Year’s end is always a cause for reflection, a moment to look back at all the good and bad that happened over the preceding 12 months. If you’re playing football for the Georgia Bulldogs, there’s a lot more of the good! If you play for the Houston Texans, maybe less so. So, in what has become an annual tradition, it’s time for us to take stock of 2022 in sports by comparing teams across all the different leagues we have Elo ratings for. (Including the World Cup, with ratings courtesy of Eloratings.net.)
We’ll be measuring the best teams of 2022 based on an average of three factors: their year-end rating, their average rating throughout the calendar year1 and the peak rating they achieved at any point during the year. To make sure each sport is judged along a similar scale, we also convert the ratings to z-scores (or the number of standard deviations by which a blended rating was above or below average).2
With all of that out of the way, let’s first look at the teams that won a championship during the 2022 calendar year:
|South Carolina Gamecocks||WBB*||2395||2317||2395||2369||+2.25|
|Las Vegas Aces||WNBA||1696||1630||1689||1671||+1.40|
|Golden State Warriors||NBA||1712||1624||1571||1636||+1.18|
|Los Angeles Rams||NFL||1670||1555||1424||1550||+0.26|
Among the champions of all the sports in our sample, no team rose above its competition more than UGA’s aforementioned juggernaut: The Bulldogs won the 2021 season’s national title in January, then proceeded to go 13-0 this fall en route to another playoff appearance. The only other champ that was better than 2.0 standard deviations above average in its sport was Dawn Staley’s South Carolina Gamecocks basketball squad, which lost only once during the entire calendar year3 and won its March Madness games by an average margin of 23.3 points per game (including a 15-point win over UConn in the final).
Perhaps because of how talent is concentrated more among the top college teams, professional champions tend to have lower z-scores than their counterparts on our list. But the top pro league champs, the Houston Astros and Colorado Avalanche, rose above the rest with dominating performances that lasted all year long. And sandwiched between those two was Lionel Messi’s Argentina team, which capped off a 12-1-3 year with a World Cup final victory for the ages.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Los Angeles Rams — victims of this list in part because of how the football calendar is structured. The Rams were not an overwhelming champion even during the season in which they won (they had a +1.24 z-score in the 2021 season, which ranked fifth among NFL teams), and although they went 5-1 with a Super Bowl win in January and February of 2022, L.A. followed that up with arguably the worst title defense in modern NFL history. But hey, being the worst champ is still better than landing on this next list …
|Los Angeles Dodgers||MLB||1629||1599||1601||1610||+2.29|
|Alabama Crimson Tide||CFB*||2199||1983||1992||2058||+2.12|
|Kansas City Chiefs||NFL||1714||1683||1704||1700||+2.04|
|NC State Wolfpack||WBB*||2269||2224||2251||2248||+1.71|
For the second straight year, the Los Angeles Dodgers found themselves atop our less-than-enviable ranking of sports’ top “paper champions.” Despite being heavy pre-playoff favorites, L.A. fell to the rival San Diego Padres in a four-game National League Division Series upset.
If it’s any consolation, the Dodgers weren’t alone this year. Unlike in the strange, COVID-interrupted season of 2020 (and to a lesser extent, 2021) — when top squads enjoyed surprising success — many of 2022’s big favorites suffered even bigger letdowns. Alabama came into the fall as college football’s biggest preseason favorite of the playoff era, but was all but eliminated from consideration with two losses by early November. Defending champs such as the Rams, Atlanta Braves and men’s college basketball’s Baylor Bears fizzled out in disappointing fashion. And in the World Cup, Brazil was dispatched in the quarterfinals despite entering the tournament with double the championship probability of any other team.
Still other teams, like the Stanford women in college basketball, simply had the misfortune of running up against better competition. The defending NCAA champs made the Final Four again, helping them rank high on our list of near-champs, but lost to UConn in the semifinal — not that either team was going to beat South Carolina in the title game. (Michigan football might be in the same boat compared with UGA, though the Wolverines still have a chance to change that fate in the playoff — but that’s for next year.) Relegating legitimately championship-worthy rivals to that second list above might be the best testament to any team’s greatness, and in the end, we got to see that several times in 2022.