Thursday, May 24, 2018

2017 Yards Per Play: Sun Belt

Hard to believe, but we have reached the final conference in our offseason sojourn. Here are the 2017 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. 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 2017 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.
Coastal Carolina was the lone Sun Belt team that saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record. The Chanticleers first season as an FBS program was a unique one. It began in the summer when head coach Joe Moglia went out on medical leave. It continued once the season began when Coastal lost to zombie program UAB and FCS Western Illinois before nearly beating Arkansas later in the year. The Chanticleers actually began life in the Sun Belt 0-6 before winning their final two games and sowing some seeds of optimism heading into 2018. The Chanticleers were a little unlucky in close games, finishing 1-3 in one-score Sun Belt contests (1-5 overall with close losses to UAB and Arkansas). However, they were also done in by their inability to cover kick offs. Coastal allowed four kick return touchdowns in 2017 and allowed five more non-offensive touchdowns than they scored in Sun Belt play. Those kickoff returns (and a well-time fumble return) provided the margin of defeat in their games against Louisiana-Monroe and Georgia State.

In other news regarding FBS novices, South Alabama will have a new football coach in 2018. Joey Jones guided the South Alabama program since its inception and this is not intended as a slight, but the Jaguars were a very anonymous team under his watch. If you aren’t a regular mid-week Fun Belt viewer or an alum of USA, you may not even know that South Alabama is an FBS program. It doesn’t help that the Jaguars have not really distinguished themselves as either a very bad or very good mid-major program. In their six seasons as members of the Sun Belt, the Jaguars have finished with either five or six wins four times. They went 2-11 in their first season and 4-8 this past year, but otherwise they have hovered around the six win mark. However, one group that will certainly recognize South Alabama are degenerate gamblers as the Jaguars have pulled off several massive upsets in their brief history.
In the College Football Playoff era (beginning with 2014), South Alabama has pulled five outright upsets as a double-digit underdog. This is tied for the second most double-digit upsets in that span and tied for the most among mid-major teams. The Jaguars have also spread their upsets around, pulling at least one in three of the four seasons of the CFP era. Joey Jones never brought the Jaguars a Sun Belt title, but he took them to two bowl games and guided them to quite a few colossal upsets.

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