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Gopher Football: Fact-Based Reasons for Optimism

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As football season approaches, optimism isn't just for maroon Kool-Aid drinking enthusiasts. The numbers of the game also suggest a truly positive season is well within the realm of possibility.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

As the calendar turns to August, college football fan bases often begin to form a trichotomy of sorts (yes, I just made that word up). Generally speaking, there are the optimists, the pessimists (usually a weak contingent for a lot of fan bases but particularly strong in Gopher-dom), and the realists.

The optimists and pessimists often eschew statistics and sound analysis in favor of unsupported claims about the upcoming season. They throw out grandiose predictions, either overly positive or overly negative, without so much as a single number to back up why they think their team will win x number of games out of 12 (or 13 or 14 or 15...). And since we have nothing better to talk about during the build up to the 2016 season, this practice is perfectly understandable. There's nothing wrong with boldly proclaiming a Rose Bowl or pronouncing gloom and doom at this juncture, when we know so little about what is actually going to take place on the gridiron.

But let me take you back to that third group of people, the realists, and look at what they tend to do when making announcements about the season. They usually have some statistical information, whether it's returning number of starters or some other factoid that gives them an informed opinion. They may look at the schedule and make hypotheses based on the opponents' number of returning starters. They may identify the perceived strengths and weaknesses of multiple rosters and compare how those will mesh against each other. Whatever they do, they attempt to quantify their reasoning for their thinking.

I am here to tell you today that for the 2016 Minnesota Golden Gopher football season, the optimists and the realists can be one in the same. And the reason I say this is because there is statistical evidence that points to success in a variety of aspects in relation to the 2016 season. Head Coach Tracy Claeys has been known as a mathematician due to his educational background and his approach to football in his limited time at the head of the program. So it would make sense that he falls into the realist group that paints a pretty good-looking picture of the Gophers' 2016 season.

While I can only claim to be an amateur statistician, below I will provide you a few reasons why the realist statisticians and the wide-eyed optimists could be slowly converging into the same fan group as the 2016 season quickly approaches.

1. General Upward Trajectory of the Program

By looking at the trend of the Minnesota's advanced statistical profile over the last five years, we can see that it has trended upward. Here is a graph to illustrate this because pictures are kind to the eyes and graphs are fun.

Last Five Years

Yes, technically in this graph, it has actually trended "downwards" but that is because the Golden Gophers' rankings have improved among FBS programs (where a lower ranking means you are doing better, obviously). While the continuation of this trend could be considering unlikely due to a coaching change, keep in the mind that two highly influential contributors to the past five years of incrementally increasing success are still on the coaching staff in key roles: now head coach Tracey Claeys and now defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel. The success on the field in the form of more wins than previous five year periods have contributed to more success recruiting. This has meant more talent up and down the roster. This general upward trend is evident in the consistent improvement in the advanced statistical profile of the team. With continuity on defense, a strength the last 3 years or so, it is well within the realm of possibility that this trend could be predictive of 2016 results.

2. Parsing through Bill C's Projections

Bill C. of Football Study Hall does a statistical preview of every FBS team before the games start. Here is Minnesota's. We've linked to this previously (way back in June) but it is important to highlight again because there is not a single game where the Gophers have less than a 32% win expectancy. I don't know every specific that goes into these numbers but they take into account previous years of data, strength of active recruited classes, and a myriad of other things. The fact that before a single snap has been taken and Minnesota has at least a 30% chance at grabbing a win in every single game they play should be reason enough to be seeing a rosier picture compared to last year's results. Another important number in Bill C's projection is the 7.5 projected wins for the Gophers. While this doesn't necessarily serve as a "baseline," it's nice to see that the statistical models that take into account things like current talent level and schedule peg us to be well above another 5 win regular season.

3. Dissecting the Schedule

Last year, according to S&P+, Minnesota played the 5th hardest schedule in all of FBS. If we were to average the projected S&P+ rank of each of Minnesota's 2016 opponents to give us a general idea of how good the competition will be in 2016, that number is close to an average rank of 61st. (NOTE: This discounts the FCS squad from Indiana State that the Gophers will face on September 10th.) While it may be an over-simplification, this means that on a week-in, week-out basis, Minnesota will be facing the equivalent of an average FBS program or in other words, Illinois, who ranked 61st in S&P+ in 2015. If we remove non-conference opponents from the conversation, the average rank only drops to 54th (Louisiana Tech was the 2015 equivalent). After last years gauntlet, I'm sure no one will be apologizing for the relatively easy schedule, but it is just another statistical fact that points towards an increased win total in 2016. One last note on the schedule that could provide the Gophers with a respite: though they have more away games than home games in conference play this year, the Gophers do not have consecutive away games throughout the entire schedule. This is a interesting nugget that lends itself to another Minnesota advantage.

4. Pointing Out the Obvious About Injuries

In 2015, it felt like every other series there was another Gopher hobbling off the field. Every Monday seemed like fans were waiting on pins and needles to hear an inevitable announcement about another player missing the rest of the season with some sort of injury. While football is a violent game where injuries are absolutely unavoidable and should be expected throughout the course of practice and a 12 game regular season slate, the absurd quantity of injuries to key players up and down the two-deep for Minnesota (one stat I saw cited 22 players on the 2-deep missing multiple games, but I never found a 100% accurate number)  is simply not repeatable from a statistical perspective. The probability of players from the two-deep missing as much time as they did in 2015 is not statistically significant meaning it is highly unlikely to happen again. Since we start the preseason with assumptions anyways, having seen no meaningful snaps, let us assume average health/injury luck for the 2016 season. This would indicate that Minnesota will be able to build upon a healthier roster, contributing to a higher quality of play.

5. Experience at Skills Positions

Disregard everything that has been said about Mitch Leidner leading up to the 2016 season. Forget anything you've heard, positive or negative, and just consider this: he has 722 career collegiate passing attempts and has played in 35 collegiate games. He has an enormous amount of experience compared to his peers. At quarterback, experience matters, especially when you don't have access to the five-star recruits that powerhouses like Alabama, Ohio State, and others do. Even though changes in offensive scheme are taking place, there is something to be said about having a heavily experienced quarterback at the helm that gives a college program an advantage.

Furthermore, the offense returns 88% of its carries from 2015. The combination of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith at running back and Mitch Leidner at quarterback give the Gophers a plethora of experience carrying the ball, not to mention the huge stockpile of young options to soak up any further opportunities provided by load or injury. The running game will be well taken care of with quality experience returning to the fold.

Lastly, though the receiving core loses WR KJ Maye, who accounted for 30.4% of targets last year, the Gophers return all other major contributors including WR Drew Wolitarsky (15.6% of all targets) TE Brandon Lingen (11.9%), and promising sophomore WR Rashad Still (8.8%) who came on strong at the end of last season as a true freshman to become the team's third most targeted option. Though Maye was a valuable player, his catch rate was only 58.4%.  Compare that to Wolitarsky's 62.9% and though the Gophers are losing their biggest target and play maker in Maye, they may be able to improve as a receiving corps overall with the return of the rest of the unit.

Conclusions

Obviously, this brief breakdown only focused on the positive statistics. The Gophers aren't returning some absurd number of starters and they don't have a highly touted recruiting class coming into their junior year. They do have some weaknesses in their roster construction (like the defensive front four). But there does appear to be a decent amount of evidence at a macro level that suggestions Claeys and Co. have a strong chance at obtaining at least 8 wins. While some might then argue that 8 wins is a baseline for the season, I'd look at the glass half full while  citing the statistic that the Gophers have only won 8 games 5 times in the last 40 years as a reason to be happy with 8 wins for the 2016 season. It is for this reason that I think the statistics do, in fact, paint a pretty picture for the Gophers for this upcoming season. But should the fates of the awkward-shaped ball smile upon Minnesota this year, 8 might be just the beginning.