Thursday, January 25, 2018

2017 Yards Per Play: ACC

The second conference up in our annual review is the ACC. Here are the ACC 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 ACC 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 2017 season, which teams in the ACC met this threshold? Here are the ACC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Clemson was the only team to significantly over or under-perform their respective YPP numbers. Clemson's Net YPP of 0.66 was drastically below their 2015 (+2.31) and 2016 (+1.59) numbers, yet the Tigers still managed to win their third straight ACC title and qualify for their third consecutive playoff. How did they do it? You can't blame close games, where the Tigers were 1-1 in conference play. Their in-conference turnover margin of +4 was also not very extreme. The place where Clemson excelled was non-offensive touchdowns. The Tigers scored four in ACC play and did not allow any. Most of those returns also came in crucial situations. The Tigers interception return against Virginia Tech came on a tipped pass in the fourth quarter after the Hokies got the ball back trailing by two touchdowns. That effectively ended the game. Their fumble return against Syracuse came in the second quarter with the Tigers trailing by a touchdown. It tied the game and allowed the Tigers to remain competitive despite their offensive struggles. Finally, their punt return against NC State tied the game early in the first quarter and ended up providing the winning margin in a game that all but wrapped up the division for the Tigers. In addition, outside of Florida State, the Atlantic Division was more competitive overall. This stiffer competition meant Clemson was not able to run up their efficiency margins as they had the previous two seasons.

A few weeks ago, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson announced he would be forgoing his senior season and entering the 2018 NFL Draft. Jackson had an illustrious career at Louisville, winning the Heisman Trophy in 2016, finishing as a finalist in 2017, and accounting for 119 touchdowns in less than three full seasons. Regardless of his performance in the NFL, Jackson will be remembered as one of the best college quarterbacks of all-time. However, when reviewing his career at Louisville, I get the feeling the Cardinals did not take full advantage of his talents.

Jackson started 33 games during his time at Louisville. The Cardinals won 22 of his starts. That’s not bad. Any number of schools would certainly ‘settle’ for winning two thirds of their games. However, outside of one historic home game a breakout bowl performance, Louisville never really beat any good teams during Jackson’s tenure. The following table lists the teams Louisville beat in games Jackson started. The table also lists the final record of those teams and their SRS ranking for that particular year.
Of the 20 FBS teams Louisville beat, eleven finished with a losing record. 18 finished with seven or fewer wins, and only Texas A&M and Florida State won at least eight games. Those 20 FBS teams had a cumulative record of 105-145. If we look at SRS as a proxy for team strength, only one vanquished FBS foe ranked in the top-ten and only three ranked in the top-30. Twelve finished with below average (i.e. worse than half of FBS) ratings.

I am not blaming Lamar Jackson for the dearth of Louisville’s team accomplishments. In fact, Jackson deserves great praise for a game that is not listed here. In his freshman season, Jackson began the annual rivalry game with Kentucky on the bench before rallying his team from a 21-0 deficit. If you want to blame someone, try Bobby Petrino. Fault him for not surrounding Jackson with enough talent, particularly on defense and along the offensive line, to take advantage of a transcendent talent.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Last week, we looked at how AAC 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 AAC 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, the AAC 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 had a record significantly different from their expected record. With nothing of note to write about there, let's move on to something a little more interesting.

On New Year’s Day, UCF defeated Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to wrap up an undefeated season. Some naysayers may speculate that Auburn lacked motivation in the game. And that is a valid point.  It was certainly business as usual for UCF with no outside distractions. The victory was notable since it marked just the fifth time since 2005 than a mid-major (non-BCS or Group of Five) team finished the regular and postseason without a loss. It also marked the first time any team accomplished that feat in the playoff era (since 2014). How does UCF stack up against those other four teams? I’m glad you asked. Let's dive into a quick and painless analysis of each team based on their in-conference YPP and APR numbers, their SRS, and how their wins stack up. Moving chronologically, we’ll begin with 2006 Boise State.
Surprisingly, the Broncos do not even rate as the best WAC team in terms of YPP. Hawaii had a ridiculous offense in 2006 (arguably better than the 2007 version) and despite their defensive shortcomings, they edged Boise in Net YPP. In APR Boise rated out ahead of their secluded conference mates. The SRS, which stands for Simple Rating System, is a quick and dirty way to rate college football teams based on margin of victory and strength of schedule. For more, check out this link. It is far from the final word on team ratings, but it a good measure of team strength. Boise’s rating implies they were about 14 and a half points better than the average FBS team on a neutral field and this number ranked tenth in 2006. I used top-50 SRS wins as a proxy for the good teams Boise beat and bottom-100 SRS wins as a proxy for the terrible teams they beat. As the table indicates, about a third of Boise’s wins came against either the very worst of FBS or an FCS team. This table and the ones to come do not make any distinction between FCS team ratings and lump them in with the FBS chaff. Prior to beating a good, but hardly great Oklahoma team in a riveting Fiesta Bowl, Boise’s best wins came at home against Hawaii and Oregon State. The Broncos did garner a pair of solid road wins and their five top-50 wins is not a bad showing.

In 2007, Hawaii finished the regular season unbeaten, but were humbled in the Sugar Bowl by an SEC team. In 2008, another unbeaten mid-major returned to the Sugar Bowl to face an SEC power, but the results were a little different.
YPP and APR crown TCU as the Mountain West’s best team in 2008, but Utah beat them on the field in a low-scoring Thursday night classic. The win against the Horned Frogs was their fifth of the season that came by a touchdown or less. Many, myself included, thought that clutch play would evaporate when the Utes faced the Crimson Tide, but Utah jumped out to a 21-0 lead and held the Tide at bay when they cut the deficit to four points in the second half. Outside of Alabama, the Utes beat three top-50 teams in the regular season, including another top-ten team in the aforementioned Horned Frogs. The Mountain West was the strongest mid-major conference in 2008, but it still featured a few lightweights, with two teams ranking in the triple digits. Utah did not win a single true road game against a top-50 opponent, but you can’t blame them for not trying. They opened the year in Ann Arbor against Michigan, but the Wolverines went just 3-9 and also lost at home to Toledo.

In 2009, a pair of mid-majors finished the regular season unbeaten. In the Fiesta Bowl, Boise State and TCU faced off with the Broncos scoring an upset win.
Unlike 2006, the Broncos rated out as the top WAC team by both YPP and APR. Only Nevada, with Colin Kaepernick befuddling defenses with The Pistol, prevented the Broncos from sweeping the statistical accolades in the WAC. The Broncos opened the 2009 season with a home win against an Oregon team that would end up winning the Pac-10, but did not face another team inside the top-50 until their bowl game with TCU. The Broncos only faced four truly terrible teams, but a down year in the WAC meant there were no additional opportunities for marquee wins. Thankfully for the Broncos, their reputation preceded them. Memories of their undefeated 2006 season and dramatic victory against Oklahoma plus their undefeated 2008 regular season were fresh in the minds of voters. Otherwise, they may not have gotten a shot to prove how good they were against TCU.

After losing three total games in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, TCU finally completed a season with a zero in the loss column. In the process, they snagged a bid to the Rose Bowl and finished ranked second in the final AP Poll.
TCU swept the statistical honors in the Mountain West, finishing with the best offense and defense by both YPP and APR. The Mountain West was strong once again in 2010, and this certainly contributed to TCU’s high finish in the polls, with three teams ranking in the SRS top-40. The Horned Frogs also had a sneaky good win in non-conference play against Oregon State. The Beavers may have finished 5-7, but four of their seven losses came against Boise State, Oregon, Stanford, and TCU (all teams that finished in the AP and SRS top-ten). However, even with their Rose Bowl victory against Wisconsin, the Horned Frogs did not beat a single SRS top-ten team.

Following TCU’s victory in the Rose Bowl, there was a dry spell for mid-majors. Part of that is because two formerly unbeaten mid-majors (TCU and Utah) got called up to the big leagues, joining the Big 12 and Pac-12 respectively. There were a few near misses, as Boise finished with one loss in 2011 (in agonizing fashion to TCU), UCF lost a single game in 2013 (though the Knights were technically in a BCS conference), Houston lost to Connecticut in 2015, and Western Michigan lost their bowl game to Wisconsin in 2016. However, UCF finally broke through with an undefeated campaign in 2017.
Memphis did edge UCF in Net YPP thanks to a slightly better defense, but the Knights beat the Tigers on the field twice, so there’s that. Their victories against the Tigers were their best wins until the bowl tilt with a top-ten Auburn team. The Knights did miss out on another potential quality win as their game with Georgia Tech (39th in the SRS) was canceled due to weather issues. Even without that game, the Knights stack up favorably wins wise with the other mid-majors on our list.

So which mid-major was the best? I’d be inclined to favor the 2010 version of TCU thanks to their dominance of a solid Mountain West (that Net YPP above three is hard to ignore). Still, you wouldn’t be remiss in pointing out that while they did have some good wins, they did not really beat any elite competition.

And finally, before we go, I just want to include the most recent unbeaten power conference (BCS or Power Five) team. Florida State ran roughshod over their schedule on the way to a national title in 2013, but there wasn’t a great deal of heft on it.
Florida State’s Net YPP, APR, and SRS numbers are phenomenal, but look at those wins. Prior to the ACC Championship Game, they had just three top-50 wins, with their victory against a down Florida team barely qualifying. They didn’t beat a top-ten team until the bowl game, yet I don’t recall hearing anyone wanting to exclude Florida State from what was then a playoff featuring only two teams. Unlike the unbeaten mid-majors, Florida State only faced a pair of truly awful teams, but outside of name recognition, was Florida State's 2013 schedule that much different than UCF's?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

2017 Yards Per Play: AAC

Another college football season has come and gone. The long, dark offseason is here. But don't fret too much. I'll be here to help you kill a little time over the next 20 weeks as each FBS conference gets the Yards Per Play (YPP) and Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR) treatment. That will get us into May, when football is still a long way off, but at least the sun shines more. We'll take our sojourn alphabetically as we have for the past two years. That means we begin with the home of the current national champion, the American Athletic Conference.

Here are the AAC 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 AAC 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 2017 season, which teams in the American Athletic Conference met this threshold? Here are AAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
East Carolina was the only AAC team that saw their expected record differ significantly from their actual record. The Pirates were bad in 2017; by both their record and per-play numbers, but a team with the Pirates appalling overall statistics does not usually manage to win a quarter of their conference games. The Pirates played well in exactly one conference game, when they hammered Cincinnati at home in their penultimate game. In the contest, they averaged nearly two more yards per play than the Bearcats. That result would prove to be an outlier as any hope for closing the season strong evaporated the next week when Memphis hung 70 on them. All told, of East Carolina’s six conference losses, three came by at least 30 points, five came by at least 24 points, and only one came by single digits. The cumulative effect of those losses mitigated their one strong performance.

I know this is a retrospective of the American Athletic Conference for 2017, but this portion of the post will only be tangentially related to the AAC. I’ll be more AAC-centric next week, I promise.

Arkansas made what I thought was an interesting hire in poaching Chad Morris from SMU and I wanted to address it. Is hiring Morris a good move for Arkansas, and perhaps even more importantly, is going to Arkansas a good move for Morris?

Chad Morris’ career record at SMU hardly stands out. In three full seasons, his teams managed just a 14-22 mark. His record in conference play was even worse at 8-16. Devoid of context, that does not sound like a record that will net you a Power Five job. Of course, context matters, and Morris was taking over a team that won just one game the season before he arrived. The Mustangs improved each season under his tutelage, going from two wins in his first season, to five in his second, to seven in his third. Obviously, within this framework, Chad Morris appears to be a solid hire as he raised the SMU program from the depths of college football to be a competitive team in the premiere mid-major conference. Of course, SMU was also in pretty bad shape when Morris’ predecessor took over.

June Jones also took over an SMU team that won just a single game the year before he arrived. In addition, the Mustangs had posted just one winning season since returning from their NCAA-mandated death penalty in 1989. You can make a cogent argument that Jones was stepping into a more hopeless situation. And if you look at the numbers, he did better than Morris in terms of resurrecting the program, particularly in conference play.
SMU may have finished just 7-7 in Jones’ third season, but they won their division and played for the conference title. Even when the program was leaking oil at the end of his tenure, his final three seasons were comparable record-wise in the aggregate to the three Morris spent in Dallas.
Morris did coach in a tougher conference, but the Conference USA Jones coached in was better than the current iteration of Conference USA. Lest we forget, seven current members of the AAC came from Conference USA in 2013. My point is, Morris' rebuilding project is hardly unique in college football, especially when compared to his predecessor.

Let’s drill down a little more into Morris’ three years at SMU. Where did his teams excel? Where did they struggle? Here are the conference YPP and APR numbers for each of his three teams.
It’s pretty clear what side of the ball prevented SMU from winning more games in the AAC. His offenses improved each season and his final offense was the best in the AAC outside of Orlando and Memphis. The defense on the other hand…Put it this way, the next average defense Morris fields will be his first. His initial SMU team allowed over 45 points per game. His second team improved because it would be hard to be much worse, but still allowed over 36 points per game and his final team once again allowed over 36 points per game. If Morris were simply the offensive coordinator as he was at Clemson, this would not be any of his concern, but as head coach, it is his responsibility to recruit competent defensive players and hire coaches who can put them in position to succeed. He has not proven thus far that he is capable of doing that. And speaking of defense, care to guess what side of the football Arkansas needs the most help on?
It’s uncanny how bad Arkansas’ defense has been under Bret Bielema, especially the past two seasons. Allowing over seven yards per play in two consecutive seasons is quite an accomplishment. I guess we need to give Bert credit for somehow dragging the 2016 team to a bowl game. So Arkansas, with tremendous defensive deficiencies, hired an offensive-minded coach with a track record for bad defenses. What could go wrong?

Morris appears to understand what held his SMU teams back as Arkansas recently hired esteemed SEC defensive coordinator John Chavis. Chavis has been with the conference since Tulane and Sewanee were members and he has coordinated some fantastic defenses (most notably LSU in 2011), but his career that encompasses the YPP and APR era is a mixed bag.
Chavis has never put a terrible defense on the field, but his last few years at LSU and his tenure at Texas A&M reeked of mediocrity. I know mediocrity in the SEC is above-average nationally, but it makes sense to compare Chavis to his conference peers especially since he is moving to a school that does not recruit as well as his previous three stops. And speaking of recruiting...

I am also confused why Morris would want to go to Arkansas (other than the obvious reason of exorbitant sums of money). By taking the Arkansas job, Morris has assured that he will be coaching a team that talent-wise is optimistically fifth best in the SEC West. Let’s give Morris the benefit of the doubt and assume he can out-recruit Ole Miss and Mississippi State. He still has to contend with Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Texas A&M every season. Do you really want to push that boulder year after year? I think hanging out in the AAC West until a better job opened up would be a superior course of action. Morris did have to deal with recruiting to a private school, but two other schools in the division (Tulane and Tulsa) have the same issues and another is a military academy (Navy). Houston and Memphis are the only large public schools in the division and both could potentially lose their head coaches in the next few years, giving Morris the advantage of stability at SMU.

I think Arkansas reached on a coach with a bad defensive track record coming off a rebuilding job that is not as impressive as it appears on the surface. I think Morris could have held out for a better job that did not include sharing a division with four perennial top-twenty teams. I’ve been wrong before (once or twice), but I don’t think this marriage is built to last.