow us to compare results against the same opponents. (See chart) While Princeton tallied a higher point differential in total against common opponents, several complicating factors prevent us from using this metric to objectively declare that Princeton had a more dominant season, such as the possibility of Penn being less interested in running up lopsided scores or facing opponents that were in better form than they were against Princeton.
To delve further than wins and points, we can look at more specific stats, from yards-per-game to first downs allowed. This is where Princeton begins to differentiate itself. It leads the Ivy League in crucial statistics such as yards, yards allowed, rushing yards, first downs, and turnovers forced. It is important, however, to remember that Penn played a slightly more difficult non-conference schedule, making it more difficult for them to rack up impressive statistics.
Though it might be tempting to look at the evidence and claim that Princeton had a more successful season, it is impossible to do so without a great deal of speculation. In the end, the two teams were tied in the only statistic that truly matters, wins. (Conference wins, at least.) Perhaps, then, the Ivy League was wise to simply declare the teams co-champions.