Hot Reads: A Brief Discussion of Bold Predictions
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: A Brief Discussion of Bold Predictions

May 14, 2019

Let's do a quick experiment. Rank the Big Ten West teams based on how bold you think people would find it if you picked that team to win the division in 2019. Here's my ranking.

Illinois – extra-most bold
Purdue – surprisingly bold this year for a team with a $5 million coach
Minnesota – absolute bold
Northwestern – eternally bold, but maybe it shouldn't be?
Iowa – you're out of bold territory now
Nebraska – not that bold
Wisconsin – based on recent reputation, not at all bold

Boldness, of course, is entirely subjective. In most cases, when you read it in a headline it's meant to grab your attention––we've done "bold predictions" threads before here––but the people making this list also don't like being wrong. So you typically end up with a list of the least-bold predictions that have a decent chance of being correct. They're never the most-likely outcome, but never the least either.

At least that was my immediate line of thinking after seeing Nebraska show up on this list of "10 bold predictions for college football season" by Brad Crawford of 247 sports. Here's the Huskers' prediction:

Perhaps the boldest prediction on the list, could the Huskers really turn the tables on a 4-8 season with a Big Ten Championship appearance? It would take a Herculean effort from sophomore quarterback Adrian Martinez, but more importantly, better-than-expected play out of a defense facing questions entering the season. But there's two factors that weigh heavily on Nebraska's chances — the Huskers don't play in the black-and-blue division and face one of those rare schedules conducive to success. Scott Frost's team won't play a single Top 25 opponent on the road and their two toughest games — Ohio State and Wisconsin — come in ideal spots. They'll play the Buckeyes with budding confidence at 4-0 and battle the Badgers following an open week in November. Northwestern won this division last season and I expect it to be wide open once again.

For maximum boldness here, you have to take the Huskers' 4-8 pretty literally. And, yes, there is a school of thought that a record should only be taken literally. A team is what it is. On-paper wins don't get printed in the paper. All that.

But that line of thinking is pretty limiting when it comes to making projections. If a team was about two games better or worse than its actual record––and there are about a dozen of those teams each season––using the actual record is 1) not the most accurate view, and/or 2) simply a device to conjure a little boldness.

All of which is to say that, as noted above, I don't find predicting Nebraska to make it to Indianapolis in 2019 that bold of a prediction. I haven't seen any conference-title odds yet, just national-title odds, but in the latter at last check Nebraska had the shortest odds of any team in the West to win it all. Winning the division is a significantly lower hurdle, but I'd be really surprised if the power rankings inherent in those national-title odds changed drastically at the conference or division level. That's particularly true for teams that play a nine-game conference schedule. The Huskers' schedule appears to be favorable no matter how you cut it and Wisconsin's is difficult.

That’s a big piece of making predictions in May. Nebraska has a lot of questions to answer between now and December, but all the teams in the West do. Get in line. When that happens, perceived schedule strength takes on additional weight. And even that’s not a set-in-stone piece of information.

If you want a good list-leading bold pick in the West, it's probably Minnesota. (Note: That's different than actual boldness.) The Gophers are already the favorite in one set of predictive rankings, and given that those rankings are as accurate anything else (generally a little more accurate, actually) if you limit your view to just that then there's actually a decent chance such a "bold" prediction proves to be correct.

That spun me off on an entire separate line of thinking about the hierarchy of college football––in most years won’t Minnesota almost always be viewed as a bolder pick than Nebraska regardless of actual team strength?––but that's probably a discussion best saved for another day.

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