Thursday, February 28, 2019

2018 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 2018 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 with the championship game excluded.
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.
Using one and a half games as a benchmark for under or over-performing relative to APR, TCU and Oklahoma were the Big 12 teams that significantly exceeded their expected record in 2018. Texas almost hit the mark and they were the lone team to significantly exceed their expected record based on YPP. We touched on a few reasons why last week, so I won't rehash that here. For TCU and Oklahoma, their problems were on opposite sides of the ball. TCU, as they always do under Gary Patterson, had an above-average Big 12 defense, but the worst offense (touchdown-wise) in the conference. Meanwhile, Oklahoma moved the ball at will, but could not stop anyone, scoring and allowing the most touchdowns in Big 12 play. Both teams were able to exceed their APR thanks to solid records in close games. TCU went 4-2 in one score-conference games while Oklahoma was 3-1 in such contests.

The Hrned Frgs Lost Their 'O'
I had to look twice while calculating the Big 12 APR data to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake. I could not believe that TCU ranked ninth in the conference and just ahead of lowly Kansas. But, as usual, my math checked out and if you watched any of the Cheez-It Bowl, you know why TCU ranked so low. The Horned Frogs scored just seventeen offensive touchdowns in Big 12 play. That means they averaged less than two offensive touchdowns per game over the course of their conference campaign. The Big 12 has a reputation as a defense optional conference so, how bad was TCU’s offensive performance in a historical Big 12 context? Glad you asked. The table below lists every Big 12 offense that averaged two or less offensive touchdowns per game in conference play since 2005. Spoiler alert: You’ll find a lot of Kansas entries on this list.
Since 2005, seventeen Big 12 teams have averaged two or less offensive touchdowns per game and eight of those teams have been headquartered in Lawrence, Kansas. While it is not quite as impressive as their Big 12 title streak in basketball, the Jayhawks did somehow average two or less offensive touchdowns for six straight seasons of Big 12 play before finding a modicum of offensive success in 2018.

Looking at touchdowns per game is one way of ranking these poor offenses, but we can also look at how consistent they were and what their best offensive performance was. I have recreated the previous table with two additional columns. The first lists the number of conference games where the team was held to one or zero offensive touchdowns and the second lists the most offensive touchdowns the team managed in any conference game that season.
I would like to direct your attention to two teams that really stand out: Baylor circa 2009 and Kansas in 2010. In 2009, sophomore Robert Griffin began the season at quarterback for Baylor. He was injured in their third game (a victory against Northwestern State), but even in his absence, the Bears finished non-conference play 3-1 and had designs on their first bowl bid since 1994. However, the Bears lost their first four conference games while scoring just 34 total points. Then miraculously, their offense exploded in a road trip at Missouri. The Bears scored 40 points and managed five offensive touchdowns in a shocking win. Alas, their offensive firepower was a mirage and the Bears scored just 30 total points in losing their last three games. Outside of that offensive explosion against Missouri, Baylor did not score more than one offensive touchdown in any of their other seven conference games.

Kansas opened the Turner Gill era in 2010 by scoring three points in a loss at home to North Dakota State. They rebounded to beat a ranked Georgia Tech team the next weekend and split their remaining two non-conference games against Southern Miss and New Mexico State. At 2-2, a bowl game was an unlikely proposition, but the Jayhawks had posted at least five wins in six of the seven previous seasons, so few could have predicted the depths to which the program would sink. Kansas opened conference play losing their first four games while failing to score more than 16 points in any one. They looked to be well on their way to a fifth straight loss as they trailed Colorado 45-17 at home early in the fourth quarter. Then suddenly, without warning, the offense found its rhythm. The Jayhawks scored five touchdowns in twelve minutes (four offensive and one fumble return) to shock the Buffaloes. The Jayhawks used the momentum they generated there to score 24 total points over their last three games. The Colorado game, especially the fourth quarter was an amazing outlier performance. In that fourth quarter, the Jayhawks scored four offensive touchdowns. In the other 31 quarters they played against Big 12 opponents that season, the Jayhawks scored nine offensive touchdowns.

Doing research, uncovering surprising statistics, and recalling events that had escaped my memory are the reasons I continue to run this blog. Baylor and Kansas were two bad and unremarkable teams, but their performances in one game and one quarter respectively were truly amazing, especially considering how those teams played the rest of the season. I’m not sure if he was the first to say it, as he may have only popularized it during his stint on ESPN, but Lou Holtz was fond of the adage ‘The kids on the other team are on scholarship too’. Baylor and Kansas are stark reminders that even bad teams have gifted athletes that are capable of remarkable performances.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

2018 Yards Per Play: Big 12

Three conferences down, seven to go. Next up, the Big 12.

Here are the Big 12 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 Big 12 team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted 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 2018 season, which teams in the Big 12 met this threshold? Here are Big 12 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Texas was the only Big 12 team that saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record based on YPP. The Longhorns did have the best in-conference turnover margin in the Big 12, but it was hardly historic (+9). Texas was able to qualify for the Big 12 Championship Game thanks to some good fortune in close games. Seven of their nine conference games were decided by a touchdown or less, and the Longhorns won five of them. They won close games against good teams (Oklahoma), bad teams (Kansas), and everything in between (TCU).

Miles to Go
To no one’s surprise, Kansas was recently again in the market for a new football coach. To the surprise of some, the Jayhawks were able to coax former Oklahoma State and LSU coach Les Miles to take the job. Miles may not be the most tactically gifted football coach in history, but he does have a national championship on his resume. For a school that has spent the last decade as the worst BCS/Power Five program, that was quite a (public relations) coup. But what can Kansas fans reasonably expect from Miles? Have other national championship winning coaches been able to duplicate their success at a new locale? To answer that question, I looked at all FBS coaching hires since 1984 (what I deem the ‘modern era’) where the coach had at least one national championship at the FBS level. This means we are excluding coaches like Craig Bohl and Lance Leipold who won titles at lower levels before becoming FBS head coaches. By my count there are twelve head coaches (including Miles) that have been hired to lead FBS programs while having a national title on their resume. The other eleven are listed below along with their record at their new jobs.
That’s a pretty eclectic group of coaches. Let’s go through them one-by-one.

Larry Coker – Coker won the 2001 national title at Miami and nearly won a second in 2002. Diminishing returns led to his ouster after the 2006 season, but he returned to coaching at Texas-San Antonio and helped start the program from scratch. In four seasons of play at the FBS level, Coker guided the Roadrunners to two winning seasons and a 22-26 overall record.

Dennis Erickson – Erickson started his college head coaching career out west, leading Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington State before getting the Miami job. He won or shared two national titles at Miami before heading back to the west coast to take the Seattle Seahawks job. His teams in Seattle were the epitome of mediocrity, accumulating a 31-33 record over four seasons. He returned to college in 1999, finishing the rebuild Mike Riley began at Oregon State. The Beavers made three bowl appearances in his four seasons and reached unprecedented heights in 2000. The NFL came calling again and Erickson joined the 49ers in 2003. He only lasted two years this time, as his 2004 team bottomed out at 2-14. He returned to college in 2006, coaching Idaho for one season before leaving for Arizona State. His first Arizona State team won ten game and was briefly ranked in the top-ten. However, his final four teams in the desert went just 21-28.

Jimbo Fisher – Jimbo won the final championship of the BCS era at Florida State in 2013, but after a 6-6 season in 2017, he abruptly left the program for Texas A&M. He produced a 9-4 record in his first season at the helm.

Danny Ford – Revered at Clemson for winning the 1981 national title, scandal and differences with the administration caused Ford to resign after the 1989 season. He returned to coaching at Arkansas in 1993 and while he guided the Hogs to their first SEC West title in 1995, he had three losing seasons in five years after having none in more than a decade at Clemson.

Lou Holtz – Holtz guided the Fighting Irish to the national title in 1988 and stuck around for eight more seasons in South Bend. After a brief two-year retirement, he took the South Carolina job and had the Gamecocks bowling in his second season. However, despite winning seventeen games between 2000 and 2001, his teams could not maintain that level of play, going just 16-19 over his final three seasons.

Urban Meyer – Meyer won the 2006 and 2008 national titles at Florida. He resigned amid health concerns after the 2010 season, but returned to coaching at Ohio State in 2012. He won the first title of the playoff era with the Buckeyes in 2014 and continued to have great success on the field. However, off the field problems likely contributed to his retirement following the 2018 season.

John Robinson – Robinson led Southern Cal to a share of the 1978 national title and although he left the school following the 1982 season, he stayed in Los Angeles to coach the Rams. He guided the Rams for nine full seasons, making the playoffs in six of his first seven years. The Rams made the NFC Championship Game twice, but were soundly defeated both times (by the Bears and 49ers). He returned to Southern Cal in 1993 and while the sequel was not quite as good as the original, the Trojans did win the Rose Bowl in January of 1996 and never posted a losing season under his watch. After a one-season retirement, he took on the biggest challenge of his career when he became the head coach of UNLV. The Rebels did qualify for and win a bowl game in his second season, but that was as good as it got in the desert. His last four teams went 17-29.

Bobby Ross – Ross shared a national title at Georgia Tech in 1990. After one more season in the shadow of another Bobby, he left to coach the San Diego Chargers. Ross guided the Chargers to a Super Bowl berth following the 1994 season and actually made the playoffs three times in five years before leaving to coach the Detroit Lions. Ross coached the Lions for three and a half seasons and while they qualified for the playoffs twice, they failed to win a playoff game. With his military background as an alumnus of VMI and having started his head coaching career at the Citadel, Ross seemed like a fine choice to lead the Army program back to prosperity. Alas, the Black Knights won just nine games in his three seasons at the helm.

Nick Saban – Saban shared the 2003 national title at LSU and left one year later to coach the Miami Dolphins. Not sure what happened to him after that.

Howard Schnellenberger – Schnellenberger guided the Miami Hurricanes to their first national title in 1983, but left after the season to coach The Spirit of Miami of the USFL. His timing was not great as the team decided against relocating to Miami and did not retain Schnellenberger as head coach. He took the Louisville job in 1985 and while his overall record was south of .500, he did lead the Cardinals to a pair of top-25 finishes. He coached Oklahoma for one season in 1995 and later laid the blue print for Larry Coker’s second act as he helped start the Florida Atlantic football program.

Steve Spurrier – Spurrier won the 1996 national title at Florida, but five seasons later he left the Gators to coach the Washington Redskins. After two seasons and twelve wins, Spurrier resigned and in 2005, followed Lou Holtz at South Carolina. After a mediocre start, his 2010-2013 teams won 42 games, the first division title in school history, and finished in the top-ten three times.

Overall, with the exception of Ross, who was an abject failure at Army, those title winning coaches all experienced at least a modicum of success at their new spots. But that begs the question, what is a modicum of success at Kansas? The Jayhawks have not won more than three games since 2009, so I guess that is where we should set the bar. If Miles can get the Jayhawks to one bowl game in his tenure, he will have done better than the three coaches who have preceded him.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

2018 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Big 10

Last week we looked at how Big 10 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 2018 Big 10 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 Big 10 teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
Northwestern and Ohio State nearly met the game and a half threshold that I use for determining if a team significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR. Those two teams did meet the YPP standard and we went over why last week, so I won't bore you with rehashing that this week.

Whither the Preseason Top-Ten Teams that Finish Unranked?
For the first time since 2012 and just the third time since 2003, Wisconsin finished the 2018 season unranked. This feat was doubly notable since the Badgers began the season in the top-five (they were fourth). A lot of Power Five teams would kill (or more accurately cheat like hell for an 8-5 record and bowl win). However, based on preseason expectations, 2018 qualifies as a disappointment for Wisconsin fans. What then should Wisconsin fans expect in 2019? Are the Badgers likely to rebound? To answer that question, I looked at all preseason top-ten teams (in the AP Poll) that finished unranked since 2005. Besides the three teams that ‘accomplished’ this feat in 2018 (Auburn and Miami joined Wisconsin as unranked finishers despite preseason top-ten rankings), 23 other teams began the season in the top-ten and finished outside the final polls. Those teams along with their follow up (regular season) records are summarized chronologically in the following table.
In the aggregate, those top-ten teams that finish unranked tend to rebound the following season. Of the 23 previous top-ten teams to finish unranked, only seven failed to see their win total improve the following season. In addition, four of those seven teams experienced coaching changes (Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, and Florida State) so that may partially explain why they did not improve. When we break things down further, this is how those 23 teams fared on average in their follow up season.
On average, the 23 teams improved by 1.35 games the following season. Nearly 70% of the teams improved and over half improved by at least two games. Only about a quarter of the teams declined in the follow up season.

Chances are at least two of the three preseason top-ten teams that finished unranked from last season will rebound in 2019, and seeing all three rebound wouldn’t be that shocking.
Were I forced to choose two, I would take Auburn and Wisconsin to rebound. Auburn always seems to zig when the preseason consensus says they will zag and Wisconsin has been one of the most consistent programs in the nation over the past two decades. Miami could certainly rebound as well, but I don’t feel quite as confident in the Hurricanes since their offense looked lost at the end of 2018 and they are going through a coaching change which is one of the common traits in most of the teams that did not improve. While each season is viewed in hindsight as preordained, the reality is the small sample size of college football can produce highly variable results. Pollsters tend to do a solid job of evaluating teams in the preseason, so even if a team disappoints record-wise, their underlying talent is probably closer to where the preseason polls rated them.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

2018 Yards Per Play: Big 10

We now move to our third conference in the offseason recaps. After this week, the recaps will be one quarter done. Here are the Big 10 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 Big 10 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 2018 season, which teams in the Big 10 met this threshold? Here are Big 10 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
The two Big 10 Championship Game participants (Northwestern and Ohio State) significantly exceeded their expected record based on YPP (Northwestern by an historic margin) while Rutgers, Nebraska, and Maryland all fell short of their expected record. As is typically the case, results in close games are largely to blame. Northwestern and Ohio State finished a combined 8-1 in one-score conference games while Rutgers, Nebraska, and Maryland finished a combined 1-8.

Is Maryland Even Trying?
In early December, Maryland named Alabama offensive coordinator Mike Locksley its newest football coach. Having an Alabama coordinator take the reins of a Power Five program would not normally inspire me to type many words on the subject. But Locksley is not just any Alabama coordinator. In fact, he has been a head coach before.

After a disappointing 4-8 season, Rocky Long resigned as New Mexico’s head coach in November of 2008. In December, the Lobos named Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley head coach. Upon his hire, Locksley was not even forty years old. Couple his relative youth with a solid showing at Illinois despite the handicap of working for Ron Zook and the strength of the New Mexico program (seven straight seasons of at least six wins prior to 2008), and success seemed likely. Oh, how wrong we were. Locksley’s first two New Mexico teams won one game each and his third team began the season 0-4 before he was relieved of his duties. During his time at New Mexico, Locksley was also involved in several scandals. He was the subject of an age and sex discrimination lawsuit, suspended for an altercation with an assistant coach, and a friend of his son (his son was a member of the Lobo football team) was arrested for DWI while driving a car registered to his son. A friend of mind lived in Albuquerque and did some post-graduate studies during the time Locksley was head coach and we texted a bit when he was hired at Maryland. We were both surprised and my friend humorously proclaimed that Locksley had ‘twice as many scandals as wins at New Mexico’. To be fair, that is not entirely accurate, as my count puts the win versus scandal ratio at about even. But I digress. After being fired from New Mexico, Locksley became the offensive coordinator at Maryland under Randy Edsall. After Edsall was fired halfway through the 2015 season, Locksley was named interim head coach and proceeded to lead the team to a 1-5 mark. Thus, through parts of four seasons as a head coach, Locksley has compiled a 3-31 record. How often do coaches with a career winning percentage that low get a second chance? To find out, I looked at all FBS coaching hires since 1984 (what I deem the modern era thanks to the Supreme Court decision in the NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma case that allowed for more football on television) where the new coach had been a previous FBS head coach. Locksley has the worst winning percentage by far. Here are nine other coaches that round out the bottom ten (note that I did not include ties in winning percentage, I simply ignored them because this isn’t soccer).
When I said Locksley was the worst by far, that was not hyperbole. His career winning percentage is roughly half that of the next lowest coach, Buddy Teevens. There are some interesting names on this list. You have a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator, a future college football national championship winning head coach, Mack Brown’s less famous (and less successful) brother, a future NFL head coach and sound bite legend, and a Michigan Man to name a few. But what we really want to know is how these coaches did once they were hired. Ask and you shall receive.
Gary Moeller and Gene Chizik were the most successful at their new stops, although Chizik’s success without Cam Newton was severely muted. Bob Toledo and Walt Harris also had decent runs of success with Toledo’s UCLA team winning twenty consecutive games over two seasons. However, the other five coaches combined for just one winning season in 22 years.

So what is a reasonable expectation for Locksley? Well, he won’t be leading a blue blood program like Moeller and he is unlikely to have a generational college player like Cam Newton fall into his lap, so Bob Toledo or Walt Harris is probably the ceiling. Or it would be the ceiling if Locksley was coaching in a different division. As currently structured, Locksley’s Maryland teams will have to play a third of their schedule against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State. Couple that quartet with three cross-division games against a group of teams that appear to be trending upward and getting to a bowl game is likely to require a Herculean effort.

This hire isn’t doomed to fail (although I believe it will). Moeller and Chizik proved that in the right situation a failed head coach can enjoy success the second time around. They didn’t quite qualify for the list, but Mack Brown (11-23 at Tulane), Gene Stallings (27-45-1 at Texas A&M), and even our old pal Ed Orgeron (16-27 at Ole Miss and Southern Cal) enjoyed success when given a second chance. Once again though, there are extenuating circumstances. Stallings and Orgeron coached blue-blood programs in their second chances and Mack Brown had just taken Tulane to a bowl game before being hired by North Carolina. However, for a variety of reasons, Locksley and Maryland do not appear to be a good match. For starters, Maryland has not exactly nailed their last few coaching decisions. They forced out one of the best coaches in school history following the 2010 season and in 2015 hired a coach who was at best negligent and at worst a Neanderthal asshole. Plus, Locksley did not just have minimal success in his previous opportunities as a head coach, he had no success. And as detailed earlier, there were a few off the field issues. To his credit, Locksley did coordinate perhaps the best offense in Alabama history this past season, so if he can match that talent level at Maryland, he should do fine.

In all seriousness, the lack of minority head coaches in college football is something that needs to be addressed. However, hiring retreads with a shitty track record as a head coach, regardless of race, does not help qualified coaches of color get their shot at a head coaching job.