Presented in the team stat profiles, this makes the following statement: “Based on the key stats from this game — success rate, big plays, field position components, turnovers, etc. — you could have expected to win it X percent of the time.” Luck and randomness play a major role in the game of football, and this is an attempt to look at just how random a given outcome may have been.
Note: This measure has nothing to do with pre-game projections or opponent adjustments, only the postgame stats from a specific game.
For preview purposes, I note when teams strayed pretty far from their postgame win expectations, one way or the other. Some always do.
Ten biggest 2018 overachievers, per postgame win expectancy:
- Army +2.9 (8.1 expected wins, 11 actual wins)
- Northwestern +2.8 (6.2, nine)
- Kentucky +2.2 (7.8, 10)
- Ohio State +2.1 (10.9, 13)
- Georgia Southern +2.1 (7.9, 10)
- Texas +1.7 (8.3, 10)
- Notre Dame +1.7 (10.3, 12)
- Liberty +1.6 (4.4, six)
- FIU +1.6 (7.4, nine)
- Syracuse +1.5 (8.5, 10)
For a lot of teams, this was likely randomness. But it’s fair to note that Army also overachieved by 2.8 wins in 2017, and Northwestern overachieved by 2.1. For that matter, Kentucky (+1.9) and FIU (+1.6) also overachieved by healthy amounts.
Ten biggest 2018 underachievers, per postgame win expectancy:
- Texas State -3.1 (6.1 expected wins, three actual wins)
- Nebraska -2.7 (6.7, four)
- UTEP -2.2 (3.2, one)
- USC -2.0 (7.0, five)
- Miami -1.8 (8.8, seven)
- North Carolina -1.8 (3.8, two)
- FAU -1.6 (6.6, five)
- Memphis -1.6 (9.6, eight)
- Purdue -1.5 (7.5, six)
- EMU -1.5 (8.5, seven)
For the teams here, quite a few coaches either got fired (Texas State’s Everett Withers, UNC’s Larry Fedora) or were forced to make staff changes they either agreed to (USC’s Clay Helton) or decided against and retired instead (Miami’s Mark Richt). Still, none of these coaches were high on 2017’s underachievers list, so what had more to do with their 2018 underachievement — bad coaching or unhappy randomness?
Overall, from year to year, second-order wins are indeed a sign of randomness. The teams on the extreme ends are all but guaranteed to regress (or progress) toward the mean the next year.
Of the 20 biggest underachievers between 2005-16, 16 improved their win percentage, two saw their records stay the same, and only two regressed. Similarly, of the 20 biggest overachievers, 18 saw their win percentage decline the next year and only two improved.
- 2016’s biggest overachievers were Idaho and WVU, which went a combined 19-7 despite only 14.5 expected wins; in 2017, they went 11-14.
- The biggest underachievers, meanwhile, were Notre Dame and Michigan State, which went a combined 7-17 despite 12.2 expected wins. In 2017, they improved to 20-6.
The trend continued in 2018, even if it got a hair blurrier. Of the top 10 overachievers, Army, Kentucky, FIU, and Washington State all managed to improve their win totals, but thanks to steps backwards by teams like Akron (minus-3 wins), San Diego State (minus-3), and Central Michigan (minus-7), there was still an average drop of about 0.8 wins per team. Meanwhile, the 10 biggest 2018 underachievers improved their win totals by 1.3 per team.
So yeah, at the extreme ends, postgame win expectancy tends to be a good gauge of the randomness involved in this funky sport of ours.
Over time, however, it can tell us a little bit about certain coaches.
As I noted a few years ago, and re-blurb each year, the coaches at the top and bottom of the below list tend to be the ones fans say are particularly good or bad coaches.
If a random college football fan were asked to create a list of what we'll simply call "bad coaches," he or she would probably fairly or unfairly mention Ty Willingham, John L. Smith, Dave Wannstedt, Ted Roof, Houston Nutt. Washington State fans might mention Bill Doba. North Texas fans would definitely list Todd Dodge. They're all on one particular end of the chart.
Meanwhile, asking someone to list "good coaches" might produce a list with men like Bill Snyder, Gus Malzahn, etc. They can be found anchoring the other end. Again, I'm not sure this actually means anything, but it certainly might help to confirm what some might already think about given coaches.
You can potentially distill coaching into two things: building a team that produces great stats and figuring out how to maneuver in tight games when neither team has a statistical advantage. The former matters above all (Nick Saban and Steve Kragthorpe, after all, are nearly even on this list ... and on no other list in existence), but if nothing else, this list might help us to understand which teams/coaches are good or bad at the latter.
(At plus-0.3 second-order wins per year, Saban has now pulled ahead of Kragthorpe, who stands at minus-0.2. With some more overachievement, Saban might even catch Dennis Franchione at 0.35 soon!)
With the 2019 S&P+ projections out and seemingly undervaluing teams like Army, Texas, and Northwestern once more — and with me getting yelled at on Twitter about the burnt orange team on that list — I thought it was a pretty good time to update this list as I do every offseason.
In last year’s over- and underachievers post, I wrote this:
Over the long-term, only Kansas State’s Bill Snyder and Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo have been overachieved at a higher level than Fitzgerald, who averages 0.9 wins per year above expectation; he has fallen below his expected win total only three times in 12 seasons, and one time was in his first year as a head coach. Over the last four years, his Wildcats have overachieved at a clip of 1.4 extra wins per season.
Is that level sustainable? Probably not, considering that’s about 0.3 more wins per year than even Snyder, the coaching wizard himself, has managed. But Fitzgerald has been a steady overachiever, to the point where we cannot call it simple randomness.
In 2018, Northwestern said “1.4 extra wins per year is unsustainable, eh?” and overachieved by 2.8 instead. With the slightly new win expectancy calculations involved (I changed S&P+’s definition a bit, which changed this one, too — nothing major, but some changing decimal points and whatnot), the Wildcats have now overachieved by 2.0 extra wins per year over the last four seasons and by 1.2 over the last 10. That puts him in awfully lofty company.
Below is a look at everyone who has been a head coach at least three years since 2005 and what their average difference is per year — actual wins vs. win expectation.
Coaching overachievers and underachievers
If we shrink this sample to include men who have been FBS head coaches for at least six years, here are your top 10 overachievers:
- Ken Niumatalolo (+1.1)
- Mack Brown (+1.0)
- Bill Snyder (+1.0)
- Pat Fitzgerald (+1.0)
- Urban Meyer (+0.9)
- David Shaw (+0.8)
- Kyle Whittingham (+0.8)
- Mark Hudspeth (+0.7)
- Turner Gill (+0.7)
- Todd Graham (+0.7)
Niumatalolo ... Snyder ... Fitzgerald ... Whittingham ... that list is pretty full of guys who we’ve heard “just know how to win” and whatnot through the years, yeah?
Meanwhile, if we focus only on the last five seasons — say, guys who’ve been HCs for at least three of the last five years — here’s your overachiever list:
- Pat Fitzgerald (+1.7)
- Todd Graham (+1.5)
- Tom Herman (+1.5)
- Brian Polian (+1.3)
- Urban Meyer (+1.2)
- Kyle Whittingham (+1.1)
- Dino Babers (+1.0)
- Mark Stoops (+1.0)
- Dabo Swinney (+0.9)
- David Cutcliffe (+0.9)
Polian aside (and maybe Graham), that’s a pretty good list of guys who get called “good coaches” a lot.
Fitz is just showing off now
Fitzgerald is increasingly baffling, by the way. He’s now won nine or more games in a season five times at Northwestern; the Wildcats’ S&P+ rankings in those seasons: 41st, 47th, 75th, 27th, and 68th.
Granted, he’s also had lots of seasons where his team won between five and seven games and ranked in the 60s — nothing at which you’d waste time batting an eye. Nobody was telling me “S&P+ doesn’t understand Northwestern” when the Wildcats were 7-6 and 61st in 2016, 5-7 and 66th in 2014, etc.
But of those five seasons of total overachievement, three have come in the last four years. And aside from perhaps 2015, this was the most baffling season yet in Evanston. In 2017, the Wildcats’ defense was again excellent (17th in Def. S&P+), and the offense at least improved enough (60th in Off. S&P+) to create a team S&P+ saw as nearly top-25-worthy.
NU returned quite a bit from that 2017 squad, so it was reasonable to assume that if Wisconsin slipped, the Wildcats might be able to pull off a dark horse Big Ten West run. They did ... only, they did so while slipping pretty drastically in the box score. The defense slipped to 30th, special teams was awful for the third time in four years (120th in Special Teams S&P+), and the offense bombed to 94th in Off. S&P+.
Northwestern was 125th in yards per play on first down and only 55th in average third-down distance; they were inefficient in a way triple-option overachievers are not. And yet, it didn’t matter, at least not in conference play. (In non-conference, they went 0-3 before riding turnovers to a comeback win over Utah in the Holiday Bowl.)
I will continue to think that 2018 was too fluky in too many ways to be summarized simply by “Pat Fitzgerald just knows how to win” or whatever. But there’s no question he defies the stats more than most.
I might need to visit Evanston at some point. Chat for a bit.
WTH, Black Knights?
I’m not sure anyone has ever overachieved statistically the way Jeff Monken’s Army has the last two years. He’s not on these “top 10 whatever” lists above because he’s only overachieved for two years, and his five-year average is only about +0.7. But in the last two seasons, Army has produced two of the largest outliers in the data set. With a second-order win total of 15.1, they’ve gone out and won 21 games, overachievement of about three per year.
S&P+ ranked Army 91st in 2017 and 84th in 2018, and believe me, Army fans have noticed. There has quickly grown an “S&P+ just doesn’t know what to do with Army” consensus, and that consensus may be correct.
Among other things, it’s led me to tinker with how S&P+ deals with third- and fourth-down conversions — Army did, after all, convert more fourth downs (31) than anyone in FBS in 2018 and was fifth (behind other overachievers like Syracuse, Navy, and Northwestern) in 2017. I haven’t found any adjustments in this regard that make S&P+ any more predictive than it already is*, so I haven’t implemented anything. But I’m watching, at least.
* All you have to do to realize this isn’t just about fourth downs is look at the fourth down attempts list for 2018. There are plenty of overachievers on there, but the teams that went for the most on fourth down — Air Force and FAU — underachieved by a combined 2.7 games. Of course, the teams that led the nation in fourth down CONVERSION RATE (Army, Texas, Arizona State, LSU) overachieved by 1.6 wins per team. So it’s not about going for it so much as it is about going for it and CONVERTING. Go figure.
Of course ... these last two seasons have been so extreme that this phenomenon might not be all S&P+’s fault. Since Monken took over, he’s had two ridiculous streaks in the close-games department: he lost 12 of his first 14 one-possession finishes with the Black Knights, and he’s since won 13 of the last 16.
That makes him just 15-15 overall in such games, and again, while he’s certainly overachieved statistically over his five seasons, he’s really only done so twice. Over his first three seasons, Army was underachieving by about 0.8 second-order wins per season.
Maybe Monken’s figured out a magical formula that will work forever. Or maybe there’s regression on the way. After all, Ken Niumatalolo, Mr. Triple Option Overachiever himself, has only outdone his second-order wins by about 0.4 wins per year over the last five seasons. (He averaged +1.7 over the seven years before that.) Sometimes you find the right combination of quarterback, opportunistic defense, etc., and you ride that for a while, then you fall back to earth a bit. We’ll see.
What to do with Tom Herman
The 2019 offseason is young, and I’ve already written a lot of words about Texas and Tom Herman.
In 2015, Tom Herman’s Houston Cougars enjoyed a magical run. They went 13-1, rolled to the AAC title, and beat Florida State in the Peach Bowl. The numbers were unimpressed. UH ranked just 53rd in (the updated version of) S&P+, looking more like a 10-4 team on paper and propped up by five points per game of good turnovers luck.
In Houston’s 2016 preview, I wrote this: “Houston is going to be good. In 2016, something like a 9-3 record would be considered disappointing. This scenario plays out a lot in this sport, and it shouldn’t a surprise that it’s what the skeptical S&P+ ratings are projecting.”
Houston improved to 39th in S&P+ ... and went 9-3. You can defy the numbers once, but it’s really hard to do it twice in a row.
Herman’s team might have something familiar going on heading into 2019.
In 2018, another Herman team defied both expectation and statistics. In his second year at Texas, his Longhorns ranked 32nd in S&P+ and, per second-order wins, had the look of an eight-win team. For every strong performance (namely, wins over Oklahoma and Georgia), there was a dud or near-disaster — a loss to Maryland, near-losses to Tulsa, Baylor, Texas Tech, Kansas, etc. Against anyone but the top teams, they did the bare minimum; it bit them once and nearly did so many other times. [...]
Herman has signed two straight dynamite classes, and his Horns have what appears to be a manageable schedule for a top-10 team, if they can get by LSU at home. But they’ve got a lot of churn to overcome, and they used a lot of good fortune last year.
S&P+ is going to project them to win about seven games. A Herman team has defied stats a couple of times now, but they haven’t yet done it back-to-back.
Texas’ fans collective response to being projected in the mid-30s in S&P+ was, shall we say, high in volume. And Herman’s presence atop the overachievers list here seems to verify that S&P+ is not well-equipped to handle a Herman team.
Maybe. But I need to see more because really, this four-year overachievement is a two-year overachievement.
Per second-order wins, his 2016 and 2017 teams should have won 15 games and won 16 instead. That’s pretty dead on. But he tops this list because of 2015 and 2018 — Houston overachieved by a whopping 3.3 wins in 2015, and Texas tacked on 1.7 more last fall.
So what’s the reality here? Has Herman, with his QB-Power-heavy third-down play-calling and his ability to craft big performances in big games while just barely skating by in the others — as if he knows his team has a finite number of good plays and deploys as few of them as possible against lesser opponents — unearthed a recipe for steady overachievement? Or is this a product of small sample sizes?
If you take to dice and roll 12 twice in four rolls, that doesn’t automatically mean you’re better than anyone else at rolling 12. But if you do it for eternity, it might mean you’ve got loaded dice. We’re just not going to know in four rolls.
If after a 20-year head coaching career, Herman has produced about 10 drastic overachievers, we’ll know. But maybe after 20 years, he’ll have still only produced the two. I hate saying “time will tell,” but...
The other end of the list
Your most impressive debuts (i.e. guys who just finished their third seasons and are making their first appearances on this list: UAB’s Bill Clark (+0.5 wins per year), Cincinnati’s (and, for one season, Ohio State’s) Luke Fickell (+0.2), and Hawaii’s Nick Rolovich (+0.2). No massive outliers there.
Your least impressive, meanwhile: Missouri’s Barry Odom (-1.1), BYU’s Kalani Sitake (-0.9), and USC’s Clay Helton (-0.6).
I’ve got to say: Odom’s name here doesn’t surprise me. He’s a former defensive coach who thinks defensively and conservatively late in games more often than not, and that’s been a problem considering he’s been operating a team that’s far better on offense than defense. Missouri’s loss to Kentucky was punctuated by one of the worst calls of the 2018 football season, but before that call, Odom put on a master class of how to go into a shell and blow a lead.
Odom’s by all means building a strong culture, he’s improving his recruiting, his two-deep looks pretty exciting for 2019, and he’s produced nice results the last two years.
Still, the what-if losses have outnumbered the what-if wins, and that’s probably not entirely a product of randomness. Three years isn’t a large enough sample for creating ironclad conclusions, but with the firing of UMass’ Mark Whipple and Texas State’s Everett Withers, Odom is now second among active FBS head coaches on the underachievers list.
Biggest active coaching underachievers (min. 3 years)
- Miami (Ohio)’s Chuck Martin (-1.2 per year)
- Odom (-1.1)
- Sitake (-0.9)
- Texas Tech’s Matt Wells (-0.7)
- NMSU’s Doug Martin (-0.7)
- Utah State’s Gary Andersen (-0.7)
- Baylor’s Matt Rhule (-0.7)
- Liberty’s Hugh Freeze (-0.6)
- Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst (-0.6)
- Maryland’s Mike Locksley (-0.6)
For the most part, the coaches on this list have won a lot of games — that’s why they’re either still active or, in the case of guys like Andersen and Freeze, have recently become active again. (Locksley has also recently become active again, but the next good season he has will be his first.) Lots of underachievers get fired pretty quickly because, well, they’re underachievers. The guys here are good in plenty of ways that don’t involve game management.
But it’s safe to say their game management is suspect.
- Martin is a frankly amazing 7-20 in one-possession finishes — his 2-3 record in 2018 was his best yet, and in one of the two wins Miami all but blew a 21-point lead to win by two.
- Odom is 4-6 in one-possession finishes.
- Sitake is 6-11, 2-7 over the last two seasons.
- Wells is 7-16 and recently dealt with a nine-game losing streak in such games.
- Martin was 5-16 at Kent State before learning a few tricks for his NMSU stint (14-12)
Et cetera. You can be a good coach and a bad game coach, but you better be a really good Other Things coach if you want to keep a job for a while.
I’ve written this before, but here’s your annual reminder: This is only one aspect of good coaching. Creating a good team and winning easy games is a larger aspect.
Still, I love this list because of how it seems to home in on what we consider good coaching.
The common college football fan or writer would quickly tell you how good a coach Fitzgerald is, for instance, and this illustrates how. He doesn’t sign top-10 classes, and he hasn’t contended for a national title in a while, but Fitz, Niumatalolo, and, yes, Herman and others have consistently milked the most possible gain out of their win opportunities. That’s to be commended even if gets me yelled at sometimes.