Opening Game Importance

terry has long provided thoughtful and thorough analysis of Stanford football, backed with careful reason and hard numbers. So it should come as no surprise that he has some very valuable answers to the question: "How huge is this first game for Stanford's 2001 season?" The answer isn't quite what you might expect...

We've been waiting for nine months to get a look at this year's team.  The opening game will tell us a lot about what kind of team we're going to have this year.  We all know how important it is to get off to a good start.  A win will get us on the right track and will set the stage for a successful season.  Right?

Uh, maybe not.

It turns out that a victory in the opening game is not a very good predictor of success.  In fact, recent statistics tell us that we are better off losing our opener.

I know that seems counter-intuitive.  You would expect a good team to be more likely to win its opening game, while a bad team would be more likely to lose.  Over the long run, you would think that there should be some correlation between the result in the first game and the result for the season.

That once was true.  I looked at the last 50 years of Stanford football, starting with Chuck Taylor's first season as coach in 1951.  From 1951 through 1971, there was a strong correlation between the opening game result and the success of the season.  Stanford had a record of 15-6 in its openers during that period.  In the 15 seasons that Stanford won its opening game, Stanford had a combined winning percentage of .581, with 11 seasons at .500 or better and only 4 losing seasons.  In three of those seasons, Stanford went to the Rose Bowl.  On the other hand, in the 6 seasons that Stanford started off with a loss, Stanford had a combined winning percentage of only .358, with only one season above .500, no seasons with more than 6 wins, and no bowl appearances.

Winning the first game also was a good predictor of success in the Big Game.  During the 1951-71 time period, when Stanford won its opener, Stanford had a 10-5 record in the Big Game.  When Stanford lost its opening game, its Big Game record was only 1-4-1.

But things have changed.  From 1972 (Jack Christiansen's first season as coach) through the present, the result of the first game has had no relationship to Stanford's final record.  From 1972 through 2000, Stanford has had a opening game record of 8-20-1.  In the seasons Stanford opened with a win, Stanford's combined winning percentage was .517, with 4 winning seasons and 4 losing seasons.  In the years Stanford started off with a loss, Stanford's combined winning percentage was .507, with 10 winning seasons, 9 losing seasons, and 1 season at .500.  Those records are virtually indistinguishable.  In fact, from 1972 to the present, Stanford actually has done better in the Big Game in seasons that started with a loss:  Stanford is 4-4 in the Big Game in years that started with a win, and 15-4-1 in seasons that started with a loss.

Looking at the more recent past, the overall trend runs exactly opposite to expectations.  In the last 10 seasons (1991 through 2000), Stanford has done better when it loses its first game than when it wins the opener.  In the three seasons Stanford won its first game, its combined winning percentage was .515, with 1 winning season and 2 losing seasons.  But in the seasons Stanford opened with a loss, Stanford's combined winning percentage was .563, with 4 winning seasons and 2 losing seasons.  Since 1991, 4 of Stanford's 5 bowl games (including the Rose Bowl) have come in seasons where Stanford lost its opening game.  In fact, in seasons where Stanford lost its first game, it has won 2 more games during the remainder of the season than in seasons where it won its first game.  

In the Big Game, Stanford has dominated since 1991 regardless of whether it wins or loses its first game:  Stanford is 3-0 in the Big Game in seasons that opened with a win, and 5-1 in seasons that opened with a loss.   (Stanford opened with a tie once, losing the Big Game that year.)

I'm not saying we should hope Stanford loses this Saturday.  But the stats tell us that a loss is not a disaster.  In fact, over the last decade, a loss has been more likely than a win to signal a good season.  We all know Stanford's Rose Bowl two years ago came in a season that started with a loss.  It turns out that this is more the rule than the exception, at least in recent history. . . .


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