Football: The biggest improvements since '08, and whether we saw them coming

It's almost time for CIS football season, and therefore almost time for our football previews, a tradition of ours since 2008. (It's the internet. Four years can be a tradition, right?)

While we pretend to be all-knowing, any sort of previewing or forecasting is, at its core, a mug's game. To illustrate this, and to provide a check on any overconfidence we may have in our seeing-the-future skills, here are the five teams in the last three years with the largest year-over-year improvements in winning percentage (including playoffs and bowl games if they played in them).

For each team we also include whether we saw their improvement coming in our preview for that year, as well as what actually happened to them after their year of improvement (if applicable).


5. Windsor Lancers, 2010 to 2011 (+.350)

Record: 6-4, including a road playoff win over Ottawa and a one-score loss to Western.
The year before: 2-6, missed playoffs.

Did we see it coming? Yes and no. Guest writer and Always OUA bon vivant Chris Lund had them trending up, saying, "If all goes to plan this season could be a turning point in the Lancers’ prospective ascent from the basement to the elite of the OUA." But a more likely outcome, in his view, was another below-.500 season: "A bottom of the table finish is to be expected once again, it’s just a matter of where they fit among teams from Toronto and the no-longer-on-hiatus Waterloo."

What went right: Oddly enough, a QB1 injury. Daniel Da Silva, in his recap of the Lancers' season, noted how second-year quarterback Austin Kennedy "went on to lead one of the most potent passing attacks in the country." In our not-yet-published 2011 quarterback rankings, Kennedy finished third in the country, but it wasn't just the air attack that helped Windsor: "On defence, they also improved by almost 100 points, cutting their yardage allowed by about 25 yards per game."

4. Queen's Golden Gaels, 2010 to 2011 (+.367)

Record: 7-3, beating Laurier in the first round and losing to McMaster.
The year before: 3-6, losing to McMaster in the playoffs.

Did we see it coming? Yes. Neate Sager wrote that the "Vanier hangover" should be over and that "Queen's will reverse its outcome and finish 5-3, winning out against the also-rans and knocking off a top-tier team." They actually went 6-2, with a very one-sided game against Western to end the season being one of their two wins over an above-.500 team.

What went right: A "peaks-and-valleys" offence that was more peaks with the running game and the protection enjoyed by tailback Ryan Granberg, and nine straight games without allowing a rushing touchdown.

3. McGill Redmen, 2008 to 2009 (+.375)

Record: 3-5, with no playoff appearance and no wins against a winning team.
The year before: 0-9 with an exhibition loss to Queen's, but maybe even worse than an 0-9 record suggests.

Did we see it coming? Not really. Jared Book's preview was more along the lines of "well, they can't possibly be any worse."

What went right: Um, as many games against AUS teams as against Laval and Montreal? Their three wins were over Bishop's, Mount A, and Sherbrooke, who went a combined 7-19 (or 2-6 per eight games). This might be the least significant improvement in our top five, especially since...

Was it sustainable? ...they've not won a game since.

2. Mount Allison Mounties, 2009 to 2010 (+.444)

Record: 4-5, losing in overtime to Acadia in the AUS semifinal.
The year before: 0-8.

Did we see it coming? Somewhat. Andrew Bucholtz gave them a "stock up" rating, writing, "It's tough to get worse from a 0-8 season, and there's plenty to be optimistic about with new recruits and an experienced coach like [Scott] Annand stepping in as the defensive coordinator."

What went right: Well, check these numbers out: 9.1, 8.2, 10.6, 6.7. Give up? Those are the number of yards allowed by Mount A per passing play, starting in 2007. Annand may have had a significant effect on that last number in 2010.

Was it sustainable? No. The next number in the sequence is 9.0 passing yards per attempt. Annand left after 2010 and was replaced with then-defensive backs/special teams coach Scott Brady. Not to put this all on one person's shoulders, of course — the indescribable Gary Ross departed after 2010, and, as related by Kevin Garbuio here earlier this year, another blow to the Mounties' 2011 chances was linebacker Ben Halpern's season-long injury.

1. UBC Thunderbirds, 2010 to 2011 (+.450)

Record*: 7-3, defeating Saskatchewan but losing to Calgary in the playoffs.
The obvious asterisk: In December, Canada West took away all of those wins retroactively, in a rather embarrassing situation for UBC, the conference, and CIS.
The year before: 2-6, no playoff games.

Did we see it coming? The forfeited games, no. The improvement, yes. Justin McElroy: "with so many senior players returning, the only thing that can stop this team from improving on their two-win total from 2010 is injuries." As well, he thought "the opportunity is there for UBC to break through in what will be a weaker Canada West conference than in previous years." Still, our readers as a whole pegged them as a 2-6 team, not 6-2, in our guess-every-team's-record contest.

What went right: Obviously Billy Greene had a great year. But aside from that, and as Justin writes below, there were two main positive developments:

  1. Team bought into Shawn Olson's system: Because they didn't hire Olson as coach until early 2010, last year was the first season where he had a full offseason with his team. 2011 showed after a disappointing first season that he's the right person for the job — players rave about him, and the locker room culture is a marked improvement over that under Ted Goveia.

  2. Offensive line stayed healthy: Led by Queen's transfer/first year law student Patrick Sullivan, the offensive line stayed injury free for the entire season, allowing Greene the time and space to execute their highly vertical attack.

Of course, balanced receiving core/healthy defense/lucky schedule (Mark Mueller's injury in opening series, played Alberta twice, final Calgary game was after they had clinched first) also were factors.

Greene was second, to McMaster's Kyle Quinlan, in those not-yet-published QB rankings.

And this is only marginally related, but do you think UBC are happy they didn't go with Gary Etcheverry, who later complained about Ottawa making him interview for a job there? Olson seems to have worked out so far.


So in three of these five cases, our writers saw some improvement coming. The other two were teams who started at 0-8, so you can't really take credit for predicting an increase.

If we look at all teams from 2008 to 2010, and divide them into four categories by winning percentage, we won't be surprised to see that on average, regression to the mean exists: the best teams get a little worse the next year (and the worst teams get a little better). Teams in the top group, averaging 6.4 wins per 8 games, fell to 5.7 wins the next year — 29% of the way to .500. Teams in the bottom group started at 0.6 wins and went to 1.6 the next year — also a 29% shift towards average, with only one managing to get there ('10 Acadia).

So not knowing anything else about a 7-1 team, we'd expect them to drop a win just due to regression, and ditto for a 1-7 team expected to improve to 2-6.

Of course, we do know more than nothing about these teams, and if you'd like to find out just how much, stay tuned over the next few weeks for our 2012 previews.
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