## Thursday, January 25, 2024

### 2023 Yards Per Play: ACC

We are ten percent of the way through out offseason previews. Next conference up is the ACC.

Here are the 2023 ACC 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 ACC 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 2023 season, which teams in the ACC met this threshold? Here are ACC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
NC State and Florida State exceeded their expected record based on YPP, while Pittsburgh underachieved relative to their YPP numbers. For the Wolfpack and Seminoles, the reasons they exceeded their expected records are obvious. Both schools combined to finish 6-1 in one-score conference games and they were also the top two teams in terms of in-conference turnover margin in the ACC (at +10 and +6 respectively). As for Pittsburgh, I can't find anything in the stats that helps explain why their expected record differs so significantly from their actual record. The Panthers were not unlucky in close games (1-1) and their in-conference turnover margin was mediocre (-1). Their fourth down conversion rate and red zone touchdown rates were close to their opponents. They actually scored more non-offensive touchdowns (3) than they allowed (2) in ACC play. This one will remain a mystery. I suppose we can just lay the blame at the feet of Pat Narduzzi and his antiquated approach to offense.

Moving On Up
As you may have read or heard, the ACC has had some membership drama over the past year. I'm not a reporter and I am not in the business of making membership predictions, so I will be just as surprised as you when Clemson jumps to the Big 10 and the ACC replaces them with Memphis. Instead of dealing with hypotheticals, lets examine the universe as it is.

When the Pac-12 died over the summer, the ACC tossed a life raft to Golden State nerd schools Cal and Stanford. Whether that life raft brought them on to a ship that was also sinking remains to be seen. While Cal and Stanford will be interesting fits in the ACC for however long the conference exists in its current incarnation, I think the more intriguing case is the third team from west of the Mississippi that is joining the league, the SMU Mustangs.

Before the term was coined, SMU was a member of a power conference. The Mustangs joined the Southwest Conference in 1918 and were members of the Texas cabal until the league dissolved after the 1995 season. SMU had a good run in the early 1980's, finishing ranked in each season from 1980 through 1984. That success was later deemed to be ill-gotten (check out the 30 for 30 film Pony Excess for details) and SMU was given the 'Death Penalty' for the reprehensible violation of paying college athletes. The 'Death Penalty' did its job and pretty much killed the SMU program. Thus, they were not a hot commodity when the Southwest Conference died and were forced to downgrade to the WAC (the nation's first Super Conference) in 1996. They have continued to bounce around since, joining Conference USA in 2005 and the AAC in 2013. Now, after nearly 30 years, they are back in a power conference. What then, are reasonable expectations in their first year in the 'big leagues'? To answer that, we look as we often do, to the past for guidance.

Just a note before we dive into this, when I use the term 'power conference', I am referring to conferences that were part of the old BCS system and are now part of the Power Four (formerly Power Five) in the College Football Playoff era. SMU's move to the ACC marks the fifth time a power conference has drafted teams from non-power conferences to fill out its ranks. The first conference to do this was the Big East in 2004 and 2005. The league lost Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC prior to the 2004 season and replaced them with a team in just their fifth year as an FBS program, the Connecticut Huskies. The following season, the Big East lost another team, Boston College, to the ACC and replaced the Eagles with three Conference USA teams (Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida). While this is technically two replacements, I'm grouping them together since they happened back to back in the same conference. How did those four newcomers perform?
Louisville and South Florida posted winning conference records in their first season in the Big East. And while these teams started out hot, Cincinnati had the most staying power in the league, posting winning conference records in six of their eight years as a member of the Big East. Collectively, these four teams combined to go 14-13 in their first season of Big East play. And while that is a winning record, it should be noted that only half the teams in the eight team league were power conference veterans (Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, and West Virginia).

The next conference to bring a non-major conference team into their mix was the Pac-10 in 2011. The league added Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West and rechristened themselves the Pac-12. Utah was a Mountain West power, but it took the Utes awhile to acclimate in their new league.
The Utes posted losing conference records in each of their first three seasons in the Pac-12 before becoming a veritable power in the late aughts. The Utes played in four consecutive non-Covid Pac-12 Championship Games between 2018 and 2022, with the final two resulting in conference titles.

The third conference to add a non-major team was the Big 12 which did so the very next season. The Big 12 brought West Virginia over from the Big East, but their non-major draft pick was TCU. The Horned Frogs were another Mountain West power, but they also struggled initially in their new home.
The Horned Frogs had losing conference records in their first two seasons in the Big 12 and despite breaking through with a shared league title and near College Football Playoff bid in 2014, they have struggled to consistently win in league play, posting just five winning conference records in their twelve years in the league.

After adding the Horned Frogs, the Big 12's membership was constant for a few years until the SEC surprised everyone and poached Oklahoma and Texas in the summer of 2021. The Sooners and Longhorns would remain in the league for three more seasons, but the Big 12 made plans to replace them by raiding the AAC. They brought over Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF in 2023 and augmented that trio with BYU which had been playing as an independent for more than a decade. However, to say those teams struggled when moving up is putting it lightly.
The quartet combined for an 8-28 league record in 2023 and were just 4-24 against veteran Big 12 members.

With that history, I think expectations should be muted for SMU, at least in their first season. The previous ten teams that moved up combined to finish 30-51 in league play in their first seasons in their new locales. Seven of the ten teams finished with losing conference records and the only teams that finished with winning records (Louisville and South Florida) played in a conference that was populated with other teams moving up. SMU finished ranked for the first time since 1984 and won the AAC last season, but they also finished 0-3 against Power Five opponents. All of those games came away from home and one was in a bowl where things can get weird. However, only one of those opponents could be classified as good. Oklahoma was top-fifteen last season, but TCU and Boston College were mid at best. SMU dominated their AAC opponents last season, but they only beat three teams that played in a bowl game (Rice, Memphis, and Tulane) The ACC is not the strongest power conference, but I think the Mustangs will struggle as they adjust to a more difficult schedule. If they win half their league games next season, I would consider that a success.

## Thursday, January 18, 2024

### 2023 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: AAC

Last week we looked at how AAC teams fared in terms of yards per play. This 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 2023 AAC 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, AAC teams are sorted by the difference between their actual number of wins and their expected number of wins according to APR.
Tulane won an incredible two and a half more games than we would have expected based on the ratio of their touchdowns scored and allowed in AAC play. The Green Wave also greatly exceeded their expected record based on YPP and we went over some reasons for that last week. Meanwhile Florida Atlantic won almost two fewer games than we would have expected based on their touchdown ratio. The Owls were not terrible in close games (1-2 in one-score league games) and they actually had a positive in-conference turnover margin (+3). So what was the reason for the disconnect between their actual record and their APR? Like UAB last week, I think the culprit is fourth down success. The Owls went for it on fourth down 25 times in AAC play and they converted those opportunities less than half the time (11). The Owls were particularly bad in their four-game losing streak to close the season. In that streak, they made 17 fourth down attempts and converted just six times. That amounts to eleven hidden turnovers over four games, two of which the Owls lost by three points apiece.

Using the Preseason AP Poll to Make Conference Championship Game Bets
The title is straightforward and a bit of a mouthful, but it also serves as a good way to increase your bankroll when Championship Weekend rolls around. Allow me to explain.

Three years a go, I wrote about how you can go about spotting a championship game blowout. The basic idea of the post is this: When handicapping college football championship games, one of the easiest (and most profitable) methods is to simply look at the preseason AP Poll. If one of the teams was ranked in the preseason AP Poll (particularly the top ten) and the other was not, betting on the team that was ranked in the preseason can usually lock in a profit for you. The table below lists the results for Power Five title games where one team was ranked in the preseason AP Poll and the other was not.
Those teams ranked in the preseason AP Poll have won more than 90% of championship games against teams that began the year unranked. While their ATS mark is not quite as strong, they have covered nearly twice as often as not. This situation played out twice in 2023. Florida State and Texas began the year ranked eighth and eleventh respectively in the preseason AP Poll and faced teams in their respective conference title games that were unranked in the preseason AP Poll (Louisville and Oklahoma State). The Seminoles (with their third string quarterback) and Longhorns both won and covered.

If we look solely at teams that began the year in the top ten of the preseason AP Poll, the results are pretty similar.
Those teams won their conference title game 93% of the time and covered over 64% of the time.

Those were Power Five numbers. Does this trend hold at the Group of Five level? Glad you asked. As you may have guessed, teams from the Group of Five are much less likely to begin the season ranked in the preseason AP Poll. It's even less likely for said preseason ranked team to play in their conference title game against a team that was not in the preseason AP Poll. In fact, it has only happened seven times.
Those seven teams won their conference title games over 70% of their time, but their ATS record was less definitive. This situation also played out in 2023 with Tulane facing SMU in the AAC Championship Game. Off a Cotton Bowl victory in 2022, the Green Wave were ranked in the preseason AP Poll, while SMU began the year unranked. Despite that difference, and despite the homefield advantage enjoyed by Tulane, the Mustangs dispatched the Green Wave to win their first conference title since 1984

So what should you do when making your championship game bets in December? For Power Five conferences, if you see a matchup between teams that fit these preseason ranked/unranked criteria, strongly consider backing the team ranked in the preseason AP Poll. If you can't pull the trigger, pass on the game, but under no circumstances should you back the team that began the season unranked. For Group of Five games, this law is much less ironclad, but if the Group of Five team was ranked in the preseason top ten of the AP Poll, they may be worth a look.

## Thursday, January 11, 2024

### 2023 Yards Per Play: AAC

The college football season is over and the longest offseason in sports begins. To help you get through, we'll revisit all ten conferences as we have for the past seven years via conference only Yards Per Play numbers and the Adjusted Pythagorean Record to see which teams may have been better or worse than their actual record. We'll begin as we always do with the American Athletic Conference.

Here are the 2023 AAC 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 AAC 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 2023 season, which teams in the AAC met this threshold? Here are AAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Tulane and Memphis exceeded their expected record based on YPP while UAB fell short of theirs. Tulane and Memphis won all (or at least most) of the close ones, finishing a combined 7-1 in one-score conference games. Meanwhile, UAB was not unlucky in one-score league games, finishing 1-1 in such contests. Turnover margin also doesn't do a good job of explaining the dissonance between their expected record based on YPP and their actual record. The Blazers had a mediocre -1 turnover margin in league play. Once you dig deeper though, you find the culprit was fourth down success and red zone scoring. The Blazers went for it 18 times on fourth down in conference play and converted exactly half the time. Their defense faced 24 fourth down attempts and allowed 16 conversions. That is roughly seven hidden turnovers spread out over the course of an eight game conference slate. While the Blazers were about average in terms of fourth down success on offense, they struggled mightily in scoring touchdowns in the red zone. They had 31 red zone drives in league play and scored touchdowns on less than half of them (15). Meanwhile, their defense allowed 41 red zone drives and opponents netted a touchdown nearly 70% of the time (28). The Trent Dilfer hire was widely mocked, but fourth down conversions and red zone success can shift in the blink of an eye. I wouldn't be shocked if UAB returned to the postseason and contended for the AAC crown next season.

The Worst Unbeatens
Ugliest supermodel, poorest billionaire, flabbiest bodybuilder. These are pejoratives most people would happily embrace. When humans developed numbers to classify and group things, the natural consequence was that someone or something would inevitably be the worst of that group. And in 2023, the Tulane Green Wave became the worst college football team to finish unbeaten in conference play (since 2005 using by my preferred YPP metric among teams that played a full conference schedule). It doesn't sound quite as impressive with all those caveats, but believe me, it is. For your viewing and reminiscing pleasure, the ten worst teams by YPP to finish unbeaten in conference play since 2005.
No team will probably ever top Southern Cal's shortened 2020 unbeaten run. The Trojans played just five league games as the Pac-12 initially canceled their football season before reversing course and playing an abbreviated schedule beginning in November.

Nine of these unbeaten teams played in conference title games, and despite their middling YPP numbers, they performed quite admirably, especially when they did not face off against another unbeaten (Tulane and Kent State faced off against unbeaten SMU and Northern Illinois teams respectively).

Collectively, the nine teams were 5-4 straight up in their respective conference title games and 6-2-1 ATS. When not facing another unbeaten, they were 5-2 straight up and 6-1 ATS.

Tulane may have failed in their effort to capture a second consecutive league title and they were not as good as their unbeaten record might otherwise indicate. However, winning all your games in league play, no matter the competition, is something to celebrate.

## Thursday, January 04, 2024

### Strangers in the Field Part VIII: How'd We Do?

Another football season has come and (almost gone). But our bets have all been finalized. Unfortunately, there is nothing to sweat in the NFL in Week 18. Let's take a look back and see how the predictions from our Vegas trip went.

Games of the Year
The first two games were over before kickoff. We nailed the third and some shenanigans on an extra point costs us the fourth game.

College Football Win Totals
Not too shabby. Nailed almost 60% of 39 total wagers.

NFL Win Totals
We swept our NFL plays. The Panthers and Rams were easy winners (somehow the Panthers had a higher preseason win total than the Rams), the Falcons was a toss up that went our way, and the Vikings bet won thanks to all their injuries. However, after all the injuries to the Ravens that went against us in 2021, I will not be apologizing for any injury good fortune the fates happen to throw my way.

Miscellaneous
The conference title bets were never close to coming to fruition although Memphis was in contention in the AAC until the penultimate regular season game. Tampa Bay and Texas went into slumps as soon as I made these bets. The Rangers did have a two game lead in the division with four to play, but dropped three of their final four games to give the division to the Astros. Of course, they naturally went 13-4 once the playoffs started and won the World Series. Not that I'm bitter. And we got three of five games right on the parlay, but that gets us nothing.

Money Wagered: \$2345
Money Won: \$2494.80
ROI: 6.39%

We had our third consecutive winning season and while the ROI is not nearly as large as last year's (nearly 22%), we'll take it and go back to the lab so we can do it again next year.

Next Thursday we begin our offseason recaps with the AAC. See you then!