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Utah vs. November

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NCAA Football: Utah at UCLA Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

It is well known that the Utah Utes have struggled in the month of November since joining the Pac-12 in 2011. Utah is in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 South, holding a one game advantage in the loss column over every team in the Pac-12 South. However, Utah has to face possibly their biggest rival in their final three Pac-12 games: November. The Utes are just 13-15 in games in the final month of the regular season. Only once (in 2011 at 3-1) has Utah recorded a winning record in November, that most curses of months. Can Utah reverse this trend, close out the season strong, and finally win the South? We will know the answer to that in three weeks, but to make our best, let’s look at why Utah has struggled in past Novembers.

Injuries and a lack of depth

When Utah rolled into Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes were used to winning a lot of games. Many fans expected a seamless transition to a Power Five (or BCS at the time) conference. While it was true that Utah’s starting 22 could compete with pretty much anyone in the conference, it became clear just how much more depth is necessary in a BCS/Power Five conference. Because there are no weeks off in a Power Five league unlike a Group of Five conference, injuries pile up more, and depth guys are counted on to help win more games. Starters usually have to play all four quarters, again leading to a better chance for injuries. It took Utah years of recruiting in the Pac-12 to get the depth they needed to survive losses to starters. Utah also has had some terrible injury luck. Only in 2016 did Utah have the same starting quarterback for every game. In 2011, 2012, and 2013, Utah was forced to play a backup quarterback in the majority of their November games. In fact Utah’s starting quarterback played in just one game in November in that span (Travis Wilson against the Arizona State Sun Devils in 2013) out of 12 games. Those backup quarterbacks were emergency addition Jon Hays, Travis Wilson as a true freshman, and former walk-on Adam Schulz. In 2015, Utah running back Devontae Booker got hurt in an overtime loss to the Arizona Wildcats and missed Utah’s final two games of the season (a home loss to the UCLA Bruins and a win over the Colorado Buffaloes). There is reason for optimism though. Now that Utah has more talent and depth, they are likely to have more success in November. While a 2-2 record last season might not seem like an improvement, it actually was considering how young the team was last year and the schedule difficulty. Utah beat UCLA and Colorado convincingly (48-17 and 34-13 respectively). They were competitive at home against a Washington State Cougars team that was ranked at the time and finished the season with nine wins, losing by one score, 33-25. Even more impressive was Utah’s performance on the road against the Washington Huskies, who finished ranked No. 16 and played in the Fiesta Bowl. Utah lost 33-30, in a game they should have won. It is a reason for optimism that Utah exceeded expectations in November last year (Utah was 3-1 against the spread).

Tough schedule

Part of the November struggles have been magnified by tough schedules. 2011, the only season Utah has a winning record in November, did not feature a single team that finished with a winning record. Outside of that year, Utah’s November schedule featured at least one team that finished with a winning record. Utah is 2-12 in those games from 2012-2017. Utah faces seven ranked teams in November(a quarter of their November games), including the Oregon Ducks, who featured Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota at quarterback and played in the College Football Playoff, losing to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the championship game. Utah is 0-7 against ranked teams in November. While this record is poor, remember the first point, Utah lacked depth for the first few years in the Pac-12 and was playing with backup quarterbacks in 2011-2013.Utah has typically started seasons healthy and not faced many challenging opponents in nonconference play, helping Utah start the season strong. Utah has only played three teams in nonconference play that finished the season ranked (No. 25 BYU Cougars 2011, No. 16 Utah State Aggies 2012, No. 12 Michigan Wolverines 2015). This might make the November struggles seem worse than they actually are. If Utah played a nonconference patsy in November (like most teams in the SEC do) and a few fewer ranked teams (and instead playing them in September/October), Utah’s November record would look a lot better.This does not excuse a few inexplicable losses at home to teams Utah was favored against. Utah lost to the Colorado Buffaloes at home in 2011, a team that won just two other games all year. Utah also lost to the 4-8 Oregon Ducks at home in 2016. Those two losses loom large in fans’ minds because a win in 2011 would have clinched the South for Utah, while a win in 2016 would have set up a winner-take-all showdown against Colorado in Boulder for the Pac-12 South title in 2016.

Let’s use some advanced stats

Football fans have not embraced advanced stats the way baseball fans have. Part of this makes sense, sample size is critical for accuracy in statistics and baseball has 162 games while college football has 12 (in the regular season). With that noted, I do think advanced stats can offer some interesting insights here. Let’s focus specifically on 2014-2016 rather than 2011-2017 for a few reasons (one is the point below because those seasons had the November struggles the most). Utah had a lot on the line in November those three seasons and finished ranked each year.

In 2014, Utah finished ranked No. 21, but S&P+ had Utah at No. 33. In 2015, Utah finished ranked No. 17, but S&P+ had Utah at No. 29. In 2016, Utah finished ranked No. 23, but S&P+ had Utah at No. 43. Let’s dig in and try to discern why there is such a wide discrepancy (I promise this is worth it so stay with me).

Many will say a win is a win, but is it really that simple? Beating the worst team in the league by one point is a win, and even the best teams have to escape a game or two every year (remember the small sample size in college football). But, consistently barely defeated opponents that should be overmatched can point to a team that is overrated. Utah won ugly in 2014-2016. Because they won, they moved up in the human rankings, but they were punished by advanced statistics. Utah played in 18 one score Pac-12 games in 2014-2016 out of a total of 27 games (a full two-thirds of their conference games).

In 2014, every game Utah won was decided by one score. Seven of their nine games were decided by one score (including three overtime games). Utah faced three teams that missed a bowl game (Washington State Cougars, Oregon State Beavers, and Colorado Buffaloes). Utah was only 2-1 in those games. They needed double overtime to beat Oregon State and a pick six to beat Colorado, and they blew a 21-0 lead against WSU at home. Most top 25 teams would have dominated those three teams (though Arizona State did fall to Oregon State that year). The margin between winning and losing was very slim. Once November rolled around, the difficulty ramped up (Utah faced three ranked teams plus Stanford), and Utah lost to all three ranked teams (as advanced stats would predict given the middling performances against lesser opponents). Part of this could have been due to a lack of depth (as I mentioned earlier). Because the margin between a win and a loss was so slim, any small factor could push Utah towards a loss. In statistics, there is something called regression to the mean (simply it means as more data points come in, the data trend toward the mean). (Imagine you flip a coin five times and get four heads, does that mean the coin is biased towards heads? No, you just need more data points to remove the variability in a small sample size. Flipping the coin 100 times or more would help even that out.) Advanced stats had a less favorable picture of Utah in 2014 than their record indicated, and we saw the result of that in November, Utah regressed to the mean. They were a good team, but they were also winning more than you would expect early in the season, and it caught up to them later in the year.

2016 was similar in that Utah played in seven games decided by one score. It was also Utah’s lowest S&P+ ranking in the three year stretch. Again, Utah won ugly to start the season (with an ugly early-season loss at Cal) before they regressed to the mean in November. Utah actually had a bye in November, so they only played three games in November 2016. Their November schedule was easier in 2016 than 2014, only facing a top 10 ranked Colorado team in Boulder and two others that finished with losing records (at Arizona State and against Oregon).

I do not think regression to the mean explains the November 2015 struggles as much though. The 2015 team was by far the best during that run. They finished with the highest ranking in S&P+, and they only had four one-score games. Four of their six Pac-12 wins were by more than one score (including annihilating Oregon 62-20). One of their Pac-12 wins that was decided by one score was against a ranked at the time Cal team with future No. 1 pick Jared Goff at quarterback (oh and College GameDay was in town for that one). What derailed Utah that year was injuries. Booker was the heart of that offense, and he suffered a knee injury against Arizona. He played the rest of that game, but he was not the same, and Utah ultimately lost in overtime. Leading wide receivers Britain Covey and Kenneth Scott were both injured (Scott played through it, but Covey missed most of the UCLA game and all of the Colorado game). The biggest injury was actually tight end Siale Fakailoatonga, who got hurt against Arizona State. These losses led to the offense stalling down the stretch. Utah managed more than 5.0 yards per play in every conference game before November. Washington, with their elite defense, was the only Pac-12 to keep Utah under 5.0 yards per play with Booker and Covey healthy (though Fakailoatonga was out at that point). Once those two were gone, both UCLA and Colorado kept Utah below 4.5 yards per play. Now, here is where we circle back to depth. 2015 was the first year where every Utah recruiting class knew Utah would join the Pac-12 (with the exception of some returned missionaries). The redshirt juniors and true seniors were part of Utah’s great 2012 recruiting class, so Utah has a great core of older players. The problem was the depth behind them. In the 2013-2015 recruiting classes (which would primarily be the depth players in 2015), Utah ranked 47th, 66th, and 45th nationally per 247Sports. Utah landed just one four-star recruit in that timeframe (offensive tackle Jackson Barton). They got some players in those classes who developed into great players eventually, but they had few instant impact players that could step in without much drop off in performance when an upperclassman starter went down. Had Utah stayed healthy in 2015, I think they would have won the South.

Is November really a bad month for Utah?

Utah actually has a better conference record in November than in September/October if you look at 2011-2017. Given that, where did the November collapse narrative come from? I think there are three reasons: Utah’s nonconference dominance against mostly Group of Five opponents inflates their early season record, recency bias (we remember November losses more clearly than September losses), and most importantly, in Utah’s three best seasons in the Pac-12 (2014-2016), Utah absolutely faded in November, keeping them out of the Pac-12 Championship Game. I addressed reasons for that November fade in 2014-2016 above. It was real but I think overblown.

Recency bias shows up when November losses are focused on more than September/October losses. Utah has had bad losses in November, ones I mentioned above, but they also had bad losses in September/October. We talk more about the Oregon loss in 2016 than the Cal loss earlier that same season. The WSU loss in 2014 was another terrible early-season loss that I do not hear people talk about as much as November losses. A win or a loss counts the same in September as it does in November. But, because November is the last month of the regular season, the wins/losses seem more important.

Now let’s look at the 2018 Utah Utes

We talked a lot about previous Novembers to try to get at why Utah has struggled. I hope I did enough to show that the November struggles are actually not as bad as people remember. This November is just as critical for Utah as they were in 2014-2016, but I think we will see a different result. For one, the schedule is not as tough. Utah does not face any ranked teams this November, and Utah should be favored in every game. In 2014-2016, Utah never ranked in the top 25 in S&P+. While the season is not yet over, Utah currently sits at No. 12 in S&P+. This team has consistently dominated the teams it is supposed to unlike any Utah team we have seen in the Pac-12, and it shows in Utah’s advanced stats ranking. I do not expect a regression to the mean this November like we saw in 2014 and 2016 (because the mean is an elite team this year). Utah has more depth this year than in 2015. Utah’s last three recruiting classes ranked 37, 33, and 33. Utah landed eight four-star recruits in that timeframe (though two graduated and one transferred, so five of them remain on the team). The team this year has a lot more freshmen and sophomores contributing heavily than 2015 did, which illustrates the talent and depth the team has this year because of a great job on the recruiting trail the last three years. We cannot predict injuries, and we hope Utah stays healthy, but if injuries do happen, Utah is better prepared to handle them than in years past.

Having gone on for well over 2,000 words, my brain tells me that this November will be different. We saw Utah start to have some success last November, illustrating how important depth is down the stretch (Utah was 0-4 in October and 2-2 in November last year). But, I am still nervous because we saw three what looked like promising seasons collapse in November. The game against Arizona State on Saturday will tell us a lot about whether this November will be different like all of the numbers point to.