The Rivals, Part VII: Happiness

It’s been said that the formula for happiness is H = R/E, where R is reality and E is expectation. Every once in a while I’m reminded of this equation, and it seems to apply to sports fandom particularly well.

Consider Ohio State and Michigan. Entering the season, the Buckeyes were the prohibitive favorite to repeat as national champions. Loaded with talent, no other team looked quite as good on paper. There was some excitement for the Wolverines with a new head coach, a hire that actually felt like they weren’t just settling for a change. But no one really had them pegged for greatness; the roster was still kind of a mess and the Big Ten looked to have more bite than usual following a stellar bowl season.

Using the “happiness formula” and the Vegas gambling numbers as a representation of expectation (which is precisely what they are), we can see that the math backs up what we already know: Ohio State’s offense is making fans unhappy. Only once did the Buckeyes put up more points than expected, scoring 42 against Virginia Tech when Vegas was calling for 33. In every other game, Ohio State was projected to score over 42 and they haven’t cracked 40 since blasting the Hokies. On average, the Buckeye offense’s reality is 79% of expectation.

Michigan fans, on the other hand, are elated. Their defense has yet to underperform and has delivered two consecutive shutouts when their opponents were supposed to score at least 17 points. The offense hasn’t been quite as pleasing, but is still averaging 96% of expectation.

What will make us happy today? Ohio State is again projected to score 42+ points against a hopefully-outmatched opponent. Michigan is favored as well, and if they can do better than a 7-point win, fans should rejoice. But regardless of what happens for either team, fans would do well to think back to just last October.

After five games last year, Ohio State was 4-1 and ranked #15 in the AP poll. The Buckeyes had just beaten Maryland on the road by 28 points, and hopes of getting back into the playoff race were beginning to surface.

After five games this year, Michigan is 4-1 and ranked #18 in the AP poll. The Wolverines just beat Maryland on the road by 28 points, and hopes of getting into the playoff race are beginning to surface.

I’m pointing out that parallel not to startle you with visions of a Michigan national title, but to show that there is still a lot more football left to be played. It’s tempting to start drawing conclusions about how good teams are right now, and the popular sports media is the primary culprit of that, with incessant predictions of a playoff picture that hasn’t even begun to take shape. Last year, the first playoff rankings (the ones that matter) were released at the end of October, after most teams had played 7 or 8 games and still only featured one of the eventual participants in the top four.

We’ll learn a little more about how good Michigan is today, when they take on undefeated Northwestern. The two teams sit atop the nation in scoring defense, each allowing approximately a single touchdown per game. Neither has beaten a team with a high-powered offense, but the good news (if you want to call it that) is that neither has a high-powered offense either. If either team scores more than a couple offensive touchdowns, it would be remarkable.

Last year, Ohio State rebuilt its reputation following the Virginia Tech loss with a string of blowout wins. While the team hasn’t actually lost yet—and is still ranked #1—there has been a bit of a blow to the national perception of the Buckeyes since being voted the first-ever unanimous preseason #1 team in the history of the AP poll. Another avalanche of big wins would go a long way to remedy that, and where better to start than against a Maryland team that is already planning to fire its coach after the game?

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