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Steele-ing the Schedule

Phil Steele's college football preview is widely regarded as indispensible (including by yours truly) not simply because of the depth and breadth of information on each team, but additionally, because of his interesting and non-traditional season forecasing methods.  If you can get past his braggadocio ("Once again, this publication was the MOST ACCURATE SEASON PREVIEW MAGAZINE EVARRRRRRR!!") and occasional grammar LOLs, there's a lot to be fascinated by.  For instance, Steele certainly was one of the first to point out the correlation between offensive line experience and success, which has become someting of a meme this offseason -- one even the Wall Street Journal has picked up on, albeit in a limited way.

After the jump, I've applied some of his prognostication theories to our schedule (as well as Indiana and Ohio State) to see what we can expect.

"Turnovers = Turnaround": Essentially, this theory posits that a team which endures a large (10 or greater) net turnover deficit in one season is likely to rebound the next season; conversely, a team which enjoys a large net turnover advantage one season is likely to regress during the next.  As The Blue-Gray Sky explains:

In this study [Steele] looks over the past 16 years and finds 235 teams that had a net plus 10 turnovers or more. 154 of those then had weaker records the following year (65.5%). He also finds 191 teams minus 10 turnovers or worse, with 130 of them having better records the following year (68%). Again, these are pretty good indicators.

Note that "turnovers," as understood here, does not include turnovers on downs.  Last season, MSU threw 10 interceptions and lost 12 fumbles, for a total of 22 turnovers; our opponents collectively threw 14 interceptions and lost 10 fumbles, for a total of 24 turnovers.  Thus, we had a (statistically insignificant) net of +2 turnovers.

Here's how the teams on our 2009 schedule performed last season:


Montana State (-10) 19 16 35
Opponent 17 8 25
Central Michigan (4) 8 4 12
Opponent 8 8 16
Notre Dame (-3) 17 11 28
Opponent 14 11 25
Wisconsin (-8) 11 19 30
Opponent 12 10 22
Michigan (-10) 12 18 30
Opponent 9 11 20
Illinois (-6) 16 10 26
Opponent 6 14 20
Iowa (8) 11 13 24
Opponent 23 9 32
Minnesota (12) 8 11 19
Opponent 15 16 31
Western Michigan (-7) 10 15 25
Opponent 13 5 18
Purdue (-3) 13 10 23
Opponent 10 10 20
Penn State (7) 6 10 16
Opponent 16 7 23
(Ohio State (16)) 6 7 13
Opponent 15 14 29
(Indiana (1)) 11 10 21
Opponent 6 16 22


This heuristic suggests that two teams on our schedule are in line for major upgrades: Montana State, whom I'm/we're/everybody's not concerned about, and Michigan, which might be a bit more of a worry.  Conversely, Minnesota and Ohio State may be in for a tumble.

Of course, in order to accept this theory, you have to buy into the "turnovers are essentially random" notion, which in some circumstances has limited applicability.  For instance, it's certainly much easier to attribute Minnesota's success last season to getting lucky on turnovers than it is to accept that Ohio State was just plain lucky.  Tressel's CONSERVATIVE OFFENSIVE PHILOSIFY combined with a ball-hawk defense goes a long way toward running up the turnover margin.

As for your Spartans, as mgoblog Brian noted in part one of this post, happily enough we won the turnover battle in our close games, and were killed by turnovers in games we weren't likely to win.  (KJ nicely rebutted Brian's second-part polemic here.)

"For Better or For Worse": The second theory posits that a team which suffers lots of close losses and enjoys few close wins is likely to improve the next season, while a team which enjoys lots of close wins and suffers few closes losses is likely to take a step back.  Again, BGS:

Steele runs the numbers for the past seven years and finds that teams that net more than 2 close losses improve their record 68% of the time the following year. On the flip side, a team that nets 2 or more close wins will see their record worsen 64% of the time; with three or more net close wins, that number climbs to 71%.

MSU won two close games last season (Iowa and Wisconsin) and had one close loss (California).  Note that in calculating these numbers, I didn't consider an 8-point win/loss as "close."

Montana State 1 0 1
Central Michigan 5 4 1
Notre Dame 2 3 -1
Wisconsin 3 3 0
Michigan 1 4 -3
Illinois 2 2 0
Northwestern 4 2 2
Iowa 2 4 -2
Minnesota 2 2 0
Western Michigan 4 0 4
Purdue 2 2 0
Penn State 1 1 0
(Ohio State) 1 2 -1
(Indiana) 1 1 0
Michigan State 2 1 1



So, by these numbers, Michigan (again) looks like a candidate for improvement, while Western Michigan looks like it's headed for a setback.  Again, valid criticism can be made that the statistic can count as "close" games which really weren't close at all: late touchdowns have a way of skewing the score.  Furthermore, good coaching may have as much to do with winning close games as luck does.  (Anyone dare to say that we would have won the Iowa game last year with JLS as the skipper?)

Experience = Results: As discussed above, this seems to be this offseason's theory du jour (figuratively, not literally).  Returning starters matter, as Steele explains:

Experience can be a big thing in college football. A player gains valuable experience for every year he plays and becomes a better player because of it. Players also mature physically while they are in college and there is a big difference between a raw 17 or 18 year old true Freshman and a mature and physically stronger 22 year old Senior.

Experience also brings leadership, teaching, intangible qualities, etc. to a team.  And, all signs point to experience counting the most at offensive line.  This is perhaps unsurprising: the athletic advantages of 22-year-olds vis-a-vis 18-year-olds are probably most acute in the most physical position on the field.  In any event, the WSJ notes that

Last season, eight of the top 10 teams in the final Associated Press poll began the season with at least 65 combined career starts by their offensive linemen, including title-game participants Florida and Oklahoma. Two of 2008's biggest surprises, Utah and Ole Miss, had more than 80 starts of experience, enabling them to improve dramatically on offense. Conversely, Georgia, Missouri and Clemson -- three preseason top-10 teams that disappointed -- were green up front, with fewer than 40 starts each.

FWIW, Ivan Maisel says that the "magic number for success is somewhere around 75."  So, let's see how our schedule looks:

Montana State 9* 70**
Central Michigan 54
Notre Dame 100
Wisconsin 49
Michigan 75
Illinois 49
Northwestern 64
Iowa 98
Minnesota 96
Western Michigan 70
Purdue 56
Penn State 39
(Ohio State) 62
(Indiana) 85


Michigan State




*I tried to figure this out myself from Montana State's trainwreck of a website; this is the number I came up with, but I doubt it's correct.  All other numbers are based on the Wall Street Journal's count.

**Edit: Commenter MSUBobcats says that 70 is the correct number.  I'll go with that.

Actually, this year should actually tell quite a lot about the accuracy of this theory.  Notre Dame's offensive line has been much maligned over the past few seasons, but improved at least a bit last year and now has a ton of experience.  On the other hand, Penn State is one of the two conference favorites, and they have the most inexperienced line in the Big Ten.  And, Ohio State wouldn't be much better if it wasn't for the arrival of Justin Boren and his 14 starts in two years at Michigan.  Michigan itself, meanwhile, has 75 combined starts, the vast majority of which occurred last season: in 2008, they returned linemen with only 16 combined starts.  (Which, given how the season turned out, is an endorsement to the theory's merit.)

Sadly, we're quite a bit under 75.  Most preseason rags have us lumped with Iowa in the conference's second tier; well, their offensive linemen cumulatively have more than twice as many starts as ours do, and their line is ranked as fourth best in the country by Athlon..  While we only boasted 46 combined starts last season, we also had Javon Ringer and a veteran quarterback.  Our relatively inexperienced offensive line combined with a total change at running back could make for some dicey play at the beginning of the season.   Hopefully everything's reasonably well-adjusted by the time we head to Madison.

Credit to BGS for much of the background.  I swear I had this post in mind long before they actually did it!