The Washington State Cougars have been picked by the Pac-12 media to finish fifth in the North Division this year, and nearly 70 percent of the readers who responded to our poll said the Cougs were picked too low.
Turns out, there’s probably good reason to think the 2018 Cougs are being underestimated: Over the past decade, WSU is tied for second in the Pac-12 conference in terms of overperforming its predicted finish.
Via SB Nation, which compared predicted finishes in preseason conference polls with actual finishes for every major conference:
Pac-12 predicted finish vs. actual finish, 2008-2017
Most of this is owing to Mike Leach — since he took over the Cougs in 2012, the Cougs are plus-five in their finishes:
Mike Leach predicted Pac-12 finish vs. actual finish, 2012-2017
It’s a long-running joke with our fans that everyone underestimates the Cougs, and it looks like there’s some truth to that. Then again, I think much of this is just math — when you’re constantly predicted to be in the bottom half of the league, you can’t post much of a negative number, but there’s always the opportunity to produce a big positive number, and when you do, it makes your program look great.
Doing so is obviously a good thing, and much better than being picked to finish at the bottom and generally finishing at the bottom (hi WSU basketball), but it might not be indicative of anything significant about your program other than “media members are bad at this.”
The USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins, with their big minus numbers, are the obvious inverse to the same idea — there’s nowhere to go but down.
Most impressive to me are the teams that are above zero that we know are generally picked high: the Stanford Cardinal and Washington Huskies. (I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.)