Derek Mason’s tenure as the Head Football Coach has been divisive among fans of VU football. Some have never forgiven him for the 2014 season opening loss to Temple. These folks have taken to the streets with torches and pitchforks in hand after every loss since and, puzzlingly in a few cases, even after wins or in spite of bowl appearances. Meanwhile, there are others who have held firm to the belief that, while there were some missteps along the way, the program was generally heading in the right direction. That is, until the debacle that was the 2019 season.
Yes, the 2019 season seems to have broken the resolve of even the most fervent defenders of Coach Mason (you know who you are). This coupled with the news surrounding VU football this summer has resulted in fan confidence in Coach Mason now appearing to be at an all-time low. The following comment on an AoG thread from earlier in the summer encapsulates the average (or at least the average vocal) fan’s current thoughts on Coach Mason: "Terrible on the field and now, apparently, terrible off the field." Coach Mason’s "off-the-field" character has been baselessly attacked before, including by those expressing a dislike of the his "representation of the University in public."
However, what I am interested in is that the majority of fans, at least on AoG, now seem to agree with the first half of that sentiment: "Terrible on the field." These opinions are without a doubt based on a comparison of VU football’s record under Mason compared with his immediate predecessor James Franklin. It is an undisputable fact that the win-loss records at the end of each Franklin season have equaled or bested all of Mason’s season records. But do these win-loss records really show that Franklin’s teams were better than Mason’s? Given the long hiatus in VU sports and the questionable nature of the upcoming NCAA football season, this seemed like as good a time as any to take a crack at answering this question.
Strength of schedule
Comparing win-loss records across seasons only makes sense if the difficulty of opponents is the same year-to-year or at least similar. But the strength-of-schedule was not that similar between the Franklin and Mason years. The chart below shows the ESPN College Football Power Index (FPI) at season’s end for the teams faced by VU football over the period from 2005 to 2019. For those unfamiliar with the FPI, you can read about it here. In brief, the FPI of a team theoretically represents the margin that would result if that team were to face an average opponent on a neutral field. A team with a positive FPI rating is expected to be better than average, and a team with a negative FPI rating is expected to be worse than average. In 5 of the 6 Mason years thus far, the schedule has been harder than at any point in the past 15 years, with the exception of the one season under the helm of Robbie Caldwell (Fig. 1A). Meanwhile, James Franklin was the beneficiary of 2 of the 4 easiest seasons over the past 15 years and had the easiest overall average schedule of any of the recent four VU coaches (Fig. 1B).
Note: FPI metrics are available only for FBS opponents.
It’s logical to expect that more difficult schedules are likely to result in more losses (and by larger margins) than easier schedules, all else being equal. So, how can we compare these tenures taking differences in strength-of-schedule into account? A seemingly easy way is to compare VU football’s FPI over the various tenures. If using this approach, Mason’s tenure is on par with Bobby Johnson’s, and Mason’s best seasons are worse than Franklin’s worst seasons (Fig. 2A). But it’s odd that VU’s FPI in 2011 (FPI=6.6) was ~50% higher than VU’s FPI in 2016 (FPI=4.5) and in 2018 (FPI=4.2) despite 1) these three seasons having had the exact same outcome (6-6 with a bowl loss) and 2) strength-of-schedule having been higher in 2016 and 2018 than in 2011. Also, there is a near perfect correlation (r=0.97) between the average margin of victory in a season and VU’s FPI in that season (Fig. 2B), hinting that this metric may be biased towards lopsided wins. As the Franklin teams played easier opponents, and frequently ran up the score, strength-of-schedule must be accounted for in a fair comparison.
So, to derive a more fair metric, I normalized these margins of victory/loss in every game over the past 15 years by the difficulty of the opponent. More specifically, I regressed the margin of each game with a measure of opponent strength (i.e., FPI) that "controlled for" the difficulty of each opponent and compared the residuals. The chart below shows the distributions of the game margins (Fig. 3A) and the results after normalizing to opponent FPI (Fig. 3B).
While there’s a lot that can be said about this, there are two key points I want to make here. First, after adjusting for strength-of-schedule, Mason’s three best seasons (2015, 2016, and 2018) are on par with the three Franklin seasons. Second, it appears that VU football performance may be cyclical. If measured from trough-to-trough (2006, 2010, 2014, 2019), this period turns out to be about 4-5 years. If true, this also indicates that 2017 may be the biggest disappointment of the Mason era so far. (Note: I also confirmed this using a Fourier transform of the FPI data and looking at the principal frequency.).
The average opponent faced under Mason has been tougher than under Franklin. James Franklin’s teams faced, on average, opponents that were much easier than what Derek Mason’s teams have faced thus far.
Both coaches had three good seasons, but between the two of them, only Mason has stuck around long enough to suffer through bad seasons. After adjusting for strength-of-schedule, VU performance under Mason’s top 3 seasons is comparable to the mark set by Franklin’s 3 seasons. So, Mason’s tenure should not be considered a failure by any means. Could Franklin’s success have continued had he stayed on for another 2-3 seasons? Maybe. But it seems that Franklin narrowly escaped a potential bad season against tough competition right before he took over (2010) and would have faced much more difficult opponents in the next 2 seasons (2014 and 2015).
Does Coach Mason deserve blame for the team’s many poor performances over the past 6 years? Certainly. Should he be blamed and possibly fired for being unable to produce the win/loss records of the Franklin era while also facing much tougher competition? Certainly not.