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Looking Ahead to 2017

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Applying Pythagorean expectation to a muddled SEC season.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Auburn vs Oklahoma Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

With only one SEC football team still playing games, the rest of the conference has turned its attention towards the home stretch of the 2017 recruiting cycle, dealing with both planned and unplanned player attrition as well as hiring new assistant coaches. These are each factors that will play a role next fall.

An excellent assistant hire can have an immediate effect. Kentucky’s hire of Eddie Gran resulted in the Wildcats averaging a touchdown more per game despite the same personnel. LSU hopes Matt Canada can do the same next season.

Players opting out of the NFL to return for another season typically serves as an immediate injection of talent, experience, and sometimes leadership. Alabama’s Jonathan Allen declined the professional ranks for one more season with the Crimson Tide, and his All-SEC season served as the centerpiece of college football’s best defense. In 2017, Vanderbilt and Georgia fans hope the return of Ralph Webb and Nick Chubb respectively lead to similar dominant performances.


Pythagorean Expectation

Another factor that has historically been useful to project the future is past performances. Pythagorean expectation, long used by sites such as Football Outsiders, measures total points scored and points allowed multiplied 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 has been commonly referred to as “luck.”

The general idea is that wins and losses provide a superficial measure of a team. To understand their quality, it’s best to look deeper. It also is helpful for projection.

Since 1998, teams with a luck score of negative 2 - indicating winning two fewer games than they probably should have – tend to win more games the following year 66% of the time. They win more games or maintain their record 76.6% of the time.

On the other side of the coin, teams from 1998 on with good luck of at least 2 see their record decline the following year 78% of the time. They win fewer games or stay the same 87.8% of the time.

In short, winning more games than your Pythagorean Expectation tends to mean a team will decline the following season, while falling short of expectations tends to mean a team will improve (Keep in mind the caveat: Alabama’s numbers are only based on their 14 games so far, here is how the SEC looks this season):

SEC Pyth Expectations

Team Points For Points Against Wins Pyth Wins Luck
Team Points For Points Against Wins Pyth Wins Luck
Alabama 551 160 14 12.3 1.7
Arkansas 394 404 7 6.3 0.7
Auburn 406 222 8 10.5 -2.5
Florida 311 218 9 9.1 -0.01
Georgia 319 312 8 6.7 1.3
Kentucky 390 407 7 6.2 0.8
LSU 340 189 8 10.4 -2.4
Mississippi 391 408 5 5.7 -0.7
Miss. State 395 413 6 6.2 -0.2
Missouri 377 378 4 6.1 -2.1
South Carolina 270 344 6 4.7 1.3
Tennessee 473 375 9 8.2 0.8
Texas A&M 453 319 8 9.05 -1.05
Vanderbilt 299 312 6 8.3 -2.3

Thoughts

  • Alabama is probably due a regression next season regardless of points scored for and against in the National Championship game given the heights they achieved in 2016. They won their only one-score games against Ole Miss and Auburn, and that’s a difficult thing to maintain; however, if anyone can surpass expectations it’s Nick Saban and his horde of Monstars.
  • Auburn is poised to have a better season going by these numbers. Mix in the arrival of Jarrett Stidham under center, and returning starters at most skill positions - aside from Tony Stevens - and the offense looks potent. The defense on the other hand will lose Montravious Adams and presumably Carl Lawson.
  • Other teams looking to rebound are LSU, Missouri, and Vanderbilt. LSU isn’t surprising. The Tigers yet again return a lot of talent, but now with a new offensive scheme look to compete with ‘Bama even if Ed Orgeron is 3-21 as a head coach in the SEC.
  • Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Tennessee may all take a step back next season, and it would likely come at the hands of resurging Vandy and Missouri teams. Tennessee is somewhat understandable given the amount of talent and experience leaving Knoxville. Kentucky returns 37 of 44 players on its two-deep, but did go 4-1 in one-score games.
  • The rest of the SEC West is more a jumble. Texas A&M looks to be better, but the Mississippi schools and Arkansas project to compete for the middle sections of a tough division once again.
  • Finally, Florida projects to win nine games again next season, but it will be interesting to see how the Gators replace what will presumably be defensive attrition while trying to find a quarterback.

TL;DR

Pythagorean projection is just one tool for projection. It doesn’t encompasses an unlucky streak of injuries or turnover margin, or account for early departures and new coaching hires, but it’s historically been a more significant way to base future assumptions beyond simple wins and losses.