Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Tuesday Trivia: Improbable Winning Streaks

Welcome to the second edition of our Tuesday Trivia feature. In the first edition we examined the state of parity in college football. Today's edition has a similar theme: the most improbable winning streaks over the last several years. This is an extension of the very first trivia feature we did, examining the most improbable upsets over the last eight years.

As a reminder, there are some ground rules in identifying these streaks. They will:
  • span the 2003-2004 to 2011-2012 seasons;
  • exclude August and September games; each year the computer needs a few weeks to really settle in and understand the teams for that year before it can make reasonably accurate predictions; and
  • include a minimum of four wins.
In short, we want to give the computers a few weeks to really understand what's going on with a team for a given year before we can proclaim that a winning streak is "improbable" for that year instead of merely a change over the previous year.

With that, let the countdown begin after the jump.

#5: 2004 Iowa State Cyclones
Date Prediction Odds Results
2004/10/23 Baylor30 Iowa St.32 54.5% Baylor25 Iowa St.26
2004/10/30 Iowa St.27 Kansas31 33.3% Iowa St.13 Kansas7
2004/11/06 Iowa St.24 Nebraska31 20.2% Iowa St.34 Nebraska27
2004/11/20 Kansas St.39 Iowa St.27 14.5% Kansas St.23 Iowa St.37

The first stop in our countdown are the 2004 Iowa State Cyclones, a squad in the news more recently for a stunning upset of top-tier Iowa in a triple-OT thriller. Seven years ago to the day, though, the Cyclones came up a TD short against Iowa. They came back with a 1-TD win against Northern Illinois, and then proceeded to drop three straight against Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, and Colorado. Even with a 2-4 record the Cyclones were slight favorites against Baylor, and eeked out a 1-point victory. The next three games, though, were against Kansas, Nebraska, and Kansas State, a stretch in which Iowa State would be fortunate to pick up a single win. The Cyclones clearly hadn't checked the stat sheets, though, and reeled off a stunning trio of upsets. Their winning streak was only interrupted by the interception of a game-winning TD pass in the endzone against Missouri. The Cyclones bounced back and defeated Miami-Ohio in the 2004 Independence Bowl. This 1-in-188 winning streak still stands as the fifth-best in recent history.

#4: 2010 Auburn Tigers
Date Prediction Odds Results
2010/10/02 Auburn41 LA-Monroe24 94.1% Auburn52 LA-Monroe3
2010/10/09 Kentucky31 Auburn35 64.6% Kentucky34 Auburn37
2010/10/16 Auburn35 Arkansas31 61.6% Auburn65 Arkansas43
2010/10/23 Auburn32 LSU33 47.6% Auburn24 LSU17
2010/10/30 Mississippi32 Auburn36 61.8% Mississippi31 Auburn51
2010/11/13 Auburn37 Georgia34 61.2% Auburn49 Georgia31
2010/11/26 Alabama35 Auburn31 25.5% Alabama27 Auburn28
2010/12/04 Auburn35 South Carolina34 50.7% Auburn56 South Carolina17
2011/01/10 Auburn36 Oregon38 42.9% Auburn22 Oregon19

I know we've been known to wonder aloud at what's up with Auburn, but you can't deny that they skated on the edge of ruin all season long. They needed a late field goal to beat Kentucky, managed to knock Arkansas' star QB out of the game and then proceeded to give up several touchdowns to his inexperienced backup, benefitted from 3 Alabama turnovers that prevented the halftime score from being 42-7 in Alabama's favor, and had a lot of luck in sneaking past Oregon in the title game. Last year when we examined the remaining undefeated teams in FBS, Auburn was the longest of the long shots in early October, and two weeks later had managed to position themselves somewhere between Utah and Michigan State in the pantheon of perfect teams. The Tigers had a 1-in-267 in navigating this schedule without a loss.  For the sake of comparison, pull out a coin and flip it 8 times; if it came up heads all 8 times, then you're almost as lucky as Auburn was last year. Almost.

#3: 2004 UTEP Miners
Date Prediction Odds Results
2004/10/02 UTEP36 New Mexico St.35 53.3% UTEP45 New Mexico St.0
2004/10/09 Fresno St.38 UTEP25 11.7% Fresno St.21 UTEP24
2004/10/16 UTEP33 Hawaii37 33.9% UTEP51 Hawaii20
2004/10/23 LA Tech34 UTEP31 38.0% LA Tech27 UTEP44
2004/10/30 SJSU33 UTEP41 68.9% SJSU20 UTEP38
2004/11/13 UTEP37 Rice32 65.8% UTEP35 Rice28
2004/11/20 UTEP35 SMU26 83.8% UTEP57 SMU27

UTEP had come off an abysmal 2003 season with a 2-11 record, and the first two games of 2004 hinted of more of the same. A 32-point loss to Arizona State followed by a 16 point loss to Boise sandwiched a win over D-IAA Weber State (something the computer doesn't know about). But new coach Mike Price had been brought in to turn things around, and turn them around he did. A 45-0 drubbing of New Mexico State started the turnaround in earnest, and a 24-21 win over a very good Fresno State team was the true start of pulling UTEP out of the nosedive. Drubbings of Hawaii and Louisiana Tech cemented UTEP as a favorite in its remaining games, and the Miners sealed their bowl eligibility with decisive wins over San Jose State, Rice, and SMU. The 57-27 win over the Mustangs capped an improbable 1-in-328 romp through the tail end of the 2004 season.

#2: 2010 Miami-Ohio Redhawks
Date Prediction Odds Results
2010/10/30 Buffalo31 Miami-OH29 44.6% Buffalo9 Miami-OH21
2010/11/10 Bowling Green34 Miami-OH31 36.4% Bowling Green21 Miami-OH24
2010/11/17 Akron27 Miami-OH35 78.0% Akron14 Miami-OH19
2010/11/23 Miami-OH24 Temple33 17.5% Miami-OH23 Temple3
2010/12/03 Miami-OH26 Northern Ill.38 12.9% Miami-OH26 Northern Ill.21
2011/01/06 Miami-OH29 Middle Tenn.30 47.0% Miami-OH35 Middle Tenn.21

Last year's Miami-Ohio team was coming off an atrocious 1-11 2009-2010 season. The 2010 season started out slightly better, but the Redhawks dropped games against Florida, Missouri, and Cincinnati by a combined score of 130-28. Thank goodness for the MAC conference schedule and some lucky bounces. Playing only one of the six games as a favorite, the Redhawks went on a 4-0 tear through late October and November to make it to the MAC title game where they were heavy underdogs top Northern Illinois. With 33 seconds left Miami scored the go-ahead touchdown to go from cellar dwellers to conference champions over the course of a single year. One month later they put the finishing touches on a 6-game winning streak by defeating Middle Tennessee State in the GoDaddy.com bowl. When Miami took the field on October 30, 2010, they odds of them accomplishing this feat stood at a staggering 1-in-744.

#1: 2006 Rice Owls
Date Prediction Odds Results
2006/10/14 Rice29 UAB32 41.3% Rice34 UAB33
2006/10/21 UCF35 Rice31 40.9% UCF29 Rice40
2006/11/04 UTEP37 Rice31 31.3% UTEP31 Rice37
2006/11/11 Tulsa38 Rice27 15.6% Tulsa38 Rice41
2006/11/18 Rice29 East Carolina35 33.9% Rice18 East Carolina17
2006/11/25 Rice31 SMU34 43.0% Rice31 SMU27

The most improbable win streak that fits the criteria comes from the 2006 Rice Owls, and is also unique in our countdown: all six times Rice was the underdog, and six times they won. Three of these games -- against UAB, UCF, and SMU -- were all expected to be close, but Rice won those three coin tosses. Add into the mix a pair of slight uphill battles -- UTEP and ECU -- and one downright Big Win(TM) against Tulsa, and you've got the makings of an improbable win streak. This was a winning streak by the narrowest of margins, though. The victories came by a total of 26 points, or 4.33 points per game. If you toss out the 11-point drubbing of UCF, this turns into 5 victories by an average of a field goal each.  The odds of Rice pulling off these six victories puts them squarely at the top of this list, at approximately 1-in-831.

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