Before last season, I looked at teams’ records in close games to see if they were potential risers or fallers from the previous season. The rationale is that in close games, luck determines the outcome as much as anything. If a team was particularly lucky or unlucky in 2007, you’d figure they would regress to the mean in 2008 and rise or fall accordingly (all else being equal).
All else is not equal, so it’s an imperfect method. However few teams change dramatically from one season to the next, so it works pretty well at predicting which way the teams it singles out will go.
I chose to look at games decided by eight points or less because a touchdown and two-point conversion could tie them. If a team’s difference between close games won and lost was three or more, I labeled it a potential riser or faller. If the difference was two, I put the team on a “wait list.”
I later found out that this type of study is something Phil Steele puts in his magazine every season, but he uses seven points instead of eight. I also looked only at BCS teams, whereas I think he does all of I-A. Either way, here’s how the 2008 bunch (by my figures) made out.
First, let’s start with the positive.
Seven teams were picked as risers: Maryland, Minnesota, Michigan State, UCLA, North Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Washington. In my writeup, I expressed doubt that UCLA was going to do it, and I hinted that Washington might not either.
As it turns out, those two Pac-10 teams were the only potential risers who did not improve their records. All others won at least two more games, and Minnesota even won a robust six more games than in 2007. Together, the potential risers improved their records by an average of 1.43 wins.
The teams that were wait listed were Alabama, Arizona, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Ole Miss. UL was the only underachiever of the bunch, and like Minnesota, Ole Miss saw a six-game uptick in its wins. Alabama was close, winning five more in 2008 than in 2007. Together, the wait list teams increased their win counts by an average of 2.8 games.
In all, the potential risers and wait list teams increased their win counts by an average of exactly two wins apiece.
Now on to the harbingers of doom.
Eight teams were identified as potential fallers: Arizona State, Boston College, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Northwestern, Oregon State, and Virginia. I expressed some skepticism towards ASU and Northwestern falling off, and I ended up half right.
Northwestern was the only team of the bunch to improve its record, winning three additional games in 2008. Oregon State held steady with a 9-4 mark in two straight seasons. The Sun Devils fell the hardest, winning five fewer games in 2008. Together, the potential fallers won 2.13 fewer games than in 2007.
The teams on the wait list were UConn, LSU, NC State, Texas, and Wisconsin. The Wolfpack and Longhorns bucked the trend, winning one and two more games, respectively, in 2008 than they did in 2007. Defending champs LSU dropped off the farthest, winning four fewer games. Together, the wait list teams won 0.8 fewer games in 2008 than in 2007.
In all, the potential fallers and their wait list brethren won 1.62 fewer games than in 2007.
This particular form of prognostication was not 100 percent accurate, but I challenge you to find one that is. Eighteen of the 25 teams identified by this method went in the direction predicted and one held steady. Even counting Oregon State as a miss, that is still a 72 percent hit rate.
Who are the potential risers and fallers for 2009? Stay tuned because I haven’t run the numbers yet, but once I have them done I’ll let you know.