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How prior CFB season stats suggest improvement, decline

By Steve Makinen  (Point Spread Weekly editor) 

May 23, 2020 04:29 PM
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Michigan State coach Mel Tucker
© Imagn

Continuing a theme I introduced last week on transitional betting systems in college football, I am moving from personnel to statistical characteristics in determining which teams seem ready to improve or decline in 2020. 

A refresher on last week: One of the hardest things about handicapping college sports is evaluating teams from one season to the next. Many factors can affect how much different a team might be from the previous season. Personnel losses, coaching changes and momentum are among factors that must be weighed. Sometimes the changes can be immense. Adding to the difficulty is that many programs take players right out of their most recent recruiting class and plug them into starting spots.

In recent years, I have sought to quantify the signs of potential improvement or decline when considering year-to-year transitions. Last week I looked at personnel factors, many of which make up my College Football Stability Scores. This week I dive into statistics from the previous season that can best forecast teams’ prospects.

Can any statistics from the previous season predict the coming season?

Sometimes teams just catch consistently good or bad breaks that impact their records and their spread success significantly. Let’s dig through the data to seek anything that might help us find strong fade or follow teams for 2020.

— Over the last seven seasons, 36 teams have endured losing seasons despite outscoring their opponents. Of those, 14 brought back 13 or more starters, including the quarterback. The collective improvement of this group was about 2.2 wins, or 16.9% SU. These teams were a profitable 52.9% ATS.

Potential teams to improve: Ball State, Florida State, Illinois, Mississippi, Nebraska, Texas Tech

— Alternatively, 39 teams over the last seven seasons have enjoyed winning seasons despite being outscored. Of those, 10 brought back 13 or fewer starters and turned to new starting quarterbacks. Only one team improved (by one win), and the collective decline of this group was about 2.2 wins, for a drop-off of about 15.9% SU.

Potential teams to decline: Michigan State, Utah State

Turnover luck is an easy-to-recognize opportunity for spotting teams capable of improving or in danger of falling from season to season. For the last seven seasons, teams with turnover ratios of -1.0 or worse per game improved by 1.5 wins the next season. Those in the -0.1 to -0.9 range improved by 0.7 wins. On the opposite side, teams with turnover ratios of +1.0 or better dropped by 1.9 wins, while those in the +0.1 to +0.9 range were about 0.4 wins worse the next year. 

— Over the last six seasons, 10 teams went .500 or better against the spread despite having -1.0 or worse turnover differentials per game. Those teams bounced back the next season to average 2.7 more wins, improving by over 19%.

Potential team to improve: Kansas

— In the “nowhere to go but up” category, 32 teams since 2013 have won two or fewer games in a season while enduring -1.0 or worse turnover ratios. Only three got worse, while the average win improvement was 2.2. The SU win percentage upgrade was 16.9%, and the ATS improvement was 14.3%. Despite the mistake-prone play, the most dramatic improvement came from teams that brought back 15 or more starters. Those 16 teams improved by 3.3 wins, or winning percentages of 25.3% SU and 24.1% ATS.

Potential teams to improve: Akron, Rutgers

— A potential land-mine system has affected teams coming off seasons in which they enjoyed +1.0 or better turnover differentials but started fresh at quarterback. The 24 most recent teams to fit this description have dropped by 3.1 wins the next campaign, representing a 21.9% plunge outright and 15.3% dip ATS. Furthermore, none of the 24 won more games the next season.

Potential teams to decline: Alabama, Oregon

— It can easily be argued that the teams that got the luckiest were those with the best turnover differentials combined with smallest point differentials. It can also be predicted that these teams are due for a fall. Historically that is the case, as none of the last 13 teams with turnover differentials of +1.0 or better and PPG differential of %plussign.0 or less with 14 or fewer starters returning improved the next season. The average decline of this group was 3.4 wins, for an average drop of 23.6% outright and 10.5% ATS. Collectively, they were 43.4% ATS.

Potential teams to decline: Arizona State, San Diego State

Analyzing the quality of wins and losses from the previous season

A lot of prognosticators tout close wins or losses as motivation for teams heading into the next season. I will look at that as well as blowout wins and losses. I define close wins and losses as seven or fewer points and blowout wins or losses as 20 or more points.

— Experienced teams have shown a penchant for bouncing back. Coming off seasons in which they lost at least six games by 20 points or more, teams with at least 14 starters back have wiped the slate clean enough to improve by 2.5 wins over the last seven years. This represents a 19.6% improvement outright and jump of 23.2% ATS.

Potential teams to improve: Akron, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rutgers, Vanderbilt

— Over the last seven seasons, 40 teams have lost one or no games by 20 points or more in a given season but still finished with losing records. Of the 15 that brought back 14 or more starters, only two finished worse the next season. The average win improvement was 2.5 per season, a 19.4% jump.

Potential teams to improve: Ball State, Coastal Carolina, Fresno State, Houston, Illinois, Oregon State, Washington State

— Over the last seven seasons, 23 teams have started new quarterbacks after seasons in which they finished with a winning record despite suffering three or more losses of 20 points or more. Only three of those 23 improved the next season, with the average drop being 17.9%, or 2.5 wins. 

Potential teams to decline: Central Michigan, Georgia State, Hawaii, Liberty, Michigan State, Utah State

— As another sign of experienced teams being able to wipe the slate clean, only one of the last 29 qualifiers that failed to record a blowout win of 20 points or more and brought back 16 or more starters got worse the next season. The average win gain was a whopping 2.8, good for a 20.8% bump. This group also recorded a 55.7% ATS mark.

Potential teams to improve: California, Georgia State, Georgia Tech, Nevada, Old Dominion, Rice, Stanford

— Fourteen teams have recorded seven or more blowout wins of 20 points or more one season, then changed coaches for one reason or another. Only one of those teams got better the next season, by 2.7 wins or 19%.

Potential teams to decline: None

— Close losses can be a galvanizing factor for teams that stay the course. In fact, of the 18 teams over the last seven seasons that suffered five or more close losses of seven points or fewer and brought back their head coaches and at least half of their starters, only one has finished worse the next season. The average win improvement was 2.6, representing an 18.6% jump.

Potential teams to improve: Miami, North Carolina, TCU

— Not being tested by close losses can be a warning signal for inexperienced teams on the verge of dropping. A total of 33 teams over the last seven seasons have won nine, 10 or 11 games while suffering one or no close losses of seven points or fewer and bringing back no more than half their starters. Of these, only three won more games the next season, with an average win drop of 3.0, a 21.9% slide.

Potential teams to decline: Air Force, Florida Atlantic, Hawaii, Louisiana Tech, Michigan, Utah

— Close wins are often characterized as getting lucky. Teams that have a lot of them and then come back inexperienced are naturally expected to drop. Over the last seven seasons, 10 teams brought back 11 or fewer starters from teams that had five or more close wins of seven points or fewer. None of these teams finished better the next season, with an average win drop of 3.7, a 24.9% plunge. These teams were 46% ATS cumulatively.

Potential team to decline: Hawaii

— Subpar teams that experience zero close wins also tend to improve, particularly when staying the course. In fact, 16 teams have finished under .500 and had zero close wins of seven points or fewer, then brought back their starting QB, at least 12 starters and their head coach and both coordinators. Of those, 14 finished better the next season. The average win bump was 3.3, a 25.2% surge.

Potential team to improve: Akron

 

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