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I wrote an article on Grantland questioning the prospects of Auburn this season. The article made two points.
First, Auburn got lucky last season. They need a tipped hail mary to beat Georgia and beat Alabama on the return of a missed field goal for a touchdown.
Second, the Tigers have a wicked schedule this season. They play Georgia and South Carolina, two teams most think are the best in the SEC East. This explains their low win probability in the visual despite being 6th in my preseason rankings.
I thought Auburn fans would be ticked about the prediction. Instead, they got incensed about my calling them lucky last season.
Twitter showed us a range of responses. Some were thoughtful.
— John Carvalho (@JohnCarvalhoAU) July 29, 2014
— Mark P (@TheAuburner) July 29, 2014
Others were not.
@thepowerrank Luck? Really? You wanna talk about “luck”. You are “lucky” to have a job writing about sports. Lazy journalism.
— Blake Atwater (@BlakeWater) July 30, 2014
— W. (@WQuinley) July 30, 2014
But this is why I love college football. Passionate fans can get pissed that I downgraded their team because of a few plays last season.
The article also has a visual of the top 15 teams in my preseason rankings.
To read the article, click here.
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.
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 rushing 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.
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.
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.
Members of The Power Rank have access to yards per carry and yards per pass attempt adjusted for strength of schedule. To learn more, enter your email and click “Sign up now.”
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.
In addition, I’ll send you a pdf of my report The Football Analytics Resource Guide – The Top 5 Killer Articles. Just enter your best email and click “Sign up now.”
Over the past few years, I’ve been calculating cluster luck in baseball. This is based on the idea that teams can score more runs when they cluster their hits together (or allow fewer runs when pitchers scatter hits).
However, teams can’t consistently cluster hits together. Cluster luck calculations show us which teams will not keep up their torrid early season pace.
Last week, Jonah Keri used my cluster luck numbers on FiveThirtyEight to show how this has happened San Francisco and closer Sergio Romero. Then he discussed how cluster luck continues to help Seattle but regression could hit soon.
Getting him the updated cluster luck numbers was simple, as I just use widely available season totals. However, creating the above graph was a lot of work, since it required box score numbers on a daily basis.
However, the work was worth it, as I’m cooking up a way to incorporate cluster luck into my MLB rankings. It should give us a better grasp on Oakland, a team that can’t possibly be more than 1.4 runs better than MLB average.
To read Jonah Keri’s article on cluster luck based on my numbers, click here.
I was pumped to meet both the host and one of the best soccer players in the United States. However, there’s not much contact when they film you from a remote location.
To do the interview, I went to a studio in my home town of Ann Arbor. A nice guy Tony set everything up.
From a remote location, I could only hear Ronan and Maurice in my earpiece. I couldn’t see them or what appeared on television.
Still, it was fun. We talked World Cup, the United States’ chances against Belgium in the Round of 16 and how numbers affect the psychology of players.
To view the interview, click here. If you’re viewing on Tuesday, July 1, it should be the main video under “Betting on the World Cup.” Otherwise, you might have to scroll through the videos on the right.