Hot Reads: The Best Probable Outcome?
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Hot Reads: The Best Probable Outcome?

July 10, 2019

OK, so I know everyone's excited for a new football season. Right now anything really is possible (though not probable in all cases), including the best season you can imagine. Here in July, UConn could be national champs for all we know. In many ways these are the worst months to be a football fan, but in this specific way they are the best. Go crazy. Dream big.

Or, for the low, low price of the mental energy required to consider a hypothetical, I'd like to offer you the chance to lock in a nice next few months for your football team (and I’m assuming that’s the Nebraska football team). To take the deal is to give up some upside but also eliminate a lot of the downside. You're buying certainty.

The offer is this: If you could lock in Wisconsin's 2016 season for Nebraska in 2019, would you do it?

I don't expect you to remember Wisconsin's 2016 off the top of your head, but we'll get to that in a minute. For now, here's why that's the offer.

Yesterday, I was playing around with the FPI rankings since 2014. This happens on more offseason days than I am comfortable admitting. I have the preseason and final rankings for the past five seasons in a spreadsheet, and I like to pass beautiful summer days inside sorting and filtering. This is how I realized the 2016 Wisconsin path might be a viable track for Nebraska's upcoming season.

The Huskers are 31st in FPI to start the season and are given a 6% chance to win the conference. If you take the difference between the preseason and final FPI rankings of the past five seasons and fit them to a bell curve you come up with a standard deviation of 18.15. That means teams have finished the season ranked within 18.15 spots of their preseason ranking about 68.2% of the time over the last five seasons. That gives us a range of most likely outcomes for Nebraska. We could expect Nebraska to finish the 2019 season ranked somewhere between 12th and 50th about 68% of the time based on the past performance of FPI.

From there I started looking at the previous five teams to be ranked 31st at the start of the season and what happened to those squads. Four of the five finished ranked within one standard deviation of their preseason rank. The lone outlier was 2014 Oregon State, which was projected to go 7-5 but instead went 5-7 and finished 61st. (Reminder: Mike Riley was hired at Nebraska after that very season.)

There was one other team that almost got to two standard deviations away from its preseason ranking, but on the good side. Wisconsin in 2016 started the season 31st and finished 12th. That's the upper limit of the fattest section of the curve. If every result in that range was equally probable, this was the best one.

Let's remember those Badgers. This was Year 2 of the Paul Chryst era. Wisconsin had gone 10-3 the previous season losing to Alabama, Iowa and Northwestern. It was a strong start to the Chryst era, but people were a little bit down on the Badgers entering 2016. Wisconsin had to replace Joel Stave at quarterback and, more importantly at the time, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. FPI predicted 7.5 wins, S&P+ 6.8, against a daunting schedule that included a savage start to conference play. The easiest way to encapsulate the preseason view of the Badgers: Wisconsin was a 12.5-point underdog to fifth-ranked LSU in the season opener at Lambeau Field.

The Badgers knocked off the Tigers––Les Miles was fired three weeks later, but Aranda is still the DC there––and then won its next three, the last a 30-6 thumping of No. 8 Michigan State in East Lansing. Wisconsin opened October with back-to-back losses by a touchdown each to Michigan and Ohio State, top-10 teams at the end of the year, before closing out the regular season on a six-game winning streak. Wisconsin lost its third game of the season, by a touchdown again, to Penn State in the Big Ten title game and then beat P.J. Fleck's Western Michigan team in the 2017 Cotton Bowl.

The circumstances around 2019 Nebraska are of course different (though it is a Year 2 scenario again). Yet because the Huskers are also starting the year 31st in FPI and living on the same curve until we can prove otherwise, the offer on the table is locking in Wisconsin's 2016 results: 11-3, a top-10 final ranking in the AP poll, no conference championship but an appearance in the title game and a New Year's Six bowl game.

Do you take it, Nebraska fans, and forfeit all other outcomes?

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