Loyal Cougars

Stats Shock: Bronco as underdog wins more than Bronco gets upset

What if I told you Bronco Mendenhall upsets better teams at a higher rate than his teams get upset?

Conventional wisdom seems to be that Bronco wins only the games he should, while never being able to punch above his weight, but it seems that’s a bit of an overstatement. In fact, the Loyal Cougars evaluation found from a percentage standpoint, Mendenhall upset better teams more often than his team was upset.

Any evaluation of upsets is tricky. How does one say a win is or isn’t expected? If someone else wants to evaluate nine years of history based on betting lines, they are welcome to do it, but since Vegas is setting gambling lines to get equal money, rather that simply an evaluation of which team is better or worse, that method would also have some flaws. A method of rank by polls would also be flawed as polls are completely subjective entities anyway, and do not provide a full 1-125 ranking to evaluate all teams.

Advanced stats and rankings experts Football Outsiders have a college football archive that goes back to 2005, which is kind of convenient for evaluating the Bronco Mendenhall era as 2005 was his first as head coach at BYU. These statistics change throughout the year, so another limit of this test is that it uses end-of-year statics instead of statics at the time the game was played. (Make sure to read FO’s explanations of its ratings to appreciate what the numbers represent.)  This article’s numbers take BYU’s end of year ranking and compares to the rankings of BYU’s opponents.

Given that set up, interestingly, Bronco upsets better teams at a slightly higher rate than he gets upset by teams ranked lower. Without counting FCS games, Bronco Mendenhall is 70-17 in games where his teams ended the year rated better than the opponent and 6-17 in games where he was worse.

So, that’s a winning percentage of .805 in games BYU ended the season ranked higher and .261 in games they were ranked below their opponent.

If you add the five FCS games, BYU’s record in games they should win is 75-17 (.815), but either way, Bronco is getting upset about every 1 in 5 chances, and is pulling the upset in about 1 in 4.

There a few factors that likely contribute to the perception that Bronco “never” upsets other teams: one is that there are, in fact, far few upsets for BYU. Over Bronco’s nine years, he averages an end-of-season-ranking of 26. As there are 125 FBS teams, this means he has many more chances to be upset than to upset another team. For example: according to Football Outsiders, Bronco’s Cougars played 32-straight games as the higher-rated team from 2006-2008 — that’s 32-straight cracks at being upset. This is a factor for all above-average teams.

Also, it took Bronco years to beat a team ranked higher than his team finished (Oklahoma in 2009), but there have been five more in the five years since.

Another reason BYU’s ability to upset teams is perhaps overlooked is that difference between rankings in some of the upsets BYU has given is far larger than any upset BYU has pulled, which gives the losses a more relative painful feel than the upset wins bring joy. But with BYU’s above-average ranking, there aren’t often teams ranked 20, 30, or 40 positions above the Cougars.

Bronco’s six upset wins, according to these rankings are: Oklahoma 2009 (a difference in ranking of +9), Oregon State 2009 (+3), SDSU 2010 (+10), Tulsa 2011 (+11), Utah State 2012 (+4), and Utah State in 2013 (+1).

On the flip side, major upsets against BYU have come from: SDSU 2005 (-25), Arizona 2006 (-60), Florida State 2009 (-25), Utah State 2010 (-47), Utah 2011 (-20), Utah 2012 (-66), Virginia 2013 (-49), and Utah 2013 (-12).

The Utah losses are also a likely factor in negative perception. For the first six years of Bronco’s tenure, advanced stats say the better-rated team won the BYU-Utah game. In the last 3 years, however, Bronco’s team was rated higher each year and has been upset each time.

Finally, despite what the numbers say about how good a team is, it may just be hard for some fans to give credit for upsetting teams like the Brady Hoke-coached 2010 SDSU team, or Gary Andersen’s 2012 Utah State team.

On Page 2 is the breakdown for each year with upset wins, wins, losses and upset losses.

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  1. Dr. Nick

    January 8, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Great stuff – I would be really interested to compare Bronco numbers with other coaches like Whittingham at Utah or Chris Petersen at Boise State. My guess is that Bronco is generally less likely to be upset or pull an upset than those coaches. He is very consistent.

  2. Dan Uhl

    January 10, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Brett, this is really great analysis! Thanks! I support Coach Mendenhall. In saying that, I acknowledge that he is not perfect. But, in my book, he is a keeper. This analysis shows that he is comparable to many of his successful peers. What it does not take into account (and I do not know how it could be) is the extra things that he has to concern himself with, e.g. the Honor Code, academics, missions, etc. In my opinion, Coach Mendenhall is the right man for the job right now.