This summer, when Northwestern was ranked in the top 25 and looked like a Legends Division contender, we wrote an article about how Northwestern's atypically healthy 2012 season would be hard to duplicate in 2013. People didn't take to it too well, as the comments section illustrates. Here was the gist of it: Phil Steele performed a study in which he found that teams that lose the fewest starts to injury tend to regress toward the mean and have more injuries — and more losses — the next year. Common sense, pretty much.
ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg then complied a list of all the Big Ten teams, and consistent with Steele's predictions, Northwestern — a team that was abnormally healthy last year — has regressed to, and actually gone far beyond the mean:
This year, NU has lost 11.36 percent of its starts to injury through 10 games. That's a little ambiguous, because the Wildcats' depth chart is always ambiguous, but the point remains the same: NU has been incredibly unlucky this year, injury-wise. Interestingly enough, the Wildcats bear a striking resemblance to 2012 Michigan State, which will be their opponent this week at Ryan Field. The Spartans were supposed to contend for the Legends Division in 2912, but a string of bad luck saw them fall to a 6-6 regular season finish.
Could NU turn its 2014 season into what 2013 has been for the Spartans?
Even despite the injuries, the numbers suggest that the Wildcats are be a much better team than their 4-6 record shows. Take a look at some of the ratings on Football Outsiders:
- F/+ — 46th (similar to Nebraska, Texas, Fresno State, Vanderbilt, Minnesota)
- S&P — 39th (similar to Indiana and Notre Dame, well ahead of No. 47 Michigan)
- FEI — 56th (similar to Toledo, Minnesota, and Texas Tech)
What does this all mean? You can read the full descriptions on Football Outsiders, but basically it means that NU is very similar to some pretty decent teams, despite losing over 11 percent of its starts to injuries. In reality, NU should be bowl eligible right now. However, the Wildcats have struggled in close games — which are random — so their record isn't what it should be.
Michigan State had even worse luck last year. Despite finishing the season at 7-6 after a bowl win. the F/+ ratings placed them at 12th in the country. NU finished 29th. (An interesting side note: NU's special teams ranked 4th in 2012 and currently rank 79th this year. Venric Mark makes a difference.)
With so many players coming back and a likely progression toward the mean in terms of both injuries and in-game luck, NU should have a much better season next year. The preseason prognosticators might not think so if they just glance at the record and the name on the uniforms, but the statistics would disagree, and I've found that statistics are generally smarter than people's brains. And if the Wildcats need any validation of those statistics, all they have to do is glance over at the Big Ten title contender on the other sideline this Saturday.
Unless, of course, Pat Fitzgerald is right that stats are for losers. But given what the stats say about his team, he might want to throw that phrase by the wayside for awhile.