## Thursday, March 09, 2023

### 2022 Yards Per Play: Conference USA

After six consecutive weeks of Power Five leagues, this week we return to the Group of Five and examine Conference USA.

Here are the 2022 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 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 2022 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.
UTSA significantly overachieved relative to their YPP numbers while UAB underachieved (more on them in a second). UTSA finished their penance in Conference USA by running the table and winning their second consecutive league title. However, the Roadrunners were fortunate to finish with an unblemished record, posting a 4-0 mark in one-score conference games. One of those close victories came against UAB. The Blazers finished 0-4 in one-score conference games, but won their other four league games by a combined 71 points.

The Best .500 Team
By falling short of their expected record so dramatically, UAB became the best mid-major team ever to finish with precisely a .500 record (at least as measured by Net YPP). UAB's Net YPP of +1.64 significantly outpaced Cincinnati (coached by contemporary asshole and future US Senator Tommy Tuberville) as the best ever at the Group of Five level (since 2005).
The Blazers were not able to top a handful of Power Five teams that also finished with .500 records.
Arizona State has a giant asterisk as they only played four games in the pandemic shortened 2020 season. Of the teams that played a full conference schedule, UAB finished slightly behind a pair of teams coached by Mike Leach (in back to back seasons no less) and a recent Louisville squad.

Here at Statistically Speaking, we like to provide history lessons, but we also like to learn from history. How did the 'great' .500 teams perform the following season? Its a bit of a mixed bag. We'll start with the Group of Five.
Cincinnati hit rock bottom in Tommy Tuberville's final season and FAU, which closed 2013 by winning their final four games under an interim coach, hired the wrong guy and suffered through a rough three season stretch under the Partridge Family. However, there were a few success stories as well. Houston won Conference USA in 2006 under fourth year head coach and guy has nothing to hide, Art Briles. Hawaii and Utah State nearly won their respective conferences, but lost close games to Boise State that ultimately cost them a shot at the WAC and Mountain West title. Nevada revved up their Pistol attack and improved slightly behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault

At the Power Five level, the follow up results were also quite mixed.
Arkansas fired Houston Nutt and struggled in their first season under Bobby Petrino. Louisville, Miami, and Texas Tech maintained their .500 records the following season. After actually winning the Big 10 despite a .500 record in 2012, Wisconsin improved the following season under first year head coach Gary Andersen, but were no match for Michigan State and Ohio State who both rolled through the league with unbeaten conference records. After back to back .500 seasons, Texas Tech exploded under Mike Leach and finished in an infamous three-way tie with Oklahoma and Texas for the Big 12 South crown. Finally, Tennessee finished with their best season perhaps in this century just this past year. And for what its worth, Arizona State also improved, but I didn't include them due to the limited schedule they played in 2020.

Projecting UAB's 2023 season is a real Rorschach Test. UAB played well in 2022, but could not seal the deal in close games. Their head coach retired due to health issues over the summer and they played all season under an inexperienced interim. Of course they are bound for greatness with a full offseason under a new regime and some better close game good fortune! But, they made a weird coaching hire. Not that it can't be successful. It was just odd. The Blazers are also stepping up in weight class as they join the AAC for the 2023 campaign. If UAB were a stock and I were a TV personality who pretended to know what stocks to pick, I'd give the Blazers a 'HOLD' rating.