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The Colorado Buffaloes and the Importance of Point Differential

A look at the team's conference numbers over the last 35 years reveals that it won't take much of an improvement for the Buffs to start winning Pac-12 games.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Anyone who paid attention to Colorado football last year knows that the team is closer to being truly competitive than it has been in years. The only question seems to be "just how close are they?" I decided to compare the team's in-conference points scored per game (CUPPG) to their points allowed per game (OPP PPG) for the last few seasons since they joined the Pac-12, and the results were very encouraging.

Despite failing to win a single game in conference, CU had a far better conference point differential last year than any of the three years prior. Of course, I couldn't just stop there. First I thought I'd go back to find the last time CU had a positive point differential (which was further back than I realized), but I wound up taking it all the way back through the glory days, to the last dark age of CU football: the Chuck Fairbanks era.

It's worth noting for this comparison that the 2010s are a very different era for college football than the early 1980s were, and that CU is scoring a much higher percentage of points compared to their opponents now than they were then. For instance, in 1981 CU scored just 59 points in their entire seven-game conference schedule. They allowed that same number of points in one game against Nebraska (while failing to score themselves). Last year CU scored about 2/3 as many points as their opponents, while in 1982 it was just over half. That didn't help them much in the win column though.

Below are the conference point differentials for two different three-year periods of CU football. One of them is 1980-82 and the other is 2012-14.

Can you tell which is which? If you can't possibly imagine that any team in CU history was worse than the 2012 team, I have good news for you: no team was. The -30.62 point differential posted that year was the worst mark in school history. The 1980 team's -26.43 is the second worst, which means that the first chart is the last three years of CU football, and the second one is 1980-1982. Here's a full chart comparing these years.

The most interesting similarity I saw was that the 1982 and 2014 teams had virtually identical point differentials, at -13.86 and -13.78. You may now be asking yourself, if you weren't already aware, how CU fared in the years immediately after 1982. This is the bad news portion of the program.

In the years immediately following that squad's dramatic improvement, the program actually took a step backwards, going just 3-11 in conference over the next two seasons, with a worse point differential each year. In 1983 the defense took a massive step backwards, allowing the second most points per game of the pre-Embree era. In 1984 the defense improved, but the offense got markedly worse.

Then, in 1985, something amazing happened. The offense improved considerably, but the defense took an unprecedented quantum leap, allowing barely a third as many points as the year before. In fact, the 1985 defense was the best of the last 36 seasons. Now, is it realistic to expect that same kind of dramatic improvement next year? No, but I think it's quite realistic that the defense could improve dramatically this year under a new defensive coordinator.

Most of the improvement over the past two seasons has come on the offensive end, with last year's defensive unit ranking behind only 2012 and 2013 as the worst in school history. The offense has improved 12 points-per-game since 2012, while the defense only gave up 4.84 points-per-game fewer than they did in 2012. A five point improvement on both sides of the ball (which I think is completely feasible) would put the Buffs near an even point differential. A ten point leap on defense (not enormous when you consider how many points they're giving up) combined with a modest improvement on offense would put the team in positive territory.

How common are year-to-year improvements like this? Well, the team improved by 10.11 points-per-game just last year, the fourth best jump since 1979. Which three were better? The Buffs improved 10 points from 1998-99, and a massive 19.29 points from 1988-89, along with the aforementioned unfathomable 26.57 points from 1984-85.

Not that it's going to happen, but if that kind of leap were to occur next year it would put the team in the company of the 1986, 1991 and 2002 squads. It's fun to think about. Another jump like last year's would put the Buffs right next to the 2003 and 2004 teams, who went 3-5 and 4-4 respectively, which would be good enough to earn a bowl appearance with a strong non-conference performance.

It's somewhat disheartening to consider the possibility that this season could be nothing more than 1983 to last year's 1982, but it's exciting to think that it could be 1985 to last year's 1984. For comparison's sake, I decided to go back to see how many times CU had lost as many close games as it did last year. The two examples that stuck out most to me were the aforementioned 1984 team, and the 2000 squad.

In the 1-10 1984 season, the Buffs lost two one-possession conference games, as well as two more in non-conference play. The 2000 team lost a mind boggling six games by one possession, including three in conference. In 1985, the 26 point-per-game improvement "only" improved the team's conference record from 1-6 to 4-3, but the comparatively modest 9.38 point improvement from 2000 to 2001 took the Buffs from 3-5 in-conference to 7-1. Luck, as always, has a lot to do with things, but if CU can improve as much this year as they did last year I can't see them winning fewer than three conference games. Making another ten point jump won't be easy, but I think it's absolutely doable.

It's been beaten to death that 2014 was the first time ever that the Buffs failed to win a conference game. That doesn't really say very much to me about the quality of the team though. The 2014 Buffs were a tremendously unlucky team that just couldn't get out of their own way when the game was on the line. Imagine if they had been the opposite.

What if they kicked a field goal against Cal in the second overtime instead of going for it on fourth down, and then forced the Bears into a missed field goal or turnover? What if Sefo had led the team down the field for a game winning touchdown drive against Oregon state in the final two minutes? What if, after forcing UCLA to kick a field goal in the first overtime, CU punched one in for a walk-off victory? And what if Sefo hadn't thrown the pick-six against Utah that accounted for the final points of the game? Well, you're looking at a team with a 4-5 conference record heading to a bowl game at 6-6. Their point differential if these breaks had gone the other way? -10.89, less than three points of improvement.

Now you might say to me ,"Ted, is it really feasible for a team to go 4-5 in conference with that kind of point differential?" I'm glad you asked. It's absolutely possible. In 2013, Washington State went 4-5 in the Pac-12 with a point differential of exactly -10. Further evidence that you can be a bowl team with a bad point differential can be found not that long ago in CU's own history.

See 2007? The last time CU went to a bowl game? That team had a -8.50 point differential and won half of its conference games. It can be done. That's not to say that it's in any way guaranteed. The 2009 and 2010 teams, which had very similar point differentials, both went 2-6, as did the 2006 squad that only had a differential of -4.88. Improving by five or ten points per game doesn't guarantee that CU will win four or even three games in-conference next year, but it would mean that, barring some monumental bad luck, they will win at least two games for the first time since 2011. And the best case scenario? They win enough games to become bowl eligible. It's even possible that CU could fail to make any significant improvement over last year and still end up significantly better in the win column. The 1981 and 2011 teams both won two games in conference despite having significantly worse point differentials than last year's team did. Unless this year's team is even unluckier than last year's, they're going to win more games. The question, of course, is how many.

Well, the games aren't played on paper, or else I'd already be able to tell you. All I can tell you right now is not to be surprised if CU wins more games this year than you thought they would. The current Las Vegas over/under for Colorado football victories in 2015 is 5. Take the over.


If you would like to see all the data I compiled for this article, go here:

CU Football Conference Point Differential 1979-2014