Wednesday, February 15, 2017

2016 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Big 10

Last week, we looked at how Big 10 teams fared in terms of yards per play. This week, we turn our attention to how the season played out in terms of the Adjusted Pythagorean Record, or APR. For an in-depth look at APR, click here. If you didn’t feel like clicking, here is the Reader’s Digest version. APR looks at how well a team scores and prevents touchdowns. Non-offensive touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and safeties are excluded. The ratio of offensive touchdowns to touchdowns allowed is converted into a winning percentage. Pretty simple actually.

Once again, here are the 2016 Big 10 standings.
And here are the APR standings sorted by division with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, the Big 10 teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine if teams drastically over or under perform their APR. By that standard, Michigan and Michigan State underperformed based on the touchdowns they scored and allowed while Nebraska fared better than the numbers suggested they should. Michigan State and Nebraska also boasted records that differed from their expected records based on YPP and we discussed the potential reasons for that last week. So, we’ll move on to Michigan, a team with the highest APR in the Big 10. How did the Wolverines win fewer games than would be expected based on their touchdowns scored and allowed? For starters, the Wolverines' two losses came in games during which they never trailed with time on the clock. Iowa beat then on a field goal at the gun and Ohio State famously edged them in double overtime. Plus, in the loss to Buckeyes, one of Ohio State’s scores came via an interception return, something that is not considered in the APR. In their seven conference wins, Michigan was typically dominant. Five of their seven victories came by double-digits with four coming by more than 30 points. Michigan was the most dominant Big 10 team in 2016, and arguably the best. However, they were done in by a pair of close road losses. If a few more plays in those games had gone their way, the Wolverines could have earned a berth in the College Football Playoff. As it is, they had to settle for an Orange Bowl bid.

When college football historians look back on the 10’s decade of the 2000’s, along with the unveiling of the college football playoff and the legitimate paying of players, the most discussed phenomenon will probably be conference expansion and realignment. Beginning with the 2011 season, at least one conference from the quartet of the ACC, Big 10, Pac-12, and SEC added a new member each of the next four seasons. The ripple effects across the rest of college football were deep and wide and their impacts are not yet fully known. As conferences expand, it seems there would be diminishing returns with each new member. If these teams were really that great, they would already be in these superior leagues right? Superior may mean better at football or simply more stable thanks to better television contracts in this case. Three Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 10, and SEC) currently house 14 teams. These are the only Power 5 conferences with more than 12 members. How have the most recent additions (i.e., the ones after 12 for which we might expect diminishing returns) fared since joining their respective leagues? With a handful of seasons in the books could a conference have buyer’s remorse? While expansion has a variety of different drivers including television markets, recruiting grounds, and academic reputations, the focus of this blog has always been results on the field. With that in mind, the following table summarizes the gridiron accomplishments of the most recent additions. The distinctions between the three leagues are pretty stark and there is a clear gold/silver/bronze pecking order that has been established thus far.
While Missouri and Texas A&M have only managed a combined 40-40 conference record since joining the SEC, that number has been dragged down by Missouri’s 3-13 SEC mark over the past two seasons. The Tigers and Aggies own the only top-ten finishes of any team in this cohort and also have four top-25 finishes between them. Plus, despite their reputation as underachievers, Texas A&M has not finished outside the top 30 of the SRS since joining the SEC. Over in the ACC, Louisville and Pittsburgh have been welcome additions to the conference with the pair posting a combined 35-21 conference record. You can do the math and see that Syracuse has not pulled their weight, especially considering they actually tied for the Big East championship (granted it was a four-way tie) in their last season in the conference. The team from upstate New York has been particularly dreadful over the past three seasons, posting a 5- 19 conference record and averaging an 85th place finish in the SRS. As poor as Syracuse has played, the combination of Maryland and Rutgers has been nearly as bad. Neither team has posted a winning conference record since joining the Big 10, with Maryland’s 4-4 record in 2014 representing the high-water mark. Rutgers has won exactly one conference game over the past two seasons and neither the Terrapins nor the Knights have finished higher than 50th in the SRS since joining the league. Fortunes could be changing with Maryland’s recent recruiting renaissance and perhaps Rutgers has delivered the coveted New York City market, but thus far, the on the field exploits of Maryland and Rutgers have not been up to Big 10 standards.

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

2016 Yards Per Play: Big 10

Two conferences down, eight to go. We now head to the Midwest and the Big 10. Here are the Big 10 standings.
So we know what each team achieved, but how did they perform? To answer that, here are the Yards Per Play (YPP), Yards Per Play Allowed (YPA) and Net Yards Per Play (Net) numbers for each Big 10 team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by division by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games. Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings. It would be fantastic if college football teams played 100 or even 1000 games. Then we could have a better idea about which teams were really the best. Alas, players would miss too much class time, their bodies would be battered beyond recognition, and I would never leave the couch. As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s YPP. Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards Per Play and Yards Per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or under-performing by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2016 season, which teams in the Big 10 met this threshold? Here are the Big 10 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Illinois and Michigan State significantly underperformed their expected records based on their YPP numbers while Nebraska far exceeded their middling peripherals. For Michigan State, the culprit is pretty simple. The Spartans were 0-3 in one-score conference games (and really 0-4 as their final margin against Michigan was a bit misleading after Jabrill Peppers returned a two-point conversion attempt for a score). In addition, the Spartans won their only conference game (albeit against Rutgers) in dominant fashion. We’ll come back to Michigan State in a bit. For Illinois, their case is a bit harder to crack. The Illini were not especially poor in close games (1-1 record) nor did they have a particularly dreadful turnover margin (-3 in conference play). The culprit appears to be their inefficient passing attack. In their final seven conference games, Illinois managed to complete just 44% of their passes! In the modern college game, that is simply unfathomable for a non-option offense to play that poorly. Even with a decent running game, the lack of any semblance of a passing offense confined the Illini to a 2-7 record despite poor, but not horrendous peripherals. How did Nebraska post such a great conference record despite numbers that suggested they should have lost more conference games than they won? The Cornhuskers were only 2-1 in one-score conference games, so we’ll have to look elsewhere. The answer lies in two of their defeats. While Nebraska was solid in most of their games, they were awful in two of their three conference losses. Ohio State and Iowa beat the Cornhuskers by a combined score of 102-13, and the per play numbers were also brutal. Those two losses more than wiped out the margin of victory in their six conference wins (outscored those teams by 72 points). Nebraska was good, but not dominant in most of their wins, and they played like Rutgers in two of their three losses.

Michigan State was one of the most disappointing teams in 2016. The Spartans, fresh off a Big 10 title and playoff appearance, began the year in the top 15 of the AP Poll, but won just a single conference game and finished 3-9 overall. However, while their won/loss record was abysmal, their actual play was mediocre. Based on their YPP numbers, a team with Michigan State’s profile would have been expected to win about four of their nine conference games. That would have put them at about 6-6 on the year. That record is hardly cause for celebration, but it would have been quite similar to their 2012 campaign when they reset after multiple years competing for conference titles. As you may have noticed in the table regarding differences between predicted record and actual record, Michigan State undershot their projection by a significant margin. I use .200 as the arbitrary threshold of significance, but Michigan State missed out on their projection by nearly double that margin! Since I have calculated YPP data back through 2005, I decided to look at teams that had similar exaggerated discrepancies between their expected record based on YPP and their actual record. For this study, I looked at BCS/Power 5 teams that undershot their YPP projection by at least .300. Those parameters yielded fifteen BCS/Power 5 teams from 2005-2015 (and three teams from 2016, including Michigan State, Arizona, and UCLA). I then looked at how those teams performed the following season. Well, what can Michigan State expect in 2017? Take a look at the following table that summarizes the results.
In a not shocking at all development, these teams tend to improve the next season. The fifteen teams improved by an aggregate total of 33.5 games in conference play the following season (2.23 per team). Eleven of the fifteen teams improved by at least one game, with some teams making tremendous leaps (four teams saw their conference win total improve by at least four games). Four teams saw their win totals remain the same and only one team declined. Even though Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State occupy the same division as the Spartans, there is a high probability that the team will rebound in 2017. In fact, it would basically take the coaching prowess of Ron Zook for Michigan State not to be better in 2017.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

2016 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: ACC

Last week, we looked at how ACC teams fared in terms of yards per play. This week, we turn our attention to how the season played out in terms of the Adjusted Pythagorean Record, or APR. For an in-depth look at APR, click here. If you didn’t feel like clicking, here is the Reader’s Digest version. APR looks at how well a team scores and prevents touchdowns. Non-offensive touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and safeties are excluded. The ratio of offensive touchdowns to touchdowns allowed is converted into a winning percentage. Pretty simple actually.

Once again, here are the 2016 ACC standings.
And here are the APR standings sorted by division with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, ACC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine if teams drastically over or under perform their APR. By that standard, Wake Forest and Boston College were the only teams with actual records far removed from their APR. Neither team was particularly fortunate in close games, with the Deacons and Eagles combining for a 3-3 record in one-score conference games. The primary reason for the disconnect was the fact that Wake and BC lost their fair share of blowouts. Four of Wake Forest’s five conference losses came by double digits and Boston College lost four of their six league games by at least 38 points. In their games against Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, and Virginia Tech, the Eagles were outscored by a combined 178 points!

I love the option and by extension, I tend to root for teams that run the option or some variation of it. Consequently, I end up watching a lot of games that involve the service academies, Georgia Southern, New Mexico, Tulane, and the only Power 5 team that currently employs it – Georgia Tech. Since I watched a great deal of Georgia Tech games this year, I noticed the Yellow Jackets were pretty abysmal at rushing the passer. In fact, Georgia Tech accumulated just 18 sacks all year. They did get to the quarterback better late in the year as they notched ten sacks in their final four games. Still, 18 sacks ranked just 107th nationally, and when you consider that Georgia Tech had an extra game to pad their total, well the number looks even worse. Of course, Georgia Tech only allowed 16 sacks on the year, which was in the top 20 nationally, so they must have protected the quarterback pretty well right? Ah, but as I mentioned before, Georgia Tech runs the option which means they attempt among the fewest passes in the nation. In fact, they threw just 160 passes in 2016. Only three teams (all three service academies) attempted fewer. So, allowing 16 sacks is not nearly as impressive as the raw total might lead you to believe when adjusting for the number of pass attempts and considering that Georgia Tech often uses the forward pass to surprise opponents. Without running the numbers, Georgia Tech seemed to possess an historic inability to rush the passer and protect their own quarterback. In the interest of determining where they ranked in recent history, I decided to run the numbers. I looked at all Power 5 teams (and Notre Dame) over the last three seasons and calculated their Sack Rate and Sack Rate Allowed.

The Sack Rate is: Sacks/(Sacks + Opponent Pass Attempts) or Sacks/Opponent Drop Backs
The Sack Rate Allowed is: Sacks Allowed/(Sacks Allowed + Pass Attempts) or Sacks Allowed/Drop Backs
I multiplied both products by 100 and subtracted the Sack Rate Allowed from the Sack Rate to find the Net Sack Rate. Positive numbers mean teams sack their opponents more often per 100 drop backs while negative numbers mean the opposite. Were my suspicions correct? Where did Georgia Tech rank? Here are the bottom five Power 5 teams in Net Sack rate from the past three seasons.
As far as recent history goes, Georgia Tech was quite poor in 2016 at generating a pass rush and protecting their own quarterbacks on the rare occasions they attempted to pass. It is interesting that an awful Net Sack Rate does not necessarily correlate with a bad record. Georgia Tech finished 9-4 in 2016, while Maryland, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt all played in bowl games. It just goes to show that it is possible to win (at a moderate clip) despite being severely deficient at an important aspect of the game.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

2016 Yards Per Play: ACC

Next up on our review tour is the ACC, home of the current national champions. Here are the ACC standings.
So we know what each team achieved, but how did they perform? To answer that, here are the Yards Per Play (YPP), Yards Per Play Allowed (YPA) and Net Yards Per Play (Net) numbers for each ACC team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by division by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games. Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings. It would be fantastic if college football teams played 100 or even 1000 games. Then we could have a better idea about which teams were really the best. Alas, players would miss too much class time, their bodies would be battered beyond recognition, and I would never leave the couch. As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s YPP. Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards Per Play and Yards Per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or under-performing by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2016 season, which teams in the ACC met this threshold? Here are the ACC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
No team really stood out as vastly outperforming their underlying statistics. Two of the poorer teams in the conference did manage to win a pair of games each despite YPP numbers that are often correlated with winless or one-win seasons. However, the team that produced the biggest disparity between its record and its expected record was Louisville. The Cardinals put up such strong YPP numbers they basically broke the regression analysis as it is obviously impossible to win more than 100% of your games, though I assume Nick Saban is hard at work at attempting to do so. Still, I think it is useful to look at Louisville’s season. I trust numbers and ratings systems more than I trust my own eyes or some expert’s opinions, but they are far from infallible. Whatever rating system one employs will either over or under-estimate certain teams thanks to a small sample size (an eight or nine game conference season) and a plethora of other variables related to the fact that teams are dynamic. Better players progress as they gain experience. Poorer players stay the same or get worse. Some players get injured and miss time. Coaches break down film and try to identify weaknesses. Travel and fatigue play a role in a team’s overall numbers. The list goes on. Louisville appears to be a team that is overrated, and perhaps extremely overrated when using YPP numbers. While the Cardinals did win seven of their eight league games, with their only loss coming in a tight game against eventual national champion Clemson, there were signs this team might not be as strong as some of their blowout wins portended. Consider that Louisville needed a roughing the kicker penalty to put Duke away at home in a ten point win. They also needed a late touchdown pass to escape on the road against a Virginia team that did not win a home conference game. Plus, while they beat Wake Forest by more than 30 points at home, even with advanced knowledge of what was coming, the Cardinals actually trailed the Deacons at the start of the fourth quarter. Once conference play ended, Louisville delivered arguably three of their worst performances on the season. Against a Houston team that would allow 46 points to Navy, 38 points to SMU, and 48 points to Memphis, Louisville with the eventual Heisman,  winner netted ten points in an embarrassing defeat. In their next game, the offense returned to form, but the defense, ranked first in the ACC in yards allowed per play permitted Kentucky to score more than 40 points against a Power 5 team for the first time in over two years. Finally, in their bowl game, Louisville could not move the ball against one of the SEC’s best defenses and lurched into the offseason on a three-game skid. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Despite the fact that Louisville may have ‘fooled’ the conference YPP statistics, those numbers did a good job of identifying one team in particular that was overrated based on national rankings. Boston College had a truly elite defense in 2015, holding ACC opponents to 4.41 yards per play and allowing just twelve offensive touchdowns. However, thanks to a poor offense and some bad luck they did not scrounge up a single conference victory. If you just look at their raw 2016 defensive numbers, you might be inclined to believe they were elite again. You would be wrong. In 2016, Boston College allowed 314 yards per game, 5.09 yards per play, and 25 points per game. Those statistics ranked ninth, 25th, and 44th nationally in those respective categories. However, if we look at the eight ACC games the Eagles played, they allowed over six yards per play, a figure that ranked tenth in the fourteen-team league and 37 offensive touchdowns which ranked twelfth. How then did they convince the nation they were good? They answer is their non-conference schedule. The Eagles played Buffalo, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Wagner in non-conference play. Buffalo and Connecticut are mid-major teams that ranked ninth in their respective leagues in yards play. Massachusetts does not play in a conference, but they ranked 94th nationally in yards per play. And Wagner is of course, an FCS school. Against those four overmatched opponents, Boston College allowed 104 yards per game, 2.12 yards play pay, and twenty total points. Since those games represented a third of their regular season schedule it elevated their national numbers in much the same way that picking all four number 1 seeds to win their first round game artificially inflates accuracy in NCAA tourney pools. It’s an easy choice that almost everyone gets right and not very useful in determining your real quality.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

2016 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: AAC

Last week, we looked at how AAC teams fared in terms of yards per play. This week, we turn our attention to how the season played out in terms of the Adjusted Pythagorean Record, or APR. For an in-depth look at APR, click here. If you didn’t feel like clicking, here is the Reader’s Digest version. APR looks at how well a team scores and prevents touchdowns. Non-offensive touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and safeties are excluded. The ratio of offensive touchdowns to touchdowns allowed is converted into a winning percentage. Pretty simple actually.

Once again, here are the 2016 AAC standings.
And here are the APR standings sorted by division with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, the AAC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine if teams drastically over or under perform their APR. By that standard, South Florida and Tulane were the only teams with actual records far removed from their APR. South Florida finished ranked for the first time in school history, but was a bit fortunate to go 7-1 in league play. The Bulls finished 3-0 in one-score conference games and will probably need a little defensive improvement to remain near the top of the east division next season. On the other end of the spectrum, Tulane did not become a triple-option machine in Willie Fritz’s first season in charge. They won only a single conference game, matching their conference win total from 2015, but were a bit unlucky. They were 0-2 in one-score games and were -4 in net non-offensive touchdowns with three defensive returns returns turning a tight contest against Central Florida into a laugher.

Regular readers of this blog know one of the things I am most interested in is a coach/team’s record in close games. Since the college football season is so short, close games play an outsized role in determining how we evaluate and remember certain seasons. What I had been meaning to do for many years was determine if certain coaches possessed an ability to win close games. While I believe that close games involve a great deal of randomness, I think coaches can have a modest (though probably less than what the media and most fans attribute) impact on these close games both positively and negatively. In the interest of furthering this research, I looked at every coach who was active at the beginning of the 2016 and who had coached at least ten years as a head coach at the FBS level at the end of the 2016 season. In other words, if a coach had at least ten years of experience prior to the 2016 season and was fired before it was over (Les Miles), they are included. Similarly, if 2016 represented their tenth year on the job and they made it to the end, they are also included (Butch Jones). I chose ten years as an arbitrary cut off point so that each coach would have a significant sample size of close games. Certainly one or two years into a coaching career is not enough data to evaluate whether or not a coach possesses (if it exists) an ability to win close games. I chose ten because it was a nice round number and because it produced 36 coaches who met the criteria which I thought was a decent enough sample. So what did I find? Glad you asked.
For starters, there does seem to be a relationship between good, or at least long-tenured coaches, and an above average record in close games. The 36 coaches in this cohort, in over 2200 games, produced a combined winning percentage of nearly 56% in one-score (decided by eight points or less) games. If close games were ultimately decided by random chance, we would expect their winning percentage to be much closer to 50%. This likely means one of two things. Either good (in this case I am equating long-tenured to good) coaches do have a positive ability to influence close games. Or, close games are random, and as such if the fates do not smile upon you, you are unlikely to last very long as a head coach. I am inclined to believe the former. Anyway, that is the aggregate data. But let’s look closer at some micro level data. Which coach has performed the best in close games? I began this data excursion expecting to find Bill Snyder as the guru of close wins. Snyder has been solid in close games in his quarter century on the sidelines in Manhattan, Kansas (posting a 55-40 mark in one-score games), but I was surprised at one of the names near the top of the leaderboard. Since this is appearing in the post about the American Athletic Conference, perhaps you can guess who it is. Here are the top coaches sorted first by overall winning percentage and then by games above .500 in one-score contests.

That’s right. The Riverboat Gambler, and birther himself, Tommy Tuberville is one of the best close game coaches of his generation. The top two coaches on this list give credence to the idea that winning close games is a skill as both Meyer and Tuberville have accomplished this at four different schools. Meyer was 4-2 in close games at Bowling Green, 5-1 at Utah, 12-8 at Florida, and is currently an amazing 17-3 at Ohio State. Meanwhile, Tuberville was 11-5 at Ole Miss and 32-17 at Auburn. Even though his teams were not as successful at Texas Tech and Cincinnati, he still managed a 9-4 and 9-6 close game mark in Lubbock and the Queen City respectively. Tuberville had a losing record in close games just three times in 21 seasons as an FBS head coach. Meyer has also had a losing record in close games just three times in fifteen seasons as an FBS head coach.

It does appear that winning close games is a repeatable skill, at least to some extent, and not merely a sequence of random coin flips. However, judging by the names at the top of the leaderboard, perhaps these close games should serve as a sort of indictment against these coaches. Take Meyer and Miles for example. Meyer is 29-11 in one-score games as a head coach at Florida and Ohio State while Miles was 40-20 in one-score games at LSU. I didn’t dig through all the data, but I would assume Meyer and Miles were favorites, and perhaps large ones at that, in a majority of those one-score games. Thus, they probably had more talented teams and probably should not have been in as many one-score games to begin with. Think of winning these one-score games as more relief (pulling one out of the fire) than cause for celebration (winning a close game against a better opponent). Just something to chew on.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

2016 Yards Per Play: AAC

Happy 2017! Loyal readers and those redirected here via spam, the long and arduous offseason is now upon us. To help pass the time to better days, I’ll be reviewing each FBS conference season from 2016. Each of the ten FBS conferences will get two posts (one per week) reviewing the season that was in terms of Yards Per Play and Adjusted Pythagorean Record. We won't play favorites in terms of Power Five versus Group of Five, as we'll tackle each league in alphabetical order. That will move us into May, where we will still have more than three months until real games begin. Hopefully we can find something to occupy our time with this summer. We begin with the American Athletic Conference. Here are the AAC standings.
So we know what each team achieved, but how did they perform? To answer that, here are the Yards Per Play (YPP), Yards Per Play Allowed (YPA) and Net Yards Per Play (Net) numbers for each AAC team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by division by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games. Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings. It would be fantastic if college football teams played 100 or even 1000 games. Then we could have a better idea about which teams were really the best. Alas, players would miss too much class time, their bodies would be battered beyond recognition, and I would never leave the couch. As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s YPP. Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards Per Play and Yards Per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or under-performing by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2016 season, which teams in the AAC met this threshold? Here are the AAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
For the second year in a row, Navy vastly outperformed their middling peripherals, and earned a trip to the AAC Championship Game because of it. The Midshipmen were able to do this by hiding their porous defense with an efficient offense that also limited the number of possessions their opponents had. Navy’s defense faced the second fewest plays of any AAC team, which was about six fewer per game than the average AAC team. Those six fewer plays combined with Navy’s weak defense meant opponents missed out on about 40 extra yards per game. Navy also finished 4-1 in one-score conference games, further bolstering their record. Connecticut and Cincinnati finished with the biggest negative disparity between their YPP numbers and their actual record. And those two teams also happen to be replacing their head coaches going into 2017. Neither the Huskies nor Bearcats were particularly poor in close games (combined 0-3 record in one-score contests) nor had horrendous turnover margins (combined for -4 in-conference margin). However, the Bearcats did finish with a -4 margin in terms of non-offensive touchdowns (allowed four and did not score any) in AAC play.

Before bowl season, and all the randomness inherent in a long break, including coaching changes and other assorted distractions, the AAC enjoyed a fine season. They were easily the best Group of Five conference from top to bottom and boasted their fair share of Power Five scalps. As is the nature of the game at the mid-major level though, several AAC schools had their head coaches scooped up by Power 5 programs. In fact, three AAC coaches left for Power 5 jobs. Matt Rhule left the champion Temple Owls to rebuild the mess at Baylor, Willie Taggart left his Gulf Coast offense at South Florida to take over Oregon, and the crown jewel of available coaches, Urban Saban Tom Herman, left Houston for the job at Texas (more on him in the Big 12 piece in a few weeks).If losing three coaches to Power Five jobs seems like a lot, well it is. I looked at all coaching changes beginning with those occurring after the 2000 regular season and determined the number of times coaches have gone from Group of Five/non-BCS jobs to Power 5/BCS jobs. The record for number of coaches to leave a conference in one offseason is three, which has occurred three times, most recently with the AAC. Here is each instance.
The AAC is tied with the MAC in 2010 (which means following the 2010 regular season) and the WAC in 2012. However, if we look at percentages, the AAC has not been the most impressive. In 2012, the WAC only had seven teams, so nearly half their coaches were poached by the big boys!

Of course, just because you get poached does not necessarily mean you will last a long time in the Power 5 grinder. Of the MAC coaches from 2010, not a single one is still at the school that hired them away. Mike Haywood, from champion Miami, did not coach a game for Pittsburgh after he was fired for a domestic disturbance. Jerry Kill, from Northern Illinois, had success at Minnesota, but was forced to resign in 2015 due to health reasons. And Al Golden, from Temple, was fired in his fifth season at Miami after failing to return The U to its former glory. As for the WAC fraternity, Sonny Dykes from Louisiana Tech was just fired at Cal after one bowl appearance in four seasons. Gary Andersen from Utah State voluntarily left Wisconsin after just two years to attempt to rebuild Oregon State. Finally, Mike MacIntyre from San Jose State endured three very bad years at Colorado before leading them to a division title in 2016. Check back in six years and there is a good chance, neither Herman, Rhule, or Taggart are still at their respective schools.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

The last week of the regular season pushed us just below the gambling break even line. a 4-3 mark in bowl season will push us back over. Let's get it.


Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 49-45-4

Cure Bowl
Arkansas State +6 Central Florida
Back in October, it looked like Arkansas State might see their bowl streak end at five. The Red Wolves lost their first four games (all non-conference) to good teams (Auburn and Toledo), mediocre teams (Utah State), and FCS teams (Central Arkansas). That start meant the Red Wolves would need six wins in Sun Belt play to get back to the postseason. They got seven, and a share of their second straight league title (their fifth Sun Belt title in the last six seasons). Arkansas State is in relatively uncharted territory as Blake Anderson just completed his third season as head coach. After Steve Roberts coached in Jonesboro for nine years, the next three Arkansas State coaches lasted just one year apiece before moving on to better jobs. Once conference play began, the typically dynamic Red Wolves were led by their defense. In Sun Belt action, Arkansas State ranked second in yards allowed per play and allowed just eleven touchdowns in eight league games. Their opponent in this game also played pretty good defense. Despite being led by Scott Frost, a former college quarterback at Nebraska and offensive coordinator for Oregon, the Knights were a defensively minded team in 2016. The Knights ranked dead last in the American Athletic Conference in yards per play (just like they did last year when they were 0-12), but ranked second in the league in yards allowed per play after finishing last in the category last season. Points will probably be scarce here, and despite the fact that this game is in Orlando, I like Arkansas State to keep it close.

Bahamas Bowl
Old Dominion -3 Eastern Michigan
This game features a team making its first ever bowl appearance and a team makings its first since the late 80s. Plus, I don’t even need to consult The Weather Channel to know that Nassau is a little warmer than Norfolk and Ypsilanti this time of year. Suffice it to say, motivation, or lack thereof, should not be a factor here. In their third season of play in Conference USA, Old Dominion tied with Western Kentucky for the East division crown and won nine games. The Monarchs ranked fourth in Conference USA in yards per play, but the reason they surged was their improvement on defense. In their first two seasons in Conference USA, the Monarchs finished twelfth and seventh respectively in yards allowed per play. This season, they moved up to third. Western Kentucky shredded the Monarchs, as they did to almost everyone, but they held up pretty well against the rest of their opponents. Meanwhile, Eastern Michigan won seven games for the first time since 1989. The seven wins were more than double the total from Chris Creighton's first two seasons. The improvement was mostly isolated to one side of the ball. While the defense did go from sieve to merely bad (moving from dead last in the MAC in yards allowed per play to tenth), it was the offense that carried the team. The Eagles soared to third in the MAC in yards per play, behind heavyweights Western Michigan and Toledo. When the Eagles are on defense, keep an eye on Pat O'Connor. The defensive lineman led the team with eight sacks and after toiling for bad teams through his first three seasons (6-30 record) and injuries in his fourth (missed all of the 2015 season with an injury), this bowl game will serve as a fine sendoff. Despite the presence of O'Connor, Old Dominion has by far the better defense and should win by at least a touchdown here.

Independence Bowl
Vanderbilt +4 NC State
Both these teams pulled off mild to large upsets in their regular season finales to get to 6-6 and qualify for postseason play. For Vanderbilt, this marks their first bowl under Derek Mason and for those who were not paying attention, the Commodores were pretty good on offense down the stretch. After averaging just 4.09 yards per play and scoring four offensive touchdowns in their first five SEC games, the Commodores averaged 6.76 yards per play and scored thirteen offensive touchdowns in their last three conference games. The passing game, led by quarterback Kyle Shurmur, improved dramatically, and was able to hit several explosive plays. In those first five conference games, Shurmur completed exactly half his passes and averaged just 4.82 yards per throw (excluding sacks). Over those last three conference games, Shurmur completed 59% of his throws and averaged over ten yards per pass. Overall, Vanderbilt still ranked twelfth in the SEC in yards per play, but that was primarily due to the how poorly they played over the first half of the conference season. The Commodores will face an NC State team that endured a very uneven season in 2016. The Wolfpack won at North Carolina, nearly won at Clemson, and pounded a solid Old Dominion team. However, they also lost at East Carolina and dropped a home game to a bad Boston College team. Overall, NC State was a pretty mediocre ACC team and quite deserving of their 6-6 record. Through over 1100 plays in ACC action, the Wolfpack were outgained by one one-hundredth of a yard per play. NC State has not done a good job of beating Power 5 teams not named Syracuse or Wake Forest under Dave Doeren. The Wolfpack are 6-2 against the Orange and Deacons, but just 4-22 against all other Power 5 foes. With Vanderbilt catching more than a field goal, they are a solid play here.

Holiday Bowl
Minnesota +6 Washington State
If Washington State did a better job of scheduling FCS cupcakes, the luster of these past two seasons would have been even shinier. However, after the horrors that began in 2008, most Cougar fans will settle for nine wins even if it includes an FCS loss. The Cougars were in contention for the Pac-12 title up until the final weekend of the regular season, but dropped their final two games to the Pac-12 Championship Game participants. Under Mike Leach, the Cougars are perhaps not surprisingly near the top of the Pac-12 in yards per play, ranking third. Defensively, the Cougars are more middle of the pack, ranking seventh in yards allowed per play. In the Holiday Bowl, the Cougars will take on a team that is almost exactly their total opposite. To me, Minnesota is a more likable Iowa since they are not paying Tracy Claeys a kings ransom to get to the Outback Bowl. The Gophers are not flashy, but with a few breaks here or there, could have enjoyed a special season. Minnesota played four teams that are currently ranked and lost all four, However, three of those losses came by a touchdown or less. As it were, the Gophers did not quite have the offense to pull those games out, averaging just under 17 points per game in those four defeats. I expect more of the same here with Washington State pulling out a close win and Minnesota covering.

Texas Bowl
Texas A&M -2 Kansas State
The only thing my main man has not been able to do since returning to the sideline in 2009 is win bowl games. The Wildcats are just 1-5 in postseason play since Bill Snyder’s return. I have a pet theory as to why this is so, if you will indulge me. Kansas State outperforms their peripheral numbers pretty much every season. For example, this year they had a negative per play margin in Big 12 action, but managed a 6-3 league record. For whatever reason, be it the snail’s pace they play at that reduces the number of possessions or their great play on special teams or some other reason, Bill Snyder appears to have hacked football. Against conference opponents they are familiar with, they consistently punch above their weight class. Since Kansas State is usually better than their record, they often end up playing a quality opponent in their bowl game. Once they get to a bowl game, the Wildcats play a team that is foreign to them and are unable to rely on that familiarity to pull off an upset. Again, just a theory. Anyway, Kansas State once again plays a team that, on paper, is superior to them. Remember when Texas A&M was fourth in the initial playoff rankings? What strange times those were. While the Aggies did lose their final four games against Power 5 opponents, two of them came against elite opponents (Alabama and LSU) and quarterback Trevor Knight missed one with an injury (Ole Miss). The Aggies were led by their offense this season as they ranked fourth in the SEC in yards per play, but a disappointing eighth in yards per play allowed. I'll point out here that defensive coordinator John Chavis is the highest paid assistant coach in the SEC. Trevor Knight's status for the bowl game is still somewhat uncertain, but even if Jake Hubenak is forced to play, the Aggies should continue Bill Snyder's postseason struggles.

Liberty Bowl
Georgia -1 TCU
In the preseason, a bowl pitting these two teams together would probably bring to mind an upper-tier game, or even a New Year’s Six contest as both were in the AP top 20. Both struggled in early season games against FCS competition that portended their eventual mediocrity. TCU went just 5-6 after failing to put away South Dakota State while Georgia went 5-5 after scraping by Nicholls State. TCU put up better numbers than their overall won/loss record would indicate, and will probably be due for a bounce back season next year, but this looked a lot like the 2012 and 2013 versions that struggled moving the ball when they joined the Big 12. The Horned Frogs ranked eighth of ten teams in the Big 12 in yards per play with Kenny Hill suffering through inconsistency and Foster Sawyer looking more like (Charles) Foster Kane when he was forced into action. Defensively, the Frogs remained stout, sort of, ranking first in the Big 12 in yards allowed per play. However, while they were competent against the pass, they showed a susceptibility to the running game, with Arkansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and West Virginia combining to average 269 rushing yards per game and 5.99 per carry against them (not counting sacks). Georgia also struggled moving the ball, ranking thirteenth in the SEC in yards per play, but most of that was due to their anemic passing game. The Bulldogs averaged just over six per pass in SEC play (and that is not counting yardage lost from sacks). However, their duo of running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, averaged 4.70 yards per carry against SEC defenses. Georgia has their issues on offense, but they appear to be ready made to take advantage of TCU’s defensive weakness. Georgia was also solid defensively in SEC play, ranking fourth in yards allowed per play (you may want to do a little mental adjusting down as the Bulldogs played in the easier division), but it’s hard to see TCU scoring a lot against this defense. As a point of reference, Arkansas, holder of the worst SEC defense in yards allowed per play by a significant margin, shut TCU out in Fort Worth in the first half and held them under 30 points in regulation. When handicapping bowl games, I think it pays to look at motivation, and while Georgia is probably disappointed to be playing in this game, TCU is hardly pleased either, so there should not be any significant motivation asymmetry. With this spread being so low, a Georgia win likely means a Georgia cover, so take the Bulldogs here.

Orange Bowl
Florida State +7 Michigan
Michigan is perhaps the best team not in the College Football Playoff. The Wolverines have two losses, but Michigan led until the final play in both games. Now the Wolverines will have to settle for an Orange Bowl berth and with a win, a top five finish for the first time since 1999 (which is the last time they played in the Orange Bowl). Michigan was well-balanced, finishing second in the Big 10 in yards per play and first in yards allowed per play. The offense did struggle down the stretch, averaging just 3.86 yards per play and 20 points per game in their final three Big 10 games after averaging 6.90 yards per play and over 45 points per game through their first six. Part of that is competition, as Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio State rank in the top half of the Big 10 defensively, and part of it is the injury to quarterback Wilton Speight. Another aspect is the fact that two of those games came on the road, something Michigan avoided for the most part in 2016, as they played just four games away from home. This game will not be in Ann Arbor and it will be against a team that has coalesced over the second half of the season. Florida State is playing in their fifth consecutive BCS/New Year's Six Bowl under Jimbo Fisher. It looked like Florida State might endure a four or five loss regular season as they lost two of their first five games, with one defeat in particular coming in grisly fashion. However, following their last second loss to North Carolina, the Seminoles won six of their last seven games with the only loss coming in very competitive fashion to eventual playoff participant Clemson. These teams seem to be heading opposite directions and outside of their trip to Rutgers, Michigan has struggled away from home this season. With Florida State playing much closer to home and catching a touchdown, they are a solid play here.

Other Bowl Thoughts
No picks here, just some things to keep an eye on.

Las Vegas Bowl
Houston Vs San Diego State
With Tom Herman gone, will Houston stop dropping games to teams they are more talented than? Can Donnel Pumphrey break the NCAA rushing record?

Camellia Bowl
Appalachian State Vs Toledo
Great mid-major matchup. Perhaps the best team in the Sun Belt versus the second best team in the MAC. Will pollsters pay attention and rank the winner or will a four loss also ran from a Power 5 finish the year ranked 25th? You already know the answer.

Quick Lane Bowl
Boston College Vs Maryland
The two worst Power 5 bowl teams square off. Which fan base will have unrealistic expectations heading into 2017?

Citrus Bowl
LSU Vs Louisville
How will Lamar Jackson perform against an elite defense? If Louisville wins, will LSU be the best five-loss team in the country? Or will Auburn have an argument for that title?

Peach Bowl
Alabama Vs Washington
Alabama is good, and perhaps the best team of the modern era, but are they susceptible to elite quarterback play? Chad Kelly shredded the Crimson Tide back in September and Austin Allen moved the ball effectively through the air against them. Of course, the Tide defense scored four non-offensive touchdowns in those two games, so they made some big plays themselves. Can Jake Browning lead the Huskies to points and avoid mistakes (at least game-changing mistakes) against an Alabama defense that has not allowed more than 16 points in their last seven games?