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As Ivy League Champion and NCAA Tournament qualifier, Penn women's basketball has to be considered among Penn's best teams for the 2016-2017 school year.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

As the 2016-17 school year nears its close, there have been some incredible Penn Athletics feats to reflect upon. Football took home its second straight Ivy League championship only two years after finishing in sixth place. Sprint football finished undefeated for only the second time in program history. Men’s cross country brought home Ancient Eight glory for the first time in 43 years. Women’s basketball continued its dynastic run with its third Ivy title in four years — the list goes on and on.

But with so many Penn teams having such thorough success this year, there’s one natural question to ask — which one was best? DP Sports set out to find out.

Taking a look at factors ranging from academic progress rates to sport revenue to nationwide scholarship availability, we go in-depth comparing the top Penn teams against one another. The criteria for inclusion: Any Penn varsity team that has won a league championship, is currently leading its league, competed in its national postseason tournament or lies in the top 30 of its national ranking made the cut.

The most trivial way to judge teams’ quality would simply be these national rankings — i.e., sprint football was its sport’s national champion, so it’d be Penn’s best team as a result. Women’s squash finished No. 2 nationally, so it’d be the school’s next-best team, and so on. 

But without a question, the more teams that are in a sport’s governing body, the harder it is to finish with such a national ranking. So perhaps it’s more effective to look at percentiles — what proportion of the nation’s teams the Penn squad was better than. Using that metric (while considering Division I for NCAA sports besides football, FCS for football and the entire group of college teams for non-NCAA sports), here’s how the Red and Blue squads stack up:

So in terms of simply which teams are the most dominant relative to their competition, there it is — sprint football, women’s squash and women’s lacrosse lead the way. But from there, there’s another key issue; which sports are most difficult to build contending programs in? Most would agree that in the higher-profile sports, it’s a lot harder to take a team to the top — there are more resources needed in terms of recruiting methods, facilities, funding, etc. to build an elite football or basketball program than there are for much smaller sports.

Looking at recruiting on its own, the Ivy League has a policy against athletic scholarships, but the rest of the country doesn’t by any means. As such, if a sport permits a high number of scholarships to teams nationwide, Penn teams should theoretically be at a disadvantage, having to face off against scholarship athletes. With that said, here’s how each Penn team’s percentile compares to the average amount of scholarships offered per team nationwide in that sport:

The data seems to match what one would expect — as the number of allowed scholarships for Penn’s opponents rises, the Quakers’ success seems to drop. The noticeable outlier here is football — even in the FCS, Penn’s opponents are allowed dozens of scholarship athletes, making things harder on the Red and Blue. But despite this difficulty, Penn football manages to win at a rate right in the middle of the pack of the other teams displayed here. Women’s lacrosse also is very impressive, being higher ranked than nearly 95 percent of the country’s teams despite its opponents being able to offer up to 12 scholarships.

On a similar note, academic standards play a major role in the success of any team. The principle is simple — the higher a team’s requirements are, the smaller its pool of prospective student-athletes becomes, creating some new difficulties. And while most teams at Penn and throughout the Ivy League have fairly elite standards across the board, this isn’t necessarily the case elsewhere. Though there’s no data here for non-NCAA sports, here’s how each Penn team’s success percentile compares to the NCAA’s average Academic Progress Rate in that respective sport:

Once again, a reasonable trend seems to form — the higher a sport’s nationwide APR is, the more competitive Penn’s team in that sport becomes, since the rest of the country doesn’t have as large of an advantage in terms of the player pool to select from. And once again, football is extremely noticeable as an outlier — the NCAA’s average APR in football was significantly lower than that of any of the other sports mentioned, which again should’ve put the Red and Blue at a disadvantage. But to Penn’s credit, it managed to be extremely competitive despite facing this supposed deficit in prospective players.

Yet another potential factor in determining the toughest sports to succeed in lies in how nationally prominent each sport is — and one way to determine that is by looking at the money. The sports that get love from the fans are the ones that most schools will likely care about the most, meaning that these schools will go all out in order to put the top product out on the field or court. Here’s how each Penn team’s percentile (again excluding the five non-NCAA sports) compares to the total generated revenue in that sport:

It’s deja vu here — we see another sort of trend where increasing revenue across the nation in a sport negatively correlates with Penn’s success in that sport. And again, football stands as a major outlier to the remainder of the group. Even when looking at only the FCS level, the national revenue was far higher in football than in any other sport, and the Penn squad managed to have a high success rate despite that. Women’s lacrosse also stood out among the school’s NCAA-sanctioned sports, ranking very near the top of the nation in what’s a relatively prominent association.

So with all of these factors combined, which sport is indeed most difficult to succeed in? There’s no one objective way, but by ranking all the Penn teams in each of the three aforementioned categories, we can conjure up a number that tries to sum it all up.

Ranking each of the involved Penn sports from 1-to-17 in available national scholarships, APR and revenue, we can add each of those numbers together to get a “difficulty index” for each sport. (For example, football was considered to have the most difficult slate in each category, resulting in it earning 51 “difficulty index” points — men’s lacrosse was second at 43.5, and so on.)

Thus, in the moment we’ve all been waiting for, here’s the conclusion: which Penn teams are most successful relative to the overall difficulty of being competitive in their respective sports:

A clear top tier forms with the schools on the top level. Football and women’s basketball have solid success rates despite being in very nationally difficult sports. Women’s cross country and women’s lacrosse both were in slightly less prominent sports, but can make the claim that they outperformed more than 90 percent of the D-I teams in their fields. And then there’s sprint football on the top left — though the non-NCAA sport was harmed by its lack of data, perfection doesn’t lie, and it was the only team to unequivocally outperform all of its opposition this year.

So which team’s success is most impressive? To pick one is, ultimately, still up for debate. A few of these elite teams could all make very reasonable cases, with none clearly separating from the pack. But what isn’t arguable is this: Penn Athletics is making a major impact at the national level, and that trend doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon.