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.

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