Thursday, March 12, 2020

2019 Yards Per Play: Conference USA

After six weeks of Power 5 college football, we return to our G5 roots. 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 2019 season, which teams in Conference USA met this threshold? Here are Conference USA teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Louisiana Tech significantly exceeded their expected record based on YPP while Middle Tennessee and North Texas saw their records fail to match their per play standards. Louisiana Tech was not lucky in close games (1-1 in one-score league games), but did have the second best in-conference turnover margin (+8) in the league. However, the real reason for the disconnect between Louisiana Tech’s record and per play efficiency was the two games they lost. After beginning the season 8-1 (5-0 in Conference USA), the Bulldogs suspended a handful of players, including starting quarterback J’Mar Smith prior to their road trip to Marshall. The Bulldogs scored just ten points in a loss to the Herd, and with Smith missing the following game against UAB, managed just fourteen points in another defeat. Those losses, ceded the division to UAB. Smith returned for the season finale and the Bulldogs blew out UTSA. In the six conference games Louisiana Tech played at full strength, they outscored their opponents by exactly 100 points while averaging 41 points per game. In the two games they played shorthanded, they managed just 24 total points. Their per play differential was similarly striking.
While the Bulldogs did not have the profile of an undefeated team in their six full strength games, they were much better than the middling team they appeared to be when all their conference games were included. As for the colorful Blue Raiders and Mean Green, it’s much easier to see why they underperformed. Middle Tennessee (0-3) and North Texas (1-3) went a combined 1-6 in one-score conference games. A little better luck here or there, and both would have been back in the postseason. 

Extreme Turnover Margins 
Florida Atlantic enjoyed arguably their best season in school history in 2019. The Owls dropped their first two games in blowout fashion to a playoff participant and perhaps the best mid-major program in recent history. They then proceeded to win eleven of their final twelve games, with each victory coming by at least ten points. They capped their season by dominating the best post-death penalty SMU team in their bowl game. On the strength of that victory, they finished just outside the final polls, narrowly missing out on the first AP ranking in school history as well as nearly becoming the first ranked Conference USA team in a half-decade. Befitting a successful season by a G5 program, the Owls did lose their coach, but they appear set up to contend for another conference crown in 2020. Or are they?

While the Owls had a solid YPP margin against their league foes in 2019 (+1.18), it actually ranked second behind UAB (+1.46). Part of this is due to schedule strength as UAB benefited from playing the four worst teams by YPP in conference play (Rice, UTSA, Old Dominion, and UTEP) as well as a short-handed Louisiana Tech. Still, Florida Atlantic’s YPP margin is well below the one posted by their last championship team in 2017 (+1.68) and that team failed to qualify for a bowl game the next season! However, the real reason Florida Atlantic fans may want to curb their enthusiasm just a bit is because of the team’s historic turnover margin in 2019. In eight conference games (excluding their title game beatdown of UAB), the Owls had a turnover margin of +16. They are just the eighth team since 2005 to have an in-conference turnover margin of at least +2 per game. Here are the other seven along with how their conference record changed the following year.
Six of the other seven teams saw their conference record decline by at least one game and the average decline was about 1.4 wins. Each team managed to finish with a winning conference record the next season, but they were not as dominant. The Owls will have plenty of competition in the East division next season, with Charlotte, Marshall, and Western Kentucky looking to build on solid seasons, Middle Tennessee looking to rebound, and Florida International looking to stick it to their in-state rival. Old Dominion is the only program in the division without a realistic shot at contending. If the Owls are able to repeat as division champs in 2020, Willie Taggart will have earned all the money Florida State is still paying him.

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