Predictions for the Superbowl, 2015

bill_belichickYou want to know whether the Patriots or Seahawks will win the Super Bowl.

Can New England overcome the distractions from deflated footballs and exploit the human mismatch of Rob Gronkowski? Will the injuries to Seattle’s defense prevent them from repeating as Super Bowl champions?

I am extremely split on this Super Bowl. In recent previous years, I usually have a pretty good feel for the game after watching each team for almost 20 weeks.

Ed did an ensemble prediction that combined The Power Rank’s numbers with those from 8 other sources on CNBC. It gave the Seahawks a half point edge, the toss up that I expect.

Even in speaking to some sharper bettors, they seem split on this game on both the outcome and the point spread (New England -1 as of Tuesday afternoon). Nonetheless, let’s highlight some match up advantages and disadvantages for each team.

Patriots Offense vs. Seahawks Defense

The big question for the Seattle defense is the health of cornerback Richard Sherman. Sherman seemed to injury his elbow pretty badly in the NFC Championship as he used only one arm in bump and run coverage against Jordy Nelson.

If Sherman is affected at all by his elbow, I guarantee the Patriots and Tom Brady do their best to exploit the opportunity. If Sherman is close to healthy, it’ll be interesting to see who the Patriots put on his side of the field.

Richard Sherman lines up on the left side of the defense almost 100% of the time. Thus, the opposing offense can almost pick their match up for Sherman.

For the Seahawks, this strategy eliminates one side of the field and the receiver trying to beat Sherman down field. However, the Patriots have a number of equally dangerous receivers.

The catalyst for the Patriots offense is Rob Gronkowski. Since Gronk probably will not line up against Sherman, it’ll be interesting to see Seattle coordinator Dan Quinn’s approach to slowing him down.

They could certainly bring Kam Chancellor down from the safety position to cover Gronkowski. After seeing the soft spot in the middle of the field get exposed by Aaron Rodgers and his tight ends, I’d guess this is exactly what Dan Quinn ends up doing.

The size, speed, and aggressiveness of Chancellor could slow Gronkowski down as much any team has this season. I don’t think anyone can shut him down completely, but it gives them a chance.

In the games I’ve watched, it seems Brandon LaFell tends to lineup on the opposite side of Sherman. Thus, that leaves either Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola taking up Richard Sherman’s time.

Strangely, I would like the Edelman match up against Sherman. If there is the slightest weakness in Sherman’s game, it’s the crossing routes that drag him the width of the field.

I don’t expect the Patriots to stick to the running game like they did against the Colts. Seattle has the second best run defense in the NFL, and I highly doubt LeGarrette Blount will gash the Seahawks like he did the Colts.

If they are going to have success in the running game, it will have to come from smaller, speedier guys like Shane Vereen and Jonas Gray.

Though I’ve heard some talks about the Seahawks front making Tom Brady uncomfortable, they have an average sack rate this season. The Patriots only trailed Denver and Peyton Manning in sack rate allowed this year. Brady should have plenty of time with his usual quick trigger.

Seahawks Offense vs. Patriots Defense

Frankly, I hate this match up for the Seahawks offense. Bill Belichick had a field day with Andrew Luck last week, and this Seahawks offense is a lot less sophisticated.

I never agree with the run-heavy approach, but this might be the best strategy for the Seahawks. New England ranks just inside the top ten in opposing yards per carry but they could also quickly stunt Seattle’s poor passing game.

Belichick’s typical plan is to put Darrelle Revis out on the offense’s best receiver while allowing Browner, McCourty, and the others to match up against the rest of the wide outs with safety help over the top.

It is looking like Jermaine Kearse will end up on Revis Island on Sunday. Kearse does have some speed and has shown to be a down field threat as of late.

However, much like Sherman, Darrelle Revis eliminates the big play. It’s not a great match up for the Seahawks.

Seattle will more than likely depend upon Doug Baldwin and Luke Willson in the passing game. Baldwin is very similar to Kearse with a little less athleticism and speed.

Luke Willson, on the other hand, has shown to be a little better at tight end than most expected. He’s extremely similar to guys like Heath Miller or Jason Witten with good route running and a great set of hands.

I’d expect Russell Wilson to target his tight ends with some bad match ups on the outside. Speaking of Russell Wilson, it is imperative that he runs the ball himself with more success than last week.

Clay Matthews drew the job of spying Wilson throughout the entire game last week. He got after Wilson and really shut him down in the running game.

Jamie Collins will more than likely get that job this week. For those of you haven’t watched Collins play, he’s even quicker and more explosive than Matthews. Regardless, Wilson must finds ways to extend and make plays with his feet.

The Seahawks will need to expose the Patriots defense much like the Ravens did in New England’s first playoff game. They will have to use Baldwin and Willson in the middle of the field while running Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin out on the edge.

Inevitably, Pete Carroll will be creative enough to set up some quick hitters like wide receiver screens, running back screens, end-arounds, and read-options to keep the ball systematically moving down the field.

However, the Seahawks offense isn’t capable of putting up a lot of points.

Prediction

After the games ended last Sunday, I would have leaned extremely heavily on the Patriots. In the way the Seahawks and the Patriots won their games, the better team was clearly the Patriots.

I wasn’t alone in thinking this way. The line opened on Sunday night at Seahawks -2.5. The sharps crushed that line literally within a few minutes. The line snapped down to pick ’em almost immediately and has now settled around Patriots -1 to -1.5 depending where you look.

The books want to make lines as close to 50-50, in terms of money and number of bets, as possible. It seemed like they completely misjudged the public perception after an emotional Seahawks victory and the bigger money bought the line down right away.

After a week of looking over the match ups, this game is much closer than I initially thought. I foresee both defenses being able to control each offense.

In typical weeks, I almost always lean on the defensive side. That’s the side most undervalued in the eye of the public. In return, you typically get favorable lines on good defenses.

The Seahawks defensive value, though, is typically accurate or even overvalued. The next aspect of the game is the quarterbacks and his protection. This edge is significantly in Brady’s favor.

For the sake of picking a winner, I’ll take the Patriots. I think Deflategate will have the Patriots playing angry and give them a little incentive to run up the score if they get ahead instead of taking the laid back approach that the Packers took.

If anyone has an argument in favor either side, I’d love to hear it in the comments because I don’t have much of a lean in breaking this game down. This is as much as a toss up for a Superbowl as I can remember.

Let’s hope this one comes down to the last possession. Enjoy the game and the next eight months until football comes back again next season.

How safe is Oregon from an upset against Ohio State?

cfb_playoff_trophyOregon looks like a clear favorite over Ohio State in the college football championship game.

The markets opened with Oregon as a 7 point favorite, which implies a 70% win probability. The predicted margin of victory is even higher with my college football team rankings based on margin of victory.

After an early loss to Arizona, Oregon has been dominant. Only UCLA has come within two touchdowns of beating Oregon. This stretch of games included a rematch against Arizona and the playoff semi-final against Florida State.

Ohio State barely made the college football playoff after an early loss to Virginia Tech, a team that went 3-5 in the ACC. They’re playing a third string quarterback lucky to have receivers talented enough to catch his jump balls.

Oregon should win, right?

In reality, Ohio State is a terrible match up for Oregon. Let me explain.

Oregon’s biggest match up problem

Ohio State has an elite ground game. To quantify this, let’s look an efficiency statistic: yards per carry. In college football, sacks count as rushes in the official statistics. Since sacks are pass plays, I exclude these plays in calculating yards per carry.

To adjust yards per carry for strength of schedule, I use a ranking algorithm I developed based on my research in statistical physics. While Ohio State has the 7th best raw yards per carry, these adjustments move them up to first. Ohio State is predicted to gain 6.78 yards per carry against an average FBS rush defense.

And Oregon has essentially an average rush defense (52nd of 128). Ohio State ran all over Wisconsin (13th ranked rush defense) and Alabama (2nd). They should do even better against Oregon.

The visual shows the difficult match up for Oregon. The blue dots represent Ohio State’s pass and rush offense. The smaller green dots show Oregon’s defense, and better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons. You’re looking at how a unit compares to average.

Ohio State's offense vs Oregon's defense

The gap between Ohio State’s rush offense and Oregon’s rush defense shows the clear advantage for the Buckeyes.

They will give most of the carries to Ezekiel Elliott, who has gained 6.9 yards per carry this season. We all saw his speed when he outran the Alabama defense for a 85 yard touchdown in the semi-final game. Quarterback Cardale Jones will also run the ball, and he’s a load to bring down at 6’5″, 250 pounds.

Offensive line coach Ed Warriner deserves much of the credit for Ohio State’s explosive run game. He had to groom four new starters this year, and none of the candidates had 5 star recruiting credentials. While the offensive line came into the season with question marks, it now looks like the strength that could carry them past Oregon.

Oregon’s other match up problem

Oregon, led by Heisman winning quarterback Marcus Mariota, excels at throwing the ball. To quantify this, let’s look at yards per pass attempt, an efficiency statistic that includes sacks. After adjusting for schedule, Oregon has the top ranked pass offense. They are predicted to throw for 9.04 yards per attempt against an FBS average pass defense.

However, Ohio State’s strength on defense is against the pass. They had the 9th best pass defense by adjusted yards per attempt. Against Alabama, they didn’t allow star receiver Amari Cooper to make big plays. While Cooper averaged 13.9 yards per catch this season, his longest against Ohio State was 15 yards.

The visual shows how Oregon’s offense matches up with Ohio State’s defense.

Oregon's offense vs Ohio State's defense

The gap between Oregon’s offense and Ohio State’s defense shows the size of the advantage. Oregon should still be able to throw the ball against Ohio State. However, it won’t be as easy as against Florida State.

The visual also show Oregon’s edge in running the ball. They should run it often (and they did on 55.9% of plays this season) and set up play action for Mariota.

Prediction

For college and pro football this season, I started aggregating many predictions into one ensemble prediction. This ensemble, which includes my adjusted numbers and data from the markets, predicts Oregon by 3.2 points, which corresponds to a 59.5% win probability.

However, you should never blindly trust numbers, especially in a game with mismatches. One of the predictors in the ensemble accounts for passing and rushing separately for each team. It considers Ohio State’s significant edge in running the ball and that Ohio State runs the ball on 59.3% of plays.

This matchup model predicts a 50-50 game between Ohio State and Oregon.

I think the game will be very close. Can Mariota have a monster game and carry his team? Or does Elliott break off big run after big run?

This game most likely comes down to a field goal in the final minutes. I give a slight edge to Oregon to win, but don’t be surprised if Ohio State pulls it out.

Check out this must read football analytics article

Football's corner 3What is the most efficient play in football? What is the analogue of basketball’s corner 3 point shot?

This question bothered Robert Mays of Grantland, so he enlisted the help of the quants at ESPN. They found ample evidence that the play action pass is the most efficient play.

To show this, they looked at expected points. Given a down, distance to a first down and field position, expected points is the average net points of the next score.

From 1st and 10 from their own 20, the offense might score a touchdown for +7 points. The offense might also punt, which leads an opponent field goal and -3 points. Expected points averages these outcomes to assign each situation a point value.

Expected points added (EPA) is the change in expected points on a given play. This statistic acknowledges that 2 yards on 3rd and 1 is worth more than 2 yards on 1st and 10.

Mays and the ESPN quants found that the play action pass earned the highest EPA of all plays. And it wasn’t even close. Running plays lost expected points on average (-0.04 EPA), while passes averaged +0.04 EPA. The play action gained +0.17 on average, 4 times more than the typical pass.

Deception matters in football. On a play action pass, the offense fakes a run, which freezes the linebackers. This frees up space down the field for a big pass play.

In college football, I’ve also found that offenses that run the ball well like Auburn in 2013 can throw effectively on 1st and 10. The defense presumably expects a run, which makes it easier to throw for a big gain.

Moreover, the data suggests that an NFL team doesn’t need a good run game to be effective with play action. For example, Minnesota had a strong rush attack with Adrian Peterson. However, the Vikings were only 21st in play action EPA over the last 4 years.

Play action passes are pass plays, and a team needs a good quarterback to make those throws. The top teams in play action efficiency have quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.

To check the article by Mays on football’s corner 3, click here.

The top 5 killer articles on football analytics

helmet_cover_391_289Do you want to get up to speed on football analytics? I’ve compiled 5 of my favorite articles in this free report.

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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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Do you make this mistake in predicting NFL games?

blountAfter last weekend’s Division round of playoff games, former Super Bowl winning coach Brian Billick proclaimed rushing the ball still matters in the NFL.

Who could disagree after those 4 games? New England ran for a startling 234 yards against Indianapolis, as LeGarrette Blount ripped off a 73 yard touchdown run to seal the game.

Seattle rushed for 174 yards against New Orleans, as Marshawn Lynch again terrorized the Saints defense in the playoffs.

San Francisco and Denver, the other two winners, also rushed for 100 yards while their opponents didn’t.

Rushing hardly matters in the NFL

However, as a smart sports fan, you know better than to draw conclusions after 4 playoff games. The sample size is too small.

Moreover, rush yards per game is a misleading statistic. New England ran the ball 46 times in amassing 234 yards. It’s better to consider yards per carry in judging how well a team runs the ball or stops the run.

In a previous article, I looked at the pass and rush efficiencies for 10 years of NFL playoff teams. To capture team strength in these two areas, efficiency is defined as yards gained per attempt on offense minus yards allowed per attempt on defense. The visual shows regular season numbers for NFL playoff teams from 2003 through 2012.

nfl_pass_rush

For rush efficiency, the visual shows NFL playoff teams as a random selection of positive and negative values. Unlike college football, rush efficiency has almost no correlation with winning in the NFL.

Moreover, teams with high rush efficiency do not play better in the playoffs once they get there. Almost half of the teams that played in the Super Bowl gave up more yards per carry than they gained.

Passing is a different story. Most NFL playoff teams had a positive pass efficiency, and 8 of 10 Super Bowl champions had some of the top values in the NFL.

Did these trends hold up in the 2013 season?

Pass and rush efficiency in 2013

Here are the same rush efficiencies for the 2013 season. Playoff teams are highlighted by links that take you to their team page at The Power Rank.

1. Philadelphia, (10-6), 1.37
2. New York Jets, (8-8), 1.02
3. Minnesota, (5-10-1), 0.93
4. Washington, (3-13), 0.78
5. Oakland, (4-12), 0.67
6. San Francisco, (12-4), 0.49
7. Seattle, (13-3), 0.45
8. St. Louis, (7-9), 0.37
9. Carolina, (12-4), 0.24
10. Denver, (13-3), 0.19
11. Kansas City, (11-5), 0.16
12. Cleveland, (4-12), 0.12
13. Tennessee, (7-9), 0.07
14. Green Bay, (8-7-1), 0.02
15. Miami, (8-8), -0.00
16. Arizona, (10-6), -0.00
17. New England, (12-4), -0.07
18. Houston, (2-14), -0.10
19. Buffalo, (6-10), -0.15
20. Tampa Bay, (4-12), -0.18
21. Detroit, (7-9), -0.21
22. Indianapolis, (11-5), -0.21
23. Dallas, (8-8), -0.23
24. New York Giants, (7-9), -0.34
25. Cincinnati, (11-5), -0.36
26. San Diego, (9-7), -0.54
27. Baltimore, (8-8), -0.69
28. Pittsburgh, (8-8), -0.76
29. Chicago, (8-8), -0.82
30. Jacksonville, (4-12), -0.82
31. New Orleans, (11-5), -0.85
32. Atlanta, (4-12), -0.89

5 of 12 of the playoff teams, led by New Orleans at 31st, appear in the bottom half of these rankings. The top 5 includes Minnesota, Washington and Oakland, teams that gave their fans major indigestion this season.

Here are the numbers for pass efficiency.

1. Seattle, (13-3), 2.13
2. Cincinnati, (11-5), 1.62
3. Denver, (13-3), 1.61
4. New Orleans, (11-5), 1.56
5. Arizona, (10-6), 0.96
6. Philadelphia, (10-6), 0.86
7. San Francisco, (12-4), 0.86
8. Pittsburgh, (8-8), 0.51
9. San Diego, (9-7), 0.44
10. Carolina, (12-4), 0.39
11. Detroit, (7-9), 0.29
12. New York Giants, (7-9), 0.28
13. Green Bay, (8-7-1), 0.15
14. Buffalo, (6-10), 0.15
15. New England, (12-4), 0.12
16. Chicago, (8-8), 0.10
17. Cleveland, (4-12), 0.05
18. Tennessee, (7-9), -0.08
19. Indianapolis, (11-5), -0.35
20. Houston, (2-14), -0.40
21. Kansas City, (11-5), -0.51
22. Miami, (8-8), -0.56
23. Dallas, (8-8), -0.62
24. New York Jets, (8-8), -0.73
25. Baltimore, (8-8), -0.84
26. Minnesota, (5-10-1), -0.86
27. St. Louis, (7-9), -0.98
28. Oakland, (4-12), -1.04
29. Atlanta, (4-12), -1.08
30. Washington, (3-13), -1.35
31. Jacksonville, (4-12), -1.45
32. Tampa Bay, (4-12), -1.51

Of the 12 playoff teams, only Kansas City and Indianapolis do not rank in the top half for pass efficiency. All but two of the top 10, Arizona and Pittsburgh, made the playoffs.

Passing dominates the NFL. Rushing hardly matters.

How will this impact this weekend’s championship games?

What would Belichick do?

New England travels to Denver as a 6 point underdog in the AFC championship game. Vegas doesn’t believe in this Peyton Manning will choke in the playoffs stuff.

Does New England have a chance? I think so. Let me explain.

In their regular season meeting in New England, Bill Belichick played a defense geared towards stopping Denver’s aerial attack. Even when down 24 points at one point in the game, Belichick only had 6 defenders in the box to defend the run. Instead, New England played 5 defensive backs, two further than 10 yards from the line of scrimmage at the beginning of the play.

Against this defense, Denver ran the ball 48 times for absurd 5.83 yards per carry (NFL teams have averaged 4.1 yards over the last 10 years). Manning only threw for 3.47 yards per attempt on 38 pass plays.

It’s difficult to say that Belichick’s defensive plan won the game for New England. There were so many turnovers and fluky plays on both sides that finally allowed New England to win in overtime. But New England’s defense did shut down Denver’s passing attack.

From watching the game, New England’s secondary had an amazing game, especially CB Aqib Talib on WR Demaryius Thomas. It’s unlikely they’ll play that well again.

I give Denver 67% chance to win this game.

The return of Carlos Rogers

Before the 2011 season, San Francisco had a weak pass defense. They fixed this by signing CB Carlos Rodgers as a free agent and drafting pass rush LB Aldon Smith. In the 3 last years, San Francisco has been a top 10 pass defense by yards allowed per attempt.

However, Rogers missed the last two playoff games with a hamstring injury. San Francisco’s defense held up in the cold of Green Bay, holding QB Aaron Rodgers to 5.23 yards per attempt, less than the league average of 6.1. However, Carolina QB Cam Newton threw for 7.73 yards per attempt last weekend.

If Rogers can be effective coming off an injury, San Francisco has a much better chance to contain Seattle’s offense. However, the numbers suggest a win for Seattle, probably by 5 points.

How to predict NFL games

When running backs such as LeGarrette Blount and Marshawn Lynch run for so many yards, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking rushing matters in winning playoff games.

But the numbers simply do not support that claim. To think about this another way, New England rushed for 5.09 yards per carry, which includes Blount’s 73 yard touch down run. NFL teams average 6.1 yards per pass attempt, including lost yards on sacks.

This doesn’t mean that rushing has no place in the NFL. Deception is a key factor in sports, and I believe run plays can set up play action fakes that result in long pass completions.

But do yourself a favor. Don’t look at rushing numbers like yards per carry when making NFL predictions. Instead, focus on passing numbers. For more, click here.