Thursday, March 26, 2020

2019 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Conference USA

Two weeks ago we looked at how Conference USA 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 2019 Conference USA standings.
And here are the APR standings with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, Conference USA 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 whether or not a team significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR and by that standard, Marshall was the only team that significantly exceeded their APR and Middle Tennessee was the only team that significantly under-performed relative to their APR. Marshall exceeded their expected record thanks to a 3-0 mark in one-score conference games. No real mystery there. And two weeks ago, we discussed a few reasons the Blue Raiders failed to follow up their division title with another postseason appearance. So let’s move to other matters.

From the Penthouse to the Outhouse
Much was expected from North Texas in 2019. The Mean Green were coming off back-to-back nine win seasons and three consecutive bowl appearances. They returned a senior quarterback who was already the leading passer in school history as well as their head coach, who nearly took the open Kansas State job. It wasn’t just Mean Green season ticket holders that expected big things either. North Texas was the preseason consensus to represent the West division of Conference USA in the league championship game. Alas, the Mean Green were not able to meet those expectations. They finished 4-8, their worst record yet under Seth Littrell. In the process, they became the 24th team since 2005 to finish with a losing regular season record despite being the preseason consensus division or conference favorite. I know that’s a mouthful, but by looking at those teams from the past, we can get an idea of what to expect from North Texas in 2020.

Instead of calculating how much each preseason consensus favorite that finished with a losing record improved or declined the next season and tallying up the results, I decided to divide the previous 23 teams into Power Five/BCS and Group of Five/non-BCS buckets. College football is a hierarchical sport. If a Power Five team like Southern Cal finishes with a losing record despite lofty preseason expectations (which they did in 2018) it is inherently different than if it happens to North Texas. Since North Texas is mid-major program, we’ll start by looking at other mid-major teams. Since 2005 (excluding North Texas in 2019), fifteen mid-majors have finished with a losing record despite being the preseason consensus favorite in their conference or division. Their results the next season are pretty mixed.
On average, the teams improved by a little less than one win in conference play and a little more than one win overall (regular season win totals only). However, that is the average. When it comes to actually improving, less than half improved in either conference or overall wins. In fact, just as many declined in overall wins as improved. When we look at major conference teams, the results are better, but the sample size is quite small (eight teams).
These teams improved by nearly two wins in conference play and more than two wins overall. Declining the next season was almost out of the question, with Kansas the lone team to continue to decline after their losing season. It makes intuitive sense that major conference programs could return to their previous heights faster than mid-major ones. There is an established food chain in college football, particularly at the top. These teams have more money and infrastructure as well as better recruits than their mid-major peers. Meanwhile, with a few exceptions, like Boise, Idaho, there is more parity at the lower rungs of FBS. The difference between North Texas and UAB or Southern Miss or Louisiana Tech is much less than the difference between Clemson and Louisville or NC State. The Mean Green have a much smaller margin of error than the Tigers. That being said, I still think North Texas is poised for a rebound in 2020. They probably shouldn’t be the division favorite again, but a return to the postseason should be expected. In addition, the lost 2019 campaign may allow them to hang onto their coach for a year or two longer than they otherwise would have.

Monday, March 16, 2020

A Run by Dayton or San Diego State to the Final Four Would Have Been Unprecedented

I know there is no NCAA tournament this year, but I did all this research a few weeks back under the assumption that Dayton and San Diego State were likely to be top two seeds when the bracket was revealed. Since it appears we are living in the first few chapters of The Stand, I may never get another chance to post this. And if the tournament does return next year, well, I may be able to edit this post slightly and rehash it again. Enjoy.

A run by Dayton or San Diego State to the Final Four would have been unprecedented. I say that not because Dayton has not made the national semifinals since 1967 nor because San Diego State has never advanced past the Sweet 16. No, I say that because both Dayton and San Diego State entered the 2020 college basketball season unranked in the initial AP Poll. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, that has been a great way to identify top two seeds that will not make the Final Four.

There have been 280 top two seeds since the tournament expanded to a 64 teams (35 tournaments, with four regions apiece, and two top seeds in each region). Those top two seeds (roughly analogous to the top eight teams in the nation as determined by the selection committee) have won 27 of the 35 tournaments. However, none of those 27 champs were unranked in the preseason AP Poll. in fact, teams that were unranked in the preseason AP Poll and later received a top two seed have never even made the Final Four! Those top two seeds that were unranked in the preseason AP Poll are also more likely to lose in the tournament's first weekend. We'll dub these early exits 'Flame Outs'. For the one seed, this would involve losing to the sixteen seed in the first round or the eight/nine winner in the second round. For the two seed, this would mean losing to the fifteen seed in the first round or the seven/ten winner in round two.

35 teams have been either one or two seeds despite not being ranked in the preseason AP Poll. Here is how they have performed in the tournament.
More than half of the top two seeds that were not ranked in the preseason poll have not made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament and less than a quarter have advanced to the Regional Final (one win away from the Final Four) with Oregon in 2016 being the most recent top two seed to advance that far. In fact, these teams are two and a half times more likely to flame out than win three tournament games!

Top two seeds that were not ranked in the preseason AP Poll have struggled in the NCAA tournament. But what about those that were ranked in the preseason poll, but have still managed to exceed expectations? 65 teams have earned top two seeds after opening the season in the AP top 25, but outside the top ten. Here is how they have performed.
They have still been more likely to flame out than reach the Final Four, but at least one fifth of these teams have managed to make it to the national semifinals.

So how about preseason top ten teams that earned top two seeds? This is where the bulk of NCAA tournament success can be found.
These teams make the Final Four more than twice as often as they flame out and account for 26 of the 35 total champs since the tournament expanded.

Finally, let's look at the biggest upsets by seeding in NCAA tournament history. A fifteen seed has beaten a two seed eight times and a sixteen seed has beaten a one once. In those nine massive tournament upsets, the losing top seed was not ranked in the preseason AP Poll three times and ranked outside the top ten in the preseason poll seven times!
History is not destiny, but Dayton and San Diego State were probably more likely to lose in the second round than make it to the Final Four.

Thanks for reading. Stay safe and be kind everyone and check back next Thursday when we return to our regularly scheduled programming and examine the APR for Conference USA.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

2019 Yards Per Play: Conference USA

After six weeks of Power 5 college football, we return to our G5 roots. This week, we examine Conference USA.

Here are the Conference USA 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 Conference USA 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 2019 season, which teams in Conference USA met this threshold? Here are Conference USA teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Louisiana Tech significantly exceeded their expected record based on YPP while Middle Tennessee and North Texas saw their records fail to match their per play standards. Louisiana Tech was not lucky in close games (1-1 in one-score league games), but did have the second best in-conference turnover margin (+8) in the league. However, the real reason for the disconnect between Louisiana Tech’s record and per play efficiency was the two games they lost. After beginning the season 8-1 (5-0 in Conference USA), the Bulldogs suspended a handful of players, including starting quarterback J’Mar Smith prior to their road trip to Marshall. The Bulldogs scored just ten points in a loss to the Herd, and with Smith missing the following game against UAB, managed just fourteen points in another defeat. Those losses, ceded the division to UAB. Smith returned for the season finale and the Bulldogs blew out UTSA. In the six conference games Louisiana Tech played at full strength, they outscored their opponents by exactly 100 points while averaging 41 points per game. In the two games they played shorthanded, they managed just 24 total points. Their per play differential was similarly striking.
While the Bulldogs did not have the profile of an undefeated team in their six full strength games, they were much better than the middling team they appeared to be when all their conference games were included. As for the colorful Blue Raiders and Mean Green, it’s much easier to see why they underperformed. Middle Tennessee (0-3) and North Texas (1-3) went a combined 1-6 in one-score conference games. A little better luck here or there, and both would have been back in the postseason. 

Extreme Turnover Margins 
Florida Atlantic enjoyed arguably their best season in school history in 2019. The Owls dropped their first two games in blowout fashion to a playoff participant and perhaps the best mid-major program in recent history. They then proceeded to win eleven of their final twelve games, with each victory coming by at least ten points. They capped their season by dominating the best post-death penalty SMU team in their bowl game. On the strength of that victory, they finished just outside the final polls, narrowly missing out on the first AP ranking in school history as well as nearly becoming the first ranked Conference USA team in a half-decade. Befitting a successful season by a G5 program, the Owls did lose their coach, but they appear set up to contend for another conference crown in 2020. Or are they?

While the Owls had a solid YPP margin against their league foes in 2019 (+1.18), it actually ranked second behind UAB (+1.46). Part of this is due to schedule strength as UAB benefited from playing the four worst teams by YPP in conference play (Rice, UTSA, Old Dominion, and UTEP) as well as a short-handed Louisiana Tech. Still, Florida Atlantic’s YPP margin is well below the one posted by their last championship team in 2017 (+1.68) and that team failed to qualify for a bowl game the next season! However, the real reason Florida Atlantic fans may want to curb their enthusiasm just a bit is because of the team’s historic turnover margin in 2019. In eight conference games (excluding their title game beatdown of UAB), the Owls had a turnover margin of +16. They are just the eighth team since 2005 to have an in-conference turnover margin of at least +2 per game. Here are the other seven along with how their conference record changed the following year.
Six of the other seven teams saw their conference record decline by at least one game and the average decline was about 1.4 wins. Each team managed to finish with a winning conference record the next season, but they were not as dominant. The Owls will have plenty of competition in the East division next season, with Charlotte, Marshall, and Western Kentucky looking to build on solid seasons, Middle Tennessee looking to rebound, and Florida International looking to stick it to their in-state rival. Old Dominion is the only program in the division without a realistic shot at contending. If the Owls are able to repeat as division champs in 2020, Willie Taggart will have earned all the money Florida State is still paying him.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

2019 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Big 12

Last week we looked at how Big 12 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 2019 Big 12 standings.
And here are the APR standings with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, Big 12 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 whether or not a team significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR and by that standard, no team saw their record differ significantly from their APR.

Mike Leach: Pretty Good Coach
That’s not a controversial statement. Definitely not click bait at all. Sure, as some Leach skeptics and cynics will point out, he has never won a conference title. However, Lubbock and Pullman are hardly locales with the resources, infrastructure, and recruiting advantages to win a one. Anyway, with Leach having left Lubbock a decade ago, I thought now would be a good time to compare his ten years at Texas Tech with the ten years following his ignominious firing.

Mike Leach coached the Texas Tech Red Raiders for ten seasons (2000-2009). Since his firing for player abuse, mainly against one particularly well-connected player, three men have coached Texas Tech. In chronological order, they were a former SEC coach with an undefeated season on his resume, a former Texas Tech and NFL quarterback who later became a sought-after college offensive coordinator and NFL head coach, and a coach that guided Utah State to their second ranked finish in fifty years. In other words, the men who followed him were all competent football coaches. Texas Tech was not captained by Mike Locksley or Chris Ash. That makes the success, or lack thereof, in the post-Leach era all the more amazing.

Let’s get things started with the basic won/loss record for the ten years with Leach and the ten years after Leach.
Under Leach, the Red Raiders won nearly twice as often as they lost. Under his three replacements, the Red Raiders won slightly fewer games than they lost. But I can hear the Leach counter arguments now: His teams feasted on non-conference patsies. Look at the Big 12 record. As you wish.
Under Leach, the Red Raiders never won a division title, but after a 3-5 conference record in his first season, they never finished below .500 in Big 12 play during the remainder of his tenure. In fact after beginning his Big 12 career 16-16, his last six teams averaged more than five conference wins per season (31-17). Contrast that with the three gentlemen that have succeeded him. I didn’t realize this until I was pulling the numbers, but Texas Tech has not finished with a winning Big 12 record since Leach was fired! In the last ten seasons, the only current Big 12 teams that have not finished with a winning conference record are Texas Tech and Kansas! You can make the argument that finishing with a winning record is somewhat tougher in the modern Big 12 since the league plays nine conference games and a true round-robin schedule. However, while divisional play and an eight-game league season theoretically made it easier to finish with a .500 record, keep in mind Leach coached Texas Tech during the time period that Oklahoma and Texas won two combined national titles and played for three others. During his time in Lubbock, he did avoid the ascendance of Baylor, but having the Longhorns and Sooners, not to mention the Aggies and Cowboys, as division rivals did not provide the Red Raiders an easy path to bowl eligibility.

Before we sign off for this week, let’s look at AP top 25 finishes for the Red Raiders under Leach and in the ten seasons since his departure.
Under Leach, the Red Raiders finished ranked during half of his tenure, with a peak finish of twelfth in 2008. Unsurprisingly, with the team topping out at 8-5 in both 2012 and 2013, the Red Raiders have not finished in the final polls since he left. In fact, Leach is responsible for nearly half of Texas Tech’s all-time ranked finishes (eleven total).

I don’t think Red Raider and college football fans in general appreciate what Mike Leach did at Texas Tech. Once a coach makes a college football outpost successful for several years, the natural assumption is the momentum will continue unabated without them. Texas Tech is a perfect counterexample to that line of thinking. A cursory look at his record does not do the Mike Leach era justice, but a closer examination shows just how much he accomplished at a difficult job.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

2019 Yards Per Play: Big 12

As the month of February draws to a close, we come to the fourth conference in our offseason sojourn, the Big 12.

Here are the Big 12 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 12 team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted 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 2019 season, which teams in the Big 12 met this threshold? Here are Big 12 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Both teams from The Sunflower State saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record. For Kansas State, and their first year head coach Chris Klieman, the difference was positive. The Wildcats were a solid 3-2 in one-score conference games and also boasted a non-offensive touchdown net ratio of +3. The Wildcats returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in Big 12 play while allowing none. Those kickoff returns kept them close in a loss to West Virginia, provided the winning margin in a victory over Texas Tech, and extended the margin in a tight game with Iowa State. Meanwhile, Kansas, also led by a first year (for them) head coach, went 1-2 in one-score games and finished tied for last in in-conference turnover margin at -8.

Purple Magic Continues in Manhattan
I have made no secret of my affinity for Bill Snyder on this blog. Regarded by me, often seen as the authority on all things college football (don’t bother looking it up), as the best college football coach in history, 2019 marked just the fourth season Snyder was not roaming the sidelines in the past thirty years. His replacement, Chris Klieman, did a fine Snyder impression, at least in regards in doing more with less, if not in general curmudgeonyness. Allow me to explain what I mean.

When Bill Snyder initially revitalized (or vitalized if you want to get technical) the Kansas State program in the mid-90s, one of the ways he managed to acquire talent was through the junior college ranks (JUCOs). A somewhat novel way to recruit talent to an outpost like Manhattan, Kansas was to take chances on players that could not get into FBS institutions out of high school or were forced to leave FBS institutions once they arrived. As an early adopter of the strategy, this netted Snyder a number of talented players that otherwise may have never considered Kansas State. As the new decade dawned and the Clinton era of prosperity gave way the Bush era of recession and war crimes, Kansas State’s early adopter advantage of using JUCOs began to diminish. After winning the Big 12 for the first time in 2003, the Wildcats finished with losing records in Bill Snyder’s final two seasons. He retired following the 2005 season and Ron Prince took over. He guided the Wildcats to the postseason in 2006, but posted consecutive losing seasons in 2007 and 2008 before being fired. Instead of bringing in a new coach, the Wildcats coaxed Snyder out of retirement. His second tenure lasted ten seasons and featured eight bowl appearances, another Big 12 title, and three appearances in the final AP Poll. He continued scouring the JUCO ranks for talent, but in his second tenure, Snyder’s teams also boasted an uncanny ability to consistently and significantly outperform their expected record based on YPP. Emphasizing special teams, red zone defense, and playing at a slow pace to limit the number of possessions, the Wildcats routinely hung with, and often beat superior teams. Using the same blueprint, Klieman managed to do the same thing in 2019.

In the eleven seasons (ten for Snyder and one for Klieman) since Snyder returned from his first retirement, Kansas State exceeded their expected record based on YPP by far more than any other Big 12 team. The following table lists the average amount each Big 12 team has over or under-performed relative to their expected YPP record since 2009. I have also included the number of seasons each team played in the Big 12 since the membership has changed significantly.
No other Big 12 team exceeded their expected record by more than an insignificant amount on average over the past eleven seasons. Being insignificantly above or below average is what one might expect as the sample size increases and the random close game or turnover luck evens out. However, over an eleven year span, Kansas State exceeded their expected YPP record on average by .159. To put this is in another context, this is the equivalent of about 1.25 game in an eight game conference season and 1.4 games over a nine game schedule. In addition, this is not the result of one massive season of Wildcat exceptionalism. Kansas State has finished as the biggest overachiever in the Big 12 five times in eleven seasons and has underachieved relative to YPP just once.
Obviously, one season is not a large enough sample to make any bold proclamations about Klieman's future at Kansas State. However, it was a great start, particularly in regards to how well the Wildcats performed relative to their YPP numbers. Were I a Kansas State fan, I would be cautiously optimistic the experienced FCS national champion coach could continue the wizardry in Manhattan.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

2019 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 2019 Big 10 standings.
And here are the APR standings with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, 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 whether or not a team significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR and by that standard, no team saw their record differ significantly from their APR. Michigan State came close, but I found something more interesting about the Spartans I wanted to discuss.

East V West
Prior to the 2014 season, the Big 10 scrapped the maligned Leaders and Legends division format in favor of the more geographically inclined (if uncreative) East and West. The conference also added Maryland and Rutgers and has been stable, membership wise, for the past six seasons. In those six seasons, the Big 10 East has dominated the West in the Big 10 Championship Game. The East champion has won all six meetings, with three of the victories coming by double-digits. However, the West has held their own against the East in the regular season interdivision showdowns.
The East has finished with a winning record against the West just three times in six seasons and outside of 2017, the results have been pretty even with neither division finishing more than a game up on the other. Most college football fans and Big 10 aficionados in particular, probably assume the Big 4 in the East (Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State) are doing all the heavy lifting for the division with the remaining filler (Indiana, Maryland, and Rutgers) dragging the East’s record down. And those college football fans would be mostly right. Or 75% right to put a number on it.
Michigan State has not pulled their weight for the East, finishing with the same interdivision record as Indiana. In fact, since their College Football Playoff appearance in 2015, the Spartans are 4-8 against Big 10 West opponents. Mark Dantonio surprisingly stepped down immediately following the second National Signing Day, so the task of reinvigorating the program falls to Mel Tucker.The schedule is daunting with Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State, but Tucker’s long term success will probably come down to whether or not he can beat the trio of Big 10 West teams that annually dot the schedule.

Thanks for reading. Next week we move to flyover country and the Big 12.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

2019 Yards Per Play: Big 10

After examining the coastal elites (or lack thereof) in the ACC, we now turn our attention to the heartland of America 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 2019 season, which teams in the Big 10 met this threshold? Here are Big 10 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
No Big 10 team significantly over or under-performed relative to their expected record based on YPP. Northwestern was on track for a winless Big 10 season despite bad, but far from horrific YPP margins, but the Wildcats dominated Illinois in their season finale to avoid both the goose egg and showing up on this list.

The Worst Ever Ranked Teams
Last offseason in the Big 10 YPP post, I examined some of the worst head coaches (by win percentage) to ever get a second head coaching job. The post was basically a hit piece on incoming Maryland coach Mike Locksley. To the surprise of no one, Locksley fell on his face in his first full year coaching the Terrapins. Maryland defeated an FCS team, a team that went winless in the Big 10, and a team that finished with the second worst conference record in the ACC. They lost their other nine games by an average of more than thirty points per game and ended the year on a seven game losing streak. However, in the process, Maryland did manage to do something truly historic.

Maryland did not begin the season in the top 25 of the AP Poll. Why would they? The team was coming off a 5-7 campaign and had not won more than seven games in a season in nearly a decade. However, thanks to an easy opening schedule, the Terrapins were able to build some momentum a fortnight into the season. Maryland recorded a dominating 79-0 victory against Howard in their season opener and followed that up with an impressive (at the time) six touchdown win against a ranked Syracuse team. Two weeks into the season, Maryland climbed into the polls at number 21. All they had to do to maintain their perch in the AP Poll was win on the road against an AAC team that was on its third head coach in nine months. The heretofore explosive Maryland offense managed just 17 points against Temple and fell out of the rankings, never to be seen again in 2019. After the loss, Maryland managed just one victory the rest of the way and in the process became the worst team (record wise) in the past thirty seasons (since 1989) to ever start the season unranked and later enter the polls. In my opinion, this is a more impressive feat than being the worst team to ever start the season ranked in the preseason AP Poll. Once you get outside of the top fifteen, the preseason AP Poll is a lot of guess work and conjecture buoyed by a brutally long offseason packed with narratives. By contrast, a team that is unranked in the preseason, but later enters the poll and still ends up being bad has provided the pollsters with at least one, and in Maryland’s case two, data points in their evaluation.

Who are the other members of this illustrious rogues' gallery of bad teams? Along with Maryland, six other teams since 1989 have started the season unranked in the AP Poll, later entered the poll, and won four games are fewer. They are presented below for your viewing pleasure.
Some interesting minutia before I close: South Carolina achieved the highest ranking of these teams at 19th. The Gamecocks opened the 1993 season by winning at fourteenth ranked Georgia and spring boarding into the polls. They followed that victory with a one point loss at Arkansas and despite being 2-1, 3-3, and 4-4 at various points in the season, the closing stretch of Tennessee, Florida, and Clemson (all ranked at the time South Carolina played them) doomed the Gamecocks to a 4-7 finish. Despite not being ranked in the preseason AP Poll, Stanford was actually ranked by the time they played their first game in 1994. The Cardinal had a bye week over Labor Day Weekend and moved up to 24th by the time they headed to Northwestern for their opener. The Cardinal tied the Wildcats and fell out of the poll for the remainder of the season. UCLA did not even get to play a game as a ranked team in 2008. They opened the season by upsetting eighteenth ranked Tennessee in their first game under Rick Neuheisel. They moved into the rankings following the game, but had a bye before their second game. During the bye, they fell out of the polls and were walloped by BYU 59-0 in their next game. Needless to say, they did not sniff the polls for the rest of the season.

I know we have a lot of fun at Mike Locksley’s expense on this blog, but I give credit where credit is due. Locksley’s three wins in 2019 equaled his career total going in to the 2019 season and actually upped his career winning percentage to a sterling .130. Check back next week when we give the Big 10 the APR treatment.