Sports Reference Blog

Pre-2002 Statistics Adjusted on College Football Reference

Posted by Mike Lynch on August 18, 2023

Sports Reference is happy to announce that we have resolved a long-standing issue on our College Football site: the fact that our statistics from before 2002 were a mixture of totals that sometimes included and sometimes excluded bowl games. Thanks to our friends at Sports Data Research, our pre-2002 statistics have uniformly had bowl games removed. This is in line with official NCAA policy. So you'll notice that today we no longer list Ron Dayne as the all-time FBS rushing leader, but rather Donnel Pumphrey. In the future we hope to have statistics for all (or most) bowl games, which will allow for users of our site to add them in (or back them out) if they'd like. For more on this change, I'm including a blog post from SDR's Shane Holmes below.

To Bowl, or Not to Bowl: On Pre-2002 Season Totals

By Shane Holmes of Sports Data Research

Thanks to ground-breaking and painstaking research by Sports Data Research LLC, for the first time, all NCAA college football player statistics from 1956 through 2001 include only official regular season stats. This consistency is possible because the season totals no longer include any bowl game stats.

The NCAA began recording football stats in 1937, but for 65 years, it did not collect bowl game stats. Why? Because in decades past, the number of bowls was much smaller, because many fewer schools played in bowl games, and because some bowl games were historically more like exhibitions than regular-season contests.  Over time, however, bowl games became of greater importance and interest—especially after the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game began in 1998.  When the NCAA began to count bowl game statistics toward its national football records in 2002, it declined to make this change retroactive, thus creating a systemic inconsistency that persists more than 20 years later.  It also created a record-keeping dilemma.

The NCAA record book demonstrates how this decision led to confusion.  The record book lists 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty Detmer with 15,031 career passing yards (fifth among passers all time).  Yet, Detmer’s alma mater, Brigham Young, shows his total as 16,208 because Detmer accumulated 1,177 passing yards in four bowl games.  The NCAA does not count those bowl games as part of Detmer’s official career, leading to a 1,177-yard discrepancy.

A source of greater controversy can be found on the rushing leaderboard, where Donnel Pumphrey of San Diego State (2013-16) holds the career record with 6,405 yards even though Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne (1996-99) racked up 7,125 unofficial yards.  The NCAA credits Dayne with only 6,397, eight yards short of Pumphrey’s mark, because Dayne’s bowl game stats are not included but Pumphrey’s are.  Thus, there are arguably two record holders, the official NCAA record holder and the unofficial as played pacesetter.

When the NCAA decided to change how it handled bowl games, some schools asked the association to review the historical records and include bowl game totals.  The NCAA, though, refused.  The NCAA record keepers recognized that complete scoresheets and records do not exist consistently throughout bowl game history and that the quality of those records varies from bowl to bowl.  This historical anomaly would have forced the NCAA to set an arbitrary cutoff point.  Lacking the bowl game scoresheets and believing that it was impossible to compile quality versions for all bowl games, the NCAA punted on the issue by simply ignoring the inconsistency in the pre-2002 records.

Historians face a dilemma in situations like this, wanting to recognize and credit performers like Dayne and Detmer for what they accomplished while also recognizing the need to cite official totals following the NCAA policy.  Until now, the approach has been to conform with official policy—except that was impossible because a small number of schools (e.g., Ohio State, Southern California, and UCLA) had always included bowl numbers in their school records.

As a result, some pre-2002 season statistics on websites like Sports Reference may have included bowl games for those schools while not including them for other schools that followed NCAA standards.  The philosophical argument endures as to whether or not those pre-2002 bowl stats ought to be included, but for now, Sports Data Research LLC has for the first time brought all pre-2002 stats in line with the official NCAA records.  The previous mixture of unofficial and official totals led to confusion on either side of the argument.  Now, college football fans and historians are armed with accurate information—both about what happened on the field and in terms of official NCAA recognition.

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