Thursday, February 21, 2019

2018 Yards Per Play: Big 12

Three conferences down, seven to go. Next up, 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, with the championship game not included. 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 2018 season, which teams in the Big 12 met this threshold? Here are Big 12 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Texas was the only Big 12 team that saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record based on YPP. The Longhorns did have the best in-conference turnover margin in the Big 12, but it was hardly historic (+9). Texas was able to qualify for the Big 12 Championship Game thanks to some good fortune in close games. Seven of their nine conference games were decided by a touchdown or less, and the Longhorns won five of them. They won close games against good teams (Oklahoma), bad teams (Kansas), and everything in between (TCU).

Miles to Go
To no one’s surprise, Kansas was recently again in the market for a new football coach. To the surprise of some, the Jayhawks were able to coax former Oklahoma State and LSU coach Les Miles to take the job. Miles may not be the most tactically gifted football coach in history, but he does have a national championship on his resume. For a school that has spent the last decade as the worst BCS/Power Five program, that was quite a (public relations) coup. But what can Kansas fans reasonably expect from Miles? Have other national championship winning coaches been able to duplicate their success at a new locale? To answer that question, I looked at all FBS coaching hires since 1984 (what I deem the ‘modern era’) where the coach had at least one national championship at the FBS level. This means we are excluding coaches like Craig Bohl and Lance Leipold who won titles at lower levels before becoming FBS head coaches. By my count there are twelve head coaches (including Miles) that have been hired to lead FBS programs while having a national title on their resume. The other eleven are listed below along with their record at their new jobs.
That’s a pretty eclectic group of coaches. Let’s go through them one-by-one.

Larry Coker – Coker won the 2001 national title at Miami and nearly won a second in 2002. Diminishing returns led to his ouster after the 2006 season, but he returned to coaching at Texas-San Antonio and helped start the program from scratch. In four seasons of play at the FBS level, Coker guided the Roadrunners to two winning seasons and a 22-26 overall record.

Dennis Erickson – Erickson started his college head coaching career out west, leading Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington State before getting the Miami job. He won or shared two national titles at Miami before heading back to the west coast to take the Seattle Seahawks job. His teams in Seattle were the epitome of mediocrity, accumulating a 31-33 record over four seasons. He returned to college in 1999, finishing the rebuild Mike Riley began at Oregon State. The Beavers made three bowl appearances in his four seasons and reached unprecedented heights in 2000. The NFL came calling again and Erickson joined the 49ers in 2003. He only lasted two years this time, as his 2004 team bottomed out at 2-14. He returned to college in 2006, coaching Idaho for one season before leaving for Arizona State. His first Arizona State team won ten game and was briefly ranked in the top-ten. However, his final four teams in the desert went just 21-28.

Jimbo Fisher – Jimbo won the final championship of the BCS era at Florida State in 2013, but after a 6-6 season in 2017, he abruptly left the program for Texas A&M. He produced a 9-4 record in his first season at the helm.

Danny Ford – Revered at Clemson for winning the 1981 national title, scandal and differences with the administration caused Ford to resign after the 1989 season. He returned to coaching at Arkansas in 1993 and while he guided the Hogs to their first SEC West title in 1995, he had three losing seasons in five years after having none in more than a decade at Clemson.

Lou Holtz – Holtz guided the Fighting Irish to the national title in 1988 and stuck around for eight more seasons in South Bend. After a brief two-year retirement, he took the South Carolina job and had the Gamecocks bowling in his second season. However, despite winning seventeen games between 2000 and 2001, his teams could not maintain that level of play, going just 16-19 over his final three seasons.

Urban Meyer – Meyer won the 2006 and 2008 national titles at Florida. He resigned amid health concerns after the 2010 season, but returned to coaching at Ohio State in 2012. He won the first title of the playoff era with the Buckeyes in 2014 and continued to have great success on the field. However, off the field problems likely contributed to his retirement following the 2018 season.

John Robinson – Robinson led Southern Cal to a share of the 1978 national title and although he left the school following the 1982 season, he stayed in Los Angeles to coach the Rams. He guided the Rams for nine full seasons, making the playoffs in six of his first seven years. The Rams made the NFC Championship Game twice, but were soundly defeated both times (by the Bears and 49ers). He returned to Southern Cal in 1993 and while the sequel was not quite as good as the original, the Trojans did win the Rose Bowl in January of 1996 and never posted a losing season under his watch. After a one-season retirement, he took on the biggest challenge of his career when he became the head coach of UNLV. The Rebels did qualify for and win a bowl game in his second season, but that was as good as it got in the desert. His last four teams went 17-29.

Bobby Ross – Ross shared a national title at Georgia Tech in 1990. After one more season in the shadow of another Bobby, he left to coach the San Diego Chargers. Ross guided the Chargers to a Super Bowl berth following the 1994 season and actually made the playoffs three times in five years before leaving to coach the Detroit Lions. Ross coached the Lions for three and a half seasons and while they qualified for the playoffs twice, they failed to win a playoff game. With his military background as an alumnus of VMI and having started his head coaching career at the Citadel, Ross seemed like a fine choice to lead the Army program back to prosperity. Alas, the Black Knights won just nine games in his three seasons at the helm.

Nick Saban – Saban shared the 2003 national title at LSU and left one year later to coach the Miami Dolphins. Not sure what happened to him after that.

Howard Schnellenberger – Schnellenberger guided the Miami Hurricanes to their first national title in 1983, but left after the season to coach The Spirit of Miami of the USFL. His timing was not great as the team decided against relocating to Miami and did not retain Schnellenberger as head coach. He took the Louisville job in 1985 and while his overall record was south of .500, he did lead the Cardinals to a pair of top-25 finishes. He coached Oklahoma for one season in 1995 and later laid the blue print for Larry Coker’s second act as he helped start the Florida Atlantic football program.

Steve Spurrier – Spurrier won the 1996 national title at Florida, but five seasons later he left the Gators to coach the Washington Redskins. After two seasons and twelve wins, Spurrier resigned and in 2005, followed Lou Holtz at South Carolina. After a mediocre start, his 2010-2013 teams won 42 games, the first division title in school history, and finished in the top-ten three times.

Overall, with the exception of Ross, who was an abject failure at Army, those title winning coaches all experienced at least a modicum of success at their new spots. But that begs the question, what is a modicum of success at Kansas? The Jayhawks have not won more than three games since 2009, so I guess that is where we should set the bar. If Miles can get the Jayhawks to one bowl game in his tenure, he will have done better than the three coaches who have preceded him.

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