Inside the Numbers: Wins in the Pac-10

Here at The Bootleg, we analyzed the difference in each Pac-10 team's number of total wins between consecutive seasons, going back six pairs of seasons. In this "Inside the Numbers" we break down the figures, and see what recent Pac-10 history suggests. How much can we reasonably expect Stanford to improve, both this year and beyond?

Here at The Bootleg, we recorded the total number of wins each Pac-10 team finished with in each season since 2002. In turn, this data allowed us to calculate the difference in each team's number of total wins between consecutive seasons going back six pairs of seasons. For example, here's how the data looks for Stanford.

Stanford wins: '02: 2, '03: 4, '04: 4, '04: 5, '06: 1, '07: 4, '08: 5
Change in Stanford wins: '02-'03: 2, '03-'04: 0, '04-'05: 1,'05-'06: -4, '06-'07: 3, '07-'08: 1

Not a very complicated mathematical process, but tracking wins and change in wins for seven seasons across the Pac-10 paints a pretty complete picture of the landscape. First, and before peeking, guess which teams will have the highest and lowest average win totals since 2002.I'd imagine it'll be 1. USC, 2. Cal and 3. Oregon, with Washington, Stanford and Arizona 8, 9 and 10 in order. (Washington State did win 10 games back in 2002 and 2003, remember?)

Let's see:

Average wins, 2002-2008
1. USC 11.7
2. Cal 8.4
T3. Oregon 8.0
T3. Oregon State 8.0
5. Arizona State 7.3
6. UCLA 6.7
7. Washington State 6.0
8.Arizona 4.4
T9. Washington 3.6
T9. Stanford 3.6

Pretty clear why the conference is viewed as USC and the Nine Dwarfs, and equally clear why us Stanford fans feel our team doesn't get any respect. What really stands out to me is the effect winning has on public perception, because this is pretty close to how Joe Fan would rank the Pac-10 on prestige, with the exception of Oregon State, perennially underrated, and Washington State, which absolutely fell off a cliff in historic fashion.

The next obvious thing we can do with win totals is look at how much they change between each pair of seasons, ignoring whether the change was an increase or decrease. This measure will rank Pac-10 teams by their volatility or, to play off a football buzzword, inconsistency. I'm guessing USC and Oregon State are the most consistent, with UCLA and Arizona State's totals changing the most.

Average change in wins in consecutive seasons, 2002-2008
1. Arizona State 2.8
T2. Oregon 2.5
T2. Washington 2.5
T4. UCLA 2.0
T4. Washington State 2.0
T4. Cal 2.0
7. Stanford 1.8
8. Arizona 1.7
9. Oregon State 1.5
10. USC 0.8

Sure enough, public perception is pretty accurate: the Trojans and the Beavers are consistently awesome and good, respectively, while Arizona State is like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates – truly, you never know what you're going to get.

I think it's also important to look at the average values: 6.8 for total wins and 2.0 for change in wins. Those numbers are of particular import to the Cardinal, given that Stanford five games last year and is excepted to improve and contend for a bowl this season. If the Card have an average change of two wins (we're going to assume it's an improvement, the alternative being simply unfathomable), they'll finish 7-6, as close as they can come to the Pac-10's seven-year 6.8 average.

All but the hardiest of Kool-Aid sippers (and the "national title or bust" coaching staff) would consider a 7-5 season a success for the Card, who would reach their first bowl since 2001 after winning just one game three seasons ago. Be honest, who among us right now wouldn't gladly take 7-5 and a bowl berth for the 2009 season? However, the shock is this: that hypothetical successful season would be almost perfectly average by Pac-10 standards.

At first blush, that news was a sobering dose of reality. Even if Stanford catches its fair share of breaks, even if Stanford avoids crippling injuries, even if an inexperienced quarterback and a questionable back seven rise to the challenge – all necessary for the Card to finish with a winning record, in my opinion – Stanford will still be no better than perfectly average.

On further thought though, that same news should give all us Cardinal fans a sense of optimism. The Card are replacing decidedly below average recruiting classes with signing decidedly above average recruiting classes, by Pac-10 standards. They were below that 7-5 mark for awhile, and with a roster blending the old and new classes, figure to be around that 7-5 mark this season. However, if 7-5 is merely average and the Card are signing top-two or top-three classes in the league, Stanford should be putting 7-5 in the distant rear view mirror in no time soon.

I guess my final takeaway is this: I'm not as optimistic as the rest of the fan base about the Card's chances this upcoming season. Sure, there's a final four of Oregon, at USC, Cal and Notre Dame, which I honestly believe is the toughest four-game stretch in all college football this season. (Okay, maybe the second toughest: Arkansas goes, in order, Georgia, at Alabama, at Texas A&M, Auburn, at Florida, at preseason top-10 Mississippi.) Still, I know the Card are improving drastically, and I do believe 6-6 is a reasonable best guess as to Stanford's final regular season mark. But I also know how much luck factors into football, how thin the line is between winning and losing, and how every team has two or three games each season which could have gone either way. So if Stanford catches the breaks, it'll finish 8-4 and most of the fan base will say "I told you so," and if the Card get unlucky, they'll finish 4-8 and the pessimists will be able to gloat. Neither outcome would really surprise me, and so to make any firm predictions on Stanford's 2009 season seems foolhardy.

So I'm recommending a hold for the 2009 Card's stock, but I think these numbers really shocked my brain into realizing the expectation level come 2011 and beyond. If fifth and sixth place in the Pac-10 are 7-5, and Stanford's signing the second or third-best recruiting classes in the country, nine or ten wins per season will soon no longer be a dream, but a reasonable expectation! Indeed, the second and third-place teams in the Pac-10 have won nine or ten games each of the last three seasons.

So in two years' time, if 9-3 or 10-2 is the baseline and there's a two-game waggle room each season, the pipe dream is no longer 8-4, like it is this year, but national title contention and an undefeated season. Projecting three years into the future is obviously fraught with uncertainty – who'd have thought Stanford would be in this position three years ago – but an objective expectation for Stanford in three seasons' time is nine or ten wins. Maybe watching all those years of drubbings in the old stadium's last days has taken its toll, but that's simply unbelievable to me. Jim Harbaugh and his staff are truly changing the definition of what's possible for Stanford football, and I cannot imagine a more exciting time than now to be a Stanford football fan.

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