Was Tennessee Unlucky in 2014?

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    Justin Worley-1-31We ran across an interesting article from TeamSpeedKills.com, an SB Nation affiliate that covers the SEC, recently that attempted to quantify luck for SEC teams in the 2014 season. Be sure to hit the link to see some interesting data for the whole conference, but we’ll focus on Tennessee.

    The term #VolLuck has been thrown around a fair amount on Twitter in reference to some of the unfortunate things that have happened to the Vols over the past few years.

    Luck is always somewhat of a sensitive topic in sports. Twitter tough guys and coaches alike love to completely discount it – calling it an excuse, saying it doesn’t exist at all or spewing some phrase like “you make your own luck.”

    And while there’s truth in some of that, it’s hard to deny that there’s some uncontrollable element to a game that is officiated by imperfect referees and is played with a prolate spheroid that can bounce in any direction. You didn’t watch FSU in 2014, Auburn in 2013 or even Tennessee in 1998 if you don’t think luck can certainly help a team along the way.

    The article referenced looks at three elements:

    • Fumble recoveries: The idea that forcing a fumble/protecting the ball is primarily skill, but where it goes once it is loose has some element of luck and chance in it.

    • Net close wins: The idea that, over time, most teams will win about 50% of their close games (games within seven points)

    • Pythagorean Wins: This Dooley-approved metric looks at winning percentage compared to scoring margin.

    How did Tennessee fare in all three? Not great. The Vols were eighth in the SEC in fumble recovery percentage, tied for eighth in net close wins and ninth in Pythagorean wins. What I found interesting was that in net close wins, Tennessee’s eight-point loss to Missouri fell one point out of the acceptable range, and had that one been figured in, the Vols would’ve been tied for second-to-last in the conference in that category.

    So while these imperfect metrics, there’s at least some statistical proof that UT didn’t have a ton of luck in 2014.

    I would add Tennessee’s finishes against Missouri and Florida to the evidence as well. Did UT deserve to win those games? Not really. They were clearly defeated in the trenches in both contests. But did they lose an opportunity to at the end due to calls out of their control? It’s pretty safe to say yes. The play clock appeared to hit zero before Florida’s go-ahead field goal in the fourth quarter against the Vols.

    There was also a crazy onside kick sequence at the end of the Missouri game that, though tough to make too many definitive statements on, clearly didn’t break the Vols’ way. To be fair, however, South Carolina would certainly say the Vols got at least one break in their crazy come-from-behind victory in Columbia when they weren’t called for a late hit on quarterback Dylan Thompson after a crucial late third-down stop that gave the Vols the ball back and the ability to drive it for a tie – and eventually the overtime win.

    So the game has a way of leveling itself out and maybe a few of UT’s unlucky breaks in 2014 mean that the 2015 team – a squad that has more talent, experience and expectations – could have the ball bounce its way a little more.