Wednesday, July 06, 2022

First Half Point Differential: The 2021 Group of Five

After a brief respite and a throwback post, we return to contemporary team analysis. This week we'll examine First Half Point Differential (1HPD) in conference play for the Group of Five from this past season. For the uninitiated, 1HPD is a very complicated advanced statistic. It is the number of points by which a team outscored (or was outscored) by its opponents in the first half. The theory behind this stat is that teams that pull off a lot of second half comebacks are operating on razor thin margins and may be in for regression the next season. Similarly, teams that have good first half margins, but end up losing more games than we might expect have a solid foundation to build upon and may see improvement the following season. With that out of the way, lets get started. 

American Athletic Conference
The 2021 AAC standings. 
1HPD in AAC play (title game excluded).
The teams with the two best first half differentials met in the AAC Championship game, with the top team prevailing. At the bottom of the standings, South Florida, Temple, and Tulane all finished with the same conference record (1-7), but its clear from these numbers which team was usually out of the game by halftime. In fact, the Owls never lead at halftime of any conference game in 2020!

Conference USA
The 2021 Conference USA standings. 
1HPD in Conference USA play (title game excluded).
Western Kentucky and UAB posted the best first half differential in 2021 and we were almost treated to a showdown between the Hilltoppers and Blazers in the CUSA Championship Game. However, a last minute comeback by UTSA allowed the Roadrunners to edge the Blazers in the West division race. In the championship game, UTSA against edged a statistically superior team at home giving them their first conference title in school history

The 2021 MAC standings. 
1HPD in MAC play (title game excluded).
Northern Illinois was the ultimate enigma in 2021. The Huskies scoffed at all the statistics that doubted them and hoisted the MAC championship trophy for the fifth time since 2011. In the regular season, the Huskies were tied or trailing at halftime in five of their eight conference games, but jumped on Kent State in the MAC Championship Game posting their largest halftime team lead (17-0) against a MAC foe since they obliterated Akron in 2019. Kent State can take solace that they posted the best first half point differential of any MAC team. I'm sure they hang banners for that. 

Mountain West
The 2021 Mountain West standings. 
1HPD in Mountain West play (title game excluded). 
The Mountain West Championship Game featured the teams ranked third and sixth in first half differential with the sixth ranked team taking home the title. While that may seem like a significant upset, the difference between third and sixth was just fifteen points over the conference season, or less than two per game. Air Force had the best differential, but the Falcons dropped a tight high-scoring game to Utah State early in the season that ultimately determined the division champion.

Sun Belt
The 2021 Sun Belt standings. 
1HPD in Sun Belt play (title game excluded). 
Coastal Carolina boasted the best first half differential in Sun Belt action, but Appalachian State won the East division thanks to a thrilling midweek victory against the Chanticleers. The East was where the all the excitement was as Louisiana-Lafayette had the West wrapped up by Halloween, finishing five games clear of the closest competition. The other Louisiana school was revitalized somewhat by retread Terry Bowden, but it might be wise to pump the brakes on a 'Funroe' renaissance. The Warhawks trailed at halftime by nearly twelve points per game in conference play. 

In the YPP and APR offseason recaps, I sort the teams in each conference by how much they over or under-performed relative to their expected record. Since all the Group of Five conferences are grouped together in this post, I am only going to list those that significantly over or under-performed (a difference of at least .200). We'll start with the overachievers.
When a team finishes unbeaten in league play there is usually at least a little bit of good fortune involved. The Cougars only trailed at halftime in two of their eight conference games which is not bad. However, the other unbeaten AAC team (Cincinnati), lead at halftime in all eight of their conference games. North Texas won their final five Conference USA games after an 0-3 start to salvage a bowl bid and perhaps save Seth Littrell's job. However, in that winning streak, the Mean Green had to pull off two second half comebacks (against luminaries Southern Miss and UTEP). Couple that with the extreme negative margins in their first three conference losses and its easy to see why they overachieved relative to their first half differential. In the MAC section, we already touched on how much of an enigma Northern Illinois was in 2021. I'll add the Huskies finished second to last (by a single point over Eastern Michigan) in first half differential in their division. San Diego State only had to pull off one second half comeback in their 7-1 Mountain West campaign, but befitting a team that won with defense (and with their best player potentially being the punter), San Diego State rarely had large leads at halftime. Louisiana-Lafayette rolled through the Sun Belt with a perfect record, but they only led by double-digits at halftime in three of their conference games. 

And now the underachievers. 
I touched on it in the AAC review, but South Florida and Tulane did not have the profile of one-win conference teams. South Florida blew halftime leads in three of their seven conference losses (East Carolina, Houston, and Tulsa) and while Tulane did not blow any second half leads, they were tied with Memphis and trailed by two points against both Cincinnati and Houston at halftime. In the Sun Belt, South Alabama blew double digit halftime leads against Coastal Carolina and Texas State consigning them to a losing record despite a statistical profile that signaled they were a legitimate contender in the conference. 

Thanks for reading. We'll be back next week with a look at first half point differential in the Power Five. 

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