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Analytics & Football Part 1: Close Games

You could argue that the four best coaching jobs in college football are Florida, USC, Texas and Michigan. You can certainly make arguments for Ohio State, Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida State and Georgia, but if you wanted to argue the first four then nobody would go to their grave saying you had it totally wrong. These are dream jobs we are talking about that head coaches spend their entire careers trying to ascertain, but this season has at various points shown us that these for coveted jobs could be open. Even more amazing is that all four jobs could be open at the same time! But should they be? Are the coaches that hold these jobs (or did hold their job in Lane Kiffin’s case) truly failing on top of the mountain, or are they instead victims of bad luck & variance? Let’s look at all 4 teams before looking at the broader landscape of college football.

FLORIDA GATORS

Will Muschamp took over the Gators after Urban Meyer “retired” in 2011. Muschamp’s 1st team wasn’t fantastic by Florida standards. It was somewhat of a rebuilding year in Gainesville as both Urban Meyer and arguably the greatest college football player to ever live left campus. Florida would go 7-6 including a bowl win over Ohio State. Keep in mind that in Meyer’s last year with Tim Tebow, the Gators went 8-5 so it wasn’t like Florida dropped off the map. Their 5 losses in conference came against ranked teams. Their 6th coming 21-7 at the hands of rival Florida State. In 2012, Meyer righted the ship. Florida would finish the season ranked #4 in the nation at 11-1! Their lone loss came 17-9 against a top-10 Georgia squad. This loss kept them out of the SEC Championship game, but Florida was good enough to get into the BCS Sugar Bowl where Louisville handed the Gators their 2nd loss 33-23. Florida ended the season 11-2 & ranked #9.

I’m not sure of the expectations coming into 2013, but one thing we know for sure is that Florida played an EXTREMELY DIFFICULT schedule and they had fewer remaining starters from the 2012 squad than both Georgia & South Carolina. To top it off, Florida would have non-conference games against Miam-FL & Florida State not to mention conference road games against Missouri, LSU, and South Carolina. Even before the season began, you had to think that it wouldn’t be surprising for the Gators to turn in a 6-6 to 8-4 season. The wins simply weren’t there and Florida’s defense had lost 5 of their top-6 tacklers from a season ago. This isn’t the Mountain West! The SEC punishes inexperienced teams. Ronald Powell’s return wasn’t going to take a 6-6 Florida team and transform it to 11-1! Wasn’t going to happen.

The first 5 games of Florida’s 2013 season were the easy games. Outside of a road trip to Coral Gables to face the Hurricanes, Florida had games against Toledo, Tennessee, Kentucky & Arkansas. They should have been no worse than 4-1 and potentially 5-0. A 21-16 loss to Miami-FL ruined the perfect season, but a 4-1 record was there. The Gators were ranked 17th in the nation and already had a 3-0 conference record. Obviously there were no calls for Muschamp to be fired. Unfortunately the next game came on the road to Baton Rouge against a 5-1 LSU squad ranked 10th in the nation. As an underdog, nobody expected Florida to upend the Bayou Bengals, but Florida played well defensively in a 17-6 loss. It wasn’t a close loss as LSU won by 11 points and Florida failed to cover the 7-point spread, but losing 17-6 at LSU is nothing to be ashamed of.

After the LSU loss, Florida dropped to 4-2 & #22 in the polls. Unfortunately the schedule would not get easy. After LSU, the Gators traveled to Columbia to take on a suddenly hot Missouri team. Missouri by this time was starting to turn a few heads as they had won back-to-back road games against Vanderbilt & Georgia in the two previous weeks. At 6-0, the Tigers were ranked 14th in the nation. Oddly enough, Missouri was actually a 3-point underdog to Florida at this time and the Tigers came out on fire and beat Florida 36-17. I’m not entirely sure the wheels came off at this moment, but Florida hasn’t been able to get back on track.
After a bye week, Florida lost to Georgia, Vanderbilt (in Gainesville), South Carolina and Georgia Southern (in Gainesville) to drop their record to 4-7 heading into the season finale against #2 Florida State who is standing at 11-0. For all intents and purposes, Florida is going to end their season 4-8 with Will Muschamp very much feeling as if his job is in jeopardy. Regardless of what happens, if Muschamp is back in 2014, his seat is going to be on fire from the time the first whistle blows.

But the real question should be whether or not Muschamp deserves this sort of treatment. Consider that a lot of analysts now consider a win by 7 points or fewer more a matter of luck than of skill. If close games could go either way, then shouldn’t we look for patters in this regard for Muschamp and to see if at least he’s breaking even in close games? In baseball we consider a 1-run game more luck than anything but if a manager goes 0-24 in 1-run games then something isn’t right with the manager because luck just doesn’t fall that way. If you really believe the manager isn’t at fault then you must believe in some serious regression. At some point if the manager gets the opportunity, the 1-run games should turn his way. The 2012 and 2013 Baltimore Orioles are a perfect example of this regression. The problem in football  is that you only have 24 games over 2 seasons to see that regression. The Orioles had 324 games to see it! If we count games concluded by 7 points or fewer as net wins in a “best case” scenario and net losses in a “worst case” scenario then the season looks a little bit different for Muschamp. Let’s take a look at his 3 seasons in Florida:

2011
Actual Record: 7-6
Best Case: 9-4
Worst Case: 5-8
Close Games Record: 2-2
Turnover Margin: -12

2012
Actual Record: 11-2
Best Case: 11-2
Worst Case: 8-5
Close Games Record: 3-0
Turnover Margin: +15

2013
Actual Record: 4-7
Best Case: 8-3
Worst Case: 4-7
Close Games Record: 0-4
Turnover Margin: -1

As you can see, Muschamp has been on the bad side of bad luck. When Florida wins they win big, but they haven’t been able to win the tight games which has caused them to slide to 4-7. The home losses to Vanderbilt & Georgia Southern are inexcusable and there is no defense to that. On the other hand, losses to LSU, Missouri, Georgia & South Carolina are nothing to sneeze at.

I also decided to add in TO margin which is another area analysts believe will suffer through regression. Muschamp’s biggest crime might not be losing to Georgia Southern. His biggest crime might be being TOO LUCKY in 2012 which set up unreasonable expectations for 2013. In the preseason, Florida was ranked in the top-10. That was clearly TOO HIGH! Phil Steele who definitely looks at close games & TO Margin was a little more clear headed ranking Florida #18 before the season began. Even that was too high.

What is important to note is that Florida wasn’t as good as their 11-2 record indicated last season. They aren’t as bad as their 4-7 record says this season. Before the season began we knew Florida was going to have a great defense with a suspect offense. What we didn’t know is how bad the offense was going to be. The offense is horrific which certainly doesn’t help. Combine that with being unlucky & playing in the SEC against the most difficult schedule in the nation and all of a sudden you have a perfect storm of events that won’t end well. This is what we are seeing. Is that Will Muschamp’s fault? Sports is a zero sum game so ultimately the fall guy does in fact become the head coach but it would be silly for Muschamp’s job to be decided on a season where nothing has gone right.

MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

Like Florida, Michigan came in as a pretty high profile team. They started the season ranked #17 but somehow dropped to #18 despite winning their first 5 games! Everything fell apart for Michigan on October 12th when Michigan lost to Penn State in State College 43-40! Michigan would rebound to beat Indiana but then would lose to Michigan State, Nebraska & Iowa to drop their record to 7-4. Like Will Muschamp, Hoke took over for Rich Rodriguez in 2011 and here is how his 3 years in Ann Arbor have gone thus far:

2011
Actual Record: 11-2
Best Case: 11-2
Worst Case: 8-5
Close Games Record: 3-0
TO Margin: +7

2012
Actual Record: 8-5
Best Case: 11-2
Worst Case: 5-8
Close Games Record: 3-3
TO Margin: -9

2013
Actual Record: 7-4
Best Case: 10-1Worst Case: 5-6
Close Games Record: 2-3
TO Margin: +4

Hoke’s 2011 season at Michigan season mirrors Muschamp’s 2012 season at Florida. To a certain degree Hoke had it a big easier. Expectations were big for Michigan in 2012 (they started the year ranked 8th!) after the 11-2 season but at least Hoke won 8 games and went to a bowl. Florida at best can go 5-7 (and that will take a miracle) which means the fire is a bit hotter. What is interesting about Hoke though is that his 2012-2013 seasons look pretty close to being the same. If Michigan loses to Ohio St. but wins their bowl game then the Wolverines will be 8-5 for 2 straight years. If they lose to Ohio St. and lose their bowl game then it will look like Michigan has regressed in each season Hoke has been head coach.

Unfortunately for Hoke, I think this doesn’t bode well. The 2012 season was definitely unlucky given the -9 in TO margin but Michigan was still 3-3 in tight games. This year you sort of can’t blame Michigan for losing games to Iowa & Michigan State. Both were road games and the Iowa loss was by 3 points! The loss to Nebraska in Ann Arbor stings a bit but it was by 4 points and of course the Penn St. loss was by 3. That’s 3 games by 10 total points. Extremely difficult to hammer Michigan for those losses, but then again, Michigan won close games against Akron & UConn! Go figure?

I still think Hoke has a HUGE LEASH! The 2011 season brought about unrealistic expectations and from a talent standpoint Michigan still isn’t where they should be. In his overall power poll based on team talent, Michigan ranked 21st in 2013 according to Phil Steele! According to Steele, Michigan brought in the #10 ranked class in 2012 and this past season brought in the #5 ranked class. The 2014 class is looking like a top-5 class as well so the talent accumulation at Michigan is certainly going well.

The bad luck isn’t as apparent for Hoke as it is for Muschamp, but as you can see, Hoke hasn’t been the luckiest guy in the world over the last 2 seasons. It’s unfortunate that Ohio State hasn’t lost a game in the last two seasons being 23-0 at the moment from 2012-2013, but Michigan seems to be in good hands at the moment.

TEXAS LONGHORNS

The last time Texas was relevant on a national level was 2009 when the Longhorns went 13-0 and lost to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game 37-21. Since then Texas hasn’t had it so good going 5-7, 8-5 and 9-4 from 2010 to 2012 respectively. With Texas being 8-3 this season, there is talk of Mack Brown stepping down or losing his job outright as the current Texas AD is retiring. Mack Brown has been at Texas since 1998 so I’m not going to analyze him to death but let’s take a look at Texas’s close games record & TO margin since 2010

2010: 1-2 in close games; TO Margin = -12
2011: 2-1 in close games; TO Margin = 0
2012: 4-2 in close games; TO Margin = +5
2013: 2-0 in close games; TO Margin = +8

Texas is a little more difficult to gauge than the other 2 because we are talking about more history, but in essence we are talking about the same side of the coin. The 2009 season was a 13-1 season that ended in the BCS Championship game. The previous year Texas was 12-1 meaning in Colt McCoy’s last 2 seasons as the starting QB, Texas was 25-2! The loss in 2008 was on the road against #6 Texas Tech 39-33. The loss in 2009 was in the BCS Title game against #1 Alabama 37-21! The Longhorns were 13-0 at home in those two seasons. With McCoy departing the expectations should have been lower, but Texas began the 2010 season ranked #5! Those aren’t lowered expectations.

And there is the rub. Texas had Vince Young as a QB who led them to a national championship over USC in 2005. When Young left for the NFL Colt McCoy started as a freshman and ended up being Texas’s all time leading passer & won 45 games as a starter. Garrett Gilbert wasn’t the answer in 2010. He wasn’t the answer in 2011 but neither were David Ash & Case McCoy. Ash & McCoy weren’t the answer in 2012 either and we see the pattern develop. Young & Colt McCoy were all-time great college QBs. Gilbert wasn’t. McCoy & Ash split duties in 2011-2012.

When you have 2 quarterbacks you have ZERO quarterbacks and this is the battle Mack Brown has been fighting since 2010. It is something Alabama could potentially go through after this season as they went from Greg McElroy to AJ McCarron without missing a beat. If the Tide can’t find someone to come in and immediately be the guy, then Alabama could struggle there.

As far as Brown is concerned, the 2010 season was bad but it was definitely a transition year & Gilbert struggled. The loss 34-12 loss to UCLA was bad but losing to #8 Oklahoma, #25 Baylor, #12 Oklahoma St. and #17 Texas A&M aren’t awful especially when all those teams are ranked ahead of you. The losses to UCLA, Kansas St. and Iowa St. were bad and I think what made things worse was that Texas was 2-5 at home after going 18-1 in the previous 3 seasons. Brown was 1-2 in close games and the TO margin was -12. Like Hoke & Muschamp, Brown suffered from unreasonable expectations met head on by bad luck. It doesn’t make for an easy mix.

USC TROJANS

I won’t spend as much time on Lane Kiffin as I did on Muschamp, Hoke, or Brown, but he’s still interesting for some different reasons. Kiffin came into USC after the Pete Carroll disaster facing a program on incredible sanctions. With no scholarships and no bowl games, it was an amazing sell for Kiffin to begin with. Given that he was 25-13 in his first 3 season at USC wasn’t acceptable, but in a different sort of way. From an analytical perspective, Kiffin was 6-5 in close games from 2010-2012. In that same time span, USC was +1 in TO margin. For the most part, what you saw was what you got with Kiffin. Lady Luck wasn’t screwing him over, but he definitely didn’t have the Midas touch either when it came to winning close football games.

Once USC lost to Washington State 10-7 this year, it was pretty much over for Kiffin. The 61-42 loss to Arizona State was the nail in the coffin and Kiffin was let go. Ed Orgeron was named interim and since then the Trojans have gone 6-1 including a home win over Stanford! The one loss came on the road to Notre Dame 14-10.

If USC wanted a culture change then by all means fire Kiffin but from the onfield results, you simply can’t make that argument. That loss to Arizona State? The Sun Devils are a win over Arizona from going 10-2. They’ve won the Pac 12 South and if they win the Pac 12 title game they’ll play in the Rose Bowl. Arizona State has a chance to go 12-2 and finish in the top-5. Does losing a road game to them really merit a dismissal?

IN CONCLUSION

Last night’s Egg Bowl featured a 7-4 Ole Miss team taking on a 5-6 Mississippi State squad in Starkville. By all accounts Ole Miss had a brutal game. Bo Wallace threw 3 interceptions and the Rebels had 4 turnovers. They were -2 in TO margin and ended up losing the game 17-10 in OT! On their first possession, Mississippi State scored a TD to make it 17-10 in OT. Ole Miss got the ball and it looked like Bo Wallace was going to scamper in for a TD leaving the game to into double OT. Instead he fumbles the ball into the end zone  and Mississippi State escapes with a win & their bowl eligibility.

Does Hugh Freeze deserve to lose his job? Not at all. A 17-10 game is a “luck” game. Ole Miss lost a close game and their TO margin for the game was -2. Sometimes crazy things happen. When you look at a team or evaluate a coach, always remember to take a peek at the close games. Sometimes a season comes down to luck and regression simply doesn’t have enough time to catch up when there are only 12 games on the schedule!

 

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November 29, 2013 - Posted by | Analytics, Brady Hoke, Florida, Lane Kiffin, Mack Brown, Michigan, Texas, USC, Will Muschamp

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