You may have heard the staggering statistic for Chris Petersen in games following a bye, he is undefeated as a head coach. He amassed a record of 17-0 (based on my review, I have seen some say 16-0 though, and it is a bit hard to track given all of the non-Saturday games Boise State played in the WAC) as a head coach of the Boise State Broncos and Washington Huskies. Washington is coming off a bye facing the No. 9 Utah Utes this Saturday. So, given Petersen’s record, Utah is on massive upset alert right? Let’s dig into this impressive stat a bit more before we all panic about Utah’s chances against Washington.
While there certainly could be something to great coaches having extra time to prepare for a game, it is important to look at matchups as well. If a highly ranked team coming off a bye beats an unranked team, was it really because of the bye that the highly ranked team won? Probably not, they likely would have won without a bye. When Boise was in the WAC under Petersen (for five years from 2006-2010), they lost only three regular-season games. During that stretch, Boise had seven games following bye weeks. Going 7-0 in those games is not surprising considering Boise went 58-3 in regular season games during that stretch. Boise finished in the top 15 in four of those five seasons. Boise was simply better than pretty much every team they faced in the WAC. Boise was still good under Petersen when they moved to the Mountain West, finishing in the top 20 in his first two seasons in the Mountain West (they were unranked in his final season at Boise).
Petersen then moved to Washington beginning in the 2014 season. It took him until his third season to really get going at Washington. Starting in 2016, Washington made three straight New Year’s Six bowls, winning the Pac-12 twice. Petersen is a fantastic coach and his teams have finished ranked in nine out of 13 seasons between his time at Boise and Washington.
Petersen has not beaten a single ranked team when his team is coming off a bye. At Boise State, he had the better team in every post-bye game he played. None of the wins at Boise came against Power Five teams. At UW, only two of the five teams made a bowl game, and only one finished with a winning record. Again, this is not impressive. In these 17 games, Petersen’s team really only pulled the upset once, and that was against the 2015 USC Trojans. The Trojans ended up knocking off the undefeated and No. 3 at the time Utah Utes, going on to winning the Pac-12 South. However, the USC team that finished the 2015 strong was very different from the one that lost to UW. Early in 2015, USC was still being coached by Steve Sarkisian, who was dealing with alcohol problems. After the UW loss, Sark took a leave of absence before being fired the next day. Clay Helton took over and rallied the troops to salvage the season. 2015 USC was not a good team under Sark but they were under Helton, which is why Helton got the head coaching job.
Here is the thing, stats can look quite impressive and be totally meaningless. Think about the Arizona State game this year. The Sun Devils came into the game 9-0 when they started the game with the ball. Kyle Whittingham knew this stat and did not care, deferring the ball and winning the game. Sometimes two factors that are completely unrelated coincide with each other and yield an impressive, yet meaningless, stat. Petersen is a great coach, no one would argue that, but his record following bye weeks is overblown because of a bunch of wins over teams his teams were better than. I cannot rule out that a brilliant coach like Petersen having extra time to prepare gives them a competitive advantage. I do not think the data we have available allow us to draw that conclusion though because of the limited sample size and overall inequality between Petersen’s teams and the ones they faced. Further, Petersen’s poor bowl record (6-6) refutes the conclusion that Petersen’s teams play better with more time to prepare.
Utah absolutely needs to play well to avoid an upset today. They are facing a very well coached Washington team that is hungry to save their season with a win over a top 10 team. This Huskies team is young and has been inconsistent this year, but expect them to give Utah their best shot and will likely play their best game today.