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Irish Fans: Probability Polls, Statistics andExpectations

"They say statistics are for losers, but losers are usually the ones thinking that. Statistics are great. Our whole game plan is based off statistics. Our management of the game is based off statistics. Our recruiting is based off statistics. Everything we do is analyzed. Is that the bottom line? No. You can't analyze the heart of Tim Tebow."
- Urban Meyer

Urban Meyer's Conundrum

You wonder if Urban had determined this preseason the probability that his Gators would lose three straight with an offense that he now feels needs to be "rebuilt". The Gators are a miserable ninth in total offense in the SEC, ninety-first in the country just ahead of LSU.

I doubt Meyer expected his team to barely be above .500 after seven games with a losing conference record. Neither did a lot of prognosticators. Preseason polls ranked Florida as a consensus #6 (link).

Meyer doesn't blame his analyses of opposing teams, player recruitment or his management of the game on his statistics. To his fans who expected his team in the SEC conference championship at least, he concludes "We're not very good. We need to get some guys healthy." Statistical analysis is to explain winning. Meyer verges on the Willinghamesque explanation, "We just need to execute better."

His success has bought himself a bit of leeway, but all coaches know they have to deal with disappointing their fanbase's expectations. The dreaded word - "underachieving" - begins to creep into stories whether the coach explains that the team's on field performance turns out to be "very poor" or they have injuries to star players, as Meyer did.

Has Meyer overlooked getting the right kind of guy to Florida? Can he instill heart in his team?

The Problem of Preseason Hype

In the preseason, fans are always optimistic, expect success and read preseason predictions. How many BCS teams' fans expect a .500 season or less? As the season progresses, we should become pragmatic. How does that dose of pragmatism help Mark Richt at Georgia? Bulldog fans remember College Football News' 2009 preseason proclamation that "Georgia is going to be really, really good, but this doesn’t appear to be a team ready to go on an unbeaten run." CFN's 2010 prediction to Georgia's fans was: "...they have the schedule and just enough talent to win the division to get to the SEC title game." CFN/Scout picked Georgia as #3 and Florida as #4 in their preseason poll. Ouch!

Fans with such high expectations become quite disappointed in such failures.

Do fans become more pragmatic or cling to their expectations and look to assign blame to the coach?

A Self-Examination

At just more than halfway through the season, we should take a look at ourselves through NDNation's excellent preseason Probability Poll that analyzes our expectations for wins for 2010.

The Results Are In: NDNation Probability Poll

Then there is the man who drowned crossing a stream with an average depth of six inches. ~W.I.E. Gates

Over 7,000 Irish fans in the poll expected this year's team to win 8.5 games on an average. The poll suggested that the Irish would not be underdogs in any game this year on an average.

For the remaining five games this season's schedule, we expected our team to be Heavy Favorites in the Tulsa and Army games, Solid Favorites in the Navy game this week, a Slight Favorite against Utah, and a Coin Toss against USC. Most of us underestimated Utah and would move that game up to a Coin Toss, especially considering that with a win against TCU they may come into South Bend contending for BCS rights to the national championship game.

In their first seven games, the Irish's four wins have come from each category - Western Michigan (Heavy Favorite); Purdue (Solid Favorite); BC (Slight Favorite); and Pittsburgh (Coin Toss). The Irish lost an OT game against current Big Ten leader, Michigan State (Coin Toss), a contender for the Pac-10 title, Stanford (Slight Favorite) and Michigan, currently sinking in the Big Ten (Slight Favorite), in which game our starting QB was out for a half.

Stanford, Utah, Michigan State and Michigan have been better than we expected, delighting their fanbases. Pittsburgh and BC have performed less than expected, disappointing their fans. College football, after all, is a zero sum game, especially considering many of these teams playing each other.

USC will be talented and tough, as always. Navy will be relentless, expects a victory and is a classic trap game on the road.

Mathematical Uncertainties x 22+

While the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will be up to, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician. ~Arthur Conan Doyle

Should the Irish get by the Midshipmen this weekend, I - like most fans - expect wins over Tulsa and Army, unless we pull a Florida or "underperform". (I cannot concede the other team could "outperform" if we are favored.) One win out of the two games against Utah and USC would leave the Irish with a 8-4 record. If only we could count the OT game against Michigan State as a half win, the Irish would have their 8.5 average wins we predicted.

While I am not a statistician (though I enjoy researching stats), the NDNation poll findings suggested that the probability of:

- 6 wins or less was 9.6%

- 7 wins was 15.3%

- 10 wins was 17.3%

- 11 wins or more was 8.1%

I conclude that there are 25% of responses on either side of 8-9 wins and also that a 7-5 season would disappoint 75% of fans' expectations (only those who predicted 7 wins or less would be accurate).

The Expectation Undertow

The interplay between preseason polling and the pragmatism of how the football season progresses with our expectations is fascinating. Disappointment drives coaching changes. Eighty per cent of FBS teams have changed coaches in a little more than five years despite spiraling salaries. "Coaching Hot Seat" has been an accepted term for years. Each coach fights to stay ahead of the expectation undertow.

We can all identify with Coach Kelly when he expects more from each individual player. Kelly has clearly been working at molding talented individuals to form a team identity focused on common goals.

Our expectations translate into expected wins. We may be driven by our hopes and the history of Notre Dame championships. We have been disappointed too frequently of late. While it's just hard for us to be patient and pragmatic, remember that you can't calculate the heart of a team - one of those many variables that make football so complex, so frustrating, at times satisfying and so difficult to quantify.

If I find a way, though, I won't tell Urban Meyer.