Thursday, March 10, 2022

2021 Yards Per Play: Conference USA

After revisiting three consecutive power conferences, we return to the Group of Five. This week we examine Conference USA.

Here are the 2021 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. 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 Conference USA met this threshold? Here are Conference USA teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Eventual conference champ UTSA and Charlotte overachieved, while UAB underachieved based on their YPP numbers. The Roadrunners were 2-0 in one-score conference games (3-0 if you include their victory over Western Kentucky in the CUSA Championship Game). The 49ers were also 2-0 in one-score conference games, but failed to parlay that decent luck into anything of significance. I'll also note that Charlotte had a worse per play defense than a team that did not win a single conference game (FIU). Charlotte allowed over seven yards per play to seven of their eight conference opponents. They managed to hold Rice to only 6.08 yards per play in their best defensive performance of the conference season. Meanwhile, UAB put up phenomenal per play numbers in Conference USA action, but dropped two games by less than a touchdown, including a loss to the aforementioned Rice Owls and a last-second defeat at UTSA that gave the Roadrunners the division crown.

The Struggle is Real
The college football system is stacked against Group of Five teams. The stars had to align perfectly for Cincinnati to get into the College Football Playoff in 2021. But I'm not just talking about the playoff. Its hard for Group of Five teams to finish in the AP Poll even if they have sterling won/loss records. In the College Football Playoff era (since 2014 and excluding 2020 for obvious reasons), Group of Five teams that win ten games have been shut out of the final AP Poll numerous times. Are these teams better than Power Five teams that have an extra loss or two? Probably not, but an AP ranking serves as a nice reward for Group of Five teams that have successful seasons. Its something for their fans to look back on fondly. Does a finish in the lower reaches of the AP Poll matter to Auburn? It may help their coach reach an incentive bonus, but their fans are probably disappointed by such a result. While I can't do a whole lot to convince the AP writers to rank more deserving Group of Five teams, I can point out that every Power Five team that has won at least ten games has finished ranked since 2014 (with one exception). Meanwhile, a ton of Group of Five teams have been left out in the cold. Here are all the teams that have finished with exactly ten wins since 2014 and not finished with a cute little number beside their name. You'll notice that one of these teams is very much not like the others.
Scroll through the conference affiliation and one team sticks out. Georgia won ten games in Mark Richt's final season (including their last five), but did not finish ranked in the final AP Poll. They are the only Power Five team to accomplish that feat in the playoff era. If you look at this table, you might think Air Force has the most ten win seasons since 2014 that did not include a ranked finish. And you would be wrong. Remember, this table lists those teams that won exactly ten games and failed to finish ranked. A few Group of Five teams have won eleven games and finished unranked.
Appalachian State is your Group of Five leader with four seasons of double-digit wins that did not coincide with a ranked finish. The Mountaineers did finish the 2019 season ranked 19th in the AP Poll, but they had to win 13 games to get there. Had they won only twelve, they may have joined this illustrious club.
Last season's UTSA Roadrunners are the only team in the playoff era to win at least twelve games and finish unranked.

Thanks for reading. Next week, we take a short hiatus from our conference recaps to focus on the impending NCAA Tournament.