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Statistically Speaking: August 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Twitter-ific Preview: MAC and the Independents

It's almost time, can you feel it? We're just a little more than a week away from kickoff of the 2009 college football season, so its time for my iron-clad predictions for each conference race. Since Twitter is all the rage with kids now, my predictions will come in scrumptuous, bite size blurbs. Rest asured though, a lot of thought, effort, and excel spreadsheets went into these predictons. After the predictions, I'll give you an interesting fact about each team you may not have known, followed by a short statistical prose about a player or team from the particular conference I happen to be previewing. Theres something for everyone here. If all you want is some nuggets of insight, you can be happily on your way, but if you want a more polished look at the conference feel free to stay and read the whole thing. I'm doing this Noah-style, as we'll go two-by-two until the season starts. In this final preview, we examine the MAC the three remaining IA Independents.

MAC Prediction




MAC: Muy Interesante




Independents Prediction



Independents: Muy Interesante



The MAC Mish-Mash

I, for one, was a bit surprised by the MAC projections my predictor model spit out. It projects 6 teams (almost half the league) to finish even in conference play, and 10 of the 13 teams to finish within a single game of the .500 mark. Who do they think they are, the ACC? I thought I'd use the extended part of this post to do a little more in-depth explanation of why this is so.

For starters. the MAC West is projected to be much stronger than the East. Of their 18 games against East foes, the system projects the West to win 12 of them (or 2/3rds). That's why every team in the West is projected to have at least a .500 conference record. Now I'll go team by team and offer a little insight into the projection model.

Western Michigan--Broncos were 6-2 last season, but won three league games by a combined 16 points (one in OT). Their two losses (to Central Michigan and Ball State) were by double digits. The projection model is also wary of a defense, average by league standards last season, that returns only 3 starters.

Northern Illinois--Huskies paired a weak offense (10th in the conference in yards gained) with the league's best defense to go 5-3 in 2008. The model forsees slight progression by the offense (7 starters return) coupled with a bigger regression by the defense (4 starters return).

Eastern Michigan--The system likes the pedigree of the head coach (Ron English) to help the defense go from awful to presentably bad and the 9 returning starters on offense to help the Eagles improve by 2 games in the standings.

Ball State--The system hates the losses on offense (NFL-caliber quarterback and four offensive linemen including 3 All-Conference players) and sees the defense declining slightly. A 4 game decline may seem a bit steep, but remember the Cardinals play in the much stronger MAC West.

Toledo--The system likes the veteran offense to go from bad to average and the defense to maintain its position (8th in the league last season in yards allowed), making for a 2 game improvement.

Akron--Zips had only the 6th ranked offense last season, but 2nd best in the East. The system sees them as the best in the East this season with 9 starters, including a senior quarterback returning. It predicts only marginal improvement from a bad defense (10th in yards allowed last season) for a 1 game improvement.

Kent State--The best offense in the East loses its quarterback, but brings back 4 starting offensive linemen and starting running back in a run-based offense. The defense also returns 7 starters so the system likes them to hold their place. SDPI, the statistic on which the majority of the predictor model is based, also saw the Flashes as much better then their 3-5 league mark last season.

Temple--The Owls were 4-4 last season, but the league's worst offense loses its senior quarterback. An average defense returns 9 starters, so improvement is likely on that end. Owls must also face 2 road games against the West.

Buffalo--System is extremely wary of Bulls great turnover margin (+10 in league play last year) and their great luck recovering fumbles. Bulls also lose senior quarterback Drew Willy. The system does like the defense to improve with 8 starters back.

Bowling Green--The manic-depressive projection. On the one hand, the Falcons lost their 4 league games by a combined 19 points and boasted the second-best point differential last season. On the other hand, the strength of last year's team, the defense (2nd in the conference in yards allowed last season) returns only 3 starters. Add a new coach plus 3 games versus the West, and the result is a losing record.



What Can We Expect From Jimmy Clausen?

How good is Jimmy Clausen? Clausen, you may remember, was a much balleyhooed recruit who was thrown to the wolves his freshman season playing behind a young and bad Notre Dame offensive line. The results were not pretty. Clausen averaged just a shade over 5 yards per pass as a freshman with 7 touchdown passes and 6 interceptions as the Irish suffered through a miserable season wherein they finished 3-9 and averaged only 242 yards per game (dead last in the nation). Calusen rebounded as a sophomore, playing with a more experienced team, throwing 25 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, while ranking a respectable 43rd in the nation in quarterback rating. The team improved as well, going 7-6 and ranking as a middle of the road offense, averaging 355 yards per game (65th in the nation). So is Clausen primed for even more improvement as a junior? The answer, unfortunately, is likely 'Yes'.

To answer this question, I devised a rough estimate of a similarity score. Similarity scores were invented by Bill James, noted baseball statistician, to estimate a player's future performance based on how similar players have performed in the past. The similarity score formula I used is a little rough (and will likely be tweaked in the offseason), but is listed below.

100-[(difference in pass attempts/10)+(difference in completion %)+(difference in yards per pass*2)+(difference in touchdown passes/3)+(difference in interceptions/3)+(difference in QB rating/10)+(difference in rush attempts/10)+(difference in rush yards/50)+(difference in rushing touchdowns/3)

A higher score means a player is more similar, and vice-versa. What I wanted to do with this metric is calculate similarity scores for Clausen's freshman and sophomore seasons. To keep the measure more accurate, I only compared Clausen's freshman season to other freshman seasons, and likewise for his sophomore campaign. It makes no sense to compare Clausen's freshman season to other players' senior or junior seasons. Clausen started almost immediately as a freshman, posting relatively abysmal numbers. However, he has three more years to grow and progress. A junior or senior quarterback who posts similar numbers has no time to progress, and offers no insight into how Calusen's career will take shape. With that being said, here are the 5 most similar freshman quarterbacks to Jimmy Clausen ranked by similarity scores (I only looked at quarterbacks from the 2005-2007 seasons).

1. Drew Willy, Buffalo, 2005, 85.1
2. Rusty Smith, FAU, 2006, 83.5
3. Josh Freeman, Kansas State, 2006, 82.6
4. Matthew Stafford, Georgia, 2006, 79.7
5. Aaron Opelt, Toledo, 2006, 78.9

Some of these guys are pretty famous. Stafford and Freeman were selected in the 1st round of the NFL Draft in April. However, each player was pretty bad in his freshman season. None of the 5 quarterbacks posted a passer rating over 114. No quarterback threw more than 7 touchdown passes, and only Opelt had more touchdowns than interceptions (6-5). But amazingly, these guys all improved significantly as sophomores. Just like Clausen. Here's their cumulative average stat line as sophomores compared to Clausen's sophomore campaign (the final 3 columns are rushing numbers).This similarity score seems to do a pretty good job of identifying players who are truly similar, and also of projecting what's to come. So what can we expect from Clausen as a junior? Here are the 5 most similar sophomore quarterbacks to Clausen (once again 2005-2007 only).

1. Rusty Smith, FAU, 2007, 84.0
2. Josh Freeman, Kansas State, 2007, 83.8
3. Curtis Painter, Purdue, 2006, 79.1
4. Matthew Stafford, Georgia, 2007, 77.4
5. Rudy Carpenter, Arizona State, 2006, 75.3

This list is very similar to the freshman list with two new names thrown in. Here's how those 5 quarterbacks performed collectively as juniors.Once again, we have significant improvement. The rushing numbers are a skewed quite a bit by Josh Freeman. After running for -40 yards and 4 touchdowns as a freshman, Freeman rushed for 400 yards and 14 touchdowns as a sophomore. Besides the rushing numbers, I would say this is a solid projection for Clausen's 2009 stat line. It looks like he is destined to improve even more as junior. Remember this when the media starts hyping Clausen as a darkhorse Heisman candidate in late-October.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Twitter-ific Preview: Conference USA and Sun Belt

It's almost time, can you feel it? We're just a little more than 2 weeks away from kickoff of the 2009 college football season, so its time for my iron-clad predictions for each conference race. Since Twitter is all the rage with kids now, my predictions will come in scrumptuous, bite size blurbs. Rest asured though, a lot of thought, effort, and excel spreadsheets went into these predictons. After the predictions, I'll give you an interesting fact about each team you may not have known, followed by a short statistical prose about a player or team from the particular conference I happen to be previewing. Theres something for everyone here. If all you want is some nuggets of insight, you can be happily on your way, but if you want a more polished look at the conference feel free to stay and read the whole thing. I'm doing this Noah-style, as we'll go two-by-two until the season starts. This week, we examine Conference USA and the Sun Belt.

Conference USA Prediction




Conference USA: Muy Interesante




Sun Belt Prediction


Sun Belt: Muy Interesante



40-40-40 Club

The lone conference to produce three quarterbacks with 40 or more touchdown passes last season was Conference USA. The three players who accomplished said feat were David Johnson of Tulsa with 46 touchdown passes, Case Keenum of Houston with 44, and Chase Clement of Rice with 44. Not only did these three quarterbacks play in the same conference, they also played in the same division! Not surprisingly, each team also enjoyed a successful season, as each won their bowl game and they combined for 29 wins versus just 11 losses. In conference play they were even better, combining for a 20-4 record. Of their four losses, three came versus each other, in a sort of Rock/Paper/Scissors circle. Tulsa blasted Rice by 35, Houston hung 70 on Tulsa in a 40-point win, and with the division on the line, Rice beat Houston by 14, handing the title to Tulsa. The only other team to beat the triumverate in the league last season (until the title game of course) was Marshall, who upset Houston. Unfortunately for Rice and Tulsa, Johnson and Clement have exhausted their eligibility meaning Houston has a definitive leg (or arm) up in their quest to take the West division in 2009.


It's About The Climb

If you're the Sun Belt, widely regarded as the weakest conference in all of IA football, how do you measure progress? One way would be to look at your record against the rest of the IA-football playing world. In its present incarnation (with the exception of adding Western Kentucky for the upcoming 2009 season), the Sun Belt has looked the same since 2005. Here's how they've done outside the league since then (the 2007 and 2008 numbers do not included any games played by Western Kentucky, a provisional IA member at the time).As you can see, the Sun Belt was effectively an amalgamation of IAA schools, at least performance-wise, in 2005. Their only victory outside the league that season was Middle Tennessee State's upset of Vanderbilt that kept the Commodores from bowl-eligibility. They improved a little in 2006, failing to record a win versus a BCS school, but winning more than a third of their games against fellow non-BCS members. The league kept improving in 2007, winning thrice against the big boys, including upsets of two bowl-bound teams (Oklahoma State by Troy and the infamous victory by La-Monroe over Alabama). The league treaded water in 2008, beating two big boys (Texas A&M by Arkansas State and Maryland by Middle Tennesse State), but failing to capture any other notable scalps. But if we look at a different set of numbers, it looks like the Sun Belt may have enjoyed its finest season ever in 2008.Last season, Sun Belt members won only twice against BCS members, but they were much more competitive. Florida International lost by only 8 versus South Florida from the Big East. La-Lafayette (now called simply Louisiana) lost by just 3 at Illinois and by 8 at Kansas State. La-Monroe nearly pulled a second consecutive shocker losing to Arkansas by a single point. Middle Tennessee State not only beat Maryland, but also played Kentucky within 6 points and Mississippi State within 9. And who can forget the biggest near miss of all, Troy's 9 point loss to LSU in Death Valley, a game they were winning at one point 31-3. If you're the Sun Belt, you measure success by not getting pounded by the big boys. And if you're a big boy playing any Sun Belt member besides North Texas and Western Kentucky this season, take heed and don't look past them.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Twitter-ific Preview: Mountain West and WAC

It's almost time, can you feel it? We're just a little more than 3 weeks away from kickoff of the 2009 college football season, so its time for my iron-clad predictions for each conference race. Since Twitter is all the rage with kids now, my predictions will come in scrumptuous, bite size blurbs. Rest asured though, a lot of thought, effort, and excel spreadsheets went into these predictons. After the predictions, I'll give you an interesting fact about each team you may not have known, followed by a short statistical prose about a player or team from the particular conference I happen to be previewing. Theres something for everyone here. If all you want is some nuggets of insight, you can be happily on your way, but if you want a more polished look at the conference feel free to stay and read the whole thing. I'm doing this Noah-style, as we'll go two-by-two until the season starts. This week, we examine the Mountain West and the WAC.

Mountain West Prediction


Mountain West: Muy Interesante



WAC Prediction


WAC: Muy Interesante



Which Utah Team is Better? 2004 or 2008

The long and arduous offseason is an excellent time to reflect on the season that was. 2008 was unique in that it ended with a team from outside the 6 BCS leagues ranked as high as #2 in the nation in some polls. The Utah Utes finished the season 13-0 with a victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. 4 season earlier, Utah also finished undefeated (12-0) with a victory over Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl. Which Utah team was better? Let's break it down by the numbers and decide. We'll start with SDPI. I won't go into detail explaining it again, as there are numerous posts on this blog dealing with the subject. Here are the yardage SDPI rankings (Mountain West games only) for Utah in 2004 and 2008.The 2004 version of the Utes was stronger than the 2008 version against their conference brethren. In 2004, the team with the second highest SDPI in the league was BYU. Their rating of 0.90 is more than 1 full standard deviation below Utah's. In 2008, Utah did not even have the best SDPI in the league. That honor belongs to the TCU Horned Frogs who posted an SDPI nearly double that of the Utes at 2.92. If you feel like reading my previous write-up of the Mountain West in 2008, the link is here. If we stopped here we would have to give a huge edge to 2004 Utah. But let's look at some other stats.

In 2004, Utah's 12 opponents finished with a combined record of 61-76. They faced only 4 teams that finished the season with winning records. None of those 4 teams (Texas A&M, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Pitt) finished better than 8-4. The 2008 team played 13 games, but one of those was against IAA Weber State. If we leave the Wildcats out of the equation, the 12 IA teams Utah played finished with a combined record of 78-73. Utah beat 6 teams that finished with winning records (Air Force, Oregon State, Colorado State, TCU, BYU, and Alabama), including 3 that finished with at least 10 wins (TCU, BYU, and Alabama). Here are teams that finished the season ranked in the t0p-25 that were beaten by Utah in 2004 and 2008.As you can see, the 2008 Utah team had a much tougher schedule and pulled some much bigger scalps. They defeated 2 legitimate top-10 teams, while the 2004 team beat one fringe top-25 team.

Another way to measure schedule strength is to look at 2nd order wins. 2nd order wins are wins by teams that you have beaten. Here are the 2nd order top-25 wins (teams that finished in the top-25) for both Utah teams.Both teams have 5 2nd order top-25 wins, but clearly again the heft belongs to the 2008 team. The 2008 team has 4 2nd order wins in the top-15, including a top-5 2nd order win, whereas the 2004 team has one solitary 2nd order win in the top-15. Here's a break down of the 2nd order wins. In 2004, Utah beat North Carolina, who upset later Miami. Utah also beat New Mexico and Texas A&M, who both went on to beat Texas Tech. They also beat Arizona, who upset their rival Arizona State. Finally, they defeated Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl. The Panthers had beaten Boston College earlier in the year. In 2008, Utah beat Oregon State, who had previously knocked off Southern Cal. They beat TCU, who had already defeated BYU and would go on to defeat Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl. Finally, in the Sugar Bowl, Utah upset Alabama, who had previously defeated both Georgia and Ole Miss.

Lastly, here are some sundry statistics.As you can see, the 2004 team was much more dominant, winning games by an average of 6 points per game more than the 2008 team. The 2008 team was involved in 5 games decided by 7 points or less, including 4 decided by 3 points or less. They won all 5. No team came closer than 14 points against the 2004 team. The 2004 team was much better offensively, with future number one pick Alex Smith running Urban Meyer's offense to perfection (it will never work in the SEC). The 2008 team was much better on defense with second round pick Paul Kruger causing nightmares for opposing offenses with a team-leading 7.5 sacks. The final column is Pythagorean Win %, which is calculated by dividing the square of the points scored by the sum of the squares of the points scored and points allowed (actually to the power of 2.37 to be exact). The Pythagorean Win % rewards better defenses, as you can by the small difference in winning percentage despite the large gap in point differential.

So who's better? Well, if you totally ignore schedule strength, the 2004 team is the pick. They were never challenged all season and were clearly the dominant force in the Mountain West. However, schedule strength is vital to correctly ranking teams. Going undefeated in the Sun Belt is nowhere near as difficult as going undefeated in the SEC. For that reason, I have to give the nod to the 2008 team. Despite possibly not being the best team in their conference, the fact that they beat 2 top-10 teams as well as a host of other solid teams is impossible to ignore. Perhaps if the BCS had given us what we really wanted, an Auburn/Utah Sugar Bowl in 2004, we might know just how good that Utah team was. Unfortunately, the Utes were matched up against the weakest BCS team from that season, and we can only wonder how sweet that Sugar Bowl could have been.


A Brief History of the WAC

If you pulled a Rip Van Winkle or Captain America and took a long nap or just chilled in suspended animation beginning in the fall of 1995 and just woke up a few minutes ago, lemme tell ya, the WAC you know is no more ;(

In 1995, the WAC consisted of 10 teams--Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii, New Mexico, San Diego State, Utah, UTEP, and Wyoming. Prior to the 1996 season, the WAC added 6 more teams (UNLV, TCU, Rice, SMU, Tulsa, and San Jose State) and split into two divisions. The conference hosted a championship game for three seasons (1996-1998), but by 1999, half the league had had enough. Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, UNLV, Utah, and Wyoming split to form the Mountain West. The remaining 8 teams soldiered on as the WAC, and prior to the 2000 season added Nevada to bring their membership to 9 teams. TCU bolted after the 2000 season, but the WAC, in perhaps their shrewdest manuever extended an invite to a relatively unknown program that played their home games on a blue field--Boise State. The WAC also added Louisiana Tech that season, givng them 10 teams. This formation lasted an eternity (4 seasons), but prior to the 2005 season, Rice, SMU, UTEP, and Tulsa left to join Conference USA. The WAC responded to this exodus by adding 3 teams from the dregs of IA football--Idaho, New Mexico State, and Utah State. This incarnation of the WAC will begin its 5th season of play shortly, thus making it the most stable version of the WAC in the last decade and a half. If you were scoring at home, only 2 teams remain from the 1995 version of the WAC (Fresno State and Hawaii).

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Twitter-ific Preview: Pac-10 and SEC

It's almost time, can you feel it? We're just a little more than 4 weeks away from kickoff of the 2009 college football season, so its time for my iron-clad predictions for each conference race. Since Twitter is all the rage with kids now, my predictions will come in scrumptuous, bite size blurbs. Rest asured though, a lot of thought, effort, and excel spreadsheets went into these predictons. After the predictions, I'll give you an interesting fact about each team you may not have known, followed by a short statistical prose about a player or team from the particular conference I happen to be previewing. Theres something for everyone here. If all you want is some nuggets of insight, you can be happily on your way, but if you want a more polished look at the conference feel free to stay and read the whole thing. I'm doing this Noah-style, as we'll go two-by-two until the season starts. This week, we examine the Pac-10 and SEC.

Pac-10 Prediction


Pac-10: Muy Interesante



SEC Prediction




SEC: Muy Interesante




Sgt Stroughter

Over the past three seasons, the Oregon State Beavers have acquitted themselves as the best team in the Pac-10 not named Southern Cal. The Beavers are 19-8 versus conference foes in that span, three games behind the Trojans and three games clear of Oregon and Cal. In addition, the Beavers are the only team to have beaten the Trojans twice in that same time period. One big reason for the Beaver's success has been the play of wide receiver Sammie Stroughter. I am now going to construct an argument, albeit, a potentially circumstantial and arbitrary one, identifying Stroughter as the most important member of the Oregon State offense. The following table lists the Oregon State cumulative team passing numbers from 2005 and 2006.Why is this important you ask? In 2005, Stroughter was a sophomore who rarely saw the field on offense. He caught only 5 passes all season and was used primarily as a punt and kickoff returner. As a junior in 2006, Stroughter emerged as a playmaker, catching 74 balls for 1293 yards. The team's passing as a whole also improved dramatically. The primary quarterback in both 2005 and 2006 was Matt Moore, who plays in the NFL. It's entirely possible Moore's improvement was simply the natural progression of an NFL-caliber player, but its hard to ignore the effect Stroughter's emergence had on the team's passing game. The next table lists the team passing numbers from 2007 and 2008.As a senior in 2007, Stroughter played in only four games and caught passes in only two (15 catches on the season). He was able to obtain a redshirt for a fifth season of eligibility. As a healthy fifth-year senior in 2008, Stroughter caught 70 passes and gained 1040 yards. Once again the team's passing fortunes improved with further contributions from Strougter. Just like in 05/06 there was no new quarterback in 07/08. Sean Canfield and Lyle Moevao split time in 2007, with Canfield throwing about twice the number of passes as Moevao. Both were terrible, sporting quarterback ratings of 106.38 for Canfield and 98.77 for Moevao. Both also played markedly better in 2008. Moevao took the majority of the snaps, and posted a quarterback rating of 128.41. In limited action, Canfield posted a rating of 155.78. Again, perhaps their improvement just happened to coincide with the return of Stroughter. Both men are back for their senior seasons in 2009. Keep an eye on how well they perform sans Stroughter. If they regress significantly, it will become increasingly difficult to decry the passing game's improvement with Stroughter as happenstance.


Revenge of the Smith

Know who was second in the SEC in rushing yards per game last season? Know who is the second-leading returning rusher in 2009? They're the same person. Michael Smith from Arkansas was second in the SEC in rushing yards per game last season (behind Knowshon Moreno) and was fourth overall in rushing yardage behind Moreno, Glen Coffee, and Charles Scott. Smith accomplished this feat despite missing two games (the season opener against Western Illinois and the finale against LSU) and playing for an Arkansas team that went only 5-7. Smith is overshadowed, not only because of his somewhat generic last name, but also because of those who came before him. In Smith's first two seasons at Arkansas, he backed up one of the most explosive running back duos in college football history--Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. In 2006 and 2007, McFadden and Jones combined for 5807 yards rushing and 47 touchdowns. While Smith won't come close to matching those prodigious numbers, but he would be a wise choice to snatch up for your collegiate fantasy football team and is a darkhorse contender for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the nation's top running back. Here are a few reasons why.

1. Despite having a reputation as a quarterback guru, running backs under Bobby Petrino have also posted some pretty good numbers. At Louisville in 2004, top-running back Eric Shelton gained 938 yards on the ground and scored 20 touchdowns. In 2005, top-runner Michael Bush gained 1143 yards and scored 23 touchdowns. Petrino used more of a committee approach in his first (2003) and last season (2006) at Louisville, but if Smith establishes himself as the go-to guy, Petrino will not be shy about giving him touches.

2. Arkansas should be better this season. Last season, Arkansas lost games by 35, 42, and 31 points (to Alabama, Texas, and Florida). Arkansas ran the ball an average of 27 times in those three games. In their other 9 games, the Hogs ran the ball an average of 33 times per game. Fewer blowout losses and more wins mean more runs, and more runs means more potential touches for Smith.

3. The passing game should be better. No offense to Casey Dick, but he wasn't exactly the prototypical quarterback Bobby Petrino desires. For his career, Dick completed about 55.6% of his passes, with 2008 his best season at 57.4%. At Louisville, Petrino's quarterbacks never completed fewer than 60.5% of their passes over an entire season. Stepping in to replace Dick is Ryan Mallet, the top-rated recruit from 2007, who began his career at Michigan. I'd wager any amount that Petrino is able to coax at worst a solid season, and potentially a great season, out of Mallet. And if opponents have to fear the passing game for the first time since the days of Clint Stoerner, that should open more lanes for Smith in the running game.

4. Smith has value as a receiver. No, he's not Reggie Bush, but Smith was second on the team in catches last season (32) and sixth in yards (298). From the looks of things, a lot of those were dump-offs from Dick, so he may see his catches drop, but with the defense likely concerned with bigger threats further down the field, he could see his yardage and touchdown totals increase.

If he can stay healthy, Michael Smith may just well be the best running back in the SEC in 2009.
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