Expectations for Florida State in 2013

Most media pundits have dismissed Florida State as a National Title contender due to a lack of experience, assuming that NFL draft took too many star players making 2013 a bit of a rebuilding year. But this Seminole team is actually more loaded than the 2012 team that was as good as any in the country for 46 of 48 regular-season quarters. Here, we break down realistic expectations for 2013.

At the beginning of every year, most message boards and media outlets spend a good bit of time attempting to project the season to come. This is of course a big part of what makes college football so fun. Between recruiting, spring football, a long offseason, and a full week between games during the season, more time is spent on evaluation, analysis, and predictions than on actually watching or participating in the games themselves.

That said, it's usually better to start the year with realistic expectations than with the unreasonable optimism most fanbases (encouraged by many media members) bring into every year. Reasonable expectations leave room for the variance caused by things like luck and injuries, understanding that sometimes the better team doesn't win. That's why they play the game, after all.

For those of us who played sports ourselves, this involves a difficult transition in our thought process. Every team and player should go into every year believing they can and will win every game. If you don't believe you can win, you're pretty much guaranteed to be right. But the expectations of fans and media really don't affect the performance of the team (as much as we might often feel otherwise), and realistic expectations often differ from realistic goals.

For example, it is reasonable—and should be expected—for Alabama's coaches and players to set a goal for a third straight national championship this year. But it is unreasonable for anyone outside their team to expect them to meet that goal. Alabama has as good a shot as any team to win it all, but their odds of not winning the title are significantly higher than their odds of winning it. Thus when setting expectations for the year, a healthy understanding of probability and variance is especially helpful.

Win Shares

That is where most fans and media members go wrong when assessing an upcoming season. When looking forward to the season, nearly everyone produces a projection that looks something like this:

@ Pitt W
Nevada: W
Bethune Cookman: W
@ Boston College: W
Maryland: W
@ Clemson: L
NC State: W
Miami: W
@ Wake Forest: W
Syracuse: W
Idaho: W
@ Florida: L
Final Record: 10-2 (7-1 ACC)

The problem is that this sort of projection does not adequately account for the statistical variance of college football. Important players—like Brandon Jenkins or Chris Thompson—get injured. Footballs take weird bounces. Sometimes the defense tips the ball into the air and intercepts it. Other times the tipped ball gets caught for a touchdown or is tipped away from a sure interception (like Terrance Brooks' late tip against NC State last year). Upsets happen. The result is that fans of good teams consistently tend to overestimate their team's final record, setting themselves up for disappointment.

A better approach is to apply the concept of win shares to a season, establishing a reasonable probability for each game and then adding these probabilities together to establish a final expected win total. Each game is thereby treated as an independent trial with its own odds (like a coin flip or a single hand of poker) and the season as the sum total of those trials, thus accommodating for variance.

One standard way of setting odds for each game is to look at the point spreads. To some degree, that's what those guessing wins and losses at the beginning of the year are doing also. But most don't realize how often even sizable favorites lose: fourteen point favorites only win approximately 80% of the time. This means that in terms of expectations, a team that is thought to be two scores better than its opponent on average actually loses 20% of the time. The key from here is to understand compound probability. The odds of an equally-weighted coin coming up heads is 50%. But the odds of it coming up heads twice in a row is only 25% (50% x 50%). Compound probability suggests that over the course of a football season, even if a team a seventeen point favorite in every game—giving it a 90% chance to win each individual game—that team still has only a 10% chance of going undefeated (12 games x 90% probability). That is why it is rare even for an outstanding team with an easy schedule (like Boise State the last few years) to go undefeated, and why unbeaten seasons are so rare in general.

Expectations for 2013

Given an understanding of compound probability, what might realistic expectations look like for this FSU season? The current betting lines produce an over/under mark around 10.5, as shown here. But we can get more granular than that, as gambling lines are often skewed somewhat due to a team's popularity or the level of respect for a team's conference.

Starting from the

Those numbers put the most likely overall result at either 10-2 or 11-1, with the most likely conference result at 7-1. With help from the Simplified Football database, here are a few other notable totals (SF denotes straightforward adoption of the Simplified Football win total):

While it looks like the bookmakers basically hit the FSU over/under win total right on the button, some of these other numbers are quite interesting—especially Clemson's. The Seminoles, not the Tigers, are actually the most likely winner of the Atlantic Division, as Clemson is most likely to wind up with two conference losses. The ACC Coastal Division is a mess, with North Carolina a very slight favorite in a five-team race.

Just as interesting are the win totals from other conferences. The odds are not in favor of an Alabama repeat, largely due to an improvement in the middle and bottom portions of the SEC (more on that in a future column). If these numbers are accurate, it is quite reasonable to think Florida State has a decent shot at an appearance in the national title game in 2013.

Football Outsiders has provided another statistically-based stab at win totals, pegging FSU at 10.6 (7.2), Clemson at 9.3 (6.6), Oregon at 11.4 (8.4), and Alabama at 11.7 (7.8). Although the expectations for Oregon and Alabama vary somewhat, those assessments of Clemson are remarkably similar to our estimates.

In three years, Jimbo Fisher has managed to reset what reasonable expectations look like in Tallahassee. Whereas many fans and media had slightly higher than reasonable expectations for Florida State last year (whereas this site was likely the only media outlet to have pegged the NC State game as a probable loss for the ‘Noles in last year's preseason), it appears the opposite is true coming into 2013.

Pundits often place too much value on the quarterback position (in particular experience at that position) while neglecting the line of scrimmage, which is where games are won and lost as often as not. FSU is poised to have possibly the best pair of lines (taken together) in the nation, and the schedule sets up so well that an eleven-win regular season and appearance in the ACC Championship Game is not an unreasonable expectation, though a bit on the optimistic side. Provided the new defense and young quarterback manage to survive a tough road opener against Pitt, Seminole fans can reasonably have high hopes for this season.

Whether that results in a championship season of course depends to a very large extent on luck. Alabama, for example, managed to back into the title game due to late upsets in its last two championship seasons and benefited from an unusual injury to star Texas quarterback Colt McCoy in 2009. If any of those incidents goes the other way, we may not be talking about a string of Alabama dominance coming into this year.

On the opposite side, in the words of Bill Connelly, "Florida State was really, really good in 2012. For 46 of 48 regular season quarters, this may have been one of the two or three best teams in the country." Yes, the 2012 'Noles lost two games they led going into the fourth quarter. But if you keep producing that kind of quality—and add a little more depth and experience to the mix—you put yourself in position to get the kinds of breaks Alabama has gotten the past few years. And this FSU team does look like it may indeed be good enough put itself in a position to get lucky.

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