Wednesday, May 25, 2022

2021 Yards Per Play: Sun Belt

Somehow, we have arrived at our final conference in the offseason recap series. This week we examine the Sun Belt.

Here are the 2021 Sun Belt 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 Sun Belt 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 Sun Belt met this threshold? Here are Sun Belt teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Louisiana-Lafayette and South Alabama were the two Sun Belt teams that saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record. In Billy Napier's final season in Lafayette, the Ragin' Cajuns became the first team to finish unbeaten in Sun Belt play and win the conference title game. Despite their unbeaten mark, the Ragin' Cajuns were far from dominant, winning five games by one score. South Alabama was not nearly as fortunate in close games, losing all four conference games they played that were decided by a touchdown or less. The Ragin' Cajuns and Jaguars faced off in early October and the final result was a microcosm of both teams' respective seasons. South Alabama outgained Louisiana-Lafayette and edged them slightly in yards per play. In fact, the Jaguars were in position to take the lead in the fourth quarter, but missed a 36-yard field goal with just over a minute left to seal a 20-18 loss

Divisional Oddities
From the looks of things, the era of divisional play in college football may soon be over. In the three decades of divisional play, there have only been three instances where a the division champ finished with a winning conference record while every other team in the division finished with a losing conference record. Those instances have all come in the past three seasons and the last two have come in the same division! Since this post is on the Sun Belt, you can probably guess which conference is responsible for the last two.
Louisiana-Lafayette has gone 15-1 in Sun Belt action the past two seasons. In both seasons, the second best team in the division finished 3-5 in Sun Belt play meaning the division was decided before many MLB division races. Before Louisiana-Lafayette's Sun Belt dominance, Oregon finished four games clear of everyone in the Pac-12 North in 2019. And while it didn't quite make the cut, I wanted to remind readers of the mediocrity that was the Big 12 North in 2004. No one in that division finished with a winning record. Iowa State entered the final week of the regular season with a chance to wrap up their first North title, but dropped an overtime game to Missouri to give the division to Colorado.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

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

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

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.