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How Big Have USF's "Big Wins" Really Been?

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Ever since USF football had its moments in the sun a few years ago, I've been trying to Iook objectively at the "big wins" that the Bulls has accumulated over its short history. After the short-term euphoria of the games wore off, I found myself thinking: Were any of these wins actually big? Like, when you look back at the end of the season and see what the teams the Bulls beat ultimately accomplished, are the wins as special as they seemed at the time?

First, we need to define what we would consider a "big win." This will be a personal list, because everyone will have their own standards of what "big" is. To build my list, I've devised the Stewart Mandel Test. This test has one question: Was this win big enough for Sports Illustrated's national college football writer, Stewart Mandel, to notice it and say something about the game?* If the answer is "yes," then it passes the test.

These are the USF games that I think would have passed the Stewart Mandel Test.**

  • Pittsburgh 2001
  • Louisville 2005
  • West Virginia 2006
  • Auburn 2007
  • West Virginia 2007
  • Kansas 2008
  • Florida State 2009
  • Miami 2010

On a basic, wins-and-losses level, many of these wins don't look nearly as impressive now as they did then. Pittsburgh, Kansas, FSU, and Miami all finished around .500, and Louisville and Auburn, while good teams, were not at their peaks when the Bulls beat them. In fact, in their 10-year history in FBS, USF has only beaten three teams that won 10 or more games in that season -- West Virginia twice, and UCF.

What about when we use a couple of the better computer ranking systems? Let's see how that turns out after the jump.

Let's use two different sets of ratings. First, we'll use Jeff Sagarin's ratings, which just about anyone would consider to be reputable. His ratings have been in USA Today for over 25 years, so they go far enough back that we can use them for every win on our list. Second, we'll use Football Outsiders' FEI rating. The FEI takes into account a team's overall performance, credits them for performing well against good teams, punishes them for bad games against bad teams, and filters out garbage time in all forms. The only downside is that FEI has only been calculated back to 2007, so it's going to be incomplete.

Opponent Year Sagarin FEI USF Sagarin USF FEI
at Pittsburgh 2001  45 (76.53) -- 73 (67.85)  --
Louisville 2005 22 (82.57) -- 54 (72.48) --
at West Virginia 2006 10 (88.64) -- 31 (79.33) --
at Auburn 2007 13 (84.42) 15 (.177) 20 (82.45) 9 (.195)
West Virginia 2007 3 (92.29) 3 (.262) 20 (82.45) 9 (.195)
Kansas 2008 31 (78.80) 61 (-.006) 43 (75.67) 29 (.102)
at Florida State 2009 31 (78.56) 24 (.134) 39 (77.28) 57 (.010)
at Miami 2010 40 (76.91) 22 (.143) 44 (74.43) 30 (.107)

The one game that looks bogus almost immediately is Kansas. Both teams ended up 7-5 on the season, and USF's FEI for the 2008 season is far above the Jayhawks' number. The Sagarin ratings indicate basically a dead heat when the 2008 home-field factor of 2.62 is included. In reality, that game was celebrated because both teams were ranked at the time (improperly, as it turned out), and they gave everyone an exciting, well-played game on a Friday night when it was on a national stage.

The Miami game last year is a mild upset according to the numbers, and probably seems more surprising because the Hurricanes had much more player talent than USF. Same with FSU the year before. The win in Auburn isn't as big of an upset as it seemed, but on the other hand, spreadsheets don't account for playing on the road in front of 87,000 people.

As far as the biggest upset goes, it's still the Pittsburgh game in 2001. Of all the games on this list, that's the one game where you would have thought going in that the Bulls had virtually no chance to win, what with them playing their second game ever as an FBS member. It's also the game with the widest Sagarin disparity when the 2001 home-field factor of 3.34 is included. I remember the AP story calling it maybe the most shocking loss in the long history of Pittsburgh football, and it's right up there. (I'd still give Penn State's famous 48-14 beatdown of the Panthers in 1982 top billing in that category.) At the time, USF's 35-26 win was a staggering outcome, but after a couple of years it was basically forgotten.

Which is why it's so perfect that Notre Dame is the Bulls' "big win" opportunity this season. In our imperfect college football structure, the narrative is almost as important as the achievement. Just pulling an upset is good, but pulling an upset over a name-brand school is even better. Not many people care that Auburn was down a little bit the year USF beat them. The story is still "USF won at Auburn." If the story in September is "USF won at Notre Dame," that will stick for a long time regardless of how good the Irish really are in 2011.


* - I picked Mandel because he is always on the level and does not have any noticeable axes to grind. If he mentions your game, it's because he finds it genuinely noteworthy. On the other hand, if an arsonist like Gregg Doyel is just using your game as an excuse to tear the other team's head off, that doesn't count.

** - Yes, I know you could go back and check Mandel's wrap-up stories and mailbags from these weeks on and conduct a literal Stewart Mandel Test for nearly every game on my list. But that would take more time than I have.