The NUmbers Guy: Which Season was the Fluke?

WNUR’s Jim Sannes (@JimSannes) examines Northwestern football’s last two seasons to try to determine which of the two was more likely to be a fluke.

Time machine time, kiddos. Let’s take a ride back to January 1st of this year. Northwestern had just defeated Mississippi State, 34-20, to take the program’s first bowl victory since 1949. It was also only the third ten-win season of all time. Tears were flowing, smiles were rampant. Pat Fitzgerald tried to put the win in context:

Photo by Meghan White/The Daily Northwestern

Photo by Meghan White/The Daily Northwestern

“It’s the next step, you know, to be champions. We’re 1-0 in 2013, and we’re going to enjoy tonight.”

Annnnnd back to reality. Northwestern needed a three-point victory over Illinois to finish 5-7 and avoid its first winless conference season in 15 years. It won’t be bowl eligible for the first time since 2006, Fitzgerald’s first year at the helm.

Two seasons. One was among the best in team history. The other resurrected thoughts of previous decades that saw Northwestern suffer through seven losing streaks of seven games or more, including a record 34 games in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s.

This brings forward the question: which season was the fluke? Let’s use SCIENCE and MATH and EMOTIONAL NON-FACT-BASED ARGUMENTS to decide.

Brian Arnfelt (91) and Quentin Williams (88) are just two of the many seniors Northwestern lost heading into the 2013 season. Photo Credit: Bob Self, The Florida Times-Union

Brian Arnfelt (91) and Quentin Williams (88) are just two of the many seniors Northwestern lost heading into the 2013 season.
Photo Credit: Bob Self, The Florida Times-Union

36.5: Last year, 36.5 percent of Northwestern’s starts came from seniors.

We had talked a lot during this off-season about how little Northwestern was losing – we (including myself) dropped the ball on that one. I think a big part of this was looking at the skill positions. Kain Colter, Venric Mark, all of the receivers minus Demetrius Fields and Dan Vitale were all coming back. Not only did the ‘Cats lose impact players (Brian Arnfelt, David Nwabuisi, Patrick Ward and Brian Mulroe), but they also lost in bulk.

In addition to the 36.5 percent coming from seniors, only 23.8 percent of the starts came from juniors last year. Yes, the group included Colter, Mark and Tyler Scott, but overall, this represented a small fraction of the team as a whole.

Behind those seniors were the sophomores who represented 32.6 percent of the starts. This is a huge percentage. Finally, rounding out it all were the freshmen (Dan Vitale and Nick VanHoose) at 7.1 percent.

Back to this year. That small bunch of juniors-turned-seniors accounted for only 22.1 percent of the total starts. This was actually lower than the starts by juniors the year before, largely due to injuries to Daniel Jones and Mark. What this means for Northwestern moving forward is that they are losing a significant amount less than they did last year heading into 2014, a reason for reserved optimism.

The part of this, though, that really jumps off the page for 2013 is how junior-heavy this team was. The third-year players represented almost half (46.6 percent) of the starts on the year. These are your Brandon Vitabile’s, Trevor Siemian’s, Treyvon Green’s of the world that will be so pivotal for the team next year. Add Mark back into the equation, and next year’s team is going to be chock full of players in their final year of eligibility.

This year was rounded out by 23.7 percent sophomores and 9.8 percent freshman (Ian Park, Dwight White and Matt Harris).

What does this mean for the question of which season is the fluke? Well, frankly, this stat by itself would point toward neither season being a fluke. Northwestern lost a bunch after the Gator Bowl victory. Now, just based on straight numbers, the 2014 squad should present a lot of continuity and a lot of experience. The ‘Cats are a serious bounce-back candidate for next year.

1-4: Northwestern was 1-4 in one-possession games this year.

In many cases, the biggest factors in a one-possession game are depth and luck. Northwestern didn’t have either this year. The depth was largely due to the injuries across the board. The luck was just Northwestern doing Northwestern things. When a team either has a lead or is tied three straight games when the clock hits 0:00 and wins none of them, not all of that can be chalked up as general incompetency. Luck does play a factor, and it scorned the Wildcats.

There will be the Fitzgerald-detractors out there that will argue that close games are lost by coaches. That argument doesn’t work here. Prior to 2013, Northwestern was 22-13 under Fitzgerald in one-possession games. This includes a 3-2 record last year, which was largely on par with previous years in the Fitz era.

If you’re frantically looking for a reason to call this season a fluke, this is the stat you’ll want to bring up. Not only the number of losses but the fashion in which they came is not something you would expect to be repeated again next year. If Northwestern had followed Fitz’s history in tight games, they would have finished 7-5 and gone to a bowl.

.525: Northwestern’s opponents last year had a .525 winning percentage in their games against other opponents.

A lot of the talk prior to the season was about how much tougher Northwestern’s schedule was this year, and it was certainly warranted. Sure, Northwestern’s non-conference foes were pathetic this year compared to 2012, but the conference schedule was brutal. This led to a .567 winning percentage for Northwestern’s opponents this year. This difference may not seem like a lot, but it really is.

The two opponents that Northwestern faced in 2012 but not in 2013 were Indiana in Penn State. Those two teams combined for 12 wins this year. That’s the same number of wins as Ohio State so far, who Northwestern added to replace one of those teams. The other replacement was Wisconsin, the No. 21 team in the BCS who is 9-3 on the year. Woof.

Then you get to the schools that saw drastic improvement from 2012 to 2013 on Northwestern’s schedule. Minnesota went from 6-7 to 8-4. Iowa from 4-8 to 8-4. Sparty pulled a 180 and won four more games, turning a 7-6 team into 11-1. Heck, even Illinois won two more games this year than last. The only team that was worse than last year was Michigan which took a step back from 8-5 to 7-5.

Once again, this seems to point toward both seasons being right on par with where they should have been. Looking forward to next year, the opponent record is right between where it was in 2012 and 2013 at .544. Out go Ohio State and Michigan State, the top two teams in the conference, and in come Purdue (PARRRRRTAAAAAY!!!!!) and Penn State. That winning percentage also includes a 12-0 Northern Illinois team that will be without its unhuman quarterback Jordan Lynch due to graduation.

Overall, based on these three criteria, it seems more likely that 2013 is a fluke than 2012. That said, both seasons largely aligned with where they should have been with the exception of this year’s close finishes.

Based on these three categories alone, I would say Northwestern is due for a seven-win season next year. Obviously their ultimate fate will be determined by thousands of factors, many of which are more important than these three, but the numbers seem to point to seven wins in 2014.

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One comment

  • Good analysis.

    Personally, I think that it points to 8 wins.

    From 2012->2013, 4 factors contributed to going from 9 regular season wins to 5:

    1. Injuries (in 2012, NU had, I think, the least injured team in the B10; in 2013, they were one of the the most injured.)
    2. The schedule got tougher.
    3. The O-line got worse with the graduation of most of the starting O-line.
    4. Luck. ‘Nuff said.

    In 2014, the O-line will improve after being together another year (no one graduates) and the schedule gets easier, so with just a regular amount of injuries and average luck, NU should get 8 wins. Granted, terrible luck and a ton of injuries again would mean just 6 wins, while if the Cats stay healthy and everything bounces the right way, 10 wins is the ceiling.

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