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3 surprising college football for 2019 by early season analytics

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After six weeks of the college football season, we’re starting to get feedback on teams. Which teams have lived up to the preseason hype? Which teams have not?

Here, I’ll discuss the following:

  • the top 10 team suddenly not getting carried by its defense
  • the team that has overcome my doubts this preseason, but not in the way that I thought they could
  • the team in which everyone is talking about the quarterback, but that might not be the biggest problem

I’ll evaluate these teams through my offense and defense rankings based on yards per play. This efficiency metric gauges how well an offense moves the ball and how well a defense prevents this movement.

Based on data from the 2019 season, I adjust for competition with the ranking algorithm that started The Power Rank. Let’s look at three surprising teams for 2019.

LSU

Entering this season, LSU was a no brainer as a top 10 team. However, they were still looking up at Alabama in the SEC West.

In evaluating this program, you expected LSU’s defense to continue their stellar play. This unit has been excellent under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. But to catch Alabama, the offense had to improve.

Currently, LSU is 5-0, and they’ve completely flipped this script on its head.

In my offense rankings, LSU ranks 6th. In addition, the strength of the offense has been the passing game and QB Joe Burrow.

I also break down adjusted yards per play into passing and rushing. LSU ranks 3rd in my pass offense by adjusted yards per pass attempt. This is a significant improvement from their rank of 39th last year.

How unexpected is the rise of Joe Burrow? To understand this, let’s look at how the offense has evolved under Coach Ed Orgeron.

Orgeron took over the LSU program full time at the start of the 2017 season. He hired Matt Canada as the offensive coordinator, as Canada had led Pittsburgh to an explosive offense under QB Nathan Peterman the previous year.

In 2017, the pass offense was pretty good, ranking 22nd by my adjusted yards per pass attempt. However, Orgeron and Canada supposedly didn’t get along, so Canada left at the end of the season.

Instead of making another flashy hire, Coach O decided to promote Steve Ensminger to offensive coordinator. Ensminger had been an assistant at LSU since 2010 under both Les Miles and Orgeron.

In 2018, the pass offense regressed in the first year with Burrow as the starter. LSU dropped from 22nd in 2017 to 39th in 2018.

You could make the argument that Joe Burrow was better the second half of the season than the first. However, I’m not a fan of these small sample size arguments.

But LSU has really surged in 2019. That 39th in my pass offense rankings has become 3rd this year. In addition it’s covering up some struggles on the other side of the ball.

Dave Aranda started as LSU’s defensive coordinator in 2016. Here is how his defenses have ranked by my adjusted yards per play.

  • 2016 – 3rd
  • 2017 – 14th
  • 2018 – 4th

However, the defense has struggled through their first 5 games in 2019, as LSU ranks 35th. In particular, the pass defense has struggled with a rank 51st in my adjusted yards per pass attempt.

LSU has had some injuries on the defensive side of the ball that has affected the front seven (linemen and linebackers). You might think these injuries have affected the pass defense. However, LSU has been excellent against the run, ranking 6th in my adjusted yards per carry.

This suggest LSU’s problems against the pass are in the secondary. We’ll see how LSU’s defense evolves as the season progresses.

Oregon

I thought Oregon was overrated coming into this season, as they were 11th in the preseason AP poll.

During the preseason, I rank teams based on a regression model in which the primary input is program performance over the past few years. I gauge team performance through my team rankings that take margin of victory and adjust for strength of schedule.

Here’s how Oregon has finished the season in my team rankings:

  • 2018 – 27th
  • 2017 – 49th
  • 2016 – 73rd

To make a leap into the top 15, Oregon needed breakout performances by players. This was certainly a possibility, as Oregon brought back quarterback Justin Herbert, a potential top pick in the 2020 NFL draft.

But I also had other questions about this team. The defense lost its defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt, a coach with a stellar reputation.

Oregon started the season at 16th in my member preseason rankings. This set of projections combines the regression model mentioned earlier with data from market win totals.

Through six weeks of the season, Oregon has moved up to 10th in my member rankings. Moreover, it hasn’t been the offense and Justin Herbert. By my adjusted yards per play, this unit ranks 34th this season compared to 36th last year.

The defense has exploded in 2019. Oregon ranks 2nd on defense based on data from this season, up from 37th last year. They gave up 5.1 yards per play against Auburn, the best offense that they faced. This rate looks good compared to the college football average of 5.7 yards per play. Oregon hasn’t faced strong competition in their other games but has not let any offense gain more than 4 yards per play.

Andy Avalos was brought in as a defensive coordinator to replace Jim Leavitt, and that’s looking like a pretty good hire so far.

Next week, Oregon travels to Washington in a pivotal Pac-12 North game. In the preseason, Washington and Oregon had the same rating, which would make Washington a three point favorite based on home field.

However, Oregon has surged up in my numbers. In contrast, Washington has struggled with losses to Cal and Stanford. My current numbers make Oregon at Washington a 50-50 toss up.

Michigan

Michigan started the season with high hopes. They ranked 4th in my preseason college football rankings. No one seemed to disagree as Michigan was considered the favorite in the Big Ten East.

Then the season started, and Michigan simply has not looked like a top five team. Army almost beat them in Ann Arbor, as Michigan needed overtime to win. Then the wheels fell off at Wisconsin as Michigan faced 28-0 deficit at halftime on their way to a crushing loss.

A lot of the discussion has centered around quarterback Shea Patterson. While the pass offense has certainly been a problem, it might not be the biggest problem on this team.

But first, let’s look about the pass offense. Patterson showed that he was an accurate passer last season as the pass offense ranked 21st by my adjusted yards per pass attempt.

You expected more coming into this season. Patterson was back for another season. He has three wide receivers with NFL potential and four returning offensive linemen that made an All Big Ten team last year. However, the past offense has dropped to 73rd.

Patterson has been tentative in the pocket. When he makes a good decision, he still delivers the ball with accuracy. When he hesitates, the offense breaks down as he starts to scramble.

However, Michigan has been worse running the ball. In my adjusted yards per carry, Michigan ranks 114th. This is surprising given the credentials of the offensive line. Last year, Michigan ranked 28th in rush offense.

A better running game doesn’t necessarily help the passing game. However, some kind of efficiency in the run game would give Michigan another means to move the ball. They’re not getting that from the running game.

On defense, Michigan has been good but not great. Last year, they ranked 15th in my adjusted yards per play but lost four key contributors to the NFL. This season, Michigan ranks 27th on defense.

Michigan’s defense did have their best performance against Iowa this past week. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has had an excellent track record, as he could get this unit to improve as the season progressions. In addition, linebacker Cam McGrone has been a revelation.

But it’s anyone’s guess as to what’s going on with Michigan’s offense. So far they’re not playing up to their talent level.

Become a member of The Power Rank

The numbers discussed in this article are available to members of The Power Rank. This includes my adjusted yards per play for both offense and defense, and this also gets broken down into passing and rushing.

These adjusted yards per play numbers also go into my member predictions. On the public part of the site, I post predictions based on points. These come from my team rankings that take margin of victory and adjust for strength of schedule.

My member predictions are more accurate because they include more accurate predictors. The adjusted yards per play are one example of those numbers.

To learn more about becoming a member of The Power Rank, click here.

How to solve the member login issue

I’ve been having issues with the site, and I’m looking to fix them soon.

The main problem is a member not logged in first attempts to go to the main members predictions page. After trying to login, the site redirects you to the login page.

If you’ve been having this or any other problem as a member, this should solve it:

  • Log out from the site.
  • Clear the cache on your browser. If you need help, click here.
  • Login to the site from this page. Do not go to another member page first.

This should get you to the main member predictions page.

I apologize for any inconvenience.

Members: How NFL QB adjustments work

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Podcast: Seth Walder on football analytics at ESPN

On this episode of The Football Analytics Show, I’m joined by Seth Walder, who writes about football analytics for ESPN. Among other topics, we discuss:

  • How the Football Power Index (FPI) works, both for college football and NFL (5:52)
  • The surprising player that matters to NFL FPI (12:40)
  • The college football team that has vastly outperformed preseason expectations (17:07)
  • How ESPN uses NFL Next Gen Stats that tracks the motion of every player (22:42)
  • The pass rusher tearing it up for Tampa Bay based on tracking data (29:18)

Seth is the person at ESPN that takes the work on the analytics group and makes it accessible to the public. He offered lots of fascinating insights.

To listen here, click on the right pointing triangle.

To listen on Apple Podcasts, click here.

The Football Analytics Show is also available on Google Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.