The hardest part of this very standard-for-this-time-of-year list was knowing what to call it. Are we really measuring over-achievement and underachievement? Or is it more about good luck versus bad luck? Or is it about the even vaguer notion of “knowing how to win?”
You sort of need all those descriptions at your disposal depending upon context, but the thing that remained static here is the methodology. This is simply a measure of Pythagorean Wins (based on the idea that a team’s scoring differential can be more representative of team strength) minus actual wins (the thing all football fans actually care about). It’s a good tool for this job, because it is a retrospective measure. Do that for all of the Power 5 teams over the last decade and you can piece together a picture of which teams performed better, worse or almost exactly as expected.
I’ll let you decide where you want your team to be. It turns out, that’s a more difficult question to answer than you might think. Here are the top three Power 5 schools in each category from 2007 to 2016.
These are the teams that won more games over the past decade than their scoring totals say they should have. That can take many forms, but win a bunch of close games — through luck, pluck or whatever else — and that’ll put you on the list.
Northwestern (Actual W/L: 73-54 | Pyth W/L: 66.9-60.1): Maybe this is why Pat Fitzgerald ends up on all those “best coach” lists and he can be the guy in Evanston as long as he wants. He has introduced a remarkably consistent level of “pretty good” to a program that has historically struggled to find it, and that “pretty good” is even a little better than it probably should be.
UCLA (68-61, 63.8-65.2): UCLA seems like the eternal sleeping giant. You look at the location, history of the school and everything else L.A. has to offer and it seems like Bruins are one great coach away from potentially going on a USC-like run. UCLA did put together three consecutive seasons (2012-14) of nine-plus wins, but that level of consistency, the kind of win totals everything else about UCLA seems to indicate are realistic on a yearly basis, has proven elusive for the Bruins. And, over the last decade, this program was a little bit lucky to get what it got.
Oklahoma State (93-37, 89.4-40.6): The rise of Gundy. The last decade includes all but Mike Gundy’s first two years at Oklahoma State and the Cowboys have been pretty good over that span. Even a little better than maybe they should have been, but this is what I’d call the good type of over-achievement. Given Oklahoma State’s place in the traditional pecking order, a successful coach there is going to have to overachieve a bit to boost the program’s standing.
THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE
The category that can truly go either way. These are the Power 5 teams that won almost exactly as many games as they were retroactively expected to win.
USC (94-37, 94.1-36.9): Pete Carroll left USC in 2008, so only two of his years are counted and Troy was already wobbling at that point. A bizarre decade followed, but for a program of USC’s historical stature, being as good as you should’ve been after 10 years is a pretty good spot. Maybe the best spot for a top-10 all-time program. But then there’s the other side of the coin . . .
Kansas (39-83, 38.7-83.3): The Jayhawks are consistent, too. Consistently bad since 2007’s run to the Orange Bowl and a 12-1 record. This is the kind of consistency a program doesn’t want, but I guess, if it’s any solace, there’s not much “bad luck” piled on here. At least I think it would be worse to know a team won, on average, three games a year over the least nine years but feel like each of those seasons should’ve been closer to 4.3 wins.
Minnesota (57-70, 56.7-70.3): And here we have size medium. In recent years Minnesota has developed into a tough out in the Big Ten West, but climbing much higher than that has been difficult. It’s football purgatory, but at least it’s earned.
Please keep reading after you see the first team in this category.
Alabama (114-19, 121.4-11.6): I know. How can the team with five conference titles and four national titles over the past decade be underachieving? The answer is two-fold. One, the only way to achieve a perfect Pythagorean Wins score (i.e. a 1.000 winning percentage) is to give up no points, and, while I’m sure Nick Saban sets out at the start of each season with that as a goal, it’s simply not possible in today’s football. Two, if you demolish teams you’re clearly better than — most teams facing Alabama are clearly worse — and lose close (when the rare losses come) then you’re Pythagorean Wins will end up higher than your actual win total. Don’t get caught up in the “underachiever” tag with this one. Bama’s just fine. It only serves to underscore how good this program has been under Saban.
Ole Miss (66-60, 73-53): I debated “filtering” this list at the top and bottom for this very example, but decided to leave it as is because I think this can be instructive as well. Ole Miss is staring down a very uncertain future and that comes on the heels of an era, the Hugh Freeze era, that’s been viewed as one of the most successful stretches in program history. Freeze made the Rebels a player in the SEC, but things maybe should have been even a little better. If Ole Miss gets hit with harsh penalties, that might make the presumed fall feel even a little worse for Rebel fans. But those are mitigating circumstances for what might be the ultimate takeaway here . . .
Arizona State (70-57, 76.8-50.2): . . . and that’s that it is OK to underachieve in short bursts — year-to-year it’ll even give you a bump in the preseason — but it’ll get you fired over a long enough span. That might be what’s unfolding in Tempe as Todd Graham enters 2017 on the hot seat after back-to-back losing seasons. Graham’s first Arizona State team was an eight-win team that probably should’ve won 10. In 2013 he had a 10-win team that was a 10-win team based on its scoring differential. In 2014 he had a 10-win team that probably should’ve been closer to 8.5 wins. If a coach stays at 10 wins, this expected-wins trajectory isn’t much of a problem but the Sun Devils haven’t done that.
A few other thoughts:
>>Notice how the small the margins are over a 10-year span? At both extremes of this calculation, you’re only talking about six or seven wins over a decade in a Power 5 conferences. That’s why, in my opinion, Pythagorean Wins are worth taking a look at each year because when you see teams that are approaching two wins above or below their actual total it’s a pretty significant outlier. Things do tend to even out over a long enough span. Does it always even out the following season? No.
>>Include Group of 5 schools and your biggest overachiever is Wyoming and your biggest underachiever is Temple. Yes, those ascendent Owls who have become a football program worth talking about over the past decade. If Temple ever starts winning more close games, watch out.
>>Where does Nebraska fit into all of this? Over the last 10 years the Huskers probably should have won 0.4 more games. That’s nearly “They Are What We Thought They Were” territory. Oklahoma is the closest school to the Huskers. This serves as something of a two-team example of how much context matters here.
>>Which brings us back to the “which group do you want to be in?” question. A lot of that depends upon program expectations. You won’t make it far at a place like Nebraska or Texas consistently underachieving. At a “new power” like, say, Oregon or Oklahoma State, overachieving might be what earns that status, but stay there long enough and overachieving will become harder and harder to do.
Unless you’re Alabama and you essentially break the scale. So that’s my answer: Be Alabama of the past decade and, if you can’t quite do that, being as good as your record isn’t the worst place to be, provided that record matches expectations.