Thursday, April 23, 2020

2019 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Mountain West

Last week we looked at how Mountain West teams fared in terms of yards per play. This week, we turn our attention to how the season played out in terms of the Adjusted Pythagorean Record, or APR. For an in-depth look at APR, click here. If you didn’t feel like clicking, here is the Reader’s Digest version. APR looks at how well a team scores and prevents touchdowns. Non-offensive touchdowns, field goals, extra points, and safeties are excluded. The ratio of offensive touchdowns to touchdowns allowed is converted into a winning percentage. Pretty simple actually.

Once again, here are the 2019 Mountain West standings.
And here are the APR standings with conference rank in offensive touchdowns, touchdowns allowed, and APR in parentheses. This includes conference games only with the championship game excluded.
Finally, Mountain West teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
Seven teams saw their expected record differ significantly from their actual record using yards per play and when it comes to APR, the results were quite similar. Six teams saw their APR differ from their actual win total by at least a game and a half. Last week, we discussed some reasons why Boise State, Nevada, and Utah State exceeded their expected record and why Fresno State and New Mexico under-performed. However, a new entrant, Wyoming boasted the largest negative differential between their APR and actual record. Thanks to a fantastic defense, the Cowboys finished just behind Air Force in APR last season. Unfortunately, the Cowboys were 0-3 in one-score conference games and finished 4-4, losing three league games by twelve total points. By contrast, their smallest margin of victory in Mountain West play was ten points.

Requiem for Rocky
In early 2020, Rocky Long resigned as head coach of San Diego State. You may have missed this in the college football news cycle as Clemson and LSU were slated to play in the College Football Playoff a few days later. Since Long spent most of his coaching career at mid-major jobs west of the Mississippi, many casual college football fans probably don't know who he is. Well, I aim to change that. Over the next 10,000 words or so, my four regular readers will learn the hagiography of Rocky Long.

Long is not dead by the way. He's not even retired. He is the defensive coordinator at his alma mater, the University of New Mexico. He was also the head coach of the Lobos for eleven seasons before relocating to beautiful San Diego. He finished his head coaching career at New Mexico with a losing record, but the Lobos were bowl eligible for seven straight seasons (2001-2007) and he is arguably the most successful coach in school history (at least based on what he did in the Land of Enchantment). But we're mostly going to focus on what he did at San Diego State the past eleven seasons (nine as head coach).

Before we start praising Long too much, let's delve into a mild criticism. Prior to the 2012 season (his second in charge in San Diego), Long opined that August that his team would be more aggressive in their fourth down attempts heading into the season. Did his team become more aggressive in terms of fourth down attempts in 2012? Compared to the previous season, not really.
But whoa, they did get very aggressive in 2013, leading the nation in total fourth down attempts. So Long basically became an amalgamation of Mike Leach and Doug Pederson from then on right?
After being moderate to very aggressive in terms of fourth down attempts in his first three season, Long retreated into a shell for a half decade or so. This metric is not perfect as it is devoid of context (I didn't sift through the play by play to determine how many fourth and shorts San Diego State faced, compare it to the national average, and adjust for situational aspects like time and score), but it shows a pretty drastic shift in thinking. Why? Well, the answer is pretty simple.
The Aztecs gave the ball up on a lot of those fourth down gambles in 2013 and Long apparently decided, like Goldwater, that conservatism was the best path forward.

Oh well. Rocky achieved great success at San Diego State (two Mountain West titles) despite not being at the cutting edge in terms of analytics. But let's give Long credit for something the Aztecs did well during his tenure: play fantastic defense. Long became defensive coordinator at San Diego State in 2009, when he was hired by Brady Hoke (who after a winding road from Michigan, Oregon, Tennessee, and the NFL is now the head coach once again). Prior to Long's arrival as defensive coordinator, the Aztecs had ranked dead last in the Mountain West in yards allowed per play for two consecutive seasons. After a sixth place finish is his first season on the job, they ranked in the top three of the conference for the next decade and have not allowed more than five yards per play to conference foes in the past six seasons.
Long called his own defensive plays in San Diego once he became head coach (in 2011), so he shoulders a great deal of credit for those fantastic numbers. In addition to posting great defensive numbers, San Diego State usually boasted a great running game to compliment it. Three San Diego State running backs were drafted during Long's tenure (Ronnie Hillman, Rashaad Penny, and Nick Bawden who was actually a fullback in college) while Donnel Pumphrey left San Diego State as the NCAA's all-time leading rusher (with an asterisk of course). In addition, since Long took over in 2011, there have been fifteen instances of a running back finishing with at least 250 carries and twenty touchdowns while averaging at least six yards per carry (three quarterbacks have done it -- Jordan Lynch, Lamar Jackson, and Malcolm Perry). I think this arbitrary combination of numbers does a good job of identifying backs with the qualities of both explosiveness and work-horsery. San Diego State backs have two of those seasons.
The only other schools with multiple seasons are one known for their backs and beefy offensive linemen and another that is annually one of the most talented teams in the nation. The running game struggled a great deal in 2019 (though San Diego State still won ten games and received a few votes in the final AP Poll), so maybe Long got out one season too soon rather than one season too late.

Rocky Long will never be a household name among college football fans, but he did great work at two places that did not have a winning tradition when he arrived. His (likely) final act will be attempting to return his alma mater to respectability as defensive coordinator. Will he succeed? The odds are probably stacked against him, but I wouldn't call in a Longshot.

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