Guest Post for Jeff Nusser of Cougcenter.com
When Jim asked me a couple of weeks ago if I’d be interested in writing something for his site as part of a post exchange, I jumped at the opportunity. If you’re here, you’ve almost certainly figured out that Jim’s a great guy and a much better writer than his self-deprecating personality lets on, so I was flattered that he thought enough about what I had to say to ask me to put some thoughts down for his readers.
Given the huge nature of Saturday’s game against Oregon State in Seattle, Jim thought it might be a good idea to write about that. At my home site, CougCenter.com, and in my subscription newsletter, Cougar Sports Weekly, I typically tend to take an analytical approach to my writing. And since I am who I am as a writer, I’m going to throw a few numbers your way today as it relates to the Cougs and Beavers. But I promise I won’t bombard you.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this game against OSU. The Cougars are favored for the first time in goodness knows how long, and if they have any hope of reaching a bowl game, this is pretty much a must-win game. I always hate using that term, because I feel like the only must-win game is the one that ends your season, but for all practical purposes, it’s hard to look at the final five games – which include contests against Oregon and Arizona State – and see the Cougs going 3-2.
And if you figure a bowl appearance is the minimum standard for Paul Wulff to retain his job (I’m not convinced it is, by the way, but we’ll go with it for now), the game takes on even another level of importance.
The thing I’m finding fascinating in the buildup to the game is that it seems fans are basically expecting a win – and a decisive one at that. For a program that so regularly had its collective face kicked in over the past three years, I think it’s fascinating that fans are expecting so much.
And I’m not sure it’s realistic.
It seems like expectations really jumped after the first two games of the year, when the Cougs completely dominated Idaho State and UNLV. When the team imploded in the fourth quarter against San Diego State, there was much hand wringing. “Same old Cougs!” was the refrain I heard most often. Then, everyone was on cloud nine after Colorado, despondent again after UCLA, and then disappointed after being close at halftime against No. 7 Stanford, only to lose going away.
Although it’s clear the Cougars are improving in many facets of the game – virtually any major statistical metric you want to look at says so – they’re still inconsistent when it comes to results. These are the vagaries of following a young team. I know a lot of Cougar fans are tired of hearing it, but the reality is that of 22 starters, just five are seniors and eight are freshmen or sophomores. We can argue forever about whether that should or should not be held against Wulff in year four, but it’s the reality of the situation, and it has tangible effects on the outcomes of games.
Could these guys put together a dominating performance and whip the Beavers? Absolutely – I believe they’re the more talented team.
Unfortunately, I feel like it’s more likely that they don’t win this game handily. There’s a perception that Oregon State is just a terrible team, based mostly on two facts: The Beavers’ 1-5 overall record, and their loss in the first game to an FCS opponent, Sacramento State. The Cougars whipped an FCS opponent, whipped a Mountain West opponent, and beat a Pac-12 opponent on the road. In some people’s minds, that’s case closed.
But I want to introduce you to a couple of rating systems I really like that suggest this is likely to be a pretty close game. The computer ranking systems favored by the BCS are basically elaborate versions of basektball’s RPI – they look at who beat whom, how good who you beat is, and that’s really about it. Given the small sample size nature of football – 12 games is a really, really small sample size, folks – that doesn’t seem like the best way to go about measuring the strength of a team.
Statistics become more reliable the more data points you add to them, and Football Outsiders’ Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) and S&P+ do just that. Rather than simply looking at the end result of the game – which, as we all know, can be misleading or belie who actually played better overall – each of these rating systems break the game down into smaller components. FEI evaluates the efficiency of each drive in a game; S&P+ actually looks at the productivity of every single play in a game. Instead of using 12 data points in a year (as the popular BCS “computer” rankings do), FEI calculates its ratings for each team based off roughly 170 data points while S&P+ calculates based off of 1,700.
What do these metrics – which are adjusted for opponent – say about Saturday’s matchup? They say it’s likely to be a close affair.
Since each measurement has strengths and weaknesses – FEI values long drives more highly than S&P+, which loves explosive plays – Football Outsiders combines them to form its official F/+ rankings. WSU is ranked 80th in F/+; OSU is ranked 82nd. How can the Cougs be ranked so low, you might be asking? Remember that their two most dominating performances came against terrible competition, and No. 3 came against the worst team in the Pac-12; the opponent adjustment took the value of those performances down a notch. Their efficiency against better competition – SDSU, UCLA and Stanford – left something to be desired.
Over at FootballStudyHall.com, Bill Connelly – creator of S&P+ – uses F/+ to predict the outcome of each game every week. You know what it says? WSU by 4.8 points. Hardly a ringing endorsement for a beatdown. The Cougars have closed much of the gap that was between them and their opponents over the past few years (this post over at CougCenter shows just how big the gulf was), but they’re just not all the way out of those woods yet.
Of course, if all these fancy numbers don’t impress you and your eyes have just glossed over, you could simply follow the opinion of the betting public at large and note that the Cougs are only a three-point favorite over the Beavers. Say what you will about gambling, but Jim will tell you that those oddsmakers in Vegas are right a lot more than they’re wrong. Can’t ignore all those fancy casinos they’ve built by taking money from suckers like us who are convinced that a blowout is imminent.
Beyond that, all these numbers jive with what my eyes have seen out of Oregon State. Yes, they’ve lost a lot of games, and looked really bad doing it at times. But the Beavers have struggled through a quarterback change, injuries and a plethora of mistakes. The injuries are still there – particularly on the defensive side of the ball – but Sean Mannion probably isn’t going to always throw interceptions at the rate he has over the past three games (eight of them), and a Mike Riley coached team probably isn’t always going to keep making tons of mistakes.
Maybe those interceptions and mistakes continue all year long … but maybe they get cleaned up just in time to play the Cougs. The one game this year where they didn’t make a pile of mistakes was against Arizona – their lone win – and counting on a team that’s not devoid of talent to play itself into oblivion seems like a risky proposition.
I expect the Cougs to win. But if it doesn’t look all that easy, well, I’m OK with that. Because right now, a win – any kind of a win – is the most important thing. There’s no extra credit for style points on the way to a bowl game.
Jeff Nusser is a freelance writer in the Seattle area whose work can be found predominantly at CougCenter.com and Cougar Sports Weekly, but you’ll also find him in the forthcoming College Basketball Prospectus book.