Saturday, December 29, 2012

Does winning a bowl game create momentum?


-- by @Josh_Suchon

Does a win in a college football bowl game build momentum toward the next year?

That’s something EPSN analyst Jesse Palmer said during the Pinstripe Bowl between Syracuse and West Virginia. My first thought was that’s a bunch of nonsense. I thought it was one of those statements that analysts make because it sounds good. Or it’s something that coaches say to motivate their players, and the analyst just regurgitates it.

This isn’t a knock on Palmer. I actually like him a lot and can understand why he’d make that comment. It was midway through the fourth quarter. The game was played in a blizzard at Yankee Stadium. Syracuse was leading West Virginia 38-14. The game is over. You’re just killing time. It’s one of those things that you say because there’s nothing else to say to keep interest in a blowout.

But is it true?

With nothing else better to do, I looked it up.


Last year, there were 35 bowl games, so obviously 35 teams won.

Out of those 35 winners in the 2011-12 bowl season, 25 returned to a bowl game this year. A bowl return rate of 71 percent is pretty good, but not spectacular.

Also, out of those 35 winners, eight finished with the same record as a year ago, seven improved their record, 10 saw their record drop while making a bowl, and 10 saw their record drop to a level that made them bowl ineligible.

In fairness, it’s actually pretty hard for a winning bowl team to “improve” its record. You needed to win at least seven games the year before, the maximum wins possible is 14, and usually the improvement is within the 8-10 win range. Still, when 57 percent of the winning bowl teams saw their record drop the next year, I don’t think the win did much to “build” momentum.

But how does that compare to teams that lost the bowl game, and didn’t get that momentum push?

Out of the 35 losers in the 2011-12 bowl season, 24 returned to a bowl game this year. That’s one fewer than the bowl winners.

Also, out of those 35 losers, five finished with the same record as a year ago, 12 improved their record, seven saw their record drop while making a bowl, and 11 saw their record drop to a level that made them bowl ineligible.

Again to be fair, when you’re dealing with a small sample size of 13 games, a win in a bowl game makes it that much harder to improve your record, and a loss makes it that much easier to improve. Still, five more teams that lost a bowl game last year improved their record, compared to teams that won a bowl game. Doesn’t seem like momentum mattered.

There’s always a few outliers, but it appears they don’t skew the numbers too much.

USC would have made a bowl game last year, but didn’t because it was on probation, and did make it this year.

Ohio State made a bowl game last year, and would have made one this year, but didn’t because they were on probation.

A few bowl losers from last year made big improvements this year: Notre Dame from 8-5 to 12-0 and a berth in the national title game; Utah State from 7-6 to 11-2; Louisville from 7-6 to 10-2; Tulsa from 8-5 to 10-3.

A few bowl winners from last year made big gains: Florida State from 9-4 to 11-2; Texas A&M from 7-6 to 10-2; Florida from 7-6 to 11-1.

A handful of bowl winners from last year had huge drops this year: Southern Mississippi from 12-2 to no bowl game; Houston from 13-1 to no bowl game; Arkansas from 11-2 to no bowl game; TCU from 11-2 to 7-5; Michigan State from 11-3 to 6-6; and Oklahoma State from 12-1 to 7-5. 

The likely reason those teams couldn’t carry over that “momentum” is because they lost their best players to graduation/NFL, they aren’t traditional powers stacked at every position, and it’s just plan hard to repeat an 11-to-13 win season.

In order to get a true indication of whether winning a bowl game gives you “momentum” for the next season, you’d need to sample at least the last five years, if not the last 10 years. I’m curious about momentum, but not curious enough to do all that research. If somebody wants to do it, I’d love to see the numbers.

Overall, we can safely conclude that winning or losing a bowl game last year did not have a noticeable impact across the board this year.

This isn’t a knock on Jesse Palmer. Again, I think he’s really good. My broadcasting resume doesn’t remotely resemble his resume. But I know the feeling of trying to say something, anything, in the waning moments of a blowout that is coherent.


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