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. 

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