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Throwing The Luck Flag

One of the immutable truths of fandom is that as soon as somebody starts citing "luck" as a reason that a certain team beat another team, there is sufficient childish logic being applied that you can ignore the rest of what this person has to say. It's the Godwin's Law of sports. "Well then they must have been lucky" = "I have the intelligence of a toddler."

And yet, luck does exist in college football, as it's susceptible to the random, game-changing whims of a bouncing or tipped ball. It exists to the point that Phil Steele famously adjusts for the previous year's turnover margin when making his predictions for the upcoming year.

So what's to be done? If a team pulls a supposed "upset," you can't reflexively throw the luck flag and designate the win bullshit and invalid. That's what video games are for. But if there's a factor at work here--one that even Steele acknowledges--then there must be some halfway objective data for it, yes?

In fact, there is. In Mgoblog's user The Mathlete's diary, he examined the last two seasons' play under these criteria:

I took my team PPG values for the full 2009 season and then "re-played" the regular season schedule to see how the season would play out if the teams played at that consistent level and the fluky plays were eliminated. All first half plays and any in the second half with the game within 2 touchdowns were included. Interceptions are included, fumbles are not. Standard special teams plays are included, punt blocks, on-sides kicks etc. are not.

This is somewhat arbitrary, of course, but all selective interpretations of data must be, by definition. Further, it's fair on its face; we might suggest including a team's performance within 3 touchdowns in the third quarter, but if everything's judged by the same reasonable standard, then there's no real gripe.

The turnover part is the smartest case, though; while fumble recoveries are difficult to sustain or cause with any regularity, interceptions (especially those not resulting from a tip, but even then, the defense deserves credit) are much more talent-based--and reliable.

So we have our standards. And thanks to The Mathlete, we also have two years of data for everybody in the NCAA. And yes, there's a data plot for it:


The BXI teams are helpfully demarcated, but you'll notice someone in the far upper left. Yes, it's jNWU, thumbing their noses at the college football world. Two years, two top spots in the nation in luck.

Now, anybody with even a cursory education in high school mathematics would use this occasion to point out that the odds of jNWU leading the way twice in a row is so sufficiently low that there's more than luck that goes into their record. It's not like Pat Fitzgerald is sitting in the press box and playing Transformers Vs. My Little Pony, after all. But at the same time, Iowa went from profoundly unlucky in 2008 to moderately lucky in 2009. It's also not like Kirk Ferentz improved immensely from 2008 to 2009. There is some serious randomness at work.

And if you think that we're making something out of nothing, ask the last two most important Iowa offensive players--Shonn Greene and Ricky Stanzi--who in consecutive contests with jNWU, both just so happened to get knocked out of the game on questionably legal hits that just so happened to result in lost fumbles and substantial swings in score and momentum. Only the fiercest of jNWU partisans would refuse to acknowledge this (if they weren't too engrossed in, of course). 

So, Northwestern. I have a feeling that your whole family is going down. But for now, we have to practice.