Loyal Cougars

By the Numbers: 2017 Season Preview

As we prepare for the kickoff of BYU’s 2017 season just three days from now, I find it important to look ahead at the season and set the bar for this season’s expectations. This offseason has seen infinitely more stability than last year with firmly established schemes on both sides of the ball and the smallest amount of staff turnover I’ve ever seen; there were only two minor changes with a Graduate Assistant being replaced (Dallas Reynolds takes over the spot previously manned by JD Falslev) and Coaches Tuiaki and Kaufusi swapping positional duties. As for player personnel, the Cougars return a fair amount of talent from the 2016 team. 63.6% of the players (56/88) that saw time for BYU last year are on the current roster and they accounted for 66.4% of the game appearances and 51.4% of the starts last season. Add to that a solid recruiting class and an influx of highly-touted transfers and it would appear the overall talent level of this BYU team is comparable to last year’s squad, even taking into account the losses of BYU all-timers Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams. The strength of schedule has lightened slightly and the addition of a 13th game will make BYU’s win total appear even more palatable at season’s end, making it that much easier to reach double-digit wins.

ESPN’s Football Power Index lists BYU as favorites in all but 3 games in 2017, predicting an 8.8-win regular season. In putting together my game-by-game probabilities for the 2017 season, I found that while I have a slightly rosier view of BYU’s chances in the three underdog games, I’m not quite as optimistic as ESPN in the remaining games. As for the difficulty ranking of the games, I only differ from ESPN in three respects:

1) I rank Utah as a more difficult home win than Boise State. ESPN seems oddly bearish on the Utes, predicting only 4.7 wins on the season. And while Utah’s schedule is unquestionably difficult, I think the Utes will be able to reload better than they’re being given credit for. I also think Boise State will take a larger step down from last season than some predict. Colorado State and Wyoming even got some first-place votes in the MWC preseason media poll over the Broncos. Utah and BSU are ranked #57 and #55 respectively in ESPN’s FPI rankings, and when you consider recent rivalry history, there’s no question to me that Utah will be the tougher game for BYU.

2) I also believe that the road game to Hawaii will prove more difficult than the road game to ECU. Though BYU has a history of playing poorly in east-coast road trips, there’s also a history of playing poorly in season-ending Hawaii road trips. And I’m much higher on Hawaii (a team that finished 7-7 last year with a bowl win and predicted to finish second in the division behind San Diego State, ahead of UNLV, Nevada, SJSU, and Fresno State) than I am on ECU (a team that finished 3-9 last year and predicted to finish fifth in its division behind USF, UCF, Temple, and Cincinnati, and ahead of only UConn).

3) Lastly, ESPN and I differ on the difficulty of road games at UNLV and Fresno State. While the UNLV game will have a large amount of BYU fans at LES South, UNLV is a much better team than Fresno State of late. UNLV was picked third in the MWC West Division while Fresno State is expected to finish last. And UNLV finished with a 4-8 record in 2016 compared to Fresno State’s 1-11. Remember the 2015 BYU home 52-10 shellacking of Fresno State?

I’m sure we could nitpick that some of my game-by-game odds could be higher or lower, but for the most part, this is where I would put BYU’s chances of winning each game based on what I’ve heard and read this offseason and based on what I’ve observed at BYU practices:

At first glance, it may seem that based on these probabilities, I would predict a 10-3 regular season for Year 2 of the Kalani Sitake era. However, the model actually leans toward an 9-4 season. And before you ask, yes, I’m a statistics nerd and I built my own database that runs all of the scenarios to spit out the odds of each game being won or lost and then provide the total chances for each win total. Based on my model, here are the chances of BYU finishing the regular season with a given number of wins and the total odds that BYU finishes with at least that many wins:

So if you’re banking on an undefeated regular season for BYU, I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but assuming my individual game probabilities turn out to be anywhere close to accurate, then you’re probably going to be disappointed. My model gives BYU about a 1-in-667 chance of putting together an undefeated regular season. Many pundits surmise that with the strength of BYU’s 2017 schedule, even a 1-loss team may have a shot at the College Football Playoff and definitely a place in an NY6 bowl, provided there aren’t multiple undefeated teams left at that point. But, even the possibility of a 1-loss regular season would only be about 1-in-57 based on these per-game probabilities.

The 2016 model predicted a 7.74-win season and BYU finished the year with 8. With an extra game on the schedule and a softer schedule (after the top 3), this year’s model predicts 9.02 regular season wins, an increase of 1.28. So, it would appear that 9 wins is a pretty good baseline for 2017. The question is: what should we expect for BYU in 2017? Here are the words I would use to describe each regular season win total for the upcoming BYU football season:

  • 6 wins or fewer – Unacceptable: Based on my model, there’s almost a 98% chance that BYU will finish the regular season with enough wins to qualify for a bowl game. I think it’s fair to say that it would be an extremely disappointing season if the Cougars are forced to stay home in December.
  • 7 wins – Disappointing: If BYU ends the season with 7 wins (90% likely), I’ll feel that this team’s potential was not fully realized and that the team took a step back from 2016. It would likely mean losses to all five of BYU Sports Nation’s “Furious Five” (LSU, Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Utah, and Boise State) and then an additional road loss to a team like East Carolina or Hawaii. I can’t see myself being happy with that result.
  • 8 wins – Slightly Disheartening: An eight-win regular season would probably mean that BYU lost all five of the Furious Five and won the remaining games. Considering that BYU will likely be favored in at least two of those five and that the probabilities predict two wins among those games, it would certainly be disappointing to lose all five. One could make the case that if a Utah win is among the 8, the season would feel successful, but a season that includes losses to LSU, Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Boise State, and Hawaii still feels like a step back from a 2016 season with three P5 wins and four losses by a total of only eight points. If my per-game probabilities are anywhere close to accurate, there’s a 75% chance that BYU will finish with at least 8 wins. And so, it would be hard to convince me that BYU has met expectations with only 8 wins in 2017.
  • 9 wins – Expected; Acceptable: BYU has almost exactly a 50% chance of winning 9 or more regular season games in 2017. That places 9 wins as an “average” season (half of the simulated seasons result in 9 or more wins and half of the simulations result in fewer than nine wins). As such, I would generally feel fine with a 9-win season, but with an extra game and coming off an 8-win regular season in 2016, I would sense a bit of stagnation and no real progress from last year. If Utah turns out to be one of those 9 wins and/or if BYU is chosen for and wins a decent bowl game against a solid opponent, I would have a much brighter sense of optimism heading into the 2018 offseason. But there are certainly individual game outcomes that could leave me feeling equally pessimistic as well. I’ve been telling people for months: Nine wins (including one over Utah) is the baseline for success in 2017.
  • 10 wins – Great: I would be extremely happy if BYU manages to win 10 games this season. According to the model, there’s about a 1-in-4 chance that we’ll see a win total that high. A 10-win regular season would mean probable losses to LSU, Wisconsin, and Mississippi State, a win over Utah, and certain improvement over 2016’s 8-win campaign. It would mean that BYU is on the rise moving forward. A solid 2018 recruiting class would build the hype even further toward the difficult road schedule that awaits in 2018 (Arizona, Wisconsin, Washington, Boise State, and Utah).
  • 11 wins – Among the best BYU teams ever: There’s only a 9% chance that the 2017 Cougars will put everything together well enough to win at least 11 games. It would mean only two losses against a slate of teams including LSU, Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Utah, and Boise State. Those are 3 quality wins and you have to figure that BYU would be ranked in the Top 25 and at least in consideration for a NY6 bowl game. And if that were the case, you’d have to rank an 11-win season among the top 5 or 10 greatest seasons in BYU history.
  • 12 wins – Dream; Possibly the best All-time BYU team: As mentioned earlier, if BYU were to run through this schedule and emerge with only one loss, you’d have to figure the Cougars would be a shoo-in for a New Year’s Six bowl and potentially in the CFP conversation. And if that were to be the case, the 2017 team would be in the conversation to be the best team in the history of BYU football. A 1-in-57 season would certainly be the dream scenario for 2017.
  • 13 wins – Next to Impossible; The best All-time at BYU: If BYU were to pull off the unthinkable and finish the season with 13 wins (remember that 1-in-667 chance?), a trip to the College Football Playoff would be the likely outcome, barring an absurd shun by the Selection Committee. And just having the opportunity to win a National Championship on the field in today’s college football landscape would rank the 2017 team as the best ever to play at BYU.

What’s my prediction for 2017? Let’s first look back at my 2016 prediction to see how accurate I was:

“I see an 8-4 season. I think BYU will go 4-4 in its first four games, winning: at home against Toledo, one of the neutral games, and two of Utah/Mississippi St./Boise St./UCLA. But I see the Cougars finishing strong with four November wins heading into the Poinsettia Bowl (a likely win against a Mountain West opponent) and into the 2017 season.”

Not too shabby. BYU did go 4-4 through the first eight, finish with four November wins and a Poinsettia Bowl win against a MWC team. The only way I could have improved on that guess would have been to trade a predicted loss at Michigan State for an extra predicted win against either Utah, Boise State, or UCLA.

In 2017, I see BYU finishing the year with six straight wins, which would match the longest win streak in the BYU independence era. The question is how will BYU fare in the first seven games? I predict the Cougars will go 4-3 with wins against Portland State, Utah State, and 2 more from the group of Boise State, Utah, and Mississippi State. The result? A respectable 10-3 record with losses to two Top 15 teams, likely leaving the Cougars ranked right around the bottom of the Top 25.

What are your thoughts? Join the discussion by adding your own prediction in the comment section below or on Cougarboard.