Thursday, March 25, 2021

2020 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Conference USA

Two weeks ago we looked at how Conference USA 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 Conference USA 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 (some played as many as seven or as few as three), the rankings are on a per game basis, not raw totals. 
Finally, Conference USA 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, Louisiana Tech was the only team that saw their APR differ significantly from their actual record. The Bulldogs also significantly over-achieved relative to their YPP numbers and we went over a few reasons for that two weeks ago, so we'll move on to more important things. 

Is Conference USA the Worst FBS Conference Part II: Conference USA Graduates
Two weeks ago I posited that Conference USA may have surpassed both the MAC and the Sun Belt as the worst conference in FBS. I used AP Poll rankings as a proxy and showed Conference USA has the fewest weeks in the College Football Playoff era with at least one team ranked as well as the fewest numbers of conference members to be ranked. This week, instead of further bashing Conference USA, I want to focus on the members the league lost in the latest round of realignment. 

As I mentioned two weeks ago, 26 schools have called Conference USA home since the league began play in 1996. While some quality programs used Conference USA as a stepping stone in the late 90's and early 00's (Cincinnati, Louisville, and TCU to name a few), I am only going to focus on the teams that left the conference in 2013 and 2014 during the College Football Playoff realignment. Between 2005 and 2012, Conference USA was quite stable. The league was home to twelve teams, playing in two divisions, with a league title game played the first weekend in December. However, four members left Conference USA beginning with the 2013 season (Houston, Memphis, SMU, and UCF). Those four teams moved to the American Athletic Conference. The next season, three more schools joined them (East Carolina, Tulane, and Tulsa). Those seven schools have had varying levels of success since leaving Conference USA, but each has had at least a moment or two in the sun. All seven have played in bowl games since leaving Conference USA and six have spent at least one week in the AP Poll (Tulane is the only team that has not cracked the rankings). 
I'm really burying the lede though. The fact that Tulane has played in a few bowl games since leaving Conference USA won't cause any administrators in the league office to lose much sleep. However, the outsized success that the top three programs (Houston, Memphis, and UCF) have had since leaving probably does. Those three teams have combined for four New Year's Six bowls (out of seven possible bids) and a BCS bowl appearance since leaving Conference USA. Meanwhile, Conference USA has been in the conversation for a New Year's Six invite twice (both times by Marshall), but has not been able to close the deal. If Conference USA had been able to hold those schools perhaps they would have become the preeminent Group of Five conference in the College Football Playoff era.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

2021 Bracket Advice: Unbeaten Teams in the NCAA Tournament

As many college basketball fans know, no team has won the NCAA tournament while finishing unbeaten since Indiana in the nation's bicentennial year of 1976. Since the Hoosiers cut down the nets in The Spectrum 45 years ago, five other teams have entered the NCAA tournament without a loss, including Gonzaga this season. How did those other four teams fare and how does Gonzaga compare to them? Glad you asked. We'll start chronologically, beginning with Indiana State.  
The Sycamores entered the 1979 season with moderate expectations. They finished a game behind Creighton in the Missouri Valley Conference in 1978, and lost a tight game to the Blue Jays in the conference tournament final. The Sycamores were relegated to the NIT where they lost in the second round to Rutgers. In the offseason, their head coach, Bob King dealt with some health issues and the head coaching duties were turned over to Bill Hodges. Despite not being ranked in the preseason AP Poll, Hodges adept coaching and some minor contributions from Larry Bird helped the Sycamores win all their regular season games. They were rewarded with a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced all the way to the championship game where they were dispatched by Magic Johnson and Michigan State. Despite their unbeaten record, Indiana State was probably a little overrated. Their SRS was eleventh in 1979, which while good, is not dominant. After Indiana State, the nation would have to wait twelve years until another team entered the NCAA tournament without a loss. 
While Indiana State did not even make the tournament the year before their unbeaten regular season, UNLV began the 90's with a bang, routing Duke in the NCAA final. With the bulk of their roster returning in 1991, the Rebels were the number one team in the AP Poll in 1991. The Rebels did not play a single game decided by less than ten points until their second round NCAA Tournament game against Georgetown. The Rebels appeared to be well on their way to becoming one of the most dominant champions in NCAA Tournament history, but Duke upset them in the national semifinal 79-77. Despite the loss, UNLV was the most dominant team according to SRS in 1991, finishing nearly four points better than second place Arkansas. After UNLV's run, it would be nearly a quarter century until another team finished the regular season without a loss.
Wichita State, fresh off a Cinderella Final Four run in 2013, opened the 2014 season solidly in the middle of the AP Poll. While they were not nearly as dominant as UNLV in 1991, the selection committed rewarded their regular season brilliance and gave them a number one seed. Unfortunately, waiting in the second round, was a talented, but underachieving Kentucky team. The Wildcats upset the Shockers in the second round and eventually advanced to the national final. Speaking of Kentucky...
Prior to this season, the last team to enter the NCAA Tournament unbeaten was Kentucky in 2015. After advancing to the national final in 2014, the Wildcats were the preseason number one in the AP Poll in 2015. They were a wire-to-wire number one in the poll, and were a heavy favorite once the NCAA Tournament commenced. After cakewalks in their first three NCAA Tournament games, the Wildcats showed some vulnerability in a tight victory against Notre Dame in the regional final. After dispatching the Irish, the Wildcats were upset in the national semifinal by Wisconsin. Like UNLV a quarter century before, the Wildcats still rated as the top team in SRS by about four points. 

So how does Gonzaga stack up against that quartet?
No shade to Gonzaga, but I don't think its a coincidence that four of the last five teams to enter the NCAA Tournament unbeaten have played in mid-major conferences. However, it should be noted that the Missouri Valley in 1979, the Big West in 1991, and the West Coast Conference this season, all sent multiple teams to the tournament. Other West Coast Conference teams don't have the talent of Gonzaga, but at the same time, the West Coast Conference is not the Patriot League or the Southwestern Athletic Conference. By SRS, Gonzaga compares pretty favorably to the dominant teams on this list. They are currently first in this metric, by about a point and a half over Illinois. While this does not guarantee they will be around in the Final Four, it does objectively mean they are very good. They were also the top ranked team in the preseason AP Poll, which is a good proxy for talent. A lot of randomness can happen in the NCAA Tournament, but I wouldn't hesitate to select Gonzaga as my champion when filling out a bracket.

Monday, March 15, 2021

2021 Bracket Advice: What About Mid-Majors with Great Records?

This week, we are taking a break from our weekly football recaps and offering you some advice on how to make selections in your office pool before the NCAA Tournament gets started (hopefully). Last year, I penned a magnum opus for a tournament that did not get played, but all of the things I wrote are still applicable to this field. Long story short, think long and hard before you pick Alabama, Arkansas, or even Michigan to make a run to the Final Four. You can thank me later. This year, instead of looking at teams that might be more likely to flame out early in the tournament, I wanted to help you find some underdogs to play on in the first round. 

The 2020-21 college basketball season has been anything but normal. Non-conference games were more rare, games were postponed or canceled almost daily, and the Ivy League didn't play at all. Thanks to this unique scheduling situation, a pair of mid (or maybe even low) major teams managed to put up sterling won/loss records. Colgate and Winthrop enter the NCAA Tournament with one loss apiece. However, neither are in the final edition of the AP Poll. Does this happen often? To answer that question, I looked at every instance since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 where a team qualified for the field, finished with no more than two regular season losses, and was not ranked in the top-ten of the final AP Poll. Prior to 2021, it had happened eleven times before. Those eleven teams are listed below below along with their record, conference, final poll ranking, eventual NCAA seed, and NCAA tournament result. 
While none of the teams managed to make it into the top-ten despite their great records, they still got respect from the AP writers. Eight teams finished the season ranked and the only teams that entered with a single loss both topped out at number twelve. Also, props to my mother's alma mater, The College of Charleston, that appears on this list twice in a three season span (John Kresse was way underrated by the general college basketball public). But who cares about rankings, you came here for bracket advice. Well, based on tournament results, its probably not a good idea to take either Colgate or Winthrop to get to the second weekend. None of these eleven teams advanced further than the second round. However, we should note that only one team was favored by seed to get past the second round. In 1990, La Salle was awarded a four seed, so theoretically they did not quite live up to expectations when they blew a large halftime lead and lost to fifth seeded Clemson. Teams seeded like Colgate and Winthrop have actually done better than expected. Granted the sample size is quite small, but four other teams were given double-digit seeds (NC A&T, Penn, Charleston, and Stephen F Austin). Three of those four pulled first round upsets, with North Carolina A&T being the lone double-digit seed to be eliminated in the first round. Colgate and Winthrop might not be household names, but if history is any indication, one or both would be a solid first round upset pick. 

Don't worry, we're not done just yet. Check back Wednesday for one additional bracket advice post. We'll examine undefeated teams and see how Gonzaga stacks up compared to previous teams that entered the NCAA Tournament with an unblemished record. 

Thursday, March 11, 2021

2020 Yards Per Play: Conference USA

After a six week sojourn through the Power Five, we return to the Group of Five this week and examine Conference USA.   

Here are the 2020 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 (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 Conference USA met this threshold? Here are Conference USA teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Despite starting their season on time, Conference USA did not come close to playing a full league season in 2020. No team played a full eight game schedule (Old Dominion didn't play at all), and the eventual title game participants played only nine regular season league games between them. With the teams playing an abbreviated schedule, it should not be surprising that a lot of teams significantly over or under-performed. Florida Atlantic and Louisiana Tech significantly exceeded their expected record. The Owls and Bulldogs combined to finish 8-4 in conference play and their records were buoyed by a phenomenal mark in close games. The teams combined to finish 5-1 in one-score conference games, with Florida Atlantic posting a 2-0 mark and Louisiana Tech going 3-1. At the other end of the spectrum, Florida International, Southern Miss, and UTEP significantly under-performed relative to their expected records. Florida International played only three conference games, so the small sample size is mostly to blame. Southern Miss went through a decades worth of coaches in a few months and also finished 0-3 in one-score conference games. Finally, UTEP was 0-2 in one-score conference games and also finished with a -8 turnover margin in league play (tallied in just four conference games). 

Is Conference USA the Worst FBS Conference? Part I: Rankings and Such
In a quarter century of existence as a football league, Conference USA has had a lot of turnover in its ranks. Conference USA began play in 1996 with just six members, and only one of those original six is still in the conference (Southern Miss). The league has played football for 25 seasons and a total of 26 teams have called Conference USA home at one point or another, including two current Power Five teams, the last three Group of Five programs to play in the New Year's Six, and even Army. The turnstile conference sees its members leave for greener pastures and replaces them with mid-major programs from defunct conferences, the FCS, or other FBS leagues. The latest round of realignment occurred at around the same time as the beginning of the College Football Playoff in 2014. In the seven seasons under the new postseason format, you can craft a pretty good argument that Conference USA has overtaken (or undertaken?) the MAC and the Sun Belt as the worst FBS conference. 

In the seven seasons of the College Football Playoff era, each of the Group of Five conferences have seen their teams spend time in the top 25 of the AP Poll. However, Conference USA has the fewest weeks with at least one team ranked.
After Western Kentucky finished the 2015 season ranked 24th in the final AP Poll, Conference USA went four consecutive seasons without a team spending any time in the AP Poll. Marshall changed that with a solid run in 2020 before a three-game skid to close the season that caused them to fall out of the poll and likely cost Doc Holliday his job. In addition to having the fewest weeks of at least one league member in the AP rankings, Conference USA has seen just two programs enter the AP Poll; Marshall and Western Kentucky. Every other FBS conference has seen at least twice as many teams make their way into the rankings. 
The AP Poll is hardly the final word on team or conference strength, especially in 2020 with schedules being so fluid and unique. However, at worst, it is a good way to gauge the national perception of teams. Next week, we'll take a break from football, and I'll provide some bracket wisdom, but in two weeks we'll look at another area where Conference USA has struggled, relative to their Group of Five peers in the College Football Playoff era. 

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.