Oregon, USC, and the luckiest teams in the Pac-12 for the 2021 season
Football, to a degree many can’t stand, has a great deal of luck factored into it.
It’s a game of inches determined too often by an eyeballed spot. The ball itself is oblong-shaped, leading to random bounces and unplanned field position advantages or disadvantages, seemingly random turnovers, field goal doinks, and everything else that makes us love the sport.
We have ways to calculate, to an extent, how lucky teams are at controlling the randomness. The Pythagorean formula works well year-over-year at using a team’s points scored and points allowed to determine what their expected win total should be. And we can use expected takeaways as a window into team luck.
In hitting 10 wins, Oregon outpaced its pythagorean win expectation by nearly two wins. The Ducks had the second-best difference between actual wins and pythagorean wins among the Power Five teams (including Notre Dame).
The Ducks were one of the luckier Power Five teams this season.
I wondered if their performance had anything to do with turnover luck, and sure enough the Ducks outperformed their expected takeaways, too.
There are some anomalies here, but five of the eight programs who outperformed their expected wins by at least a full game also ranked among the 15 best P5 programs in turnover luck.
At the other end of the spectrum, there were 15 programs whose real wins were more than a full game less than their pythagorean wins. Of those 15, four of them were from the Pac-12—USC, Arizona, California, and Washington.
Being part of this infuriating-for-fans group would seem to signal poor luck, poor coaching, injury issues, sometimes just general underperforming, and often times a combination of several things, but in most instances it’s also a pretty good indicator of a team that’ll show improvement the following year.
Unless you’re coached by Scott Frost, the general assumption is teams will lose, learn from what caused the loss, and then turn those losing situations into wins later.
And you can go line by line through those four and provide some pretty solid justification for why they’ll follow that trend. USC hired a new coach and expects to be better than its 4-8 record this past season. For Arizona, it would be pretty unlikely to go through another 1-11 season considering the talent coach Jedd Fisch has brought to Tucson this offseason. For Cal, competent quarterback play could get them to a bowl. Washington’s in the same boat as USC, minus the talent influx.
Here’s the 15:
And Oregon is the only P5 team from the Pac-12 that outperformed its pythagorean wins expectation by more than a full game. Only Michigan State was higher above its expected output. Here are the other six P5 programs who joined them:
Colorado (3.63 expected wins), Stanford (-0.01), and UCLA (-0.11) were all nearly right at their expected win totals.
Utah was at minus-0.54, and Washington State was at minus-0.56. Arizona State was minus-0.78 and Oregon State was minus-0.96.
In terms of turnover luck, the way to calculate that is a little less complicated. Teams can expect to recover 50% of opponent fumbles and intercept about 20% of the passes they defend. My old editor, Brandon Vogel, created a catchy phrase to highlight how effective teams are at creating opportunities for takeaways to arise—TakeOpps, he called them.
As a function of defensive snaps faced, Washington State actually led the conference in TakeOpps, getting a chance on exactly 9% of the defensive snaps they faced.
The Cougars had, by far, the most takeaways in the league. But the 4-8, underperforming USC Trojans had the best turnover luck. (Told you it wasn’t straightforward.)
It’ll be interesting to see how teams like Oregon, USC, and Arizona fare next season.
For the Trojans, you’d think with Lincoln Riley in town now they might win a game or two more than they should, especially so given the talent Riley should have at his disposal. But with the Trojans so far ahead in terms of turnovers, you’d expect some regression to the mean. Coaching uncertainty lingered over the team virtually all year, was that the biggest limiting factor in success? Or was it something else? If the Trojans do see more of a normal difference between expected and actual turnovers in 2022, is the bottom-line improvement more marginal or is there something else in the equation that keeps things equal. Which direction do the Trojans go in 2022?
Verone McKinley III led the Pac-12 in interceptions, and the Ducks picked off 31% of the balls they defended, a rate much higher than usual. For Oregon, the Ducks’ profile would suggest they could be in for a slight step back, but new head coach Dan Lanning has convinced a few key pieces to return in 2022—including the bulk of his offensive line, which is huge—and added transfer quarterback Bo Nix to the fold, what looks to be a win-now move.
Arizona had the fifth-worst turnover luck among the P5 teams. What’s in store for Fisch in Year 2?
One thing that’s worth pointing out here: Utah was right around its expected win total and actually minus-3.3 in the turnover department, the 11th-lowest mark among the 66 P5 programs. That would tell me this Utes team wasn’t a flash in the pan. With so much coming back and as stable a coaching situation as there is anywhere in the country, the defending Pac-12 champs should be right there again next season.
Lots of intrigue around the conference, for sure.