Thursday, January 16, 2020

2019 Yards Per Play: AAC

We begin our offseason recaps as we have in the past 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 2019 season, which teams in the AAC met this threshold? Here are AAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
The AAC saw a pair of teams significantly exceed their expected record based on YPP and saw one team significantly under perform. Cincinnati finished ranked in the AP top 25 for the second consecutive season and while they managed to beat a few good teams (most notably UCF) and hang tough with Memphis in back-to-back weeks, they also narrowly edged East Carolina and South Florida and needed a blocked extra point returned for two to hold off Temple. Overall, the Bearcats finished 4-0 in one-score conference games during the regular season and finished with the best in-conference turnover margin of any AAC team (+7). SMU was also ranked in the AP top 25 for much of the season, but crapped the bed in their bowl game to finish unranked. The Mustangs were not especially fortunate in close games like the Bearcats, finishing 3-2 in one-score conference games nor did they boast an amazing turnover margin (+3 in AAC play). The slight advantages in those two areas helped them overcome their defensive struggles (allowed 6.65 yards play over their final five conference games) and mediocre statistical profile. Tulsa was on the other end of the spectrum. Despite a mediocre yards per play margin, they won just twice in conference play. They were not especially unlucky in close games (1-2 in one-score AAC games), nor was their turnover margin especially poor (-1 in AAC play). The culprit was non-offensive touchdowns. The Golden Hurricane allowed four non-offensive touchdowns while scoring just one of their own. Two of those touchdowns (an interception and a kickoff return) came against Houston in a game Tulsa lost by ten points. Another (a fumble return) came against Tulane in a game the Golden Hurricane lost by twelve. Those mostly random non-offensive scores made the Golden Hurricane look much worse than they actually were.

What a Con
2019 marks the end of an illustrious run for Connecticut in the AAC. The Huskies have grown tired of conference living and will be setting out as an independent beginning with the 2020 campaign. While the Huskies have served as a functional bye for their conference opponents over the past two seasons, they were not always quite this bad. In the early days of the AAC (2015), the Huskies actually qualified for a bowl game (and beat the eventual Group of Five NY6 representative). The years since that legendary St. Petersburg Bowl have not been kind. The Huskies moved on from Bob Diaco after a three win season in 2016 and attempted to recapture their (relative) glory days of the late aughts by bringing back Randy Edsall. Edsall won just two conference games in three seasons of work in the AAC and leaves with a nineteen game conference losing streak. However, perhaps more impressive than the losing streak is the streak of games in which Connecticut was expected to lose. The Huskies have not been favored against another AAC opponent since their 2017 conference opener against East Carolina (which they lost). How does that streak of 23 straight games as a conference underdog compare to other notable streaks since 2005? Well, it’s not even close to the longest streak, which I bet you can guess if you think about it for just a second.
Kansas has not been favored in a Big 12 game since 2009! The league has lost four teams and added two since the last time Kansas was favored. The Huskies are not even a third of the way to catching the Jayhawks and with the Huskies leaving the AAC, they won’t have a chance to cut into the lead this season. Of course, the Jayhawks streak is still active, and assuming things continue unabated as they have for the last decade, we may see their streak reach triple digits this November.

With so many of the longest conference underdog steaks currently active, I decided to include a separate table of active streaks of at least ten games.
Eight of the ten FBS conferences are represented with the ACC and MAC the lone holdouts. We’ll see you same time next week when we look at the AAC through the prism of the Adjusted Pythagorean Record.

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