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Following extreme futility: what happens the year after winning zero conference games

Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Doc Harper over at Arkansas Fight had a great idea for post that's particularly relevant to NC State, so I'm shamelessly borrowing it: how do football programs perform the year after going winless in league play?

Harper looked at every SEC team that went winless in league play since 1992, when the SEC moved to eight conference games. (Coincidentally, the ACC also moved to eight conference games that year with the addition of Florida State.) The gains on average were modest, but consistent. That's not surprising since everybody is regressing back to .500, from one side or the other. (Even you, Alabama. Roll Tide don't kill me.) The season after losing every league contest, an SEC team could expect to add a couple games to the win column.

In the ACC, your average zero-conference-game-winner won 1.2 more league games the following year, and 1.6 more games overall.

Year Team Record Record the following year Gain in conf. wins Gain/loss in overall wins
1992 Duke 2-9 (0-8) 3-8 (2-6) 2 1
1994 Georgia Tech 1-10 (0-8) 6-5 (5-3) 5 5
1995 Wake 1-10 (0-8) 3-8 (1-7) 1 2
1996 Duke 0-11 (0-8) 2-9 (0-8) 0 2
1997 Duke 2-9 (0-8) 3-8 (2-6) 2 1
2000 Duke 0-11 (0-8) 0-11 (0-8) 0 0
2001 Duke 0-11 (0-8) 2-10 (0-8) 0 2
2002 Duke 2-10 (0-8) 4-8 (2-6) 2 2
2005 Duke 1-10 (0-8) 0-12 (0-8) 0 -1
2006 Duke 0-12 (0-8) 1-11 (0-8) 0 1
2007 Duke 1-11 (0-8) 4-8 (1-7) 1 3
AVG 1.2 1.6

Prior to 2013, only the Blue Devils, Wake Forest, and Georgia Tech could lay claim to winless trips through league play. NC State and Virginia joined the group last season.

Georgia Tech is a glaring exception, but for the most part the story's been that if you sucked all to hell one year, you'll probably suck a hair less the following season. And that is, to a greater or lesser degree, the case for the rest of the Power 5 leagues. I looked at every Power 5 team since 1992* to finish a season winless in conference games and found similar figures.

(*The Big 12 didn't begin play until 1996.)

League Average gain in conference wins, year after mega debacle
Average gain in overall wins, year after mega debacle
ACC 1.2 1.6
Big Ten 2.1 2.6
Big 12 1.6 2.0
Pac-12 2.0 2.4
SEC 1.9 2.1

The ACC is the low-man here thanks to Duke's special and impressive brand of sustained misfortune. Neither the Big Ten nor the Pac-12 have had a team post back-to-back winless seasons in conference play since 1992. The other three have, with Duke, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, and Baylor being the culprits. Duke and Baylor are the only ones to go back-to-back-to-back.

Excluding the 2013 teams that went 0-fer, their recovery fates yet to be resolved, there have been 54 instances of a major-conference team going winless in conference games. Of those 54, 12 managed to bounce back to .500 or better overall the following season. Auburn is the most famous case of drastic improvement, going from 2-10 (0-8) in 2012 to the BCS national title game the next year. There were some special circumstances in that instance, and there would have to be (unusually high talent level for winless club, coaching change, sorcery, etc.).

Thow all 54 into a pot together and the average year-over-year gain is right around two wins, which you probably guessed from the above table. NC State should be able to hit that mark given the way Debbie Yow set up the non-conference schedule, and if things go according to plan, State will also be in position to become the next team to go from utter hopelessness to .500 or better. Phil Steele sure thinks that's going to happen.

It's not August yet, so I can't reach the level of excitement necessary to genuinely believe NC State could be a 7-9 win team in 2014, but I'm filing this away for later. I'll get there. In the meantime, I'll stick with assuming +2. Plus-two sounds good. Might be a couple more conference wins, might be an extra win both in and out of league play. Either way, sounds like a good bet to me.