Wednesday, March 08, 2017

2016 Yards Per Play: Conference USA

Four conferences down, six to go. We are almost halfway home. This week we examine Conference USA. Here are the 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 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 Big 10 met this threshold? Here are the Conference USA teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
The only Conference USA team that saw their expected record differ significantly from their actual record was Rice. This is a bit misleading as Rice posted absolutely abysmal defensive numbers through their first six conference games. The Owls allowed an average of 8.64 yards per play and 41.5 points per game during their 0-6 start, but rebounded to hold Charlotte and UTEP to under five yards per play each and 45 total points. The regression analysis sees the poor numbers Rice put up over the course of the season and actually believes they should have won fewer than zero games.
'The Gambletron 2000 says the winner is...Cincinnati by 200 points' 

As you may have heard, the two Florida schools in Conference USA made big splashes in their offseason coaching hires. FAU hired Cartman-lookalike and the poster child for nepotism, Lane Kiffin, while FIU hired the most successful coach the Cleveland Browns have had since they returned to the NFL, Butch Davis. Most of the banal talking heads and even the statistically inclined internet cognoscenti believed these to be good hires. If you’ll allow it, I want to make a few contrarian arguments in the paragraphs that follow. Here’s why I don’t necessarily think Kiffin and Davis will succeed at their new locales.

1. FAU and FIU were not particularly good last season. This is not too much of a surprise since both schools parted ways with their head coaches. To be fair, teams improve all the time and a school going from a handful of wins to bowl eligibility in one season would not be extremely shocking, but both the Owls and Panthers were decidedly below average by Conference USA standards last season. While FAU did post solid offensive numbers, both defenses were poor and neither team was particularly unlucky in regards to their final record. In fact, FIU was actually a bit lucky to finish 4-4 in league play despite a negative per play differential.

2. Kiffin and Davis are not used to being underdogs. In his college coaching career, Lane Kiffin has been a head coach at Tennessee and Southern Cal. He has also famously (or infamously) been an assistant at Alabama. Neither of those schools qualifies as an underdog. He was a graduate assistant at Colorado State in 1999, but that is his only experience at a mid-major school. Butch Davis has been a college head coach at Miami and North Carolina. He has also been an assistant at Oklahoma State. North Carolina and Oklahoma State were not college football blue bloods (no pun intended) when he was there, but they were not mid-major programs either. In other words, Kiffin and Davis don’t a lot of experience, especially recent experience, of being one of the have-nots of college football. Speaking of…

3. Many of their coaching brethren in Conference USA do have experience guiding mid-major programs. Rick Stockstill, head coach of Middle Tennessee State, has been with the Blue Raiders for eleven seasons and while his overall record of 72-66 may not get him into the College Football Hall of Fame, he is 54-31 against conference opponents (i.e. teams with similar resources) over that span. Doc Holliday has been the head coach of Marshal for seven seasons and while the Herd collapsed last season, he still boasts a career record of 53-37 and 35-21 against conference opponents. Over at Old Dominion, Bobby Wilder has been the head coach since the program’s (re)inception and has had just a single losing season while guiding the program from birth through FCS to FBS. Even Charlotte, a start-up that has yet to taste great success in FBS, will have Brad Lambert on the sidelines for a fifth consecutive season. Recruiting and developing players is different at the mid-major level and with the exception of Western Kentucky, which has been the most successful Conference USA program over the past three seasons, every division opponent has a head coach with vastly more experience at the lower levels of college football.

4. Lest we forget, Kiffin and Davis did not exactly engineer fantastic finishes at their previous stops. In Kiffin’s four-plus seasons at Tennessee and Southern Cal, his teams finished ranked only once and his career conference record was just 17-12. I know Southern Cal was in the midst of a sanction-palooza, but it should be noted that Ed Orgeron took the Southern Cal team Lane bequeathed him with an 0-2 conference start and guided them to six wins in their final seven conference games. Davis never finished better than 4-4 in ACC play at North Carolina and finished his four years with a pedestrian 15-17 record against conference opponents. While this was an improvement over the John Bunting era, keep in mind the ACC was not a national player during his tenure. Remember 2008 when practically the whole conference went either 5-3 or 4-4? The overlords in Tallahassee were wheezing in the final years of Bobby Bowden’s tenure and Clemson had yet to assume their national standing. The Seminoles and Tigers occupied a different division so the only true national threat in the conference at that time was division-mate Virginia Tech. Even in a watered down ACC, Davis never managed better than a third place division finish.

5. This one applies only to Butch, but if Wikipedia is to be believed, Mr. Davis will turn 66 during the 2017 regular season. At a time when most Americans are settling in for the slow march to death to watch Wheel of Fortune, Davis will be working long hours in a highly stressful profession. A few years ago, I read Game Plan : A Radical Approach to Decision Making in the National Football League by Frank Dupont. It's a good book and an easy read, so if you are interested, I recommend checking it out. Anyway, one of the chapters in the book discusses how humans lose certain mental abilities as they age. To show that NFL coaches are not immune to this phenomenon, he compared each coach's winning percentage throughout their career to the winning percentage in their best season and concludes that coaches decline beginning around age 51. He then looked at every coach who coached a minimum of four seasons and calculated the average winning percentage at each age. Once again, the results showed a decline as coaches age. Per Mr. Dupont:
'The 50 year old coaches won over 55% of their games whereas the 60 year old coaches won about 42% of their games.'
He goes on to reference some scientific studies showing that while overall knowledge does not decrease until an advanced age, things like processing speed and reasoning begin declining when humans are in their late 20s. The game of football moves very fast, and a decline in processing speed or reasoning could negatively impact a coach's decisions. I'm not suggesting Davis will be drooling on the FIU sidelines, but he will be matching wits with men who are much younger than him. Dupont's research focused on NFL coaches, but the same general idea applies to college coaches as well. And while there are some successful old coaches such as Bill Snyder and Nick Saban, it should be noted that Snyder's second tenure at Kansas State has not been as successful as his first and for all the accolades Saban receives, he does have a few structural advantages at Alabama.

What is an approximation of success for Kiffin and Davis? Is it a bowl game? A winning record? A conference title? A top-25 appearance? A New Year's Six Bowl? If the bar to clear is a bowl game, I think both Kiffin and Davis can get there at least once, but if success means a conference title, I would be be inclined to bet against it.

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