Why oddsmakers miss on WSU so badly each week

WASHINGTON STATE has produced a fascinating football season, with the swing in expectations from Week One to today perhaps greater than any team in the nation. Even the most optimistic Cougar fans would have been hard pressed to see WSU winning four of six conference games following the opening pratfall against Portland State. You can't blame Las Vegas for missing the boat on WSU's renaissance.

What's hard to accept is Las Vegas' reluctance to change its thinking about the Cougars.

In conference play, Washington State is a perfect six-for-six against the point spread -- and it hasn't even been close.  Oddsmakers are missing the spread by an average of 13 points per game when it comes to WSU. Those kinds of consistent misses over that long a time span are unheard of.

Over the course of a season, Vegas simply adjusts to the results -- usually.  Teams do have lucky streaks from time to time, but even those tend to involve  some close calls.  But facts are facts:  oddsmakers have yet to get within a touchdown of the 2015 Cougars. That is striking. And even more stunning is that all indications are that they wouldn't change the old lines if they had it to do over again!

Take Saturday's 7:45 p.m. WSU game at UCLA.

As of Friday morning, the 6-3/4-2 Cougars are a 10 1/2-point underdog to the Bruins. Struggling Oregon State was a mere 16 1/2-point underdog to the Bruins a week ago. The oddsmakers aren't just saying the Bruins are better than WSU, they are saying WSU isn't much better than Oregon State (2-7, 0-6 Pac-12).

Indeed, Las Vegas seems to be standing behind the minus-8 point line they gave the Cougs against the Beavers a month ago, even though the Cougars thoroughly dominated that meeting.

It’s clear the oddsmakers aren't changing their stance on the 2015 Cougars because the computers they rely on aren't changing their (dismal) opinion of WSU.  Analyzing the why of it all boils down to a bias against wins and for certain statistical metrics the Cougars aren't built to beat.

Bill Connolly's S&P+ ratings is one of the most respected football analytics.  It emphasizes five fundemental elements to a team's success: efficiency, exposiveness, field position, finishing ability and failure rate.  WSU's rating here stands at a lowly No. 75 in the country -- and it is falling!

The Cougars’ near-victory over mighty Stanford, for example, did them no good.  And the Cougs' win over Arizona State actually resulted in WSU dropping five spots.

How so? Let's count the ways.

1. WSU fails to control field position

If the computers do have a point Cougar fans would concede, it is on special teams.  Despite some decent showings the past two games, the Cougar special teams have done poorly when it comes to the field position battle.  Teams that are generally successful and show up well in computer ratings work on a short field and keep their opponents pinned deep in theirs.  WSU does neither.

Even in victory, WSU seems to work a long field.  Last week against ASU, WSU had just one possession that started outside of their own 30-yard line, and three that began inside their own six-yard line.

2. WSU's points per play is too low

WSU's offense runs a ton of plays every game, something compounded by the bad field position.  As a result the Cougar offense – to the computers - looks weak and plodding on a points per play basis.

3. WSU has too many negative or zero-yard plays

Efficient offenses generally avoid unproductive plays.  Computers rate teams on a premise that offenses that go five yards a pop are much harder to stop than ones that post two straight plays for zero yards followed by …15 yards!  As often as WSU throws the ball, the incomplete passes (and sacks) result in a very high number of unproductive plays in WSU’s script.

4. WSU doesn't pass the ball well

Yes, you read that correctly.  WSU ranks a stunning No. 88 in passing according to Connelly’s S&P analysis.  The computers say WSU’s points per passing play is too low, with bad field position -- the computers suggest a good passing team ought to be offsetting this with a big number of explosion plays, and that just isn't happening for WSU.  Luke Falk doesn't throw long bombs.  The computers also punish Falk and the WSU o-line for taking too many sacks and for throwing almost all his interceptions on what they consider non-passing downs.

5. WSU doesn't run the ball well

This is another adage Mike Leach has faced since the beginning of his coaching career.  It has its roots in the "efficient offense" rule.  WSU doesn't run the ball much (in the purest sense) and because sacks count against the ground game rather than the passing game, WSU's team rushing average is weighed down very heavily.

6. Teams run the ball well on WSU

It cannot be ignored that teams are averaging 200 rushing yards per game and 5 yards per attempt against the Cougs.  When opponents do score on the Cougs, they have made it look pretty easy, both to humans and the computers.

7. WSU doesn't finish drives

Computers are taking issue with WSU’s drives failing to result in points and particularly when it comes to touchdowns.  The six field goal attempts against Stanford, for instance, hurt the Cougar offense in the eyes of the computers.

Here's what the computers are missing:

1. WSU's offense is overcoming its bad field position

The Cougar offense may be fighting an uphill battle, but it is a battle they are winning.  Against ASU, the Cougars were pinned inside their own six-yard line three times, and all three times they dug themselves out of it.  The Cougs had five scoring drives of 70-plus yards, three of them went 90-plus hashes. That’s great stuff. Some offenses go the whole year without generating a 90-plus yard scoring drive. The Cougs managed three in one game, something lost on the computers.

2. WSU's points per possession is good

The Cougs may take a lot of plays to score, but they are scoring.  In the end, that's all the matters.

3. WSU is overcoming negative or zero-yard plays extremely well

It is ironic Luke Falk is being punished by the computers for all his incomplete passes when he completes over 70 percent of his throws.  WSU passes the ball so much, they will always have a lot of zero-yard plays on their stat sheet, but not all zero yard plays are equal.  If an offense is designed to throw on first down and is still effective on third-and-long (which WSU's is) the concept of "putting yourself in passing downs" loses all meaning.

4. WSU's passing offense is good -- very good

The effectiveness of Falk cannot be measured 50-yard bombs or points per play. Computers can try to twist the numbers any way they want, WSU still  has the nation’s No. 1 passing offense, and they are 21st in passing efficiency, too. But more striking, they've also done it under pressure that computers cannot calculate.  In the fourth quarter this season, Falk has lead the Cougs on eight scoring drives to tie or take the lead.

5. Rushing yards per game be damned, WSU's running backs are good

It may be an unorthodox attack, but the Cougar running backs are still very effective.  Gerard Wicks, Jamal Morrow and Keith Harrington are averaging a combined 6.4 yards per touch this season, a total of 1,421 combined rushing and receiving yards.  Heisman trophy front runner Christian McCaffrey, by comparison, has 1,527 rushing and receiving yards and a 6.7 yard average per touch.

6. WSU's defense has been weak against the run, but still wreaks havoc

In this instance, even the computers reluctantly agree.  S&P rates the Cougar defense very low in most statistical categories, but there is one peculiar stat where the Cougs get high marks: Front Seven Havoc Rate.  When it comes to generating sacks, forced fumbles and tackles for a loss, the WSU front seven ranks No. 11 in the country.  This is highly interesting for Saturday because another D ranks highly here and they gave UCLA's offense fits – No. 12 ASU.  The Cougars can also point to another stat: WSU's defense intercepts and sacks opposing quarterbacks at a rate 50 percent higher than that of their opponents.

7. WSU's red-zone scoring offense is actually outstanding

WSU ranks No. 7 nationally in red zone scoring (40 of 43; 93 percent scoring rate) and more importantly, they are getting to the opponents’ 20-yard line -- WSU ranks No. 21 nationally in trips into the red zone.  Wazzu has scored 29 TDs and 11 field goals in the red zone. In scoring offense, WSU is t-30 nationally, at 35.7 (right behind No. 29 LSU at 36.0).  Those are all great numbers. But again, not to the computers.

IN THE END, THERE IS ONLY one conclusion that can be drawn: WSU is simply too unorthodox to evaluate with traditional metrics. But that is exactly what's happening – football has changed but the computers, ironically, have not changed with it.

The Cougars are better than their numbers. And those numbers are still pretty darned good – but only if you know how to look at them.

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