Thursday, February 10, 2022

2021 Yards Per Play: Big 10

Hard to believe, but we are on to our third conference in the offseason previews. Let's take a look back at the Big 10. 

Here are the 2021 Big 10 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 Big 10 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 Big 10 met this threshold? Here are Big 10 teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Iowa and Michigan State, a surprise Big 10 Championship Game participant and a surprise NY6 Bowl participant significantly overachieved relative to their expected record based on YPP. Meanwhile, Nebraska underachieved by an historic margin (more on them later). Iowa rode their fantastic defense (second in Big 10 play in yards allowed per play), a sterling turnover margin (+9 in conference play), non-offensive scores (scored five non-offensive touchdowns in Big 10 play), and a great close game record (4-0 in one-score conference games) to a Big 10 West title. Michigan State was the inverse of Iowa, with a fantastic offense making up for a poor defense. The Spartans were also 4-0 in one-score conference games, allowing them to vastly exceed their expected record. And then there is Nebraska. The Cornhuskers were an amazing 0-7 in one-score Big 10 games. And their other Big 10 loss came by nine total points! Nebraska was doomed by inopportune mistakes. The Cornhuskers allowed five non-offensive touchdowns in Big 10 play while scoring none of their own. The five scores all proved decisive in close losses. A punt return touchdown allowed Michigan State to send their game with the Cornhuskers into overtime. A blocked punt touchdown allowed Iowa to stage a fourth quarter rally. A kickoff return touchdown was the difference in their loss to Wisconsin. Illinois returned a Taylor Martinez fumble for a touchdown in their Week Zero clash. And finally, Purdue returned a Martinez interception for a touchdown in their five-point win against Nebraska. If the game was close in 2021, Nebraska was going to blow it. 

Best One-Win Teams
Two weeks ago, we looked at Wake Forest and the worst BCS/Power 5 teams to finish conference play with exactly one loss. This week, in honor of Nebraska, let's look at the best one-win BCS/Power 5 teams. I mentioned earlier that Nebraska historically underachieved. It should come as no surprise then that they are the best one-win BCS/Power 5 team since 2005. 
The only other team that was even in the same neighborhood as Nebraska was the 2006 Illinois team coached by Ron Zook. If they know you by the company you keep, this probably does not bode well for Scott Frost. On the other hand, most of these teams saw significant improvement after their solid play/poor achievement seasons. 
Skip Holtz was the only coach that was unable to guide his team to an improved conference record the next season (and he was fired). The other four teams all saw significant improvement. Syracuse finished in a logjam at the top the Big East in their final season in the conference (and Doug Marrone used that as a stepping stone to an NFL head coaching gig). Michigan State bounced back from a rare losing season to win ten games. Washington State finished bowl eligible. And finally, Illinois garnered their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1983. Nebraska is almost destined to improve in 2022. A bowl bid should be the minimum requirement for Scott Frost to remain employed at his alma mater and if the Huskers have even the slightest bit of good fortune, they should be in contention for the Big 10 West division title. 

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