Redefining a "successful" season

Redefining a "successful" season

Submitted by taistreetsmyhero on November 14th, 2017 at 5:03 PM

What is a "successful" season?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about what defines a "successful" season. Regarding this year, many arguments follow something like, "I predicted the regular season record would be between 8-4 and 10-2. So, given the youth and injuries, this season could be seen as decent if Michigan plays well against Wisconsin and OSU but loses, and 'successful' if they win at least one out of the two last games."

At face value, this seems reasonable enough. We all knew coming into the season that it was probably going to be a rebuilding year. Michigan has been decimated by key injuries. And winning 8 or 9 games...well, you may feel uneasy scoffing at that considering Michigan only did it twice during the era of Henri, the Otter of Ennui.

--Harbaugh finally started Henri on Prozac.--

But the fact is that record alone is a pretty meaningless metric for determining whether or not a season is successful. Nobody's preseason projections had Florida as a tire fire or Air Force as bad. Very few people predicted a loss to MSU (granted, they are better than expected). And if you had polled MGoBloggers before the season and asked, "How many wins against opponents with winning records will Michigan have going into the Wisconsin game," users answering 0 would have been negged to oblivion Bolivia.


Is a win always Win?

As with everything in life, defining success was so much easier back in the day. The steps were simple:

  1. Toe meets leather at high noon.
  2. Michigan stomps on inferior teams.
  3. Michigan beats Ohio State regularly.
  4. Michigan owns Michigan State.
  5. Michigan wins the Big Ten.

Under Bo, Michigan followed that Winning For Dummies formula to the tune of an overall record of 194-48-5, with 13 Big Ten titles, and 11/21 seasons featuring at least 10 wins. He went 11-9-1 against OSU and 17-4 against MSU.

--TaiStreet's Law: As a discussion about success at Michigan grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Bo approaches 1.--

Credit (or blame) Bo for the Michigan fan's fixation on 10 wins as a basic measuring stick for a successful season. When Harbaugh took over for the floundering Hoke, Michigan hit the 10-win threshold his first season after the impressive demolition of Florida in the Outback Bowl. Harbaugh's team followed it it up with another 10-win season the next year, in which they were only an imaginary inch short of real glory. There are many valid reasons why Harbaugh's first two seasons are viewed as successful, but measuring up to that 10-win mark is certainly a main one.

Unfortunately, this simple metric leaves a couple pink elephants in the room. For one, Michigan plays more games now than they did during the Bo era. In the 9 seasons with 10 wins under Bo, Michigan's winning percentage was 86%. Compare that to the 77% mark of a 10-3 season. In the modern era, Michigan has an extra built-in cupcake win every season.

The next issue to discuss is that Bo was playing in the era of the Big 2, Little 8. Outside of Michigan and OSU, there were no consistently good Big Ten teams. Under Bo, Michigan played an average of 5.57 games/season against teams with winning records. Compare that to Harbaugh's first two seasons, where the number was 6.50 games/season. Now, there is typically 1 additional [at least decent] opponent for Michigan to prove itself against each season than there was under Bo.

The last major obstacle to making this an apples-to-apples comparison is results against rivals. As outlined above, Bo beat OSU with regularity and owned MSU. While his tenure at Michigan is still in its infancy, Harbaugh has yet to replicate those results.

With these contextual factors added to the discussion, it's becoming clear that there are several key components to measuring a successful season. I thus set out to create a standardized season scoring metric to get a better sense of how Michigan seasons compare to one another.

The Season Score Metric

--All data comes from Sports Reference. Note, they only record the AP poll rankings--

In order to create a standardized season score metric, I went through each Michigan season since Bo's first year and recorded the following:

  • Wins
  • Win %
  • Quality wins: Wins against opponents that were ranked (in the AP poll) when they played Michigan AND finished with a winning record, OR wins against opponents that finished the season ranked (In the AP poll)
  • Bad losses: Losses against opponents that were not ranked (in the AP poll) when they played Michigan AND were not ranked (in the AP poll) at the end of the season
  • Wins against opponents that finished the season with winning records
  • Win % against opponents that finished the season with winning records
  • Results against OSU, MSU, and bowl game
  • B1G championships

The season score is thus calculated as follows:

(Wins x Win%) + Quality Wins - Bad Losses + (Wins vs. Opponents with Winning Records x Win% vs. Opponents with Winning Records) + 5 if Beat Ohio + 3 if Beat MSU + 3 if Win Bowl + 5 if B1G Champion

To see this in action, here is how it looks for Michigan's best season, the 1997 championship:

  • 12 wins x 100% Win%: 12 points
  • 6 Quality Wins: +6 points
  • 0 Bad Losses: -0 points
  • 7 Wins vs. Opponents with Winning Records x 100% Win% vs. OwWR: +7 points
  • Beat OSU: +5 points
  • Beat MSU: +3 points
  • Won Bowl: +3 points
  • B1G Champions: +5 points
  • Total: 41 points

Some major caveats apply to making this a true apples-to-apples comparison:

  • Quality wins are based only on AP poll
  • A win vs. the #1 team is treated the same as a win vs. the #25 team
  • The relative strength of OSU and MSU in a given year is ignored
  • The B1G is much more competitive now than in previous years
  • Shared vs. outright B1G Titles are ignored
  • All advanced stats are ignored

However, this metric still provides a ton more context to the season than record alone. And, at the end of the day, the Winning For Dummies formula hasn't changed at all, it has simply gotten harder to follow. Edit: see comment section for some more justification of this metric.

So, how does it all stack up?

(Here is a link to the google sheet with all of the information for anyone interested.)

Average Season Results by Coaches
Coach Seasons Season Score Wins Win% Quality Wins Bad Losses Wins vs. OwWR Win% vs. OwWR OSU W MSU W ND W Bowl W B1G Champ
Moeller 5 20.45 8.80 73.4% 2.2 0.60 3.60 53.7% 60% 60% 40% 80% 60%
Carr 13 20.21 9.38 75.4% 3.0 0.54 4.15 59.2% 46% 77% 56% 46% 39%
Bo 21 19.55 9.24 78.8% 1.6 0.38 3.29 59.9% 52% 81% 40% 29% 62%
Harbaugh 2 15.09 10 77% 3.0 0.50 3.50 53.6% 0% 50% NA 50% 0%
Hoke 4 8.51 7.75 60.4% 1.0 2.0 3.25 38.4% 25% 25% 50% 33% 0%
Rich Rod 3 0.24 5 40.3% 0.3 2.67 1.33 15.3% 0% 0% 67% 0% 0%

When you factor in the importance of beating your rivals, winning the Big Ten, and finishing the year strong with a bowl win, it becomes clear that win totals alone aren't enough to measure the success of a season. This shows that Bo, Carr, and Moeller had nearly identical success at Michigan, and they all prduced at a tier above what Harbaugh has managed so far.

Here are the ten best seasons by this metric:

Year Coch Season Score Record
AP Rank
Quality Wins Bad Losses Wins vs. OwWR Losses vs. OwwR Beat OSU Beat MSU Beat ND B1G Champ Bowl Game
1997 Carr 41.00 12-0 1 6 0 7 0 Y Y Y Y Y
1980 Bo 29.97 10-2 4 3 0 4 2 Y Y N Y Y
1986 Bo 28.47 11-2 8 3 1 5 1 Y Y Y Y N
1988 Bo 27.88 9-2-1 4 2 0 5 2 Y Y N Y Y
2003 Carr 27.83 10-3 6 4 0 5 3 Y Y Y Y N
2000 Carr 27.55 9-3 11 3 0 3 2 Y Y NA Y Y
1989 Bo 26.97 10-2 7 3 0 4 2 Y Y N Y N
1991 Moeller 26.97 10-2 6 3 0 4 2 Y Y Y Y N
1990 Moeller 26.75 9-3 7 3 0 6 3 Y N N Y Y
1971 Bo 26.33 11-1 6 1 0 3 1 Y Y NA Y N

Harbaugh's 2015 team comes in at #28 w/ 15.99, and last year's team is at #34 w/ 14.20. For those of us who never watched Bo teams, this gives some better context to judge the Season Score metric. While last year's team was definitely a more talented team than the 2015 unit, it is not unreasonable based on end results for its overall success score to be worse.

For another comparison, Hoke's flukish 2011 squad is ranked #15 with a score of 23.75. Again, it's hard to believe that team was better than either the 2015 or 2016 Harbaugh squads, but there is something to be said for beating OSU (regardless of how bad they were) and winning a BCS bowl. What it does suggest, however, is that looking at the score metric by itself does not necessarily predict future seasons' success.

Projecting this season's score

Michigan is currently sitting at 8-2, with 0 quality wins, 0 bad losses, 0 wins against opponents with winning records in 2 games, and a loss to MSU. All that is good for a season score of 6.40.

But, there is theoretically a huge range of final success for this season. Just for fun, let's look at all of the possible end results:

Rest of Season Results Season Score* Record Rank (out of 49 seasons)
LLL 4.92 8-5 43
WLL 7.43 9-4 42
LLW 9.43 9-4 42
LWL 12.41 9-4 36
WLW 13.49 10-3 36
WWL 15.49 10-3 29
LWW 18.49 10-3 24
WWLL 19.14 10-4 21
WWLW 21.93 11-3 18
WWW 22.11 11-2 18
WWWL 23.93 11-3 14
WWWW 30.86 12-2 2

*Note: I looked at the Massey game predictor to determine the likely outcomes for our previous opponents' final games. No previous opponent is expected to gain a winning record. However, in the highly unlikely scenario where Michigan wins the B1G East division, it would probably only be possible if one previous opponent does gain a winning record.

So now we have some real context for how relatively successful this season can finish. Obviously, the most likely outcome of the season will see Michigan finish (by some combination) between 8-5 and 10-3. Let's look at how those season scores compare to previous Michigan ones:

  • A score of 4.92 puts the season score between those of the 8-4, 2001 Carr team and the 7-6, 2013 Hoke team.
  • Scores of 7.43 or 9.43 puts the season score between those of the 8-5, 2012 Hoke team and that 2001 Carr team.
  • Scores of 12.41 or 13.49 puts the season score between those of the 9-4, 1995 Carr team and the 8-2-2, 1975 Bo team.
  • A score of 15.94 puts the season score between those of the 10-3, 2015 Michigan team and the 8-4, 1993 Moeller team.
  • A score of 18.49 puts the season score between those of the 9-0-3, 1992 Moeller team and the 10-0-1, 1992 Bo team.


With all of this information, I think it is reasonable to argue that this season can be called "successful" if Michigan does (at least) either of the following:

  • Beat OSU
  • Beat Wisconsin AND win the bowl game