Thursday, May 13, 2021

2020 Yards Per Play: SEC

We are hitting the home stretch of our YPP reviews. This week, we examine the SEC.   

Here are the 2020 SEC 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 SEC 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, although the SEC bucked that trend). 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 SEC met this threshold? Here are SEC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
LSU and Texas A&M significantly exceeded their expected record based on YPP while Arkansas significantly under-achieved. LSU and Texas A&M combined for a 5-1 record in one-score conference games, leading to their better than expected records. Meanwhile, Arkansas finished 1-3 in one-score conference games, narrowly missing out on program building wins against Auburn, LSU, and Missouri. Before we move on, I wanted to note how bad LSU's defense was and how amazing it is that they managed to finish .500 in conference play. The Tigers allowed over seven yards per play (and they weren't even the worst defense in the conference) and this wasn't the result of a bad game or two skewing their numbers. The Tigers allowed at least seven yards per play in eight of their ten conference games! Despite being routinely gashed, the defense did force a league-best 22 turnovers in SEC play, including nine in their last two regular season games, helping them scrape past two teams they probably had no business beating (Florida and Ole Miss). 

Is the SEC Championship Game Loser an Auto-Fade in Bowl Season?
Did you watch the Cotton Bowl this year? I went to bed at halftime. And I didn't miss much. Oklahoma led Florida 31-13 at the break and ended up winning the game by five touchdowns. Conventional wisdom posits this is one of the irrefutable facts of bowl season: The SEC Championship Game loser lays an egg in their bowl game. Despite the fact that I live in South Carolina, we're into facts at this blog, so I did a deep dive on the SEC silver medalists. 

The SEC Championship Game has been around since 1992, but I limited my analysis to the BCS and College Football Playoff eras (since 1998). We'll start with the BCS era (1998-2013). Here is how those sixteen SEC Championship Game losers fared in their bowl games. 
No matter which way you parse the results (either straight up or against the spread), they don't appear to be a great deal different from flipping a coin. However, there is one thing this generic analysis leaves out. The reason SEC Championship Game losers have a reputation for under-performing in their bowl game is because they are disappointed to not be playing for a national championship. Having to play in the Capital One Bowl instead of the BCS Championship Game is a recipe for a flat performance, or so the theory goes. What if we only looked at SEC Championship Game losers that had legitimate national title aspirations going into the SEC Championship Game? By my count, there were only five such teams in the BCS era: Tennessee in 2001, Alabama in 2008, Florida in 2009, Georgia in 2012, and Missouri in 2013. Outside of Alabama, those teams did surprisingly well in their bowl games. 
SEC Championship Game losers don't appear to have performed more poorly than expected in the BCS era. Maybe things have changed in the Playoff era. With four teams now able to compete for a national title in bowl season, perhaps the SEC Championship Game loser is more despondent and not motivated for their bowl game. In the Playoff era, here is how the seven SEC Championship Game losers have fared in their bowl games. 
As in the BCS era, the overall results don't appear to be much different than what we might find if we flipped a coin to determine the outcomes. Again though, not all SEC Championship Game losers are created equal. What if we limit our analysis to those teams with legitimate national championship aspirations entering the SEC Championship Game. There have been four such teams in the Playoff era: Auburn in 2017, Georgia in 2018, Georgia in 2019, and Florida in 2020. Their bowl performance has been mixed at best.
In the Playoff era, SEC Championship Game losers with national title aspirations have not fared well. However, four games is not nearly a large enough sample to offer any definitive proclamations. Instead of auto-fading the SEC Championship Game loser, you would be much better served reading the tea leaves before their bowl game. Florida had a host of opt-outs prior to the Cotton Bowl and the betting line in the game reflected that. At full strength on a neutral field, Florida would have likely been a slight favorite against Oklahoma. As the spread was more than a touchdown in the other direction, its obvious something a little stronger than motivation was influencing the number. 

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