Hot Reads: The Mantle of Most Improved
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: The Mantle of Most Improved

June 12, 2019

"Making my Most Improved list has generally been a blessing for teams, as they usually make big turnarounds."

So begins the most-improved section of every Phil Steele magazine I own, a collection that dates back to 2006. I think that qualifies as a collection. It's nearly 20 pounds of preseason information on the last 13 seasons of college football. (Yes, I weighed it. So what?) That sentence is in each 1.5-pound slab of Steele.

Anyway, Steele has blessed Nebraska this year with the "Most Improved" title, as he mentioned on Hail Varsity Radio on Monday.

The best and worst thing about Steele's annual preview is that little really changes year to year. That makes it a great historical reference, but it also means that if you read the Most Improved write up each year you're effectively re-reading the same story with slightly updated details.

I sometimes cringe at how Steele describes some of the numbers. While most of the copy remains the same, the numbers shift a little bit to best convey the point each year, or those numbers are just murkier than I would like to begin with. It always feels a little bit like sleight of hand.

Here's an example from the 2018 Most Improved section, which is always an ordered list of teams (sic for all of what follows): "In the last 16 years, I have listed 281 teams on my Most Improved Teams List that did not have a winning season the previous year. Almost all improved their record the next year, but even more impressively, 181 of 281 teams were bowl eligible the next year which is 64% and nearly 70% the last 10 years (116 of 168 (69%) from '08-'17)!"

What does "almost all" mean? Is making a bowl game the right measurement or the convenient one? Is the six-percentage point increase of the last decade over the entire span meaningful? (Worth noting with that last one that the percentage of teams making a bowl rose from 56.7% in 2008 to 62.1% in 2017?) 

Density, not transparency, is the primary selling point here.

But you can say this about his top pick for most improved––it has fared pretty well over the years.

Here are those top picks for each year going back to 2006, along with their record the year before, their record the season of receiving the "blessing" and the final Sagarin record for both of those seasons (because sometimes record doesn't tell us everything). I'm also throwing a mystery number on there, which I'll explain in a bit.



Nebraska 2019 ??? 4-8 (54) 1.7
Florida 2018 10-3 (13) 4-7 (67) 0.2
Notre Dame 2017 10-3 (10) 4-8 (51) 2.7
Texas 2016 5-7 (60) 5-7 (56) 0.0
Miami 2015 8-5 (49) 6-7 (42) 1.9
TCU 2014 12-1 (2) 4-8 (48) 2.0
Marshall 2013 10-4 (61) 5-7 (107) 0.6
UCF 2012 10-4 (45) 5-7 (77) 3.6
Houston 2011 13-1 (15) 5-7 (82) 2.1
Tulsa 2010 10-3 (35) 5-7 (96) 1.4
Illinois 2009 3-9 (94) 5-7 (68) 1.5
Notre Dame 2008 7-6 (53) 3-9 (90) -0.5
Memphis 2007 7-6 (124) 2-10 (135) 2.2
Arkansas 2006 10-4 (14) 4-7 (62) 1.8

Not a bad hit rate for Steele's most-improved pick. Of the 13 teams here, just three of them had a Sagarin rating that was worse than the year before: 2016 Texas, 2015 Miami and 2009 Illinois. Only the Illini, a preseason receiving-votes team in Ron Zook's fifth season, were an outright disaster. Texas and Miami were merely "meh."

The other 10, however, did show some nice gains. Consciously or subconsciously, Steele definitely has a type when selecting his Most Improved team for the year. The 4-8 or 5-7 range is the sweet spot over the past 14 years.

Now for the mystery number. Yes, I'm going back to the Pythagorean wins well again. The number in the last column is the difference between projected wins and actual wins for the preceding season using the formula which only looks at scoring differential. For example, Nebraska was only outscored by 15 points in 2018 and was projected to win 5.7 games based on that. Instead, it won four.

In my very amateur analysis of this, teams with a Pythagorean-wins differential of 1.6 or more tend to improve their win total about two-thirds of the time the following season. Eight of the last 14 teams to top Steele's list, including Nebraska this year, have hit that 1.6-plus mark. Seven of those teams––not including Nebraska this year, obviously––improved their Sagarin rank by at least 10 spots (Miami is the outlier). The average Sagarin improvement for that group is 34 spots.

Nebraska fans would take that in 2019. The Huskers ranked 54th in those rankings a year ago. To improve by 30 or so spots and flirt with a top-20 Sagarin ranking, most years, is to be an eight-win team that faced a tough schedule (which most agree Nebraska does not have in 2019, relatively speaking) or to flirt with double-digit wins.

#Blessed, I guess.

The Grab Bag

  • The Huskers have added a transfer tight end from Rutgers who was responsible for nearly 12% of the Scarlet Knights’ offensive touchdowns in 2018. (They did only have 17.)
  • Derek Peterson ranks the best Big Ten games of 2019.
  • After the mad dash to assemble a roster, Nebraska basketball can really get to work this summer.
  • Greg Smith catches up with defensive end/linebacker Tavion Ford to talk about his recent visit to Lincoln.

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