Hot Reads: Don't Be Surprised By These Surprise Teams in 2020
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: Don’t Be Surprised By These Surprise Teams in 2020

December 17, 2019

Let's talk about the Potato Bowl. On Jan. 3 former Nebraska head coach Frank Solich will lead his Ohio Bobcats into Boise, Idaho, to a face a Nevada team led by one-time Nebraska offensive coordinator Jay Norvell. But we're not talking about this game because of the Husker ties.

Rather, it leads off here because those two teams represent different sides of the randomness coin. By Pythagorean expectation, Ohio was one of the unluckiest teams in the country in 2019. The Bobcats, preseason division favorites in the MAC, won six games with a scoring differential closer to that of an eight-win team. Ohio lost by 10 to Pittsburgh, two to Marshall, three to Northern Illinois, three to Miami (Ohio) and three to Western Michigan. Brutal. Particularly in the senior season of super-QB Nathan Rourke.

Out west, Nevada and Norvell were having the opposite season. You might remember the Wolfpack's wild(ly improbable) 34-31 win over Purdue on the first Friday night of the season. Nevada went on to beat Weber State (still alive in the FCS playoff) by six, San Jose State by three, San Diego State by four and Fresno State by seven. The Wolfpack also lost by 71 to Oregon and 51 to Hawaii.

The Pythagorean formula does not like this. Nevada won seven games despite being outscored by 129 points on the season. The expected winning percentage with that differential is .275, or 3.3 wins over a 12-game season. The difference between actual and expected wins (-3.7) is the second-biggest to the negative since 2008, as long as I've been tallying this at the end of the year. Florida State's 2014 team, which lost to Oregon in the Playoff, was slightly worse winning 13 games with an expectation of 9.21.

Overall, there were 11 teams to hit the +1.6 Pythagorean win differential this season (i.e. they were likely better than their win total indicated) and 10 teams hit the -1.6 threshold (likely worse than their win total indicated). As noted Monday in a review of how those over- and under-performing teams from 2018 fared in 2019:

Between 2007 and 2018, there have been 108 teams that were at least 1.6 wins below expectation. Eighty of those 108 teams (74.1%) had an improved win total the following season. On average, a team in that group improved by 2.2 wins the following season.
On the other side of the equation there were 84 teams that were 1.6 wins above expectation (i.e. their record was better than their actual quality). Fifty-seven from that group (67.9%) saw their win total decrease the following season. Overall, that group saw 2.2 fewer wins on average the following season.

Nebraska made the poised-to-improve list last year, but didn't quite make it this year. The Huskers' five wins came with an expected total of 6.1. They were still a little better than their record suggested, but not to the degree that typically correlates with improvement the following season.

These are the teams that did, teams that might become a little trendy this offseason:

Army 5 .624 8.11
Texas Tech 4 .503 6.04
Ole Miss 4 .502 6.02
Miami 6 .667 8.01
Fresno State 4 .498 5.98
TCU 5 .561 6.97
Washington 7 .736 8.84
Missouri 6 .653 7.83
Ball St. 5 .561 6.73
Ohio 6 .644 7.73
North Carolina 6 .638 7.66

Texas Tech, Miami and North Carolina were all on this list last year––meaning they stacked  back-to-back bad-luck years––and all three were in their first seasons under new coaches in 2019. The Tarheels, particularly with the way they're recruiting right now, will probably earn some buzz in 2020.

Missouri's an interesting case given their tale of two seasons. The Tigers started 5-1 and finished 1-5. Barry Odom was fired and in steps Eliah Drinkwitz. He might be inheriting a pretty good situation, which is what happened in his one year in Boone, where he took over a talented Mountaineer team and lead it to a 12-1 season.

Washington will be another interesting case after the surprising retirement of Chris Petersen. The Huskies were a little bit better than the record indicates, and a shot of new blood might be good for a rapid return.

Then there's Army. Jeff Monken led the Black Knights to a 21-5 record over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, but fell to five wins in 2019. The numbers here indicate the drop-off wasn't quite as severe as it might look.

On the opposite of the end of the scale, we have these 10 teams. There's only one repeat offender from last year's list, but more on that in a minute.

Boise St. 12 .798 10.38
LSU 13 .873 11.35
California 7 .444 5.33
Bowling Green 3 .110 1.33
Oklahoma 12 .793 10.31
Georgia St. 7 .437 5.24
SMU 10 .679 8.15
Memphis 12 .769 10.00
Miami (OH) 8 .421 5.48
Nevada 7 .275 3.31

Oklahoma is the team that's here again, but I wouldn't be too quick to slap the "overachieving" tag on the Sooners. Or Boise State or LSU. Part of what makes those programs good is their ability to win (the few) close games they typically find themselves in. Replacing Joe Burrow will be an immense challenge for the Tigers, but overall LSU should be fine, same as Oklahoma and Boise State.

Memphis is the middle ground for me here. The Tigers have had a winning record every season since 2014, over two different head coaches, culminating in this year's Cotton Bowl bid. Can they keep it up under another new leader? I wouldn't say no just based on their negative differential this season.

I'm more skeptical of SMU. The Mustangs were a nice story over the first two months of the season, but went 5-2 in one-score games. Georgia State had the high-profile win over Tennessee to open the season, but I'd be a little cautious with the Panthers as well in 2020.

And then, of course, Nevada. I'm extremely skeptical there. Norvell was rumored to be in the mix for a couple of Power 5 openings this December, but he's sticking in Reno. Instead, the Wolfpack might be making a handful of changes to the defensive staff. Maybe that'll do the trick, but for me Nevada enters the 2020 season off a three- or four-win season, not a seven-win year.

Interestingly enough, no Big Ten teams met the +/-1.6 threshold this year. (Michigan State had been a fixture of late, often bouncing from one extreme to the other.) The closest Big Ten team to make it on the good side was Wisconsin, a 10-win team with an expectation of 11.2 wins. Minnesota was the biggest overachiever on the year, winning 10 games with an expectation of 8.8.

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