How to win your 2020 March Madness pool

In last year’s Final Four, Virginia was down 2 with 1.5 seconds left to play against Auburn. Ty Jerome inbounds the ball to Kyle Guy, their best shooter, deep in the corner. Guy launches a 3 point shot that could win the game.

There’s a reason I told members of The Power Rank to pick Virginia in their March Madness brackets, and not the favorite Duke. This advice looked great in the Elite 8, as Duke lost to Michigan State and Virginia advanced over Purdue.

This advice continued to look great late in the Final Four game, as Virginia had a 10 point over Auburn with 5 minutes left in the game. Then Auburn went on a 11-0 run to take the lead.

Virginia still had a chance to win, but Guy’s three pointer bounced off the rim. It looked like the end Virginia’s tournament hopes.

However, Guy got fouled on the 3 point shot. He went to the line to sink 3 free throws for a 63-62 Virginia win.

Virginia went on to beat Texas Tech in the national title game, and many of my members won their pool.

There are two lessons from this experience. First, it takes a lot of luck for your team to win the NCAA tournament. While Guy did get fouled, you can imagine that the referee doesn’t make that call.

Second, you need the right strategy to win your pool, and this depends on pool size. Analytics plays a role, as the strategy is based on the win probabilities for each team. However, in 2019, the right strategy for certain pools said not to pick Duke, the team with the highest win probability.

I explain this balance of analytics and strategy in my book How to Win Your NCAA Tournament Pool. Over the years, it has helped many people win their March Madness pool.

This is what L.S. Stint said after last year’s tournament.

I used Ed’s methods and won a pool with 102 entrants. As a woman, it was particularly gratifying to win as pool consisted of mostly men who consider themselves knowledgable. Thank you, The Power Rank!

— L.S. Stint, Ann Arbor, MI

A new version of the paperback is now available. This version has a new design and crisp images not usually found in self-published books on Amazon.

My book How to Win Your NCAA Tournament Pool is also available to members of The Power Rank. Members also get access to my complete bracket advice in which I apply the ideas in the book to the 2020 tournament. Members also get access to my daily college basketball predictions.

To learn more, click here.

Podcast: Nick Kostos on the Super Bowl

On this episode of The Football Analytics Show, I’m joined by Nick Kostos, sports betting personality at Sports Illustrated and You Better You Bet.

Among other topics, we discuss:

  • How Nick got into the industry through Bleacher Report and CBS (1:48)
  • How analytics fits in his world of sports betting and fantasy football (10:13)
  • The match up that determines the Super Bowl result (18:00)
  • The QB match up between Jimmy Garappolo and Patrick Mahomes (21:16)

We also discuss social media, food, books and the important things in life (26:38).

To listen here, click on the right pointing triangle.

To listen on Apple Podcasts, click here.

Super Bowl Preview of San Francisco vs Kansas City

To listen, click on the right pointing triangle. A written version is available below.

San Francisco will face Kansas City in the Super Bowl, a game with many intriguing story lines.

Kansas City coach Andy Reid has won almost 62% of games in a 21 year NFL career, but he doesn’t have a championship ring. Can he get it done?

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan is the new kid on his block as a third year head coach. Can he join his dad Mike as a Super Bowl winning coach?

In the Super Bowl preview, I’ll break down match ups and identify the important factor that could swing this game. I’ll end with my best prediction based on analytics usually saved for members of The Power Rank.

San Francisco offense vs Kansas City defense

How will San Francisco’s offense approach this game?

To get an idea, let’s look at their play calling on 1st down in the first half. Late in the game, the scoreboard dictates play calling (teams facing a deficit throw the ball to score points, teams with the lead run the ball take time off the clock). Without these factors early in the game, we get a sense for the tendencies for an offense.

On 1st down in the first half, San Francisco runs on 54% of plays, 10th most in the NFL. The Niners showed this tendency in the NFC conference championship game. They ran the ball with great success against Green Bay in a convincing win.

Despite their tendencies, San Francisco is not that efficient at running the ball. To measure this, I’ll use success rate. For an offense, success means gaining the following fraction of necessary yards for a 1st down:

  • 50% on 1st down
  • 70% on 2nd down
  • all on 3rd, 4th down

When I take success rate on run plays and adjust for opponent, San Francisco ranks 20th in the NFL. One factor in this lack of efficiency could be the tendency to run on 1st down in the first half. In this situation, NFL defenses usually prepare to stop the run.

However, San Francisco could have success with the run in the Super Bowl. Kansas City has the worst rush defense in the NFL in my adjusted success rate. To explain this lack of success, let’s look at snap count data for players from Pro Football Focus (PFF).

Kansas city plays a 4-3 defense, which implies four defensive linemen and three linebackers on the typical play. Two of these linemen are interior linemen, the large players that clog up the middle so teams can’t run the ball.

According to the snap count data on Pro Football Focus, interior defensive linemen take up 1.7 positions on average out of 11 players on Kansas City’s defense. This is less than the two interior linemen expected for a 4-3 defense.

This suggests that Kansas City’s does not focus as much on stopping the run. They’d rather stop the pass, in general a good strategy. During the 2019 NFL season, teams gained 6.3 yards per pass attempt compared to 4.3 yards per carry.

Instead of interior linemen, Kansas City puts an extra player in the secondary. The Chiefs average 5.0 players in the secondary, more than the 4 players listed as starters.

This extra player in the secondary helps their pass defense. In my adjusted success rate on passing plays, Kansas City ranks 12th in the NFL. In addition, they excel at preventing big plays. To see this, I look at yards per pass attempt, which includes negative plays for sacks. After opponent adjustments, Kansas City ranks 3rd in the NFL.

Kansas City’s success in preventing big plays comes from the safety position. Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill have the two best coverage grades according to the PFF scouting data. They have significantly higher grades than Kansas City’s top 3 cornerbacks.

Note: Thornhill is injured and will not play in the Super Bowl. Daniel Sorensen will take his place with a worse coverage grade, although still higher than the 3 cornerbacks.

Despite these strong numbers, Kansas City will face an excellent San Francisco pass offense. Based on adjusted success rate, San Francisco has the 6th best pass offense.

Kansas City offense vs San Francisco defense

In contrast to San Francisco, Kansas City likes to throw the ball. On 1st down in the first half, they throw on 65% of plays, by far the highest rate in the NFL.

Andy Reid runs a modern NFL offense. On 1st down in the first half, defenses usually prepare to stop the run. Instead of running, Kansas City has opted to throw with QB Patrick Mahomes.

When Kansas City does throw the ball against San Francisco’s defense, it is strength on strength. By my adjusted success rate, Kansas City is 5th in the NFL. They rank even better in my adjusted yards per pass attempt (1st).

Despite the strength of these numbers, Kansas City could have been even better. QB Patrick Mahomes missed two games with an injury, and top receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins also missed games this year.

Kansas City will face an excellent San Francisco pass defense. By either success rate or yards per pass attempt (both adjusted for schedule), the Niners are the best in the NFL this year.

Based on the snap count data, San Francisco is even more aggressive about stopping the pass than Kansas City. The Niners also play a 4-3 defense. But the PFF data reveals they play 1.5 interior defensive linemen on average, even less than the 1.7 of Kansas City.

While Kansas City tends to put an extra player in the secondary, San Francisco puts another edge rusher on the field. They average 2.5 edge rushers (usually defensive ends, and does not include linebackers). For comparison, Kansas City averages 2.24 edge rushers.

These extra edge rushers have worked for San Francisco as they excel at getting pressure on the QB. When I look sack rate (sacks divided by pass attempts) adjusted for schedule, the Niners rank second in the NFL. Kansas City will need to handle this pass rush to throw the ball deep.

San Francisco is not as good at run defense. By my adjusted success rate, they rank 20th in the NFL. While Andy Reid tends to throw on offense, I’ll be interested to see whether he chooses to run more against San Francisco based on their personnel choices.

In addition, Kansas City has been good at running the ball. By my adjusted success rate, they rank 6th in the NFL.

Turnovers

Will either team have an edge in turnovers? In this section, I’ll focus on interceptions.

To get a preliminary estimate on interceptions, let’s look at the career interception rate for the starting QBs. Based on this data, it looks like Kansas City will have the edge.

Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes has a 1.5% career pick rate on 1,241 pass attempts, which includes playoff games. For perspective, the NFL average was 2.3% during the 2019 regular season. San Francisco’s Jimmy Garappolo has 2.5% interception rate on 837 pass attempts through this season’s two playoff games.

It’s difficult to make a definitive statement about interceptions due to the small sample size of attempts with these young QBs. It would be different if this game had veterans like Drew Brees and Tom Brady.

However, there’s another factor that suggests that Kansas City has an edge in interceptions: head coach Andy Reid. He got his first NFL head coaching job in 1999 with Philadelphia, and he came over to Kansas city in 2013. In 21 seasons as a head coach, his offenses have had an above NFL average pick rate only three times.

These 3 seasons with an above average pick rate all occurred in Philadelphia. During his 7 years in Kansas city, his teams have had below average NFL interception rates each season.

There is luck associated with these numbers. The Chiefs came closest to the NFL average in 2018, the first year Patrick Mahomes started at QB. He threw 12 interceptions that season.

However, according to charting of Sports Info Solutions, defenders dropped 10 interceptions that year. If those defenders had held on to some of those interceptions, Kansas City would have been worse than NFL average in pick rate.

In general, Andy Reid has always had offenses that protect the football in the passing game. I don’t know how he coaches his players to achieve this goal, but the data suggests a long term trend.

Sports books usually have a Super Bowl prop bet for how many interceptions each quarterback will throw. This number is set 0.5 interceptions. The under implies the quarterback will throw no picks.

Based on inception rate and projected number of attempts, you can work out the math for the chance a quarterback will not throw an interception. For Patrick Mahomes, I’ll use his 1.5% interception rate and assume that he throws ball 35 times, his average this season. This gives a 59% chance that he will not throw an interception, or that he goes under 0.5 interceptions.

For Jimmy Garappolo, I’ll use his 2.5% career interception rate. Since San Francisco tends to run more, he projects to throw fewer pass attempts. This season, he has averaged 30 pass attempts. This gives a 47% chance that he will throw no interceptions.

Prediction

For members of my site, I put together a prediction based on data from the current season, market rankings based on the median closing spread and preseason expectations. These numbers favor Kansas City by 1.6 points.

I’m very happy with this prediction. Before I ran the numbers, I thought Kansas City should be the favorite but not more than by 2.5 points. It should be a fantastic game as long as both teams play up to their ability.

Establish the Run? – an NFL Comedy

Why do NFL teams run the ball up the middle? That’s where all the defenders are.

My son Eli (now 11 years old) asked me this once, and I had to chuckle. As Yoda once said:

Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is. 

The analytics suggest that NFL teams run the ball way too much. To explain why, I made a sketch comedy with Eli.

Finding new ways to present football analytics: a huge reason why I love my job. To check out the video (3.5 minutes long), click here.

Members: Super Bowl Interceptions Prop

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