Thursday, March 04, 2021

2020 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Big 12

Last week we looked at how Big 12 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 2020 Big 12 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. Since teams played a varied number of games (everyone played at least eight games and six teams played a full nine game schedule), the rankings are on a per game basis, not raw totals. 
Finally, Big 12 teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine whether or not a team significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR. Using that standard, no team saw their actual record differ significantly from their APR.
 
Power Five Teams to Never Make a Conference Title Game
With Iowa State's historic season in 2020 (and Notre Dame's to an extent), the list of Power Five programs to never make a conference title game has shrunk by two. However, instead of celebrating Iowa State's success, lets have some fun at the expense of those teams that have never played in a conference title game. We'll go alphabetically by conference, starting with the ACC.
Of the fourteen teams in this iteration of the ACC, just three have not played in the league's title game. All three teams play in the Atlantic Division, home of current power Clemson and former power Florida State. Meanwhile, the Coastal Division saw all seven teams alternate division titles over seven consecutive seasons beginning with Duke in 2013 and ending with Virginia in 2019. The three teams to not play in the title game have all come fairly close over the years. Louisville, with Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, finished the 2016 season tied with Clemson atop the Atlantic Division, but dropped a classic in Death Valley giving the Tigers the tiebreaker. NC State, with a generational talent of their own at quarterback, just needed to beat Maryland in the final game of the 2010 regular season, but lost to the Terps, giving the division title to Florida State. Finally, Syracuse finished 6-2 in ACC play in 2018, and nearly beat Clemson in Death Valley before Chase Brice and Travis Etienne staged a late rally. Had the Orange won, they would have played their old Big East rival Pitt in the ACC Championship Game.

Up next, the Big 10.
Only half the current Big 10 teams have ever played in the conference title game. Illinois has never really come close, with their best conference finish since the league added a title game being 4-5 in 2019. Indiana almost won their division this past season, but the league changed the rules so Ohio State could qualify despite playing five conference games. Maryland has never come close to playing in the Big 10 Championship Game, but they had a few near misses in the ACC. Most notably in 2006, when they hosted Wake Forest in the regular season finale with the winner taking the Atlantic Division. Michigan has come close to winning first the Legends and later the East side of the Big 10, but fell to eventual winners Michigan State, Nebraska, and Ohio State in different seasons. Minnesota had a chance to win the Big 10 West in 2019, but fell to Wisconsin in the regular season finale giving the Badgers the division title and Paul Bunyan's Axe. Purdue and Rutgers have never really come close to winning their respective divisions since the Big 10 added a conference title game. 

Now, the Big 12. 
Six of the current Big 12 teams have played in the conference title game. Kansas nearly finished unbeaten in 2007, but dropped their regular season finale to arch-rival Missouri in the Border War. They have not finished with a winning conference record since. Oklahoma State had the misfortune of having their best team immediately after the conference discontinued the title game. Had a title game existed in 2011, perhaps the extra quality win could have pushed the Cowboys ahead of Alabama and prevented an all-SEC BCS Championship Game. Texas Tech's best shot at a division title game in Mike Leach's penultimate season when the Red Raiders won their first six conference games before a trip to Norman. The Sooners blew them out and set up a three-way tie in the Big 12 South that was broken by the BCS standings. Dana Holgorsen's final West Virginia team won six of their first seven conference games, but lost their final two games to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma by a combined seven points. A victory in either would have put the Mountaineers in the Big 12 Championship Game. 

And now, the Pac-12. 
Every team in the Pac-12 South has made the conference title games, so this list is entirely populated with teams from the North. Amazingly, Cal has not posted a winning conference record since 2009, so they have never really been in position to contend for the division crown (Pac-12 added divisions in 2011). Oregon State finished 6-3 in 2012, their lone winning conference record since 2009, but that was two games behind Oregon and Stanford. Washington State narrowly missed out on a division title in three consecutive seasons. The Cougars finished either a game behind or tied with the division winner in 2016, 2017, and 2018. The most agonizing finish was probably 2018, when they entered the Apple Cup with a one game lead on the Huskies, but lost at home to give their arch-rivals another division crown. 

And finally, where it all began, the SEC.
The SEC Championship Game has been around the longest, so it makes sense most of their teams have played in it. The closest Kentucky came was 2018 when they finished two games behind Georgia. Had they beaten the Dogs at home (instead of losing by 17), they would have been the East's representative. Ole Miss finished 7-1 in Eli Manning's senior season, but that lone loss came to eventual conference and national champion, LSU. The closest Vanderbilt came was 2012, when they finished with a 5-3 SEC record, but were a distant fourth in the East. Note that while Texas A&M has not appeared in the SEC Championship Game, they did win the Big 12 in a shocking upset over Kansas State in 1998. 

That's the list. Which of these teams do you think is the next to break through and play in their conference title game? Were I drafting a team to make it next, I'd probably take Michigan or Oklahoma State, with Minnesota an intriguing wild card. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

2020 Yards Per Play: Big 12

Three conferences down. Seven to go. This week, we stay in America's heartland and look at the Big 12.   

Here are the 2020 Big 12 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 Big 12 team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games (typically fewer in 2020). 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 2020 season, which teams in the Big 12 met this threshold? Here are Big 12 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Texas Tech was the lone Big 12 team to see their actual record differ significantly from their expected record based on YPP. The Red Raiders under-performed, but we can't blame close games. All three of their conference victories came by a touchdown or less and they were a respectable 3-2 in close conference games. Instead, the culprit was turnovers. The Red Raiders forced the fewest turnovers in Big 12 play (9) while committing the most (18), causing them to fall short of their expected record. Which, speaking of...

Matt Wells' Teams Almost Always Under-Perform
At least relative to their YPP numbers. Matt Wells has been a coach at the FBS level for eight seasons; six at Utah State and two at Texas Tech. I happen to have YPP data for all those seasons (and a few more going back to 2005) and in that span, his teams almost always fall short (sometimes a little, other times a lot) of their expected conference record based on YPP. 

During his six seasons at Utah State, the Aggies were undoubtedly a successful team. They played in five bowl games, won a division title, finished in the top 25, and went 30-18 against Mountain West opponents. However, in that six season span, Utah State finished with the largest average negative disparity between their conference record and their expected record based on YPP in the Mountain West.
As you might expect over a sample size of six seasons, most teams finished with a negligible average disparity. Teams over-perform one year and under-perform the next with little rhyme or reason save for the randomness inherent in a college football season. However, two teams really stood out. Air Force and Utah State. Air Force finished with a conference winning percentage that was on average .141 better than their expected winning percentage based on YPP. In an eight game conference season, this means they won about 1.13 more additional games than we might expect based on their YPP numbers. By contrast, Utah State finished with a conference winning percentage that was .109 lower than their expected winning percentage. This equates to 0.87 fewer wins in an eight games conference season. 

After guiding Utah State to eleven wins and a top 25 appearance in 2018, Wells was hired by Texas Tech. In his first two seasons in Lubbock, the Red Raiders have struggled. They are just 8-14 overall and 5-13 in Big 12 play. They lost to Kansas in 2019 and nearly lost to them again in 2020. Despite the poor record, Texas Tech has put up mediocre per play numbers. Last season, they ranked ninth in the Big 12 in Net YPP, and while finishing ahead of Kansas should be the default for any Big 12 team, their record was still slightly worse than one would expect based on their YPP numbers. Then in 2020, the Red Raiders actually posted a positive per play differential, yet lost twice as many conference games as they won. Through two seasons, Texas Tech has under-performed worse than any other Big 12 team.
That -.146 equates to 1.31 fewer wins than expected over a nine-game Big 12 conference season. Two seasons is not nearly a large enough sample to draw any meaningful conclusions, but paired with his six seasons at Utah State, a pattern has started to develop.
In eight seasons, Wells' teams have been in the top half of their conference once when it comes to performance against expected record based on YPP. Meanwhile, they have finished last three times, second to last once, and third to last once. Why have his teams consistently struggled to finish within range of their lofty YPP numbers? Well, we can't blame turnover margin. His teams are collectively +10 in 66 conference games. No, the primary culprit appears to be plain old close game luck. In conference games decided by a touchdown or less, his Utah State teams were 5-9. In conference games decided by more than a touchdown, those Aggies were 25-9. Meanwhile, in two seasons at Texas Tech, his teams are 3-6 in close conference games and 2-7 in all other conference games. Doing the math, overall, his teams are just 8-15 in close conference games (and 27-16 in all other conference games). Is Matt Wells a poor close game coach or is this record a function of small sample size randomness? History is not destiny, but if Matt Wells wants to keep his job, he better start winning more of these close games.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

2020 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Big 10

Last week we looked at how Big 10 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 2020 Big 10 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. Since teams played a varied number of games (everyone played at least five and a few played a full nine game schedule), the rankings are on a per game basis, not raw totals. 
Finally, Big 10 teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine whether or not a team significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR. Using that standard, Wisconsin was the lone team that saw their record differ significantly from their APR. The Badgers played six conference games and won half of them, but two of their victories (the first two) came by 38 points apiece and gave the impression the Badgers were an elite team. Huge margins of victory, particularly in a smaller than normal conference season, can really skew how a team rates in APR. 

Bert is Back in the Big 10
You may have missed it if you don't follow Illinois football (and why would you?), but the Illini will have a new football coach in 2021. Illinois replaced a one-time Super Bowl losing coach with a two-time Rose Bowl losing coach when they hired Bret Bielema. Bert as he is affectionately known, coached Wisconsin for seven seasons following Barry Alvarez's retirement. His tenure was very successful with three Big 10 titles, five ranked finishes, and an average of nearly ten wins per season. His Big 10 background and success makes him an obvious homerun hire for Illinois right? Well, if you look at the past three Wisconsin coaches, it sure seems like the culture surrounding the program was the primary reason for the success other than any greatness inherent in the head coach. 

We'll circle back to Bielema in a moment, but let's start with his replacement, Gary Andersen. Andersen was the head coach at Wisconsin for just two season, but in that time he led the Badgers to nineteen victories and one division championship. Following his abrupt departure, he headed to Corvallis, Oregon and coached the Oregon State Beavers for two and a half seasons, where his teams won just seven games. He resigned from Oregon State and after a little more than a year, returned to where his FBS head coaching career began, Utah State. Andersen took over a Utah State team that had finished in the top twenty-five the previous season, with a future first round pick at quarterback, and led them to a 7-6 record. In his second season back at Utah State, his team began the year 0-3 with each loss coming by at least three touchdowns and Andersen again resigned. At Wisconsin, his teams went 13-3 in Big 10 play. Since leaving Wisconsin, his teams won nine conference games over parts of five seasons.
This analysis is not completely fair to Andersen as he did lead Utah State to a pair of bowl games in his original tenure. Let's give him credit for those four seasons.
When we include his first run in Logan, his career numbers look a little better, but its important to remember context. When Andersen had his greatest success at Utah State, the WAC was imploding. Boise State left the WAC for the Mountain West after the 2010 season, with Fresno State, Hawaii, and Nevada following after the 2011. In 2012, Utah State was in a conference with two teams that had good seasons (Louisiana Tech and San Jose State), two of the worst teams in FBS (Idaho and New Mexico State), and two FBS newcomers (Texas-San Antonio and Texas State). 

When Andersen left for Corvallis, Wisconsin hired Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst. Chryst's teams in the Steel City had been middling, posting a 19-19 overall record as they closed out the Big East and joined the ACC. However, upon arriving in Madison, the Badgers continued to be one of the best teams in the conference outside of Ohio State. In six seasons under Chryst, Wisconsin has won at least ten games four times, played in the Big 10 Championship Game three times, and averaged nearly ten wins per year. In conference play, the Badgers have lost as many games in six seasons under Chryst as the Panthers did in three seasons. 
Now lets return to Bielema. He has not been out of coaching since 2012. After leaving Wisconsin, he became head coach of Arkansas. While his overall record at Arkansas was mediocre (29-34) and while he guided the Hogs to three bowl games in five seasons, he did not do what he was ostensibly paid for; beat fellow SEC opponents. 
Bielema's best squad (at least based on the advanced metrics) was probably his 2014 team which managed a 2-6 conference record. His team did finish with a winning conference record in 2015 (and famously denied Ole Miss their shot at an SEC crown), but that same team also lost to Texas Tech and Toledo in non-conference play. Outside of that 5-3 finish, his teams averaged 1.5 conference wins per season. Bielema's new division, the Big 10 West, is nowhere near as brutal as the SEC West and Bielema won't have to deal with Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Texas A&M on an annual basis, but Illinois will begin his tenure at the bottom of the division hierarchy. Iowa and Wisconsin are the stalwart front runners, Northwestern is the nerd school that annually overachieves, and Minnesota, Nebraska, and Purdue have all hired young promising coaches in the past few years (though success at their current locations has been mixed). Illinois replaced a failed retread (who took them to a bowl a little more than a year ago I might add) with another failed retread who happened to have Big 10 roots. And his success at his previous Big 10 job (now nearly a decade in the past) appears to have had more to do with the program itself than anything Bielema did. Perhaps Bielema will be a success at Illinois, I've been wrong a time or two before. However, this hire was lazy. Instead of hiring a coach that succeeded at an easy job and failed at a hard one, maybe take a shot on a coach that just led Kent State to back to back winning seasons? Casual college football fans and less plugged in alums may not have known who he was, but he would have been a better choice.    

Thursday, February 11, 2021

2020 Yards Per Play: Big 10

This week we move from the coastal elites to the midwest and examine the Big 10.  

Here are the 2020 Big 10 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 Big 10 team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included (but the other games from championship weekend are). The teams are sorted by division by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games (typically fewer in 2020). 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 2020 season, which teams in the Big 10 met this threshold? Here are Big 10 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Indiana and Northwestern overperformed relative to their YPP numbers. The Hoosiers and Wildcats nearly met in a Bizarro Big 10 Championship Game until the conference changed the rules at the eleventh hour to allow Ohio State to qualify despite playing just five conference games. The Hoosiers and Wildcats were a combined 5-1 in close conference games, but another major reason for their success relative to their performance was their absurd defensive play once their opponents arrived in the Red Zone. In Big 10 play, Indiana allowed nineteen drives inside their twenty yard line, but opponents converted touchdowns less than half the time (nine) and scored at all just over half the time (eleven). Meanwhile, Northwestern was even better at preventing touchdowns. Opponents scored just seven touchdowns in the twenty-five occasions they got inside the twenty. They did manage ten field goals to account for seventeen total scores, but were only able to punch it in the end zone just over a quarter of the time. The Hoosiers and Wildcats were the epitome of 'bend but don't break'. At the other end of the spectrum, Maryland, Michigan, and Purdue all underachieved relative to their YPP numbers. Maryland played only five games, so the small sample size of their conference schedule led to increased variance. The Terrapins were also -7 in turnover margin in those five games. I couldn't pinpoint a reason for Michigan's underachievement, but the Wolverines also played a small number of conference games (6) and had a negative turnover margin (-3). Purdue finished 2-3 in close conference games, but the real culprit for their underperformance were their own Red Zone struggles. The Boilermakers scored just fifteen touchdowns on twenty-eight possessions inside the twenty. 

Longest Bowl Losing Streaks
In many respects, 2020 was a dream season for Indiana. In an abbreviated campaign, the Hoosiers finished with one regular season loss and found themselves ranked seventh in the AP Poll when bowl season commenced. Alas, the Hoosiers met up with a volatile Ole Miss team in the Outback Bowl and lost 26-20. Despite the loss, the Hoosiers still finished twelfth in the AP Poll, their highest ranking since finishing fourth in 1967. The loss was familiar for Indiana fans in that it was their sixth consecutive bowl loss. The Hoosiers have not won a bowl game since the 1991 Copper Bowl. Six consecutive bowl losses may seem like a lot, but the Hoosiers have a ways to go to match the all-time record among current Power Five teams. And who might they be chasing for this ignominious record? Why, a team they almost faced in the Big 10 Championship Game and a small, private school with little football tradition, also located in Indiana. 
I kid of course about Notre Dame. For a private school, their enrollment is rather large. Honorable mentions for bowl losing streaks go to South Carolina and West Virginia, a pair of schools that followed starkly different timelines in those losing streaks. South Carolina's took more than four decades, while West Virginia squeezed theirs into a twelve year period. 

Take heart Indiana fans. While the bowl losing streak continues, at least you can always relish the journey of the 2020 season. 

Thursday, February 04, 2021

2020 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: ACC

Last week we looked at how ACC 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 2020 ACC 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. Since teams played a varied number of games (everyone played at least seven and a few played a full ten game schedule), the rankings are on a per game basis, not raw totals. 
Finally, ACC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine whether or not a team significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR. Using that standard, Louisville was the lone team that saw their record differ significantly from their APR. Astute readers will remember Louisville also under-performed relative to their expected record based on yards per play and we went over some reasons for that last week. No need to rehash that again. 

How to Spot a Championship Game Blowout
I had high hopes for the ACC Championship Game in 2020. It was a rematch of a regular season classic, and despite the fact the locale would be different and Clemson would have access to their starting quarterback, I felt it would be competitive. I could not have been more wrong. Clemson jumped out to a three touchdown lead by halftime and toyed with Notre Dame in the second half in a 24 point victory. While I was wrong about this game, I have developed a nearly fool proof way to determine if the title game you are about to watch is going to be a blowout. Read on to find out how.

I've written before about how shockingly accurate the preseason AP Poll is as a proxy for talent and team strength. This is not an original thought. Other internet folks discovered this valuable insight before me and if I could remember the exact person I stole this idea from, I would cite them here. But I digress. The conference championship game is a relatively recent college football innovation, with the SEC pioneering the event in 1992. Since that means I didn't have to comb through a hundred years or more worth of data, I decided to look at the preseason AP rank of every Power Five conference championship game participant and see how often teams that were ranked in the preseason AP Poll beat teams that were not. Since the SEC started this title game phenomenon we'll look at them first.
We have had seven matchups in SEC Championship Game history where one team was ranked in the preseason AP Poll and the other was not. The team ranked in the preseason poll won all seven games with each victory coming by at least ten points and the average margin of victory coming by more than three touchdowns. Looking at preseason top ten teams, they are 6-0 against teams that were not ranked in the preseason. Their average margin of victory actually dips a little to 19 points per game, but that is all thanks to Cam Newton.

The Big 12 was the second Power Five conference to institute a championship game. While they took a brief hiatus after some of their members departed following the 2010 season, they are back in the championship game business.
Teams ranked in the preseason are 6-1 against preseason unranked teams, winning by an average of nearly four touchdowns per game with five of the seven games being decided by double digits. Colorado was the only team unranked in the preseason poll to beat a preseason ranked team in the title game when they took down Texas in 2001.

The ACC was the third Power Five conference to institute a conference championship game. So we'll look at them next. 
Despite having significantly fewer title games than the SEC, the ACC has more instances of preseason ranked teams taking on preseason unranked teams in said title game. The teams ranked in the preseason are 10-1 overall with the average margin of victory coming by nearly two touchdowns. If we look at preseason top ten teams, they are 6-0 with an average margin of victory of more than 17 points. Interestingly, the lone preseason unranked team to win was Clemson back in 2011. That marked the last time the Tigers were not ranked in the preseason poll.

After the ACC, the Big 10 and Pac-12 expanded and started playing championship games in 2011. We'll go alphabetically and start with the Big 10. 
The Big 10 has the fewest instances of preseason ranked teams taking on preseason unranked teams in the title game. That small sample size means we should probably take the relatively small average margin of victory with a grain of salt. Before we move to the Pac-12, I would like to pay homage to the 2013 Michigan State Spartans. After a disappointing 7-6 finish in 2012, the Spartans were not ranked in the preseason poll in 2013. Riding one of the best modern college football defenses, the Spartans won each of their conference games by at least ten points (including the Big 10 title game against Ohio State). Were it not for a tight loss to Notre Dame in the non-conference, the Spartans may well have faced Florida State in the final BCS Championship Game
In the Pac-12, preseason ranked teams are unbeaten against preseason unranked teams, winning by more than twenty points per game on average. The numbers are similar when we look at those teams that were ranked in the top-ten.

So that is how all the Power Five conferences shook out individually. What about when we aggregate the data? First with all preseason ranked teams.
32-3 is a pretty strong record, especially in college football. Those teams won by an average of more than eighteen points per game and nearly two thirds of the games were decided by double digits. Now what about those teams ranked in the preseason top ten that drew conference championship games against teams unranked in the preseason?
Their record is slightly better and their scoring margin is also slightly better. In addition, more than 70% of the matchups resulted in a double digit win for the preseason top-ten team. 

Finally, before we leave, here is a list of all the Power Five conference championship game winners that were unranked in the preseason. We already touched on the three teams that pulled upsets in Power Five title games (Clemson, Colorado, and Michigan State), but three other teams managed to win their conferences despite not being ranked in the preseason AP Poll. How did they do that you ask? By facing other teams that were also unranked in the preseason poll. 
Wake Forest, Auburn, and Penn State were all surprise conference championship game participants that benefited from facing other surprise teams once they got their. The preseason unranked versus preseason unranked in a Power Five title game is truly a rare event, but if you come across a title game where one of the participants was ranked in the preseason poll and the other was not, it might be a good idea to change the channel. 

Thursday, January 28, 2021

2020 Yards Per Play: ACC

One conference down. Next up is the ACC, a conference that got two teams into the College Football Playoff.  

Here are the 2020 ACC 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 ACC team. This includes conference play only, with the championship game not included. The teams are sorted by Net YPP with conference rank in parentheses.
College football teams play either eight or nine conference games (typically fewer in 2020). 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 2020 season, which teams in the ACC met this threshold? Here are ACC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Notre Dame and Miami over-performed relative to their YPP numbers and Louisville under-performed. Notre Dame was not exceptionally lucky in one-score games, finishing 2-0, but outside of a 45-3 dismantling of Pittsburgh, they had comfortable, but not dominant victories. Miami finished 3-0 in one-score games, riding the clutch play of D'Eriq King to tight wins against Virginia, NC State, and Virginia Tech. Meanwhile, both of their conference losses game in blowout fashion. The Hurricanes were crushed by Clemson and North Carolina by a combined 61 points. On the other end of the luck spectrum, Louisville finished 0-4 in one-score conference games and had the second worst in-conference turnover margin (-11) behind Duke. 

Florida State's Absurd Run as a Conference Favorite
2020 marked the fourth consecutive season Florida State finished with an ACC record of .500 or worse. Their 2-6 conference record was their worst since joining the ACC in 1993. I'm not a fan of kicking someone while they are down, unless of course there is almost no chance they can get back up and exact some revenge, so I decided to look back on happier times for Florida State fans. Thanks to the fantastic database at Goldsheet and my handy Phil Steele magazines, we can look back at the point spread for every Florida State game since they joined the conference and compare their run of dominance to contemporaries like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oklahoma. 

When Florida State began ACC play in 1993, they were head and shoulders above the rest of their conference brethren. The Seminoles were double digit favorites in all eight of their conference games in 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1996. In fact, the first conference game in which they were not a double digit favorite was their penultimate conference game in 1997 (their 39th overall) when they were laying a touchdown in Chapel Hill against Mack Brown's final (first run) North Carolina team.
Bookmakers and the general public likely remembered the previous year's battle in Tallahassee when North Carolina allowed just one touchdown in a 13-0 loss. The Tar Heel defense played well again in 1997, but the Tar Heels could only muster a field goal a 20-3 defeat.

From that point on, Florida State was a double digit favorite in their final conference game of 1997, and all their conference games in 1998, 1999, and 2000. In 2001, the Seminoles showed their mortality in a surprising shellacking at North Carolina, losing 41-9 to a team coached by John Bunting. That loss didn't stop them from being heavy favorites. They were double digit favorites in their next two conference games before hosting unbeaten and tenth ranked Maryland. The Seminoles were eight point favorites against the Terps, marking the first time they were laying less than ten points to an ACC team at home (in their 69th conference game). 
The Seminoles beat the Terps handily in that game, but Maryland would not lose again in the regular season and won the ACC becoming the first outright champion other than Florida State since the Seminoles joined the league. 

Despite losing their stranglehold on ACC dominance, Florida State was favored (though not by double digits) in all their conference games in 2002 and 2003. Finally, in their conference opener in 2004 (in their 89th conference game) the Seminoles were underdogs at ACC newcomer Miami. 
Although the Seminoles were underdogs, this was Miami's first game as an ACC team meaning the Seminoles had yet to be an underdog to any of the eight teams that were there when they joined in 1993. The Seminoles were favored in their other seven conference games. 

This trend would continue for sometime. In their conference opener in 2005, the Seminoles were home underdogs in a conference game for the first time (97th conference game) against...Miami. 
The Seminoles were favored in their other seven conference games. 

Once again, in 2006, the Seminoles were underdogs at Miami, but were favored in their other seven conference games. Finally, in 2007, the Seminoles were underdogs twice in conference play. And neither team was Miami. However, both teams (Boston College and Virginia Tech) were also newcomers to the ACC, having joined in 2004 (Virginia Tech) and 2005 (Boston College) meaning the Seminoles had still not been an underdog to the other eight ACC teams that were there when they joined in 1993. 

Finally, in their fifth conference game of the 2008 season (125th conference game), the Seminoles were underdogs at Georgia Tech. 
This marked the first time they were not favored against one of the other long-tenured conference members. The malaise of the end of the Bowden era continued in 2009, with the Seminoles going off as underdogs three times. The Seminoles were underdogs at North Carolina, Clemson, and even Wake Forest!

When Jimbo Fisher took the reigns in 2010, things improved. The Seminoles were conference underdogs once in 2010 (at Miami) and 2011 (at Clemson), but then began another brief era of dominance. They were double digit favorites in all their conference games in 2012, 2013, and 2014. Then in 2015, the unthinkable happened. The Seminoles were double digit underdogs in ACC play for the first time, catching 10.5 at Clemson (183rd conference game). 
In 2016, the Seminoles were home underdogs to Clemson, marking the first time they were home underdogs to one of the other long-tenured ACC members. They were double digit underdogs at Clemson once again in 2017. While that may have seemed like a low point for the Seminoles, things were about to get worse. 

In Willie Taggart's first season in 2018, the Seminoles were underdogs four times in ACC play, marking the first time they were not favored in at least half their conference games. 2019 was not any better with the Seminoles once again going off as betting underdogs four times in conference play. Finally, in 2020, Mike Norvell's first season, the Seminoles were underdogs six times in the eight conference games they managed to play. While we weep for the Seminoles dominance that is no longer with us, we should also admire it. The Seminoles were favored in their first 88 conference games (eleven seasons worth of games). How does that compare to the current crop of elite teams?
Pretty favorably (note these numbers are regular season only, so conference title games are excluded). Alabama has the longest active streak of being favored in conference play, but would still need to go five more years as a favorite in every conference game to match Florida State's streak. Clemson would need to be favored in all their conference games for more than six years to pass the Seminoles. Oklahoma, with a nine-game conference season, would need to be favored for nearly seven more years and Ohio State has more than eight years to go. 

Florida State may be down at the moment, but their fans can always wax nostalgic about the 90's and early 00's. The ACC may not have been a football power, but Florida State's dominance deserves to be acknowledged. 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

2020 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: AAC

Last week we looked at how AAC 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 2020 AAC 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. Since teams played a varied number of games (everyone played at least six but only four played a full eight game schedule), the rankings are on a per game basis, not raw totals. 
Finally, AAC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
I use a game and a half as a line of demarcation to determine whether or not a team significantly over or under-performed relative to their APR. Using that standard, Memphis was the lone team to significantly exceed their expected record (although Tulane and South Florida just missed meeting the threshold for underperforming). The Tigers won five of their eight conference games in 2020, but four of those wins came by a total of eight points. Meanwhile, two of their three conference losses came by at least two touchdowns. 

Is Temple In Trouble?
Many college football fans may have forgotten how bad the Temple Owls were. After winning ten games and the prestigious Garden State Bowl in 1979, the Owls finished with a winning record just three times prior to the inauguration of Barack Obama (coincidence or Deep State conspiracy?). In that span, they lost at least ten games eight times, were politely asked to leave the Big East, and were generally one of the worst programs in FBS. All that changed in 2006 when Al Golden was hired. It took him a few years to right the ship, as the Owls went just 1-11 in his first season, but they won four games in his second, followed by five in his third, before winning seventeen over his final two seasons. That success helped him land the Miami job and the foundation he built helped Temple become a launching pads of sorts. The next three coaches to follow Golden in Philadelphia all enjoyed some modicum of success and used the Owls as a springboard to a Power Five job (Steve Addazio, Matt Rhule, and Geoff Collins). Current Temple coach Rod Carey seemed to be an ideal candidate to follow suit. Carey spent six seasons at Northern Illinois, leading the Huskies to four conference championship game appearances and a pair of MAC titles. And his first season in charge of the Owls was a solid success. Temple won eight games and defeated two Power Five opponents. The bowl game was disappointing, but Temple appeared to be in the same position that they had been in for the better part of a decade - an upper tier Group of Five program. Then 2020 happened.

Like every other team playing college football in 2020, the Owls dealt with cancelations and positive tests. Temple did not play their first game until October 10th, and while they were a disappointing 1-2 heading into a Halloween showdown at Tulane, they were at least competitive in each of their first three games. That was not the case over the final month of the season. Starting with Tulane, the Owls lost each of their final four games by at least 24 points. They were outscored 151-42 in that span and scored just four offensive touchdowns in those four games. Injuries and Covid-19 protocols account for some of that poor performance as the Owls had five different quarterbacks throw a pass in 2020. Even with the difficult circumstances, there is no doubt that for the first time in a long time, Temple was a bad team in 2020. The Owls lost four games by at least twenty points in 2020, giving Carey seven such defeats in his two seasons at the helm. That is already more than either of the three gentlemen who preceded him accumulated. 
Carey has already put up seven blowout losses in two seasons after his predecessors combined for thirteen such losses in eight. But not all blowout losses are created equal. Coaches at Group of Five programs don't have the resources or personnel of Power Five teams, so we shouldn't hold it against them if they are blown out by stronger programs. To account for this, lets adjust the data to only account for blowout losses to other Group of Five programs. How does Carey look once we make this adjustment?
Not any better. Temple played a conference only season in 2020, so all of their blowout losses came to other Group of Five programs. All together, Carey has six blowout losses to Group of Five programs whereas his three predecessors combined for seven in eight seasons. So, circling back around to the question I posed earlier: Is Temple in trouble? Is 2020 a sign of things to come or was it a one-off bad season made worse by a global pandemic? Obviously, no one can know for sure, and we'll learn a lot more in the 2021 season, but were I a Temple fan, I would be a little worried. Not only were the Owls unquestionably bad in 2020, they were not quite as good as their record in 2019. Take a look at last year's APR post on the AAC. The Owls won five conference games, but actually allowed more touchdowns than they scored. In addition, look no further than the program Carey piloted before landing the Temple job. Northern Illinois, the dominant MAC program for a decade has finished with a losing record for two straight years and actually went winless in 2020! Some of that could be the man the Huskies tabbed to replace Carey, a former Northern Illinois running back whose most recent job was coaching NFL running backs, is not very good, but it could also be that Carey left the program in a bad state. I'll refrain from making any bold proclamations, but it wouldn't shock me if Temple is bad in 2021 and has a new coach in 2022.