Cardinal Numbers: The Home Field Disadvantage

For those of us obsessed with the collection, analysis, interpretation and presentation of data, Columnist Terry Johnson herewith provides his weekly numerical musings, delving deeply into the statistical context of Stanford's apparently AWOL "home field advantage" and exploring the mysteries of the program's recent case of the Bye Week Blues.

Nine in a row.

After last week's loss to UCLA, Stanford now has lost nine straight games on its home field.

In the 116 years of the Stanford Football program, Stanford had never lost nine consecutive home games. Not under Buddy Teevens. Not under Paul Wiggin. Not even under Cactus Jack Curtice.

The longest home field losing streak in Stanford history had been eight games. That dubious mark was set when Stanford lost its last two home games of 1959 and all six home games during its winless 1960 season. That eight game home field losing streak ended with a victory over Tulane in the 1961 season opener.

The current home field losing streak began in October 2005, a week after Stanford defeated Arizona State at home, 45-35. Stanford lost its last three home games in 2005, all five home games in 2006, and its first home game this year. The losing streak began in the old stadium and carried over into the new stadium. Stanford came close to winning a couple of times during the streak. One of the losses was in overtime. Another loss came in the last minute, after a late Stanford comeback had given Stanford the lead. The nine losses:

2005UCLA27-30 (OT)
2005Notre Dame31-38
2006Washington St.10-36
2006Oregon St.7-30

Stanford did win some games during this time, but the wins were on the road.

So, what happened to the home field advantage? Should we conclude that Stanford gets no advantage from playing on its home field?

I don't think so. On the contrary, the data show that Stanford has had a significant, well-established, long-term, home field advantage. That home field advantage has been remarkably steady over the years. Stanford's home field advantage has held up through good times and bad, through coach after coach, whether attendance was good or not so good. The home field advantage even survived Buddy Teevens. Statistically, the home field advantage showed up in Stanford's W/L record year after year until the last two seasons, under Walt Harris.

I looked at Stanford's home and road records for every season starting with John Ralston's first season in 1963. The data consistently show a markedly higher winning percentage at home than on the road from 1963 through 2004. Since then, the opposite has been true:

Home Record vs. Road Record, 1963-2006
(excludes bowl games and other neutral site games)
YearsCoach Home
1963-1971Ralston 33-16-220-20-1.667.500+.167
1972-1976Christiansen 16-10-114-12-2.611.536+.075
1977-1978Walsh I 9-26-5.818.545+.273
1979Dowhower 4-31-2-1.571.375+.196
1980-1983Wiggin 9-137-15.409.318+.091
1984-1988Elway 14-13-110-15-1.518.404+.114
1989-1991Green 10-86-9.556.400+.156
1992-1994Walsh II 10-86-8-1.556.433+.123
1995-2001Willingham 25-15-118-18.622.500+.122
2002-2004Teevens 8-92-14.471.125+.346
Total 1963-2004 138-97-5 90-118-6 .585 .435 +.150
2005-2006Harris 1-105-7.091.417-.326

So, under every Stanford coach before Harris, Stanford had a higher winning percentage on its home field than on the road. Of course, that in itself doesn't necessarily show that there's a home field advantage. We need to consider whether Stanford's home schedule was significantly easier than its road schedule. Some schools habitually schedule non-conference patsies at home without giving them return dates on the road. That type of scheduling tends to inflate the home field winning percentage.

Stanford, however, generally doesn't do that. With one exception, Stanford generally fills its non-conference schedule with home-and-home dates against competitive non-conference opponents, which shouldn't give an undue boost to Stanford's home field winning percentage.

The exception, of course, is San Jose State. We all know that San Jose State isn't a patsy. But Stanford does have a relatively high winning percentage against San Jose State (.720 in the years 1963-2004). Almost all of those games are played at home. Playing San Jose State on our home field almost every year has helped Stanford's home field winning percentage over the long run.

To see whether Stanford's statistical home field advantage was due to the San Jose State game, I removed all games against San Jose State from the statistics. It turns out that even after excluding the San Jose State games, Stanford still has had a higher winning percentage on its home field than on the road. Every Stanford coach still had a statistical home field edge, up until the last two seasons:

Home Record vs. Road Record, 1963-2006
(excludes San Jose State games, bowl games, neutral site games)
YearsCoach Home
1963-1971Ralston 25-15-220-20-1.619.500+.119
1972-1976Christiansen 13-914-12-2.591.536+.055
1977-1978Walsh I 7-26-5.778.545+.233
1979Dowhower 3-31-2-1.500.375+.125
1980-1983Wiggin 8-107-15.444.318+.126
1984-1988Elway 10-12-110-15-1.457.404+.053
1989-1991Green 10-66-9.625.400+.225
1992-1994Walsh II 7-86-8-1.467.433+.034
1995-2001Willingham 23-12-116-18.653.471+.182
2002-2004Teevens 5-92-14.357.125+.232
Total 1963-2004 111-86-4 88-118-6 .562 .429 +.133
2005-2006Harris 1-105-6.091.455-.364

Statistically, then, Stanford has had a home field advantage over the years, and it's not because of the San Jose State games. Stanford's home field advantage persisted even in years with lower attendance. In fact, the home field advantage appeared to be more pronounced in the Teevens years, as attendance slackened. The home field advantage therefore didn't seem to depend merely on the level of attendance at home games.

But that home field advantage seemed to disappear in the last two seasons. What happened? Where did the home field advantage go?

It seems that Stanford's lousy home record over the last two seasons is due in part to a quirk of the schedule. Stanford has been struggling of late, and it has been hard to find wins anywhere. The best recipe for a win would be to play a weak opponent at home. As the football fates would have it, however, Stanford has faced an unusual run of home games against decent teams, without any weak opponents on the home schedule. During Stanford's run of nine straight losses at home, every one of Stanford's nine opponents has ended up bowl-eligible at the end of the season. (UCLA is not yet bowl-eligible this year, of course, but probably will be.) Those nine opponents have finished their seasons with a cumulative record of 71-31. Not one of those nine opponents has ended up with a losing record. For a struggling Stanford team, this has been a tough run of opponents, with no real soft spots on the schedule. So, to some extent, Stanford's recent home field woes have been just a fluke, with no weaklings on the schedule at a time when Stanford really could have used one.

Still, that's not a full explanation. The nine opponents that have beaten Stanford on its home turf hardly have been invincible. Four of those nine opponents were actually teams that Stanford defeated on the road the previous year. One would think that Stanford, with the benefit of the home field advantage, could have knocked off at least one of them. Stanford hasn't been a very good team lately, but even teams that aren't very good can rise up and beat somebody they shouldn't have beaten once in a while, especially at home. But it hasn't happened.

That leads to the question of whether Stanford really has lost some of the intangibles that give a team its home field advantage. During the last two years, has Stanford lost some of its confidence, some of its mental edge? It would not be surprising if this were to have happened during Walt Harris' tenure. Harris doesn't strike me as a coach whose attitude and temperament would be conducive to inspiring confidence. But that's just speculation...

Whatever it was that happened, Stanford needs to get its home field advantage back. Stanford needs to show some pride, some ownership, some attitude. We have a faithful group of students who display a banner proclaiming that they believe in Stanford Football. Stanford's coaches and players need to give the rest of us a reason to believe. Stanford needs to take its home field on Saturday against San Jose State with confidence, with conviction, with swagger.

Nine in a row is enough. The home field losing streak needs to stop now. Stanford needs to reclaim its home field advantage, starting this week.

Random Numbers

Stanford gained 15 yards last week without playing a game. An adjustment to the statistics of the Stanford-UCLA game gave Stanford another 15 passing yards. That gives Stanford 398 yards of total offense against UCLA. But for the sack on the last play, Stanford would have exceeded 400 yards. T.C. Ostrander now has 346 passing yards for the season, and 303 yards of total offense. Jason Evans was credited with the extra 15 receiving yards...

On the flip side, the adjustments to last week's statistics gave Stanford another 15 penalty yards. This relates to a play in the second quarter on which Jason Evans was penalized 15 yards for an illegal block. Apparently, somebody incorrectly deducted the 15 yards from Stanford's passing yardage, rather than recording it as penalty yardage...

Stanford hasn't played a home game against San Jose State since 2004. Stanford didn't have San Jose State on the schedule in 2005, and last year's game was at Spartan Stadium. The last time Stanford went two consecutive seasons without a home game against San Jose State was 1946-1947...

Stanford won its last three home games against San Jose State by a combined score of 137-39...

Stanford is just 4-4 against San Jose State since 1998 (3-3 at home, 1-1 on the road)...

San Jose State's wins against Stanford tend to occur in multi-year streaks. Before last year, San Jose State's most recent wins against Stanford came in a three-year SJSU winning streak in 1998-2000; a three-out-of-four-year streak in 1987-1990; and a three-year streak in 1981-1983. Let's hope last year's win by SJSU wasn't the start of a new multi-year winning streak for the Spartans...

Stanford is coming off a bye week, which hasn't been good news in recent years. Stanford has lost five games in a row following bye weeks (three of those losses were to USC). The last time Stanford won following a bye week was in 2003, when Stanford won at BYU...

Stanford has lost four straight times when playing at home following a bye week. The last time Stanford won at home after a bye week was in 2001, when Stanford defeated Arizona State after an unscheduled bye week due to 9/11...

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