Loyal Cougars

BIG WINS: Does Bronco stack up to LaVell, BYU tradition?

Brett researches the numbers — is Bronco Mendenhall falling short when it comes to beating good teams?

Bronco Mendenhall can’t win big games.

That’s what the Internet kept telling me, at least. Discontent over BYU’s performance in “big games” or against “good” teams grew to a fever pitch last year after the Cougars let a game slip away against national-title-runner-up Notre Dame and lost on the road to San Jose State (11-2).

Now, with a statement blowout of #15 Texas on Saturday, Mendenhall has found himself in the good graces of a greater number of BYU fans. But the next test for the mob is coming, as another worry of fans is performance against Utah (Bronco is 3-5 against the Utes) — with the next episode coming in two Saturdays.

Time will tell if the win over Texas proves to be a win over a “good” team. We can’t very well know that until season’s end. But how has Bronco actually stacked up in his eight completed seasons — especially to LaVell Edwards, whose national championship ghost BYU fans want to unceasingly make Bronco chase?

As we consider this question, it is important to discuss that there is likely a difference between a “statement win” or “big win,” and a win over a “good” team. Statement wins turn heads and may come when your team is an underdog against a perceived-to-be-strong opponent. When BYU opened the 1984 season by beating #3 Pittsburgh on the road, it was a huge statement. But that win ended up not qualifying as a win over a “good” team, by my estimation, since Pitt finished the 1984 season with a record of 3-7-1.

(Tangent: The National Championship seems to me to have been more about a perfect storm of events and less about a strong performance against a solid campaign of competitors. 1983 was a much tougher schedule; BYU’s 11-1 performance that season set the table for 1984 — and being the only undefeated team of ’84 helped, too.)

For this reason, I have tallied wins and losses for the entirety of the Bronco Mendenhall and LaVell Edwards eras using the context of opponents’ records and rankings at season’s end. One can certainly argue the value of statement wins for program morale, recruiting value, and more. I don’t mean to say they don’t have value. But I wanted to evaluate records against teams who actually ended up being good.

There are, of course, many variables. Rankings are subjective, biased, and sometimes outright ridiculous. I have calculated rankings considerations, but will focus more on team records.

Team records are sure to be influenced by strength of schedule — but, SOS is largely influenced by conference delineations. A Pac-12 school does play against “tougher” schools with Pac-12 money and Pac-12 recruiting power. But said school also has Pac-12 money and recruiting power of its own. Talent- and resources-wise, the playing field is as even as possible within a conference. If a team in the Mountain West goes 12-0 over “lesser” opponents due to a “weak” conference, it did it using the same relative exposure, TV money, recruiting power, and disadvantaged scheduling capabilities the rest of its conference also enjoys.

Therefore, with no desire to spend weeks or years formulating a way to include SOS in the following numbers, I feel it is accurate to consider overall team records as an adequate indicator of an opponent being “good.”

I am fully aware of the variables and counterarguments against presenting the following statistics — this is just one way to look at program and coach performance.

I divided games into three categories of opponents — finished its season below .500, finished .500, and finished above .500. I further delineated the below- and above-.500 categories. Opponents in the below-.500 category could be divided into what could be named “sub-par” (teams with 4-6 wins) and “bad” teams (with 3 or less wins).  In the above-.500 category, I divided into what could be named “above average” (6-8 wins) and “pretty good” (9 or more wins).

I tallied these numbers for Bronco Mendenhall and LaVell Edwards, my main point of comparison, but also included Kyle Whittingham as a contemporary to Bronco who has largely been in the same circumstances (pre-Pac-12 invite, at least) as BYU.

Games against Division I-AA/FCS opponents were not included in the tally.

Behold, the numbers:


I thought this data became quite interesting as I compiled it.

When it comes to beating teams above .500, Bronco fares favorably with LaVell but doesn’t quite reach him. A glut of 6-5 teams, back when 11-game schedules were the norm, may assist this a little but the point stands: Coach Edwards beat teams above .500 more often than not, and that means something.

If you look more closely at the above-.500 section, though, you’ll see an interesting difference. Bronco is a good bit better against “above average” teams with 6-8 wins, winning at a .700 clip to LaVell’s .607.

Winning percentage against teams with 9 or more victories, the “pretty good” teams, is pretty similar. But LaVell did, in fact, reach up and knock off a 9+win team a little more often. LaVell did beat good teams slightly more often. Edwards’ best win remains the 1990 home win over Miami, who finished 10-2 and ranked #3 at season’s end.

While we’re looking at records against +.500 opponents — did you notice that Bronco Mendenhall and Kyle Whittingham share the exact same record against above-.500 teams through eight seasons?

Let’s look at the flip-side, too. Many use wins against below-.500 teams as a knock. Sure, look at it that way, but at least your team isn’t losing against those teams. Bronco is the best of the three against below-.500 opponents. In other words — Bronco doesn’t lose to teams he really shouldn’t, posting a 91.7% win rate. We’ll have to see how Virginia does this season to see the effect on this category.

Further inside the below-.500 numbers are the records against truly bad teams, those that win 3 games or less. Bronco has yet to slip up to a truly bad team in 23 games, while LaVell lost such games 1 in every 10 occurrences. Most famously, perhaps, was the 1985 loss to UTEP (1-10). BYU finished that season 11-3 and ranked #16, but provided the Miners their only win that year. This happened similarly in 1976 with Kansas State.

A stellar season in 1980 was capped with the Miracle Bowl win over SMU, finishing BYU’s season at 12-1. That one loss happened in the season opener against New Mexico (4-7).

(Utah fans can tell you in which two games Whittingham famously lost to bad teams.)

As far as playing teams that ended up ranked at season’s end, those were revelatory to me as well. In the credit where credit is due department, Kyle Whittingham has struck big against highly-ranked teams. 2008 was a special season and gave the Utes both of Whittingham’s victories against top-10 opponents.

Bronco is 0-6 against top-10 teams. LaVell has him beat there, but did get 16 tries to tally his two wins.

Overall, Bronco is 4-15 against teams that finish in the Top 25. You’ll never guess what LaVell’s record against Top 25 teams was after his first 19 tries — indeed, it was 4-15.

Interestingly, LaVell’s first win over an at-season’s-end ranked opponent was the 1980 Holiday Bowl miracle against SMU — the final game of LaVell’s ninth season. Bronco’s first win over a ranked foe came five games into his second season. (Obviously, LaVell was building the program from scratch. Still an interesting note.)

Something else to consider is performance in bowl games, which are included at the bottom of that table. Every bowl opponent is .500 at the least, usually better. And bowls are usually given more spotlight (though this speaks to “statement” games and not necessarily wins against good teams).

It feels to me that LaVell’s teams were routinely striking out on opportunities to make a splash against good-name teams in bowls — but he played better teams in those bowls than Bronco has so far. Again, this is a “statement” argument and not a “good team” argument, but winning bowls at the end of the year does look good for the program.

* * * * *

Overall, it seems to me that Bronco Mendenhall and LaVell Edwards compare very similarly when it comes to beating good teams. So far, Bronco is avoiding bad losses but not reaching quite as high — but he’ll have time yet to improve upon that.

UPDATE: I’ve measured the differences between these numbers unscientifically, of course. Several people have mentioned to me here and elsewhere that I should test for significance because the differences likely aren’t significant. This is fine — I didn’t set out to prove one coach better than another. If the differences are insignificant, that tells us just as much about the “big game” narrative.

Thanks to Thor’s Board for the table update.



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  1. Geoff Johnston

    September 11, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Come on, Brett. Stop ruining the popular “Bronco can’t win big games” narrative with all these darn facts!

  2. Pingback: How does Bronco stack up against LaVell? |

  3. Devin Hansen

    September 11, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Love the article, Brett. I found the data hard to read (you mentioned the lines weren’t showing up), so I made a graphic version of it that I think makes the totals and the breakdowns easier to distinguish. This is the kind of design I do for work, so I hope you don’t mind me taking the liberty. You’re welcome to use it, if you like it. I think it’s easier to read 00.0% numeric formatting, so I did a graphic that way and one with your original decimal formatting.

    I posted both on my blog at http://blog.thorsboard.com/2013/09/how-does-bronco-stack-up-against-lavell/, so you can snag them from there if you want.

    I noticed that there are two places the numbers don’t add up correctly. In Bronco’s -.500 wins, 23-0 and 20-4 don’t equal 44-4. In LaVell’s -.500 wins, 73-8 and 78-8 don’t add up to 151-18. Probably just typos, but I wasn’t sure which number was incorrect. If you let me know, I’ll fix them in my graphic too.

    Nice work!

  4. Chris Jones

    September 11, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Couple things. One, the sample size is small. One more win here, one more loss there, and the percentages change enough to move one guy above all the others. We would call the differences between these coaches “statistically insignificant”, if we were being persnickety about it.

    Two, it’s very, very hard to beat a team and have them remain ranked in the top ten. It requires both that you have a good team yourself (so that you can win) and that you have a team highly ranked (because otherwise the opponent will fall out of the top ten). None of these schools have ever beaten a team that finished the year in the top 5, because none of them have ever played a team that could lose to BYU or Utah and remain in the top 5 (or reach it, after the loss). To an extent, this introduces a bias to the numbers. You want to beat ranked teams, but if you do, they stop being ranked.

    We do this as fans, too, notably this week – Texas was terrific before the game, now they’re terrible. The only way to win a big game is to lose to the team you’re playing. If you beat them, by definition it wasn’t a big game.

    • Brett Hein

      September 11, 2013 at 2:16 pm

      About team’s ranked at season’s end — it is a catch-22. But it happens with the other numbers, too. In 2007, BYU beat UCLA in the Vegas bowl and therefore knocked both its win over UCLA and its loss earlier in the year into the -.500 category because it made UCLA 6-7.

      I think it’s not a huge deal across the board — but your point about the top 10 specifically is valid.

      As for the sample size — I do recognize it’s relatively small for Bronco compared to LaVell — but everyone’s would be since he coached for nearly 30 seasons. But my point wasn’t necessarily to “prove” one coach better than the other. It tells us just as much that the data differences are not significant — meaning that Bronco is not necessarily falling short of “BYU tradition” like some fans would like to preach.

  5. Adam Mangum

    September 12, 2013 at 7:23 am

    I agree with these comments that any analysis like this is problematic because football is a game of small sample sizes. Unlike baseball and basketball, we don’t have enough games to really determine who’s great and who’s not. As Chris points out, beating a top ten team makes it unlikely that they will remain a top ten team. I would suggest using impartial (though imperfect) ratings like found at Sports-Reference.com.

    That being said, I think Brett’s premise is solid: Bronco has a narrative surrounding him that makes little sense in context. If he’s worse in ‘big’ games than LaVell, it’s pretty marginal. And he might be a little worse than Whittingham.

    • Brett Hein

      September 12, 2013 at 7:52 am

      I actually did intend to figure out some sort of average based on sports-reference’s season ratings. Maybe I could update it 🙂

  6. justin w

    September 12, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Nice article. I live in Indiana so I am fortunate to avoid most of the irrational BYU fans that were calling for Bronco’s resignation. Admittedly, it has been frustrating to see BYU not beat many “quality opponents” the past 2 years (I was at the ND game and still can’t believe we lost), but Bronco is a great coach. Lavell was also a great coach. Coaching at a school like BYU has so many crazy factors to deal with missions and recruiting that it is fantastic that we have such a well respected program. The Texas win this year was superb! and I hope that fans can just enjoy it. As long as BYU can beat Utah this year plus any one more win against BSU, Wisconsin or ND, this should be a tremendous year. I think that they have a chance to win all of those games, but we will probably drop a couple. And with great young talent, the next two years will hopefully give us several more of these statement wins.