Sunday, January 13, 2008

Non-Offensive Touchdowns

Some of football's biggest plays and most spectacular moments occur when you least expect them. A fumble return, a pick six, or a blocked punt are all huge momentum shifting scoring plays. They are also highly random. Whether or not a fumble or interception gets returned for a touchdown depends on a host of variables: field position, personnel on the field (for both teams), where the fumble/interception occurs (middle of the field or along the sideline, backfield or in the secondary), and the awareness of the team that loses the football to name just a few. Touchdowns scored by special teams units are also quite random. The weather (slick ball, wind, etc.), the quality of the officials (did they miss that clip?), injuries to key personnel, and missed blocks are a couple that spring to mind. Thus a team that scores a large number of non-offensive touchdowns (known as NOTDs henceforth) one season, will probably not score them with the same regularity the following year, and vice-versa. This post will examine the top and bottom NOTD scoring teams from 2007 in terms of their net NOTDs. That is, the number of NOTDs they scored versus the number they allowed. Before we dive into the 2007 numbers, lets take a look back at 2006 to see if we can gleam any insight into what happens to teams who have very good or very bad NOTD net numbers the following season.

The teams we want to examine from 2006 are the extreme teams. If a teams score one more NOTD than they allowed (+1), well we really don't care. We are concerned about the teams at the far end of the bell curve. Thus we are going to be looking at teams that were +4 or greater in NOTD or -4 or worse in 2006. 21 teams fit that criteria (12 who were +4 or greater and 9 who were -4 or worse). Here are the top 12 teams from 2006, their NOTD net rating, their record in 2006, and their record in 2007.

Only one team declined significantly. Cal went from 10-3 and co-Pac-10 champs to a low-tier bowl game against Air Force. 6 other teams declined, but their declines were negligible and can be attributed to random chance. Overall, the 12 teams saw their cumulative winning percentage decline by .035; hardly a drop at all. What about conference record? Maybe these teams all beat up on pansies in their non-conference schedule and took it on the chin once the real action started.

Not so much. Again Cal is the only team that suffered any pronounced decline not attributable to random chance. Now let's examine the opposite side of the coin. Here are the teams with the worst NOTD net from 2006, along with their records from 2006 and 2007.

Of these 9 teams, all but two improved, and 5 improved substantially (at least a 2 game improvement). Florida Atlantic went from 5 wins to Sun Belt champions and the New Orleans Bowl. Stanford went from being one of the worst teams in IA to being marginally competitive. Virginia went from 5 wins to a near appearance in the ACC Championship Game. Bowling Green went from 4 wins to the GMAC Bowl, and finally, Illinois went from 2 wins to the Rose Bowl. In the interest of completeness, here's how those teams performed in conference play.

Again only 2 teams did not improve in conference play (perennial cellar dwellers Duke and Baylor) while the aforementioned 5 teams improved by at least 2 games in league play. What this seems to suggest is that the best (or luckiest depending on semantics) NOTD net teams don't necessarily drop off the face of the Earth, but rather that the worst (or unluckiest) NOTD net teams often improve. Please be award that this is only one season's worth of data, but when you are looking for some surprise teams in 2008, it might not be a bad idea to peruse the bottom of the NOTD net list. With that qualifier, here are the best and worst NOTD net teams from 2007.

My alma mater, the Demon Deacons led the nation with 10 NOTDs and were +8 in that category on the season. In my Fiesta Bowl preview, I noted that Oklahoma was not dominant (at least in terms of yardage) in their Big 12 games. Their +7 NOTD net rating helps explain why their final scores made us think we were watching a dominant team. The Huskies +6 NOTD net helped a flawed, mediocre team tie with West Virginia for the Big East crown. The other 9 teams on this list all owe a portion of their success to NOTDs. While a few will likely suffer a decline next season (two of the canines in particular), fans of these 12 teams should not be unsettled based on what happened to the top NOTD teams from 2006. And now the worst NOTD teams from 2007.

While all 13 of these teams were unlucky, some did experience success. Kentucky, East Carolina, and Florida Atlantic all won bowl games despite very low NOTD net ratings. I wholeheartedly guarantee a few of these teams will be pleasant surprises in college football next season when their luck improves. East Carolina is a pretty good sleeper pick to win Conference USA and further down the league standings, don't be surprised if SMU flirts with bowl-eligibility after a 1-11 season. If Pitt gets some consistent quarterback play, they could be a contender in the Big East. Ditto for Temple in the MAC and Wyoming in the Mountain West. Also take a flyer on North Texas in the ever-improving Sun Belt. Last season, 5 of the 9 teams with an NOTD rating of -4 or worse improved substantially. If a similar ratio holds true this season, 6 or 7 of these squads could see big time improvement.

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