The Auburn Tigers, as you've no doubt heard, won the SEC championship and played in the national title game this past season, just one year removed from finishing 3-9 overall and 0-8 in conference play.
Gus Malzahn's team was the story of 2013, even if it came up just short against Florida State in the BCS championship, losing 34-31 on a touchdown in the final seconds. The Tigers were projected to finish fifth in the SEC West by the media, but they ended up finishing second in the country in the final AP Poll.
Likewise, Michigan State won the Big Ten, the Rose Bowl and finished No. 3 in the final AP Poll, even though it needed to win its final game of the season to become bowl-eligible in 2012. The Spartans were expected to finish third or fourth in their division, the Big Ten Legends, but they ended up winning every conference game by 10 or more points, including the championship against then-undefeated Ohio State.
Now that the 2013 season is over, and media outlets have started publishing their "way too early" predictions for 2014, it bears noting that this is the natural cycle of college football. Teams come up out of nowhere—perhaps not to the extent of an Auburn or Michigan State—and enjoy great success each season; lather, rinse, repeat.
The trick is finding out how to spot them. There's no foolproof method—that is, don't go running to Vegas and buying futures tickets—but potential breakout teams tend to leave some indicators the season before. You just need to know where to look.
Let's give it a try.
Recent Success: How to Narrow the Field
One linking factor between Auburn and Michigan State is recent success—prior to the one bad season in 2012. The thinking here is that a bad year can be proven a fluke, whether it be schedule-, injury- or bad luck-related.
This is further validated by Football Outsiders, which studies the sport of college football using sabermetrics and has come to the following conclusion:
It may seem strange because graduation enforces constant player turnover, but college football teams are actually much more consistent from year to year than NFL teams. Thanks in large part to consistency in recruiting, teams can be expected to play within a reasonable range of their baseline program expectations each season.
Our Program F/+ ratings, which represent a rolling five-year period of play-by-play and drive efficiency data, have an extremely strong (.76) correlation with the next year’s F/+ rating.
In layman's terms: A team's performance over a five-year sample is the best way to predict its performance the following year. Other factors—things like personnel losses and coaching changes—serve to distract us, and sometimes that's justified. But for the most part, good teams are expected to stay good.
We don't have access to Football Outsiders' up-to-date Program F/+ numbers, so it's hard to calculate success over a five-year sample accurately, but even looking at a rough three-year sample might have predicted Auburn and Michigan State to rebound in 2013:
|Auburn and Michigan State Record by Season|
Both teams won exactly 22 games in 2010 and 2011, and their pattern after that was the same. It was marked steps back in 2012 and then marked steps forward in 2013.
So why not start there? What are some traditionally proud programs that struggled to win games in 2013? Assuming the next Auburn will be like Auburn—a recently successful team that needs to snap out of a funk—that is the list we should begin with, then whittle it down from there.
Though Michigan State technically made a bowl game in 2012, let's limit this to power-conference teams, like Auburn, that didn't make the postseason in 2013 after finishing with a winning record the previous two years:
|Projected Candidates For Improvement in 2014|
Arkansas doesn't satisfy the immediate request of the list, having missed the past two postseasons. We'll include it, however, because the magnitude of its success in the two seasons before that—a record of 21-5—is too large to ignore. As long as the sample doesn't exceed five years, it should still be relevant.
Besides, at this early stage of the process, we can afford to make an exception. Especially for a team whose 2013 season so closely resembles that of Auburn in 2012, there is no reason to get picky so soon. We'll see how well the Razorbacks qualify in other categories.
Turnover margin is, quite obviously, something that can affect a team's record. It's also something that tends to normalize from year to year, making it closer to random than most people care to admit.
That's not to say that good coaching can't improve it. Well-coached teams are less likely to turn the ball over than poorly coached teams, for sure. But things like fumble quantity and recovery rate are difficult to account for, and thus they're essentially chalked up to luck. A good study on the matter can be found here.
When looking for bounce-back candidates, checking for fluky turnover margins is always a good place to start. These are the teams that we can rightfully call "unlucky" the past season, and we can project—or at least hope—for them to find better luck down the line.
Let's see how Michigan State and Auburn fared in turnover margin the past two seasons:
|Auburn and Michigan State Turnover Margin|
|2012 Auburn||2012 Michigan State|
|2013 Auburn||2013 Michigan State|
Both teams improved by more than 10 turnovers this season, which is a significant number. No doubt about it, turnovers help explain each team's respective turnaround.
Auburn's horrific margin in 2012 also helps explain why its record, 3-9, was so much worse than Michigan State's at 7-6. The Tigers didn't start forcing turnovers at a momentous clip this season, but the improvement from awful to average was a big one. So was Michigan State's improvement from average to very good.
Now let's look at out candidates for improvement, with an emphasis on turnovers:
|Candidates for Improvement: Turnover Margin in 2013|
Arkansas jumps off the page, comparing closely with 2012 Auburn once again. Not only did the Razorbacks finish 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the SEC, but they were plagued with the same awful turnover-margin problems, ranking 113th in the nation.
The others could all stand to improve as well, the same way Michigan State did. It's hard to project how and when a team will improve—again, we're operating under the premise that turnovers are more or less random—but one thing to look at is fumbles.
West Virginia, for example, fumbled the ball 30 times this season and recovered 14 of them. That's a shade under 50 percent, which is the normal recovery rate, but dropping the ball 30 times is what's problematic, and also what's likely to decline.
Despite the decent recovery rate, West Virginia finished 122nd in the country in fumbles lost this season, most among teams that played less than 13 games. That makes it an ideal candidate to improve.
TCU lost 13 fumbles and threw 17 interceptions, both of which were tied for 109th in the country. The first number stands to improve with better luck in 2014, while the second number stands to improve with better consistency at the quarterback position. QB Casey Pachall broke his arm in 2013 and never looked the same upon returning.
Florida's turnover numbers don't stick out as drastically, but they do resemble 2012 Michigan State.
Here is where Auburn and Michigan State deviate, and where we'll begin to see a schism among the teams with bounce-back potential.
The Tigers were truly awful in 2012. According to Football Outsiders' F/+ ratings, they were the No. 105 team in America, behind even 1-11 Kansas and 2-11 UNLV. For a team with their resources, that is truly, truly pitiful.
The Spartans, meanwhile, weren't nearly as bad as their 6-6 regular-season record suggested. They finished 15th in the F/+ ratings, one spot behind 12-0 Ohio State and ahead of teams like Utah State, Nebraska, Boise State, Clemson, Cincinnati, Louisville, Northwestern and Northern Illinois—all of which won 10 or more games.
|Auburn and Michigan State F/+ Rankings|
|Auburn 2012||Michigan State 2012|
|Offensive F/+ Rank||111||61|
|Defensive F/+ Rank||95||3|
|Special Teams F/+ Rank||21||50|
|Overall F/+ Rank||105||15|
|Auburn 2013||Michigan State 2013|
|Offensive F/+ Rank||7||43|
|Defensive F/+ Rank||18||2|
|Special Teams F/+ Rank||7||29|
|Overall F/+ Rank||4||6|
|Source: Football Outsiders|
According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, F/+ scores are "a composite assessment of the possession-by-possession performance of a team over the course of a game." It accounts for a team's raw efficiency independent of record, allowing good teams with poor records to score ahead of poor teams with good ones.
This is a good way to tell which teams were better than their record indicated the previous season. Michigan State, Wisconsin and Oklahoma State combined to go 23-17 last season, but F/+ ranked all three of them among the top 16 teams in America.
It's no coincidence that all were much better in 2013.
Which brings us to an important point: Until now, we've been treating Auburn and Michigan State the same since both improved so dramatically this season. But in truth, there is more than one way to "bounce back." You don't have to follow one specific formula.
You can either be an Auburn, turning a truly awful team into a good one, which is the traditional approach. Or you can be a Michigan State, turning a good team that loses into a good team that wins, shoring up the things that are influenced by luck like turnovers and close-game success.
Here are the 2013 F/+ numbers of our four candidates:
|Candidates for Improvement: 2013 F/+ Rankings|
|Offensive F/+ Rank||94||92||99||65|
|Defensive F/+ Rank||12||65||17||94|
|Special Teams F/+ Rank||55||49||24||83|
|Overall F/+ Rank||44||76||48||87|
|Source: Football Outsiders|
The quartet breaks into two distinct camps, both less-extreme versions of Auburn and Michigan State in 2012.
TCU and Florida weren't nearly as good as Sparty was two seasons ago, but they were both far better than a 4-8 record might indicate. Like 2012 MSU, they rode a top-20 defense as far as they could, in spite of an anemic offense. Because of it, the Gators and Horned Frogs placed ahead of "good" teams like Fresno State, Vanderbilt, Minnesota and Northern Illinois.
Likewise, Arkansas and West Virginia weren't quite as bad as Auburn was two seasons ago, but they were pretty stinkin' bad. The Mountaineers finished behind low-conference non-bowl teams like South Alabama and Florida Atlantic, while Arkansas finished behind both 3-9 Memphis and 1-11 Hawaii.
They'll have a much harder road to improvement than Florida and TCU, which are a few lucky breaks and offensive tweaks away from being next year's Michigan State.
But neither the Gators nor the Horned Frogs, by definition, can be next year's Auburn.
And then there were two.
West Virginia and Arkansas are the two best bets to be next year's Auburn. Both had a track record of success before one—or in Arkansas' case, two—bad season(s), both had bad luck with turnovers in 2013, and neither was deceptively better than its record indicates. They were crummy football teams.
The comparisons with 2013 Auburn don't stop there, either.
The Tigers ran through the SEC this season on the strength of a dual-back ground game, something Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is famous for tailoring. He isn't a first-year head coach like Malzahn, but he's still getting his feet wet in the conference. If anyone is capable of bullying the SEC like Auburn did, it's a team coached by Big Bret.
West Virginia, meanwhile, is led by head coach Dana Holgorsen, who has a similar offensive reputation as Malzahn. It may have failed a bit in 2013, but Holgorsen is still a progressive, forward-thinking game-planner with a chance to surprise and outsmart his opponent on any given day.
After seeing the offenses he led at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State—not to mention with Geno Smith in Morgantown—are you really willing to bet against his improvement?
The real trick will be defense. Auburn never quite got that side of the ball figured out in 2013, but it was talented and good enough to get by. If either Arkansas or West Virginia can figure out that side of the ball, why can't they be next year's Auburn?
I think that both have a realistic chance, but gun to my head, Arkansas would have to be the choice. With only slight improvement, the Alex Collins-Jonathan Williams backfield tandem could be roughly as good as Auburn's this past season, and the overall talent is better than that of West Virginia's.
Should you bet on it? No. Part of being next year's Auburn is being someone you'd have to be crazy to wager on (sorry @markjskiba). If you'd read this article about Auburn before the 2013 season, you likely would have dismissed it and left a comment calling the writer an idiot—and no one could have blamed you.
But stranger things happen each year. Woo Pig Sooie!