Thursday, May 19, 2022

2021 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: SEC

Last week we looked at how SEC teams fared in terms of yards per play. his 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 2021 SEC 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.
Finally, SEC 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 the standard to determine whether a team's record differed significantly from their APR. By that standard, Missouri and Ole Miss significantly overachieved, while Florida underachieved. The Rebels and Gators also saw their respective records differ significantly from their expected records based on Yards per Play and we went over some reasons why last week. This week, we will focus solely on Missouri. A quick glance at their scoring margin will give you all the information you need to know. Missouri won three SEC games by a combined margin of thirteen points. Contrast that with their five SEC losses, of which four came by at least seventeen points. Their lone competitive conference loss came in the conference opener against Kentucky. 

Upsets in the SEC Championship Game
As you may have heard, Alabama upset Georgia in the SEC Championship game in 2021. It was the first upset in the iconic title game since 2013 when Auburn upset Missouri as a slight underdog on the way to an appearance in the final BCS Championship Game. It marked the sixth upset in the 30-year history of the SEC Championship Game. For your viewing pleasure, the upsets are listed below. 
As I was putting together this list of title game upsets, I noticed something. There have been four significant upsets in the SEC Championship Game (spread of more than a field goal). Three of those upsets have been authored by teams coached by none other than Nick Saban. Two of the upsets kept the defeated team from playing for a national title and the other came against a team an unbeaten juggernaut that had rolled through the regular season. Saban is already considered the greatest college coach of this generation (and perhaps all-time) and this tidbit won't be what most college football fans remember about him, but it is another superlative in his already sterling resume. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

2021 Yards Per Play: SEC

Hard to believe, but we are now on our penultimate conference in the offseason recaps. This week, we reminisce about the conference that squared off in the College Football Playoff Championship Game, the SEC.

Here are the 2021 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. 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 2021 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.
Ole Miss and Florida were the SEC teams that saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record. The Rebels overachieved by winning both of their one-score conference games and posting the best in-conference turnover margin (+5) of any SEC team. Meanwhile, Florida ended the Dan Mullen era by dropping their final four SEC games. Of their six conference defeats, four came by a touchdown or less. The Gators also had the worst in-conference turnover margin of any SEC team (-8) and were done in by non-offensive touchdowns. In eight conference games, the Gators allowed four non-offensive touchdowns without scoring any of their own. Two of those non-offensive touchdowns provided the exact margin of defeat in games against Kentucky (blocked field goal) and LSU (interception). The other two did not directly result in defeat, but turnovers that resulted in non-offensive touchdowns late in the first half in back to back weeks against Georgia (interception) and South Carolina (fumble) effectively ended any hopes of a Florida comeback. 

Dominating Conference Opponents
Alabama won the 2017 College Football Playoff in dramatic fashion. While the ending was an all-timer, that Alabama team was nondescript compared to other national champions of the modern era (since 1984). However, beginning with Clemson in 2018, the next three national champions (LSU in 2019 and Alabama in 2020) all had a legitimate claims to the be the best of all time. On the morning of December 4, 2021, it appeared Georgia would be able to make a similar claim once the season ended. The Bulldogs entered the SEC Championship Game having beaten ten Power Five opponents by an average of nearly 31 points per game. After a sluggish opener against Clemson in Charlotte, the Bulldogs had not been challenged by any team, leading all their conference opponents by at least a touchdown at halftime en route to the SEC East title. Even a loss to Alabama would not necessarily invalidate their argument as the best team ever. Other great teams like Florida in 2008 or Alabama in 2011 had dropped close games (at home no less) only to regroup and be regarded as some of the best ever once their body of work was examined. It was not the loss to Alabama that curtailed their run at 'best ever' status, it was the magnitude of the defeat. Alabama led by 14 points entering the fourth quarter and pushed their lead to 21 with about twelve minutes left. The 17 point final margin was not misleading. Alabama shredded a previously impenetrable Georgia defense for 526 yards and scored nearly as many points (41) as the Bulldogs allowed in their first seven conference games (49). But you know how this story ends. This was just a temporary setback for Georgia. They rebounded and exorcised their Alabama demons in the College Football Playoff, winning their first national title since 1980. Although, they will probably not go down as they best team ever, they should be remembered for their dominant performance in SEC play. In the BCS era (since 1998), they are one of just eighteen teams to finish unbeaten in conference play and win all their games by double-digits. What illustrious company have they joined? See for yourself, starting with the non-BCS/Group of Five teams. 
No surprise to see a couple Boise State teams on this list. And lets not forget Marshall's dominance of the MAC when they moved up to FBS in the late 90's or the original BCS busters in Salt Lake City. Of course, that's just the appetizer. You probably came for the entree. Here are the BCS/Power Five teams that have finished unbeaten in conference play with each victory coming by at least ten points. 
It may be a little surprising that only three of the nine BCS/Power Five teams that dominated their conference opponents went on to win the national championship (with two coming in the past two seasons). Other observations from the table: The 2000 Miami Hurricanes dominated their Big East brethren more so than the 2001 and 2002 teams that played for national titles. If the College Football Playoff existed in 2000, Bob Stoops may never have won a national title! 2005 was the only time that two BCS/Power Five teams dominated their conference opponents to such an extent in the same season. Finally, Michigan State's dominance in 2013 is often overlooked. The Spartans lacked the offensive firepower of the other teams on this list (note their margin of victory is by far the smallest), but their defense was rock solid in allowing just eleven points per game in Big 10 play. Their lone loss that season was at Notre Dame in a game where they allowed just 17 points

One trend I noticed when conducting this research was the lack of success these dominant teams had in their respective conference title games. Twelve of these teams played in conference title games after their dominant regular seasons. While they did well straight up, they hemorrhaged cash for those betting on them. 
Ten of the twelve were favorites in their respective conference title games. Those ten teams finished 7-3 straight up, but were 1-9 Against the Spread (ATS). Two of the twelve teams were underdogs in their conference title games. The aforementioned Michigan State team faced an unbeaten Ohio State led by Urban Meyer then in his second season in Columbus. The other instance happened in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season when San Jose State faced an unbeaten (in conference play) Boise State team in the Mountain West Championship Game. Both underdogs not only covered, but won the games outright. Why have these dominant favorites performed so poorly ATS in conference title games? Going undefeated is hard. Perhaps the pressure of the moment gets to these teams, especially in an event that is branded as a 'championship'. Or perhaps these massive favorites take their opponents lightly. Their other conference opponents did not put up much resistance throughout the year, so maybe they expect more of the same in the conference title game. Or maybe the oddsmakers have made these numbers too high. The favorites are 7-3 straight up, so they are winning these games, just not covering. Or maybe ten games is too small a sample to draw any significant conclusions from. What do you think? Why have these dominant teams struggled in conference title games? 

Thursday, May 05, 2022

2021 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Pac-12

Last week we looked at how Pac-12 teams fared in terms of yards per play. his 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 hereIf 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 2021 Pac-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.
Finally, Pac-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 the standard to determine whether or not a team's record differed significantly from their APR. By that standard, Colorado significantly overachieved, while Washington significantly underachieved. Despite overachieving, Colorado was still bad in 2021. They did have a dominant win against Arizona, but their other two conference wins both came at home by three points apiece. By comparison, all six of their conference defeats came by at least fifteen points. Meanwhile, Washington was competitive in most of their conference games thanks to their defense. The unit held the Huskies first eight conference opponents to just over 19 points per game. Thanks to their offensive struggles, they were only able to win three of those games. Then, with their bowl dreams dashed and their coach fired, they let go of the rope in the season finale, allowing 40 points to their in-state rivals in The Apple Cup

The Best New Additions
We are on the precipice of another round of conference expansion at the Power Five level. Oklahoma and Texas will soon be members of the SEC while BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF will replenish the Big 12's membership in quantity if not quality. As we await this brave new world, lets take a moment to reflect on the previous round of realignment that began at the then BCS conference level in 2011 and continued through 2014. In all, twelve schools either switched BCS/Power Five conferences or moved up to BCS/Power Five conferences. An alphabetical listing of those teams in case you forgot: Colorado, Louisville, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, TCU, Texas A&M, Utah, and West Virginia. 

Which teams have brought the most to their new conference? I don't care about branding, regional penetration, or television markets. At this outpost on the internet, we care about on field performance. To answer that question, lets first look at conference play. The following table lists the twelve newcomers in order of their conference winning percentage. Their number of division titles (or conference championship appearances) and conference titles are also included. 
Only a third of the newcomers have posted winning conference records in their new leagues. A quarter of the newcomers have won conference crowns, but two of them did so in 2021 (Pittsburgh and Utah). If we ran these numbers last summer, TCU's shared title in 2014 would have been the only conference title. Newcomers have appeared in ten conference title games, but they are just 2-8 in such contests, losing by an average of fifteen points per game. 

Conference play is but one area of achievement. We also need to examine national performance. While it is far from a perfect measure, the AP Poll does a good job of capturing the national esteem of teams at a moment in time. Below, the twelve newcomers are sorted by ranked finishes in the top 25 of the AP Poll with top ten finishes also included.
Ten of the twelve teams have finished ranked at least once, with Maryland and Rutgers the lone holdouts. There were six total top ten finishes with schools from Texas (TCU and Texas A&M) accounting for five of them. 

So to answer our original question, which new addition has been the best? I think their are only two potential answers: Texas A&M or Utah. Texas A&M has more top ten finishes that Utah and has a slightly better conference record, but the Utes have more top 25 finishes and have won their division three times (three consecutive times in non pandemic shortened seasons). Texas A&M has a tougher path to a division title, but Utah's conference dominance since 2018 should be recognized (25-7 since the start of 2018). I'll throw my support behind Utah. While it may not be a great sign for the conference when a team with the recruiting profile of Utah is winning it, there is no doubt the Utes have been a good addition. I would also argue that while the SEC has benefited from the addition of Texas A&M, the Aggies have benefited more from their association with the SEC. As for the worst new addition? Hard to make a case for anyone other than Rutgers. 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

2021 Yards Per Play: Pac-12

We are careening toward the home stretch of our conference reviews. Next up is the Pac-12. 

Here are the 2021 Pac-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 Pac-12 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. 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 2021 season, which teams in the Pac-12 met this threshold? Here are Pac-12 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
No team in the Pac-12 significantly over or underachieved relative to their YPP numbers although Colorado and Arizona came close. 

Three Downs
Southern Cal, Stanford and Washington are historically speaking, three of the top programs in the Pac-12. In fact, one could argue they are the best. You can make a case for Oregon, especially if you were born in the 21st century. But for the purposes of this post, lets assume those three are the standard bearers for the Pac-12. Those three teams finished with a combined conference record of 8-19 in 2021. This marked the first time their cumulative conference record was below .500 since 2008 and was only the fifth such occurrence this century. 
Perhaps even more amazing, this was the worst combined conference record for the three programs. Ever. The Pac-12 has gone through a lot of iterations in its history and has even included teams like Idaho and Montana. Yet this trio had never been as bad at the same time as they were in 2021. With those three teams suffering historic downturns, who benefited? You could certainly argue Oregon and Utah, the two conference title game participants, but I would direct your attention a little further down the conference standings. 

Oregon State and Washington State finished a combined 11-7 in Pac-12 play last season. The Beavers and Cougars went a combined 5-1 against Southern Cal, Stanford, and Washington. Oregon State beat all three. Their victory against the Trojans was their first since 2010 (lost previous four). They beat Washington for the first time since 2011 (lost previous nine) and Stanford for the first time since 2009 (lost previous eleven). Washington State beat Washington and Stanford, but lost to Southern Cal. Their victory against the Huskies was their first since 2012 (lost previous seven) and their win against Stanford was actually their fifth in a row against the Cardinal. The problem for middle weights like Oregon State and Washington State is that when programs the caliber of Southern Cal, Stanford, and Washington have bad or disappointing seasons, they often upgrade at head coach. That is precisely what Southern Cal and Washington presumably did in the offseason. The Trojans hired a proven head coach from Oklahoma while Washington hired an up and comer from the Group of Five. Stanford stood pat behind their long tenured head coach, but Southern Cal and Washington are likely to see improvement (perhaps significantly) in 2022. I don't know what to make of Stanford and their decline in recent years, but moderate improvement in Palo Alto would not shock me either. What does this mean for Oregon State and Washington State in 2022? They play all three teams again in 2022 and the odds of them finishing 5-1 (or better) against the trio are slim. Their 11-7 combined record from last season means they went just 6-6 against the rest of their Pac-12 slate. A bowl game for either the Beavers or Cougars is not a sure thing and my initial take would be to look at the 'under' on their season win totals when those numbers are released. 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

2021 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Mountain West

Last week we looked at how Mountain West teams fared in terms of yards per play. his 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 hereIf 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 2021 Mountain West 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.
Finally, Mountain West 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 the standard to determine whether or not a team significantly over or under-performed. No team in the Mountain West met that threshold in 2021. 

The Decline of Boise State
The expression 'life comes at you fast' is a bit trite, but there is a lot of truth in that short statement. We often struggle to recognize gradual change until a significant amount of time has passed. For example, without looking it up, how long has it been since Boise State finished a season ranked in the top ten of the AP Poll? Five or six years right? Longer. Seven or eight? It was 2011. Barack Obama had not completed his first term as President the last time Boise State was considered by the college football media to be among the nation's elite. The Broncos have not exactly been wondering in the wilderness for the past eleven seasons, but their national profile has dimmed and that coincided with the departure of Chris Petersen to Washington. Petersen coached the Broncos for eight seasons (2006-2013) and in an interesting bit of symmetry, the Broncos have been without Petersen for the past eight seasons (2014-2021) and sort of 'became' Boise State in the eight seasons preceding his ascendance to head coach (1998-2005). 

Boise State played their first game as an FBS program on August 31st 1996. They lost to Central Michigan. The Broncos would win just two games in that inaugural season. They followed that up with another losing campaign in 1997, but have reeled off 24 consecutive winning seasons since. As I mentioned earlier, that 24 year run neatly sandwiches their greatest success under Chris Petersen between two pretty good runs under four other coaches. So let's do a little comparison. Here is the conference record Boise State posted during each eight year span along with their number of conference titles, both outright and shared. 
Between 1998 and 2005, the Broncos won nearly 88% of their conference games with five outright league titles and a shared title in 2005. When the Big West folded following the 2000 season, the Broncos did not miss a beat in their new home, the WAC, winning 23 of 24 conference games between 2002 and 2005. Following the 2005 season, head coach Dan Hawkins took the Colorado job and his offensive coordinator, Chris Petersen, was promoted to head coach. And the Broncos kept on winning. During Petersen's eight years in charge, they upped their conference winning percentage ever so slightly to nearly 91%. However, they won fewer conference titles, both outright (3) and shared (2) thanks to generational teams at Hawaii (2007) and Nevada (2010) and the move to a stronger conference (the Mountain West in 2011). Once Petersen departed, Bryan Harsin was plucked from Arkansas State to lead the team. Under Harsin and his successor Andy Avalos, the Broncos have continued to dominate their conference brethren. They have won 82% of their Mountain West games and claimed the conference title outright 3 times with two other appearances in the league title game. In fact, they made four consecutive conference title appearances between 2017 and 2020. So if the Broncos are still winning conference games at a similar clip, why have they not finished in the top ten in more than a decade?
This is the biggest area where Boise State has fallen off. Under Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins, the Broncos dominated their conference opponents, but were unable to score any major non-conference victories. Between 1998 and 2005, they beat two teams from BCS conferences. They beat an Iowa State team that finished 7-7 in the 2002 Humanitarian Bowl and Oregon State in 2004. Their two wins against ranked teams in that span came against Fresno State in 2001 and TCU in the 2003 Fort Worth Bowl. Under Petersen, the Broncos more than quadrupled their win total against BCS conference teams, winning games against Georgia, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Virginia Tech to name a few. They also won twice as many games as they lost against ranked teams, knocking off two top ten teams (Oklahoma and TCU) in the process. While the Broncos have held their own against Power Five teams since Petersen left, they have not scored any genre defining wins. Of their seven victories against Power Five opponents, three have come against teams that finished with losing records (most recently Florida State in 2019) and only one has come against a team that finished the season ranked in the final AP Poll (Arizona). And speaking of ranked teams, while they have beaten seven ranked teams, six of them have been fellow Group of Five members (BYU, Fresno State thrice, San Diego State, and Utah State). The college football viewing public does pay as much attention when Group of Five teams cannibalize their own. 

If the Broncos want to resume their place at the top of the Group of Five food chain in the college football ecosystem, they need to start winning more games against better Power Five opponents. Alas, the 2022 schedule does not really present any opportunities for such a feat. The lone Power Five opponent on the schedule is Oregon State, a bowl team from last season, but an unlikely true contender in the Pac-12. The Broncos do host a future Power Five opponent, BYU, but the 2022 team will at best have a sterling final record with few chances to wow the nation in non-conference action. 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

2021 Yards Per Play: Mountain West

Six conferences down, four to go. After spending the first three months of our reviews in the south, eastern, and midwestern parts of the continental United States, we follow Horace Greeley's advice and head west to a conference that saw a third of its membership win ten games in 2021. 

Here are the 2021 Mountain West 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 Mountain West 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. 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 2021 season, which teams in the Mountain West met this threshold? Here are Mountain West teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
There was a lot of over and underachievement in the Mountain West in 2021. The two teams that faced off in the Mountain West Championship Game, San Diego State and Utah State, significantly overachieved, while a pair of teams that finished with a combined 4-12 conference record (Colorado State and Wyoming) significantly underachieved. San Diego State and Utah State finished a combined 8-0 in one-score conference games, but they went about winning those games in vastly different ways. San Diego State brought a smile to the octogenarian football fans by relying on their defense (best per play defense in the conference) and special teams (Matt Araiza punted brilliantly and kicked field goals adequately). Meanwhile, Utah State aired it out with transfer quarterback Logan Bonner and managed to win a conference title despite the second worst per play defense in the Mountain West. Colorado State and Wyoming cannot pin their underachievement entirely on close game misfortune. While the Rams and Cowboys combined for an 0-3 mark in one-score Mountain West games, my abacus indicates they still went just 4-9 in multi-score Mountain West games. Colorado State's per play numbers are buoyed by their game against New Mexico. The Rams won that game by 29 points, but outgained the Lobos by an absurd four yards per play. In their other seven Mountain West games, the Rams were outgained by 0.18 yards per play (5.93 to 6.11) which still means they underachieved, as they only managed one victory in those seven games. However, that level of underachievement is not nearly as drastic. For Wyoming, the culprit was an inconsistent offense. The Cowboys scored 14 or fewer points in five of their eight Mountain West games (all losses), but scored 96 total points in the other three (of which they won two). A more consistent offense would have resulted in an extra victory or two in Laramie. 

Mediocre Conference Championship Games
The two teams that played in the Mountain West Championship Game last season finished seventh and eighth respectively in Net YPP. The Aggies and Aztecs were not bad, but they were also probably not the best teams in the Mountain West last season. How do they compare to previous championship game participants historically? Since 2005, among Group of Five teams, they have the second smallest combined Net YPP. 
Utah State and San Diego State were beaten by another title game from 2021. However, they can take solace as they have the lowest Net YPP of any title game where neither participant entered with a negative Net YPP. 

While the MAC and Mountain West produced historic conference title games in 2021 (at least in terms of cumulative Net YPP), this phenomenon is not limited to so called mid-majors. Power Five leagues have featured a few battles of mediocrity as well. 
The ACC has been a habitual offender, with the 2008 incarnation grabbing the top spot (that season only one team finished with a conference record more than one game from .500). And don't think we can't see you there SEC. Tennessee's last conference title appearance came in a season when they were actually outgained and outscored in conference play!

Thursday, April 07, 2022

2021 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: MAC

Last week we looked at how MAC teams fared in terms of yards per play. his 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 hereIf 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 2021 MAC 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. 
Finally, MAC 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 somewhat arbitrary line of demarcation to determine whether or not a team's record differed significantly from their APR. By that standard, Northern Illinois and Kent State significantly overachieved, while Toledo significantly underachieved. Northern Illinois and Toledo also saw their actual records differ significantly from their expected records based on YPP and we went over some reasons for that last week. For Kent State, it was a story as old as time. The Golden Flashes went 4-0 in one-score conference games, clinching the MAC East title on the final day of the regular season with a one-point win over Miami when the Redhawks failed on a two-point conversion in overtime. 

Unique Non-Conference Matchups
The corona virus has upended normal life for more than two years. Sports is one of the more trivial aspects of life to have been impacted, but I would argue not all impacts to the sporting world have been negative. While the 2021 college football regular season was more conventional, especially compared to 2020, the postseason was a different story. Five bowl games were canceled and two bowls had to find replacement teams thanks to a rise in Covid-19 cases. One of those bowls that had to adjust on the fly was the Sun Bowl. Originally slated to feature the Miami Hurricanes and Washington State Cougars, Miami withdrew on December 26th. On December 27th, Boise State withdrew from the Arizona bowl leaving Central Michigan without an opponent for the fledgling game. The Sun Bowl acted quickly and secured Central Michigan as Washington State's opponent in the Sun Bowl. Why was this significant? It marked just the nineteenth time a current member of the MAC has faced off with a current member of the Pac-12. If you are unfamiliar, MAC teams predominantly play in the midwest, so their non-conference games against Power Five opponents tend to involve ACC, Big 10, Big 12, or SEC teams. So we got a rare MAC/Pac-12 matchup in the bowl game, but more importantly, it was also the first victory by a current MAC team against a Pac-12 opponent. Technically at least. More on that in a moment. For now, here is the complete list of games between current MAC and Pac-12 teams. 
Some interesting tidbits from this table. 
  • Give credit to Arizona and Utah. They are the only Pac-12 teams brave enough to venture into MAC territory by playing true road games. 
  • Arizona has played seven games against MAC teams, by far the most of any Pac-12 team. 
  • California, Colorado, Stanford, and UCLA have not played any games against current MAC teams. Technically. 
  • Buffalo and Ohio are the only current MAC teams that have never played a Pac-10/12 opponent. 
  • After the real Cold War ended, there was a bit of a Cold War between the MAC and the then Pac-10. There were no MAC/Pac-10 games between 1992 and 2007.  
While the MAC has enjoyed a more stable conference membership that the rest of FBS, there have been some defections (and expulsions) in the league's history. Alas, the former MAC members were never able to deliver a victory against Pac-10/12 opponents. 
As we did previously to Arizona and Utah, let's give some credit to Colorado as the Buffaloes traveled to the east coast to play Massachusetts in 2014. Also note the 2009 Eagle Bank Bowl was the first bowl game to feature a clash of MAC/Pac-10/12 teams. Temple had a double-digit lead at halftime, but was held scoreless in the second half as the Bruins secured the victory. Marshall is the only former MAC team to never face a Pac-10/12 opponent while they were a member of the MAC.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, while this is technically the MAC's first victory against a Pac-10/12 team, the current MAC teams have beaten future Pac-12 teams and former or future MAC teams have beaten Pac-10/12 teams. Confused? Let me explain. 
Before Colorado joined the Pac-12, they were a member of the Big 8 and then the Big 12 conference. During that time, they played three games against MAC teams, and even lost one of them

Finally, Northern Illinois (current MAC member), Temple (former MAC member), and UCF (former) have played games against Pac-10/12 opponents before or after they were members of the MAC. 
Future MAC member Temple was able to net a victory against the Pac-10 in the 1979 Garden State Bowl in luxurious New Jersey, while former MAC member UCF bludgeoned Stanford when the Cardinal traveled across the country in 2019. 

The 2021 Sun Bowl was an extemporaneous delight. Instead of a boring clash between middling Power Fives, we were witness to the MAC's first victory against the Pac-12. Oh, and we got to see Jim McElwain doused with Frosted Flakes. 
They're grrrrrrrrrreat!

Thursday, March 31, 2022

2021 Yards Per Play: MAC

We are now beginning the second half of our conference reviews. This week, we will examine the Big 10's little brother, the MAC. 

Here are the 2021 MAC 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 MAC 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. 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 2021 season, which teams in the MAC met this threshold? Here are MAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Northern Illinois significantly exceeded their expected record based on YPP, while Toledo significantly underachieved relative to their YPP. Northern Illinois won the MAC West despite posting the worst Net YPP in the division. The Huskies played a preponderance of one-score games in 2021, and won nearly all of them. They finished 6-1 in one-score MAC games, and while the odds were not as much in their favor in non-conference play (1-2 in one-score games), they did beat a Power Five team for the first time since 2017 in the season opener. Meanwhile, Toledo went 0-3 in one-score MAC games. Their three conference losses came by a grand total of eight points while all five of their conference victories came by at least ten points. The Rockets misfortune was also on display in non-conference action, where they lost tight games to Notre Dame and Middle Tennessee State

From Worst to First
Northern Illinois accomplished an almost unprecedented feat in 2021. No, it wasn't winning the MAC. The Huskies appeared in seven MAC Championship Games (including six straight at one point) between 2010 and 2018 (winning four of them). The more unprecedented feat was going from last place in their division (or conference) to first place. Since 2005, it has only happened eleven times in non-BCS/Group of Five leagues. 
Northern Illinois joins Miami, Florida Atlantic, and San Jose State as the only non-BCS/Group of Five teams to win their conference outright the season after finishing in last place. The other teams on this list either lost their respective conference title games or finished tied for first in a league that did not yet stage a conference title game. 

At this blog, we care about the past, but our goal is trying to predict the future. How did the previous ten teams fare the following season? Well, were I a Northern Illinois supporter, tempering my expectations might be a rational course of action. 
Nine of the ten teams declined the following season, with many seeing significant falls. In some cases their are extenuating circumstances. Miami and Southern Mississippi lost their coaches. Central Michigan had to play an abbreviated season due to the pandemic. Coastal Carolina, San Jose State, and Tulsa had to play full seasons after a pandemic impacted or shortened one. However, this is a pretty clear trend. Fresno State was the lone team able to resist regression's mighty pull. These teams all required at least a little good fortune to win their respective divisions after last place finishes. When that good fortune flips to bad, average, or even good, but not quite as good, a decline in record usually follows. Can Northern Illinois continue their hot streak in 2022 or does our old pal regression have something else in store for them?