You crave a true understanding of 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. The passing and rushing statistics on major media sites are deeply flawed. You should never look at them.
Let me explain.
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 reason 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 makes this adjustment for sacks (although analytics guys like Bill Connelly of SB Nation do account for this in his preseason previews).
Armed with adjustment, we still must take two additional steps to get the most accurate evaluation of passing and rushing.
Accounting for pace
College football provides a diversity of styles. Baylor plays at an up tempo pace, cramming as many plays into the game as possible. In contrast, Alabama and Stanford milk every second from the play clock before snapping the football.
Due to these differing styles, yards per game is a terrible metric to judge passing and rushing on offense. Up tempo teams like Baylor generate more yards in a game by running more plays.
This pace also effects the defense. Since Baylor runs so many plays on offense, their defense tends to face more plays and allow more yards.
To account for these contrasting styles, you need a statistic that adjusts for the pace of play. While the football analytics community has many efficiency metrics, I like the simple yet effective yards per play.
The Power Rank has raw yards per play statistics for passing and rushing, which includes numbers for both offense and defense. Please use this public resource and avoid the misleading statistics on major media sites.
Adjusting for strength of schedule
With yards per play that count sacks as pass plays, you’re 95% of the way to understanding college football teams. However, to make the last leap, you must consider strength of schedule.
College football features a wide range of team strength. Programs like Alabama and Auburn will always tower over their neighbors in the Sun Belt due to tradition and financial resources.
A team should get more credit for 6 yards per carry against an SEC power like Alabama than a Sun Belt team. The Power Rank takes yards per play in college football and adjusts for strength of schedule, the same calculation I performed for adjusted pass efficiency in the NFL.
Let’s look at how these three steps revealed a more accurate picture for Oklahoma’s defense in 2015.
Oklahoma’s defense in 2015
Oklahoma had a magical year in 2015. Despite a startling early to Texas, the Sooners stormed back to win the Big 12 and secured a spot in the College Football Playoff.
However, pass defense might have seemed like weakness for Oklahoma. The Sooners ranked 33rd in the nation for passing yards allowed per game.
However, these misleading statistics count sacks as rush plays, and Oklahoma had a fierce pass rush led by Charles Tapper and Eric Stryker. The Sooners defense sacked the opposing quarterback on 8.3% of pass attempts, higher than the 6.1% college football average.
When you count sacks as pass attempts, Oklahoma moves from 33rd to 25th in the nation in pass defense by yards per game.
However, yards per game doesn’t account for the higher tempo of play in the Big 12. For example, Oklahoma State attempted 45 passes against the Oklahoma defense.
To account for pace, we use yards per pass attempt. Oklahoma ranked 13th in yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule. While the typical college football statistics had Oklahoma’s pass defense outside the top 25, proper adjustments reveal an excellent pass defense.