Friday, July 20, 2018

The Evolution of Heisman Winning Quarterbacks Part II: Rushing and Total Offense

Last week in our initial review of the past twenty Heisman winning quarterbacks, we looked at passing statistics. This week we want to give the more athletic members of this exclusive fraternity some love and look at the rushing and combined totals of the most recent Heisman winning quarterbacks. Before we get started, this is just a reminder that these stats are not adjusted for pace nor opponents and they do not include bowl or playoff games.

We’ll start with rush attempts. College statistics are kind of dumb, so these rush attempts include sacks (which are of course intended to be pass attempts), and like the NFL, the occasional kneel down.
The average of 102 rush attempts does a good job of sorting quarterbacks by dual threats and pocket passers. All seven quarterbacks with above average rushing attempts are recognized as dual threat quarterbacks and everyone with below average rushing attempts are known as statuesque pocket passers with a few exceptions. Baker Mayfield and Jameis Winston contributed a non-insignificant amount with their legs despite a below average number of rush attempts. There’s also Charlie Ward who we will touch on in a bit and Ty Detmer surprisingly ranks higher than one might think here. However, once we look at the next statistic, it becomes pretty obvious that Detmer’s ranking here is a result of a lot of sacks. Speaking of that next stat, let’s move to rush yards.
The difference between Lamar Jackson and Ty Detmer in their Heisman winning seasons is roughly 1700 rush yards or about the freshman campaign of Samaje Perine. Twice as many Heisman winning quarterbacks finished with negative rushing yards (8) as finished with at least 1000 rushing yards (4). In the early 2000s, Heisman voters had a fetish for immobile pocket passers with four of five winners posting negative rushing yards (Weinke, Palmer, White, and Leinart). Of course, the other winner in that time frame (Crouch) was the first Heisman winning quarterback to rush for 1000 yards.

Next up is yards per rush.
No surprise that the explosive Lamar Jackson ranks first in this metric. Charlie Ward proves his worth as a runner here. While he rated below average in rush attempts and rushing yards, the future NBA point guard did a fine job of picking his spots, as he averaged more yards per carry than both Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin. If we remove the eight quarterbacks that were in the red, the average creeps up to 4.59 yards per attempt which surprisingly makes Tebow and Griffin below average on a per attempt basis.

Next is rushing touchdowns.
Tebow edges out Lamar Jackson for rushing touchdowns by a Heisman winning quarterback. No real surprise here except for maybe that Robert Griffin only rushed for nine touchdowns in his Heisman winning season. The thirteen below average quarterbacks combined to rush for 37 touchdowns or less than the combined total of Tebow and Jackson.

Now let’s look at total offense.
Despite all the sacks, Ty Detmer ranks as the total offense king among Heisman winning quarterbacks. His immediate Heisman predecessor and kindred spirit, Andre Ware ranks third with Lamar Jackson nestled between them. Detmer’s total offense numbers are nearly double those of Eric Crouch. Again, Crouch played in a diametrically disparate offensive system, but the gulf between them is still amazing.

Our final measure is total touchdowns. If you are an astute reader you may notice the total touchdowns (and total offense) don’t add up for some quarterbacks. This is because a few quarterbacks managed to catch passes and occasionally score a touchdown via a trick play. The receiving numbers are non-existent for most quarterbacks, so I elected not to give them their own category.
Mariota and Bradford accounted for the most touchdowns as Heisman winners with Jackson and Tebow joining them in the exclusive ‘half a hundred’ club. As usual, Crouch and Torretta bring up the rear.

In looking back on Heisman winning quarterbacks from the past three decades, a few stand out. Gino Torretta is usually remembered as one of the worst Heisman winners (especially in the modern era) and you won’t get an argument from me in that regard. Torretta accounted for a paltry 19 touchdowns in 1992 which is less than half of the average Heisman winning quarterback. He also ranked near the bottom in numerous other categories like total offense, adjusted yards per pass, and touchdown to interception ratio. The only thing Torretta did well was avoid turnovers making him more of a caretaker than a conductor. Nipping at Torretta’s heels is of course Eric Crouch. Crouch finished dead last in every passing statistic except for interceptions (primarily because he only threw 189 passes as he did finish last in interception percentage) and while his rushing numbers were quite good, he still accounted for the fewest total yards of any Heisman winning quarterback and the second fewest touchdowns. Compare Crouch’s numbers during his Heisman winning campaign to those of other contemporary Nebraska quarterbacks, Tommie Frazier and Scott Frost in their senior seasons.
Frazier finished second behind Eddie George in 1995 and while his total offense checks in below 2000 yards, he accounted for 31 touchdowns (five more than Crouch) and threw just four interceptions. Frost put up eerily similar numbers to Crouch, outside of throwing less than half as many interceptions, and didn’t even finish in the top ten in 1997.

What about best Heisman winners? I think your two obvious choices are either Mariota or Mayfield. Mariota accounted for 53 total touchdowns in 2014 and had a microscopic interception percentage. Meanwhile, Mayfield posted the best Adjusted Yards Per Pass Attempt average in college football history.

And finally, before we close out, what Heisman winning quarterback is the most underrated historically? I have to go with Charlie Ward. Ward didn’t have the volume in regards to pass attempts and subsequently yards and touchdowns of modern quarterbacks, but he posted a completion percentage nearing 70% in 1993, had the second lowest interception percentage of any Heisman winner in our study, and averaged more yards per rush than Tebow and Griffin in their Heisman winning seasons. Perhaps people forget about Charlie Ward because he chose to play basketball instead of opting for an NFL career. It just seems odd that the quarterback of Bobby Bowden’s first national championship team is not more widely regarded.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Evolution of Heisman Winning Quarterbacks Part I: Passing

The Heisman Trophy is perhaps the most prestigious ‘amateur’ award in sports with a rich history and unrivaled pageantry. It ostensibly goes to the best player in college football, but could more accurately be described as going to the best backfield player in college football. No non-back has won the award since Charles Woodson in 1997 and no wide receiver has won it since Desmond Howard in 1991. While the award was egalitarian among backs in the 90’s, with quarterbacks and running backs each winning four times in the decade, signal callers have gained a stranglehold on the award since the turn of the century. Beginning with middle-aged Chris Weinke in 2000, fifteen of the last eighteen winners (and yes, around here Reggie Bush is still considered a Heisman winner) have been quarterbacks. Since the Heisman is almost exclusively a quarterback award, and since we still have seven weeks or so until the season kicks off, I decided to look at the last twenty Heisman winning quarterbacks (beginning with Andre Ware in 1989) and compare their statistics in several categories. Obviously, the game has changed a great deal since Ware hoisted the award in December of 1989, not only with schemes and tactics, but also with television and streaming services, as well as our understanding of the game. As the title of this post suggests, this is part one in a multi-part series. I wanted to look at a number of different statistics for Heisman winners and decided to break those stats into digestible pieces. We’ll start with some passing statistics for Heisman winning quarterbacks and next week, we’ll dive into rushing and total offense stats. For each stat, the twenty quarterbacks will be ranked and the average (mean) will be included to give you an idea of how far above or below average each quarterback ranks. This next paragraph deals with some housekeeping information, so if you want the meat of the article skip down.

First and foremost, the statistics we will be examining are raw. No, there is (virtually) no risk for salmonella, but these stats are not adjusted for opponent nor era, and they are not calculated on a per game basis. Bowl and playoff statistics are not included because those games happen after the Heisman Trophy is awarded. With that out of the way, let’s get started with our first statistic: pass attempts.
I know I said in the intro that the game has changed a great deal since Ware hoisted the trophy, but its cool to see him top this list in terms of volume of pass attempts. This shows you have far ahead of the curve Houston and BYU were in terms of utilizing the forward pass in the late 80s and how crazy it probably seemed to ‘real’ football coaches who preferred to run the ball into the line three times and then punt. Most of the other Heisman winners from the 90s all rank below average in this metric although Gino Torretta surprisingly shouldered a lot of Miami’s offense in 1992. Spoiler alert: Eric Crouch will rank at or near the bottom in every passing measure. He was a different kind of quarterback in a different offensive system, but his numbers look more like a Big 8 quarterback from the 80s than any of his Heisman winning contemporaries.

Next up is completion percentage.
Bill Polian was criticized for suggesting Lamar Jackson change positions prior to the NFL draft. While Polian’s comments hearken back to the league’s previous (hopefully previous) biases against black players being quarterbacks, his low completion percentage here would concern me, especially in an era of high completion percentages. Of course, a great completion percentage for a Heisman winner does not necessarily portend professional success. I was very surprised Robert Griffin’s 2011 campaign ranked as the best completion percentage by a Heisman winner. And while these numbers are not adjusted for era, I think its safe to say that Charlie Ward has the best era-adjusted completion percentage. No other 90s Heisman winner was above average in completion percentage, but Ward is comfortably third having completed nearly 70% of his passes in 1993!

Next up is total passing yards.
Ty Detmer is the only Heisman winner to top 5000 passing yards in a single season. In fact, his total is more than the combined passing yardage of the two lowest ranked players in this metric. Once again Detmer and Ware were ahead of their time (or at least played in systems that were ahead of their time), as they topped the Heisman winning average by over 1000 yards each.

Next up is passing touchdowns.
I already touched on how Eric Crouch would populate the bottom of these passing stats, but look at Gino Torretta. Those 19 touchdowns seem more indicative of a third team All-Big East quarterback rather than a Heisman winner. And while we’re talking about Torretta, I decided to sort the Heisman winners by their passing touchdown percentage.
As you may recall, while Torretta was below average for passing touchdowns, but he was the only 90s quarterback that was above average in pass attempts. In terms of passing touchdown percentage he ranks significantly below average among non-dual threat Heisman winners.

Next up is interceptions.
Haha. Look at that number for Ty Detmer. 28. That is comical. His performance pretty much destroys the curve. He threw more than three times the number of interceptions as the average Heisman winner. As you can observe from the bottom of the list, passing has gotten much safer in the last ten years. Jameis Winston is the only Heisman winner since 2003 to hit double digits in interceptions. Conversely, Charlie Ward and Gino Torretta were the only Heisman winners prior to 2003 to throw fewer than ten interceptions. And while I denigrated Torretta for his low touchdown percentage a few moments ago, we need to give him credit for being careful with the ball and not squandering any of that South Beach talent he had around him with dangerous throws.
Charlie Ward also continues to shine in efficiency metrics as his interception percentage is topped only by Marcus Mariota’s minuscule mistakes in 2014.

Next up is touchdown to interception ratio.
Obviously, if you only throw two interceptions all season, you should rate highly in this area. Mariota’s ratio is more than double that of silver medalist Baker Mayfield. I know you may be getting tired of this refrain, but Charlie Ward again stands out as the only 90s winner with an above average ranking in this metric.

Next up is touchdown to interception net.
If you like basic math, but don’t care for any of that fancy division, this stat is for you. Instead of dividing touchdowns by interceptions, we are instead subtracting interceptions from touchdowns. A pair of Oklahoma quarterbacks are able to steal the crown from Mariota here, while legacy touchdown passers like Andre Ware and Danny Wuerffel move from below to above average.

Finally, our last statistic is Adjusted Yards per Pass Attempt. It does involve a formula, but its pretty simple. You take yards per pass attempt and award a 20 yard bonus for each touchdown and subtract a 45 yard penalty for each interception.
Mayfield’s 2017 campaign is far and away the best AY/A season by a Heisman winner. For comparison, the difference between Mayfield’s AY/A and that of second place Robert Griffin is roughly the same as the difference between Griffin and eighth place Danny Wuerffel. Speaking of Wuerffel, he is the only 90s quarterback to rank above average in this metric. The bottom of this ranking is populated with the usual suspects (Crouch and Torretta), but other polished passers with great supporting casts at a selective, private, west coast institution also rate pretty low here (Leinart and Palmer).

This concludes part I of our look at Heisman winning quarterbacks. When we return next week, we’ll look at how these 20 gentlemen rate in several rushing and combined statistics. Then we’ll summarize the results and see which quarterbacks consistently rated above and below average and maybe even hand out some superlatives. See you next week.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Another Summer of Polls Part III: The Most Under-Rated Teams (Since 2005)

Last week, in our ongoing look at the AP Poll, we looked at teams the pollsters probably over-rated. This week, we are going to look at teams that the pollsters under-rated. I know, you are thinking we already did that. However, in this instance, the pollsters managed to rate these teams (i.e. they finished ranked), but they should have rated them higher. Once again the numbers we will be comparing are the final rankings from the AP Poll and the SRS rankings. For a primer on SRS, follow this link.

Since 2005, which teams have seen the biggest disparity between their SRS ranking and their final AP ranking? Glad you asked. The top-ten are listed below.
Congratulations to Oregon. Mike Bellotti’s penultimate teams ranks as the most under-rated since 2005. As you may recall, the Ducks were ranked second in the country and perhaps on course to play for the national title before an injury to star quarterback Dennis Dixon devastated their offense and contributed to them losing their final three regular season games. The Ducks did rebound to win the Sun Bowl, but their final ranking near the bottom of the AP Poll belied their strong statistical resume.

What do these under-rated teams all have in common? For starters, they all came from BCS/Power 5 conferences. Half of the top-ten came from the SEC and eight of the top-ten came from either the SEC or Pac-10/12. Every team also lost at least three games. Intuitively, this makes sense. If a Power 5 team loses two or fewer games, they will probably finish pretty close to the top-ten and not be capable of being under-rated by this methodology. In addition, six of the ten teams lost their bowl game. For the most part, losses cause teams to drop in the polls, so those teams had their otherwise solid seasons end on sour notes. This is especially true for a pair of Peach/Chick Fil-A Bowl losers, Miami and Ole Miss. The Hurricanes and Rebels were decimated in their bowl losses to LSU and TCU respectively, so the final image any pollster had of those two teams was not positive. Finally, every team on this list save Arizona State failed to win their conference or division. In several cases (Tennessee 2006, Florida 2007, Oklahoma 2011, Auburn 2014, and Ole Miss 2014) this meant there was a national title contender directly adjacent in the conference standings. And in Arizona State’s case, while the Sun Devils managed to win their division, they lost in the conference title game and were then upset in their bowl game. This two-game skid severely impacted their final ranking.

That concludes another summer of polls. Next week, we'll take a look at how Heisman quarterbacks have evolved over the last 30 years or so. Stay tuned.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Another Summer of Polls Part II: The Most Over-Rated Teams (Since 2005)

Last week, in our ongoing examination of the AP Poll, we looked at teams pollsters probably should have ranked. This week, we are going to look at teams the pollsters probably over-rated. Once again the numbers we will be comparing are the final rankings from the AP Poll and the SRS rankings. For a primer on SRS, follow this link.

Since 2005, which teams have seen the biggest positive disparity between their final AP ranking and their SRS ranking (i.e. were ranked too high)? Glad you asked. The top-ten (actually 13) are listed below.
Using this methodology, Louisville finishes as the most over-rated team since 2005. The Cardinals won the final Big East football title and then upset a one-loss Florida team in the Sugar Bowl to finish in the top-fifteen. That plus the fact that the team was quarterbacked by Teddy Bridgewater and coached by Charlie Strong is what most people will remember. Fewer people will remember that this team also lost at home to Connecticut. The SRS has a much better memory than most people and thus incorporates the Connecticut loss as well as the blowout loss to Syracuse and a host of unimpressive wins (like the four-point victory against winless Southern Miss) into the Cardinals’ final ranking.

While Louisville was technically a member of a ‘major’ conference in 2012, eight of the thirteen over-rated team played in non-BCS or Group of Five conferences. Two teams played in the Big East, the weakest BCS conference, one team played in the AAC which owned the Big East’s grandfathered BCS bid for one season, and only two played in a current Power Five conference (Iowa and Wisconsin). I’m a mid-major apologist, but if you want to make the argument that mid-major teams are over-rated by the final AP Poll, well, I think you have a decent case.

Another common trait of these over-rated teams is that they tended to finish in the lower reaches of the poll. The thirteen teams combined for an average finish of about 18.5. If we remove Iowa (top-ten finish) from the equation, the average drops an additional spot to 19.5.

Finally nine of the thirteen over-rated teams won their respective conference (or at least finished tied for first). So, if you want an easy shorthand for determining the most over-rated team in the final AP Poll of the upcoming college football season, look for a mid-major conference champion ranked 19th or lower. And smugly think to yourself how much better a five-loss SEC team would look in their place.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Another Summer Of Polls Part I: The Best Teams that Weren't Ranked (Since 2005)

Last summer we looked at a few aspects of the AP Poll. We examined how often each Power Five team appeared in the preseason and postseason AP Polls and which teams over or under-achieved based on their initial positioning in the AP Poll. This summer, we’re going to examine a few more aspects of the AP Poll. If you want to catch up on last year’s Pulitzer worthy posts, click on the highlighted text in the preceding sentences. You can enjoy these posts without reading those, but this post isn’t going anywhere so if you want to read them for the first time or get reacquainted, feel free.

As the title of this post explicitly states, this week we are going to look at the best team to not finish ranked each season since 2005. How should we define best? Instead of using won/loss record, I decided to be a little more thorough and use SRS (Simple Rating System). SRS is easily to calculate and for a given team, tells us how many point better (or worse) they are than an average team. So, a team with an SRS of 7.00 is a touchdown better than a theoretical average team. You can read more about the calculation here.

Let’s get the ball rolling with chronologically 2005.
I was surprised Michigan ranked as highly as they did in the SRS considering the Wolverines finished with five losses. Obviously, a team with five losses rarely finishes ranked, but the Wolverines were better than their 7-5 record. All five of their losses came by seven points or less (21 total points) while four of their seven wins came by at least sixteen points. The Wolverines didn’t have a lot of great wins, but they were the only team to beat Penn State and in doing so helped the BCS stave off another controversy. Had the Wolverines lost to the Nittany Lions, we would have been looking at a second consecutive season with three unbeaten BCS conference teams vying for two slots in the national title game.
June Jones’ penultimate Hawaii team lost three times with each loss coming by eight points or less. The Warrior lost two of their first three to Alabama and Boise State (remember the Broncos finished unbeaten in 2006) then won nine in a row before dropping their regular season finale to Oregon State (back when the Beavers were still a good team). They rebounded to crush Arizona State in the Hawaii Bowl, giving them two wins against BCS conference teams (also beat Purdue). Outside of Boise, their WAC schedule was not that formidable, but six of their seven conference wins came by double-digits.
The Bulls went from being ranked number two to outside of the polls in two and a half months. Prior to their no-show in the Sun Bowl against Oregon, South Florida was at least competitive in all their losses. Beginning with a Thursday night loss at Rutgers, the Bulls dropped three games in sixteen days by a combined fifteen points. Their best wins in 2007 came at Auburn and in Tampa against West Virginia.
Bo Pelini’s first Nebraska team did not break into the AP top 25 at all in 2008 (one of only three teams on our list to never sniff a ranking). The Cornhuskers lost tight games to Virginia Tech and Texas Tech, but blowout losses at the hands of Missouri and Oklahoma probably kept them off the pollsters’ collective radar. Until their bowl victory against Clemson, Nebraska only beat two teams that finished with a winning record (Western Michigan and can you believe it, Kansas). They did close the year winning six of seven, but that wasn’t enough to land them in the polls.
From preseason number three to also ran. The Sooners lost three of their first six game with the margin of defeat totaling five points. Each game came away from Norman against a bowl team (BYU, Miami, and Texas). After sweeping the Kansas schools, the Sooners appeared to have righted the ship, but lost two of their next three against Nebraska (close) and Texas Tech (not so much). They did finish the year by beating a par of ranked teams (Oklahoma State and Stanford in the Sun Bowl), but it wasn’t enough to get them back in the polls.
Brian Kelly’s first year in South Bend featured five losses with two of them coming against mid-major teams (Navy and Tulsa). After the Tulsa loss dropped the Irish to 4-5, they closed strong, winning their last four by a combined 69 points (somewhere Gronkowski is smiling). Navy and Tulsa were actually pretty strong in 2010, coming for 19 wins and both ranking in the SRS top-50, so the Irish were probably better than most five loss teams.
Texas A&M was insanely unlucky in 2011. That was bad news for Mike Sherman, who was fired, but great news for Kevin Sumlin, who was hired. The Aggies lost six games with five coming by a touchdown or less. Three of those closes losses came against teams that finished in the top 20 of the final poll and the SRS (Arkansas, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State). The other two came against bowl teams Missouri and Texas. Meanwhile, six of the Aggies seven wins came by double-digits. And let’s not forget, the Aggies also handed Baylor one of their three defeats in Robert Griffin’s Heisman season.
Fresh off the best season in school history, the Cowboys were Rich Rodriguez’s first major scalp in Tucson. They also dropped three one-score conference games, but pounded bowl-bound conference mates TCU, Texas Tech, and West Virginia by a combined 81 points. In the Heart of Dallas Bowl, they annihilated an overmatched Purdue, but pollsters refused to overlook their five losses.
Close road losses to Clemson, Vanderbilt, and Auburn, as well as a tight Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska conspired to keep Georgia out of the final polls. In between, the Bulldogs beat bowl teams Georgia Tech, LSU, and South Carolina. They also pounded a decent North Texas team that went on to win nine games. Alas, victories against struggling Florida and Tennessee squads failed to move the needle and the Bulldogs home loss to Missouri gave pollsters just enough reason to lock them out of the final polls. 
Was 2014 Arkansas the best six-loss team ever? Probably. While he never won an SEC title or a Rose Bowl, Bert can have that proudly chiseled on his oversized tombstone. The Hogs lost six conference games, with five coming by a touchdown or less including a one-point loss to Alabama on a missed extra point. If the Hogs manage to win that game, the first ever College Football Playoff would have been even more controversial as the SEC champion could have been left out entirely! Imagine the calls on Finebaum that week. When they weren’t losing close conference games, the Razorbacks bludgeoned a solid Northern Illinois team and shut out LSU and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks. They also routed Texas in the Texas Bowl. Like Nebraska circa 2008 and Notre Dame in 2010, the Hogs never sniffed the poll during the season either.
One season after climbing to number one, the Bulldogs didn’t get a whole lot of respect. The Bulldogs only had one close loss (to LSU), but all the teams that beat them ended up being pretty good. Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M all finished in the top 30 of the SRS with all but the Aggies finishing in the final polls as well. The Bulldogs didn’t have any great wins, but in addition to wins against bowl teams in Auburn, Arkansas, and NC State, they also beat two solid Conference USA squads (Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech) with no trouble.
Sandwiched between an 0-2 start, with the first loss coming against an FCS team, and an 0-3 finish, the Cougars won eight in a row. Three of their five losses were close, and the Cougars pounded Stanford in Palo Alto, but their only other victory against a bowl team came against mighty Idaho. Take away the FCS loss and maybe the Cougars have an argument, but this is the most excusable miss for the pollsters.
Every team that beat the Hawkeyes made it to a bowl with four of the five teams winning at least ten games. Three of the losses were close, and oh yeah, the Hawkeyes had one of the best wins of the year. Their bludgeoning of Ohio State probably skews their rating a little, but the Hawkeyes quietly did good work in the non-conference to bolster their resume. All three of their regular season non-conference opponents qualified for a bowl game and their in-state rival beat the two best teams in the Big 12.

One thing I noticed writing the capsules for these teams was that almost all of them improved the following season. If you plan on making some bets on regular season win totals this summer (as I do), Iowa might be a good team to take the ‘Over’ on. See the table below for a summary.
Ten of the twelve teams improved their regular season record the following season with five teams improving by at least two games. Iowa needs to improve their record by a single game to top their preseason win total of 7.5. Keep an eye on the Hawkeyes in 2018 as they could also be a sleeper in the Big 10 West.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

2017 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Sun Belt

Last week, we looked at how Sun Belt 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 2017 Sun Belt standings.
And here are the APR standings with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only.
Finally, Sun Belt teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
Georgia State was the lone Sun Belt team that saw their actual record differ significantly from their APR. In eight conference games, the Panthers allowed five more touchdowns than they scored and were outscored by 28 points overall in conference play. However, the Panthers scored at the right times, finishing 4-0 in one-score conference games. Their five league wins all came by ten points or fewer while each league loss came by at least two touchdowns. That’s quite a tightrope to walk and I have my doubts as to whether they can keep their balance for much longer.

Louisiana-Monroe finished with a losing record for the fourth consecutive season, but the Warhawks played an entertaining brand of football in 2017. They scored the most touchdowns in Sun Belt play, averaging five per contest, but also allowed the most, permitting 5.63 per game. Offensively, they were one of the best Sun Belt teams since I have been tracking APR data (2005). Conversely, they were also one of the worst Sun Belt defenses in that same span. It stands to reason then that a small improvement on defense or a small decline on offense could have a profound impact on the Warhawks in 2018. But which is more likely? Do strong Sun Belt offenses remain that way or do they regress? Do bad Sun Belt defenses stay bad or do they show improvement the next season? To find out, I looked at all Sun Belt offenses that averaged at least five touchdowns per conference game since 2005 and how they performed the following season. I then did the same thing for Sun Belt defenses that allowed at least five touchdowns per conference game. Let’s get to the results, starting with the great offenses.
As expected, these great offenses declined in the aggregate. However, one team managed to improve and the average decline of about two thirds of a touchdown per game still left these teams in great shape offensively. For perspective, that average of 4.56 offensive touchdowns per game would have ranked fourth in the Sun Belt in 2017. What about those bad defenses?
Once again, as expected, those extreme performances were not repeated. Every bad defense improved the following season, and three improved by at least one touchdown per game. I know this is an extremely small sample size, but I would be cautiously optimistic about 2018 were I a Warhawk fan. Matt Viator will be entering his third season in charge, a year when teams often improve. In addition, the offense is likely to remain one of the best in the Sun Belt while the defense is likely to improve upon their horrific performance in 2017. A conference title might be too ambitious, but a return to the postseason is certainly on the table.

Well, that concludes our conference by conference dive into the 2017 season. Unfortunately, we still have 13 more weeks until the first Thursday night action of 2018. Between now and then, expect to see a few posts on polls, a Vegas gambling recap, and an Adjusted Pythagorean look at the NFL. I don't have a specific schedule laid out, but check back once a week or so if you are dying for some Statistically Speaking content. As always, thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

2017 Yards Per Play: Sun Belt

Hard to believe, but we have reached the final conference in our offseason sojourn. Here are the 2017 Sun Belt 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 Sun Belt team. This includes conference play only. 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 2017 season, which teams in the Sun Belt met this threshold? Here are Sun Belt teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Coastal Carolina was the lone Sun Belt team that saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record. The Chanticleers first season as an FBS program was a unique one. It began in the summer when head coach Joe Moglia went out on medical leave. It continued once the season began when Coastal lost to zombie program UAB and FCS Western Illinois before nearly beating Arkansas later in the year. The Chanticleers actually began life in the Sun Belt 0-6 before winning their final two games and sowing some seeds of optimism heading into 2018. The Chanticleers were a little unlucky in close games, finishing 1-3 in one-score Sun Belt contests (1-5 overall with close losses to UAB and Arkansas). However, they were also done in by their inability to cover kick offs. Coastal allowed four kick return touchdowns in 2017 and allowed five more non-offensive touchdowns than they scored in Sun Belt play. Those kickoff returns (and a well-time fumble return) provided the margin of defeat in their games against Louisiana-Monroe and Georgia State.

In other news regarding FBS novices, South Alabama will have a new football coach in 2018. Joey Jones guided the South Alabama program since its inception and this is not intended as a slight, but the Jaguars were a very anonymous team under his watch. If you aren’t a regular mid-week Fun Belt viewer or an alum of USA, you may not even know that South Alabama is an FBS program. It doesn’t help that the Jaguars have not really distinguished themselves as either a very bad or very good mid-major program. In their six seasons as members of the Sun Belt, the Jaguars have finished with either five or six wins four times. They went 2-11 in their first season and 4-8 this past year, but otherwise they have hovered around the six win mark. However, one group that will certainly recognize South Alabama are degenerate gamblers as the Jaguars have pulled off several massive upsets in their brief history.
In the College Football Playoff era (beginning with 2014), South Alabama has pulled five outright upsets as a double-digit underdog. This is tied for the second most double-digit upsets in that span and tied for the most among mid-major teams. The Jaguars have also spread their upsets around, pulling at least one in three of the four seasons of the CFP era. Joey Jones never brought the Jaguars a Sun Belt title, but he took them to two bowl games and guided them to quite a few colossal upsets.