Mel Tucker was ready. His Michigan State football team had just delivered a statement win, rallying from 16 points down to beat rival Michigan 37-33. The Spartans had soared to No. 5 in the AP Top 25 poll and would be unveiled at No. 3 in the season’s first College Football Playoff rankings. And their next game was a trip to unranked Purdue, which paled in comparison to the big rivalry on Michigan State’s schedule.
So Tucker knew that someone, somewhere, might refer to that Purdue game as a “trap game,” a term common in the college football lexicon to explain why a seemingly superior team might lose a game it should win. But Tucker would have none of it. Not only did he brush off such an implication, he recited a comprehensive list of each and every one of the nine times an unranked Purdue team has knocked off a top-two opponent: last month against Iowa, in 2018 against Ohio State, all the way back to 1950 against Notre Dame. “It just goes on and on and on,” Tucker said. “… If anybody thinks that they’re going to roll their helmet out there, they’re not going to be going on the trip.”
For years, bloggers and commentators have used the phrase in any number of ways, implying that a team is either “looking ahead” to a big game and will overlook a lesser opponent or coming off an “emotional” win and will underestimate a lesser opponent. To some, Michigan State’s matchup with Purdue seemed like a clear example of the latter. The fact that the Boilermakers pulled off a stunner, beating the Spartans 40-29, seemed to validate this idea. But a closer look at history reveals that the idea of a “trap game” may be misunderstood. There’s not much evidence to suggest college football scores are influenced in any way by games scheduled a week before or a week after.
From 20051 to 2020, Football Bowl Subdivision teams played 164 games against unranked opponents when coming off top-10 matchups (games played between two teams ranked in the AP top 10). Those teams lost 21 out of 164 games (12.8 percent), and inevitably observers felt compelled to label those losses “trap games.” In 2017, then-No. 6 Ohio State beat then-No. 2 Penn State 39-38; the Buckeyes’ next game at Iowa, labeled by one newspaper as a trap game, was a 55-24 loss. In 2014, then-No. 5 Baylor won a 61-58 shootout against then-No. 9 Texas Christian and then slipped up the following week against unranked West Virginia in another matchup later called a “major trap game.”
There are all kinds of reasons given for upsets, but the fact is, upsets happen. While teams were 143-21 (.872) in supposed trap games in our 16-season sample, in the same span, all AP top-10 teams were 1,161-149 (.886) in games against unranked opponents. The difference in success rate for teams against supposedly dangerous opponents was razor thin.
This trend holds up against all levels of potential trap opponents. Teams coming off top-10 matchups are 46-10 (.821) against teams ranked 26th through 50th in ESPN’s Football Power Index, a measure of team strength that is not perfectly analogous to AP rankings; 42-2 (.955) against teams ranked 51st through 75th; and 33-0 against teams ranked 76th through 100th. Meanwhile, top-10 teams as a whole are 377-83 (.820), 332-33 (.910) and 243-2 (.992) in the same categories.
Another common concern for football coaches is that their teams will be caught “looking ahead” to a game the following week. But top teams actually tend to perform better than average when they have a big game coming up. From 2005 to 2020, top-10 teams were a whopping 174-1 against unranked opponents when they were to face another top-10 team in the following game. That’s far better than their winning percentage of .886 overall against unranked opponents.2
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If top teams really are affected by draining games in previous weeks, they might also struggle to beat subsequent opponents by similar margins. But again here, there’s no significant effect. Teams coming off top-10 matchups from 2005 to 2020 outscored unranked opponents by an average of 20.3 points in the following game; all top-10 teams in the same span outscored unranked opponents by an average of 23.0 points. And the differences in margin across caliber of opponent were, again, quite small.3
It appears, then, that it doesn’t really matter whether a team is coming off a four-hour showdown against a top-10 rival or a 41-19 rout of a team on a 15-game losing streak.4 But maybe the real trap games come down to matchups. Perhaps Michigan State was in trouble Saturday not because it was still celebrating a win against Michigan but because it had been outgained in two straight games and in four of the previous five, or because its defense was exposed for 406 passing yards in the win against Michigan and then gave up 536 against Purdue.
So what’s behind the labeling of all these so-called trap games? For the average viewer, it may be a tendency to ascribe patterns to otherwise random events. But the coaches tasked with winning these games might also be seeking a way to motivate their players. Tucker seemed to be warning his Spartans by reminding them of all the Purdue upsets over the years. His former boss and mentor, Nick Saban, has for years used his press conferences in part to communicate messages to his players. (One former player, Bradley Bozeman, once said he thought “every single thing that man does is premeditated.”)
Two days after his team’s undefeated season ended, Tucker addressed his team’s mindset again. “We met as a team this morning,” he said. “We talked about the focus and the preparation that we needed this week. I felt like the guys were dialed in. We need to block out the noise.” Amid a grueling Big Ten schedule, Michigan State has another game this weekend that some might consider a trap game. The Spartans play a 5-4 Maryland team at home one week before a massive trip to No. 4 Ohio State. The Terrapins are No. 78 in FPI; in our 16-year sample, teams heading into top-10 matchups are 42-0 against teams ranked 76th through 100th in FPI, winning by an average of 30.2 points per game. At least from that standpoint, Tucker shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
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