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Nebraska Football

Hot Reads: Don't Be Surprised When These Teams 'Surprise' in 2019 Either

December 27, 2018
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Yesterday I wrote about the teams that should be the top candidates to improve in 2019 based on their 2018 Pythagorean Win differential. It's sort of my own little holiday tradition now, I guess.

Today let's see how the other half lives, or lived in 2018. Which teams won more games than their scoring differential suggested and could be overvalued (either now or in the near future) based on that record? Life on this side of the tracks is a bit different, as you'll almost always see some big names and it's practically impossible for undefeated teams to not end up with a deficit. (The only way for an undefeated team to have a 1.000 Pythagorean expectation would be to give up zero points on the season.) 

You have to parse the teams that "got more than they earned" (today's group) a little more carefully than those that "earned more than they got" (Wednesday's group). Even good teams are going to have to win close games and they'll always get dinged a little bit for that with the Pythagorean formula, but part of what makes them good is having won (or the ability to win) those close games. Also, the correlation to win totals the following season isn't quite as strong as it is with the other group. Teams with a Pythagorean Wins surplus of at least 1.6 improved their win totals the following season 76.3 percent of the time, but teams with a deficit have a lower win total the following year just 68.6 percent of the time.

This was the latter group at the conclusion of the 2018 regular season:

SCHOOL W-L EXP. WINS DIFF.
Oklahoma 12-1 9.5 -2.5
Hawaii 8-5 5.8 -2.2
Notre Dame 12-0 10.0 -2.0
Ohio State 12-1 10.1 -1.9
Northern Illinois 8-5 6.2 -1.8
Central Florida 12-0 10.2 -1.8

Some thoughts . . .

>>The two lower seeds in Saturday's College Football Playoff games are here. That's not much of a surprise, to me at least, with Notre Dame. The Irish are in the playoff because they passed every test, but they didn't ace every test. Notre Dame beat Ball State in Week 2 by virtually the same score (24-16) it beat top-10 Michigan in Week 1 (24-17). It beat Vanderbilt and Pittsburgh by five, a disappointing USC team by seven. The Irish are still pretty good, they're just not Clemson or Alabama. Notre Dame being here is a good reminder that great seasons, special seasons, often require a run of positive results in toss-up games.

Oklahoma is here on the strength –– well, weakness –– of its defense. Over the Sooners' four games leading up to the Big 12 Championship Game they scored at least 48 points –– a blowout total for many teams –– but only beat Texas Tech by five (51-46), Oklahoma State by one (48-47), Kansas by 15 (55-40) and West Virginia by three (59-56). Those games were all after OU fired its defensive coordinator, and if the Sooners are to have a chance against Alabama they'll probably have to win a similar type of game. (I'm here for that.) Based on the Pythagorean formula, 12-1 Oklahoma was closer to a 9.5-win team. I'll be interested to see how the Sooners are viewed in the offseason ahead. Even with having to replace a Heisman-winning quarterback again, I don't expect the Sooners to fall too far.

>>If Ohio State had been closer to 10 wins (its Pythagorean expectation) than 12 (its actual total), would Urban Meyer have still retired? Say the Penn State game, a 27-26 OSU win, goes the other way, the Buckeyes still lose to Purdue in exactly the same way and then also lose to Maryland in the same season (instead of surviving the Terps 52-51). Maybe, depending upon what you believe, Meyer didn't have a choice, but that scenario makes for a much different exit than what has actually unfolded. This is another team where reputation will keep it highly ranked going into next season, but there might be more questions here for new coach Ryan Day to answer than it first appears.

>>Eight-win Hawaii was outscored by 43 points on the season, and that was before the Warrior lost to Louisiana Tech by 17 in the Hawaii Bowl. I'd say definitely fade Hawaii in 2019.

>>Nebraska's Week 3 opponent, the 2018 MAC champion Northern Illinois, is another team that scored fewer points than it allowed but still won when it mattered. That was thanks to a really, really good defense. (The offense averaged 20 points per game.) A lot of key pieces from that defense should be back, but not the best piece, defensive end Sutton Smith. I'm never quick to count out G5 programs with proven results and a winning culture –– NIU checks both boxes –– but the Huskies are probably in for a little bit of a rebuild in 2019.

>>UCF makes this list for the second straight season for most of the reasons already mentioned in the intro to this post.

>>There are two teams here that didn't quite hit the 1.6 threshold, but are very interesting. One, Florida State. Willie Taggart's first season at his "dream job" was already sort of a nightmare, and the bad news for Seminole fans is it probably should have been even worse. The formula says five-win FSU was more like 3.6-win FSU. Makes it less of a surprise then that Taggart was willing to take on the Kendall Briles baggage. There's an interesting contrast between two Florida powers when using the Pythagorean lens. Miami fans aren't happy with their 2018 seasons, but it probably wasn't quite as bad as the record suggests. Florida State fans aren't happy either, and it was probably worse than the record indicated. Going to be an interesting year ahead in the Sunshine State.

The other team just avoiding the cut: Northwestern. Not much of a surprise there. The Wildcats' run to the Big Ten title game could've been derailed at any one of numerous points along the road. The Wildcats' biggest win over a Big Ten opponent was by 14 points. My guess: Northwestern will be picked to finish fifth in the West next season, maybe sixth depending upon how the majority of people feel about Minnesota (which made shockingly easy work of Georgia Tech last night).

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