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Handicapping The War On I-4

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Because there are two trophies to win.

Central Florida v South Florida Photo by Jason Behnken / Getty Images

In the comments section of how getting pounded by C. Florida in men’s basketball broke our brains, loyal reader UndercoverBull asked an excellent question:

Yes! Let’s talk about that.

As a reminder: there are two trophies, one for the result of the football game, and one for all sports. The all-sports trophy is awarded to the school that sportsed the hardest, by earning the most points in head-to-head competition. In general, each sport in is worth six points, and each game in a sport is worth a fraction of that six. (For example, if the teams play twice in a sport, each game is worth three points.)

I did a deeper dive earlier, including a guesstimate of how many wars USF would have won in the past. (About 2/3 of them, though it’s impossible to know for certain, because the number of games played varied greatly over the years.)

There is also an official website, war-on-i4.com. It has a helpful explainer of how the scoring works, and a live scoreboard, and a history page that’s worth visiting just for the photo.

To answer UndercoverBull’s question: that brain-breaking basketball loss to UCF, at their new arena I can’t remember the name of, gave UCF 3 points. The score is now 18-15, in favor of UCF. But there’s a lot of sportsing left, and the War on I-4 is far from decided.

To recap the scoring so far:

  • Volleyball: UCF won both matches. (6 points UCF)
  • Cross Country: UCF finished higher in AAC meet. (6 points UCF)
  • Men’s Basketball: UCF won one game, with one game yet to play. (3 points UCF)
  • Men’s Soccer: USF won the match. (6 points USF)
  • Football: Marlon Mack happened. (6 points USF)
  • Women’s Soccer: The match was a tie. (3 points to each school)

Of the remaining events, four have a clear favorite:

  • Women’s Basketball (Feb 14): As you might have heard, USF has a pretty good team. The Bulls have won 17 straight in this series, the most recent loss being on December 10, 1980. The teams only play once this season. (prediction: 6 points USF)
  • Men’s Basketball (March 2): As you might have heard, USF has a pretty bad team. Each men’s basketball game counts 3 points. UCF has 3 points already, and 3 more are at stake in the return game at the Sun Dome. Obviously, UCF is the favorite here, but USF has pulled bigger late-season upsets. (prediction: 3 points UCF)
  • Women’s Track (AAC indoor meet, Feb 24-25; AAC outdoor meet, May 12-14): 3 points go to whichever school finishes higher in each of the two conference meets. Since joining the American, USF has finished 7th, 8th, 10th, 10th, 11th, and 11th. UCF has generally finished in the top third. (prediction: 6 points UCF)
  • Men’s Tennis (Apr 1): USF won’t be as good without all-Americans Roberto Cid and Dominic Cotrone, and lost head coach Matt Hill to Arizona State. But USF should be OK against one of UCF’s weaker teams. The Knights have been a bottom-half seed in the AAC conference tournaments. (prediction: 6 points USF)

Barring no major upsets, that’s 12 more points for USF, and 9 for C. Florida, meaning the score will be tied 27-27 once the above sports are tallied. Now we get into the less certain sports:

  • Men’s Golf (AAC tournament, Apr 23-25): As with men’s tennis, USF loses two excellent seniors in Chase Koepka and Aksel Olsen. Unlike men’s tennis, UCF’s team is NCAA Regional caliber most years. A down year, or just a sub-par weekend on the links, could swing this one to the Knights. Both schools are in the Gator Invitational Feb 18-19, which might hint at which team is better.
  • Women’s Tennis (Apr 16): This one’s tough to get a read on. USF hasn’t lost a regular-season match to UCF since at least 2004-05 (as far back as gousfbulls.com goes). But the gap has narrowed of late: the last two regular season matches went 4-3 and 4-2, and UCF won a conference tournament matchup in 2014-15 (in a serious rebuilding year for the Bulls). But UCF loses its #1 and #2 singles players, half its #1 doubles tandem, and its head coach retired. USF returns almost everyone, including all-conference Vera Bessanova, and AAC freshman of the year Ana Roman Dominguez. USF looks pretty safe here, but I won’t put it in the “lock” category.
  • Women’s Golf (AAC tournament, Apr 16-18): This one’s been back and forth of late. USF placed better in last year’s tournament, but UCF did the two before, including winning it in 2015. We’ll have some actual data to go on soon: both schools will compete in the Florida Challenge (hosted by USF), the UCF Challenge (natch), and the Gator Invitational. Those don’t count towards the trophy, but the results might tell us which team is better.

Just from the above, I can hazard a guess at the outcome. The War on I-4 all-sports trophy will be won by:

  1. An upset winner in basketball, women’s track, or men’s tennis. The competition is pretty evenly matched overall, so each school needs to get maximum points where it has an edge. Failing to do so, even once, could decide the competition. For example, if USF loses something where they are favored or wins as an underdog,, the score flips from 27-27 to 33-21. That’s big. Even splitting men’s basketball or women’s track would put USF ahead 30-24. Escaping with a 3-3 split, in a sport where UCF has a better team, would be fantastic.
  2. Whoever takes at least 2 out of 3 in men’s golf, women’s golf, and women’s tennis. If the first four sports hold to form, the score will be tied at 27. Each is worth 6 points, and a tie is unlikely, so someone will come out of this with a 39-33 lead going into baseball and softball. If there’s no upsets in the first group of sports, that school will probably win the trophy. The chronology isn’t perfect here, as some baseball games will have been played by then. But barring anything unexpected, these three sports is where I think the competition will be won or lost.
  3. Unless someone dominates baseball and softball. Notice I said “and”, not “or.” Baseball and softball, even though they are played late in the year, don’t look to have much impact on the annual competition.

Why? Mostly, because they play more games than any other sport. (WARNING: math content.) Softball plays 3 games, while baseball plays 6 games. To get the full 6 points, a school would have to sweep the season series. Any result less than a sweep will not gain the winner enough points to offset an earlier sport. Winning five out of six in baseball would only net you 4 points (you get 5, and the other team gets 1). Winning 2-1 or 4-2 would only be worth 2 points (you get 4, they get 2). The smallest deficit that can exist outside baseball and softball is 3 points.

Unless you can get 9 or more points combined out of baseball and softball (a net gain of six, enough to offset one earlier sport), or the competition is extremely close overall, these sports aren’t likely to change the outcome.

Furthermore, the schools are similarly positioned in these sports (warm weather, modern facilities, plentiful local high school talent), so it’s unlikely one will ever have a huge advantage over the other. And baseball has a high level of parity, which makes a sweep difficult even when one team is superior.

That said, let’s dive into to them now:

  • Softball (Apr 29-May 1): The AAC pre-season predictions are out. They have USF #2 (with 3 of 7 first-place votes), and UCF #3. Since the American was formed, UCF has won each season series 2 to 1. Unless one school can manage a sweep, this sport will be worth only 2 points to the winner.
  • Baseball (Apr 7-8-9 at USF, May 18-20 at UCF): USF is predicted to finish sixth in the conference, UCF seventh. The schools have a long history of trading wins and losses, even in years they differ in quality. The last two season series were split 3-3. Going back further, even series of 2, 3, or 4 games tend to be shared. So it’s unlikely either school will gain many points here.

And that’s all the sports that count in the competition. USF sailing and men’s track don’t count, because UCF does not sponsor these sports. For the same reason, UCF rowing does not participate.

Finally, the tiebreaker is NCAA Graduation Success Rate. According to the NCAA’s lookup tool, the tie-breaker would go to UCF.

But I think this is a very poor tiebreaker, because graduation data is always a few years old (currently 2009), so that entire student careers can be measured. I’d hate to see an annual sportsing contest decided by who went to class seven years ago. I think the Director’s Cup Standings would be a better tiebreaker. But I don’t think it will come to that.