Hot Reads: An Alternate Way to Handicap the 2018 Big Ten Race
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: An Alternate Way to Handicap the 2018 Big Ten Race

May 11, 2018

As we start to really consider the 2018 season––which teams will be good? which won't?––and conference predictions start to roll out, you'll see a lot of emphasis placed upon how much returning talent teams have. That's an important part of things, and more importantly one of the only things we know right now (in addition to schedule). But when I'm trying to conceptualize how, say, the Big Ten might shake out, I prefer to start with how good a team actually was before trying to decide how good it will be.

Pythagorean wins is my preferred tool for doing that. It's not perfect by any means, more of just a quick reality check, but I find it illuminating enough to include a five-year snapshot of it in our Yearbook on the opponent and Big Ten pages. Back in January, just a couple of days after the season was over, I took a look at teams likely to be tabbed "surprise" teams based on the difference between actual and expected wins.

As we draw closer to the 2018 season and official preseason polls, let's look at the Big Ten as a whole. I'm starting to get the occasional question of "How good is _____ going to be in 2018?" when doing radio spots, so the timing seems right. And a big part of whatever answer I give to that question starts here.

Below are the actual and expected wins in the Big Ten from 2017 using the Pythagorean formula:

Michigan St 10 8.05 -1.95
Rutgers 4 3.05 -0.95
Maryland 4 3.17 -0.83
Northwestern 10 9.22 -0.78
Wisconsin 13 12.47 -0.53
Nebraska 4 3.67 -0.33
Illinois 2 1.86 -0.14
Ohio State 12 12.07 0.07
Michigan 8 8.66 0.66
Penn State 11 11.66 0.66
Minnesota 5 5.76 0.76
Iowa 8 9.04 1.04
Purdue 7 8.05 1.05
Indiana 5 6.41 1.41

Some quick impressions from those numbers . . .

In terms of teams likely to regress to the mean, you're looking for a wins differential (expected – actual) of 1.5. I wrote about this team in the initial write up, but Michigan State is the only Big Ten school to hit that threshold. Based on points, this was an eight-win team that won 10. That's how I'll start my thinking about the Spartans, but they do return almost everyone from that team, including the quarterback, and the schedule is pretty favorable. Arizona State is the only Power 5 team in nonconference play, and Michigan State gets Michigan and Ohio State at home. The West draw misses Wisconsin but does include Northwestern, Purdue and Nebraska. The Spartans are going to be good again, but I'm not picking them to replicate last year's win total.

Rutgers is the next closest, which is bad news coming off what counts as a feel-good season of late for the Scarlet Knights. They won three conference games but two of those were one-score wins. I don't feel great about Rutgers' chances of building on the gains made in 2017, but the nonconference schedule is at least interesting with games against an improving Buffalo program and a sad sort of progress report against Kansas.

On the other end of the spectrum, Indiana is the Big Ten team that will probably be consistently undervalued this offseason. Four of the Hoosiers' seven conference losses were by one score, including three straight in October. Indiana has a lot to replace on defense, its new calling card, but almost everything back on offense. If you get into a Bowl/No Bowl game while sitting around the grill with friends at some point this summer, I'd feel good about "Bowl" for Indiana.

While 2017 was viewed as a breakout year for Purdue, it was actually a full win below expectation based on point differential. The Boilermakers' back-to-back losses in October to Rutgers and Nebraska came by a total of three points, so Pythagorean wins is essentially saying Purdue probably should've won one of those coin-flip games. Normally this would be encouraging for the year ahead, but I think Purdue will have some difficulty improving upon last year's win total. The nonconference slate is quietly tricky with Eastern Michigan (a team that was better than its record last year) and improving Missouri and Boston College programs all visiting West Lafayette. Purdue also draws Ohio State and Michigan State from the East as well as its customary finale against Indiana.

Iowa was also a game below expected wins, and that's one I am willing to take at face value. The losses to Penn State and Michigan State in 2017 were close. Then there was the drubbing of Ohio State, a drubbing at the hands of Wisconsin and a strange loss to Purdue. The Hawkeyes were pretty good last year, though the wins and losses came in such a strange order that it was easy to miss. Iowa returns an average number of starters, but it includes quarterback Nate Stanley. The nonconference slate is intriguing with Northern Illinois, Iowa State and Northern Iowa. The Northerns are programs that are used to winning and thus always somewhat dangerous, and Iowa State is always a challenge in that game. With a favorable East draw (Indiana, Maryland, Penn State) the Hawkeyes might factor in the division race.

As for Nebraska? It was above expected wins, but by a small enough amount to basically be a wash. And you'd probably have to throw out that data anyway given the coaching change. But the numbers above do offer an interesting way to look at the Huskers' schedule. The Michigan State game, in my estimation, might be a little less difficult than it looks right now, the Iowa game a little more difficult. Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan? Those were all going to be tough no matter what.

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