Do you make these 3 mistakes with college football statistics?

boy_hitting_foreheadYou’re smarter than the average college football fan.

You crave a true understanding of your team and the game. Team rankings do not suffice. Even breaking a team into an offense and defense isn’t enough. You require a further division into passing and rushing.

Numbers can help you in this journey, but only if you’re careful. College football statistics are tricky.

Moreover, the statistics on major media sites are deeply flawed. I never look at them.

Let me explain.

1. Why pace matters in football

College football provides a diversity of styles. Oregon uses an up tempo offense, which wears down the defense with a high frequency of plays. Copycats have sprouted up throughout the nation.

In contrast, offenses like Alabama and Stanford milk every second from the play clock before snapping the football. These offenses rely on a punishing ground game.

Due to these differing styles, yards per game is a terrible metric to judge an offense. Up tempo teams like Oregon generate more yards in a game by running more plays.

This pace can also effect the defense. Since Oregon runs so many plays on offense, their defense tends to face more plays. This makes their yards allowed per game look bad.

You need a statistics that adjusts for the pace of play. In basketball, Dean Oliver popularized the idea of points per possession instead of points per game. In football, the easiest efficiency statistic is yards per play.

While yards per play works well to measure the strength of an offense or defense, college football statistics get more tricky when breaking down the passing and rushing game.

2. How to correctly evaluate passing and rushing

Sack count as rushing plays in college football.

It makes no sense. Plays that end in a sack started as a pass play. Those negative yards should count against passing yardage.

The inclusion of sacks as rushes probably originates from teams that run the option offense. The quarterback often rushes the ball by design. This makes it difficult to distinguish between a negative rushing play by the quarterback and a sack.

No matter the reasons for college football’s quirks, sacks should count as negative pass plays to evaluate rushing and passing. To my knowledge, no college football statistics site shows yards per play statistics with these adjustments for sacks.

To get the true rushing and passing efficiency, check out these yards per play statistics from The Power Rank. The numbers include both offense and defense.

3. The significance of strength of schedule

Armed with the best yards per play statistics for passing and rushing, you’re 95% of the way to understanding college football teams. However, to make the last leap, you must consider strength of schedule.

The SEC dominated college football during the latter part of the BCS era. A team like Mississippi State had the yearly misfortune of playing Alabama, LSU and Auburn, three teams that won 6 BCS national titles.

In contrast, the MAC barely survives as a Bowl subdivision conference. While Northern Illinois was a good team towards the end of the BCS era, they have the yearly fortune of facing Eastern, Central and Western Michigan.

Strength of schedule matters. There are many ways to adjust statistics like yards per play for strength of schedule. The Power Rank makes these adjustments through its ranking algorithm.

How Stanford in 2012 illustrates these common mistakes

To see the drastic effect these mistakes can have, let’s go back to the 2012 season. That year, Alabama pounded Notre Dame in the BCS championship game, while Stanford beat Wisconsin to win its first Rose Bowl in 41 years.

Stanford’s pass defense in 2012 provides an interesting case study for college football statistics. This unit featured a fierce pass rush from outside linebackers Chase Thomas and Trent Murphy. This pressure helped safety Ed Reynolds make 6 interceptions that season.

However, Stanford’s pass defense looked bad in the statistics on other college football sites. They allowed 239.2 yards per game, 72nd in the nation.

These typical statistics do not include negative plays from sacks. With the brilliance of Thomas and Murphy, Stanford sacked the quarterback on 9.1% of pass plays. Including these negative plays, Stanford allowed 214.7 yards per game, 59th in the nation.

One game really skews these pass defense statistics. Arizona QB Matt Scott threw for 474 yards through the air against Stanford. However, he attempted 72 pass attempts in that game. While allowing 474 yards seems bad, Arizona gained 6.58 yards per attempt, a little more than the 6.23 Bowl subdivision average.

For the season, Stanford allowed 4.96 yards per pass attempt, good for 10th in the nation.

Adjustments for strength of schedule make Stanford look better, since they faced strong pass offenses in their Pac-12 schedule. They ranked 3rd in The Power Rank for pass defense, predicted to allow 4.47 yards per attempt against an average Bowl subdivision defense.

The typical misleading college football statistics rate Stanford as the 72nd best pass defense. By properly accounting for pace and schedule strength, Stanford rockets up to 3rd and qualifies as an elite defense.

Check out The Power Rank’s yards per play numbers

Don’t get misled by the college football statistics on major media sites. Yards per game does not account for pace, and sacks count as rushes in these numbers.

The Power Rank provides rankings for yards per carry and pass attempt, both on offense and defense. These statistics count sacks as pass attempts. Use these free resources for your raw efficiency numbers.

Members of The Power Rank have access to these numbers adjusted for schedule strength. To learn more, sign up for my free email newsletter.

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Comments

  1. “To my knowledge, no college football statistics site makes this adjustment in either yards per game or yards per play.”

    I’m fairly certain that Bill Connelly and Brian Fremeau at SBNation and FootballOutsiders have been doing this for quite some time.

    • That’s what I get for being sloppy.

      You’re right, Bill and Brian do make those adjustments. I meant to say that no one else shows raw yards per play statistics with sacks as pass plays. I’ve updated the text.

      Thanks for calling me out.

Trackbacks

  1. Karl Jobst says:

    Karl Jobst

    Do you make these 3 mistakes with college football statistics?

  2. […] For college football, look at cfbstats.com. Marty does a fantastic job breaking down the play by play data into all kinds of useful ways. However, please be careful, since his data counts sacks as rush plays. Although all major sites do this, plays that end in sacks started as passes. […]

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