Posts by Dominic Kearns

Unbelieveable: A Win Probability Analysis of 2015’s Craziest College Football Weekend

Week 9 of this college football season figured to deliver some juicy action, but no one could have predicted the onslaught of dramatic games that we got. At the end of the madness, most ranked teams avoided upsets and kept their playoff hopes alive. But in several cases, victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. 

Using Pro Football Reference's 

Week 9 of this college football season figured to deliver some juicy action, but no one could have predicted the onslaught of dramatic games that we got. At the end of the madness, most ranked teams avoided upsets and kept their playoff hopes alive. But in several cases, victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat. 

Using Pro Football Reference’s Win Probability calculator, one can discover how Miami, Notre Dame, Michigan, and Stanford all defied the odds in season-saving wins. To best enjoy this article, treat the red highlighted links below as footnotes and click away.

Miami’s game with Duke may not have had significant implications on the national playoff race, but it featured the largest win probability fluctuations of the night. Everyone knows the game was seemingly over before Miami scored its one in 1000 touchdown. But what fewer people realize is how Duke needed a similarly improbable comeback to go ahead 27-24.   

Miami's win probability was over 80% for nearly the entire 4th quarter

When Duke started on its own 25 down 24-12 with under six minutes left, the Blue Devils had a 0.4% chance to win. Or in other words, a one in 250 chance. The Devils converted on a fourth and 8 during the touchdown drive, but the odds were still in Miami’s favor. Even after forcing Miami to punt, Duke only had a 29.7% chance to travel 80 yards in 105 seconds for a touchdown. That number dropped to 27% later in the drive. Yet Miami could not make the defensive stop, and Duke marched in for an apparent game-winning score with six seconds left. 

The miracle play helped Miami avoid falling into deeper disarray, spoiled Duke’s bid to improve to 7-1, and came with controversy. But years from now, none of that will matter.

Matt Cashore- USA Today Sports/This late TD catch swung the game heavily for Notre Dame

Most people first saw the insane Miami lateral play after commercials in the Notre Dame-Temple clash. While that game lacked a truly insane finish, it featured no shortage of late game win probability swings. When Temple began its game-tying drive with 3:04 in the third quarter, the Owls only had an 8.8% chance of winning. 

Despite driving the length of the field, the calculator only gave them a 6.3% of victory as they faced fourth and goal from Notre Dame’s one with 10:55 left. Jahad Thomas’ tying TD run changed things dramatically, improving Temple’s win probability by 31.3% on a single play.

Notre Dame’s win probability fell below 50% after the Owls edged ahead 20-17 and fell to a game-low 44.2% on a key third down. However, Alize Jones’ 45-yard reception with three minutes left put Notre Dame in business, and Temple’s win probability never reached 25% after ND wideout Will Fuller hauled in the go-ahead 17-yard score.

As those battles were fought, Michigan and Minnesota simultaneously waged a wild war for the Little Brown Jug. The Gophers dug themselves into a 14-3 second quarter hole, so the probability model gave them just a 3.7% chance to win. Minnesota then rallied with 13 straight points to lead 16-14 at halftime and have a puncher’s chance for the upset.

The Gophers played inspired football for recently retired coach Jerry Kill, building a 26-21 lead with nine minutes left. At that point, Minnesota’s win probability exceeded 70%. The Wolverines managed to regain possession and drive into Minnesota’s red zone, but the model heavily favored Minnesota as the visitors faced a key third and 10. The Wolverines then swung the model completely the opposite direction, scoring the TD and two-point conversion.

Suddenly the Gophers were heavy underdogs again, especially after backing into a seemingly hopeless third and 17. Minnesota converted with a 17-yard pass, but the Gophers faced another dire situation two minutes later. Somehow, Michigan allowed the drive to continue, and when Minnesota reached the one yard line on another great pass from Mitch Leidner, the model finally favored the Gophers. Yet the Wolverines defied the odds on two straight plays to emerge victorious.

James Snook- USA TODAY Sports/The sixth kick was not the charm for WSU's Erik Powell

If anyone was in the mood for a tricky finish to a treat-filled evening, the #Pac12AfterDark delivered again with Stanford visiting a surprising Washington State team. For the first 33 minutes, Stanford’s offense disappeared against the Cougars’ generally mediocre D. Kicker Erik Powell hit five field goals for Washington State, who could have easily routed Stanford if a few scoring drives had ended in touchdowns. 

Instead the Cardinals trailed 15-3 and faced slim odds to remain unbeaten in Pac-12 play. The teams traded quick scores, but things still looked dire for Stanford late in the third quarter. Facing a 22-13 deficit, Kevin Hogan boosted Stanford’s hopes with a 59-yard TD run. The Cardinal then moved into the model’s driver’s seat following a Wazzu pick. Stanford took full advantage, going up 27-22 to silence the home crowd.

The Cougars’ win probability dropped from 78% to 11.5% in just over three minutes. Many teams would have folded, but Washington State responded with a gutsy go-ahead drive. After forcing a Stanford punt, the Cougs win probability was surprisingly only 39.8%. Clearly the model knew this was Washington State with the ball. 

After getting a first down with 3:40 left, the Cougs threw on first down looking for a big play. The pass nearly worked, but Falk’s screen pass on second down was intercepted by Stanford. In an instant, the Cardinal went from slim underdogs to heavy favorites once more. 

The Cougar defense held Stanford to three points, but the odds were not in Washington State’s favor to begin the final drive. The Cardinal allowed no deep balls, leaving Wazzu in this spot with 21 seconds left. Luke Falk delivered a 23-yard strike and clocked the ball with 13 ticks left, but the odds still favored Stanford. After a seven-yard out route, two yard run, and a timeout, kicker Erik Powell had a chance to be the hero from 44 yards. The model only gave Wazzu a 41.6% chance of winning, and Powell’s miss prevented the Cougars from clawing back again. Stanford escaped the Palouse by a 30-28 count.

What's the significance of all this analysis?

So what does all this analysis tell us? First, each winning team had a win probability below 50% in the final four minutes on action. Three teams won on the final play. And one team won a game that will go down in college football lore. 

What makes the weekend particularly incredible is that each of these four games featured a ranked team seeking a 10+ win season. Win-probability analysis is simply a way to contextualize the chaos that will live on long in college football lore.
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Utah, Cal, And The Problem With Pac-12 Parity

The Pac-12 dubs itself the "Conference of Champions." In recent years, however, its football teams and games have defied expectations so often that the Pac-12 could more accurately be called the "Conference of Chaos." Can anything else explain the fact that, after just 5 weeks, Utah and Cal are its only remaining undefeated teams? 

Last season alone,

The Pac-12 dubs itself the “Conference of Champions.” In recent years, however, its football teams and games have defied expectations so often that the Pac-12 could more accurately be called the “Conference of Chaos.” Can anything else explain the fact that, after just 5 weeks, Utah and Cal are its only remaining undefeated teams? 

Last season alone, both Arizona schools won on game-ending Hail Mary’s, Oregon’s season was saved by a play that defies logic, and Washington State QB Connor Halladay set an FBS passing record with 734 passing yards vs. Cal, but the Cougars lost 60-59 on a missed 19 yard field goal. 

While there were plenty of fun games, last year was deemed a success by most national pundits because Oregon represented the conference in the inaugural College Football Playoff (CFP) and reached the championship game. Media members widely hailed the Pac-12 as the second-best football conference, and most casual fans assumed that its champion would generally make the CFP. 

Things have somehow gotten even more chaotic for Pac-12 teams this season, which does not bode well for the conference’s playoff hopes. In Week 1, Stanford lost at Northwestern and Arizona State lost at Texas A&M. The Wildcats and Aggies have both gone undefeated since to make those losses more respectable, but the conference’s national reputation took a hit. The following week, another contender was weakened when Oregon fell at Michigan State.  Though each loss came on the road against a current Top-15 ranked opponent, the results made people question the notion that the Pac-12 would easily get a CFP spot.

As conference play started, writer Brian Hamilton wondered if the Pac-12 might be “Too Good for its Own Good?“. Through three weeks, the answer appears to be a resounding yes. In three consecutive weeks, a road team has knocked off an undefeated home team in conference play (Stanford 41-31 USC, UCLA  56-30 U of A, ASU 38-23 UCLA). That trend does not bode well for Utah, who host Cal this Saturday.

Several coaches have already expressed concerns about conference depth. UCLA’s Jim Mora said the Pac-12 “is so competitive and there are so many great teams in this conference that you worry about us eating ourselves.” Utah’s Kyle Whittingham added: “I guess you can beat each other up and cannibalize each other, in a way.” 

Yet Stanford coach David Shaw may have best explained the Pac 12’s unique dilemma: “The top of every conference is good. Our conference is one where the people at the ‘bottom’ of the conference can still beat anybody in the conference. It’s a scary proposition week to week.” 

Kyle Terada-USA Today Sports: Cal is 5-0, but will it last?

The evidence supports his words, as the Pac-12 is the only FBS conference where no teams have a losing record. Washington State and Colorado are the worst Pac-12 teams, but the Cougars and Buffaloes led for large stretches of their games against Cal and Oregon. This balance makes the Pac-12 conference stronger than the Big Ten. Big 12 and ACC, where top teams play several cupcake conference games each season. But it also gives rival conferences an edge in advancing teams to the CFP.

If this concern sounds familiar, it should. The SEC has a deserved reputation for being the toughest conference in America. A record 10 SEC teams were ranked in the Week 2 AP Ratings, including the entire SEC West division. As Arkansas coach Brett Bielma put it one month ago: “Ohio State has one remaining game with a ranked opponent. We have eight remaining against teams who are ranked … If anyone tries to argue that, it’s nonsense.” Yet there are no SEC teams ranked in the top 6 of this week’s AP Poll.

So why does the Pac-12 have a greater parity problem than the SEC? Between 2006 and 2014, the SEC champion has played in eight national championship games, and won six times*. By contrast, the Pac-12 has only sent Oregon to the title game in 2010 and 2014, and the Ducks lost both times.

*Those numbers don’t include the 2011 Alabama team that won after beating SEC champ LSU in the title game, or the 2014 Tide squad that entered the CFP as the #1 overall seed.

The SEC has a sterling reputation in the BCS era, so an SEC champion with 2 losses or less will make the four-team playoff. By contrast, the Pac-12 has to compete against the other Power 5 conferences, plus Notre Dame or an undefeated Other 5 team for the final three spots. The MSU-Ohio State winner, TCU-Baylor winner, and Clemson all have strong odds to finish with under two losses. If that happens, the Pac-12 will probably need a team to finish 12-1.

After demolishing Oregon 62-20 two weeks ago in Eugene, Utah is the Pac-12’s only Top-15 team. They are the team with the best chance at finishing with under two losses, and they have the Pac-12’s best non-conference win after defeating Michigan. 

Yet Utah struggles to generate passing offense and an ill-timed knock to injury-prone QB Travis Wilson could derail the Utes season. Star RB Devontae Booker can only do so much, and the offense becomes difficult to watch against sturdy D-lines. The Utes still have tricky road games at USC, Arizona, and Washington, not to mention trap games against UCLA and Arizona State. Even if the Utes survive that stretch at 11-1, a difficult conference title game against Stanford awaits. 

Cal is also undefeated, but they have already survived close calls against Texas, and both Washington schools. The Bears still have to travel to Utah, UCLA, Oregon and Stanford, so their unbeaten run should end promptly.

Stanford, USC, and UCLA could each hypothetically finish with one loss, but there is already ZERO margin for error. 

And therein lies the problem. As an avid follower of Pac-12 football, the margin between victory and defeat gets smaller and smaller on a weekly basis. It is difficult for any team to go 9-1 in 10 games against Pac-12 opposition; much less a flawed team. The question is whether last year’s Oregon team was a special squad that propelled the Pac-12 into the playoff, or whether the Pac-12 can be expected to consistently supply a one loss team. 

One can point to Utah and Cal’s 5-0 starts as proof of the conference’s overall strength, and they would be right. ESPN’s College Gameday has recently acknowledged the Pac-12’s depth; first by traveling to Tucson for UCLA-U of A, and now to Salt Lake City for Cal-Utah. The Pac-12 might be the most entertaining conference top-to-bottom in America. Unfortunately for its members, one cannot expect to escape the bloodbath unscathed.  

If this year is any indicator, it will be tougher for the Pac-12 champion to reach the CFP than a conference champion from any other conference. Marcus Mariota’s 2014 Oregon Ducks were a special team that went 9-1 against daunting conference opposition. However, I do not see any Pac-12 team emerging with just one loss this season. Nor do I expect the Pac-12’s parity issue to disappear anytime soon. 

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