Wednesday, March 09, 2016

2015 Yards Per Play: Conference USA

After six weeks of power conference analysis, we make our triumphant return to the Group of Five. Here are the 2015 Conference USA 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 Conference USA 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 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 Conference USA met this threshold? Here are the Conference USA teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Only one team saw a significant disparity between their expected record based on YPP and their actual record. That team was Rice. The Owls were average on the offensive side of the ball, ranking seventh of thirteen teams. However, defensively, the Owls were a sieve, undeserving of their raptor nickname. The Owls ranked dead last defensively, permitting over seven yards per play (more than a half yard worse than second to last North Texas). They did have the misfortune of taking on the top three offenses in Conference USA (Western Kentucky, Southern Miss, and Louisiana Tech), during which they allowed 156 points. However, they also faced the bottom four offenses (Florida Atlantic, UTSA, UTEP, and Charlotte), so the schedule makers cannot be blamed for their harrowing defensive showing. How did the Owls manage to win three games despite such unflattering peripherals? Unlike most teams that significantly exceed their YPP numbers, close games and turnovers are not the culprit here. The Owls went just 1-1 in one-score league games and actually had a negative in-conference turnover margin. No, the reason for the difference is the fact that the Owls played horribly in their losses and just alright in their wins. In their three wins, they outscored North Texas, Florida Atlantic, and Charlotte (three teams that combined for just five wins against FBS opponents I might add) by 35 points. However, in their five league losses, they were outscored by 132 points. For the Rice Owls, this was certainly not the first time they had drastically exceeded their expected YPP record. In fact, among mid-major (Group of Five) teams since 2005 (the year my YPP numbers go back to), Rice has exceeded their expected record the most.
Over a long sample size (eleven seasons), Rice has exceeded their expected conference record by an average of .186 percentage points per season. For an eight game conference schedule, this works out to nearly a game and a half per season! The man responsible for most of this success is David Bailiff. Over his nine-year tenure, the Owls have exceeded their expected record by about .181 percentage points per season. You may notice this is slightly below their cumulative average of .186. This is thanks to Todd Graham’s one season in charge. In 2006, the Owls were an amazing .452 percentage points ahead of where they would have been expected to finish based on their YPP numbers (thanks to a 5-1 mark in one-score conference games). Graham bolted for Tulsa after the fluky season, and while he has been a decent over-performer at his numerous stops since (exceeding his expected record on average by about .084 percentage points) his successor has toiled in relative obscurity and accomplished quite a bit at a very difficult job. Just for the sake of completeness, I would also like to point out the job Pete Lembo did over five years at Ball State.
He also consistently exceeded pedestrian or worse YPP numbers and produced a pair of bowl teams at Ball State before leaving to become Maryland’s special teams coordinator.