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. 

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