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Statistically Speaking

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Best and Worst Home and Road Records

A few weeks ago we looked at which teams derived the most benefit from playing at home. This post involves much less analysis and is more of a data dump or description. Enjoy. So we know which teams have been ‘relatively’ stronger at home when compared to their road performance. Now we want to know which teams have been better at home with no adjustments. These ten teams have posted the best home conference records since 2005.
No shocker here. The infamous Smurf Turf and the Norman plains have proven a tough test for WAC, Mountain West, and Big 12 opponents over the past decade. Only four teams, TCU – more on them later, San Diego State, Texas Tech, and Kansas State have won conference games at Boise State or Oklahoma since 2005. The only real minor surprises on this list are probably Houston, East Carolina, and Northern Illinois. Seven teams on this list have played in BCS bowls and Houston nearly earned a BCS bowl invite until, ironically, they lost at home to Southern Miss in the Conference USA Championship Game in 2011. Now which teams have the worst home marks since 2005?
Only three teams, Duke, New Mexico State, and Washington State have won less than one fifth of their conference home games the past nine seasons. The Blue Devils and Cougars appear to be somewhat on the upswing, with both having participated in bowl games last season. Meanwhile, the Aggies from New Mexico State are still looking for their first bowl appearance since 1960, but at least they have a conference now. Other interesting tidbits: Two dome teams (Syracuse and Idaho) appear on this list. What does that imply? Mainly that Syracuse and Idaho have tended to be pretty bad since 2005, with a few minor exceptions. Eastern Michigan has averaged just 3678 in per game attendance  the past three seasons. Fans of the Eagles are not missing much. Which teams have been road warriors?
Boise State not only has the best home record over this span, but they have also been nearly as untouchable on the road. Four of the teams with the best road conference records have either played for or won a national title (Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, and Texas). In addition to those four, Boise State, Georgia, TCU, and Virginia Tech have played in multiple BCS bowl games. TCU also owns the distinction of having won at both Boise State (2011) and Oklahoma (2005), the two best home teams. However, their win over Oklahoma came when the Sooners and Horned Frogs were not conference opponents. The real surprise on this list is probably Ball State. The Cardinals have been sporadic bowl participants, first under Brady Hoke (2007 and 2008) and currently under Pete limbo (2012 and 2013), but their dominating road performance was certainly unexpected. And finally, I present the worst road teams.
New Mexico State nearly took the mantle of being the worst home and road team since 2005. The Aggies road winning percentage is just more than half that of Indiana and UNLV, the silver medalists in road ineptitude. To me, the most interesting fact about any team on this list is Kansas. The Jayhawks have been absurdly bad over the past five seasons, winning just three Big 12 games in that span. However, you may remember that in 2007, they enjoyed a season for the ages, rising to number two in the polls and winning the Orange Bowl. In 2007, the Jayhawks won all four of their Big 12 road games, but in the other eight seasons, have won just a pair.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Homefield Advantage and Overtime

Last week, I examined homefield advantage and tried to determine which teams benefited the most from playing at home versus playing on the road. This week, I want to explore another aspect of homefield advantage.

According to a study, located here, homefield advantage dissipates over time. No, this doesn’t mean that the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs should move out of their 100 year old stadiums if they want to win more home games. It means that homefield advantage is strongest earlier in games. In other words, the home team benefits the most from homefield advantage (increased adrenaline, benefit of calls, increased nervousness for their opponent, disruptive crowd noise, and a host of other dynamics that may or may not be contributing factors) early in games and as time elapses, the homefield advantage lessens. To test if this phenomenon is true, I looked at every overtime game in IA (or FBS) college football since 2005 that was a non-neutral site affair (i.e. one team was playing at home). I then simply looked to see if the home team won or lost the overtime game. In 287 overtime games, the home team won just 142. Their overall record was 142-145. For the non-statistically inclined, that means home teams won just over 49% of the time (.4948 win percentage), which is of course, less than half. So there seems to be a great deal of merit to the idea that home field advantage dissipates over the course of a game.

Before we leave this issue, I want to delve a little further and look at the betting favorite in the overtime game. Thanks to the great Phil Steele and his college football annual, I have historic point spread data and can determine which team was favored by the Vegas oddsmakers to win each game before it started. My friends, this is where things start to get interesting. The home team was favored in 194 of the overtime games. They won 106 of them (I did not check to see if they covered the point spread as this was not the intent of the study). The 106-88 record works out to a winning percentage of .5464 meaning if the home team was favored, they won in overtime nearly 55% of the time. Now, what about the other side of the coin? If the home team was an underdog, as they were in 91 instances, they won only 36 times. The 36-55 record works out to a winning percentage of .3956, meaning home underdogs won overtime games under 40% of the time. Astute observers will note that 194 and 91 do not add up to the 287 observations mentioned in the previous paragraph. That is because on two occasions, the home team was even money to win against the team they were hosting. The home team lost both of those, but we can’t draw a great deal of conclusions from a sample size of two.

The biggest takeaway from this study is that the point spread does a bettor (pun alert) job of picking the winner of overtime games than the venue. Head coaches might do well to keep this bit of information in mind when deciding whether to play for overtime or attempt to win in regulation. The notion of playing for overtime at home should be weighed against the quality of the opponent (as indicated in the point spread of the game) in determining the correct course of action. A prime example of a head coaches’ understanding of this notion comes from Brady Hoke’s decision to go for two against Ohio State after a late score in last year’s game. The Buckeyes came in as a 16-point favorite over Hoke’s Wolverines, so even though the game was in Ann Arbor, the two point call was a smart play.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Who Derives the Most Benefit from Playing at Home?

Homefield advantage exists. This much we know. What we don’t know is what exactly is homefield advantage and how can we quantify it? Determining what homefield advantage is and the voluminous variables that go into it would require a great undertaking. Unfortunately, I am lazy and impatient, so I will only make an attempt to quantify it, at least to a small degree. In order to quantify homefield advantage (at least as it exists in college football), I looked at every college football conference game since 2005 (nine seasons) that was played at a non-neutral site and compiled each school’s record in both home and away conference games. Neutral site games, such as the annual Florida/Georgia showdown in Jacksonville were not included. I made judgment calls about a few teams, primarily Arkansas but some other teams as well, and considered their games in Little Rock to be home games. I then looked at the difference between each teams’ winning percentage at home versus their winning percentage on the road. But what is the best way to examine the ‘difference’ in winning percentage? The simplest way would be to subtract the road winning percentage from the home winning percentage. But is this the best way? Consider this thought experiment (I will use a sample size of ten so the percentages are easy to calculate): Suppose Team A is a juggernaut in their conference and wins nine of their ten home games in our sample. On the road, though they do suffer an occasional defeat, they are still a force to be reckoned with, winning six of their ten contests. In the same conference, Team B is a perennial loser. However, they are reasonably tough at home, winning four of their ten games. On the road, they merely serve as punching bags or cannon fodder, winning just once in ten games. If we use the difference in their home and road winning percentage, both teams come out with a difference of .300. That would be .900 minus .600 for Team A and .400 minus .100 for Team B. However, I would make the argument that in fact, Team B has the greater homefield advantage (receives the greatest boost from playing at home). If we use the ratio of the winning percentages (home win percentage divided by road winning percentage), we obtain a much different result. Team A has a ratio of 1.5 (.900 divided by .600), while Team B was a ratio of 4 (.400 divided by .100). While Team A is nearly unbeatable at home, they are also solid on the road. Team B on the other hand, is a lost cause on the road, but when they play in the friendly confines, they are almost average. Finally, in an attempt to get the best of both worlds, let’s multiply the difference by the ratio to get our final rating. Let’s call this rating the Composite Homefield Advantage, or CHA for short. For Team A, their CHA would be .450 (.300 multiplied by 1.5). For Team B, their CHA would be 1.2 (.300 multiplied by 4).

Alright, let’s stop dealing in theoretical though experiments like an 18th century philosopher and look at some real data. Which teams have the largest difference between their home winning percentage and road winning percentage? The results will probably be a little shocking. Neophytes Georgia State, South Alabama, Texas-San Antonio, and Texas State were not included in this table (if they qualified) because they have been playing conference games for at most two seasons.
Apparently homefield advantage is quite pronounced in locales such as Storrs, Huntington, El Paso, Los Angeles, Jonesboro, Winston-Salem, Las Vegas, Dallas, Houston, and Madison. If you asked a casual observer, they would probably only list Wisconsin out of these ten as a team that enjoyed a significant boost from playing at home. What’s interesting about this list is that while most of these teams are not national powers, five have won their conference at least once since 2005 (Arkansas State, Connecticut, Rice, Wake Forest, and Wisconsin), with a sixth and seventh (Marshall and SMU) having played in their league title game. Another interesting detail is that only four teams (Connecticut, UCLA, Wake Forest, and Wisconsin) played in BCS conferences, while four of the ten teams (Marshall, Rice, SMU, and UTEP) played in Conference USA at some point SMU joined the American prior to the 2013 season).

Now let’s take a look at which teams had the largest ratios when dividing their home winning percentage by their road winning percentage. Neophytes not included.
There is a little overlap, with Connecticut, Marshall, UNLV, and UTEP appearing on both lists. The least surprising team on this list is probably Colorado. The Buffalos have a reputation for being much stronger at home in the thin air of Boulder and this manifests itself in the data. In fact, before their move to the Pac-12, their Big 12 numbers were even more pronounced (13-11 at home versus just 4-20 on the road). Using the ratio method delivers a few more BCS conference teams (Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, and Ole Miss) added to Connecticut for a total of five. It also produces our first dome team, and yet another (former) member of Conference USA, Tulane. So add Las Cruces, Bloomington, Boulder, New Orleans, Lawrence, and Oxford to the milieus that produce a large homefield advantage.

Now if we use the CHA method mentioned above, these are the top homefield advantage teams. Once again, neophytes not included.
There are no new entries from the previous two lists, but a quartet (or even a pair) of teams stand tall using CHA. Connecticut, UNLV, UTEP, and Marshall have all enjoyed a significant disparity in success at home versus on the road. What do all four of these teams have in common? For starters, they are all non-traditional powers. No member of the quartet has enjoyed great success at the national level. Marshall fans, I realize your team was a IAA power under Jim Donnan and then Bob Pruett, but that success was long ago and on a different plane of football. However, being non-traditional powers does not seem to be a likely reason for their homefield advantage. What else do they have in common? Most could potentially present weather and environmental challenges to their conference opponents. During their run in the Big East, Connecticut had the opportunity to host South Florida and Louisville, two teams that play in warmer climates, as well as a dome team in Syracuse. Las Vegas is a desert and can be extremely unforgiving early in the season and is over 2000 feet above sea level. El Paso is another desert city that can be extremely hot early in the season or bitterly cold late in the year with an even higher elevation than Las Vegas (over 3000 feet above sea level). Huntington does not appear to confer any significant weather related advantages to the Thundering Herd, but it does share another trait in common with the other three in that it is relatively isolated from its conference brethren. When Conference USA was in its twelve team format (2005-2012), Marshall was within 500 miles of only one league opponent (East Carolina). UTEP, another Conference USA staple, was not within 500 miles of any conference foe, with SMU being the closest at 650 miles away. During their time in the Big East (2005-2012), Connecticut was close to two conference opponents (Rutgers and Syracuse), with the Knights only 185 and the Orange 270 miles away. Every other league member was at least 500 miles away. UNLV was not closer than 300 miles to any conference mate during the majority of the Mountain West’s makeup, with San Diego State (330 miles) and BYU (375 miles) being the closest. Being geographically isolated can have a positive impact on home performance and a negative impact on road performance, so that is a likely reason all four of these teams have such divergent home and road winning percentages.

With that being said, it does bear mentioning that the most geographically isolated team in college football did not see a significant difference in their home and road play from 2005 to 2013. Hawaii won more often at home (21-14) than they did on the road (17-19), but during these nine years they tended to be either very good at home and on the road (see 2006, 2007, and 2010) or equally inept in any locale (see 2012 and 2013).

One final thought on geography before I leave you. While West Virginia has not enjoyed any significant advantage in Morgantown since joining the Big 12 (3-6 at home and on the road), I think they will see a significant disparity in their home and road splits (assuming the conference affiliation stays as it is) since they are so far removed from the rest of their Big 12 opponents. Stay tuned for the next post where I’ll examine how homefield advantage manifests itself in overtime games.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Even the Losers: UTEP

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. In this installment, we head to the west Texas town of El Paso.

UTEP

2013 Record: 2-10 (1-7 Conference USA)

Summary:
After nine years and moderate success (three bowl appearances) under Mike Price, the Miners began a new era in 2014 when Sean Kugler took the reigns. The Miners opened 2013 with a high-scoring loss to New Mexico and followed that up with a high-scoring win over New Mexico State, giving them an even record against teams from the Land of Enchantment. 1-1 was as good as it would get for the Miners in 2013. They lost nine of their final ten games with each defeat save one, a 38-35 loss to Louisiana Tech, coming by double digits. The Miners did pound Florida International to earn their second win of the year in mid-November, but the season's shining moment may have been when they gained an early 7-0 lead on Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in College Station. Alas, the Aggies scored the final 57 points of the game and were not seriously challenged.

What Did the Miners Do Well?
Beat the teams they were better than. No doubt about it, UTEP was awful in 2013. They ranked 116th in the Simple Rating System (SRS) metric. Only two teams on their schedule, New Mexico State and Florida International, were worse based on the SRS. UTEP pummeled those teams by a combined 44 points. They didn't win any other games, but they crushed the teams they were better than. Go Miners!

What Didn't the Miners Do Well?
Play defense. UTEP played twelve games in 2013. In eleven of those games, their opponents averaged at least six and a half yards per play. Only Florida International failed to bury the UTEP defense. The Miners also allowed at least 32 points in ten of their twelve games. Perhaps not surprisingly, in the two games where they held their opponents under 30, they won.

The Miners Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists UTEP's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference UTEP played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Miners averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Miners allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
As you can see from the table, UTEP has not been particularly good, even within the confines of Conference USA over the past four seasons. In their lone bowl season of 2010, UTEP leveraged an incredibly easy schedule to a bowl invitation. Their six wins that season came over Arkansas-Pine Bluff (IAA), New Mexico State (2-10 record), New Mexico (1-11), Memphis (1-11), Rice (4-8), and SMU (7-7). Plus, they also lost to esteemed outfits like UAB (4-8), Tulane (4-8), Houston (5-7), and Marshall (5-7). The Miners continued their below average play over the final two seasons of the Mike Price regime, but nearly garnered another bowl invitation in 2011 before losing four of their final five games to finish 5-7. The bottom continued to fall out under Sean Kugler, as UTEP posted their worst statistical season in a decade. We need to give Kugler a few years to right the proverbial ship, but early returns were not promising.

The 2014 Schedule:
Outside of Conference USA, UTEP plays a pair of familiar foes. The Miners have played some combination of New Mexico or New Mexico State each season since 2003. In that span, the Miners have been pretty successful against both schools, posting a stellar 8-2 mark against New Mexico State and a 3-2 record against New Mexico. In 2014, the Miners host the Aggies (State) and travel to Albuquerque to take on the Lobos. In their other two non-conference games, the Miners also have a home/road split, but these two figure to be tougher, as both teams come from the Big 12. The Miners visit Bill Snyder and Kansas State while hosting Ryan Gosling lookalike Kliff Kingsbury and Texas Tech. A split of those four games would be about the best UTEP could hope for and a 1-3 or even 1-4 mark would not be surprising. In conference play, the Miners host IA neophyte Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, and Southern Miss. Two of those teams were bowl eligible last season (Middle Tennessee and North Texas), while Old Dominion went 8-4 as they transitioned to IA football, and Southern Miss won the conference just three short years ago. The Miners will probably win at least one of their home games, but they could be betting underdogs in each one. When they hit the road in conference play, they will meet Louisiana Tech, Rice, Texas-San Antonio, and Western Kentucky. Rice, Texas-San Antonio, and Western Kentucky all finished with winning records last season and Louisiana Tech has won 21 games over the past three seasons. Suffice it to say, if UTEP posts a strong (or even mediocre) record in 2014, they will have earned it.

Reason for Optimism:
Jameill Showers. For those who may not know, Showers was beaten out by Johnny Manziel as the starting quarterback for Texas A&M prior to the 2012 season. Showers transferred to UTEP and posted decent numbers for the Miners before an injury against Rice in the seventh game forced him to miss the rest of the season. In the three conference games Showers saw significant action in, the Miners averaged 4.87 yards per play. Those are hardly imposing numbers. However, in the five games where he saw little to no action, the team averaged just 4.81 yards per play. If we ignore the victory over Florida International, the Miners averaged just 4.33 yards per play in conference games during which Showers did not participate or participated sparingly. If Showers can improve and stay healthy during his second season in El Paso, the Miner offense could conceivably move to middle of the pack in Conference USA.

Final Prognosis:
UTEP has not finished with a winning record since 2005, and that trend appears likely to continue nearly a decade later in 2014. The non-conference schedule, featuring a pair of Big 12 teams, is not conducive for a great start. There are also no IAA opponents on the slate, and while New Mexico and New Mexico State have struggled mightily in recent years, the Lobos actually beat the Miners last season. Even if the Miners beat both New Mexico teams, they would still need to break even in Conference USA to even qualify for a bowl. Five of their eight conference opponents were bowl eligible last season and Old Dominion has been a IAA power under Bobby Wilder and appears poised to make the most of their jump to IA. Finally, the two lightweights on their conference slate, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss, have tasted success in the not too distant past, with both winning league crowns in 2011. I think the 2014 season has to be dubbed a success (or at least a mark of progress) if the Miners can double up last season's win total and earn a quartet of victories.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Even the Losers: Kent State

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. For our fourteenth installment, we will finally touch on the Mid-American Conference and the Kent State Golden Flashes.

Kent State

2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5 MAC)

Summary:
Fresh off their first bowl appearance since the Nixon administration, Kent State began 2013 with a new coach as Paul Haynes took over for Darrell Hazell, who migrated to Purdue after the successful. 2012 campaign. The Golden Flashes opened 2013 in rather inauspicious fashion, edging IAA Liberty 17-10. The Golden Flashes quickly turned their attention to MAC play the following week, when they hosted eventual MAC champion Bowling Green. The Falcons dimmed the Flashes 41-22. Even a Kent State homer realized the next two games would be ugly. And said homer would have been eerily prescient as LSU and Penn State beat the Golden Flashes by a combined score of 79-13. The Golden Flashes returned to MAC play the following week and unloaded their frustrations on Western Michigan in a 32-14 win. Entering October, the Golden Flashes were 2-3, but with a 1-1 league mark, still had designs on a solid finish and potential bowl bid. Alas, they would not win another game until after Veteran's Day, losing five consecutive games with three coming by double-digits. At 2-8, the Flashes had every right to phone it in and prepare for 2014, but they bludgeoned Miami of Ohio and Ohio by a combined score of 68-19 to end their season on a positive note.

What Did the Golden Flashes Do Well?
Not much. Kent State was not a terrible team in 2013, but they were embarrassingly mediocre in the MAC and nationally on both sides of the ball. As a cop out, why don't we go with make extra points. The Golden Flashes converted on each of their 29 extra points in 2013, becoming one of 37 teams to finish with a flawless extra point game. As an added bonus, they were also successful on both their two-point conversion attempts, proving that on untimed plays, the Flashes were fantastic.

What Didn't the Golden Flashes Do Well?
Kick field goals. While Kent State's kickers Anthony Melchiori and Brad Miller made all their extra points, they did not do so well when it came to making kicks worth three times as many points. As a team, the Golden Flashes made just 10 of 18 field goal attempts on the season. Their field goal percentage, just south of 56%, ranked 113th nationally in 2013.

The Golden Flashes Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Kent State's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Kent State played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Golden Flashes averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Golden Flashes allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
In 2010 and 2011, first under Doug Martin, and then under Darrell Hazell, the Golden Flashes fielded a phenomenal mid-major defense, but could not get over the proverbial hump thanks to some major incompetence on offense. The Golden Flashes fielded those strong defenses with the aid of just a single (thus far) NFL player, Ishmaa'ily Kitchen, a defensive lineman. That number may soon double with Roosevelt Nix, an undrafted defensive lineman who was signed by the Atlanta Falcons. In 2012, the offense roared to life, and while the defense regressed from superb to solid, the Golden Flashes enjoyed a dream season. As you can tell by the numbers though, the Golden Flashes were not quite as good as their undefeated record would indicate. A host of factors conspired to allow them to contend for a BCS bowl. For starters, they boasted an in-conference turnover margin of +9 which was second in the MAC. They also scored six unconventional (or non-offensive) touchdowns in their eight conference games. The electrifying Dri Archer (who makes defenses quiver) returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in MAC action (he added a third against Towson), the defense returned a pair of interceptions for touchdowns, and also a pair of fumbles, giving the Golden Flashes an additional three quarters of a touchdown per game over their MAC schedule. While huge plays by special teams and defense are certainly vital to winning football games, they are highly volatile and unpredictable events. Case in point, the team scored just one non-offensive touchdown in 2013 (another kickoff return by Archer). Thus, while the Golden Flashes were certainly a worse team in 2013, the drop off from their magical 2012 season was not as pronounced as the won/loss record would indicate.

The 2014 Schedule:
In non-conference play, the Golden Flashes can prepare for at least a pair of losses, as they travel to Ohio State and Virginia. The Ohio State game is a lost cause, and while a MAC team did beat Virginia in Charlottesville last year, the Cavaliers should be improved this season, and it would be hard to imagine it happening in consecutive years. Plus, the Golden Flashes are just 2-19 against BCS conference opponents in the last decade. In their other two non-conference games, Kent State will host Army and South Alabama. Kent State and Army have played three times in the past eight years, with Kent State winning the most recent edition in 2012. They have also played the Jaguars from South Alabama twice in the past three seasons, losing to them last season in Mobile, and beating the Jaguars (when they were still a IAA team) in 2011. Kent State should be favored over Army, but the South Alabama game is intriguing. In just their second year of IA football, the Jaguars finished 6-6 last season, with wins over the aforementioned Kent State, as well as bowl bound squads Tulane and Louisiana-Lafayette. The game is in Ohio, but Kent State will likely not be an overwhelming favorite. A 2-2 record in non-conference action should please even the most optimistic Kent State supporter. In conference play, the Golden Flashes host Akron, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Toledo. As far as home schedules go, that one is pretty solid. A 3-1 mark at home would not be surprising. However, their road schedule is a different matter. The Golden Flashes face last season's two MAC title game participants (Bowling Green and Northern Illinois) on the road, as well as another bowl participant (Buffalo), and Miami. The Golden Flashes will likely be underdogs, and perhaps prohibitively, in three of those games.

Reason for Optimism:
The Golden Flashes weren't that bad last year. Sure Kent State was noncompetitive against LSU and Penn State, but most MAC schools would struggle just as much against those two teams. In conference play, based on the number of touchdowns scored and allowed, the Golden Flashes should have finished with an additional conference win. Plus, the Golden Flashes did all this with a freshman under center and with Dri Archer limited by injuries. Last season's Kent State squad was on par with the 2010 and 2011 teams, so its not like they have a huge hole to climb out of to return to contention.

Final Prognosis:
We'll know early on in 2014 if Kent State has legitimate bowl aspirations in 2014. They open with a pair of home games, against Ohio and South Alabama. Win them both and a bowl game appears a likely proposition. Split the pair, and the Golden Flashes probably top out at 6-6. Lose them both, and it is probably time to start looking forward to 2015. The big key for 2014 will be how Kent State plays at home. The Golden Flashes play six home games, and if they can sweep both Army and South Alabama in non-conference play, they would only need to get win four league games to qualify for a bowl. I'm thinking in the ten games not involving Ohio State and Virginia, the Golden Flashes win six of them. That will get them to bowl eligibility, but a bowl bid will depend on how the other MAC schools perform.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Even the Losers: Utah

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. For our lucky thirteenth installment, I will finally shed my east coast bias and examine a Pac-12 team, the Utah Utes.

Utah

2013 Record: 5-7 (2-7 Pac-12)

Summary:
Coming off their first losing season since 2002, the Utah Utes began 2013 with an impressive home win over in-state rival and mid-major up and up-and-comer Utah State. They followed that up with an expected thrashing of IAA Weber State. Standing at 2-0, the Utes hosted Oregon State and fell in an overtime thriller 51-48. They rebounded and beat their big rival BYU the following weekend, marking their fourth consecutive win over the Cougars. They lost at home on Thursday night twelve days later when quarterback Travis Wilson threw six interceptions. Standing 0-2 in Pac-12 play the Utes pulled off a huge upset by beating Stanford in their next game. The win moved them to 4-2 overall, but after playing five of their first six games in the friendly confines of Rice-Eccles Stadium, four of their final six would be on the road. The Utes were not up to the road challenge, losing five consecutive games to fall out of bowl contention before beating listless Colorado in the season finale.

What Did the Utes Do Well?
Play well at home. While they only managed a 4-3 mark at home, including just a .500 record against IAA teams, the Utes beat a quality Utah State team and the eventual Pac-12 champion Stanford in Salt Lake City. Their three home losses all came by seven points or fewer, and each came to teams that qualified for bowls. Their loss to Oregon State was in overtime, their loss to UCLA was by just a touchdown despite six turnovers, and their loss to Pac-12 South champ Arizona State came by just a single point. By contrast, the Utes won just once on the road and each of their four road defeats came by at least eleven points.

What Didn't the Utes Do Well?
Protect the football. One of the main reasons for Utah's 2-7 league mark was their league-high 24 turnovers in Pac-12 play. The Utes were tied with Washington State for the most turnovers within the conference but the Cougars at least ran about 50 more plays over the course of the nine-game conference season. I've already highlighted their six-turnover debacle against UCLA, but they also coughed the ball up three times in the overtime loss to Oregon State (while forcing none of their own), three times in their close win over Colorado, and four times in their loss to Southern Cal.

The Utes Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Utah's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Utah played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Utes averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Utes allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
In 2010, the Utes began the year 8-0 and were ranked sixth in the country. In early November, they hosted TCU, ranked fourth at the time, in a pivotal mid-major clash. The Utes lost by 40. If I were a hack journalist, I would tell you that the loss to TCU demoralized the Utah program as they have gone just 20-22 since that great start in 2010. However, a more plausible account is that Utah moved into a more difficult conference and has faced a more arduous schedule. Using the SOS metric at college football reference, Utah has faced a progressively difficult schedule since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, culminating in the nation's most difficult schedule last season as detailed in the following table.
Whether or not you believe Utah absolutely had the most difficult schedule in the nation last year (I do) is not the point. By an objective measure, they had arguably the toughest schedule in the nation and still managed five wins. Replace a few of those Pac-12 squads with some Mountain West punching bags, and voila, welcome back to the postseason.

The 2014 Schedule:
The bad news for Utah fans is that the schedule does not get appreciably easier in 2014. The Utes open with a IAA jobber in Idaho State, but follow that up with a challenging mid-major opponent in Fresno State. The Bulldogs and Utes were once conference mates in the old Western Athletic Conference, but have not played since the 1999 Las Vegas Bowl. After a bye week, the Utes finish up their non-conference schedule by taking a trip to Michigan. The last time the Utes played in the Big House, they won, and finished the season unbeaten and ranked second in the country. You may notice one team conspicuously absent from Utah's non-conference schedule, BYU. The Utes and Cougars will not play this season marking the first time the arch-rivals have not faced off since 1945! Once conference play begins, the Utes will face the same Pac-12 teams they battled last season with the venues inverted. Their four league home games will include Arizona, Oregon, Southern Cal, and Washington State. The Utes lost to all four teams last season, but with the homefield advantage, should be able to find a win or two in 2014. The road schedule includes trips to Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon State, Stanford, and UCLA. The Utes only managed a 2-3 mark against those five teams in Salt Lake City last season, so expecting anything more than a pair of wins on the road might be pushing it.

Reason for Optimism:
The Utes were not that bad in 2013. By the SRS metric, the Utes were the 36th best team in college football last season. By the Sagarin Ratings, they were 34th. They beat three quality teams in BYU, Stanford, and Utah State. Every team they lost to, even Washington State went to a bowl game. That being said, as we already discussed in the section on the 2014 schedule, there are no real breathers on the upcoming slate. The Utes could once again beat a few quality teams, and lose seven games to bowl-eligible teams. The Pac-12 is just that deep. Still, it could be worse. The Utes could be a bad team facing a schedule this daunting. 

Final Prognosis:
Will Utah miss out on the postseason for the third consecutive season in 2014 and push head coach Kyle Whittingham closer to the unemployment line? If they do, it would mark the first time they endured such ignominy since they were coached by Jim Fassel. Yes, that Jim Fassel. Moving from the Mountain West to the Pac-12 was always a calculated risk, but to paraphrase Super Chicken: They knew the job was dangerous when they took it. Methinks Utah will finish the 2014 regular season with either five, six, or seven wins depending on in no particular order, the health of quarterback Travis Wilson, their proclivity for turning the ball over, and their record in close game. Were I a betting man, I'd wager on the Utes getting to bowl eligibility, but not much more than that.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Even the Losers: Arkansas

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. In our twelfth installment, we an examine our first SEC team, Arkansas.

Arkansas
2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8)

Summary:
While the 2013 season was among the worst in recent Arkansas history, the Razorbacks opened the year with perhaps their best performance in beating a bowl bound Louisiana-Lafayette squad by 20 points. They followed that up with a closer than expected win over IAA Samford (but no son) and won their final game of the season the following week against a Southern Miss team in the throes of a 23-game losing streak. In their final non-conference game, Arkansas raced out to a 17-point third quarter lead, but Rutgers scored the games final 21 points to eke out a win. Once conference play began, the results were mostly grisly. South Carolina and Alabama scored 52 points on the Hogs in consecutive weeks, and through their first six league games, Arkansas had been outscored by 157 points. However, the Hogs didn't quit on first year coach Bret Bielema, losing first to Mississippi State in overtime and then squandering a late lead to LSU to finish without a conference win for the first time since 1942!

What Did the Razorbacks Do Well?
Run the ball. Obviously, when you finish without a conference win, there is usually not a whole lot you do well. However, Arkansas was legitimately strong running the football. The Hogs nearly produced two 1000-yard rushers, and as a team averaged a healthy 5.28 yards per carry (tied for 17th nationally). Those rushing numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Arkansas had no semblance of a passing attack.  As a team, Arkansas averaged under six yards per throw and completed fewer than 50% of their passes (118th in the nation).

What Didn't the Razorbacks Do Well?
Everything else. I've already touched on their putrid quarterback play (the worst among major conference teams outside of Kansas), but the Hogs also boasted the SEC's worst defense in terms of yards per play allowed. Conference foes very nearly rang up seven yards per play against the Hogs 'resistance' (6.86). Arkansas also fared poorly in the turnover department, giving the ball away a league high 19 times in conference play.

The Razorbacks Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Arkansas' performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Arkansas played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Razorbacks averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Razorbacks allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.

Before his famous motorcycle accident, Bobby Petrino had enjoyed solid success at Arkansas. His defenses over his final two seasons were nothing to write home about, but the offensive attacks keyed by future NFL draft picks Ryan Mallett, Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Knile Davis, and Tyler Wilson ran amok over the SEC. After Petrino lost his gig thanks to his indiscretions, noted maniac John L Smith took over. Even with Tyler Wilson still under center, the offense declined and the defense went from bad to worse. The Razorbacks stole a successful Big 10 coach after their disappointing season and were prepared to return to their competitive ways. Not only did the defense continue to decline, finishing as arguably the worst in the SEC, the offense also faded. Now the Razorbacks enter 2014 having won just a pair of conference games over the previous two seasons.

The 2014 Schedule:
Playing in the SEC West, its a given Arkansas will have a difficult slate in 2014. Aside from their conference dates, the Razorbacks also have a few tests outside the SEC. Arkansas plays the requisite IAA opponent in Nicholls State and a low-level mid-major in UAB, but they also face a strong mid-major (Northern Illinois) and travel to play a major conference team (Texas Tech). The Red Raiders are hardly an upper-crust Big 12 team, but Arkansas will likely be an underdog, particularly on the road. Arkansas should be expected to win their trio of home games, but an upset by Northern Illinois would not be the greatest shock in the world. A reasonable Arkansas fan should be happy with a 3-1 mark in non-conference action. That means the Hogs would need to scrounge up a trio of league wins to get to bowl eligibility. In SEC play, the Hogs host Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss. The Hogs could be underdogs in all four games, but a win in one or two is certainly a possibility. Optimistically, if Arkansas wins a pair, they would need to grab one conference road win to get to bowl eligibility. Their road conference slate includes trips to Auburn, Mississippi State, Missouri, and Texas A&M. Winning at Auburn would be a huge reach, but Mississippi State, Missouri, or Texas A&M would only qualify as a minor upset. While three conference wins is not inconceivable, Arkansas may in fact find themselves underdogs in all eight conference games!

Reason for Optimism:
Bret Bielema's track record. We'll see in a moment why his track record may not mean as much you think. Regardless, there is no denying the success Bielema had at Wisconsin. Over seven seasons, his teams went 68-24 overall, finished the season ranked in the AP Poll five times, and played in three consecutive Rose Bowls to close his tenure. Prior to Wisconsin's run, the last Big 10 team to appear in three consecutive Rose Bowls were fellow mustelidae, the Michigan Wolverines from 1976 through 1978.

Final Prognosis:
Full disclosure, the idea for what I am about to write came from an excellent piece by Matt Hinton on why recruiting rankings matter. During his time at Wisconsin, Brett Bielema went a collective 37-19 against Big 10 opponents (not including the Badger's pair of wins in the Big 10 Championship Game). But who did his Badger teams beat in those 37 victories? The answer is that more than half of those wins came against the trinity of Indiana, Minnesota, and Purdue. Against those three teams, Bielema's Badgers were 19-0. Against the rest of the Big 10, his teams were 18-19. The table below lists Wisconsin's record against each Big 10 team under Bielema.
There is something to be said for beating the teams you are supposed to beat, and Bielema's teams did just that, finishing 31-8 against Big 10 teams they were favored against. However, in the SEC, particularly, the SEC West, there are no Indianas, Minnesotas, or Purdues. A wise man once said, 'If you can't spot the fish at the table, you are the fish'. Fish is poker parlance for the weak player(s) that keeps everyone else in the black. Competing for conference wins against the likes of Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M may mean Arkansas is the fish for the foreseeable future.
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