Hot Reads: A Statistical Mystery at UCF
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An Interesting Simulation Against a Completely Random Opponent

November 15, 2017

This column appears in the Nov. 2017 issue of Hail Varsity. Subscribe today.

I asked my computer to give me a randomly generated number between one and 130. This was the day after Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to an average Minnesota squad, such a complete and emphatic loss that you had to wonder if there were any teams out there the Huskers could beat at this point in the 2017 season.

So I set out to test it. Whatever number my computer spit out, I would pair it with the latest S&P+ rankings and, using freely available internet tools, simulate a game between Nebraska and whichever team was ranked in the randomly assigned spot. My computer provided the number five.

“Ouch,” I thought. “This isn’t going to go well.” Nebraska against the fifth-best team in the country? The Huskers really can’t catch a break this season, but these were the parameters of the experiment, so I changed tabs in my browser to see which team Nebraska would have to play in this Simulation of the Century.

It was Central Florida. I couldn’t believe it at first, but then I remembered that during the previous week, while searching for the most yards Minnesota had rushed for this century, I had received a notification that my computer’s irony software was out of date. So I updated it.

Seems to be working now.

I’m not proud to admit that at this point I seriously considered fudging the results. It wasn’t fair pitting what Nebraska is against what many fans hope Nebraska will be in the near future. Nobody would believe it and nobody would admit to wanting to see what seemed like a foregone conclusion play out. (Secretly, however, it would be the most-watched game of the season.)

But if science fiction has taught us anything it’s that computers are infallible, definitely not trying to take over the world and must be trusted implicitly. So I did. The cosmos, or the hackers who have taken control of my computer, wanted a simulated Nebraska-UCF matchup, and who am I to deny the cosmos? Or the hackers?

Aaron Babcock
The cover of the Nov. 2017 issue of Hail Varsity.

The only remaining question was where the game would be played, Orlando or Lincoln? Harboring some suspicion as to the motives of my machine, I decided to do it the old-school way. Coin flip. A penny, just to make things easy. If it’s Lincoln, it’s Lincoln.

It came up Lincoln, of course. Given the name of the guy who wears the headset at UCF, I’m not even sure which team would be the actual home team in this hypothetical matchup, but this is what fate provided one Sunday while sitting at my desk. I was powerless to stop it, though I wanted to.

Reluctantly, I selected the teams and location and clicked simulate. The Knights won 27-24, but you could explain that away by Mike Riley’s bizarre decision to punt on fourth-and-7 from Nebraska’s 47 while down three with 56 seconds remaining. Nobody would do that, stupid computer.

So I clicked again; 35-34 Nebraska. Tanner Lee threw for 343 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. See? The computer sees the potential, too! I clicked again.

And again.

And again.

After 50 UCF-Nebraska simulations the Knights had won 40 of the fake games. Small sample size, I thought. Nebraska’s a second-half team, I said. Let’s do 50 more.

In simulations 56 through 59 the Huskers put together a four-game winning streak. On simulation 73 Bob Diaco’s beleaguered Blackshirts pitched a shutout, 31-0. All he needed was more time! And wide receiver JD Spielman had a very realistic game with 153 yards receiving and a touchdown.

Two simulations later UCF won 65-14. Thirteen simulations after that, the 88th, it was 67-10, UCF. McKenzie Milton, a lightly recruited quarterback who Scott Frost plucked from Hawaii, was a combined 51-for-67 passing (76.1 percent) with 858 yards and 10 touchdowns in the two wins. Nebraska had a little fight left, winning the 90th and 95th simulations in an experiment that had spun out of control, but UCF left a lasting impression in the 100th and final fake game, winning 57-14. Nebraska never led and had 93 yards rushing, which felt about right.

Initially I had hoped to simulate 10 or 15 games against random opponents to prove something about just how random single-game results can be. In actuality I got sucked into a long look at one team, but man is UCF an intriguing team to look at with its fun offense averaging nearly 50 points a game and no losses after nine games. In the end the Knights won 75 of the 100 simulated games against Nebraska, all of them in Lincoln, by an average score of 31.6-20.3.

I never set out to know such facts, but the machine wants what the machine wants.

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