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Cupcake Eating Contest: What Can We Learn From “Easy” Wins?

A year-over-year look at Wake’s performance against the lower-ranked opponents in its schedule

NCAA Football: Utah State at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Deacs are off to a 3-0 start in back-to-back seasons for the first time in 70 years, which is a pretty remarkable stat. Of course, there hasn’t been much standing in Wake’s way. That’ll start changing this week with the team’s road game at App State (75th) before the true ACC gauntlet begins with five straight top-30 teams. Wake has looked very good in the early games, but it’s too early to draw any certain conclusions about how good this team is when they have yet to play a top-90 team.

That said, I figured it might be interesting to compare how Wake has performed in its three games so far with how it performed in its three “easiest” games last year. I don’t actually like the term “cupcake” here, because as Wake fans our team has been that match-up on our opponents’ schedules plenty of times in recent memory.

There’s no judgment from me in terms of which teams are good or bad - these are simply the three teams with the lowest Sagarin rankings (which are computer-generated). I use the Sagarin rankings because they include all D1 programs, both FBS and FCS. I’m going to call games against these teams “easy” games in quotes because I’ve got no better way to simply label them, even though no game is easy (see the Tulane game summary for details).

The three teams Wake’s played so far are the lowest-ranked teams on our schedule this year: Presbyterian (219th), Boston College (94th), and Utah State (112th). That averages out to a ranking of 142nd. Last year, the Deacs’ three lowest-ranked opponents were Tulane (109th), Delaware (181st), and Virginia (107th), which averaged out to a ranking of 132nd.

Looking beyond the teams’ average rankings, they match up surprisingly well on a one-to-one basis as well:

  • Tulane and BC were each defensively focused, with the 121st and 124th ranked offenses and the 47th and 27th ranked defenses, respectively.
  • Virginia and Utah State were more balanced, with the 89th and 87th ranked offenses and the 78th and 77th ranked defenses, respectively.
  • Finally, Delaware and Presby were both FCS teams that haven’t seen much success lately, even at the FCS level.

The numbers below are the averages in a few different statistical categories for the three “easiest” games on the schedule in 2016 and 2017. We’ll start with the defensive numbers, which show what we allowed other teams to do offensively, and then go to the numbers for our own offense. Let’s dig in!

Defensive Stats

Offensive Stats

Definitely Statistically-Valid Analysis

Overall, we went from averaging a 9 point margin of victory (24-15) to a 35 point margin (44-9), which is almost a fourfold increase. This is in part due to the performance of the defense. Although our opponents have run slightly more plays and gained slightly more yards per play this year, the defense has held where it counts: turnovers are up and scoring is down.

Wake has run a few more offensive plays (rushes + pass attempts) than in similar games last year (10% more, to be exact), which has something to do with the increased offensive output. The Deacs have also been slightly more effective on the ground, with average yards per carry increasing from 4.2 to 4.5 and average rushing TDs increasing from 2.0 to 2.3.

However, the single most-improved category is clearly the passing game. Wake’s completion percentage in “easy” games has increased from 61% to 67%, and yards per attempt have increased over 50% from 6.0 to 9.4. Combined with four additional pass attempts a game, that has increased Wake’s average passing yards 90%, from 119 yards/game to 229 yards/game. Wake’s QBs have thrown an average of 2.7 touchdown passes a game, an almost fourfold increase from the 0.7 passing TDs we saw per “easy” game last year. This explosion in passing offense has been the driving force behind the 44% increase in Wake’s total yardage in “easy” games (from 321 to 461 yards/game) and the 83% increase in points for the Deacs in those games (from 24 points a game to 44 points a game).

What does this all mean? Who knows. I think it’s valid to reserve judgment until we’ve seen this team play some stiffer competition. At the same time, I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that the Deacs haven’t done anything yet. They’ve run away with all three games, obliterating the spread in each, and have done so while showing off a much-improved passing game compared to similar opponents last year. There’s no guarantee that the improvement will hold as we move into the heart of the season, but I sure hope it does. Go Deacs!