Wednesday, January 11, 2017

2016 Yards Per Play: AAC

Happy 2017! Loyal readers and those redirected here via spam, the long and arduous offseason is now upon us. To help pass the time to better days, I’ll be reviewing each FBS conference season from 2016. Each of the ten FBS conferences will get two posts (one per week) reviewing the season that was in terms of Yards Per Play and Adjusted Pythagorean Record. We won't play favorites in terms of Power Five versus Group of Five, as we'll tackle each league in alphabetical order. That will move us into May, where we will still have more than three months until real games begin. Hopefully we can find something to occupy our time with this summer. We begin with the American Athletic Conference. Here are the AAC 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 AAC 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 2016 season, which teams in the AAC met this threshold? Here are the AAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
For the second year in a row, Navy vastly outperformed their middling peripherals, and earned a trip to the AAC Championship Game because of it. The Midshipmen were able to do this by hiding their porous defense with an efficient offense that also limited the number of possessions their opponents had. Navy’s defense faced the second fewest plays of any AAC team, which was about six fewer per game than the average AAC team. Those six fewer plays combined with Navy’s weak defense meant opponents missed out on about 40 extra yards per game. Navy also finished 4-1 in one-score conference games, further bolstering their record. Connecticut and Cincinnati finished with the biggest negative disparity between their YPP numbers and their actual record. And those two teams also happen to be replacing their head coaches going into 2017. Neither the Huskies nor Bearcats were particularly poor in close games (combined 0-3 record in one-score contests) nor had horrendous turnover margins (combined for -4 in-conference margin). However, the Bearcats did finish with a -4 margin in terms of non-offensive touchdowns (allowed four and did not score any) in AAC play.

Before bowl season, and all the randomness inherent in a long break, including coaching changes and other assorted distractions, the AAC enjoyed a fine season. They were easily the best Group of Five conference from top to bottom and boasted their fair share of Power Five scalps. As is the nature of the game at the mid-major level though, several AAC schools had their head coaches scooped up by Power 5 programs. In fact, three AAC coaches left for Power 5 jobs. Matt Rhule left the champion Temple Owls to rebuild the mess at Baylor, Willie Taggart left his Gulf Coast offense at South Florida to take over Oregon, and the crown jewel of available coaches, Urban Saban Tom Herman, left Houston for the job at Texas (more on him in the Big 12 piece in a few weeks).If losing three coaches to Power Five jobs seems like a lot, well it is. I looked at all coaching changes beginning with those occurring after the 2000 regular season and determined the number of times coaches have gone from Group of Five/non-BCS jobs to Power 5/BCS jobs. The record for number of coaches to leave a conference in one offseason is three, which has occurred three times, most recently with the AAC. Here is each instance.
The AAC is tied with the MAC in 2010 (which means following the 2010 regular season) and the WAC in 2012. However, if we look at percentages, the AAC has not been the most impressive. In 2012, the WAC only had seven teams, so nearly half their coaches were poached by the big boys!

Of course, just because you get poached does not necessarily mean you will last a long time in the Power 5 grinder. Of the MAC coaches from 2010, not a single one is still at the school that hired them away. Mike Haywood, from champion Miami, did not coach a game for Pittsburgh after he was fired for a domestic disturbance. Jerry Kill, from Northern Illinois, had success at Minnesota, but was forced to resign in 2015 due to health reasons. And Al Golden, from Temple, was fired in his fifth season at Miami after failing to return The U to its former glory. As for the WAC fraternity, Sonny Dykes from Louisiana Tech was just fired at Cal after one bowl appearance in four seasons. Gary Andersen from Utah State voluntarily left Wisconsin after just two years to attempt to rebuild Oregon State. Finally, Mike MacIntyre from San Jose State endured three very bad years at Colorado before leading them to a division title in 2016. Check back in six years and there is a good chance, neither Herman, Rhule, or Taggart are still at their respective schools.

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