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Statistically Speaking- Colorado at Utah

The Utes’ PAC 12 championship dreams ended last Saturday, and Utah fans are deeply disappointed in the turn the team has taken over the last few weeks. How disappointed should they be? This week we’ll take a look at how the Utes have performed compared to their evolving expectations.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

How disappointed should Ute fans be?

There’s no question that Ute fans should be feeling the pain right now. After losing consecutive contests to Arizona and UCLA, Utah’s once bright prospects of a New Year’s Six or even playoff berth went up in smoke. The Utes are now struggling for position in the conference with three or four other middle of the pack teams, with no mathematical way to win the South. So how bad is it, really?

Measuring expectations is tricky. It’s easy to compare final results against preseason predictions, but preseason guesses are based on extremely limited information. Impact freshmen, injuries, and unexpected results in key games can cause wild swings in reasonable predictions. Experts are wrong in this context all the time, and they happened to be very wrong about the PAC 12 in general, and the South in particular.

I’ve picked four ways to measure reasonable expectations, which we can test against our disappointment as fans. The first is easy; I found a half dozen national media outlets that predicted win totals for every PAC 12 team. These pros picked either six or seven wins for the Utes, and almost universally fifth in the South. Next, I used the BlockU contributors’ rosier projections for the Utes. We hit the nail more or less on the head, averaging about 9 wins.

These preseason predictions are based on incomplete information, though. I also used two rolling, evolving projections to capture the idea that expectations can be raised or lowered over the course of a season. I plotted the Utes’ projected win total using FPI win probabilities, and I took three national bowl projections and converted those into regular season wins- 12 for the playoff, 11 for a New Year’s Bowl, 10 for the Alamo, 9 for the Holiday, 8 for the Foster Farms and Sun bowls, 7 for Vegas and 6 for the mighty Cactus Bowl. You can compare all four expectations with this graph:

If you are deeply disappointed in the Utes’ season, your expectations mirrored the bowl projections, where the Utes were pushing for a Playoff spot in the midseason and have plummeted. If you’re only a little disappointed, you probably took the more level headed approach of FPI, which never though Utah was a good enough team to go undefeated through the back half of the season, never pushing past a ten win prediction. If you’re perfectly content, you trusted the BlockU preseason projections and never really believed the Utes would genuinely compete for a PAC 12 title. If you are thrilled with the season, you bought in to the national Media’s lack of respect for the Utes and never raised your expectations from there.

There aren’t many (any?) Utah fans out there who would have been happy with a six or seven win season when the Utes were 5-0. Regardless of whether your expectations mirror the bowl, FPI, or BlockU predictions, you aren’t going to be satisfied if the Utes are 8-4 after a loss to Colorado to close out the regular season. Luckily, the Utes are heavily favored in this one… but that’s why they play the games.

Advanced Metrics Overview

There is too much data at this point for either a terrible or a magnificent performance to have much impact on advanced metrics. Last week’s performance should be worth a little extra in analysis, though, as the Utes were impacted by major injuries on the offensive side. These likely cost the Utes at least a chunk of the decreased efficiency and explosiveness they experienced on Saturday. The defense is still elite, and it turned in an elite performance against an excellent, multidimensional Bruins offense. Unfortunately, the offensive regression is creating a team that looks quite a bit last year’s from an advanced metrics perspective, even though the win total is a bit higher.

While most of the attention has been focused on the Beavers as the PAC 12’s worst teams, the Buffaloes have been quietly putting together their own case. Colorado has nothing but weaknesses as far as the eye can see, and their pliable defense should leave plenty of opportunities for even this MASH unit Utah offense to score. Meanwhile, looks to be barely better than Oregon State’s. Like the Beavers, there’s no reason to expect the Buffs to put up more than a score or so.

Vegas and the polls

No one has given the Buffs a shot in this one at any point. The Utes opened as 15.5 point favorites, and they’ve gained a point since then. With an over/under of about 49, Vegas isn’t expecting a shootout, but something like a 36-17 number. Massey has the Utes slipping down to 20th nationally, with Colorado cellar dwelling at 91st.

Stat-Head Pick

The Utes have been struggling of late, but there’s no reason they should struggle against this Buffaloes team, to whom they are superior in every way. I expect the Utes to grind out a punishing win that never feels in doubt, setting themselves up nicely for an excellent bowl game. As for disappointed, I certainly was hoping for a ten- or eleven-win regular season following the Autzen beat-down, but I took that game with a grain of salt and tried to keep my expectations a little lower. The only way I’ll be truly crushed is if the Utes manage to lose this last game of the season against a Buffs team that is utterly failing to improve the way their fans have hoped.

Utah 27, Colorado 10