Hot Reads: The Over and Underachieving Teams of the First Half of 2018
Photo Credit: Paul Bellinger

Hot Reads: The Over and Underachieving Teams of the First Half of 2018

October 16, 2018

Thanks to bye weeks, severe weather and that weird Week 0 thing college football is fond of lately, there's no real midpoint of the season. We're entering Week 8 of the season and we still have a few teams that have only played five games. Most, however, have played at least six so I'm comfortable calling this week "halftime."

And, as I'm powerless to stop doing, I fired up my Pythagorean wins spreadsheet just to see which teams have over- and underachieved so far this season. Is the sample size small? Yep, but that's always the case for college football. The hope with a midterm report is to  (a) get a sense of which teams are a little undervalued right now, and (b) provide a marker to compare the year-end totals against.

If you need a primer/refresher on Pythagorean wins, here's how I've described it previously:


I've written a lot about Pythagorean wins over the years. I like it as a way to view which teams potentially overachieved and underachieved in any given year. (Yes, you can call that luck if you like.) You calculate a winning percentage based on points scored/allowed, then compare that to the actual wins. Most teams are going to fall within a normal range of plus/minus 1.5 Pythagorean wins of the actual total. But for the teams that exceed that number either way (+/- 1.6 wins is typically two standard deviations) — i.e. they won or lost more games than they probably should have — have more/fewer wins the following year about 65-to-68 percent of the time.


At this point in the season there are only four teams that have hit that +/- 1.6 threshold that really tells you when a team is better or worse than its record indicates, but all of the teams in the top and bottom five are in striking distance of that mark here at "halftime." 

This is a very basic way to do this, so consider it just a preliminary look. So far in 2018 these are the teams most likely better/worse than their record indicates.

Better Than the Record Shows?

Air Force 2-4 3.97 1.97
Georgia Tech 3-4 4.62 1.62
Memphis 4-3 5.49 1.49
Auburn 4-3 5.43 1.43
Nebraska 0-6 1.41 1.41

Ouch, Air Force. The Falcons have two wins this season –– Stony Brook and Navy –– but its four losses have come by a total of 23 points. Air Force isn't really winning on the stat sheet in those losses, so this might be a case of the Falcons' offense keeping games closer than they might actually be. (The defense is pretty legit.) There's another option team at No. 2, too, and the same might apply there.

Memphis, which took UCF to the wire last weekend, and Auburn, which lost to Tennessee, have both been a little unfortunate to be 4-3. Auburn in particular could be 6-1 pretty easily, which should only increase the current angst on The Plains.

And of course Nebraska is here. Based on the Pythagorean formula the Huskers' scoring differential is that of a 1.41-win team. The Huskers' biggest win differential for a season since 2007 is 2.45 in 2009. Per this calculation, that team won 10 games with a scoring margin that indicated 12.5. I'm guessing that this year's team won't challenge the 2009 squad for the title as the back half of the 2018 schedule softens a bit, but it is already halfway there after six games.

Worse Than the Record Shows?

USF 6-0 4.15 -1.85
SDSU 5-1 3.38 -1.62
Notre Dame 7-0 5.52 -1.48
NIU 4-3 2.58 -1.48
UTSA 3-4 1.61 -1.39

South Florida probably should've lost to Georgia Tech (see above) and has one-score wins over Illinois, ECU and Tulsa. The Bulls (6-0) still have to face Houston, Cincinnati and UCF (combined record: 18-1) this season, and right now it doesn't look like they're in the same class as those fellow six-win teams.

San Diego State is built to grind out wins, so this might be a case of having negative differential is probably a good thing. The Aztecs have managed four-straight good wins against Arizona State, Eastern Michigan, Boise State and Air Force, all by seven points or less.

Notre Dame is really the headliner here. No. 4 in the latest AP poll coming off an unimpressive 19-14 win over Pitt, the Irish now have four wins by a combined 25 points. It's not unusual to see that with a team that's in the middle of a potentially special season. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, but a team can contend for a playoff spot if it's both.

Northern Illinois is here because it's wildly one-handed. The Huskies have an ace defense and a dud offense. UTSA is, well, probably not very good but the Roadrunners are getting credit for three blah wins over three of the six worst teams in college football (Texas State, UTEP, Rice).

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