Saturday, July 31, 2021

First Half Point Differential: The 2020 Power Five

Two weeks ago, we looked at first half point differential in the Group of Five conferences to try and identify some teams that might surprise and or disappoint us this season (caveats about the general weirdness of the 2020 season notwithstanding). With the season a month away (hopefully), we'll do the same for the Power 5. 

Atlantic Coast Conference
The 2020 ACC standings. 
1HPD in ACC play (title game excluded with numbers on a per game basis). 
The 1HPD mostly reflected the actual standings. The top two teams, Clemson and Notre Dame, met in the ACC Championship Game, and eventually were selected for the College Football Playoff. The top four teams in 1HPD combined to go 31-6 in conference play (27-2 in games not involving each other). At the bottom of the standings, keep an eye on Georgia Tech. While their margin is significantly impacted by the loss to Clemson (trailed by 45 at the half), even if we remove that game, they would have still ranked last in the conference (-9.6 average 1HPD)!

Big 10
The 2020 Big 10 standings. 
1HPD in Big 10 play (previous disclaimers apply).
Ohio State was plenty dominant in their abbreviated campaign, averaging more than a three touchdown halftime lead in their five conference games. The real shame was in the other division, where two close losses to open the season kept a pretty good Iowa team from getting a shot at the Buckeyes. 

Big 12
The 2020 Big 12 standings.

1HPD in Big 12 play (ditto). 
I haven't been watching the news lately? Has anything of note happened in the Big 12? Despite opening the season with back to back losses, Oklahoma never trailed at the half in any of their conference games. At the other end of the Big 12 spectrum, Kansas never led at halftime in any conference game and trailed by ay least ten points in six of their eight games. 

The 2020 Pac-12 standings. 
1HPD in Pac-12 play (ditto).
The 2020 Pac-12 was plagued by a small sample of games. Oregon State and UCLA were the only teams to play seven conference games (two games short of a normal Pac-12 slate) and five teams played four conference games. Included in that quintet are the top two teams in 1HPD. Arizona State's entire positive first half margin is due to their beatdown of in-state rival Arizona (+35 in that game and dead even in the other three). Meanwhile, Colorado was the only Pac-12 team to never trail at the half in 2020, but in three of their four games, their margins at halftime were one, four, and five points respectively. 

The 2020 SEC standings.

1HPD in SEC play (ditto).
That Alabama team wasn't half bad. Their 1HPD was better than the combined differential of teams two through four! In the West, Texas A&M was the only team that joined Alabama with a positive differential. Considering that negative margin, of the teams outside of  the Tide and Aggies, you might think the East held their own against the West. You would be wrong. The West went 19-9 against the East in 2020 and the only West team to finish with a losing record against their intra-division opponents was Arkansas (1-3). 

Our rundown of the Power Five conferences is complete. Now we come to the part you have been anxiously awaiting. Which teams over or under-performed relative to their expected record based on IHPD? We'll start with the overachievers. 
Georgia Tech won a third of their conference games, stoking expectations ever so slightly as Geoff Collins enters the third year of his triple option cleanse. However, in their nine conference games, they led at halftime just once (by two points). In the Big 10, Northwestern paired a mediocre offense with a good defense and with some close game good fortune (3-0 in one-score conference games), it was enough to get them to the Big 10 Championship Game and *checks notes* a top ten AP finish. Southern Cal and Washington are your 2020 poster children for small sample sizes. The Trojans played five regular season conference games and won them all, but needed three fourth quarter comebacks to do so. Meanwhile Washington played four conference games, and trailed by three touchdowns at the half in two of them. Finally, in the SEC, Texas A&M crafted a marginal playoff resume despite a dearth of true dominance. 

And now the underachievers. 
After purging the Bobby Petrino stench from the program in his first season in charge, Scott Satterfield and the Cardinals struggled in close games, posting an 0-4 record in one-score conference games. In the Pac-12, the previous sample size caveats apply here. Arizona played five games and trailed by five touchdowns at the half in their finale which skews their numbers. Cal and Washington State played four games apiece and probably should have won an extra game each. Finally, in a shocking turn of events, Tennessee was actually kind of mediocre in 2020 instead of plain bad. The Vols were winning or tied at the half in six of their ten conference games, but lost half of them (which includes blowing a double digit lead against Arkansas) to finish 3-7. 

How useful will this data be going forward? Will a weird season marked by cancelations and postponements against the backdrop of a global pandemic have any predictive value as we head into another season that may well have its own share of cancelations or forfeits? Hopefully we get to start finding out in four weeks. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

First Half Point Differential: The 2020 Group of 5

Last year around these parts, I introduced a very complicated advanced stat: First Half Point Differential (1HPD). It is a difficult concept to explain concisely, but I'll give it a shot. It is the number of points by which a team outscores its opponent in the first half of a game. The theory behind using it being that consistently relying on second half comebacks is not a good long term strategy and can potentially help us identify regression candidates. Similarly, teams that rack up solid first half differentials, but ultimately wind up losing more game than we might expect actually have the bones of a solid team and might be a good candidate to bounce back the next season. In our YPP and APR offseason recaps, we go through each conference individually, but since the season will (hopefully) be here in about six weeks, we'll tackle the Group of Five this week and in two weeks examine the Power Five. 

American Athletic Conference
The 2020 AAC standings. 
1HPD in AAC play (title game excluded with numbers on a per game basis). 
I expected Cincinnati to come out on top here, but UCF actually led by double digits in seven of their eight conference games. If you just looked at these numbers, you would have expected East Carolina and Tulane to have much better seasons as they outscored their opponents in the first half while Houston, Memphis, and SMU all finished with at least a .500 conference record despite being outscored in the first half of their conference games. 

Conference USA
The 2020 Conference USA standings. 
1HPD in CUSA play (previous disclaimers apply).
Teams in CUSA played a wildly disparate number of games (as many as seven and as few as three) so I would not put a whole lot of stock in these numbers. 

The 2020 MAC standings.
1HPD in MAC play (ditto). 
The top team (Buffalo) and bottom team (Bowling Green) really stood out in 2020. Buffalo led at halftime in each of their five regular season conference games by at least a touchdown and on average by more than two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Bowling Green trailed by at least two touchdowns at halftime in all five of their MAC contests. 

Mountain West
The 2020 Mountain West standings.
1HPD in Mountain West play (ditto).
The bottom of the MAC was bad in 2020 and the bottom of the Mountain West was equally horrific. Three teams (Colorado State, Utah State, and UNLV) trailed by more than ten points on average at halftime of their conference games with Utah State and UNLV never holding halftime leads. 

Sun Belt
The 2020 Sun Belt standings.
1HPD in Sun Belt play (ditto).
Nearly every team in the East division had a positive differential at halftime, with Georgia State the lone holdout (Panthers were outscored by a grand total of one point in the first half). 

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.
In the AAC, Memphis trailed in six of their eight conference games at the half! That they ended up winning five games was a minor miracle. Meanwhile, Tulsa trailed by double digits in half of their six regular season conference games, but managed to come back and win each one. Take UAB's Conference USA numbers with a grain of salt. They played only four conference games and had a slightly positive margin in them. However, UTSA is a different story. The Roadrunners nearly played a full league schedule (seven games), and were outscored in the first half despite winning five times. Ball State made a surprise run to the MAC Championship Game with a decent 1HPD, but were tied or trailing at halftime in half of their conference schedule. San Jose State also made a surprise run to their conference title game despite middling 1HPD numbers. 

And now the underachievers. 
I briefly touched on East Caroline and Tulane finishing with losing records despite outscoring their conference opponents in the first half, but I'll add that Tulane only trailed at the half once in their eight conference games. I also touched on UCF dominating their opponents in the first half. Against both Memphis and Tulsa they blew huge leads in games they easily could have won. The two Conference USA teams on this list finished winless in short seasons and probably should have broken through for at least one or two wins based on their numbers. Eastern Michigan won just a third of their MAC games despite holding halftime leads four times. Meanwhile, Northern Illinois went winless in MAC play, and while the Huskies never held a halftime lead, they were tied twice. Finally, Troy finished with a losing Sun Belt record despite holding halftime leads in five of their seven conference games, with three of those leads being double digits. 

Will these over and underachievers regress or progress to the mean in 2021 or were these numbers products of a truly unusual season with little to no predictive value going forward? Hopefully, we'll get some answers starting in late August. As always, thanks for reading and we'll be back in two weeks with the Power Five numbers. 

Thursday, July 08, 2021

YPP Throwback: The 2000-2003 Big East (the final years of the old Big East)

In this edition of our YPP Throwback, we are actually going to examine four seasons (and a few Jersey Boys) of the early aughts Big East. These four seasons encompass the supernova run of the Miami Hurricanes when they reemerged from sanctions to become a national player for the first time in a decade only to see their potential dynasty abate just as they left the Big East to join the ACC. 

We start, as we always do, with the standings. This time, its the Big East in 2000. 
Miami and Virginia Tech combined to go 22-2 in 2000 with both teams finishing in the top six of the final AP Poll. Miami's only loss came in the second game of the season by five points on a cross-country trip to Washington. That Washington team was pretty damn good, finishing 11-1 and winning the Rose Bowl. Meanwhile, in Michael Vick's final season in Blacksburg, the Hokies lone defeat came at Miami (in a game Vick hardly played). Outside of Miami and Virginia Tech, the only notable aspect of the Big East in 2000 was the final season of legendary West Virginia coach Don Nehlen. Nehlen capped his career by winning his first bowl game in sixteen seasons against Ole Miss in the Music City Bowl

And here are the YPP numbers for the 2000 Big East.
While Virginia Tech finished a game behind Miami in the Big East standings, they were clearly several notches below Miami once we look at the YPP numbers. The Hokies were second on offense and defense, but the gap between the Hokies and Hurricanes was enormous. Miami was about 0.78 yards per play better than the Hokies on offense. That was larger than the gap between Virginia Tech and the sixth best offense (West Virginia). The gap on defense was similar. Miami was about 0.80 yards per play better than the Hokies on that side of the ball. That was greater than the difference between Virginia Tech and the fifth best defense (Temple). On the other end of the spectrum, Rutgers finished with the worst YPP Net in the Big East. Despite making a great hire, in the short term, things would get much worse. 

Here are the 2001 Big East standings. 
Miami once again finished with an unblemished record, and while they were often regarded as the best team of this century until the recent iterations of Clemson, LSU, and Alabama destroyed the curve, they were challenged a few times in conference play. Boston College was driving with a chance to win late until a tipped pass led to an Ed Reed touchdown and a misleading final score. In their regular season finale, Miami avoided the late season upset that plagued highly ranked teams in 2001 by stopping a two point conversion against Virginia Tech that could have sent the game to overtime. Elsewhere in the conference, Syracuse shook off an 0-2 start to win ten of their last eleven games and finish in the top-fifteen of the final AP Poll for the first time in nearly ten years. And at the bottom of the conference, as you'll soon see, things got much worse for Rutgers. 

Here are YPP numbers for the 2001 Big East. 
Miami was again clearly a cut above the rest of the conference although Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Virginia Tech all finished with a YPP Net greater than 1.00. I was surprised that Syracuse, which finished all alone in second place in the conference standings, and had the Big East Defensive Player of the Year in Dwight Freeney finished with the second worst per play defense and was actually underwater in terms of YPP Net. Finally, at the bottom of the YPP rankings, Rutgers may have boasted the worst BCS/Power 5 conference team of the 21st century. I have YPP data for every conference going back to 2005, and Rutgers outpaces all the other BCS/Power 5 teams by a significant margin. 
Most of that is due to an impossibly bad offense. The Scarlet Knights scored three touchdowns in seven conference games, were shut out three times, scored five points against Temple, and averaged just north of five points per game in conference play. Their per play offensive numbers were also significantly worse than any BCS/Power Five conference team between 2005 and 2020. 
Here are the 2002 Big East standings. 
For the third year in a row, Miami finished Big East play with an unblemished record and for the third year in a row, a different team finished in second place with a 6-1 record. West Virginia, under second year coach Rich Rodriguez rebounded from a rough non-conference start (lost to Wisconsin and Maryland by a combined 48 points) to finish with a winning conference record for the first time since 1998. Rutgers once again finished all alone in last place as they extended their conference losing streak to 22 games. 

Here are the YPP numbers for the 2002 Big East. 
Miami was once again head and shoulders above the rest of the Big East. Their YPP Net was more than double that of the second place team (Pittsburgh). In an odd turn of events, Temple, despite a 2-5 conference record, finished with a solid per play defense, ranking fourth in the Big East behind Defensive Player of the Year Dan Klecko. On the other hand, for the first time in a long time, Virginia Tech put a bad defense on the field, ranking second to last in the Big East in yards allowed per play. The Hokies lost two conference games where they scored 42 and 45 points respectively. And while Rutgers improved in Net YPP, their offensive YPP was even worse than the year before!

Here are the 2003 Big East standings. 
2003 was the year a pair of streaks were broken. After winning 27 consecutive Big East games, Miami was surprisingly blown out in Blacksburg on November 1st. The Hurricanes turned the ball over four times and were down 31-0 entering the fourth quarter. It marked Miami's first conference loss since 1999 when they also lost in blowout fashion during a trip to Blacksburg. To test your knowledge of late 90's Big East football, do you know the last Big East team other than Virginia Tech to defeat Miami? I'll reveal the answer at the end of this post. Elsewhere in the Big East, Rutgers broke their 25 game conference losing streak the week before Miami's winning streak was snapped. The Scarlet Knights blew out Temple and capped their year with a second Big East victory against Syracuse. 

Here are the YPP numbers for the 2003 Big East. 
For the fourth year in a row, Miami was tops in YPP Net, but they were not nearly as dominant on offense. The defense was still national championship worthy (in fact it was better than the 2002 version), but the offense fell off a cliff with the loss of Ken Dorsey, Willis McGahee, and Andre Johnson. Quarterback Brock Berlin took my breath away by throwing 17 interceptions (against just 12 touchdowns) and despite the presence of future NFL skill players Frank Gore, Jarrett Payton, Roscoe Parrish, and Kellen Winslow Jr., the team finished 51st nationally in points per game. 

Just how much of a problem was the Miami offense in 2003? The following table lists the number of offensive touchdowns Miami scored and allowed in league play between 2000 and 2003 as well as the number of turnovers the Hurricanes committed. 
With Ken Dorsey at the helm, the Hurricanes averaged at least four offensive touchdowns per game each season, maxing out at a little over five per game during his senior season. They also scored two or fewer offensive touchdowns just twice (including the infamous Boston College game where they did not manage a single touchdown until Ed Reed's return). In 2003, they scored two or fewer offensive touchdowns in four of their seven conference games. Their cumulative touchdown total would look even worse if we ignored the Temple game. The Hurricanes dominated the Owls, scoring seven offensive touchdowns, but managed just 13 in their other six Big East games. Their turnover numbers were also much worse once Dorsey departed, as the team committed twice as many turnovers in 2003 as they did in 2002. Football is a team game, but I'm good putting this all at the feet of Brock Berlin. 

That's how Miami's run in the Big East came to an end. They entered the 2004 season as co-favorites in the ACC with Florida State, but lost three games, including two at home en route to a disappointing Peach Bowl appearance. The decline continued the next two seasons with another Peach Bowl appearance (this one a shellacking at the hands of LSU) and finally a losing conference record in 2006 that got Larry Coker canned. Considering Alabama's run of dominance is going into its 14th season, it really puts the length of Miami's run into perspective. Depending on whether you consider 2004 part of the run, it really only lasted four or five years, or roughly the same length of time that a superstar in another sport turned South Beach into a mini-dynasty. 

And before we leave Miami, lets answer that trivia question from before. Other than Virginia Tech, the last Big East team to beat Miami was...
Syracuse. The week before Miami ended UCLA's run to the inaugural BCS Championship, the Hurricanes lost in blowout fashion to Donovan McNabb and the Orange in the Carrier Dome.