Nov 2, 2021

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Let's talk about Indiana football. In the preseason AP Poll, Indiana was ranked 17th. At the moment, Indiana is 2-6 with zero Big Ten wins. They beat Idaho by 42, beat Western Kentucky by 2, and have lost every other game. They are, uh, no longer ranked 17th in the AP Poll. Even if they were to recover from their nosedive and somehow win four straight here to get to 6-6, that's still not anywhere close to #17.

So what happened? That's what I want to talk about. I don't think anything happened other than "writers voting in the AP Poll care too much about wins and losses."

OK, yes, I said it that way to wake you up. To get your attention. I don't really believe that. Wins do matter. I'm not going in the "we should just let the four best NERDstat teams face off in the playoff, even if one of those teams is 7-5" direction you feared 22 seconds ago. But I do want to talk about college football and wins and "luck" and statistics.

Let's begin with something I tweeted in June when there was all of that discussion about expanding the playoff to 12 teams:

Every other team in that playoff bracket was overwhelmingly better than their opponents. Iowa State, the 10-seed immediately in front of Indiana's 12-seed? Averaged 436 yards of offense and held their opponents to 341. 12-seed Coastal Carolina? 450 to 351. #1 Alabama? 542 to 352. Indiana? 363 to 378.

Now, obviously, yards aren't everything. There are other ways to win football games. Indiana used those other ways to go 6-2 in the Covid-shortened season last year. They nearly won the Big Ten East. So this isn't meant to take anything away from that.

But when those results are projected forward to the next season, I lose my mind a little bit. And the best way I can describe it is the old baseball debate. Let's talk ERA.

(I'll ask that baseball stat-heads go easy on me here. I'm not looking for your "well actually..." responses. I'm just trying to broad-brush the baseball stuff and then get back to college football.)

One of the earliest (to me) baseball debates was "how much do wins matter for a pitcher?". If Pitcher A has won the last two games 9-7 and 11-10 and Pitcher B has lost two games 2-1 and 3-2, does it really matter if Pitcher A is 2-0 and Pitcher B is 0-2? Pitcher A's ERA is north or 10 and Pitcher B's ERA is 2-point-something. What does 2-0 even matter?

I'm sure you've probably heard that very basic baseball debate. So-and-so is starting the All Star Game because he's 11-2 but he has a 3.89 ERA while the guy who should be starting has a 2.11 ERA (but a 7-5 record). I mean, honestly, baseball has advanced so far past this that I'm not sure this is even debated anymore. But that's the structure I want to use to talk about Indiana.

Indiana, last year, was basically 6-2 with a 5.13 ERA. They climbed as high as 7th in the polls, but they basically rode the old "they were good when we played them" train all the way to the top 10. Here's the rundown:

  • In the first game, Indiana beat Penn State in overtime on the famous play in the photo above. Great play. Great win. But it was more or less a pitcher giving up nine runs in six innings but still getting the win. Penn State outgained Indiana 488-211 and lost the game. Play that game 100 times with those same stats and Penn State wins 99 of them. Indiana won the one game. Penn State was #8 at the time, so that was a huge boost to IU (they beat #8!). This immediately moved them into the polls at #17. But then Penn State would start the season 0-5 and everyone realized that Penn State was never anywhere close to the #8 team.
  • Indiana then beat Rutgers and moved up to #13 which set up a top-25 matchup with #23 Michigan. Indiana wins! They're legit. But no one knew at the time that Michigan wasn't #23 and would only win two games in 2020.
  • The big boost came from "staying close" to Ohio State two weeks later. I put that in quotes because it was a 42-21 game in the fourth quarter when Indiana scored twice to make the final score 42-35. Indiana was out-gained 607-490 but three interceptions kept them in it. They only dropped from #9 to #12.
  • Then, after a win over Maryland, Indiana had maybe their best win of the season: a 14-6 win AT Wisconsin. They were again outgained (342-217) but Wisconsin shot themselves in the foot with two bad turnovers.
  • Indiana then had back-to-back games canceled due to Covid and so 6-1 would be their final record. That was good enough to be #7 in the final regular season poll. Wisconsin was the only team they beat with a winning record (Wisconsin was 4-3), but #7 in the polls. And yes, I agree with the tweet above - they would have been in a 12-team playoff.

I want to reiterate: I'm not just trying to drag Indiana's 2020 season here. Illinois most certainly did not go to Wisconsin last year and win 14-6. 600 yards allowed or no 600 yards allowed, no other team in the Big Ten was hanging close to Ohio State. They had a nice season.

But they weren't the 7th-best team in the country. And they shouldn't have been ranked 17th before this season. And they probably shouldn't have restructured Tom Allen's contract to pay him $5 million per year, either. All of those decisions were based on "wins", but they had that pesky 5.13 ERA.

So how did they win that many games? The biggest thing you see in the stats: interceptions. Last year, 17 interceptions in only eight games. This year through eight games: 4. That'll do it.

Looking at all of the stats, they're basically the same team they were last year. Offensive numbers are down a bit, but not much has changed. They just stopped getting two or three interceptions every game.

Here's the stats:

  • Defense is identical to last season. Last year they allowed 378 yards per game and 5.5 yards per play. This year, 389 yards per game and 5.5 yards per play.
  • Offense is a off a bit. Last year, 363 yards per game and 5.1 ypp. This year, 327 yards per game and 4.6 ypp. That's not much, though. 36 fewer offensive yards per game.
  • First downs nearly identical. Last year was 20/20 - gave up 20 first downs, got 20 first downs. This year it's 21/19.
  • Penalties are nearly identical. Last year 4.3/7.5 (theirs vs. opponents), this year 4.5/7.1.

Everything is basically the same besides the drop in offensive yards (which is only 0.5 ypp). So how have they gone from 6-1 and #7 in the polls to 2-6 and the basement of the Big Ten? Nothing, really. They're the same team, needing to play a more difficult schedule, putting up mostly the same statistics. Their fans held onto "this team is good it's just the schedule" (four ranked Big Ten teams plus Cincy) until last Saturday when they lost to Maryland, and now it's "is this team going to finish 2-10 after being ranked 17th to begin the season?".

The way I see it with my "ERA" goggles: they weren't good last season and they aren't bad this season. They just are. They had the same ERA two seasons in a row; one year they went 16-6, the next year, with the same ERA, they went 7-15. They're probably a 10-11 pitcher with an ERA hovering around 5. If they can eat innings, they'll find a decent contract next year. Everybody needs arms. But they shouldn't have made the 2020 All Star Game.

Now, I don't want to go too far with this. The extreme on the other end of this is "the teams with the four-best advanced statistic profiles should be in the playoff". That's what leads to 12-1 Ohio State getting in over 12-1 Oregon when you have a head-to-head matchup you can use. I don't want you to think that wins don't matter. This is not "the four teams with the best Expected Points Added should be in the playoff". I love college football because a 99-yard fumble return can turn a comfortable 34-21 win into a 28-27 loss with one single play.

I'm just saying that I don't understand why Indiana bumps Tom Allen to $5 million when he goes 6-2 in a Covid-reduced year with average-to-poor statistics. Nobody in baseball gives a pitcher a big contract based on a 17 wins and a 5.78 ERA (well, maybe they do). They look for the guy with much better {insert three baseball NERDstat pitching terms here}.

Does this mean "fire Tom Allen". Of course not. He got them to eight wins in 2019 - something we haven't done since 2007 - and that's fantastic for Indiana. That new contract made sense. The restructure after 2020 making it much harder for Indiana to dump him if this fails? Less sense.

Ranking Indiana #17 preseason? No sense at all. And I went on record in this podcast episode on September 3rd saying just that. I don't understand why "they had a very fortunate season and are quite unlikely to repeat it" hasn't reached the masses yet. That doesn't even require looking at advanced statistics. A simple glance at all of the teams in the top-25 having a significant yardage advantage over their opponents while one team was actually negative on the season is enough to say "yeah, we can't count on that team yet."

Indiana, last year and this year, was/is probably a 5-7 or 6-6 team. The climbed to #7 in the polls last year through a series of very fortunate events. They might go 3-9 this year with just the opposite. They're still basically 5-7 or 6-6 team, and that's a pretty good spot for Indiana Football.

Just don't try to convince me they were worthy of being ranked 17th before the season.


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