Impossible Foxes


Chris lives in Austin, TX, where he once shook Willie Nelson's hand.

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55 Responses

  1. Kazzy says:

    I’ve heard this going on in the background of the sports world and generally understood that a team expected to be bad was playing remarkably well. I remember hearing a little bit about them last year but didn’t realize that the buzz was around their avoiding relegation. I also didn’t know when one season ended and another began.

    But how is Leiceister winning? Do they simply have more talent somehow than was realized? Are they getting lucky? Are they employing so-called David strategies? I know not everything that happens on a sports field can be explained but usually there is something, no? Soccer is flukey but seems to more or less average out over the long haul. That doesn’t seem to be happening here unless there was a gross misestimation of the strength of the teams this year.Report

    • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

      I was thinking of adding something about how they’re winning, because I’ve now watched about 30 of their matches this season. The answer is complicated. For one, it’s been a down year for all of the traditional powerhouses: Chelsea, last year’s champions, were terrible for the first half of the season, even flirting with falling into the relegation zone (final 3 spots) at times; Manchester United can’t score goals, and have for some time now been competing for their European lives (that is, for spots one of the two European club tournaments); Arsenal and Manchester City are easily the two most talented teams in the Premier League, but they have been highly inconsistent (rumors are that Man City didn’t really care about the EPL, but wanted to win the European Champions League, something the club has never done). On top of that, Leicester has caught some major breaks in games. But mostly, it’s 3 things:

      1) Vardy, the guy who wasn’t even in the major professional system just a few years ago, turned out to be a legitimate world-class star, as his recent goals for the English national team (to which he was called up largely on the strength of his performance this season) show (see below for an example). He’s also likely the fastest player in the EPL, if not all of professional soccer. He constantly harasses defenses, and capitalizes on even a sliver of an opportunity (see the goal at the top of the post). No one can defend him the open. And he’s relentless.

      2) Mahrez may be even better than Vardy. He’s very likely going to be swept away by a traditional powerhouse next year, unless Leicester finds some big money to keep him. Vardy plays far up front, and in the middle. Mahrez plays primarily on the right side, and he’s both a magician with his feet and an intelligent user of space, which means he often draws several defenders to him, creating a bunch of space for Mahrez or Leicester’s other relentless striker, a perfect compliment to Vardy, Shinji Okazaki.

      3) Kanté is a freak of nature. He never seems to get tired, he finds every ball in his vicinity, and he almost always beats opponents to it.

      4) Drinkwater is an exceptional passer, especially long-distance.

      I don’t think anyone thought these players were even close to as good as they are before the start of this season.

      Then there’s 5), Ranieri turned out to be a genius with this team. He has them playing as a team, within their rolls, perfectly. Even the players who are past their prime or perhaps not of top quite quality (one of these two applies to most of the defense, e.g.), play so well together and stick so closely to their roles that it’s very difficult to break their shape and create real opportunities.

      They have weaknesses, particularly set plays on defense (e.g., corner kicks), but that’s where luck comes into play a bit.

      For most of the season, they played like a team that recognized they didn’t have the quality players their opponents did, relying heavily on counterattacks, and letting other teams dominate possession. This worked really well for them because Vardy is so fast that he needs very little to create opportunities for himself on long passes from the defense. In the last month or two, they’ve started to learn how to play with possession, and begun to really dominate teams (as they did against Swansea City this past Sunday, winning 4-0 without Vardy, who’s was suspended for that game and, we learned yesterday, will be suspended tomorrow).

      • Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

        When are these games? Are they televised?Report

        • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

          Here’s Leicester’s schedule (all games will be on NBC, NBC Soccer Channel, USA, or the NBC Sports Extra app):

          Sunday May 1st at Manchester United, 7:05 AM Eastern; this will be televised at any pub frequented by Manchester United supporters (there’s likely a supporters club near you).

          Saturday May 7 vs Everton at 10:30 AM Eastern; Everton has a lot of U.S. supporters clubs as well, because Tim Howard, the USMNT goalie, plays for Everton

          Sunday, May 15 vs Chelsea at 8 AM Eastern; Chelsea is one of the top EPL teams, and has supporters groups pretty much everywhere.Report

      • El Muneco in reply to Chris says:

        Also, English football is traditionally very, very conservative when it comes to tactical innovation. Always has been.

        England was late to the party with the very idea of having a manager in the first place, rather than having the captain on the field (as a USAn, I refuse to use the term “pitch” when we have a perfectly good alternative) barking out directions on the fly. Then they were slow to grasp the idea that someone besides themselves might have some inspiration on how to play, so ideas that had taken root worldwide filtered into the English game very slowly (N.B. for historical reasons, Scotland is distinctly part of “the rest of Europe” – Scottish players went to England for years while Scottish managers didn’t).

        As it plays out this year, well, Claudio Ranieri is known as the “tinkerman” (for rotating players in and out of his lineup on a regular basis, rather than sticking with a set group of starters) for exactly the same reason that Casey Stengel was known for platooning – everyone else feels it’s too risky to do it to the extent that they do it. He (and also Pochettino at Spurs, who are also playing above initial expectations) have to a great extent developed anti-English tactics, aimed directly at pointing the strengths of their players at the vulnerabilities of more “standard” English tactics. This counts on the other managers not being both willing and able to adapt, which has largely proven the case.

        It will be interesting to see both sides in Europe next year. All the more so if Leicester can avoid getting more than one of their top players poached.Report

  2. Chris says:

    Also, after I wrote this, Tottenham drew with West Bromwich Albion yesterday, meaning Leicester only needs 3 points from their next 3 matches (1 win or 3 draws) to clinch, and that’s assuming Spurs win all three.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

      More improbabilities! Tottenham was well-favored, wasn’t it? And it was the only one that had a realistic chance of catching Leicester as far as I could tell.

      This is sort of like the Milwaukee Brewers having a fantastic crop of farm players come up all at once at the same time the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Giants all have off years. In MLB, we’d say, “Enjoy it while it lasts, Cinderella — before the Yankees and the Red Sox buy out all those kids’ contracts,” but I don’t know if English football has the same sort of business structure. Can this team stay together for next year?Report

      • Chris in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Possibly, though it’s unlikely. In 2010 or ’11, Leicester was purchased by a Thai consortium with really, really (really) deep pockets, and they could spend with the big clubs. On top of that, we’re one year away from the EPL having huge TV deal payouts, which will mean that even the lower-level EPL teams will be able to spend more money than the wealthy teams on the continent (except Barcelona, Real Madrid, and maybe Bayern Munich). So they could gamble a bit and match whatever Mahrez, Vardy, Kanté, Drinkwater, etc. get offered, but it will mean suddenly spending more on a few players than they’ve spent on the entire team this year. Because Arsenal, Chelsea, and the Manchester teams are going to go after Mahrez really hard (I’ve heard Real Madrid might as well), and Vardy’s going to be a hot commodity as well. Kanté could play central midfield anywhere, and Drinkwater is a perfect fit for some traditional second tier teams (like, say, Tottenham!).

        Then there’s Man City. They really are far and away the best team in the EPL, talent-wise. If they win the Champions League this year (they’re in the semi-finals right now), they’ll probably focus on EPL next year, and may be unstoppable. Arsenal looks to be in the mood to spend to keep up as well. If those teams play consistently, Leicester won’t be able to finish in the top 2 at least, and with a resurgent Manchester United and Chelsea, and Tottenham in a spending mood, they might struggle to maintain a spot in European competitions next year. But I think that if they spend well, their status as a competitive EPL team (which, until this year, no one really thought they were) is pretty solid.Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to Chris says:

          Do these top clubs actually make money? The system seems to be that they are hobbies for the super-rich. Lesser mortals buy boats if they want a hole to throw their extra money into. The truly obscenely rich buy football clubs. The American system, for all its faults, at least creates a structure for professional team sports as a business.Report

        • El Muneco in reply to Chris says:

          Another factor is if any of their big players have any kind of “out” clauses in their contracts. One of the perverse advantages of signing non-stars is that they don’t have the leverage to put in escape clauses, so the player acquisition strategy they were forced to use by circumstances might actually work out in their benefit.Report

  3. Richard Hershberger says:

    American sports fans of a philosophical bent tend to romanticize the promotion/relegation system. This story is the fantasy: the plucky club working its way up to the top level, where it triumphs. The thing to keep in mind is that this is so amazing because it doesn’t actually happen.

    Yes, the ’69 Mets were the Miracle Mets, but the truth is that American professional sports are quite specifically designed with parity as the goal. A particularly well-run organization can achieve perennial success at the top level (e.g. New England Patriots) and a particularly poorly-run organization can achieve perennial failure (e.g. the Phillies through the vast majority of their history), but the system is set up so that even a small market team can compete at the top level, at least some of the time (e.g. last year’s Royals).

    The English system, and the EPL in particular, is set up for dynasties–indeed, for storied dynasties. This can make for good stories, but it relegates all the other clubs to the status of extras. In theory the struggle to avoid relegation, or to get promoted from the second level to the EPL, provides a natural narrative. In practice it tends to be meaningless shuffling at the margins.

    So yes, the Leicester City Foxes are a great story, but this is in spite of rather than because of the system.Report

    • Spoilsport!

      Next you’re going to tell me Abner Doubleday didn’t really invent baseball and that deflating a football happens naturally in cold weather and doesn’t make a big difference anyway.Report

    • Chris in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      Oh I agree. This is a system that makes a Tottenham or Everton championship impossible (two teams with championships in their history, though not in several decades), and that sucks. What makes Leicester so incredibly amazing is that they’re not even Tottenham or Everton, they’re so far down that the idea of them winning a championship isn’t even conceivable. Which is why even when they were in first place in February, pretty much all of the commentators, when asked, said “No, no, they can’t win the league.”Report

    • j r in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      I would love to see MLB and the NBA move to relegation system, but not because I want to see plucky underdogs triumph. I want a way to punish teams like the New York Knicks who have no excuse for being so terrible other than bad management and that continue to collect hefty ticket prices and generous TV benefits while putting crappy teams on the floor/field.

      I know that it will never happen, though.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to j r says:


        What do you think is worse:
        1.) Wealthy/well-positioned teams that suck through general incompetence (e.g., Knicks)
        2.) Teams that work within the system but who do not always field a competitive team intentionally (e.g., Sixers, Marlins)

        Both result in a god-awful product and neither one is breaking any rules.Report

        • Mo in reply to Kazzy says:

          The Sixers/Marlins model would cease to be effective. Oddly, I find the unintentionally crappy teams less infuriating than teams that decide they’re going to suck to strategically get better draft picks.Report

          • Richard Hershberger in reply to Mo says:

            This doesn’t bother me. It is merely an extreme form of “rebuilding.” Of course “rebuilding” can merely be a euphemism for “sucks,” but it can be legit, too. Should a bad team with one good player throw money at the guy to keep him, while still being a bad team with only one good player, or should it trade him away for prospects or draft picks, sucking it up in the meantime and accepting that it is a bad team with no good players? It seems pretty clear to me, both as a fan and as an organization, that sucking it up and doing what needs to be done to improve is the far superior option. Deliberately tanking is the logical conclusion of this, but really only applies to basketball, where a number one draft pick can turn a team around. For baseball, your mid-season fire sale is just smart baseball.

            Edit: the Marlins are something of a different situation, using fleeting success to fleece the taxpayers. This is a different discussion. A better baseball example of legitimate rebuilding would be the Astros.Report

            • Autolukos in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

              Differences between sports definitely seem more salient than similarities here: whereas bad basketball teams actually want to lose to have a better shot at grabbing a franchise-defining player early in the draft, baseball teams mostly just lose as a side effect of selling off existing assets for prospects.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Mo says:


            I’m talking about within the American system.Report

        • j r in reply to Kazzy says:

          I say relegate them both. Or lower ticket prices.

          Liverpool fans walked out of a match this season, because the club wanted to raise the highest ticket prices to around $100 per game/$1500 for season tickets.Report

  4. Kazzy says:

    If I’m reading/understanding this correctly, it seems that the champion is crowned by the regular season. Is that right? While that probably offers more “true” champions, it seems like it runs the risk of anti-climatic end-of-seasons.Report

    • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

      Yes, everything in the league is determined by season record. And while it’s true that this often allows teams to run away from the pack too early (see, e.g., the French Ligue 1 table), or creates a two-team race for most of the second half of the season (see, e.g., the German Bundesliga), the promotion-relegation and European club tournament systems create all sorts of extra drama: good teams are fighting for top 3 or 4 spots to get into the Champions League (which has big payouts), or the top 6 or 7 to get into the Europa League (which has payouts big enough to entice mid-level teams, even if players hate playing in it), while lesser teams fight not to be relegated, which can create a great deal of last match day drama.

      Last year I watched the last match day of the Spanish La Liga, from start to finish, and teams that avoided relegation with draws on the final day celebrated like they’d just won a major championship. It was quite exciting. As was Leicesters Great Escape last year, even though it only resulted in them finishing 14th out of 20.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

        European Club tournament = Champions league, right? That is the one where the top teams from the various European leagues play each other? So Manchester United may face of against AC Milan?Report

        • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

          There are two, the EUFA Champions League, which pits the top 1-4 teams in each of the European leagues against each other (the best leagues get 4 teams, those just below get 3, then 2, then 1), and the Europa League, which pits the second-tier teams, those just below the Champions League level, from each league against each other. So the first would be Manchester United against AC Milan (or these days, Juventus), and the second would be Liverpool against Fiorentina.Report

          • Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

            Got it.

            But then there is also the Europa Cup, right? Which is like the World Cup but only European teams?

            Once upon a time I said I was going to pick a European team/league and follow it.

            Given that I can barely watch American sports, I’m not sure this is reasonable.

            I enjoy watching world class soccer. I have been somewhat turned off by the recent scandals and I do think that the adoption of goal line technology (is that universal yet?) has stopped me from writing off the entire enterprise as arbitrary.Report

            • Chris in reply to Kazzy says:

              That’s the Euro.

              If you’re going to follow a European league, I highly recommend the EPL, because the level of competition is pretty high, and it’s all in English.

              However, if you have access to Fox Sports1 or Bein Sports, the Bundesliga, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, and French Ligue 1 are all available to you. And the Italians, Spanish, and French play more games in the late afternoon and at night than the English do, which means you don’t have to get up at 6 a.m. to watch them in the U.S.Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Chris says:

                At the time, I imagined that the Spanish league would probably prove the most interesting because of my understanding of their general style of play and the star power present in the league. Despite being a fan of the national team, I find the Italian style boring.

                But maybe I am wrong to assume that the styles employed by the national teams is representative of league play? Plus the recent style employed by the Spanish national team hasn’t been all that exciting (albeit highly successful).

                I’ve got a few friends who are hardcore into EPL which would help.Report

              • j r in reply to Kazzy says:

                I’m tempted to try to nudge you towards La Liga, mostly because I follow Barca. But I think that Chris is right in the BPL being more competitive. And yeah, the Italians play a very conservative style.

                If you’re interested in the Spanish style of play, you should read up on Johan Cruyff, the Dutch former Ajax player who went to Barcelona and later managed both teams. He is generally credited with bringing this style, first to Ajax and then go Barca.

                The Spanish team’s tika taka didn’t look so great in the last World Cup, but the Germans were basically playing the same style and executing with a precision that was… German. I like Spain, so maybe I’m making excuses but I wonder if their sub-par performance didn’t have something to do with the fact that the top three Spanish teams were all in the 2014 Champions League semis and therefore playing well into May.Report

              • Chris in reply to j r says:

                You can’t go wrong with La Liga. I try to watch as much Barca as possible, because that three-headed attack is special.Report

              • j r in reply to Chris says:

                Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to watch many matches since I moved. They happen in the middle of the night for me now.

                I’m a little bummed about the lost to Atleti, but I’m still riding the high off last year. If anyone wants to see special goalscoring watch Messi take some small measure of revenge against the German team by making Jerome Boateng fall into an imaginary hole and chipping one over Manuel Neuer’s head. And then watch him start from midfield and blow past four Bilbao defenders to score through a window about the width of the ball in the Copa del Rey finals.

                I really wanted to hate Suarez, but yeah, the three if them together is something special.Report

            • El Muneco in reply to Kazzy says:

              The “Europa League” is the rebranding of the old “UEFA Cup”, the pan-European tournament among non-champions in their league. So, for example, the 5th through 7th teams in England and Spain would qualify, and so on down to, say, the 2nd team in Sweden.

              The European Championship is what you’re thinking of – each continent has its own “bragging rights” tournament for national teams, played in between World Cups. In our hemisphere, South America’s “Copa America” is justifiably more famous than North America’s “Gold Cup” – not least because only three countries are rich and/or organized enough to host the latter.Report

          • El Muneco in reply to Chris says:

            I miss the old Cup-Winners’ Cup…

            For background, pretty much every country has a extra-league Cup championship run by their national Football Association (the organization that e.g. fields the national team). In many cases, this pre-dates the league itself (as an amateur tournament prior to professionalization). Because these competitions are so damn traditional, even today League teams play in them, albeit grumbling (and sending out their second, third, or fourth teams to play in them). Usually in mid-week between two weekend first-team games. Or, once the big guys join in, the League will postpone a weekend’s round of games.

            Well, back in the day, there was also a pan-European tournament among last year’s Cup winners. So the Champions would play other Champions, the also-rans would play other also-rans, and the Cup winners would play other Cup winners.

            Unfortunately, as money got really really really big in the Leagues, this system was too anarchic, so it evolved into the system we have today, where one to four (!) teams go to the Champions’ League (definite air quotes around “Champions”) and a few more go to the UEFA Cup, but it’s known in advance how many from each country, and they’re all given by league position, so there’s less drama.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to Chris says:

        Yes, everything in the league is determined by season record. And while it’s true that this often allows teams to run away from the pack too early (see, e.g., the French Ligue 1 table), or creates a two-team race for most of the second half of the season (see, e.g., the German Bundesliga), the promotion-relegation and European club tournament systems create all sorts of extra drama: good teams are fighting for top 3 or 4 spots to get into the Champions League (which has big payouts), or the top 6 or 7 to get into the Europa League (which has payouts big enough to entice mid-level teams, even if players hate playing in it), while lesser teams fight not to be relegated, which can create a great deal of last match day drama.

        Last year I watched the last match day of the Spanish La Liga, from start to finish, and teams that avoided relegation with draws on the final day celebrated like they’d just won a major championship. It was quite exciting.

        This is a valiant effort, but I just can’t see where appending some type of tournament among the top teams to the end of the schedule wouldn’t add significantly to the overall drama. Do fans simply not feel a need for such a thing because they’re used to how it is? Or do they clamor for it, but the league management is stuck in its ways? I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be hella lucrative for the clubs.

        Or – are the inter-league European championships effectively this post-season round, so that what they have is basically a trans-continental league (of leagues) in which fans are much more invested in the outcomes of their regional (national) leagues than are, say, American NBA fans invested in the outcome of the NBA Western Conference as such, for its own value (as opposed to its value in giving the winner a berth in the NBA Finals)?Report

        • Chris in reply to Michael Drew says:

          The Champions League is definitely like a post-season round, even though it actually takes place during the next regular season. Recall that the European club soccer season lasts from August through May, with preseason friendlies/exhibition matches played internationally and domestically in June, July, and August, making the season pretty much year round. It would take a pretty radical change to the way soccer is done over there to convert to a playoff system. As it is now, every match is important for most teams for one reason or another, and when you combine that with rivalries, domestic tournaments, and the general passion for soccer in Europe, it doesn’t feel lacking even with the lack of parity, at least to me.

          Both the U.S.’s Major League Soccer and Mexico’s Liga MX have a playoff system. In my experience, my familiarity with the European system, and with promotion and regulation in particular, makes the MLS playoffs somewhat anti-climactic. I don’t think it helps the regular season, either. However, the playoffs in Mexico seem to be really dramatic (we live a couple blocks from a taqueria that shows Liga MX matches, and during the finals last year it was standing room only), so it could just be that MLS sucks.Report

    • j r in reply to Kazzy says:

      Soccer has a number of different “champions.” For the BPL, there is a season champion, but there is also the FA cup, which starts as an elimination tournament involving basically every professional club in the country. And then there is the UEFA Champions League, where the top teams from each country play for the European club championship.

      Generally, the biggest accomplishment that a European club team can achieve is to win the treble, meaning they win their countries league championship, the league cup tournament, and the European championship. Barcelona did this last year (they won La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League) and looked on track to repeat it this year, but were recently bounced from the Champions League by Atletico Madrid, who is the perennial third place team in La Liga (although they did win the league a few years ago.

      Technically, a treble is winning three trophies in one calendar year, but in the context of UEFA it generally refers to the above.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to j r says:

        To expand on this a bit, in the American system a team belongs to one and only one league. Its games are divided into three distinct categories: pre-season exhibitions, which are meaningless warm-up games; the regular season, which are played to establish eligibility for the post-season; and the playoffs, which are the actual championship games. There used to be more types of exhibition games, but they they are a thing of the past. (Note also that Major League Baseball, while retaining the historical vocabulary of distinct leagues within it, acts as a single league in practice.)

        One implication of this is that a team is a creature of the league. It would be meaningless to talk about the New England Patriots getting mad at the NFL and leaving in a huff, or the NFL getting mad at the Patriots and expelling them. That sort of thing could happen in the early years, but we are long past that.

        The European system is more complicated. The clubs have much more of an independent existence, and can participate in multiple higher-level organizations, which in turn have a complicated nested hierarchy. So it is that an English club might participate in the English Premier League championship, for the Football Association Cup, and the UEFA Champions League. What constitutes a meaningless exhibition versus a game that matters gets complicated. (c.f. the World Baseball Classic: is this competition at the highest international level, or a meaningless distraction from spring training? I honestly don’t know. Probably the second one, but only time will tell.)Report

        • the NFL getting mad at the Patriots and expelling them

          Or suspending their players for arbitrary lengths of time based on no actual evidence. Never happen, right?Report

          • Richard Hershberger in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            This is a different phenomenon: the organization known as the NFL penalizing one of its branches. Whether or not the penalty is justified or rational is beside the point. Back in the day, the (baseball) National League sometimes expelled clubs. The 1876 Athletics were simply kicked out (for good cause, as it happens) and played the 1877 season as an independent club. This doesn’t work in the modern American professional team sports model.Report

        • El Muneco in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

          Something that’s even more fun about the FA Cup is that it’s not only not restricted to top-level professional teams, it’s hasn’t always restricted to professional teams at all. While the cup final slash national holiday is after the end of the professional season, the preliminary rounds begin in mid-August (!) for teams in the 9th and 10th levels of the hierarchy (it doesn’t just go to 11, it goes to 18!).

          As part of the television package to carry the Final, the broadcaster generally also sends us a “game of the week” from the early rounds. If you watch for technical quality – these aren’t for you. But I find it often enthralling to watch, in particular because it’s rarely a live broadcast, so they can often pick a good and/or interesting matchup.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kazzy says:

      This is how baseball pennants were determined until the expansion era of the 1960s, when they split the two leagues into divisions with a post-season playoff series. And there has been periods in history with only one major baseball league, so the pennant was the whole thing.

      Yes, it can produce dull late seasons, but it can also produce incredibly exciting pennant races. We still use the term “pennant race” but this is much like we talk about knocking the pitcher out of “the box” even though there hasn’t been a pitcher’s box since the early 1890s. The modern system, with three divisions in each league, plus two wildcard slots, is designed to put lots of teams in the race for a post-season slot. What is lost is that for every post-season slot added, the regular season is that much less meaningful. Exhibit A: the NHL. It also makes the final championship a nearly random selection among the post-season contenders.Report

  5. Autolukos says:

    The American sports comparison I would use is 1995 Northwestern football.

    While NU had been a founding member of the Western conference and stayed in when it became the Big Ten, by the 90s they had been a doormat for decades: their last winning season was in 1971, since which they had had 4 winless seasons, including two in a row in 1980-1981. They were so bad in the early 80s that Dennis Green won the Big Ten Coach of the Year for winning three games (it helped that this was the 1982 season and those wins broke the longest losing streak in NCAA history).

    The late 80s and early 90s were a bit better, with Francis Peay going 4-7 in 1986 (the team’s best season since 1973), and head coach Gary Barnett’s third team starting the 1994 season 3-3-1 and entertaining dreams of reaching a bowl before collapsing to 3-7-1 on the season, but they were still very much cast in the role of perennial doormat.

    The 1995 team started the year by stunning Notre Dame (ranked ninth in the preseason AP poll) on the road but then lost their second game to minor-conference opponent Miami (OH). They then proceeded to win the last 9 games of the regular season, including wins at Michigan and over a Penn State team coming off an undefeated season, to win their first conference title since 1948.

    This doesn’t have the actual move from a lower to a higher division (though there was talk in the 80s and early 90s about dropping divisions or dropping football entirely), but Northwestern was on a very short list of teams that could plausibly be called the worst major conference program at the time. I know some people who at least claim now that they expected a relatively strong follow-up to 1994, but nobody saw the leap to an outright dominating champion coming.Report

  6. nevermoor says:

    Is there a connection between the closer-to-parity you’re describing (which allows all the EPL powerhouses to be less-than-special) and the insane arms race between the two main Spanish teams?

    In other words, is the concentration of talent in RM / Barca unusually high such that there just isn’t enough truly maximum-tier talent leftover for the rich EPL teams to buy?Report

    • Chris in reply to nevermoor says:

      At this point, Barca and Real Madrid certainly have first pick among top players, though EPL teams can spend with them after the top couple. Suarez, Neymar, and Ronaldo, three of the 4 or 5 most expensive players in the world, are all talking about moves to the EPL in the next couple years, though, because with the TV money the EPL is about to get, Chelsea/Man U/Man City/Arsenal will be able to spend like Barca.Report

  7. Fish says:

    I’ve become a Leicester fan out of a desperate desire to not see Sp*rs win the league. It’ll be interesting to see how Foxes handle Champion’s League next season. Hopefully their success continues and they do better than Arsenal have recently .Report

  8. Chris says:

    Leicester are champions!!!!!Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Chris says:

      It’s going to be strange to the typical US sports fan to how that happened — with two draws in a row in the important games, two weeks before the season even ends. (Well, at least they weren’t nil-nil draws.) We’d be expecting playoffs.Report

      • El Muneco in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Even trying to do it in terms of “magic numbers” wouldn’t work, because of “three points for a win, one point for a draw”.

        Not to mention the worst nightmare scenario: if Leicester had ended with two draws, and Spurs with three wins, Foxes lose the title due to inferior goal differential(*). Not even a one-game tiebreaker (although some leagues do play off joint leaders).

        (*) Could be worse. It’s not unknown for various leagues to use goals scored as the first tiebreaker, so a team that scored 80 and allowed 79 pips a team that scored 75 and allowed 12.Report

    • Fish in reply to Chris says:

      As an Arsenal fan, I’m having a hard time reconciling my general dislike for Chelsea with my absolute glee at watching Sp*rs cough up a two-goal lead in a game they absolutely had to win.

      Pretty sure this makes me a terrible person.Report