Cardinal Numbers: Season Openers

Our in-house statistician occasionally pours through his extensive collection of media guides. 11 years ago on this site, he first addressed the question: "How huge is this first game for Stanford's 2001 season?" Now with additional data available, we asked "Terry2" to revisit his conclusions with regard to what we might expect after the result of our season opener next Friday night vs. Sparta.

On the eve of the 2001 season, I wrote a short article for The Bootleg in which I looked at this question: Is the result of Stanford's opening game a good indication of how the season will turn out? In particular, if Stanford wins The Opening game, is that an indication that Stanford will have a winning record for the season? And does a loss in the opener suggest that Stanford will have a losing record for the season?

My conclusion was that in the 1950s and 1960s, there had been a connection between the result of the opening game and having a winning or losing season, but that had not been the case since then. Rather, since the early 1970s, Stanford had been just as likely to have a winning season when it lost the opening game as when it won the opener.

Of course, times have changed. The Bootleg recently asked me to update my research on this issue. My conclusion is that things seem to have changed starting in 2006. In recent years, the result of Stanford's opening game once again has become a pretty good indicator of the final record.

My research covers the period since 1951. From 1951 through 1971, there was a pretty good connection between the result of Stanford's opening game and the success of Stanford's season:

Opening Game Result and Overall Season Record
1951-1971
 Won Opening GameLost Opening Game
Number of Seasons156
Number of Seasons
with Winning Record
81
Number of Seasons
with .500 Record
32
Number of Seasons
with Losing Record
43
Combined Winning Pct.
in All Such Seasons
.581.358

But things changed. Starting in 1972, Stanford entered a long period in which the result of the first game had little, if any, relationship to Stanford's final record. The result of the opening game was no better indication of the final record than flipping a coin. That's where things stood when I looked at this issue in 2001. For the next several years, the situation remained the same. The result of the opening game continued to provide little indication of the final record. For example, Stanford won 3 straight opening games in 2003 through 2005, but did not have a winning record in any of those seasons.

Opening Game Result and Overall Season Record
1972-2005
 Won Opening GameLost Opening Game
Number of Seasons1221
Number of Seasons
with Winning Record
510
Number of Seasons
with .500 Record
01
Number of Seasons
with Losing Record
710
Combined Winning Pct.
in All Such Seasons
.507.492
Note: Stanford opened one season with a tie and ended up with
a losing record

Starting in 2006, however, we again began to see a connection between the result of the opening game and Stanford's final record:

Opening Game Result and Overall Season Record
2006-2011
 Won Opening GameLost Opening Game
Number of Seasons42
Number of Seasons
with Winning Record
30
Number of Seasons
with .500 Record
00
Number of Seasons
with Losing Record
12
Combined Winning Pct.
in All Such Seasons
.706.208

Of course, we have only six years of data since 2006. Obviously, it's too early to know whether we're seeing a long-term trend. But for those six years at least, the result of the opening game seems to provide some indication of the final record. In five of those six seasons, the result of the opening game accurately lined up with whether Stanford finished with a winning record or losing record that year. The only exception was in 2008, when Stanford defeated Oregon State in the opening game but ended up with a losing record (5-7).

A disclaimer - This is by no means a scientific analysis. I haven't tried to control for the quality of the opponent. I haven't tried to design or run a regression. I just thought it might be interesting to look at the intuitive issue of whether a win or loss in the first game has been any sort of indication of the final record.

Random Numbers:

- Stanford has won its opening game in each of the last four seasons. Stanford can extend that streak to five straight opening game wins with a victory over San Jose State on August 31. It has been 40 years since Stanford won five straight opening games, going all the way back to the 1968 through 1972 seasons.

- Stanford has a record of 9-3 in its last 12 opening games, starting with the 2000 season. This recent success is a nice change from a long period in which Stanford usually lost the opening game. From 1972 through 1999, Stanford won only seven out of 28 opening games, with a record of 7-20-1.

- This year, Stanford is opening the season in the month of August for only the third time. On August 26, 1992, Stanford lost a heart-breaker to Texas A&M, 10-7, in the Pigskin Classic in Anaheim. On August 28, 2008, Stanford defeated Oregon State, 36-28, at Stanford Stadium.

- Stanford's best opening game coaching records since 1951 belong to David Shaw (1-0), Chuck Taylor (6-1), John Ralston (7-2), and Jim Harbaugh (3-1).

- Stanford's worst opening game coaching records during this period belong, somewhat surprisingly, to Bill Walsh (0-4-1), Denny Green (0-3), and Rod Dowhower (0-1). To be fair to Walsh and Green, they drew a series of particularly tough opponents in their openers. After a recovery of an onside kick with seconds left, Walsh's 1978 team was inches away from a huge upset of fourth-ranked Oklahoma on the final play of the game.


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