I have read quite a few previews of Michigan's upcoming season, wherein most of them indicate that Michigan is due for a season of 6-7 wins, but their eventual win total hinges upon how they acquit themselves in the early going. Should they stumble early, they may find the rest of their season insurmountable. However, if they win early, that, they say, will build momentum to carry them through the tougher portion of their schedule.
Well, I've heard talk of early season momentum and early season letdowns so often over the years, I wanted to see if there was anything at all to this thing. As such, I visited the NCAA football website and got some stats. I had originally planned to map this over many years, but as I got looking, I saw that this was one statistic that was really quite consistent year in and year out, so I've only got the data points for last season. Should equate fairly well to any year.
The first thing I needed to establish was how many games made up the "start" of the season. I hung that one up at 4 games, because by that point, the kinks should be worked out and pretty much every team should have played at least one conference game, or one or more highly challenging OOC games. I then divided the teams by total games won (Regardless of bowl games/longer seasons), and figured the respective group's records in the first four games of the season. Results below:
Group A: 10 - 13 Wins Group B: 8-9 Wins
20 Teams 31 Teams
4-0: 13 Teams, 65% 4-0: 5 Teams, 16%
3-1: 6 Teams, 30% 3-1: 16 Teams, 52%
2-2: 1 Team, 5% 2-2: 8 Teams, 26%
1-3: 2 Teams, 6%
Group C: 7 Wins Group D: 6 Wins
14 Teams 7 Teams
4-0: 3 Teams, 21% 4-0: 0 Teams
3-1: 4 Teams, 29% 3-1: 1 Team, 14%
2-2: 5 teams, 35% 2-2: 4 Teams, 57%
1-3: 2 Teams, 14% 1-3: 2 Teams, 29%
Group E: 5 Wins Group F: 4-3 Wins
16 Teams 20 Teams
4-0: 0 Teams 4-0: 0 Teams
3-1: 4 Teams, 25% 3-1: 1 Team, 5%
2-2: 6 Teams, 38% 2-2: 7 Teams, 35%
1-3: 6 Teams, 38% 1-3: 11 Teams, 55%
0-4: 1 Team, 5%
Group G: 0-2 Wins
4-0: 0 Teams
3-1: 0 Teams
2-2: 2 Teams, 22%
1-3: 5 Teams, 56%
0-4: 2 Teams, 22%
Now, taking this data, we can make some projections. If Michigan were to have a "Fast Start", as the experts are saying is necessary, and we assume "Fast Start" to be 3-1 or better, then we can see where the chips are most likely to fall.
Excluding a 10-13 Win season, startin 3-1 or better makes 8-9 wins the most likely. That seems obvious. You have to win a lot of games to get 8-9 wins. However, it seems interesting that a team winning their first four is more likely to win only 7 than 8-9 total. Similarly, it's odd tht those going 3-1 in their first 4 are more likely to fall to 5 wins overall than reach 6, by a substantial percentage margin. And as can be seen from the 2-2 mark, this is not because those teams are winning more.
I also wondered if the Big 10, with a penchant for scheduling weak non-conference games in the early season, might be less than reflective of the sport as a whole. As such, I checked that out.
2 Big 10 Teams, 4-0&3-1
3 Big 10 Teams, 4-0, 3-1, 3-1
2 Big 10 Teams, 4-0, 3-1
1 Big 10 Team, 2-2
3 Big 10 Teams, 2-2, 2-2, 2-2
Big 10 Teams fell into the 4-0 Win total 27% of the time. Average over all groups containing 4-0 Teams was 34%.
Big 10 Teams fell into the 3-1 Win total 36% of the time. Average over all groups is 26%.
Big 10 Teams fell into the 2-2 Win total 36% of the time. Average over all groups is 31%
The Big 10 lands a little below average in one win category, a little above in another, and just about dead on in the third. The total falls slightly over the national average in wins for the first four games, but not substantiantially. As such, Michigan's expected final win total shouldn't be grossly inflated or deflated because of OOC strength. Big ten teams don't perform noticably better than other conference teams during the OOC portion of the schedule, and so Michigan shouldn't get noticably worse (in wins and losses) during the conference season.
What conclusions can we draw from this? It looks like Michigan does indeed need to win as many early season games as possible, but only in that it bolsters their win total overall. About half of all 7 win teams did not have a "fast start" (3-1 or 4-0) record, and likewise, a quarter of all 5 win teams had a fast start (and 2/3rds had at least an even record after 4), and failed to put forth a winning season.
So if Michigan loses 2 or 3 of their first 4 (I hope not) and somebody tells you their toast, tell them the stats only say, "Eh... maybe". Likewise, if they go 4-0 and somebody tells you the've got it made, tell them that 21% of 4-0 teams last year barely made a bowl game.
Just take the season one game at a time, and take a "W" for what it is. A "W".