Loyal Cougars

Setting 2018 Expectations in 3 Easy Steps

Loyal Cougars Editor Brandon Jones uses Athlon’s “Way-Too-Early College Football Rankings” to set early objective expectations for BYU football’s 2018 season.

Athlon Sports became the first national sports outlet to release a 2018 full FBS ranking this week when Steven Lassan published his Way-Too-Early College Football 130 Team Rankings for 2018. It’s never too early to set expectations for the upcoming season, and these rankings provide us the first objective, non-blue-goggled look at where BYU’s prospects lie for the upcoming season. Theoretically, if we simulate BYU’s 2018 schedule using these rankings, it should provide us a look at what can be expected, or predicted, based on BYU’s current position in the college football landscape. But, even a quick look at the rankings can lead to a variety of conclusions, as we saw on Twitter today. @CougarStats posted this list of BYU’s opponent rankings:

This post was followed by several win-loss predictions ranging from this:

to this highly blue-goggled analysis (likely based more on BYU’s history than these particular rankings):

When setting our own expectations for 2018, I think it’s important to remember that there is a difference between the expected outcomes and what is required to save head coach Kalani Sitake’s job or to return to historical BYU levels or to satisfy the fan base–a fan base notorious for placing its expectations significantly higher than those prognosticated by the national outlets. The models may say that BYU’s 2018 season will most likely look very similar to 2017, along the lines of a 4-8 season, but that doesn’t mean that such a season will keep the fanbase happy or allow Sitake to retain his employment (it likely will not on either count). With that in mind, I first set out to determine what type of season these rankings predict. I will then use that information to inform my own hopes and wishes for 2018 when combined with additional information not held by the national media.

If you aren’t familiar with my analysis, I lean heavily on math. But, I’ve tried to break down my thought process in using these rankings to predict a win-loss record for the Cougars in 2018.

Step 1: Convert the Rankings into an expected Point Spread for each game

I used a Predictive Ranking from the end of the 2017 season to determine an expected Point Spread for each game on BYU’s schedule. I only compared the relative rankings for each position in the rankings from last year, assuming a similar distribution of ability in 2018. As an example, the #1 team was 11.3 points better than the #11 team on a neutral field, but the #11 team was only 5.9 points better than the #21 team on a neutral field. I compared the rankings for each of BYU’s opponents (shown above) to BYU’s ranking (#92) and factored in the recommended 3.5 points for home field. So, if we take Arizona as an example, there’s a 15.4-point difference between the 32nd-ranked team and the #92 team, plus 3.5 points since the game is in Tucson, gives an expected spread of Arizona by 18.9 points for the 2018 opener. Based on the Athlon rankings, here are the predicted spreads for each 2018 opponent:

Step 2: Convert the expected Point Spreads into Win Probabilities

With these Point Spreads, I used a database of every College Football result since 2003 to determine the likelihood of winning each game based on a given Point Spread. Based on this data and the calculated Point Spreads from Step 1, the expected Win Probabilities for each game are:

Step 3: Convert the expected Win Probabilities into an expected Win-Loss Record

Using methods I’ve discussed previously (as in this 2017 Season Preview piece), I used a probability model to provide the expected probabilities of each win total based on the individual per-game win probabilities. Here are the chances of BYU winning X number of games based on Athlon’s early rankings:

These probabilities are only as accurate as the per-game win probabilities. Last year’s preseason win probabilities predicted a 99.5% chance of a 5-win season or better, but injuries, player personnel changes, and unexpectedly poor coaching/schemes dropped the per-game probabilities well below what was expected prior to the season. Based on the these 2018 probabilities, there is a 61% chance that BYU will finish with 5 or more wins, but only a 28% chance that the Cougars will win 6 or more games. Therefore, the median win-loss total (half of the simulations predict more wins and half predict fewer) lies somewhere between 5 and 6 wins. BYU’s expected record is approximately 5.3-6.7. In other words, due to a combination of factors (changes in strength of schedule from 2017 to 2018, changes in BYU’s and opponents’ personnel, coaching/scheme changes, etc.), Athlon’s rankings essentially predict an increase of 1.3 wins for BYU in 2018. One could say that a 6-6 record would be slightly better than expected while a 5-7 record would be ever so slightly less than expected.


With the small amount that we’ve seen from the new coaching staff, offensive scheme changes, and 2018 newcomers, it’s difficult for me to predict more than 6 wins at this early stage. I certainly see things heading in the right direction, and I’m finding it more and more difficult to put a ceiling on this season’s potential. Certainly the Wisconsin and Washington road games are near-certain losses at this point, but with continued steps in the right direction, there’s no reason BYU couldn’t be competitive in every other game on the schedule.

I also hope and believe that some of those early spreads will shift in BYU’s favor as the offseason progresses and we see more and more progress offensively. I don’t really think BYU will be a 1.5-point underdog at home against Northern Illinois. But, the only way to gauge the accuracy of these expectations is to actually play football. And certainly, BYU’s first two games will provide a good barometer for BYU’s actual place in the college football universe. Will the Cougars lose by 19 and 9 points to Arizona and Cal respectively, will the games be more competitive, or will BYU even find a way to win one or even both? There’s just no way to know for sure until the games are played.

For now, the more interesting questions surround Coach Sitake’s future at BYU. It seems a foregone conclusion that another 4-win season (more of the same) would signal the end of the Sitake era in Provo. And I have to believe that a 6-6 season and a return to a bowl game would keep Kalani around for at least another year. But what about 5-7? Is that enough improvement (and close enough to these national “expectations”) to keep things from burning down? Would it then depend on other factors- such as which games were won (certainly a 5-win season including a win at Utah would earn Sitake another year)? Let’s just hope we don’t have to find out the answers to these questions.

At least for now, I feel comfortable and even optimistic in predicting/expecting 6 wins for BYU in 2018. That total may increase as optimism reigns supreme during the long summer months, but until the games are played and BYU’s “return to glory” is official, this is where we are. And with five true road games against teams ranked in the Top 32 of these rankings, there’s no reason to be disappointed if BYU finds a way to win 6 of its remaining 7 games.

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