The luckiest guys in the ACC

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

(John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

(I realize I may be a little late to the dance for another backward-facing piece. Still, with more than 90% of the 2009 season’s games still to be played, this is only slightly less timely than it was a week ago.)

There are a lot things college football coaches aren’t willing to admit to: preferential academic treatment for players. Unseemly boosters’ influence on their programs. Looking past this week’s opponent.

More than anything, though, coaches hate to admit the role of luck in their teams’ performances. Their philosophies line up with the messages relayed in self-help books like “The Secret.” You make your own luck, essentially.

But luck does have a place on the football field, and we’re starting to get a better idea of how to figure out its significance. In particular, the stat guys at Football Outsiders have found two on-field situations that owe more to chance than good planning or execution: fumble recoveries and opponent field goal percentage.

Think it through, and it makes sense. If you’ve seen the Holy Roller play of 1978, you know how random a fumbled football’s bounce can be. Numbers reinforce that randomness: it’s rare for a team or player to lead the NFL or NCAA in fumble recoveries for consecutive seasons.

Likewise, there’s almost nothing one team can do to keep its opponents from making field goals. Blocked kicks are possible, but they occurred only once every 25 kicks (including punts and extra points) in 2008.

Fortune may favor the bold, but, in the long term, fumble and field goal luck don’t discriminate.

Curiously, one ACC team was simultaneously one of the luckiest and unluckiest teams in the country last year.

N.C. State had the seventh-highest fumble total in the country last year, putting the ball on the ground 28 times. The average NCAA team lost half its fumbles last year; NCSU lost only a fifth of them, or six all year. Only two NCAA teams lost fumbles less frequently.

Meanwhile, Pack opponents made field goals at an 88-percent clip (22-25). The average NCAA team hit 69 percent of its kicks. Had NCSU rivals hit kicks at the average rate, they would have made roughly four fewer field goals.

Four three-pointers over a 13-game season doesn’t seem like much, and it probably wasn’t for State. The Pack only lost two games by six points or less. One miss by Maryland would have turned a 27-24 loss into at least an overtime game. But a wide-right by South Florida would only have made a 31-point ass-pounding into a 28-point ass-kicking.

Not surprisingly, given how evenly NCSU straddled the line between good and bad luck, the Pack finished the regular season an even 6-6. Another kind of bad luck – an injury to quarterback Russell Wilson – cost N.C. State its bowl game against Rutgers.

Luck – good or bad – generally doesn’t carry over from year to year. And while it’s still early, we may already be seeing that at work for N.C. State. In its ugly 7-3 loss to South Carolina last week, the Pack lost one of its two fumbles, setting up the game’s only touchdown. But NCSU also benefited from a missed chip-shot field goal by USC’s Spencer Lanning.

A couple of other notes on ACC teams and luck in 2008:

  • Wake Forest’s field goal luck was nearly as bad as NCSU’s. Opponents hit 85 percent of kicks (17-20) against the Demon Deacons. Wake had three games decided by six or fewer points.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, Boston College students’ “Miss it! Miss it!” chants seem to have worked. BC opponents hit 57% of their field goals (13-23), about three fewer kicks than you’d expect over a season.
  • Duke’s fumble luck was above-average. The Blue Devils recovered 60 percent of their own fumbles, 10 percent more than the average NCAA team.

2 Responses to The luckiest guys in the ACC

  1. Meg Money says:

    For more on the randomness of sports and other things check out:
    Click on the “Stochasticity” podcast. Pretty interesting stuff.

  2. ar says:

    For guys who like statistics, you’re awfully superstitious with your belief in ‘luck.’

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