Thursday, April 02, 2020

2019 Yards Per Play: MAC

We are halfway through our offseason recaps. This week, we examine the MAC.

Here are the MAC 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 MAC 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 MAC met this threshold? Here are MAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Bowling Green was the lone MAC squad that saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record based on YPP. The Falcons exceeded their expected record which is not a great sign when they won just a quarter of their conference games. How did the Falcons manage to exceed their expected record despite winning just two conference games? Well, the Falcons played competent defense in two games (outside of their victory against FCS Morgan State) all season. They held Toledo and Akron to 13 combined points. In their other six conference games, they allowed an average of over 51 points per game and 8.3 yards per play!

The People's Champ
On the surface, Western Michigan's 2019 season doesn't look that special. While the Broncos were bowl eligible for the sixth straight season, they only managed a 7-6 record and failed to beat either of the flawed Power Five teams (Michigan State and Syracuse) on their schedule. However, if you look a little closer, you can see they accomplished a somewhat rare feat. In their conference opener, they pounded Central Michigan. Two weeks later, they pounded Miami of Ohio. Why are these two results rare? Because the Chippewas and Redhawks ended up playing in the MAC Championship Game. Yes, the Broncos beat both division winners, making them the eighteenth team to accomplish that feat in FBS history. If you want to know a little background behind the other seventeen, keep reading. We'll start with mid-majors and move up to the major conference teams.
Before he was setting the bar too high at Texas A&M and running Arizona into the ground, Kevin Sumlin got his start at the University of Houston. His first Cougar team handled East Carolina and Tulsa with ease, beating both when they were in the lower reaches of the AP Poll. The Cougars particularly crushed the Golden Hurricane, winning 70-30 and inflicting Tulsa's only regular season conference loss. Houston was actually poised to win the division entering their regular season finale, but arguably the best Rice team of the last fifty years beat them to give the division to Tulsa.
Brady Hoke's third Ball State team beat Northern Illinois and Akron, but went just 2-4 in their other MAC conference games to finish all alone in fifth place in the MAC West. 2005 was just before the bowl boom as the conference actually finished with seven bowl eligible teams, but only two participated in the postseason. In fact, after being upset in the MAC Championship Game, Northern Illinois did not receive a postseason invite.
There is some true Tommy Bowden level shit going on here. Clemson beat both ACC Championship Game participants by multiple scores in 2006, but lost to Boston College early in the season thanks to a blocked extra point and to Maryland late in the year when they managed just four field goals despite nearly 400 yards of total offense. That loss gave the division and eventual conference title to my alma mater, Wake Forest.
Ohio State was ineligible for postseason play in 2012 thanks to some tattoo shenanigans that occurred under Jim Tressel. Thus, their undefeated season was for naught. The Buckeyes dominated Nebraska (their only regular season conference setback) and edged Wisconsin. The Badgers went just 4-4 in Big 10 play, but qualified for the conference title game because Penn State was also ineligible for the postseason (for more nefarious reasons).

Michigan was rolling for much of the 2016 season, opening 9-0, including victories against both Penn State and Wisconsin. The victory over the Nittany Lions was particularly gruesome, with Penn State mustering just ten points (in a season where they averaged nearly 40 per game). It was the last time Penn State would taste defeat in the 2016 season until their Rose Bowl classic with Southern Cal. Michigan dropped a close game to Iowa, but still controlled their own fate in the division and College Football Playoff when they faced Ohio State. A controversial spot helped Ohio State win and gave the division to Penn State.
A year after winning the national title, Texas was still pretty good. They extended their Big 12 winning streak to twenty game by opening 6-0 in league play. However, they dropped their final two games in divergent fashion, losing a shootout at Kansas State and managing just seven points in a home loss to the rival Aggies to give the division to Oklahoma.

One year before playing for the national title, Texas was still pretty good. They knocked off both Oklahoma and Missouri on their way to a 12-1 season. Alas, their lone loss (to Texas Tech), made the Big 12 South a three-way tie at the top with each team posting a 1-1 record against the other two. The Big 12 used BCS standings to split the baby and Oklahoma was granted the division crown despite losing to Texas by ten points on a neutral field.

Mike Sherman's (remember him?) penultimate Texas A&M team opened Big 12 play with losses to Oklahoma State and Missouri (sandwiched around a then non-conference loss to Arkansas). Then the Aggies rolled off six straight wins. Another three-way tie at the top of the Big 12 South ensued, with Oklahoma State joining the Aggies and Sooners in the pole position. Once again the BCS standings gave the division to Oklahoma despite a multi-score loss to a team from the Lone Star State.

No divisions? No problem. The return of the Big 12 Championship game also saw the return of the People's Champ. Iowa State beat Oklahoma and TCU in very different games. They staged a rally and won a shootout in Norman and held TCU without an offensive touchdown in Ames. Despite those two victories, the Cyclones finished 3-4 against their other conference opponents (2-4 against other Big 12 teams not named Kansas).
As is the case with a few other entries on this list, Southern Cal was postseason banned in 2011. Despite this handicap, the Trojans closed the season strong, beating Oregon and UCLA in back-to-back weeks. The victory against their cross-town rivals was particularly brutal. With that momentum, the Trojans were ranked number one in the 2012 preseason. I didn't check to see if they lived up to those expectations.

Coming off an appearance in the inaugural College Football Playoff, Oregon stumbled out of the gates sans Marcus Mariota. The Ducks dropped two of their first three conference games, including a legitimate curb-stomping at the hands of Utah and were just 3-3 overall halfway through the season. They won their final six games, highlighted by wins against Stanford and Southern Cal in back-to-back weeks. The victory against Stanford was extra sweet as it likely kept the Cardinal out of the College Football Playoff.

Southern Cal lost three of their first four games, including their first two conference games before they rallied behind quarterback Sam Darnold. After a last-minute loss to Utah, the Trojans won their final nine games and were responsible for the only regular season conference losses for both Colorado and Washington. If only Clay Helton has started Darnold sooner.

Befitting a team coached by the eccentric Mike Leach, 2017 was a weird season for Washington State. The Cougars began the season 6-0 and were ranked in the top-ten. They would finish unranked. Including the bowl, they dropped four of their final seven games with each loss coming by at least three touchdowns. However, even in that late season swoon, they managed to edge Stanford at home to go along with their earlier home upset of Southern Cal.
Like Urban Meyer at Ohio State, Terry Bowden began his career at Auburn with an undefeated campaign marred by a postseason ban. The Tigers edged a Florida team whose only other loss came to eventual national champion Florida State and beat the reigning national champion Crimson Tide. Alabama finished with a weird as hell 5-2-1 conference record and were the only other non postseason banned SEC West team to finish with a winning record.

Peyton Manning could never beat Florida, but he did guide Tennessee to their first division title because the Gators lost to LSU and Georgia. After dropping the game to the Gators, Tennessee would not lose again until the Orange Bowl against one half of the eventual national champions, Nebraska.

Jackie Sherrill's last good Mississippi State team beat a solid Auburn team and an under the radar good Florida team. Florida's only other losses in 2000 came to teams that were good enough to win the national title (Florida State and Miami). Outside of those two big wins, the Bulldogs went just 2-4 in their other SEC games.

Ron Zook's claim to fame (other than somehow getting Illinois to the Rose Bowl) is beating Nick Saban's first national title winning team. He also beat Georgia for good measure. Outside of Florida, Georgia's only other losses in 2003 were both to LSU. Once in the regular season and again in the SEC Championship Game. I would be remiss if I did not note Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee finished in a three-way tie atop the SEC East. I assume the BCS standings were the tie-breaker that lifted Georgia to the division crown, but I could not find evidence to confirm this.

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