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Just The Sports: 2009-11-08

Just The Sports

Friday, November 13, 2009

Behind The Wins

The University of Iowa's loss to Northwestern last Saturday that put their win-loss record at 9-1 was the best thing that could happen to college football this year. Before the loss, the Iowa Hawkeyes were the media's darling for this season, unworthily reaching #4 in the BCS rankings. There was even talk from various pundits that they were worthy of going to the national championship title game if they continued to go undefeated. These sentiments came despite the fact the Hawkeyes were obviously struggling week in and week out to defeat even mediocre opponents and even the Iowa head coach, Kirk Ferentz, admitted his team was deeply flawed.

How right he was. The truth is that not only are the 2009 edition of the Hawkeyes not dominant enough in their games to be mentioned among the truly elite of college football, this team is not even as good as the Hawkeyes from last year who went 6-4 in their first ten games. What difference there is between the two squads in their win-loss records is largely a result of luck. Last year, the Hawkeyes were 1-4 in their games decided by 7 points or fewer; this season, they have been 4-1 in those games. Due to their improvement in the ability to win close contests, one could not be blamed for thinking the Hawkeyes had improved overall as a team. However, they have not.

On offense, the two squads are largely identical except when it comes to running the ball. The Hawkeyes were considerably better last year running the ball, averaging 4.7 yards per carry in their first ten games, substantially better than the 3.4 yards per carry of this season. This should come as no surprise since the Hawkeyes lost their leading rusher of last year, Shonn Greene, to the NFL along with losing Jewel Hampton for the season due to injury. Passing-wise, the offensive numbers are largely identical. While the completion percentage favors the 2008 squad (58.8% to 53.9%) and the yards per catch favor the 2009 team (14.0 to 12.5), the yards per attempt favor neither (7.4 in 2008 to 7.5 in 2009), indicating that the Hawkeye quarterbacks are going downfield more often this year than last for lower-percentage, higher-reward completions. With such a downturn in their rushing offense, the 2009 Hawkeyes are averaging 4.5 fewer points a game than in 2008.

The Hawkeyes on defense across the two seasons have been more of the same. Against opponents' quarterbacks, the pass defense has been a little more stingy this season, allowing a completion percentage of 50.8% and 5.5 yards per pass attempt contrasted with opposing quarterbacks completing 54.1% of their passes for 5.8 yards per pass attempt in 2008. The 2009 Hawkeyes are also slightly better at creating turnovers; through ten games, the Hawkeyes have a turnover margin of +5. Last year, in the same time frame, the 2008 Hawkeyes had a turnover margin of +3. Yet, the advantages the 2009 Hawkeye defense holds over the 2008 version has not translated into lower scores for their opponents. The 2008 Hawkeyes held their opponents to 1.7 fewer points per game (14.2 to 15.9).

Lastly, there is the matter of point differential. More accurate than win-loss records, point differential really indicates how good a team is because the win-loss record does not differentiate between a one-point win or a twenty-five point blowout. The higher a team's point differential, the more dominant that team is and usually, the better that team will play in the future. Since that is the case, it is hard to fathom why the 2009 Hawkeyes are seen as such an improvement over the 2008 team when you factor in that in 2008, Iowa outscored their opponents by 144 points through ten games while this season the Hawkeyes have only outscored their foes by 82 points. Everything which can be considered, outside of a misleading win-loss record, points to the Hawkeyes being largely the same team this season that they were the last one.

All sport aficianados, pollsters especially, should recognize the fact that not all wins are created equal and behind the wins, there can often be another reality entirely as there is with the Iowa Hawkeyes. Armed with the entire repertoire of knowledge about the two teams, it should be obvious to all that Kirk Ferentz should not be praised for being one of the top coaches in college football. As I wrote two years ago, conclusions I have yet to be forced to adjust, Kirk Ferentz largely fields mediocre teams that have one lucky season every three or four years. The 2009 season just happens to be one of his lucky ones.