Cal Football, Justin Wilcox, Las Vegas, and expectations

The bookies once again aren't predicting many wins for the Bears, will Justin Wilcox defy expectations once again?

I’ve noticed something of a pattern over the past few years. Las Vegas has been a bit skeptical of Justin Wilcox and the Bears. Consider:

In 2017, Vegas put Cal’s over/under win total at 3.5. Cal won 5 games.

In 2018, Vegas put Cal’s over/under win total at 5.5. Cal won 7 games.

In 2019, Vegas put Cal’s over/under win total at 6. Cal won 7 (regular season) games.

[The 2020 season didn’t functionally happen.]

That’s three seasons in which Cal has surpassed their Vegas win projections by at least a full game. 15 projected wins, 19 actual wins.

Now, with the 2021 season looming, Vegas has again put out their win/loss lines, and the bookies have Cal’s over/under win total at 5.5 (you’ll also see 6 from some sports books).

If you’re the gambling type, you may want to find your way to the closest sports book and put down some money on the over. Justin Wilcox is three-for-three on exceeding expectations, and I think Cal fans are generally expecting more than 5.5 wins in 2021.

But I’m not here today to necessarily talk about why I think Cal will or will not exceed their over/under projections next year. I’m here to talk about why it is Vegas has been so down on Cal football under Wilcox. Because it ties in with something that I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for a while as well: the major analytical systems also don’t care much for Cal football.

I’m talking primarily about SP+* and FEI**. If you’re reading this website you’re probably at least passingly familiar with both, but for the uninitiated: SP+ is an analytics system that attempts to project team quality and future performance based primarily on per play efficiency, while FEI does the same but based on drive efficiency. You can see Cal’s rankings in both systems over at Football Outsiders, but the summary is that Cal usually ranks lower than their win/loss record would suggest.

And I’m pretty confident that Cal’s low rankings in Vegas win projections have at least something to do with the fact that the main analytics systems haven’t been impressed over the last few years. So what gives? How or why has Cal outperformed the analytics?

Usually the easiest explanation is a lucky record in close games. But that’s not the case for Cal under Wilcox - the Bears are 10-11 in games decided by 8 points or less. Another possible explanation is suffering frequent blowout defeats without any blowout wins. This is perhaps a bit more plausible, as Cal has been blown out (by my definition of a loss by 21 or more points) 6 times, with only 2 blowout wins over FBS teams. But I think that those blowout games are telling a story in a different sort of way.

Justin Wilcox has now coached 42 games at Cal. Of those 42 games, only 9 can be called blowouts by the definition I provided above. Maybe that’s not so surprising for a team that’s been generally average - good enough to play up to the good teams on the schedule, not good enough to really put the bad teams away.

But it also says something about the style of football Cal plays. Defense focused, slow pace, a limited number of plays and possessions, very risk averse. All things that tend to result in close, low scoring games. This style has seen Cal score 970 points and allow 997 points across the last 4 seasons. Divide that by 42 total games, and the average Cal game over the Wilcox era has finished in a 24-23 Cal loss. Hell, before the goofy pandemic season Cal had allowed exactly two more points than they had scored under Wilcox.

I don’t think this is Justin Wilcox’s explicit intention, but Cal’s style of play has been a reasonably well-executed underdog strategy. Which gets at the other reason that Las Vegas and the analytic systems tend to be skeptical: recruiting. Until very recently, Cal’s recruiting has been mediocre, which is a particular challenge when you’re in the Pac-12 North and you have USC and UCLA as cross-division guaranteed games. Whenever Cal plays UW, Oregon, Stanford, USC, or UCLA, there’s a built in assumption from the bookies that Cal is playing at a talent disadvantage.

But if you’re Cal, and you can beat an FCS team and a G5 team, and then turn your other 10 games into a low scoring scrum that makes Washington and Oregon State look roughly interchangeable, that means just average luck will spit out a 7-5 record, which isn’t thrilling but looks much better than the 5.5 wins that the sports books predicted.

While recruiting has ticked up over the last couple years, my bet is that we have one more year of low scoring struggle-ball in store before any possible changes in style and outcome. Which means that I think 7 wins and once again exceeding the Vegas projections strike me as a pretty good bet . . . not that I would recommend you treat this as Official Gambling Advice. Betting on Cal should be left solely to the experts.

*For more info on SP+, you’re going to have to spring for an ESPN Insider subscription

**For more info on FEI, go here