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.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

2016 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Conference USA

Last week, we looked at how Conference USA 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 2016 Conference USA standings.
And here are the APR standings sorted by division with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, Conference USA teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine if teams drastically over or under perform their APR. By that standard, no team owned a record significantly different from their APR. Even though no teams deviated from their APR substantially, one team in particular drastically under performed what was expected of them in the preseason. From 2013-2015, the Marshall Thundering Herd went 20-4 in Conference USA games, won a pair of division titles, and captured the 2014 league championship (while managing a finish in the final polls). Most people, including myself, expected Marshall to once again compete for a division title in 2016. However, the Herd collapsed and finished (tied with Florida Atlantic) in the basement of the East division. In terms of their play on the field, the Herd were not particularly unlucky either. Their YPP and APR numbers befitted a team that struggled to win games. Now the question is, does Doc Holliday have a rebound in store? Holliday has already turned the Marshall program around once before, posting a 33-8 record from his fourth through sixth season after managing a middling 17-20 record over his first three seasons in charge. However, the 3-9 record Marshall compiled last season was by far the worst of his tenure and the worst for the program since 2007, so perhaps Holliday’s days are numbered in Huntington.

To get an idea of what we can reasonably expect from Marshall in 2017, I looked at all mid-major (non-BCS and Group of Five teams) that saw their conference win total decline by at least four games from one season to the next (Marshall fell from 6-2 to 2-6) and looked at how they did in conference play in the season following their collapse. This query yielded a relatively large sample of teams (25) and the results are summarized in the following table.
If I was a Marshall fan, I would have some guarded optimism based on these results. For the best case scenario, Marshall could look west to the Air Force Academy. After six consecutive bowl appearances under Troy Calhoun, the Falcons cratered to a winless Mountain West season in 2013. However, Calhoun was able to pull the Falcons out of their tailspin and has taken them to three straight bowl games. Worst case scenario is probably Tulsa or North Texas. Tulsa began the Bill Blankenship era with fourteen conference wins over two seasons, but slumped to 2-6 in his third year. The Golden Hurricane did not improve in his fourth season and he was not granted a fifth. Over in Denton, Texas, Dan McCarney slowly built North Texas into a bowl team by his third season. The Mean Green came crashing back to earth in his fourth season and his fifth season began with five consecutive losses before he was relieved of his duties.

Those cases represent the extremes. The average team improved by almost exactly two games in conference play. Such theoretical improvement would get the Thundering Herd to 4-4 in league play and have them in contention for a bowl bid. Whether or not that is enough to save Holliday’s job is another story. For a team that was recently competing for division and conference titles, it may not be.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

2016 Yards Per Play: Conference USA

Four conferences down, six to go. We are almost halfway home. This week we examine Conference USA. Here are the Conference USA 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 Conference USA 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 Conference USA teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
The only Conference USA team that saw their expected record differ significantly from their actual record was Rice. This is a bit misleading as Rice posted absolutely abysmal defensive numbers through their first six conference games. The Owls allowed an average of 8.64 yards per play and 41.5 points per game during their 0-6 start, but rebounded to hold Charlotte and UTEP to under five yards per play each and 45 total points. The regression analysis sees the poor numbers Rice put up over the course of the season and actually believes they should have won fewer than zero games.
'The Gambletron 2000 says the winner is...Cincinnati by 200 points' 

As you may have heard, the two Florida schools in Conference USA made big splashes in their offseason coaching hires. FAU hired Cartman-lookalike and the poster child for nepotism, Lane Kiffin, while FIU hired the most successful coach the Cleveland Browns have had since they returned to the NFL, Butch Davis. Most of the banal talking heads and even the statistically inclined internet cognoscenti believed these to be good hires. If you’ll allow it, I want to make a few contrarian arguments in the paragraphs that follow. Here’s why I don’t necessarily think Kiffin and Davis will succeed at their new locales.

1. FAU and FIU were not particularly good last season. This is not too much of a surprise since both schools parted ways with their head coaches. To be fair, teams improve all the time and a school going from a handful of wins to bowl eligibility in one season would not be extremely shocking, but both the Owls and Panthers were decidedly below average by Conference USA standards last season. While FAU did post solid offensive numbers, both defenses were poor and neither team was particularly unlucky in regards to their final record. In fact, FIU was actually a bit lucky to finish 4-4 in league play despite a negative per play differential.

2. Kiffin and Davis are not used to being underdogs. In his college coaching career, Lane Kiffin has been a head coach at Tennessee and Southern Cal. He has also famously (or infamously) been an assistant at Alabama. Neither of those schools qualifies as an underdog. He was a graduate assistant at Colorado State in 1999, but that is his only experience at a mid-major school. Butch Davis has been a college head coach at Miami and North Carolina. He has also been an assistant at Oklahoma State. North Carolina and Oklahoma State were not college football blue bloods (no pun intended) when he was there, but they were not mid-major programs either. In other words, Kiffin and Davis don’t a lot of experience, especially recent experience, of being one of the have-nots of college football. Speaking of…

3. Many of their coaching brethren in Conference USA do have experience guiding mid-major programs. Rick Stockstill, head coach of Middle Tennessee State, has been with the Blue Raiders for eleven seasons and while his overall record of 72-66 may not get him into the College Football Hall of Fame, he is 54-31 against conference opponents (i.e. teams with similar resources) over that span. Doc Holliday has been the head coach of Marshal for seven seasons and while the Herd collapsed last season, he still boasts a career record of 53-37 and 35-21 against conference opponents. Over at Old Dominion, Bobby Wilder has been the head coach since the program’s (re)inception and has had just a single losing season while guiding the program from birth through FCS to FBS. Even Charlotte, a start-up that has yet to taste great success in FBS, will have Brad Lambert on the sidelines for a fifth consecutive season. Recruiting and developing players is different at the mid-major level and with the exception of Western Kentucky, which has been the most successful Conference USA program over the past three seasons, every division opponent has a head coach with vastly more experience at the lower levels of college football.

4. Lest we forget, Kiffin and Davis did not exactly engineer fantastic finishes at their previous stops. In Kiffin’s four-plus seasons at Tennessee and Southern Cal, his teams finished ranked only once and his career conference record was just 17-12. I know Southern Cal was in the midst of a sanction-palooza, but it should be noted that Ed Orgeron took the Southern Cal team Lane bequeathed him with an 0-2 conference start and guided them to six wins in their final seven conference games. Davis never finished better than 4-4 in ACC play at North Carolina and finished his four years with a pedestrian 15-17 record against conference opponents. While this was an improvement over the John Bunting era, keep in mind the ACC was not a national player during his tenure. Remember 2008 when practically the whole conference went either 5-3 or 4-4? The overlords in Tallahassee were wheezing in the final years of Bobby Bowden’s tenure and Clemson had yet to assume their national standing. The Seminoles and Tigers occupied a different division so the only true national threat in the conference at that time was division-mate Virginia Tech. Even in a watered down ACC, Davis never managed better than a third place division finish.

5. This one applies only to Butch, but if Wikipedia is to be believed, Mr. Davis will turn 66 during the 2017 regular season. At a time when most Americans are settling in for the slow march to death to watch Wheel of Fortune, Davis will be working long hours in a highly stressful profession. A few years ago, I read Game Plan : A Radical Approach to Decision Making in the National Football League by Frank Dupont. It's a good book and an easy read, so if you are interested, I recommend checking it out. Anyway, one of the chapters in the book discusses how humans lose certain mental abilities as they age. To show that NFL coaches are not immune to this phenomenon, he compared each coach's winning percentage throughout their career to the winning percentage in their best season and concludes that coaches decline beginning around age 51. He then looked at every coach who coached a minimum of four seasons and calculated the average winning percentage at each age. Once again, the results showed a decline as coaches age. Per Mr. Dupont:
'The 50 year old coaches won over 55% of their games whereas the 60 year old coaches won about 42% of their games.'
He goes on to reference some scientific studies showing that while overall knowledge does not decrease until an advanced age, things like processing speed and reasoning begin declining when humans are in their late 20s. The game of football moves very fast, and a decline in processing speed or reasoning could negatively impact a coach's decisions. I'm not suggesting Davis will be drooling on the FIU sidelines, but he will be matching wits with men who are much younger than him. Dupont's research focused on NFL coaches, but the same general idea applies to college coaches as well. And while there are some successful old coaches such as Bill Snyder and Nick Saban, it should be noted that Snyder's second tenure at Kansas State has not been as successful as his first and for all the accolades Saban receives, he does have a few structural advantages at Alabama.

What is an approximation of success for Kiffin and Davis? Is it a bowl game? A winning record? A conference title? A top-25 appearance? A New Year's Six Bowl? If the bar to clear is a bowl game, I think both Kiffin and Davis can get there at least once, but if success means a conference title, I would be be inclined to bet against it.

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

2016 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Big 12

Last week, we looked at how Big 12 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 2016 Big 12 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, the Big 12 teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine if teams drastically over or under perform their APR. By that standard, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State outperformed their APR and Texas underperformed. The culprit in all three instances is pretty easy to identify: close game record. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State combined to go 6-0 in one-score conference games (3-0 each) and Texas finished with a 2-4 in such games. If one or two of those losses had flipped in favor of the Longhorns (particularly the Kansas game), perhaps Charlie Strong would have gotten one more season in Austin.

This will come as a shock to no one, but Oklahoma had a pretty good offense in 2016. The Sooners led the Big 12 in yards per play and offensive touchdowns while averaging a sterling 43.9 points per game. Of course, the Big 12 has a reputation as a laissez-faire, defense optional conference, so most would expect the Sooners to put up a lot of yards, touchdowns, and points. How good was the Oklahoma offense compared to other recent Big 12 offensive juggernauts? Glad you asked. I have compiled APR data back through the 2005 season, so without further ado, I give you the top-five Big 12 offenses by sorted by offensive touchdowns scored in conference games.
Since Big 12 teams have played nine conference games since 2011 (and eight before that) we have to level the playing field by counting offensive touchdowns per game instead of raw offensive touchdown totals. Still, the recent incarnation of Oklahoma was pretty strong. Baker Mayfield, Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine, and Dede Westbrook were the leaders of a dynamic offense. The other offenses on this list are equally regarded. The 2008 version of Oklahoma scored more than 50 points nine times in fourteen games and allowed quarterback Sam Bradford to be sacked just twelve times all season. Texas won the national title in 2005 behind the play of Vince Young. Texas Tech enjoyed perhaps their finest season in school history in 2008 complete with an epic win against Texas courtesy of Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell. Oklahoma State nearly played for the national championship in 2011 with Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon shredding Big 12 defenses. And finally, Oklahoma circa 2015 was not too bad either. The Sooners rebounded from a disappointing 2014 and qualified for the second College Football Playoff with many of the same skill players who would lead the 2016 team.

But wait you say. What about those Baylor offenses from a few years ago? Where do they rank? With that in mind, let’s adjust these numbers a bit. Instead of ranking the teams by the offensive touchdowns they averaged per game, let’s take that average and see how it compared to the environment they played in. Standard deviation can tell us how far above or below average something is. With that in mind, here are the top-five Big 12 offenses sorted by the number of standard deviations above average they were in terms of offensive touchdowns per game.
Once we factor the environment in, Vince Young’s Texas squad rises to the top. Sam Bradford and company played in a more wide open Big 12 where each team averaged more than an additional touchdown per game. Once we adjust for environment, a two Baylor teams join the party. However, it is interesting to note that neither one of these teams was quarterbacked by Robert Griffin. This past year’s version of Oklahoma remains on the list and can therefore make a claim to being the third best Big 12 offense of the last twelve years. They are a notch below 2005 Texas and 2008 Oklahoma, but the 2016 Sooners were a historically great offense.