Thursday, May 30, 2024

2023 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Sun Belt

Last week we looked at how Sun Belt 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 2023 Sun Belt 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, Sun Belt teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
South Alabama was the only team that saw their actual record differ significantly from their APR. The Jaguars also underachieved relative to their YPP numbers and we went over some reasons for that last week. 

As Far as Winless Teams Go...
Terry Bowden's FBS coaching career ended in a nearly perfect bit of symmetry. In 1993 at his first FBS stop, his Auburn Tigers finished a perfect 8-0 in SEC play. Exactly 30 years later, he coached Louisiana-Monroe through a winless Sun Belt campaign. Bowden was fired from his post after losing to in-state rival Louisiana-Lafayette in the season finale. Despite finishing with zero Sun Belt wins and dropping their final ten games, the Warhawks were actually pretty good for a winless team. 

After finishing 4-8 in each of Bowden's first two seasons, the 2023 campaign actually began on a positive note. The Warhawks upset Army in their opener and then beat Lamar of the FCS in their second game. They were not competitive in a body bag game the next week at Texas A&M, but at 2-1 and with a bye on the horizon, a bowl game was at least on the table. After the bye, the Warhawks opened conference play hosting Appalachian State. Since joining the Sun Belt in 2014, the Mountaineers had mostly had their way with the Warhawks, winning six of seven games, with five of the wins coming by at least 18 points. But the Warhawks put forward a spirited effort in this game, jumping out to a 14-0 lead and never trailing by more than a touchdown. Down seven in the third quarter, the Warhawks scored a touchdown to pull within one, but a missed extra point would prove significant. Down a point, the next time the Warhawks scored a touchdown, they went for two, failed and only led by five. The Mountaineers then converted two field goals in the fourth quarter to steal the win, with the last coming from 54 yards out on the final play of the game. Would things have gone differently if that kick sailed wide? Would the Warhawks ride the momentum of a home upset to additional victories? We can never know for sure, but that kick set the tone for the rest of the season. The Warhawks were blasted by South Alabama in their next game, but two weeks later, they led Texas State by eleven points with under five minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Two late touchdown passes, the last of which came with under a minute remaining sent the Warhawks to a third consecutive Sun Belt loss. After losing to Texas State, the Warhawks did not come within one score of their last five league opponents. However, they were competitive in a couple. They trailed Georgia Southern by three with under two minutes to go before throwing a pick six and they led Arkansas State early in the second half of a ten-point loss. The wheels fell off over their final three games (lost by a combined 79 points), but their season long league stats did not befit a team that finished winless. In fact, since 2005, among non-BCS/Group of Five teams, they had the ninth best YPP Net of any team that finished with zero conference wins. 
Curiously, Terry Bowden teams appear on this list twice as was also the coach of Akron in 2012. Now the big question is, how do these teams perform the next season? Do they improve and post records more in line with their underlying performance. For the most part, the answer is yes. 
Of course, improvement is not guaranteed. The two best non-BCS/Group of Five teams to finish winless also finished winless the following season. But in the aggregate, these good (or at least not terrible) winless teams improved and won about 30% of their league games the next season (2.4 wins on average in an eight game league schedule). Louisiana-Monroe is a hard job, perhaps the hardest G5 job in FBS, and will probably remain so. New head coach Bryant Vincent has his work cut out for him, and the schedule, with two SEC schools will artificially suppress the overall win total. A bowl game is probably out of reach in 2024, but if the Warhawks manage two league victories, which history suggests is quite possible, I think you would have to consider the season a success. 

That concludes our look back at the 2023 college football season through the YPP and APR lenses. Thanks for reading. We are now 13 weeks from the opening Thursday of college football and 86 days from a light Week Zero slate. I will be taking a brief sabbatical, but will return on Independence Day with a First Half Point Differential rundown for the Group of Five. Two weeks after that, the Power Five will receive the First Half Point Differential treatment, and then shortly thereafter I will make my annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas and let you know who I (foolishly) bet on and against. By that point, the season will nearly be upon us. Enjoy your summer and check back when you get the urge. 

Thursday, May 23, 2024

2023 Yards Per Play: Sun Belt

We have come to the end of the line. This is the final FBS conference we will be reviewing. What happened in the Sun Belt in 2023? 

Here are the 2023 Sun Belt 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 Sun Belt 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 2023 season, which teams in the Sun Belt met this threshold? Here are Sun Belt teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
South Alabama and Louisiana-Monroe significantly underachieved relative to their YPP numbers. South Alabama had an odd season in 2023, both in and out of Sun Belt play. These numbers don't include their non-conference games, but I just want to remind you the Jaguars beat Big 12 Championship Game participant Oklahoma State by 26 points in Stillwater and lost at home to a Central Michigan team that did not qualify for a bowl game. In league play, they beat three teams by four touchdowns and outgained Sun Belt opponents by nearly 3 yards per play in their four victories (6.72-3.82). Their four losses were mostly competitive, as they were outgained by 0.54 yards per play in those contests (5.46-6.00). Louisiana-Monroe was not good in 2023, but their per play numbers were not indicative of a team that goes winless in conference play. The Warhawks were 0-2 in one-score Sun Belt games, losing a pair of one-point decisions to Appalachian State and Texas State. 

Phantom Division Champs
James Madison has arguably been the best team in the Sun Belt the past two seasons. But alas, byzantine NCAA rules have prevented them from playing in the Sun Belt Championship Game. The Dukes won the Sun Belt East in 2022 (via tiebreaker) and 2023, but were forced to watch the conference title game from the comfort of their dorm rooms. This got me to wondering how often have there been 'phantom' division champions in FBS? Since divisional play only stretches back to 1992, I knew the research wouldn't take that long, so I was down. Here now, are the chronological listings of all phantom division champs in FBS history. 
It should be no surprise that the SEC was the first conference to feature a phantom division champion. They were after all, trailblazers in both divisional play and cheating. And cheating is why Auburn, despite an unbeaten campaign in Terry Bowden's first season, could not play in the SEC Championship Game. Instead, Alabama (the defending national champion) qualified for the title game with a weird 5-2-1 league record. Yes kids, ties were unfortunately a thing in college football up until 1996. The Tide saddled up for a rematch of the inaugural SEC Championship Game with Florida, but could not upset the Gators giving Steve Spurrier his first SEC Championship Game victory. The Gators and Tide would meet again in 1994 with the Gators again prevailing in the first SEC Championship Game contested in the league's ancestral home, Atlanta. 
Nearly a decade would pass before the nation saw another phantom division champ. After being the beneficiary of Auburn's improprieties, Alabama's sins allowed Arkansas to claim the SEC West crown in 2002. The Hogs finished in a three-way tied for second with Auburn and LSU, but beat both sets of Tigers on the field to earn the tiebreaker. They were mostly non-competitive in the title game, losing 30-3 to Mark Richt's first great Georgia team. 
Probation and cheating are not responsible for this snafu. Instead, blame scheduling. The MAC featured an odd number of teams in 2007 (13), and somehow in this enlightened age, the conference thought it was a great idea to have each team play a different number of conference games. Six teams (all in the East division) played eight league games and seven played seven games. All six teams in the West played seven games and the one team that played seven in the East ended up being winning the division despite technically finishing a half game behind the division leader. Before the season began, the MAC announced that division record would determine the winner of the East, but when you look back on the season more than a decade later, the standings do not make sense. Thankfully, the MAC realized their error and despite having an odd number of teams until 2015, had each team play eight league games so this was never repeated. And before Miami fans get angry, I know the Redhawks beat Bowling Green on the field (handily) and would have won the division if both teams finished tied, but the fact remains that Miami did not have an opportunity to pick up an additional league loss since they only played seven conference games. 
Southern Cal was a fringe top 25 team heading into 2011, barely cracking the preseason AP Poll in Lane Kiffin's second season. The Trojans were banned from the postseason thanks to some shenanigans under Pete Carroll. They won their first three games, but were blown out by Arizona State and became an afterthought. Then a funny thing happened. They rolled through the rest of the regular season, winning seven of their final eight games with the only loss coming in overtime to Stanford. They even beat the eventual Pac-12 Championship Game participants in back-to-back weeks. They upset Oregon in Eugene in their penultimate game and then blasted their cross-town rivals 50-0. Those cross-town rivals were the only other team in the Pac-12 South that finished with a winning conference record so they faced off against Oregon in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game. The game was not competitive, but the Bruins actually covered as a massive underdog. Southern Cal ended the season ranked sixth in the AP Poll and began the 2012 season (with no postseason restrictions) as the preseason number one team. They did not live up to the hype, losing four of their final five regular season games and closing the calendar year with an indifferent performance against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl. 
There were two phantom division champs in 2012. At least I think so. In the ACC, Georgia Tech, Miami, and North Carolina all finished with identical 5-3 records in the ACC Coastal. Miami self-imposed a one-year bowl ban due to the Nevin Shapiro scandal and North Carolina was serving a postseason ban from the NCAA due to their academic scandal. If Miami and North Carolina were both eligible, I think one of them would have gone to the ACC Championship Game, but I can't be sure. Not only did all three teams finish 5-3 in league play, they each went 1-1 against each other, and 3-2 versus the Coastal Division. Georgia Tech had the worst overall record (6-6), so I think the tie would have been broken by the BCS rating, but I'm not positive. Regardless, both the Hurricanes and Tar Heels were ineligible so Georgia Tech advanced to the title game and put up a decent fight against a Florida State team that would win the national title the following season. 
In the Big 10, Wisconsin finished four games behind the true Leaders Division champion (Ohio State) and two games behind the runner-up (Penn State). Alas, 2012, was a popular year to be in trouble. Ohio State, thanks to some tattoos was ineligible for the postseason, and Penn State, thanks to more nefarious reasons was also ineligible. Wisconsin took advantage of their opportunity, hanging 70 on Nebraska in the Big 10 Championship Game to deny the Cornhuskers their first conference title since 1999. 
Befitting a league that no longer exists, the Pac-12 was poorly managed in 2020. Initially, the conference punted on the 2020 football season, but reversed course and played an abbreviated campaign. In the abbreviated campaign, the Washington Huskies, led by first year head coach Jimmy Lake (who wants to know?), won the North Division with a 3-1 record. However, before the Pac-12 Championship Game, they had a Covid outbreak, so Oregon advanced to the title game on a technicality. The Ducks also finished behind Stanford in the Pac-12 standings as the league contested conference games on the same weekend as the title game. Oregon and Stanford were tied with identical 3-2 league records heading into conference championship weekend, with the Ducks owning the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Cardinal. Oregon upset unbeaten Southern Cal in the Pac-12 Championship Game and advanced to the Fiesta Bowl. 
In their first year of play at the FBS level, James Madison finished tied with Coastal Carolina atop the Sun Belt East. However, the Dukes dominated the Chanticleers in their regular season finale and would have won the tiebreaker had they been eligible for the Sun Belt Championship Game. In the title game, Coastal fell behind Troy 31-0, but managed a few late scores to make the final margin respectable. 
Once again, the Dukes began the season knowing they would not be eligible for the Sun Belt Championship Game. Whether this served as motivation is fodder for message boards. However, the Dukes did win their first ten games and rise into the top 20 of the AP Poll before dropping an overtime game to Appalachian State. The Dukes finished a game clear of the Mountaineers in the Sun Belt standings, but once again were denied entry to the title game (and they bitched about it a little). Like Coastal the previous season, Appalachian State did not fare well against Troy in the Sun Belt Championship Game. 

Finally, before we leave, how did the phantom division champs perform in the aggregate in their fraudulent title game appearances?
All nine teams were underdogs in their respective title games. More than half were modest underdogs of less than a touchdown and only two were prohibitive underdogs. Only two were able to pull the upset and claim the conference title (both were field goal underdogs), but their ATS numbers were decent. The sample size is too small to glean any betting advice and since divisions have mostly gone the way of the buffalo, it may be quite sometime before we see another phantom division champ.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

2023 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: SEC

Last week we looked at how SEC 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 2023 SEC 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, SEC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
Alabama and Ole Miss significantly exceeded their APR. The Crimson Tide and Rebels also overachieved relative to their YPP numbers and we went over some reasons for that last week. 

Dominated by Your Conference Opponents
Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote about Georgia's dominant 2021 run through the SEC. The Bulldogs became just the eighteenth team in the BCS/College Football Playoff era (since 1998) to finish unbeaten in conference play and have all those wins come by double digits. The Bulldogs famously went on to lose to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game (they were not the first dominant team to lose their conference title game), but won the rematch against the Crimson Tide to capture their first national title in forty years. Were that post on Georgia a coin, this would be the flip side. In a nice bit of symmetry, in 2023, Vanderbilt became the eighteenth team in the BCS/College Football Playoff era to lose all their conference games and have all those losses come by double digits. Let's celebrate some futility!

Before we get to the Commodores and their ilk, let's look at the nine non-BCS/Group of Five teams that fit the aforementioned criteria. The nine teams are listed chronologically in the table below. The table also includes the conference they played in, their Margin of Defeat (MOD) in league play, their conference record, the closest they came to winning a conference game, and their head coach. 
The first thing that sticks out to me regarding this list is the number of (somewhat) successful coaches on it. While he was a failure as a head coach, Vic Koenning was a good defensive coordinator at Clemson and Illinois. However, he won just a single conference game during his stint in Laramie. George O'Leary engineered (see what I did there?) a top ten finish at Georgia Tech and won or shared four league titles at UCF before the wheels fell off during his final season. Bob Davie won nine games twice at Notre Dame and actually took New Mexico to consecutive bowl games before his tenure soured. Butch Davis nearly won a national title at Miami, contributed to the academic standing of North Carolina, and went to three straight bowl games at FIU (and also beat Miami) before losing his last thirteen conference games. The two MAC coaches on this list (Mike Neu and Scott Loeffler) are still at their respective schools. Neu even won a conference title at Ball State and Loeffler has taken Bowling Green to consecutive bowl games. I suppose the lesson here is that if you are going to put up an historically awful season, make sure it comes early in your tenure. 

Now let's look at the nine BCS/Power Five schools that have been dominated by their conference foes. 
There are significantly fewer successful coaches on this list. Kevin Steele is probably more famous for getting jacked up by Kevin Greene when was an assistant coach for the Carolina Panthers and for somehow being a finalist for the Auburn head coaching job in 2020. Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and the Tigers hired Bryan Harsin, who I am assume is still in charge and enjoying great success. Anyway, back to Steele. He did something Clark Lea hopes to avoid in that he appears on this list twice, in back-to-back seasons! Baylor also dropped all their conference games in Steele's third season (2001), but they did manage to lose one of those games by six points to avoid the trifecta. Steele finally won his first and only conference game at Baylor in 2002 when the Bears beat Kansas. Between 1998 and 2002, Baylor lost 29 consecutive Big 12 games! Suddenly Dave Aranda doesn't seem so bad. The only coaches from this list that I think you can classify as successful are Dan McCarney and Ron Zook. McCarney's career record is not great, but he took Iowa State to five bowl games. Weirdly enough, this ineffective winless season is sandwiched between three bowl games in the immediate past (2000-2002) and two in the immediate future (2004-2005). Ron Zook is probably not what you picture when you think of successful college coaches, but he did have a decent (albeit disappointing) record at Florida and he took Illinois to a Rose Bowl. The other coaches on this list are mostly trash, with the exception of Paul Wulff who had a successful FCS career and the subject of this post, Clark Lea. If Lea knows any domesticated super fowl, I'm sure they often tell him that he knew the job was dangerous when he took it. Its not easy to win at Vanderbilt and it certainly is not getting any easier with the SEC's addition of Oklahoma and Texas. Lea's goals should be to avoid reappearing on this list and following in the footsteps of his predecessor by finding a defensive coordinator position and then becoming the head coach of a Group of Five program with some potential

Thursday, May 09, 2024

2023 Yards Per Play: SEC

We finally come to the big bad SEC. This was the last year of divisions in the conference that originated them. So how did things play out?

Here are the 2023 SEC 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 SEC 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 2023 season, which teams in the SEC met this threshold? Here are SEC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Alabama and Ole Miss significantly exceeded their expected record based on YPP while Mississippi State underachieved based on their YPP numbers. Alabama and Ole Miss finished a combined 7-0 in one-score conference games. And while Alabama did not lose a single conference game, Ole Miss was dominated in both their league losses, losing to Alabama and Georgia by a combined 49 points while being outgained by over two and a half yards per play. Mississippi State was not unfortunate in close games (1-1 in one-score SEC games), but they had the worst in-conference turnover margin in the SEC (-9).

Jayden Daniels and the Other SEC Heisman Quarterbacks
In the second half of the 2023 season, LSU got a couple of breathers from their SEC gauntlet. In late October, they pounded Army 62-0 with Jayden Daniels throwing for an incredible 279 yards on just 15 pass attempts. The in mid-November, the Tigers blasted Georgia State 56-14 with Daniels accounting for eight total touchdowns (six passing and two rushing). Daniels also tossed five touchdown passes in an early season game against Grambling State. Did these scrimmages unfairly buoy his successful Heisman campaign or was Daniels a deserving Heisman winner? In my research, I could only find a single truly contrarian take regarding his candidacy. Did that isolated opinion have any validity? To answer that question, I decided to compare Daniels to the other 21st century Heisman winning quarterbacks in the SEC (Tebow, Newton, Manziel, Burrow, and Young). However, instead of comparing their full season stats, I used only regular season conference games. The SEC has not altered its conference schedule this century so all six quarterbacks got eight conference games to accumulate stats in their Heisman winning seasons. How did they do? Let's start with the passing stats. 
If you watch football, you probably don't need an explanation of any of those stats except for potentially AY/Att. This stands for Adjusted Yards Per Attempt. It is passing yards with a 20 yard bonus for passing touchdowns and a 45 yards penalty for interceptions. Daniels stacks up well in these statistics, ranking third out of six quarterbacks in total passing yards, second in passing touchdowns, first in interceptions thrown, and first (by a significant margin) in AY/Att. Now Daniels is also a bit of a dual-threat quarterback, to put in mildly. Here are the rushing stats for those six quarterbacks. Cam Newton's numbers include two receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown (he was the only SEC quarterback to catch a pass in conference play during his Heisman campaign). 
Once again, Daniels compares pretty favorably. He ranks second in total rushing yards and fourth in total rushing touchdowns. Now let's add those passing and rushing numbers together. 
Daniels ranks in the upper echelon of SEC Heisman winning quarterbacks when we combine passing and rushing numbers. He is second in both total yards and total touchdowns despite having the fewest total of passing plus rushing attempts (321). 

The only argument against Daniels is that he did not lead LSU to the SEC title or even to the SEC Championship Game. But I think we all understand the Tiger defense is more responsible for LSU's 'disappointing' season. In their two conference defeats (versus Ole Miss and Alabama), the Tigers allowed 55 and 42 points respectively. Daniels played well in both games, accounting for over 500 yards and 5 total touchdowns against the Rebels and over 350 yards and 3 total touchdowns against Alabama. In fact, Daniels may be the best SEC Heisman winning quarterback of the 21st century. Yes, he dominated outmanned opponents, but he also put up incredible numbers in the best conference in college football. 

Thursday, May 02, 2024

2023 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Pac-12

Last week we looked at how Pac-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 2023 Pac-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, Pac-12 teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
Washington saw their actual record significantly exceed their APR while Colorado and UCLA significantly underachieved relative to their APR. Washington also significantly exceeded their expected record based on YPP and we went over some reasons for that last week (primarily, their remarkable 6-0 record in one-score conference games). Despite their hot start in the non-conference and some ridiculous think pieces written in September, Colorado actually won the same number of conference games in 2023 as they had in 2022. For what its worth, Deion Sanders has a worse conference record at Colorado than Mike Sanford. But in reality, Colorado was much improved. They just could not close the deal in close conference games, finishing 1-5 in one-score Pac-12 games (were 1-1 in such games in 2022). UCLA can't blame close game misfortune (1-1 record in one-score Pac-12 games) for their underperformance, but a confluence of other events. The Bruins did not have a terrible turnover margin in Pac-12 play, but opponents returned three of quarterback Dante Moore's passes for touchdowns and added a kick return touchdown for good measure. The Bruins were also woefully inept on fourth down conversions. The Bruins attempted to convert on fourth down 27 times in Pac-12 play, and were only successful on 12 occasions. Their conversion rate of 44.4% was actually better than their opponents (35.7%), but their opponents only attempted to convert 14 times. The sheer volume of their own attempts (and failures) meant the Bruins had in effect an additional six net turnovers than their opponents. Finally, the Bruins also struggled converting field goals. They made just 5 of 14 attempts in Pac-12 play while their opponents all seemed to channel Justin Tucker as they made 16 of 18 attempts against the Bruins. 

Should We Have Seen the Holiday Bowl Coming?
If I had told you before the season that Southern Cal comfortably beat Louisville in the Holiday Bowl, you would not have thought much of it. You may have correctly surmised that the Trojans suffered a somewhat disappointing season, but otherwise, that wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. If I had told you thirty minutes or so before kickoff that Southern Cal comfortably beat Louisville in the Holiday Bowl, you might have been somewhat taken aback. After all, the Trojans finished the season losing five of their final six games while Louisville was a pleasant surprise, rolling through a 10-2 regular season and earning a berth in the ACC Championship Game. The Trojans would also be without the services of star quarterback Caleb Williams, who was sitting out the game. The betting line reflected the consensus that Louisville would win, as the Cardinal were about a touchdown favorite. But the Trojans did have something Louisville did not: a preseason ranking in the top ten of the AP Poll.

I've written numerous times about the predictive power of the preseason AP Poll. The short of it is the preseason AP Poll is a good proxy for talent (better than the end of year poll) and should be factored into your handicap of any college football game. That being said, was Southern Cal a stone cold lock? Should we have backed the Trojans blindly heading into this game? To answer that question, I looked at all teams since 1998 with a similar profile to Southern Cal in 2023. That is, teams that began the year in the preseason top ten, ended the regular season unranked, and played in a bowl game. Including 2023, 37 teams fit that criteria. And how did they perform once they got to the postseason?
Those preseason top ten teams with disappointing regular seasons were alright in terms of straight up performance. They won right at 59% of the time. But ATS, it was pretty much a coin flip, as they prevailed 51% of the time. That is pretty much how things played out in 2023 as the Trojans were not the only preseason top ten team to find themselves unranked and in a bowl game. 

Clemson also began the year in the top ten of the AP Poll. The Tigers opened the year by losing on Labor Day Night in Durham and were 4-4 at the end of October. Though they won their final four regular season games, they were outside the rankings when they faced off against Kentucky in the Gator Bowl. The Tigers entered as six-point favorites and outlasted the Wildcats in a back and forth affair, winning 38-35. A victory on the field, but a loss at the window. 

Before we leave this subject, let's look at the data one more way. You may have noticed that Southern Cal was getting points against Louisville while Clemson was laying points against Kentucky. If we divide these disappointing preseason top ten teams into favorites and underdogs, an interesting trend emerges. 
Disappointing preseason top ten teams win at about the same clip whether they are a favorite or an underdog in their bowl game. However, ATS, the favorites lose money, while the underdogs cover more than twice as often as not. Oh, and one more thing before we sign off. Louisville was not ranked in the preseason poll. What if we group these disappointing preseason top ten teams by the preseason quality of their bowl opponent.
Ding ding. I think we found something. Disappointing preseason top ten teams are 2-2 (both straight up and ATS) when facing fellow preseason top ten teams in their bowl. They are just 3-5 (both straight up and ATS) when facing teams ranked between 11 and 25 in the preseason AP Poll. But against teams that were unranked in the preseason poll, they are 17-8 straight up. Favorites still struggle ATS, but look at those underdogs. Perfecto. The sample size is small. In fact, its so small, I can list every instance. Which I shall do below. 
So, maybe we should have seen Southern Cal's victory coming. It doesn't happen often, but the next time you see a disappointing preseason top ten team catching points in their bowl game against a team that was unranked in the preseason AP Poll, consider taking them plus the points. Oh, and don't be scared to take them on the moneyline either. 

Thursday, April 25, 2024

2023 Yards Per Play: Pac-12

The next two weeks will be bittersweet as we wave goodbye to the Pac-12. It would be foolhardy to say the Pac-12 is gone for good (the WAC after all is back -- sort of), but for the next few years at least, FBS will be one conference short. 

Here are the 2023 Pac-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 Pac-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 2023 season, which teams in the Pac-12 met this threshold? Here are Pac-12 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Washington significantly exceeded their expected record based on YPP while their Apple Cup rivals in Pullman underachieved relative to their YPP numbers. The Huskies finished an incredible 6-0 in one-score Pac-12 games. After dominating Cal in their conference opener (beating the Bears by 27 points), Washington won their final eight Pac-12 games by a combined 49 points (no victory by more than ten points). This continued an amazing trend for teams coached by Kalen DeBoer. In his nine seasons as a head coach, his teams are an incredible 26-6 in one-score games! 
He has an unenviable task in following Nick Saban at Alabama, but he might be the man for the job. On the other side of the state, the Cougars finished 1-4 in one-score conference games and also boasted the worst in-conference turnover margin (-8) of any Pac-12 team. 

Lincoln's Home Cooking
For the first time in his head coaching career, Lincoln Riley faced some adversity in 2023. The Trojans highwire act from 2022 (combine great offense with bad defense and force timely turnovers) nearly earned them a spot in the College Football Playoff, but the turnover fortune shifted and the Trojans lost five regular season games in 2023. It was very nearly six, but Southern Cal escaped their nerdy brethren from Berkley thanks to a failed two-point conversion. The five losses were more than double the previous regular season high for any Lincoln Riley coached team and for the first time in his career, one of his teams finished unranked. But perhaps the biggest story was how poorly his Trojans performed at home. 
During his first six years as a head coach, Riley's teams lost just twice at home. Both losses came during his time in Norman (to Iowa State and Kansas State respectively). The Trojans surpassed that total in 2023, losing to Utah, Washington, and quite embarrassingly to crosstown rival UCLA. The Trojans also struggled at home against the betting line as compared to previous seasons. 
During his career, Riley's teams have tended to be massive home favorites, so their home ATS record, while much less sterling than their outright record, was still solidly above the breakeven number for gamblers (52.4%). The Trojans were a dumpster fire at home ATS in 2023, hemorrhaging cash like Truth Social

The move to the Big 10 may cause some logistical issues for a team based in Los Angeles, but I like the Trojans to bounce back in 2024. Lincoln Riley has a proven track record and I'm inclined to see 2023 as an outlier rather than a new normal. Expectations are muted with the loss of star quarterback Caleb Williams, but I could easily envision the Trojans eclipsing their modest preseason win total (7.5). 

Thursday, April 18, 2024

2023 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Mountain West

Last week we looked at how Mountain West 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 2023 Mountain West 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, Mountain West teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
No Mountain West teams saw their actual record differ significantly from their APR. Similarly, last week we saw that no Mountain West team saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record based on YPP. The Mountain West was kind of boring in 2023 all things considered. 

What's Up with the Hawaii Bowl?
Since Christmas was on a Monday this past year, the Hawaii Bowl ceded its typical Christmas Eve spot to the NFL. But if you stayed up late on December 23rd, you would have seen something both amazing and mundane. Instead of a rotund Turkish bishop defying both the laws of time and physics you got to see yet another double digit underdog win outright in America's most exotic locale. 

Coastal Carolina entered the Hawaii Bowl on a bit of a skid. After a 2-3 start gave way to a 5-0 run, the Chanticleers dropped their final two regular season games to Army and James Madison. The loss to the Dukes was not competitive. Couple that most recent data point with the continued absence of star quarterback Grayson McCall and the run that San Jose State was on entering the bowl game (six consecutive wins with five coming by double digits) and its easy to see why the Chanticleers were catching ten points in the betting markets. Despite those ominous signs, Coastal Carolina went up 17-0 in the fourth quarter and after a brief run by the Spartans cut the lead to three points, the Chanticleers put a final touchdown on the board to win by ten points. As I mentioned, this was amazing and mundane at the same time. I suppose amazing may be overselling it somewhat, but most college football fans, even partisan Coastal Carolina fans, probably would not have give their team much of a shot. That is of course, unless they had looked at the recent history of the Hawaii Bowl. 
Since 2005, the Hawaii Bowl has seen the most upsets (tied with the Peach/Chick-Fil-A at ten) and most double digit upsets of any bowl game. Including Coastal Carolina in 2023, five underdogs of at least ten points have won the Hawaii Bowl. In 2007, East Carolina upset Boise State as a ten point underdog. In 2009, SMU blasted Nevada 45-10 as a twelve point underdog. One year later, Tulsa pummeled Hawaii as a ten point underdog on Hawaii's homefield. Finally, in 2012, SMU blasted another big favorite (Fresno State) as a thirteen point underdog. While the major upsets took a decade off before resuming with Coastal Carolina's victory in 2023, smaller underdogs won five of the eight Hawaii Bowls contested between 2013 and 2022 (the game was not played in 2020 or 2021). Here are the other bowl games that have seen more than one major upset since 2005. 
Other bowl games can hang with the Hawaii Bowl in terms of overall upsets, but no game has seen more massive upsets. The Hawaii Bowl has accounted for twenty percent of all double digit bowl upsets since 2005! Is there a reason for this? Is the Hawaii Bowl uniquely suited for underdogs? I don't have a definitive answer, but I can think of a few possible explanations. 
  1. Its not a major bowl game -- For all its charm, the Hawaii Bowl will never be confused with the Rose or Sugar Bowl in terms of national importance. This could mean the favorite doesn't take the game quite as seriously as they otherwise might. Which segues perfectly to...
  2. Distractions -- Hawaii is a beautiful place and though I've never been, I'm sure there are plenty of beautiful people on the island (both male and female), that could distract a young football player from the task at hand.
  3. Weird time slot -- The game is typically contested on Christmas Eve, although there have been a few exceptions in the game's history (including 2023). Regardless, the game is always played close to Christmas which could impact the team's preparation for the game. 
  4. Unique travel -- Speaking of preparation, the game is a long way from the continental United State. A flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu takes nearly six hours. The long travel can certainly impact the internal body clocks of the players and coaches. 
  5. Matchups -- In that list of major upsets in the Hawaii Bowl, all the losing teams were from the Group of Five. Despite entering as massive favorites, those Group of Five teams probably had talent levels that were similar to their opponents. They did not have a massive personnel advantage, which is the driving force behind most college football results. 
I would love to hear your thoughts. Why has the Hawaii Bowl seen so many upsets? Is there a reason behind it or is this just noise