## Thursday, March 28, 2024

### 2023 Yards Per Play: MAC

Hope you enjoyed the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, but we are back from our brief intermission. This week, we examine the Big 10's little brother, the MAC.

Here are the 2023 MAC 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 MAC 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 2023 season, which teams in the MAC met this threshold? Here are MAC teams sorted by performance over what would be expected from their Net YPP numbers.
Miami was the only MAC team that saw their actual record differ significantly from their expected record based on YPP. The Redhawks exceeded their expected record, losing just a solitary conference game. The Redhawks did not pile up conference wins thanks to a great close game record (1-1) or fantastic turnover margin (-1). Instead, they fielded great special teams. They ranked nineteenth nationally in yards per punt and as a team they allowed just north of one yard per punt return (sixth nationally). In addition, their kicker, Graham Nicholson (who is also their punter), did not miss a field goal attempt in conference play (seventeen makes). He did miss a kick in the MAC Championship Game, but the Redhawks picked him up and won anyway.

Losing to FCS Teams
Two MAC school dropped games to FCS teams in 2023. Northern Illinois lost to their in-state brethren (Southern Illinois) and Buffalo lost to another team from the Empire State (Fordham). Akron also needed a miraculous play to avoid losing to Morgan State, but the Zips pulled that one out of the fire. This continued a somewhat disturbing trend for the Bulls and Huskies and for the MAC in general. In the BCS and College Football Playoff Era (since 1998) Buffalo is tied for the most losses among FBS teams to FCS teams. The Bulls have dropped seven games to lower division foes, including two in a row. Northern Illinois is right behind them, having dropped six such games. And of the eleven teams that have lost at least five games to FCS opponents since 1998, five of them either play in the MAC currently or have spent time there in the recent past.
The Bulls are tied with one of the poorest FBS program (Louisiana-Monroe) and a program that is no longer in FBS (Idaho) for the national lead in losses to FCS teams. Perhaps we should remove one of Idaho's losses as they actually pulled an upset as a FCS team this past year. But, you'll notice the Warhawks have not dropped an FCS game in quite sometime while Buffalo is currently riding a two-game skid to FCS teams. Buffalo opens 2024 with a home game against an FCS team (Lafayette), and while they likely upgraded their head coach in the offseason, Pete Lembo has an FCS loss to his credit during his time at Ball State. The Bulls can certainly get back to the postseason in 2024, but to do so, they will need to play better against FCS opponents.

## Wednesday, March 20, 2024

### March Madness Intermission: Final Four Teams that Miss the Next Tournament

Think back to last year's Final Four. There was nary a one seed to be found. Connecticut, seeded fourth, won the title over fifth seed San Diego State. Joining the Huskies and Aztecs in Houston were Miami (fifth seed) and Florida Atlantic (ninth seed). Three of those teams are back in the 2024 NCAA Tournament looking to make another run at the national semifinal. As we noted yesterday, Miami failed to qualify and was not selected for this season's tournament field. How common is that? How often do Final Four teams miss the tournament altogether the next season? Its a little more common than you might think.
In the previous 38 tournaments since the field expanded in 1985, 30 have failed to make the NCAA Tournament the following season. Just a note. While technically none of the 2019 Final Four teams participated in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, they were all likely to be selected according to Bracket Matrix. Of those 30 teams, some have been ineligible, some have been off true cinderella runs,  and some have been back-to-back champs. Here are those thirty teams that missed the tournament broken down by the seed they earned when they made their run to the Final Four.
Is that a little surprising to you? I was shocked that one seeds (teams that enjoyed great seasons and were expected to compete for a national title) failed to qualify for the next year's tournament four times as often as cinderella eleven seeds. This is of course, how a more dishonest person would use math to obfuscate the truth. As you probably guessed, one seeds make the Final Four much more often then eleven seeds. In fact, they make it roughly twelve times as often.
Below I have conducted a more honest analysis showing how often each Final Four team by seed fails to qualify for the following season's tournament.
One and two seeds that make the Final Four have about a one in eight chance of missing the next season's tournament. For individual seeds below the four line, the sample size is too small to give legitimate odds of missing the tournament the following season, but aggregated together, teams seeded five or worse have about a 38% chance of missing the tournament after making a Final Four run. Keep that in mind if we get a surprise run or two in this year's tournament. If you can find decent odds before next season starts of that team missing the NCAA Tournament, put a couple bucks down and send a percentage my way.

Thanks for reading. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled offseason recaps next week as we review the MAC. Also, if you want some bracket advice, I recommend the magnum opus I wrote following the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament (don't back Iowa State!).

## Tuesday, March 19, 2024

### March Madness Intermission: Teams Ranked in the Preseason Poll Missing the NCAA Tournament

For our second of three March Madness posts, I couldn't really think of a something catchy. But the direct title should give you a pretty good indication of what this post is about, so lets jump right in.

When the NCAA Tournament field was revealed on Sunday night, four teams that were ranked in the preseason AP Poll were not included in the bracket. Those teams were Miami (preseason 13), Arkansas (14), Southern Cal (21), and Villanova (22). So sixteen percent of the preseason AP Poll either did not qualify or were not selected for the NCAA Tournament. How does this stack up historically compared to the other fields since the tournament expanded in 1985? Its roughly average. In the 39 tournaments since the field expanded, 140 teams that were ranked in the preseason AP Poll did not participate in the NCAA Tournament. That comes out to 3.6 teams per season. But which seasons saw the most teams fail to qualify?
2002 saw eight teams that were ranked in the preseason AP Poll miss out on the NCAA Tournament. Two of those teams (Iowa and Saint Joseph's began the year in the top ten). Of course, total number of teams can only give us so much information. At the bottom of the preseason AP Poll, most writers are probably throwing darts or advocating for darkhorse teams they think might be pretty good in the upcoming season. If a team ranked 25th in the preseason AP Poll misses the tournament, thats not a big whiff. But if a preseason number one is relegated to the NIT, well that seems like a big deal. One way to account for this is via 'Poll Points'. For the preseason top 25, we award more points for better rankings. The team ranked first receives 25 Poll Points, second 24 Poll Points, third 23 Poll Points, and so on until the team ranked 25th receives a solitary Poll Point. Using this methodology, what years saw the most combined preseason Poll Points miss the NCAA Tournament?
This list looks pretty similar to the previous one with 1997 and 2007 replacing 1993 and 2023. If you're curious, 2024 was unremarkable in terms of Poll Points. The four teams ranked in the preseason AP Poll accumulated 34 total Poll Points.

Before we leave, lets give the pollsters some credit for years they nailed it with the preseason poll. In three instances since the field expanded, each team ranked in the preseason AP Poll ended up playing in the NCAA tournament.
1986 and 1988 have asterisks because the preseason AP Poll only included twenty teams those seasons. The poll would not expand to include 25 teams until 1990. Therefore, the dawn of Y2K ranks as the pollsters most accurate preseason prognostication.

## Monday, March 18, 2024

### March Madness Intermission: Fewest NCAA Tournament Wins

We are taking a short break from our normal offseason posts to celebrate our nation's seminal event, the NCAA Tournament. This week, we'll have a few posts on statistical minutia that may help you fill out your tournament bracket or may just give you an opportunity to impress your friends and neighbors with tournament facts. First up, we are going to look at current power conference teams with the fewest NCAA tournament wins since the field expanded in 1985. Some of them might even be in the field this year.

Before we get started, we need to define what we mean by 'Power Conference'. For this exercise, we are going to include teams that are currently members of the ACC, Big East, Big 10, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. The Atlantic 10 and American Athletic Conference have both been pseudo power conferences at different points in their existence, but many of the best teams from those league's have been gobbled up by the other six conferences. Oh, and one other thing. We are only going to consider victories in the Round of 64 and beyond. No matter how they are branded, First Four games, are play-in games and if you lose in those, did you even make the real tournament?

Let's begin with current power conference teams that have won exactly four tournament games since the field expanded.
Three SEC schools have won just four tournament games in the past forty years. Ironically, Georgia has been coached by four men in that span with a Final Four appearance. Hugh Durham took Georgia to the Final Four two seasons before the field expanded (1983), but only managed a single tournament win at Georgia after that run to the national semifinal. Tubby Smith took Georgia on their deepest run in the expanded field in 1996 before he won a national title two years later at Kentucky. Jim Harrick, a national title winning coach at UCLA, guided Georgia to two tournaments, but won just a single game before leaving the school in disgrace. Finally, former Marquette and Indiana coach Tom Crean was never able to get Georgia to the tournament during his tenure. Ole Miss was on the business end of Bryce Drew's miracle shot in 1998, but Rod Barnes did win three tournament games at the school, including two in 2001 to get them to the Sweet 16. Andy Kennedy technically won two games during his tenure in Oxford, but one came in the First Four. South Carolina has only won four tournament games since the field expanded, but they clustered those wins in perfect sequence on the way to the Final Four in 2017. The other power conference team to be stuck on four wins is Virginia Tech. The Hokies made tourney appearances as members of the Metro and later Atlantic 10 before joining the ACC. A perpetual bubble team under Seth Greenberg, the Hokies made their deepest run under Buzz Williams in 2019.

What about teams that have won exactly three tournament games since the field expanded?
Like the SEC with four-win teams, one league (the Pac-12) is overrepresented with three-win teams. Colorado has not advanced past the second round since the field expanded in 1985. Oregon State went 26 years between tournament appearances, but consolidated all their wins in one season during their Elite 8 run in 2021. Washington State has been coached by two men who found greater success once they left Pullman (Kelvin Sampson and Tony Bennett) and have not advanced past the Sweet 16 in the expanded tournament field. TCU is the only other power conference team to win exactly three tournament games since the field expanded. The Horned Frogs have bounced around, playing in the Southwest Conference, WAC, Conference USA, and Mountain West, before finding a home in the Big 12. Along the way, they have never advanced past the second round.

There is only one team that has won exactly two NCAA Tournament games since 1985.
Northwestern did not even qualify for their first NCAA Tournament until 2017. As the old adage goes, you can't be upset in the first round if you never make the tournament. Give the Wildcats credit, their first round win rate is 100% as they have won their opener in both tourney appearances.

We are getting close to the bottom. Which teams have won exactly one game since the field expanded?
The Rutgers basketball program has been nearly as destitute, perhaps more so, than their football team. The Scarlet Knights went three decades between tournament appearances. They won their first tournament game in nearly 40 years in 2021 and played a great second round game in nearly upsetting a Final Four bound Houston team. UCF made four tournament appearances under Kirk Speraw in the 90s and early 2000s when they were members of the TAAC/Atlantic Sun. Those were low-major leagues, so the Knights received very low seeds (never higher than 14). They returned to the tournament in 2019 under Johnny Dawkins, won their first ever tournament game, and gave top-seeded Duke a run for their money in the second round.

And finally, let's hear it for the only power conference team to have not won a tournament game since the field expanded.
In fact, the Cornhuskers have never won a tournament game in their entire history. They did not make the NCAA field until 1986, and despite four consecutive appearances between 1991 and 1994, including a three seed in 1991, failed to win a single tournament game. Is this the year? Can Nebraska finally garner their first tournament victory? If so, it might be time to build a state of Fred Hoiberg in Lincoln.

## Thursday, March 14, 2024

### 2023 Adjusted Pythagorean Record: Conference USA

Last week we looked at how Conference USA 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 Conference USA 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, Conference USA 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 a somewhat arbitrary standard to determine whether or not a team's actual conference record differed significantly from their APR. By that standard, New Mexico State and Liberty overachieved relative to their APR. The Aggies and Flames also overachieved relative to their YPP numbers and we went over some reasons for that last week.

First Timers
The 2023 Conference USA Championship Game was a matchup of two teams (Liberty and New Mexico State) making their first ever conference championship game appearance. It also marked the first year in Conference USA for each school as both the Flames and Aggies had been competing on the independent circuit for the previous few seasons. How often has an FBS conference title game matched up two teams making their first title game appearance? Glad you asked. Lets take a stroll down memory lane beginning with the birth of the conference title game in the 1990s.
Only four conferences held title games in the 90s, so the first championship games held by the SEC (1992), Big 12 (1996), WAC (1996), and MAC (1997) featured first time participants. The first three SEC Championship Games were all clashes between Florida and Alabama and the Gators did not relinquish their stranglehold on the SEC East until 1997. The Big 12 was a little more fluid at the top of the league following Tom Osborne's retirement after the 1997 season. Finally, the WAC only staged a title game for three seasons before the strongest members broke away and formed their own conference (the Mountain West). In the 2000s, the ACC and Conference USA got into the conference championship business.
The first two ACC Championship Games featured teams making their first conference title game appearances, but the league has not had a pair of newbies in the title game since. The first two Conference USA Championship Games also featured teams making their first conference title game appearances. And finally, the MAC, after years of domination by Marshall and Toledo in their respective divisions, became the egalitarian league we all know and love when its title games featured a pair of greenhorns in four our of six seasons between 2003 and 2008. The 2010s brought even more leagues to the conference title table with all ten FBS conferences eventually staging one.
The Big 10 and Pac-12 both held their inaugural title games in 2011, but have not featured two neophytes in the title game since. The American Athletic Conference began holding a conference championship game in 2015, but many of their participants had already played in conference title games in other leagues. It was not until 2019 that their title game featured two teams making their title game debuts. Conference USA's membership was in flux for much of the decade and they saw three consecutive championship games feature teams making their first title game appearance. The Mountain West played their first conference title game in 2013 and two of their first three games saw both participants make their title game debuts. Finally, the Sun Belt became the final FBS conference to host a championship game in 2018. And now we come to the current decade.
The 2022 Sun Belt Championship Game featured a pair of teams making their conference title game debuts even thought Coastal Carolina technically won the Sun Belt East in the pandemic impacted 2020 season. The championship game was canceled that season, so the Chanticleers never got to play in the title game. That Sun Belt clash and the most recent Conference USA Championship Game are the only two title games this decade to feature title games newcomers and the odds of another all newbie title game continue to dwindle each season.

Here are the potential all-newbie combinations in each championship game beginning with the Power Four.
In the ACC, NC State and Syracuse are the only longtime members that have never played in a championship game. They are joined by newcomer Cal who never qualified for the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Big 10 has a quintet of teams that have never played in a conference title game, but with the league jettisoning divisions, a combination of two of these five teams playing in the conference title game in the same season seems quite remote. With traditional powers Oklahoma and Texas departing for the SEC, there is a bit of a power vacuum in the Big 12. This makes it the most likely power conference to stage a championship game where both participants are first timers. Like the Big 10, the SEC is also doing away with divisions, making the odds of an all-first timer title game slim to none.

Finally, here are the potential all-newbie combinations for each Group of Five title game.
Conference USA and the Sun Belt have by far the best odds of hosting the next all-first timer title game. Five of ten current Conference USA members have never played in a conference title game while eight of fourteen Sun Belt members have been shut out of the game. The Sun Belt is the only FBS conference to maintain divisions though, so that may make things a little more difficult. Eleven of twelve Mountain West members have played in a conference title game (Colorado State and New Mexico faced off in the second ever WAC Championship Game), so until they officially merge with or add the remaining two members of the Pac-12 (Oregon State and Washington State), it is not possible for that league to have two first time championship game participants. The MAC will not be able to host an all-first timers title game until 2025 at the earliest when Massachusetts rejoins the league

I hope you enjoyed the 2023 Conference USA Championship Game. While it was historic in that it clinched an unbeaten regular season for Liberty and sent them to a New Year's Six Bowl, it also likely marked one of the last times a conference title game will feature two schools with no experience in title games.

## Thursday, March 07, 2024

### 2023 Yards Per Play: Conference USA

After six weeks of Power Five reviews, we shift back to the Group of Five and examine Conference USA.

Here are the 2023 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 2023 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.
New Mexico State and Liberty significantly exceeded their expected record based on YPP while Middle Tennessee and UTEP significantly underachieved relative to their YPP numbers. The Aggies and Flames combined for a 15-1 conference record (14-0 against the rest of the league), including a perfect 5-0 mark in one-score conference games. Meanwhile, the Blue Raiders and Miners combined to finish 3-6 in one-score conference games. Both teams also finished with a negative turnover margin in league play, although neither was exceptionally poor in that regard.

A Dearth of Ranked Teams
Thanks to a confluence of factors in the 2023 bowl season (a blowout loss by Liberty, an upset loss by SMU, and coaching upheaval at Tulane and James Madison), only two Group of Five teams finished the season ranked in the AP Poll. And those two teams (SMU and Liberty) were historically low (22nd and 25th respectively). Since college football officially separated power conference teams from non-power conference teams in 1998 (first BCS versus non-BCS and later Power Five versus Group of Five), 2023 represented the second fewest number of ranked non-powers.
2023 was tied with five other seasons behind 2005 for the fewest number of non-power teams represented in the final AP Poll. So 2023 was not a great year for non-power teams, but was it really that bad?

Another way to look at representation in the AP Poll besides the total number of ranked teams is to award what I dub 'Poll Points' for each ranking spot. A team that finishes first earns 25 Poll Points, second 24, third 23, and so on, until the team ranked 25th earns just a solitary Poll Point. Using that methodology, 2023 was by far the worst season for non-powers in the BCS/CFP era.
Ranked non-powers accumulated just five Poll Points in 2023 which demolished the previous low of thirteen set in 2001 when Louisville, Toledo, and BYU finished the year ranked 17th, 23rd, and 25th respectively. And speaking of teams like Louisville and BYU, that segues nicely into the main reason there was a dearth of ranked non-powers in 2023. The best non-powers have ascended into power conferences.

In the 26 seasons between 1998 and 2023, there were 97 instances where teams from a non-power conference found there way into the final AP Poll. That is a little less than four per season. 36 (roughly 37 percent) of those appearances in the final AP Poll are no longer in non-power conferences.
Led by TCU and Utah in the early 2010's, the best of the best from non-power conferences with perhaps one notable exception (Boise State) have migrated to power conferences. If we look at Poll Points, the results are even more significant. Those 97 ranked teams produced 878 total Poll Points. 406 of those points (46 percent) are now in power conferences. The non-power conferences will have a token seat at the table in the new College Football Playoff format, but I expect this trend of few ranked non-powers to continue. The non-powers that have built a brand this century are almost all in power conferences, so the benefit of the doubt will not be given to upstarts. Non-powers will have to post fantastic records to get a sniff of the lower reaches of the AP Poll.