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How Easy Are Encores For Upstart College Football Programs?

The Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns open the season as an underdog but carry the weight of expectation like a favorite. Head coach Billy Napier has guided the long-middling program to back-to-back seasons of at least 10 wins, the only double-digit-win seasons in school history. The Sun Belt Conference team has been so successful, in fact, that one reporter literally asked Napier what he’s still doing there.

With nearly all of their starters back for 2021, the Ragin’ Cajuns head to Austin this weekend in an attempt to upset a Big 12 opponent for a second-straight season opener. This is the first season in program history that Louisiana is ranked in the AP’s preseason top 25 poll, and last season was the first in which it so much as appeared in an AP top 25 poll. But encores are difficult to come by on the college gridiron, particularly when the team in question isn’t accustomed to such awareness and adulation.

College football has continued its oligarchical transition in the playoff era. Fans in Clemson, Columbus, Norman and Tuscaloosa can set their watches to rankings and recognitions, playoff bids and championships. But fans of plucky upstarts like the one found in Lafayette are hardly assured of continued success. For every Boise State that extends its stay in the national spotlight, there’s a South Florida, Utah State or Western Michigan that rapidly fades in the sun.

“When you have a slow, gradual build, you usually have more sustainability,” said Indiana coach Tom Allen, who has overseen such a build in Bloomington. “When things happen fast, they often leave fast.”

Louisiana wasn’t the only Group of Five program to earn its way onto the proverbial map in 2020: Ball State, Buffalo, Coastal Carolina, Cincinnati and Liberty accomplished program-best seasons;1 BYU and San Jose State weren’t far off. But can pundits and fans expect those teams to replicate or improve upon those progressions in 2021?

FiveThirtyEight analyzed the correlation of season-over-season performance for all FBS teams in every season since 2014, the start of the playoff era. Specifically, we wanted to see if there was any relationship between a team’s win percentage and overall performance2 from season to season, and assess whether there was any variation from the Power Five to the Group of Five conferences. For this analysis, we included only FBS teams that participated in all seven seasons of the playoff era.3

As expected, there was a positive relationship for season-over-season success and efficiency, but that relationship was stronger at the Power Five level than it was in the Group of Five. Teams from the Power Five had a stronger correlation of season-to-season total efficiency and win percentage than those from the Group of Five in all but one season.4

FiveThirtyEight also looked at Power Five and Group of Five conference champions to determine whether those teams’ performances translated season to season.5 From 2014 to 2020, the Power Five had 16 instances of a repeat conference champion (of a possible 30 instances), while the Group of Five had only five There were 11 instances of a Power Five champion that improved upon its performance the following season6 and nine instances of a Group of Five champion doing the same. Both featured an example of a championship fall-off: The Michigan State Spartans went 3-9 after winning the 2015 Big Ten title; the UCF Knights went 0-12 after splitting the 2014 American title.

In some cases in the Group of Five, a particularly dominant season actually makes success harder to replicate. Nearly as soon as national relevance is sniffed, major conferences begin to circle a lesser-known program and its staff like vultures, poaching coaches and sometimes entire teams. Louisville, Texas Christian and Utah were plucked by Power Five conferences in the past decade, and BYU is reportedly now considered a target of the Big 12. Eli Drinkwitz, Gus Malzahn and Hugh Freeze spent single seasons at Group of Five schools before they jumped at Power Five opportunities. 

Some of the Group of Five’s more difficult road must also be because the two factions are effectively playing different sports in terms of resources. Less infrastructure and far tighter budgets would presumably result in more volatility. When Louisiana toppled Iowa State to open the 2020 college football season, Napier made a point to credit university administration for an opened checkbook to allow him to “run a Power Five operation.”

This weekend, Napier leads his team against the Texas Longhorns and an athletic department that took a 10 percent haircut from 2018-19 to 2019-20 and still generated more than $200 million. Over three seasons, Napier has gone 28-11 and has Louisiana’s sights set on a first ever outright conference championship in 2021. Most teams face an uphill road to sustained success, but the Ragin’ Cajuns have already produced one encore — now they just have to do it again.

Footnotes

  1. The 2020 season was shortened but each team played at least seven games.

  2. We defined overall performance by looking at ESPN’s Total Efficiency metric, which calculates offensive, defensive and special teams per-play performance on a 0-100 scale while taking into account strength of opponent.

  3. Charlotte, Coastal Carolina, UConn, Idaho, Massachusetts, Navy, New Mexico State, Old Dominion, UAB and UT San Antonio were excluded from the sample.

  4. Teams like Alabama (91-8), Ohio State (82-9) and Kansas (12-69) have been the measure of consistency in the sport’s playoff era.

  5. If there were multiple conference champions for a single season, the performance of both teams was analyzed for the following season.

  6. As defined by total efficiency.

Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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