Whenever we evaluate a football season, the easy place to start is by looking at the wins and losses. It’s easy to understand. It goes a long way in dictating how enjoyable the season was as a fan. It determines bowl eligibility and gives strong weight for consideration by the New Year’s Six Bowl games. We’re tempted to fixate on wins and losses.
Last year was painful. 3 wins. 9 losses. But most of us expected it to be painful in the first season after transitioning from CPJ to CGC. I get the sense that parts of the fanbase are ready for the transition to be over and for a new era of success to arrive. As I noted in a previous article, if we end up 4-8 this year, you’re going to have a friend who just can’t believe it. “We signed the 26th ranked recruiting class this year! I thought things were going to be different!” You probably don’t want to watch games with this friend. If we somehow go 6-6 because of some close game luck, you’re also going to have a friend who somehow insists this is more impressive than anything CPJ ever did. You don’t want to watch games with this friend either. They are too fixated on wins and losses.
So let me tell you why we shouldn’t worry too much about the Win Loss record in 2020.
It’s Year One. Bill Connelly and Stephen Godfrey coined the concept of a Year Zero a few years ago on Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody. Here’s Godfrey unpacking the concept:
““Year Zero” was born out of the accepted idea that not all first seasons are remotely equal. Yet it’s hard to tack down a single metric that explains why. Maybe your new staff faces a ridiculous schedule in a particularly deep conference or division. Maybe your program has been historically underfunded and had no recruiting success. Maybe your roster was decimated via NCAA probation, or by hiring Bobby Petrino.
The necessity of a Year Zero can be readily apparent: 2019 Georgia Tech converting out of the triple and opening against Clemson? Easy.”
So now it’s Year One. Be patient. Our opening game starting quarterback from 2019 now plays cornerback. The presumed heir apparent for the quarterback position transferred to San Diego State. The offensive line is still in transition. The roster continues to transform. Tempered expectations will help you enjoy this season a lot more.
Tech faces a brutal schedule. Using Bill Connelly’s SP+ metric as a tool, we begin to see the challenge of the 2020 schedule. We open the season with #3 and finish with #4. In between, we square off out of conference with #18 (UCF) and #12 (Notre Dame). Division foes UNC and Miami check in at #17 and #24 respectively. There’s one easy game on the schedule. In fact, the SP+ preseason projections slot Tech in at #58 after finishing 2019 at, gulp, 111th, but only projects us for just over 4 wins, largely due to the schedule difficulty we face.
The Roster is Still Very Young. The depth chart (sorry, not sorry) is certainly not set across the board. But my best guess is that we will return 14 offensive and defensive starters in 2021 from this team. Barring something unforeseen, whoever our starting quarterback ends up being in 2020 will return. Key playmakers on both sides of the ball - guys like Ahmarean Brown, Jordan Mason, Juanyeh Thomas, Tre Swilling, Charlie Thomas - are set to return in 2021. This year, there will be growth, and there will be setbacks. But 2020 isn’t the year to expect any kind of peak.
The W-L record isn’t the best reflection of team quality or best predictor of future performance. Whether you are in a full-on transition like GT or a perennial national title contender, the win loss record simply isn’t the best tool for evaluation. Abnormal luck in close games happens and is generally not sustainable from year to year. Turnover luck varies wildly, yet almost universally reverts to the mean in the long term. Measures that take into account play by play or drive by drive success are much more predictive and helpful for understanding a team’s true performance. If you aren’t already, I’d encourage you to track GT’s performance throughout the year using metrics like Brian Fremeau’s FEI and Bill Connelly’s SP+. Using metrics like these will give you a much more predictive understanding of the team’s true performance. I’ll be checking back in on these throughout the year.
So, if we’re not worrying about the win loss record in 2020, what should we worry about? Let me offer three things that I’ll be watching for.
Do we have clear direction at the quarterback position entering 2021?
I really don’t know who the quarterback of 2020 will be or should be. What I really want to know is that we are clear on who the 2021 quarterback will be and should be by the end of this season. Playing musical chairs at quarterback doesn’t help anybody, from the quarterbacks themselves, to the OC trying to call plays, to the receivers trying to adjust their timing, to the offensive line trying to figure out their quarterback’s pocket presence and mobility. Last year saw three different quarterbacks start games, for some understandable reasons and some not so understandable ones. CDP’s 2018 offense at Temple also struggled to land on a starting quarterback. I want the dance to end this year. We can’t afford to enter 2021 with QB uncertainty.
Do we make clear progress in efficiency?
As I mentioned above, I’ll be tracking some of the publicly available metrics, as well as some things I track myself (which I will share more about in upcoming articles) to get a deeper look at our overall team quality. These metrics try to strip out the contribution of luck as much possible, so we will focus on efficiency measurements like the percentage of the team’s plays on offense and defense that are successful. Last year, we graded out as average on defense (about 42.5%) and abysmal on offense (about 35%) in that number. Can we improve to good on defense, say 45%, and average, about 42%, on offense this year? That would be a pretty encouraging sign. I’ll be checking in and reporting in on many of those details in some of my advanced stats articles throughout the season.
Does 2021 recruiting hit the same level as 2020?
Currently, the 2021 recruiting class sits at #25 in the 247 Composite and #23 on Rivals, but those numbers may be misleading for two reasons. On the one hand, we are quickly up to 13 commitments, while many of the teams behind us have far fewer. (Let’s be real; Alabama currently sits at #48. We’re not out-recruiting them). As classes fill up and become more uniform in size, we are likely to move down the rankings given our current average rating. We’re sitting at 85.8 right now after ending the 2020 cycle with an average player rating of 87.2. On the other hand, rankings and ratings are likely to be less reliable this year than in a normal recruiting cycle. Summer camps for recruits have all been cancelled. Even if there is high school football this fall, recruiting analysts are likely to be restricted in their travel, so re-evaluations and rating updates will likely be fewer and less accurate. We will have to take ratings and rankings this cycle with a grain of salt, but I’d love to see us keep getting commits from guys like James BlackStrain, Joshua Robinson, Jakiah Leftwich, and Noah Collins, who are reporting offers from some of the premier programs around the southeast. Look at the offer lists just as closely as you look at the stars as our commitments continue to come in.
I hope you’ll join me in taking your eyes off of the win loss record this year and putting your eyes on a few things that will tell us more about the future - a firm picture of the QB position going into 2021, improvements in offensive and defensive efficiency, and continued progress on the recruiting trail.
What are you looking at besides the win loss record in 2020?