## Wednesday, March 22, 2017

### 2016 Yards Per Play: MAC

Our sojourn through the 2016 FBS conferences brings us to the MAC. What went down in 2016? First, here are the MAC 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 MAC team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by division by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games. Consequently, their record in such a small sample may not be indicative of their quality of play. A few fortuitous bounces here or there can be the difference between another ho-hum campaign or a special season. Randomness and other factors outside of our perception play a role in determining the standings. It would be fantastic if college football teams played 100 or even 1000 games. Then we could have a better idea about which teams were really the best. Alas, players would miss too much class time, their bodies would be battered beyond recognition, and I would never leave the couch. As it is, we have to make do with the handful of games teams do play. In those games, we can learn a lot from a team’s YPP. Since 2005, I have collected YPP data for every conference. I use conference games only because teams play such divergent non-conference schedules and the teams within a conference tend to be of similar quality. By running a regression analysis between a team’s Net YPP (the difference between their Yards Per Play and Yards Per Play Allowed) and their conference winning percentage, we can see if Net YPP is a decent predictor of a team’s record. Spoiler alert. It is. For the statistically inclined, the correlation coefficient between a team’s Net YPP in conference play and their conference record is around .66. Since Net YPP is a solid predictor of a team’s conference record, we can use it to identify which teams had a significant disparity between their conference record as predicted by Net YPP and their actual conference record. I used a difference of .200 between predicted and actual winning percentage as the threshold for ‘significant’. Why .200? It is a little arbitrary, but .200 corresponds to a difference of 1.6 games over an eight game conference schedule and 1.8 games over a nine game one. Over or under-performing by more than a game and a half in a small sample seems significant to me. In the 2016 season, which teams in the Big 10 met this threshold? Here are the MAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Three MAC teams saw their expected record differ significantly from their actual record. Western Michigan finished significantly better than would be expected based on their YPP while Kent State and Buffalo finished significantly worse. Western Michigan doesn’t need to thank the close game gods for their unblemished MAC record as the Broncos did not have a single conference game decided by fewer than two touchdowns (until the conference title game of course). No, the Broncos can thank a fantastic turnover margin (second in the MAC at +11 in conference play). Western Michigan was quite good (obviously) in 2016, but their defense was only about average by MAC standards so while they won games by a healthy margin, their per play differential was not quite up to the standards of most teams that go undefeated. As for the teams that underperformed, Kent State is an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, the Golden Flashes were 1-3 in one-score conference games. On the other hand, they boasted the best in-conference turnover margin (+12) of MAC teams. Let’s lay the blame at the feet of an offense that struggled mightily. Case in point, Kent State lost conference games where they allowed fourteen (Ohio) and eighteen (Miami) points respectively. And what about Buffalo? The Bulls can’t blame close games as they only played one (which they lost) nor turnover margin where they were a middling, but hardly terrible -4 in MAC play. No, the Bulls underperformed thanks to one amazing, out of nowhere game. On a Thursday night in late October, Buffalo crushed Akron 41-20. In that game, the Bulls averaged over eight yards per play and held the Zips to under four yards per play. The Bulls entered that game 0-3 in MAC play and would lose their final four conference games afterward. In fact, if we pretend an early Nor’easter blew into Buffalo and caused that game to be canceled, Buffalo looks much more like a team that only managed a single conference win. Outside of the Akron game, Buffalo averaged just 5.12 yards per play against MAC opponents. That would have been worse than the league’s worst offense Kent State. Outside of the Akron game, Buffalo allowed 6.71 yards per play to MAC opponents. The Bulls still would not have surpassed Ball State as the worst in-conference defense, but they would have been much closer. Outside of the Akron game, Buffalo average 1.59 fewer yards per play than their conference opponents. This number would have been more than a half yard worse per play than Ball State. The Bulls can thank Akron that on average over eight games, they looked like a bad team instead of a terrible one.

Western Michigan finished unbeaten in MAC play in 2016, becoming the seventh team to accomplish that feat since 2005. Since I have YPP and APR data going back that far, I decided to compare the Broncos to the other six MAC unbeaten and see where they stack up. First up, here are the YPP numbers for every unbeaten MAC team.
Every unbeaten MAC team except Kent State in their Cinderella run in 2012 led the conference in yards per play. Four of the seven teams averaged at least seven yards per play and every team averaged more than six. While the Broncos featured one of the best offenses the MAC has seen in the last dozen years, their defense was not really up to par. Their yards allowed per play was by far the worst among unbeaten MAC teams and their resulting Net Yards Per Play only ranked ahead of Kent State. Speaking of Kent State, the Golden Flashes are the only team to not have a Net Yards Per Play greater than 1.00. Now let’s look at the APR numbers.
Every unbeaten team except Kent State finished first in offensive touchdowns. Western Michigan rates well here as five of the seven teams scored at least 40 offensive touchdowns over the course of their MAC schedules. Defensively, Western Michigan did a great job of bending, but not breaking. Despite allowing nearly six yards per play to MAC offenses, the Broncos only allowed their opponents to score 17 touchdowns. Kent State is the only unbeaten team that allowed more than 20 touchdowns to their conference foes. Finally, when we look at expected APR the Broncos join four other MAC teams with an expected win total greater than seven. Once again, Kent State is the extreme outlier, as they would have been expected to win fewer than six conference games based on the touchdowns they scored and allowed.

It would be irresponsible if I didn’t note that four of the seven unbeaten MAC teams actually lost in the MAC Championship Game. Of course, the 2012 game matched up a pair of unbeaten teams so one had to lose and in 2013, Bowling Green actually rated higher than Northern Illinois in yards per play and APR despite entering the game as an underdog. Still, Ball State in 2008 and Northern Illinois in 2010 lost as heavy favorites and Western Michigan nearly followed suite in 2016. All told, when excluding the 2012 game that matched up two teams with unblemished records, unbeaten MAC teams are 2-3 straight up and 0-5 against the spread!

This probably won’t surprise you, but a lot of those unbeaten MAC schools ended up losing their head coaches after their historic seasons. In fact, they all did except one. Not to be a buzzkill for Western Michigan fans, but this next table shows how each unbeaten team did in their follow up season. Teams with new head coaches are highlighted.
Teams not located in Dekalb, Illinois suffered significant drop-offs after their unbeaten seasons. Western Michigan is not doomed to a losing season in 2017, but I wouldn’t be prepared for a repeat either.