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Minnesota Football: The Steady Improvement Under Jerry Kill

The advanced statistics tell the story of how Jerry Kill has taken the Minnesota Golden Gophers from worst to contending in the Big Ten West in just four seasons.

Try to picture what you were doing on December 6th, 2010. It was a Monday, so you were probably at work or in class, depending on your age at the time. It was December, so it was probably cold outside, especially if you live(d) in the Twin Cities, where the high reached just 19 degrees Fahrenheit. But regardless of where you were and what you were doing, it probably seemed like a normal kind of day. Normal that is, except for what was going on in Dinkytown. If you are a history wonk or have a great memory, you know this day's true importance. You know this day could very well become one of the greatest days in the history of Gopher Athletics. This is the day Joel Maturi hired Jerry Kill.

Since then, things have changed. Jerry Kill took a roster plagued with academic problems, class unbalance, and the mental wreckage of the Tim Brewster era and slowly began building something brick by brick. In the beginning, it wasn't all that pretty. And Ole Jer knew the road would a long one. There wasn't an instant fix to overturn an entire roster and complete lack of oversight that Timmy Brew had left behind. But the following climb instigated by Coach Kill's tried and true process of turning a program around has been slow, steady, and successful.

Now you're probably thinking to yourself, "I already know this story. Why is mowe0018 yammering on about something we already know? Jerry's the best everyone knows that! It has shown up in the win column! It has shown up in fan and donor support! It has shown in NFL Draft!" On and on and on. Yes, this progress has been be pretty easy to spot in all the important aspects of a collegiate football program. But on this Monday, I just wanted to present you with an intriguing visualization of this progress, as compared to our Big Ten West brethren.

The below graph shows what I call the "Inverted National F/+ Rankings" of the seven teams of the Big West Division over the last four years. Or said another way, since Jerry Kill took over as head coach of Minnesota. F/+ is an advanced metric used by the folks at Football Outsiders that is a combination of the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) and S&P+ ratings. I couldn't possibly provide a cogent discussion of the finer points of these rankings, so go here for a brief explanation. In short, these are advanced statistics that take into account all aspects of a team's performance and emphasizes beating good teams more so than destroying bad teams. F/+ is expressed as a percentage but the teams are also ranked based on their rating. In order to make the graph more intuitive, I "inverted" the teams' rankings by subtracting the ranking given from 128 (number of FBS football teams). This way, a higher point on the graph represents a more successful season. Example: If Wisconsin was ranked 15th in the F/+ rating, they would score a 113 on the graph.


There are a lot of interesting things going on that we should discuss at length in the comments but let me touch on a few key points:

  • First of all, take note how close the maroon line is to being straight and where it started in 2011. As noted above, there were countless problems with the roster Kill inherited, one of which included that it was a terrible on-field product. Minnesota was dead last in the division F/+ rating in 2011. But since then the team has improved every year, making the Gophers the only team in the division able to claim that feat.
  • Wisconsin, who (regretfully) has been rated the best team in the division by F/+ the last four years has actually dropped in the ratings every year. They went from 8th place nationally in 2011 to 25th nationally in 2014.
  • Poor Purdue.
  • In 2014, it definitely appeared that there were two distinctive tiers in the division. The upper tier consisted of Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota. The lower tier consisted of Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois, and Purdue. While Wisconsin and Nebraska have routinely been at the top the last four years, Kill's coaching and influence have thrust the Golden Gophers into contention for a divisional championship.

It may be an oversimplification because as hard as the statisticians try, you'll never be able to simplify entire seasons into a single number, but even the advanced metrics say that Jerry Kill has proven to be as reliable as a metronome. Improvement in the rankings by 20, 21, and 18 spots the last four years indicate another jump in F/+ ratings may be imminent for the 2015 season. Consider the seven lines on the graph. Consider that the two highest lines just under went coaching changes. Which of the seven would you wish your team to be represented by? While there are always strange things at work in the closed system that is college football, add the advanced statistics as another indicator of the incredible consistency the improvement of the Gophers have displayed since December 6th, 2010.