Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Preseason Consensus: Unanimous Last Place Teams

Last week we looked at how teams that were unanimous preseason choices to win their conference or division (by mainstream magazines and computer models) performed. This week, we are going to look at how the unanimous last place teams pegged by the preseason consensus performed. Will their performance offer hope to unanimous last place selections in 2019 or should Illinois, Kansas, Oregon State, Rutgers, and San Jose State fans cryogenically freeze themselves until 2020 (or later)? Read on to find out.

Between 2005 and 2018, only seven G5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to finish last in their respective conference or division. They are listed below.
Were I Chris Creighton’s agent, I might use this list to show just how much he has accomplished (two bowl bids in the last three seasons) since taking over at Eastern Michigan in 2014. Since 2005, Eastern Michigan has been the consensus unanimous last place team in the MAC West five times. In the totality of the mid-major universe, only two other teams have been unanimous last place selections. So how did those unanimous selections do?
It’s hard to gleam a great deal from a sample of seven teams, especially when five of them are the same program, but six of the seven teams lived down to their preseason expectations by finishing in last place. The best finish of any of the seven teams was by Eastern Michigan in 2007. The Eagles went 3-4 in MAC play (MAC teams did not play a uniform schedule of eight conference games in 2007) and finished tied for third in the West division.

Between 2005 and 2018, 24 P5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to finish last in their respective conference or division. They are listed below.
If you are keeping score at home, Baylor, Kansas, Vanderbilt, and Washington State all finished tied for the most unanimous last place selections with three apiece (although Kansas has unofficially added a fourth in 2019 based on preliminary data). Duke, Colorado, and Indiana are the only other P5 teams with multiple appearances. So how did these P5 teams do?
17 of the 24 teams finished last, with 15 finishing alone in last place. Another four teams finished second to last meaning only three finished a safe distance from the basement. However, four of the unanimous selections for last place played in bowl games, so I thought it might be useful to examine them to see if they shared any common trait that might provide hope to the 2019 teams.

2011 Wake Forest 6-7 overall, 5-3 ACC, tied for second in ACC Atlantic
While the Demon Deacons finished with a losing overall record, they nearly won the Atlantic Division. Wake led eventual champ Clemson 28-14 late in the third quarter, but the Tigers scored the last 17 points to take the game and division. Wake had cratered the year before (3-9 overall and 1-7 in the ACC) to tamp down expectations, but the Deacons had been a consistent bowl threat under then-coach Jim Grobe, winning at least five games in seven of his previous ten season heading into 2011.

2011 Vanderbilt 6-7 overall, 2-6 SEC, tied for fourth SEC West
After making their first bowl game since 1982 in 2008, the Commodores had lost 15 of 16 SEC games between 2009 and 2010. New coach James Franklin began his tenure in Nashville by winning his first three games, but the Commodores dropped six of their next eight (with four of those defeats coming by six points or less) to stand 5-6. The Commodores would need to win their season finale at Wake Forest (see previous entry) to clinch bowl-eligibility (in a game I attended). It’s been almost eight years, but I am still a little bitter. The Commodores led 27-7 at halftime and my dad and I left late in the third quarter after the Commodores scored to go up by 27 points. All we missed on the two hour ride back home was another Vanderbilt touchdown.

2012 Ole Miss 7-6 overall, 3-5 SEC, tied for fifth SEC West
After returning to relative prominence in 2008 and 2009 (remember when some prominent folks picked Ole Miss to win the SEC West in 2009?), the Rebels lost 15 of 16 SEC games between 2010 and 2011. The hired Arkansas State coach Hugh Freeze to turn the program around and win with integrity. Despite the six losses, the Rebels came very close to shaking up the national landscape. They nearly beat Texas A&M in Johnny Manziel’s Heisman season and almost upset LSU in Baton Rouge. They did clinch bowl eligibility by beating a ranked version of their hated rival in the Egg Bowl.

2014 Arkansas 7-6 overall, 2-6 SEC, last SEC West
Bret Bielema’s second team entered the 2014 season on a nine-game losing streak. They finished the year as probably the best last place team of all time. Some metrics placed the Hogs in the top-fifteen that season. The Hogs lost by one point to eventual SEC champ Alabama, by seven to then top-ranked Mississippi State, by seven to SEC East champ Missouri, while beating ranked LSU and Ole Miss teams by a combined score of 47-0.

So what can we take away from this exercise? Preseason publications and computer models have done a good job when they coalesce around a unanimous last place selection. That does not bode well for Kansas, Illinois, Oregon State, Rutgers, or San Jose State. However, for G5 teams, the sample size is so small (just seven teams total and two outside of Eastern Michigan) that San Jose State fans (if any) should not abandon all hope. As for P5 teams, four of 24 were able to beat the odds and qualify for a bowl game. This should give fans of Kansas, Illinois, Oregon State, and Rutgers a modicum of hope. Of those four, which is most likely to surprise in 2019? Three of the four unanimous last place selections to surprise were led by relatively new coaches (Franklin and Freeze were in their first seasons at Vanderbilt and Ole Miss while Bielema was in his second at Arkansas) and the fourth was led by a coach with a previous track record of success at his school (Grobe at Wake). Lovie Smith and Chris Ash are entering their fourth season at Illinois and Rutgers so I would throw those two out. Les Miles is in his first season at Kansas and has successful stints at Oklahoma State and LSU on his resume, but one of those is a true blue blood program and the other, while certainly a rebuilding job, is nothing like the task he faces at Kansas. Plus, his offenses at LSU were antiquated and boring despite the great talent he brought in. Thus, were I forced to choose, Oregon State would be my selection. The Beavers are coached by Jonathan Smith, who happens to be an alum, so he is familiar with the limitations of the program. He is in his second season, so he is still fresh, and his expertise is on the offensive side of the ball (played quarterback in college and was offensive coordinator prior to getting this job), an area where underdogs stand a better chance of outperforming their pedigree and recruiting rankings. This is in no way a prediction of Oregon State eking out a bowl bid in 2019, just an acknowledgement that of the other teams expected to be awful, they have the best chance of exceeding those low expectations.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

The Preseason Consensus: Unanimous First Place Teams

The college football season is less than one month away and as the season draws near, major sporting news outlets and computer models will be releasing their predictions. While each entity will be higher or lower on certain teams, occasionally a unanimous consensus will develop around a few teams. This year, those teams are Alabama, Appalachian State, Boise State, Clemson, and Georgia. According to preliminary results from the Stassen Preseason Consensus, all those teams are unanimous choices to win their respective divisions. How accurate have previous unanimous selections been? Is this an example of preseason Groupthink or have previous teams been in a different class than their conference or division rivals? Using the Stassen site, I went back and looked at fourteen years worth of preseason data (2005-2018) to determine how these unanimous selections performed. I also divided the unanimous selections into BCS/Power Five and non-BCS/Group of Five to see if there was any difference in how they performed. My thoughts behind separating P5 and G5 are that certain G5 teams (Boise State for example) might be a unanimous selection more because of the quality of their conference rather than their underlying strength whereas a P5 team (like Alabama) might be a unanimous selection because they are supposed to be really, really good. Anyway, we’ll start with the G5. Between 2005 and 2018, twelve G5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to win their respective conference or division. They are listed below.
Boise is the only G5 team to appear multiple times, with the Broncos being a unanimous preseason choice on four occasions. All six ‘mid-major’ conferences that have suited up since 2005 (American, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, and the now defunct WAC) have seen at least one preseason unanimous selection (Louisiana-Lafayette really shocked me). So how did those unanimous selections do?
Only two teams won their respective conference or division title outright. Bowling Green and Marshall both did so in 2014, although Bowling Green’s victory was by default as the Falcons finished 5-3 in a division where no other team was better than 4-4. Four other teams finished tied for first, and for reasons that I’ll discuss more in the P5 section, I thought it was important to separate outright and tied finishes. Five teams finished second in their division or conference and the worst finish by any of these unanimous selections was third place (Houston in 2016). That’s a decent showing, with fully half of the unanimous selections winning at least a share of their conference or division title. Now let’s check in on the big boys. Between 2005 and 2018, nineteen P5 teams were unanimous preseason selections to win their conference or division title.
Surprisingly, the most dominant program of the past decade plus, Alabama, has never been a unanimous selection (until this season). Of course, that speaks more to the strength of the SEC West than to any shortcoming in Tuscaloosa. Southern Cal has the most unanimous selections with four, including three before the conference split into divisions. Ohio State is second with three and Florida State, Oregon, and Virginia Tech are the only other schools with multiple unanimous selections. So how did these P5 teams do?
Ten teams won their conference or division title outright with another seven capturing at least a share of the conference or division crown. Speaking of shared titles, Ohio State in 2015 was the main reason I differentiated between outright and shared titles. The Buckeyes entered 2015 as the defending national champion, ranked first in the AP Poll, and were a prohibitive favorite to win their half of the Big 10. The Buckeyes stumbled just once all season, but unfortunately for them, it was to Michigan State, a team that finished with the exact same conference record. The Spartans won the tiebreaker and advanced to the Big 10 Championship Game where they dispatched Iowa in an entertaining low-scoring affair. Big 10 title in hand, the Spartans were selected for the College Football Playoff where they have still yet to score against Alabama. Despite being arguably one of the top-four teams in the country, Ohio State was forced to settle for a New Year’s Six Bowl Game instead of a playoff appearance. The worst finish for these unanimous selections was second place. Louisville in 2005 and Florida State in 2011 were the only teams to not win at least a share of their division or conference title.

So what can we take away from this exercise? Preseason publications and computer models have a much better track record when they tab P5 teams as unanimous selections to win their conference or division. Nearly 90% of those teams won at least a share of their conference or division title versus just half of the unanimous G5 five selections. Why is this? Are the creators of these publications and models going out for drinks instead of scouting the backup linebackers for G5 teams? Possibly, but I think the more likely reason is there is simply more volatility at the G5 level. Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia are unanimous selections in 2019 because they recruit at such a high level. Appalachian State and Boise State recruit well for G5 programs, but their raw talent levels are not in the same stratosphere as those at the top of the P5. Thus in the small sample size that is the college football conference season, they are more likely to be upset and fail to live up to their lofty preseason expectations. Based on recent history, Alabama, Clemson, and Georgia will likely live up to their lofty preseason expectations, while some as of yet unidentified usurpers have a good shot at derailing Appalachian State and Boise State in their respective division races.

Check back next week when we look at how unanimous preseason last place teams have performed and see if we can offer any hope to Kansas.

*Update* 08/04/19
Stassen has updated its preseason consensus page and Alabama and Clemson now stand as the lone unanimous selections.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Strangers in the Field: V

Another summer, another Vegas visit. What follows are the bets I made and the justifications I had for making them (other than edibles). See previous posts here, here, here, and here.

Over/Under Win Totals
The premise here is simple. These bets are on teams to either go 'over' or 'under' a baseline win total.

Auburn over 7.5 wins -115 ($30 to win $26.10)
I like Auburn heading into 2019 for a few reasons. First, they began last season ranked in the AP top-ten and finished unranked at the end of the season. Teams that do that tend to improve the following season. Second, they have reached at least eight regular season wins in four of Gus Malzahn's six seasons at the helm. Third, while the schedule is brutal, the Tigers get to host both Alabama and Georgia. I think there is a decent shot the Tigers upset at least one of those teams (more on that in the Games of the Year write up). In addition, despite the presence of Oregon on the schedule, the Tigers should finish 3-1 at worst in the non-conference. Auburn always seems to zig when the preseason consensus has them zagging. I'll take the Tigers to improve by one game over last season's regular season win total. 

Boise State under 10 wins -120 ($30 to win $25)
What I like about this bet is that worst case scenario, I am probably looking at a push. Take a look at last season's Mountain West YPP numbers. Despite winning the Mountain division for the third time in five seasons under Bryan Harsin, the Broncos did not have a profile befitting a dominant team. This season, the Broncos will be breaking in a new quarterback and facing a challenging non-conference schedule. The Broncos open the season against Florida State in Jacksonville before returning home against Marshall. About halfway through their Mountain West slate, they hit the road to face BYU. There is a good chance the Broncos drop at least one of those games. If that is the case, they must finish Mountain West play unblemished to beat you, which is something they have not done since 2009. Under Harsin, the Broncos have lost eight regular season Mountain West games. In each of those games, the Broncos were favored by at least nine points. I wouldn't dare take a stab at predicting which conference game the Broncos lose, but I feel strongly a loss is waiting for them. 

Colorado over 3.5 wins -155 ($20 to win $12.90)
After a 5-0 start and brief dalliance in the top-twenty of the AP Poll, Colorado dropped their last seven games and fired their coach. The 5-7 finish marked their twelfth losing season in the past thirteen years! I won't be so bold to predict a bowl game this season, but i think the Buffs can at least come close to matching last season's win total. For starters, they were actually not that bad last season and they return a senior quarterback along with a breakout receiver. Quarterback Steven Montez has thrown twice as many touchdowns (46) as interceptions (23) in significant action over the past three seasons and receiver Laviska Shenault averaged over 100 yards per game last season. Steadiness on offense should offset some defensive regression (just four starters back on that side of the ball) and keep Colorado at about the same level overall they were last season. The non-conference schedule is challenging with in-state rival Colorado State, former Big 12 foe Nebraska, and always pesky Air Force. However, the Buffs have handled Colorado State the past four times they have played (the last three with relative ease) and get to host both Nebraska and Air Force. They should win two of three in the non-conference which means two conference wins would win this bet. There are no gimmes on the Pac-12 slate, but this Colorado team is better than people think and will get to at least four wins. 

Florida State over 7.5 wins -110 ($40 to win $36.35)
Give Willie Taggart credit, he knows how to lower expectations. Florida State is the fourth FBS school Taggart has coached. In his first year at each school, his teams have a combined record of 16-32. At his previous stops, his teams improved by five and two wins respectively in his second season (he didn't stick around for season two at Oregon). Taggart knew the heat was on for his second season, so he abandoned whatever integrity he had to hire Kendal Briles as his offensive coordinator in hopes of improving the offense which averaged just under 22 points per game last season. Briles gets results, as three of the previous four teams he was in charge of averaged at least 40 points per game (and the other averaged just under 35) and this is theoretically his first time coordinating truly top-shelf talent. The Seminoles have two very challenging road games (Clemson and Florida), but should be no worse than a slight underdog in their other ten games. I think they can win eight of them and start a new bowl streak

Indiana under 6 wins +110 ($30 to win $33)
Since 2013, Indiana has finished with five, four, six, six, five, and five regular season wins. With that track record, I think the worst thing you would be looking at here is a push. The Hoosiers should petition the Big 10 to institute a pod system or switch divisions as they are compelled to face Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State each season. Since the Big 10 scrapped the whole Leaders and Legends debacle and went with the current East/West set up, the Hoosiers are 1-19 against that quartet and a respectable 10-13 against other Big 10 opponents. I would expect more of the same in 2019. The Hoosiers are likely to lose their four games with the behemoths of the division and in cross-division games, they must travel to Nebraska and Purdue. Even with an easy non-conference schedule, it seems like 6-6 is the most an Indiana fan can hope for. 

Notre Dame under 9.5 wins -140 ($40 to win $28.55)
Brian Kelly has coached at Notre Dame for nine seasons and outside of undefeated regular seasons in 2012 and 2018, the Irish have finished with less than two regular season losses just once (2015). Notre Dame has two very difficult road games on their schedule: Georgia and Michigan. The Irish do have a bye before facing Michigan (and the Wolverines have Peen State the week before), but they are likely to lose both of those games. If they do, they would need to run the table in their remaining ten games to beat you. Since 2014, Notre Dame has lost 18 times in the regular season. Eleven of those losses have come in games the Irish were favored in. I think a loss in one of those ten is a pretty safe bet. 

Oklahoma State over 7 wins -130 ($40 to win $30.75)
In Mike Gundy's first three seasons, his teams never won more than six regular season games. However, in the eleven season since, his teams have won at least seven games nine times. Last season was one of those times they did not. Still, despite the 6-6 regular season, you could see the potential the Cowboys had. They whipped Boise State, upset Texas and West Virginia, and nearly knocked off Oklahoma in Norman. Of course, they were also drubbed by Texas Tech and Kansas State, so their overall record was probably indicative of their total performance. The last time Oklahoma State endured a 6-6 regular season, they pulled off a minor bowl upset and started the next season 10-0. The Cowboys already have the minor bowl upset in their back pocket and with an innovative hire at offensive coordinator, I think they can be a sleeper in the Big 12 and easily top seven wins. 

Pittsburgh over 5.5 wins -165 ($30 to win $18.20)
What's the most fun you can have in a season where you finish 7-7 and lose three games by at least 31 points? You're looking at it. 2018 was a weird season for Pitt. Befitting a team that finished 7-7, there were a lot of ups and downs. When the Panthers fought out of their weight class, things were not pretty. Six of their seven losses came against teams that were ranked at some point in 2018 (Clemson, Miami, Notre Dame, Penn State, Stanford, and UCF). In those six games, the Panthers scored a grand total of 60 points. In their other seven games against FBS opponents, the Panthers averaged 38 points per game. Overall, the Panthers finished second in the ACC in yards per play and I would expect them to remain near the top of the conference in that regard. New offensive coordinator Mark Whipple seemed overwhelmed as a head coach in his second go-round at Massachusetts, but the Minutemen were a better offensive team the moment he returned. The Panthers do have a challenging non-conference slate with a trip to Penn State and home games against Ohio and UCF to go along with their FCS punching bag (Delaware). Still, the Panthers should be 2-2 at worst outside the ACC, and with the Panthers currently occupying the easier division and no Clemson on the cross-division schedule, the Panthers should be able to get back to a bowl. 

Rutgers over 2.5 wins -165 ($20 to win $12.10)
Heading into the 2019 season, Rutgers has lost twelve straight Big 10 games by an average of 23 points per game. So why in the world am I backing them? For starters, the Scarlet Knights seem to have two wins on the non-conference schedule. They open against Massachusetts and in late-October, the Liberty Flames pay a visit. Liberty could certainly threaten Rutgers, especially with the pious Hugh Freeze in charge. However, two wins seems like a safe assumption. Now Rutgers just needs to find one more among their Big 10 slate or against Boston College in the non-conference. I think they can do it. Rutgers was bad last season, but really only on one side of the ball. Their defense was about average by Big 10 standards, but the offense averaged under four yards per play in Big 10 action and freshman quarterback Artur Sitkowski threw 18 interceptions. As coaches say, the good thing about freshman is they become sophomores and Sitkowski should improve after being thrown to the wolves last season. I'm not expecting big things from Rutgers in 2019, but with home games against Maryland and Minnesota and winnable road games at Illinois and Indiana, I am expecting the Big 10 losing streak to end. 

Southern Cal over 7 wins -130 ($50 to win $38.45)
While the Trojans famously lost their splash offensive coordinator hire to the NFL, they made a good follow-up hire in nabbing Graham Harrell from North Texas. Like Kliff Kingsbury, Harrell starred at Texas Tech under Mike Leach and has done great things as a coordinator on the offensive side of the ball. North Texas ranked third and first in Conference USA in yards per play over the past two seasons under his guidance and the Trojans desperately needed to improve on that side of the ball after ranking ninth in the Pac-12 in yards per play last season. With the addition of Harrell and the maturation of quarterback JT Daniels, I expect a much improved offense in 2019. The Trojans are (justifiably) behind Utah in the preseason consensus, but they should have no trouble getting to eight wins. Whether that saves Clay Helton's job is another issue entirely. 

Texas under 9 wins -110 ($20 to win $18.20)
I can't offer a take on Texas or Tom Herman that has not been made by many others on the internet or over the airwaves over the past few seasons. Herman's teams always play well as an underdog and tend to not do so well as a favorite. Now, with the Longhorns facing legitimate expectations for the first time in what seems like a decade, can they win the games they are favored in? And, should they be favored in those games in the first place? Despite their top-ten finish last season, Texas ranked a middling fifth in the Big 12 in net yards per play. Other advanced metrics were also not as rosy on the Longhorns. They were 22nd in SRS and 32nd in S&P+. Your eyes did not deceive you, yes Texas beat both Oklahoma and Georgia in 2018 (perhaps two of the five best teams in the country). However, they also lost to Maryland and Oklahoma State and scraped by Kansas State, Baylor, Texas Tech, and Kansas. While I am skeptical of Texas, I won't be backing LSU in Week Two, especially if the Tigers are favored. However, even if the Longhorns are able to beat the Tigers, there are enough landmines on this schedule for three and possibly four losses. 

TCU over 7.5 wins +110 ($30 to win $33)
In 2018, TCU did pretty much what they have done since joining the Big 12. They finished first in yards allowed per play (their third consecutive first place finish) and eighth in yards per play. In seven seasons of play in the Big 12, the Horned Frogs have never finished worse than third in yards allowed per play, but they have only finished better than third once in yards per play. Perhaps not coincidentally, the year the Horned Frogs boasted their best offense was also the year they nearly made the CFB Playoff. TCU did have to deal with a litany of injuries  and a crucial dismissal last season, so improvement is not that far-fetched. The Horned Frogs have six true road games in 2019, so they will need to win at least two in order to cash this ticket. The good news for TCU is that their two road wins in 2018 marked their fewest since 2013. From 2014 through 2017, the Horned Frogs were 16-6 in true road games. The Horned Frogs have too many questions on offense and have to replace too much on defense to be true Big 12 contenders, but I think they can do enough to get to eight wins. 

Wake Forest over 5.5 wins -160 ($50 to win $31.25)
This is uncharted territory for Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson. Wake Forest marks the fourth stop of his head coaching career and his sixth season in Winston-Salem is the longest he has ever been in one place. This is not to say Clawson is a job hopper. He spent five seasons at both Fordham and Bowling Green with a four-year stint at Richmond sandwiched in between. Clawson will look to take the Demon Deacons to their fourth straight bowl game for the first time in school history. While the Deacons have enjoyed moderate success under Clawson, they have not had what I would deem a breakthrough campaign yet. A loss to Duke in the 2017 regular season finale prevented the Deacons from finishing with nine wins and potentially a ranking in the final AP Poll. Wake's best win under Clawson, the thriller with Virginia Tech notwithstanding, was probably their road win against a ranked NC State team last year. The ACC being down means there are not a lot of opportunities for marquee wins, but it also means the Deacons have a reasonable shot at victory in most of their games. Road trips to Clemson and Virginia Tech are probably out of reach, but with the exception of their home game against Florida State, the others are winnable. Wake has a unique schedule in 2019 as they face nine ACC opponents, with the game against North Carolina counting as a non-conference game. Including North Carolina, Wake also faces, Utah State, Rice, and Elon in the non-conference. The Deacons should be 3-1 or perhaps 4-0 once ACC play technically begins with a trip to Boston College (where the Deacons have won two in a row). It's not likely, but with a little luck the Deacons could be 6-0 (and have this ticket already cashed) when they host Florida State in mid-October. 

NFL Win Totals
Tampa Bay over 6.5 wins +105 ($30 to win $31.50)
Count me as a believer in the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2019. I think Bruce Arians can get the most out of Jameis Winston and an offense with some playmakers like Mike Evans and OJ Howard. The Bucs won five games last year and with better coaching, I think they can get to seven in 2019. 

Games of the Year
Typically betting lines are set on Sunday for games beginning the following week. However, sportsbooks set a few 'Game of the Year' lines for certain games that are months away from occurring. The home team in these games is listed in bold.

September 13th 
Houston +7 Washington State @NRG Stadium (Houston) -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
I would venture no team wants to get the 2019 season underway more so than Houston. When we last saw the Houston Cougars, they were being obliterated by Army and their triple option attack. That loss ended up getting their coach fired and resulted in the Cougars nabbing Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia. In the short term, at the very least, this move should pay dividends for both parties. Houston gets a proven offensive coach to shepherd a roster with great talent on that side of the ball and Holgorsen gets to leave West Virginia on his own accord rather than being fired. Houston will face a Washington State team coming off its best season yet under Mike Leach. The other Cougars won eleven games and finished a nice four year run with a cumulative Pac-12 record of 26-10. Of course, the Cougars have also lost six straight to that team in Seattle, including at home last season with the division title on the line. The Cougars are once again starting over under center with a transfer (Gage Gubrud) likely to win the job. It worked out well for the Cougars last season, but this game will mark their first game away from Pullman in 2019. While not technically a home game for Houston, NRG Stadium is the home of the Houston Texans, so I'll take the pseudo home team catching a touchdown. 

September 21st
Oklahoma State +9.5 Texas -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
I guess you can thank the Sugar Bowl for this line. How else to explain Texas being favored by nearly ten points here? Let me throw a few stats at you. Oklahoma State has won seven of nine and four in a row in this series. They have won five in a row at Texas and they have covered five of the last six in Austin. The last time Texas both won and covered against the Cowboys in Austin was 2006! If you read the over/under write ups, you know I'm down on Texas and high on Oklahoma State, so I can't resist catching nearly ten points here. 

October 26th
TCU +3.5 Texas -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
Since joining the Big 12, TCU is 5-2 against the Longhorns, with their lone home loss coming in their forgettable 2013 campaign. TCU has been underwhelming as a home underdog since joining the conference, posting just a 3-5 ATS mark, but I expect TCU to be favored by the time this game kicks. As mentioned previously, I am down on Texas, and the Longhorns could have two or three losses by the time they make the trip to Fort Worth. 

November 2nd
Southern Cal +1 Oregon -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
This bet is an amalgamation of several things. I am (relatively) high on the Trojans this season with their offensive coordinator hire and expected improvement at the quarterback position. I am a little skeptical of the preseason love Oregon is receiving. Keep in mind, since making the CFB Playoff in 2014, the Ducks are just 8-13 in true road games, including just 4-12 the past three seasons. In addition, Southern Cal is rarely a home underdog. They have been in the role just once under Clay Helton, in last year's season finale. They covered, but did not win as a double-digit underdog against Notre Dame. Like the TCU/Texas spread, I expect Southern Cal to be favored by the time this game actually kicks off. And all they need to do is win to cash this ticket. 

November 16th
Auburn +6.5 Georgia -110 ($50 to win $45.45)
Georgia is not the type of potential juggernaut I like to get in front of, but I think this is a good spot for Auburn for several reasons. For starters, the Tigers have a bye before this game, while Georgia will be playing their third straight opponent off a bye (Florida and Missouri the prior two weeks). If you're curious, Auburn is 8-0 off a regular season bye under Gus Malzahn with two wins as an underdog, including the Kick Six. They are a little less impressive 4-3-1 ATS, but that has more to do with them failing to cover as a moderate to sizable favorite. In addition (note this is an insanely small sample size, but this is football and almost all we deal with is small sample size), Georgia is 0-3 under Kirby Smart in road games against SEC West opponents. And the results have not been all that close. Despite entering as a betting favorite in two of the games, the Bulldogs have dropped all three by at least twenty points. I'm not saying Auburn is going to roll here, but there is value in them catching almost a touchdown. 

November 23rd
Baylor +6 Texas -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
Another Game of the Year bet, another home dog. Sensing a trend? I don't have much to say here about Texas that I haven't already devoted numerous grammatical errors to. I'll just add that Baylor coach Matt Rhule is 11-5 ATS in the home underdog role (8-3 at Temple and 3-2 at Baylor). 

November 30th
Stanford +4 Notre Dame -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
David Shaw is entering his ninth season as head coach of the Cardinal. Over the previous eight seasons, Stanford has been a home underdog four times. They have won each of those games outright, including their most recent turn as a home underdog in 2017 against...Notre Dame. In addition, Stanford has not lost at home to Notre Dame since their legendary pillow fight in 2007. Notre Dame will travel to the west coast after having faced four consecutive teams coming off of byes (Virginia Tech, Duke, Navy, and Boston College) and while the Cardinal will be fresh of their Big Game with Cal, they won't be switching time zones. Don't be surprised if this number is much closer to a pick em by the time the game kicks off. 

November 30th 
Florida State +13.5 Florida -110 ($30 to win $27.25)
I contemplated betting Florida under nine wins, but it was heavily juiced (around -180), so I stayed away. Despite not betting the Gators to go under their projected win total, I am skeptical of their preseason hype heading into 2019. Like Texas, I think they are getting way too much credit for their bowl win. I'll remind you, the Gators lost to both Kentucky and Missouri at home by double-digits last season. Remember that when they finish a 'disappointing' 8-4. 

December 14th 
Navy +8 Army @Philadelphia -110 ($50 to win $45.45)
When I saw this line open at Army -13, I knew I had to bet it. Unfortunately, by the time I got to Vegas, a lot of the value had been drained from this number. Sill, with Navy catching more than a touchdown, I like them a lot. The last five games in this series, and seven of the last eight, have been decided by a touchdown or less. And when the blowouts come, its typically been Navy doing the blowing (may need to change that wording). In the last three decades, Army has won by enough to cover this number just twice (by ten in 1990 and by nine in 2001). I don't see how you can be comfortable backing a favorite in this series where the underdog has covered eight of the last ten years. 

Division Champion Bets
I decided to put a few dollars down on a team to win their division in the NFL. 

Tampa Bay Bucs to win the NFC South +1000 ($10 to win $100)
I extolled what I think are the virtues of the Bucs earlier, so I decided to take a flyer on them to win the division too.

Reckless Parlay(s)
I made two reckless parlays this year. One for college football and one for the NFL. All games must be correct for the parlay to pay out.

Parlay 1:
$10 to win $110

Game 1: August 24th 
Miami +7 Florida @ Orlando
Getting some more money down on the Gators disappointing. 

Game 2: August 30th
Wake Forest -3.5 Utah State
The Deacons pounded Utah State two years ago. Here's hoping for a repeat. 

Game 3: August 31st
Michigan -31.5 Middle Tennessee State
Michigan will look to run it up as they debut their new offensive coordinator

Game 4: August 31st
Auburn -2.5 Oregon @Arlington
The SEC always wins these games right?

Parlay 2:
$10 to win $60

Game 1: September 8th

Tennessee +5.5 Cleveland
Doesn't it seem like Cleveland is getting a bit too much preseason love

Game 2: September 8th
Arizona +2 Detroit
I know Arizona was bad last season, but they overhauled everything and when have you ever trusted the Lions, especially on the road? 

Game 3: September 9th
Denver +2.5 Oakland
As a point of reference, these two teams played this exact game in December, and the line was reversed. 

That's all the damage I can do. Check back in December when we are hopefully recapping a winning trip. 

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Adjusted Pythagorean Theorem in the NFL Part IV: The Biggest Underachievers

Earlier this week, we looked at the biggest overachievers, in regards to actual wins versus their APR in the sixteen game era. Time to check in on the biggest underachievers. I apologize in advance to Tampa Bay fans (if any).

After coaching the Cincinnati Bengals for four seasons, which included a trip to Super Bowl XVI, Packers legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer, Forrest Gregg, took over as coach of Green Bay from another legend (Bart Starr). Gregg guided the Packers to an 8-8 campaign, but things could have been much better. The Packers scored 48 offensive touchdowns and allowed only 30, but lost seven of their first eight games, with five of the losses coming by six points or less. They rebounded to win seven of their final eight, but it was not enough to catch the Chicago Bears in the NFC Central. Had the Packers won their Week Three game against the Bears in Lambeau (lost 9-7 on a fourth quarter field goal), the Packers would have won the division. The Packers finished 8-8 again in 1985, but their record was more indicative of their performance that season. This was as good as it got for Gregg in Titletown as his last two teams won just nine total games.

1978 marked the first truly competitive version of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Over their first two season, the Bucs combined for a 2-26 record with nineteen of those defeats coming by at least ten points. With a fresh-faced Joe Gibbs calling plays, the Bucs more than doubled their scoring from the previous season, albeit to only fifteen points per game. Tampa scored slightly more offensive touchdowns (28) than they allowed (25), but could not close the deal in close games. The competitiveness would prove a portent of good things with the defense, led by Lee Roy Selmon, finished first in points allowed the next season as the Bucs made the playoffs for the first time and advanced all the way to the NFC Championship Game.

Tampa Bay’s close game woes from 2003 (see next entry) continued in 2004 as a team just twenty months removed from winning their first Lombardi Trophy finished 5-11.

The 2003 team was slightly more of an underachiever than the 2004 team. The Bucs began their title defense with a strong showing by shutting out the Philadelphia Eagles on the road on Monday Night Football. The next week, a blocked extra point cost them in an eventual overtime loss to the upstart Carolina Panthers, but the Bucs manhandled the Falcons in Week Three and entered their bye week with the look of a Super Bowl contender. Their first game after the bye was a Monday night showdown against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. With five minutes to go in the game, the Bucs held a three touchdown lead, but Manning and company staged a furious rally to upend the Bucs. Consider that nearly a quarter of the way through the 2003 season (i.e. with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of their fourth game), the Bucs had outscored their opponents 92-36! The fourth quarter collapse provides a convenient inflection point for narrative purposes to explain Tampa’s struggles through the rest of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, but I would chalk their poor record up to the inherent small sample size of an NFL season along with a little laurel resting common for any NFL champion not headquartered in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

And speaking of the Patriots. The 1981 team is far and away the biggest underachiever in the last forty years. Head coach Ron Erhardt had guided the Patriots to nineteen wins (but no playoff) appearances in the previous two seasons, and statistically, these Patriots probably should have finished with a similar record. Despite winning just two games, they somehow scored more offensive touchdowns (40) than they allowed (38). However, a brutal close game record and piss poor turnover margin consigned them to the AFC East basement. Consider that their roommate, the fellow two-win Baltimore Colts, were outscored by 274 points in 1981, while the Patriots were only outscored by 48 points! Interestingly, the Colts' two wins came against the Patriots (by three total points). Things would get better for the Patriots as they would qualify for the playoffs in three of the next five seasons and not finish with a losing record until 1989. They have also had what could be termed decent success since the turn of the century, so things kind of worked out. And don’t feel too bad for Mr. Erhardt. While the 2-14 campaign marked his last shot as a head coach, he would go on to win two Super Bowls as an offensive coordinator with the New York Giants and coach in another Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also died in 2012, so he avoided seeing Trump become President.

I'm off to Las Vegas to make some bets on the upcoming football season. Next weekend or so, I'll post a recap of the bets I made. Oh, and be sure to look for more APR posts as we trudge through the long offseason.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

The Adjusted Pythagorean Record in the NFL Part III: The Biggest Overachievers

Over the past few weeks, I’ve introduced the Adjusted Pythagorean Record in the NFL and identified a few teams worthy of keeping an eye on in 2019. Now I want to take a look at the APR outliers, that is, the teams that have over or under-performed the most relative to their APR. This post will examine the biggest overachievers and later in the week, we’ll look at the biggest underachievers.

First some housekeeping notes. While I have APR data going back to 1970 (the first season after the AFL and NFL merged), we will only be looking at teams that played sixteen regular season games so that every team is on the same level. The time period covered is 1978 through 2018 with the strike-shortened 1982 and 1987 seasons excluded. In addition to listing the difference in each teams’ actual record and their APR, I will also include their record in close games (eight points or less), their turnover margin, and their non-offensive touchdown net. With that out of the way, let’s count down the NFL’s biggest overachievers of the past forty years.

Despite allowing more touchdowns (31) than they scored (24) on offense, the Detroit Lions actually won the old NFC Norris in 1993. While the Lions were fortunate to win ten games based on their play, they were a little unlucky in the sense they only got eleven games out of star running back Barry Sanders. 1993 marked the only season of Sanders’ illustrious career where he did not play at least fifteen games. Despite the abbreviated campaign, Sanders still managed to top 1000 yards on the ground and finished second to MVP Emmitt Smith in rushing yards per game. The Lions made their hay in close games, finishing 6-1 in the regular season, but in somewhat ironic fashion, their season ended in a four point home loss to the Green Bay Packers (the first career playoff win for Brett Favre).

The old Los Angeles Rams allowed one more touchdown (26) than they scored (25) on offense in 1978, but managed to win twelve games and the NFC West. The Rams started out hot, winning their first seven games, but went just 5-4 after mid-October. The Rams won their fair share of close games, but also benefited from a plethora of non-offensive touchdowns. The Rams scored eight non-offensive touchdowns (while allowing only two) with defensive back Rod Perry taking three interceptions back for touchdowns en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance. The Rams did win their playoff opener, but lost the NFC Championship Game in non-competitive fashion to the Dallas Cowboys.

Young readers of this blog might be surprised to find out the Indianapolis Colts used to reside in Baltimore. 1983 marked their final season in Maryland and while the Colts finished with a mediocre 7-9 record, it could have been much worse. The Colts allowed twice as many touchdowns (44) as they scored on offense (22). The Colts were a little lucky, but not exceptionally so in any category. No, the reason the Colts rank as one of the NFL’s largest overachievers is because when they lost, they really lost. As you can tell by their close game mark, the Colts lost four close games. Their other five losses came by a combined 103 points (roughly 21 per game if you are scoring at home). The Colts were actually 6-4 at one point and at least theoretically in contention for a playoff appearance before dropping five of their last six games. College football enthusiasts may recognize the coach of the Colts, Frank Kush. Kush coached Arizona State for more than two decades and shepherded the Sun Devils from the Border Conference to the WAC and finally to the (then) Pac-10. Alas, allegations of player abuse and interference into the investigation of those allegations caused Kush to be terminated. Kush coached the Colts for parts of three seasons and 1983 was as good as it got. He was fired the next season once the Colts were all settled in Indianapolis. Kush won just eleven games as an NFL coach, or one less than he won as coach of the Sun Devils in 1975.

Hey look, it’s the Colts again. Led by Captain Comeback and some guy with two first names, the Colts somehow managed to win nine games and qualify for the playoffs despite allowing twelve more touchdowns (37) then they scored on offense (25). Aside from Jim Harbaugh and Paul Justin, the Colts also had two eventual Hall of Famers on their roster in Marshall Faulk and Marvin Harrison. At the tender age of 23, after accumulating over 3000 yards from scrimmage in his first two seasons, Faulk somehow managed just three yards per carry for the Colts in 1996. Meanwhile, Harrison showed flashes of brilliance down the stretch, scoring five touchdowns and accumulating over 400 receiving yards in the season’s final five games. In their playoff game, the Colts actually held a halftime lead over the Steelers (in a rematch of the 1995 AFC Championship Game), but were soundly beaten in the second half.

Its weird Kansas City stands as the largest overachiever in the NFL. The Chiefs actually allowed more than twice as many touchdowns (37) as they scored on offense (18), but they were not exceptionally fortunate in close games and actually had a negative turnover margin. Like the 1983 Baltimore Colts, when the Chiefs lost, they lost big. In their five defeats that were not classified as close, they lost by a combined 165 points (or 33 per game)! Despite their struggles, the Chiefs only finished a game out of first place in the mediocre AFC West. In fact, had the Chiefs beaten just one more of their non-AFC West opponents, we could have been looking at a four-way 8-8 tie atop the division.

Check back later this week for the biggest underachievers.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Adjusted Pythagorean Record in the NFL Part II: Teams to Watch in 2019

Last week I reimagined one of my college football rating concepts, the Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR), for professional football. At the end of the post, I offered a tease as to which teams might be poised for a rebound or due for some regression thanks their actual record differing significantly from their APR. I know you have been waiting with bated breath for that list of teams. But before we get to it, let’s look at the APR for the NFL as a whole in 2018. The following table ranks all 32 NFL teams according to their APR. Teams that qualified for the playoffs are highlighted.
At worst, the APR did a quality job of identifying the best professional football teams in 2018. While, the two Super Bowl participants ranked relatively low (eighth and ninth respectively) by this metric, the twelve teams that made the playoffs all ranked in the top-fifteen. While Bears fans may be trudging through a long offseason reliving the double-doink that ended their first playoff appearance since 2010, they can take solace in the fact that they topped the APR charts. Peruse and dissect the ratings at your leisure (and let me know how they over or under rate your favorite team).

As you may recall from last week, more than three quarters of teams since 2002 have finished with a final record within two games of their APR. I decided to use that as a somewhat arbitrary threshold when accessing teams that significantly over or under-perform. Those teams that over-perform by at least two games tend to come back to earth the following season and those teams that under-perform tend to bounce back the following season. In 2018, five teams either over or under-performed by at least two games and should be strongly considered for regression or progression when prospecting their final records in 2019. They are listed below.
The NFL season is very short when compared to the other professional sports leagues. A few clutch plays or lucky bounces can drastically alter a team’s record. With that in mind, I tabulated three statistics that are at least somewhat random and can help explain why these teams over or under-performed. They are:
  1. Close Game Record: A team’s record in games decided by eight points or less. 
  2. Turnover Margin: The number of turnovers a team committed subtracted from the number they forced (positive values are better). 
  3. Non-Offensive Touchdown Net: The number of non-offensive touchdowns (defense or special teams) a team allowed subtracted from the number they scored (again positive is better). 
While these three statistics all involve a modicum of skill, they do not correlate well from year to year, but have a profound impact on a team’s record in a single season. The three teams that over-performed all did well in these metrics.
The Rams were triple crown contenders in these categories, posting a great record in close games, a fantastic turnover margin, and scoring five more non-offensive touchdowns than they allowed. Houston did not have a great close game record, but they had an even better turnover margin than the Rams and were nipping at their heels in non-offensive touchdown net. Miami was spectacular in close games (as they were for the totality of the Adam Gase regime). If you look closely at their final record, you will notice they did not win a single game by more than eight points. Now for the other side of the coin.
Denver was not exceptionally bad in close games, but their turnover margin and general poor coaching likely cost them a few victories. Minnesota’s Achilles heel was their propensity to allow teams to score against them in unconventional ways with Kirk Cousins contributing three pick sixes to the cause.

If you are an over/under win total enthusiast like myself, keep an eye on these five teams when placing your bets over the summer. Recent history indicates the trio of the Rams, Texans, and Dolphins might be in for a regression while the Broncos and Vikings could see their records improve in 2019.