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Examining Luck in the 2014 SEC Football Season

Looking at three ways luck manifests itself in football.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

A couple years ago, I did a review of three aspects of the 2012 football season that revealed how luck played into the year. Today, I'm bringing that back to look at the same luck factors for 2014.

Fumble Recoveries

Forcing fumbles is a skill. So is ball security. Actually recovering the ball when it's on the ground is almost entirely luck. The ball bounces in unpredictable ways due to its shape, and there's no way to control the mix of players around it when it's fumbled.

Over the long haul, a team should recover about half of the fumbles in its games. Over the course of one season, a team can have good or bad luck in this category. Here is how the SEC's 14 teams managed in 2014:

fumbles 2014

LSU was the only team to top 60% on the season at 61%, though Georgia wasn't far behind at 58.7%. Somewhat uncharacteristically for a Gus Malzahn-led team, Auburn came out seriously unlucky here with only 25% of fumbles recovered. The other Yellowhammer State team was second-worst at 39.5%. Those two teams were the only under 40% on the season.

Net Close Wins

Long a favorite stat of Phil Steele, net close wins is simply the number of close losses a team has subtracted from the number of close wins it has. Many random things can happen in close games to swing the game one way or the other, so over the long haul, a team (or coach) should trend towards a .500 record in close games. What is close? For these purposes, a game decided by seven points or fewer is close.

Team Close Wins Close Losses Net
Missouri 3 1 +2
Alabama 3 2 +1
Auburn 3 2 +1
LSU 4 3 +1
Mississippi State 2 1 +1
Texas A&M 3 2 +1
Vanderbilt 2 1 +1
Florida 2 3 -1
Georgia 1 2 -1
Ole Miss 1 2 -1
South Carolina 3 4 -1
Tennessee 1 2 -1
Kentucky 0 2 -2
Arkansas 0 4 -4

Hey, what do you know? Arkansas had some bad luck in 2014. After the Hogs' first loss of the year was a 45-21 defeat to Auburn, they went through the pain of three close losses (plus a fourth larger conference loss loss) before finally breaking their SEC losing streak by beating LSU. Not done, though, they also lost by a touchdown to Missouri to close the season. UK was the only other school more than one down (mostly) after withstanding gut punch losses in triple OT to Florida and by four to Louisville.

Missouri was the only team up two games in the league, so congrats to the Tigers. They were very close to being +3 thanks to beating Tennessee by eight—still a one possession lead. If you want to call that a close win too, then the Vols become a third team at worse than -1.

Pythagorean Wins

The deal with Pythagorean expectation is that, given a total of points scored and points allowed, you can project a pretty good estimate for what the winning percentage for a team should be. Multiply that by the number of games played to get a projected win total (Pythagorean wins). The difference between that estimated win count and the actual win count is considered to be luck.

Here's how that kind of luck came out in 2014, including teams' rankings among the 125 total I-A teams.

National Rank Team Pts. for Pts. Allowed Wins PyWin Pct. PyWins Luck
7 Missouri 389 295 11 .658 9.22 1.78
23 Vanderbilt 206 399 3 .173 2.07 0.93
49 Alabama 517 258 12 .839 11.74 0.26
57 South Carolina 424 395 7 .542 7.04 -0.04
63 Mississippi St. 480 282 10 .779 10.13 -0.13
67 Texas A&M 458 365 8 .631 8.21 -0.21
77 Kentucky 350 375 5 .459 5.51 -0.51
82 Auburn 461 347 8 .662 8.61 -0.61
93 Tennessee 376 315 7 .603 7.84 -0.84
96 Georgia 537 269 10 .837 10.89 -0.89
110 Ole Miss 368 208 9 .794 10.33 -1.33
112 Florida 363 253 7 .702 8.42 -1.42
118 LSU 359 228 8 .746 9.69 -1.69
125 Arkansas 415 250 7 .769 9.99 -2.99

LSU is your chaos team for 2014. The Tigers were tops in good fumble luck, basically neutral in net close wins, and one of the 10 unluckiest teams in the country in Pythagorean expectation. Insert awkward Les Miles clapping gif here.

Arkansas also rates as seriously unlucky here, what with it being last overall. An easy way to come up with an awful luck rating by this formula is to win by a lot when you win (73-7 over Nicholls State, 52-14 over NIU, 45-17 over UAB, 30-0 over Ole Miss) and lose by a little when you lose (see previous section).

Missouri once again comes up charmed, which is OK when you win your division and have a great year. What's not so encouraging is to see Vanderbilt rating as a top 25 team for positive luck when the team only won three games on the season.