Thursday, July 02, 2020

First Half Point Differential Part II: The Group of Five in 2019

Last week I introduced the nuanced and complex statistic of First Half Point Differential (1HPD) with a promise to examine the 2019 college football season through that lens. I keep my promises roughly half the time, so enjoy this review of Group of Five conference play from 2019.

American Athletic Conference
Like we always do, we'll start with a look back at the 2019 AAC standings.
And now we'll look at how the conference stacked up in terms if 1HPD in league play (conference rank in parentheses).
The first thing that jumps out is the two best teams by 1HPD did not win their respective divisions. UCF outscored their conference opponents by nearly 100 more points in the first half than the eventual East division winner (Cincinnati), but lost a tight game to the Bearcats and also dropped another close game to Tulsa. The Knights led both games at halftime by the way (by six and eleven points respectively) before frittering away the leads in the second half. However, despite losing a conference game for the first time in nearly three years, the Knights were still a dominant force in the AAC. In the West division, Memphis and Navy finished tied atop the division, but the Tigers won the head to head matchup (despite trailing at the half) and thus the tiebreaker. Elsewhere in the conference, the departing Huskies finished dead last in 1HPD, but they did lead at the half against Temple in the season finale. That marked the first time they led at the half against an AAC foe since 2017. That also happened to be their last conference win. Of course, they went on to lose to the Owls by 32 points.

Conference USA
The CUSA standings.
And the 1HPD.
Lane Kiffin's parting gift for FAU was a second conference title in three seasons, but the Owls were not nearly as dominant in 1HPD as they were two years ago. In 2017, they outscored their eight league opponents by nearly twice as many points (+121) in the first half of games. Out West, UAB won their second consecutive division title, but the Blazers actually finished just behind Southern Miss in 1HPD. The Eagles had the division in their talons after beating UAB by the odd score of 37-2, but dropped their final two conference games to Western Kentucky and FAU (a pair of East division foes) to give the division to UAB.

The MAC standings.
Did the wrong team win? Despite a 1HPD that was nearly double that of the second best team in the conference, Buffalo did not even win the East division. The Bulls opened conference play with back-to-back losses to Miami and Ohio, but were dominant down the stretch, save for a wild comeback by Kent State. The Bulls actually led at halftime in all eight of their conference games, something no other Group of Five team can boast.  At the other end of the spectrum, Akron did not win a game (in conference play or otherwise) and their 1HPD was indicative of that performance.

Mountain West
Here are the Mountain West standings.
And the Mountain West 1HPD.
Boise won the conference and had the best 1HPD. The interesting thing about the Mountain West is that every team in the Mountain Division, with the notable exception of New Mexico, finished with a positive 1HPD. In the West Division, Hawaii was the only team to finish with a significantly positive 1HPD (Fresno State was slightly above water at +6). With such a scoring imbalance, it probably won't surprise you that the five teams from the Mountain Division not named New Mexico went 13-2 against the West, with both losses coming to San Diego State.

Sun Belt
Finally, the Sun Belt standings.
And the Sun Belt 1HPD.
The two best teams in the conference won their respective divisions and met in the league title game. I was a little surprised at Appalachian State's 1HPD. I figured they would have been more dominant considering they are arguably the best Sun Belt team of all time and the first to finish the season ranked.

In the YPP and APR offseason recaps, I sort the teams in each conference by how much they over or under-performed relative to their expected record. Since all the Group of Five conferences are grouped together here, I am only going to list those that significantly over or under-performed (a difference of at least .200). We'll start with the overachievers.
Cincinnati had a great shot at winning the AAC, holding a lead against Memphis in the AAC Championship Game with under five minutes to play, until the Tigers prevailed. The Bearcats have won 22 games over the past two seasons, but can probably expect some regression in 2020. In Conference USA, a pair of first year coaches exceeded expectations. Will Healy guided the 49ers to the first bowl game in school history and Tyson Helton helped the Hilltoppers get back to the postseason. However, I wouldn't fancy either of these teams as contenders in the East this season. The 49ers were outscored in the first half of their conference games and Healy has a history of regressing after breakthrough seasons. He followed up an eight-win campaign at Austin Peay with a losing record. Meanwhile, despite Helton's background as an offensive coach, the Hilltoppers were led by their defense in 2019. A losing season by either or both in 2020 would not be that shocking. Air Force rebounded from back-to-back losing seasons and featured perhaps the best team of Troy Calhoun's tenure. However, despite cresting, the Falcons were unable to wrest the division away from Boise State and I wouldn't expect them to be able to in 2020 either. Finally, elsewhere in the Mountain West, Nevada managed to qualify for a second consecutive bowl game despite very bad first half numbers. The Wolfpack trailed by double-digits in half their conference games. Despite upheaval within the division (four of the six teams are breaking in new head coaches), I expect Nevada to finish with a losing record in 2020.

And now the underachievers.
Houston underachieved in the AAC, spoiling Dana Holgorsen's debut. It should be noted they still put up solid first half numbers despite the absence of quarterback D'Eriq King for seven of their eight conference games. King won't be back in 2020, but his backup earned valuable experience. Despite winning double-digit games for the third consecutive season, UCF actually underachieved in 2019. The Knights are the favorite heading into 2020, not just in the AAC, but also in terms of finishing as the highest ranked Group of Five team. In Conference USA, Rice actually outscored their opponents in the first half despite posting a losing league record. A tough non-conference schedule with games against Army, Houston, and LSU could keep the Owls out of the postseason, but if you are looking for a sleeper to win a wide open Conference USA, the Owls are a fine pick. Their in-state brethren have won just two games over the past three seasons, but I expect the Miners to dig deep and get to at least three wins in 2020. As I mentioned previously, Buffalo was arguably the best team in the MAC last season which is something considering the talent they lost to the NFL and the transfer portal. If the 2020 season is played, the Bulls will be the best MAC team since Western Michigan in 2016. Colorado State and Fresno State both finished with losing conference records despite outscoring their opponents in the first half. And both now have new head coaches stepping into good situations. Finally, South Alabama has a chance to make a third year leap under Steve Campbell after posting decent numbers hardly befitting a 1-7 outfit.

As always, thanks for reading. We'll be back next Thursday with a look at 1HPD in the Power Five. Enjoy the 4th and wear a damn mask.

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