Hot Reads: Don't Be Surprised by These Surprise Teams in 2019
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Don’t Be Surprised by These Surprise Teams in 2019

December 26, 2018

Last year I waited until the end of bowl season for this post. While I don't think anything that happened in the bowl games drastically altered the numbers, as I look back on it I'm not sure why I even allowed for the possibility. (Reminder: Bowl games are alien contests that take place in a far away time and place relative to the regular season and need to be treated as such.)

Anyway, let's take a season's-end look at Pythagorean wins and the college football teams that were better than their records suggested in 2018. These are the teams that will get a little offseason bump when it comes to 2019 prognostications. People are used to looking for teams that were unlucky, snake-bitten, strangely bad in the red zone, unable to close out games, whatever combination resulted in a team with a narrow scoring differential that would've suggested a few more wins. These are teams for which a simple regression to the mean in 2019 would likely mean a better record. (Assuming schedules are comparable, talent isn't drastically worse, etc., and as last year’s group proved that context still matters a lot.)

For example, Nebraska is on the list this year. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Huskers appeared on "way-too-early" top 25s when those roll out immediately after the national-championship game. Some of that will be simply boarding the Scott Frost bandwagon, but some of it will also be an acknowledgement that Nebraska wasn't 4-8 bad this season.

I'm looking at a specific threshold to craft this list each year. This threshold:

Between 2007 and 2016 (1,224 individual seasons), teams that had a Pythagorean expectation that was 1.6 wins or more greater than the actual win total improved by at least one win 76.3 percent of the time. On average, those teams improved by 1.96 wins.

These are the teams that were on the good side of the equation following the 2018 regular season. Tomorrow we'll look at the teams on the bad side (i.e. the ones that need to probably need to be discounted a bit when thinking about 2019).

Mississippi St 8-4 10.7 2.7
Miami (FL) 7-5 9.4 2.4
Texas Tech 5-7 7.3 2.3
Air Force 5-7 7.1 2.1
North Carolina 2-9 4.0 2.0
Nebraska 4-8 5.7 1.7
Iowa 8-4 9.6 1.6
San Jose State 1-11 2.6 1.6

A few notes on that group . . .

>>Mississippi State had one of the best rushing attacks in the country and talent on defense. What's interesting here is that none of the Bulldogs' four losses were blowouts, but none were particularly close either (usually a hallmark of Pythagorean Win winners). That means Mississippi State hammered most of the other teams it played, but the departure of quarterback Nick Fitzgerald will probably dull expectations going into head coach Joe Moorhead's second season. By the numbers, this was almost an 11-win team. That should make for an interesting Outback Bowl against . . .

>> . . . Iowa, which was nearly a 10-win team. Three of the Hawkeyes' four losses came by a total of 12 points, and the fourth (to Wisconsin) was by 11. Iowa should return most of skill-position production minus tight end Noah Fant. The Big Ten West Division predictions for next season are going to get really interesting.

>>I feel like most of the 2018 season was spent talking about Nebraska's actual value and how it wasn't reflected in the record, so I don't have  much more to add about the Huskers' spot on the list other than this: It's really similar to the differential following Mike Riley's first season (1.76) but 2009's differential (2.45) is still the largest of the past 12 seasons.

>>Keep an eye on Texas Tech in new head coach Matt Wells' first season. He started strong at Utah State, withstood a three-season lull in the middle of his tenure, and then had the Aggies winning enough for him to get the Tech job. Kliff Kingsbury did this to himself with a five-game losing streak to close the season, but the three losses to ranked teams (Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas) that started the streak were pretty close. This feels like a "new blood" team to me for 2019. Get some fresh ideas in there and Texas Tech could be bowling this time next season.

>>North Carolina is in this group for the second consecutive season, which is usually a sign that something has gone horribly wrong. Guess that's why Mack Brown is a football coach again. Also, Kansas just missed the cut at 1.4. Could be notable that the two coaching greats pulled out of retirement this cycle both inherit teams that were probably a little better than the records suggested.

>>Hey, Miami. I know things didn't go well for you in Fall 2018. You start the season at No. 8 and finish the regular season unranked at 7-5. The defensive coordinator –– the creator of the turnover chain! –– left. Early signing didn't go well. But the silver lining here as we get ready for 2019, Miami, is that you have the win differential of a team poised to bounce back but given the high-profile nature of all that stuff I just mentioned almost nobody will expect it. Anyway, instead of 7-5, this team was more like 9-3. This is the best place to be. Unless there's no regression to the mean. Then it probably costs you your head coach.

>>Bonus almost-surprise team: Auburn doesn't make the list, but it's close with a differential of 1.45. Watch as Gus Malzahn saves his job yet again with a big 2019.

The Grab Bag

  • ICYMI: Erin Sorensen put her excellent magazine feature on Tre Neal online for all to read. You should definitely do that.
  • Derek Peterson checks the “health” of Nebraska basketball at this point in the season based on five key numbers.
  • Speaking of Nebraska basketball, the Huskers got coal on Christmas Eve from the AP poll voters.
  • The Huskers’ offensive line signees in the 2019 class offer “huge upside” for Nebraska.

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