December 5, 2020

What Analytics Predict for Iowa State Football

It’s been a roller coaster season so far for Iowa State football fans. After a cancelled game to start the season, the Cyclones lost at Iowa while hampered by a sputtering offense, then had a respectable performance in a loss to Oklahoma, an uninspiring win over Akron, and another poor offensive performance in a loss at TCU.

The Cyclones were 1-3 and staring down two straight games against ranked teams. Things were… bad. But then Brocktoberfest began in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and the entire outlook of the season changed with wins over Oklahoma State and West Virginia led by the thrilling, true freshman quarterback Brock Purdy. Iowa State fans went from worrying about a 4-8 season to thinking about the chance of playing in the conference title game.

So what’s next for Iowa State? Were these last two games a blip or the new normal? And do the Cyclones really have a chance to win the Big 12? I turned to three different analytical metrics to figure it out: ESPN’s FPI, Sagarin, and S&P+.

FPI

ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) is one smart metric to use statistics and data for predictive purposes. Right off the bat, FPI gives Iowa State about a 2% chance of winning the Big 12. It also says the most likely outcome is a 7-5 record, which would match the regular season performance from a season ago.

FPI considers Iowa State to be the #34 team in the country, with the #18 defense and #46 offense. Here’s the percent chance that Iowa State has to win each remaining game according to FPI, along with the opponent’s FPI ranking:

vs. #42 Texas Tech: 50.5%

at #95 Kansas: 79.1%

vs. #66 Baylor: 73.6%

at #36 Texas: 28.6%

vs. #76 Kansas State: 77.8%

vs. Incarnate Word: 99.2%

The first thing I notice? FPI doesn’t think Iowa State will play a team better than it for the rest of the season. Unfortunately for the Cyclones, the most difficult game left on the schedule against Texas is a road game, so the odds of winning are adjusted accordingly.

Also, FPI thinks this Saturday’s game is basically a coin flip. A decisive win could really help Iowa State’s outlook for the rest of the season – and in the same way, a blowout loss would change things in the other direction.

You might look at this and say “But Iowa State is 3-3 and favored to win five of the last six games. That’s 8-4, but you said 7-5 before!” That’s how probabilities work. Assume that Iowa State beats Texas Tech – your first reaction might be to think “If we can just get past Texas…” But using these FPI probabilities, Iowa State has only a 45% chance of beating all three of Kansas, Baylor, and K-State. It’s more likely than not that ISU loses at least one of those three games, despite being healthily favored in each.

And on the title game question question – Iowa State professor and math whiz (and my brother-in-law) Luke Roling has built a model based on FPI to project the rest of Iowa State’s season. Running thousands of simulations based on that data, here’s the percent chance that a given Big 12 team will make the conference championship game:

You can see a couple schools have some nice odds, a couple more are in the mix, and half of the conference has basically no chance. Iowa State finds itself somewhere in between with a 9.1% chance of making it to Dallas. (By the way – if Iowa State beats Texas Tech this weekend, TTU’s odds plummet to 11% while ISU’s shoot upwards to 16.9%.)

My big takeaway is that this weekend’s game is huge – as it really could go either way – and Iowa State’s game in Austin could be one of the biggest November games in Cyclone football history if they’re able to get there with a 6-3 record. Beat Texas Tech and there’s about a 60% chance of that happening…

Sagarin

Jeff Sagarin’s rankings system is my personal go-to for smart college football data. Iowa State pulls in with the #1 most-difficult schedule played so far this season, and the Cyclones are rated as the #33 team, one slot better than in FPI.

One thing I like about Sagarin is how it uses point-based rankings, so we can easily tell what its point spreads would be, after adjusting for its general 2.5-point home field advantage. Here’s a look at those spreads:

vs. #26 Texas Tech: Pick or ISU by less than 0.5

at #98 Kansas: ISU by 14

vs. #59 Baylor: ISU by 8.5

at #17 Texas: Texas by 7

vs. #58 Kansas State: ISU by 8.5

vs. #175 Incarnate Word: ISU by 37

Just like FPI, Iowa State is a favorite in five of its remaining six games. But finishing 5-1 in those games would be an unusually positive outcome, partially because Sagarin, like FPI, also thinks the Texas Tech game this weekend is basically a coin flip (although its “Recent” metric, that weighs more recent games heavily, likes Iowa State to win by 3). It thinks much more highly of Texas Tech than FPI does, with a #26 ranking instead of #42.

Sagarin is also much higher on Texas than FPI. The Horns are #17 here, and under that “Recent” metric, they’re the #8 team in the country. Sagarin thinks Texas will beat ISU by 7. Touchdown underdogs win every week, but after all, the nature of being an underdog is that you’re probably gonna lose.

The chance of a team going 3-0 in games where it is favored by 0.5, 8.5, and 8.5 points (like Texas Tech, Baylor, and Kansas State here) is about 28% – but beat Texas Tech, and the odds of getting to the Texas game at 6-3 and on a five-game winning streak is about 56%, based on those point spreads.

The big takeaway with Sagarin is… basically the same as with FPI. Texas Tech is going to be a really tough game, but if the Cyclones get through that, they’ve got a more-likely-than-not chance of getting to 6-3 and playing Texas in a game that they should lose, but could win.

S&P+

This seems to be the metric most favored by some of my fellow TGS contributors including Tom Danielson, Stephen Moldovan, Austin Narber, and others. I haven’t spent much time with it, but I’ll include some takeaways.

Iowa State comes in here as the #37 team in the country – just a tick lower than in FPI (#33) and Sagarin (#34). Some of the rankings for the remaining teams on ISU’s schedule, though, are a lot different under this metric:

Texas Tech: #31

Kansas: #108

Baylor: #59

Texas: #38

Kansas State: #89

Incarnate Word: NR

For example, Texas is #38 here despite being #17 in Sagarin (and #8 in one of Sagarin’s main metrics). And K-State comes in at #89, despite being #59 in Sagarin. Those are significant differences.

While FPI believes Iowa State will not face a team better than it for the rest of the season, and Sagarin believes only Texas will be better, S&P+ has only Texas Tech ranked better than Iowa State on its list of remaining opponents. But this is a little misleading, because Texas is only one slot behind ISU and that Cyclones-Longhorns game will be played in Austin. And similarly, on the Texas Tech question, Iowa State should benefit from facing a team that’s only a little better than it (according to these rankings) at Jack Trice Stadium. So we’re in a similar boat here as with the other metrics.

So what’s it all mean?

The schedule for the rest of the season is much lighter than the first half, which was the most difficult in the nation according to Sagarin. Iowa State could legitimately take a turn here. According to Luke Roling’s FPI model, winning out from this point would give the Cyclones about an 89% chance of making the Big 12 Championship Game (since they do need a little bit of help, with two conference losses and Oklahoma holding the head-to-head tiebreaker should it come down to that). And, surprisingly, Iowa State would still have a shot at the title game with a lot of help – a 12% chance – even if they lost one more game.

But the chances of actually winning out are low (about 9%) and the chances of making it with a 7-4 record aren’t great, either. Obviously, the outlook will improve if ISU manages to win the second-toughest remaining game on the schedule this weekend over Texas Tech, but it would still be pretty unlikely. So don’t be buying flights to Dallas just yet. But if the Cyclones get a win over the Red Raiders, maybe think about making a cancellable hotel reservation…

Chaplin
Spencer Hughes
Spencer Hughes 25 Articles
Staff Writer

Spencer is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and a Cedar Rapids, Iowa native. He holds degrees from Iowa State University and Duke University School of Law, where he learned that you can’t choose which is better between Hilton Coliseum and Cameron Indoor Stadium; they’re just different. He will discuss with you Game 6 of the 2011 World Series or the Minneapolis Miracle whenever you want and often when you don’t.

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