Your casual fan knows the difference between a 5-7 team and 7-5 team. But they can't explain why one 5-7 team really over performed or another 5-7 team underperformed, except with maybe a vague reference to the least scientific of all prognostication: the preseason rankings.
Today's nerdiness is in looking at something I hinted at in my last article: How much of a turnaround can a team manage?
Using F/+ data for the last 8 seasons (2005-12), here are some of the biggest movers and shakers and some ideas of what moved their respective needles.
The "Live by the Cam, Die by the Cam" Award
This might seem a bit obvious, but it really underscores a basic premise of college football: Individual talent can't stay at any university for very long. It's hard to overstate the full collapse of the Auburn program, but the Tigers' F/+ scores shed some light on how much one Heisman winning athlete (and one of the SEC's best ever quarterbacks) meant to the Tigers.
Auburn was solid from 2005-07, with F/+ ratings of +22.2% (seventh overall), +16.5% (20th) and +20.9% (16th). The 2008 and 2009 seasons were disappointing for Auburn (62nd and 39th, respectively), even though the '09 squad managed an 8-5 record in Gene Chizik's first year. Of course, that was nothing to 2010: Cam Newton led the Tigers to 14-0, a national championship, a No. 3 F/+ ranking and a one-year jump in F/+ of 26.7 percent.
...Auburn's F/+ rating in the last two seasons fell from plus-36.5% in 2010 to minus-18.6 in 2012. Last year, Auburn ranked just 105th. Ooh. That hurts.
Bill's take: Not only did Cam Newton's personality infiltrate Auburn's offense in 2010, but upon Newton's departure, Chizik made a series of pretty questionable moves. It appeared that he handcuffed offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn quite a bit in 2011, working to craft a more conservative, pro-style offense. My guess is that he decided that recruiting big-time talent and crafting a system around it was more important than recruiting specific talent for the system at hand. That's generally not a very good move. Auburn's 2011 and 2012 offenses had no identity and no confidence, and it appears Auburn has acknowledged his by firing Chizik and bringing back Malzahn. It's hard to say Auburn will be too good in 2013, but the Tigers shouldn't be as painful to watch. That's something.
Runner Up: 2009 Ball State, which had a 33.8-percent drop in F/+ from 2008.
Honorable Mention: 2010 Florida, dropping 31.0 percent from the previous year (more on the Gators below).
The Jimmy John's Freaky Fast Turnaround Award
The Beavers turned things around big-time in 2012, improving their F/+ rating by 31.5% and rocketing 70 spots in the rankings, from 88th to 18th. They also flipped their nine losses into nine wins.
Bill's take: Mke Riley's approach of valuing speed above all else (size, defined talent) seemed to reap dividends in 2012, as receivers Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks led an explosive receiving corps that even survived injury issues at the quarterback position. Oregon State gets its players the ball in creative ways, and things clicked pretty well in 2012.
Runner Up: 2008 Rice (3-9 to 10-3, and 24.3% improvement in F/+)
Honorable Mention: 2011 Vanderbilt (2-10 to 6-7, 24.0% F/+ improvement)
The Brick Tamland "That Escalated Quickly, I Mean That Really Got Out Of Hand" Total Collapse Award
Tie: 2010 Texas and 2012 Southern Mississippi
Did anything go right in Austin in 2010? Garrett Gilbert threw seven more interceptions (17) than touchdowns (10), and the Longhorns incredibly fell from ninth in Off. F/+ to 100th; defensively, Texas dropped 26 spots from 5th to 31st in Def. F/+. Overall, Texas' F/+ dropped a whopping 39.8%. An elite program had a very very mediocre year.
That's more than we can say for the hapless 2012 Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles. Oy. Southern Miss fell from 12-2 to 0-12 in one year, and first-year head coach Ellis Johnson got canned. Their defense fell 78 spots from 19th to 97th in Def. F/+.
Bill's take: Colt McCoy and his passing downs magic masked a lot of deficiencies in Texas' scheme from 2006-09, and without his magic wand, Texas just fell apart. The Longhorns have slowly begun to figure things out again, but they had to basically start from scratch (which is crazy considering the blue-chip talent at hand). Meanwhile ... it appears that Southern Miss' collapse was simply the perfect confluence of losing a lot of difference-makers and hiring what was definitively the wrong head coach. They should bounce back a solid amount in 2013.
The "Billy Bob" Most Improved Award
Tie: Oklahoma State
The Cowboys have improved an average of 4.8% F/+ each year since 2005. Now, It doesn't mean each year was better than the last, but it does mean that this program is headed in the right direction.
I think the clearest explanation is simply the combination of good coaching and money. Mike Gundy was a great hire, and Oklahoma State has a billionaire alum who wants to see the program succeed. Sometimes, explaining things IS that simple. But Gundy deserves a world of credit. Even though last year was a step back from 2011's peak, where OSU finished fourth in Offensive F/+, it wasn't much of one, at least in terms of F/+ rankings. Just about every odd year, OSU takes a quantum leap in some aspect of the game. For instance, most fans don't remember just how good the 2011 defense was: +18.2% Defensive F/+ raw score, matching their No. 4 ranking in Off. F/+. In 2007, they were 74th, and in 2009 they were 17th. Special teams, too, has improved - from 2006's No. 83 ranking in Special Teams F/+ to seventh in 2011 and 10th last year.
Bill's take: Mike Gundy is awesome. As a Missouri fan, I was terrified at the thought of him taking the Arkansas or Tennessee job this past offseason. (And yeah, having T. Boone certainly doesn't hurt.)
Runner up: San Jose State. See my earlier article on what improved them.
So what moves the needle?
Most of the time with a large data set it actually gets easier to see what causes trends. You find commonalities between what moved in each direction. But this actually was more difficult to parse because of the large sample; things average out quite a bit. There were a number of teams who, despite coaching changes, new offensive and defensive schemes, and inevitable player turnover, netted 0.0% change since 2005.
What the best teams do have in common is either exceptional player talent (and fit) -- see Auburn 2010; or they have exceptional coaching talent, like Oregon or Oklahoma State, which both improved at an average rate of 4.8% year over year. I know that sounds trite but, it makes perfect sense: No matter how sophisticated the tactics or shiny the uniforms it still comes down to execution and leadership. To underscore that, look at 2011 Vanderbilt and 2012 Vanderbilt. The offense actually got markedly worse - dropping from 43rd to 69th in Off. F/+. That's unusual for teams improving their records. The Defense both years was solid but only better by degree (40th to 35th). On the other hand, Special Teams improved from 73rd in 2011 to 6th in the country last year. And the Commodores had nine wins.