Wednesday, February 24, 2016

2015 Yards Per Play: Big 12

After dispensing with the Big 10, we shift our attention to the other big conference, 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. 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 Yards per Play (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 2015 season, which teams in the Big 12 met this threshold? Here are the Big 12 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Only two teams boasted a record that was significantly different than what would have been predicted based on their YPP numbers. Both Oklahoma State and Kansas State exceeded what their record should have been according to the numbers. For Oklahoma State, the reason was simple. The Cowboys were 4-0 in one-score games, beating a quartet of middling outfits (Iowa State, Kansas State, Texas, and West Virginia) by a combined 16 points. Three of those games did come on the road, so give them credit for winning away from Stillwater, but the Cowboys did not have the bona fides of an elite team. On the other hand, Kansas State is a different story. Statistically, the Wildcats were the second worst team in the Big 12 by a significant margin. Their offense was only better than that of their in-state brethren and they made up for it by also having one of the worst defenses in the Big 12. So how did a team that was consistently outplayed on a down to down basis by a significant margin manage to qualify for a bowl games? The Wildcats actually sported a slightly below average 2-3 record in one-score Big 12 games, so we can’t attribute the difference to their record in close games. We’ll have to look elsewhere. One area where Kansas State gained an edge was special teams. The Wildcats returned a punt and three kickoffs for touchdowns in their Big 12 games. Those scores provided the margin of victory in a three point win over Iowa State and a one point win over West Virginia. Another way that Kansas State was able to remain competitive despite their poor overall play was their slow pace.
Based on the plays they ran and the plays their defense faced, the Wildcats saw the least ‘action’ of any Big 12 team in conference play. The Wildcats saw about twelve fewer plays per game than the average Big 12 team and 25 fewer than Texas Tech, the Big 12 leader in that category. When your offense and defense are both inefficient, shortening the game can pay dividends. Finally, Kansas State benefited from their home schedule. Two of their three league wins came at home (with their only road win coming against perennial punching bag Kansas) and while their loss to Oklahoma was not competitive, the Wildcats lost by just seven points each to TCU and Baylor in Manhattan.

One of the major storylines in college football since 2010 has been realignment. Every FBS conference has seen some kind of membership change since the end of the 2010 season. In fact, some conferences have ceased to exist entirely. The Big 12 has been one of the more interesting cases, as three other power conferences raided it. The Big 12 in turn plundered the Big East and Mountain West to steady its membership. When the dust had cleared, the Big 12 lost four teams and added two bringing the total membership to ten teams. The marquee programs in the conference post-realignment are of course, Oklahoma and Texas. While the Sooners have pulled their weight in the conference, and on the national level, Texas has struggled. The Longhorns have endured a pair of losing seasons and have not won the conference since 2009. In the midst of the struggles by the Longhorns, a quartet of non-traditional powers has emerged to ensure the Big 12 remains a player on the national stage.

Between 1980 and 2011, Texas and Oklahoma combined for three national titles, 19 conference titles (in the Big 8, Southwest, and Big 12 conferences), 21 top-ten finishes in the AP Poll, and 41 top-25 AP Poll finishes. Those are pretty good numbers. In that same time span, Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and TCU combined for zero national titles, 12 conference titles (with most coming courtesy of TCU in mid-major leagues), nine top-ten finishes in the AP Poll, and 31 top-25 AP Poll finishes. The table below summarizes what I just typed.
However, since 2012, Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and TCU have been torchbearers for the Big 12. Oklahoma and Texas have combined for two conference titles, three top-ten finishes in the AP Poll, and four top-25 AP Poll finishes. Oklahoma has contributed all the conference titles, all three of the top-ten finishes, and three of the four top-25 finishes. Meanwhile, Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and TCU have combined for four conference titles (with only Oklahoma State failing to register at least a shared title), three top-ten finishes in the AP Poll, and ten top-25 AP Poll finishes. Again, take a gander at the table that summarizes these results.
If we look at just Big 12 performance, the results are even more revealing.
While Oklahoma has the best Big 12 record in that span, Baylor is a close second with Kansas State and Oklahoma State tied for third. TCU is tied with Texas for fifth, but the Horned Frogs have more dominant of late, having gone 15-3 the past two seasons after a 6-12 start to major conference life.

What does all this mean for the Big 12? The good news is that teams have risen while Texas has fallen. While Oklahoma remains the bell cow for the conference, other teams have popped up intermittently to keep the Big 12 on the national radar. The bad news is that these teams may not have staying power. Baylor was an abject dumpster fire until Art Briles got there. They had some moderate success in the 80s and early 90s, but since the Big 12 started, they were the weakest link. The infrastructure has improved, but how far will they fall once Briles leaves? Similarly, Kansas State may have been the worst FBS program when Bill Snyder arrived in the late 80s. During his brief retirement, the Wildcats were middling at best. Snyder will be vacating Manhattan much sooner rather than later. What will the Wildats do when he is gone (for good this time)? Oklahoma State had some good teams under Pat Jones in the 80s (and briefly Les Miles), but Mike Gundy has raised the program to new heights. With that T. Boone Pickens money, the Cowboys may be well positioned for success when Gundy leaves, but it is far from guaranteed. Finally, TCU has exceeded their historical levels under coach Gary Patterson. He has been in Fort Worth for a decade and a half and seen the Horned Frogs go from mid-major power to Big 12 contender. How will this program fare when he leaves? Success of upstarts has played a key role in keeping the Big 12 relevant in the national picture during uncertain times. However, relying on these upstarts to remain prosperous after their regimes change may not be prudent. Perhaps the best case scenario for the Big 12 is a return to glory for another old money program, Texas.

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