Winning in February: Why the 2011 Northwestern football team was better than 2010

Somebody should let this guy know nobody is coming to practice today. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

While the basketball team is trying to salvage NCAA dreams, Northwestern football is putting together the strongest February in program history, with a good recruiting haul and a high-profile transfer building the program's talent base and providing some optimism for us fans. With even the National Grown Men Football League finished, I thought a roundup of final season stats and some (very early) projections of 2012 would be a good way to remember that it is only seven months until football season.

Most of the stats for this post come from Bill Connelly's SBN blog, Football Study Hall, where he uses the stats originally developed for Football Outsiders. The Simple Rating System I am using is the Sports Reference.com college football version, which is slightly different from the version I linked to earlier this season. On to the rambling!

All of these ratings agree on one point: Northwestern improved modestly from 2010 even though the Cats ended up with a worse record (a 200 S&P+ is roughly equivalent to a 0 in the other three rankings; SRS units correspond to real points, the others to per play efficiency, per drive efficiency, or both).

FEI S&P+ F+ SRS
2010 -.35 (71) 191.9 (81) -4.0% (73) -1.46 (68)
2011 .03 (51) 202.3 (60) 0.6% (59) 1.65 (58)

Indeed, not only did NU improve in all three independently calculated metrics (F+ is a combination of FEI and S&P+ so it stands to reason that a team that improves in both components would improve in the composite), the worst ranking of the 2011 team (60th in S&P+) is better than the best of the 2010 team (68th in SRS). How did NU manage this while losing an extra game? Especially since the extra loss came against a very bad Army team?

The answer has two parts. First, Northwestern's schedule was tougher in 2011 according to both SRS and FEI (there is no easy way to find a combined S&P+ SOS measure). Notably, 2011 BC was (in spite of not being very good) significantly better than any of the 2010 nonconference opponents; likewise, 2011 Texas A&M looks quite good in all of these measures, while 2010 Texas Tech looks like you would expect a pass-happy, offense-first team that hired Tommy Tuberville to look.

Second, NU won by more and lost by less in 2011, which all of these systems reward. 5 of NU's seven wins in 2010 came by 7 points or less (and another was against FCS Illinois State), while Illinois and Wisconsin beat NU by 21 and 47, respectively. In 2011, NU only had two wins by 7 or less (BC and Nebraska), and the biggest loss was by 18 to Michigan. Sure, NU lost to Army this year, but these systems don't see beating 2010 Vanderbilt by 2 as all that much better. By all these measures, 2010 NU was a below average team that managed to squeak out close wins, while the 2011 team was an average team with a thoroughly average close game performance. As Loretta8's timely offseason series noted, the close game record that propelled the 2010 team was a dangerous sign for the team's future performance.

The unit rankings accord with the overall picture: both the offense and defense were a bit more effective in 2011 than in 2010. In raw points, NU scored 28.9 and allowed 27.7 per game in 2011 compared to scoring 26.4 and allowing 29.0 in 2010; the story is similar in the FO stats.

So, there it is: statistical proof that NU was better in 2011 than in 2010! Unfortunately, the 2010 team managed to distribute their performance more favorably across the season, concentrating a lot of DERP in the two games after Persa's injury.

Though the team as a whole improved according to these metrics, some things remained similar. During the season, I noted that Bill Connelly had posted covariance rankings (ultimately based on S&P+) that showed how team performance varied according to the quality of the opponent. I am not entirely convinced that this is a meaningful predictive statistic, but Connelly has now posted seven years of rankings (2005-2011). In these rankings, a high ranking means a tendency to play up to better opponents and down to worse. Northwestern was 84th last year and finished at 119 this year, with only Miami (FL) showing a stronger tendency to play up and down to the competition. This is, in my view, the better end of the scale for a team at Northwestern's overall level; NU is good enough to usually beat bad teams on a bad day and to have a shot at good teams on a good day. If Northwestern maintains this tendency (assuming it is a real tendency), even a team not much better than 2011 could have a shot at the division by pulling out the right 5 or 6 conference wins.

Also included in Connelly's recent posts are the 5-year F+ numbers that are part of his projection formula. It isn't much of a surprise that NU ranks 9th in the conference and 5th in the division. The good news for the future is that Northwestern's worst year included is 2007; I think this corresponds to a real (if gentle) upward trend in the program. Connelly's numbers basically agree; his preliminary F+ projection puts NU at 73rd in the country with -4.4%. For comparison, NU finished 82nd at -7.5% in 2007. The Cats project to 10th in the conference; while bad, a low projection is hardly surprising for next year. In better news, the team gets a shot at both B1G teams projected lower (Indiana and Minnesota). While the non-conference schedule should be tougher than it was the last couple years, NU has a decent outlook for a down year.

The conventional wisdom about 2012 is to expect decline from the not-very-high heights of 2011. While there are good reasons for this, I think that there are several reasons for optimism about the direction of the program. A look beyond the simple win-loss record shows signs of improvement in important parts of the game that didn't fully pay off on the field. This is part of why Connelly projects NU to be comparable to the 2010 team; according to the numbers he is using, there really is some improvement to lose.

Personally, I suspect that this projection is somewhat low for two reasons. First, I am an obnoxious homer. Second, I am not sure who counts as a starter lost in its current form; Trumpy's return may be projected as replacing a lost starter. Furthermore, NU has two viable-looking quarterbacks to cushion losing Persa, and the receiving group returns a number of talented players, only one of whom needs to step up to keep that unit fairly strong. At least on offense, I think NU will have an easier time replacing players than expected.

As a general principle, I think that a program's down years show its talent level more accurately than the up years. A solid performance next year would help convince me that a run at the division is possible in the near future, and the early returns from the offseason offer some hope. Winning in February doesn't count on your record, but it still makes things easier when the games roll around.

One last thing: troll OTE for disrespecting us. OHIO STATE ONLY WON THREE TOO, PAWWWL! ISSA CONSPIRACY, PAWWWWL! IMMA HANG UP AN LISSEN.

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