Podcast: Dr. Eric Eager on new discoveries in football analytics

On this episode of The Football Analytics Show, I’m joined by Dr. Eric Eager of Pro Football Focus. He has his Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska and worked for years as a math professor at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse.

Among other topics, we discuss:

  • whether pass rush or coverage matters more for pass defense (2:19)
  • when the defense rushes the passer, whether the offensive line or quarterback has more influence in reducing this pressure (8:43)
  • how the best coaches instinctively understand analytics (15:02)
  • how Eric’s player based model for predicting the outcome of games works (19:40)
  • the intriguing team that could turn into Jacksonville 3.0 (29:26)

Eric does excellent work on the frontier of football analytics, and you’ll enjoy hearing him talk about his results.

To listen here, click on the right pointing triangle:

To listen on Apple Podcasts, click here.

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

For Eric’s article on whether offensive line or quarterbacks own pressure, you need a subscription to PFF.

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Podcast: Aaron Schatz on predicting the NFL in 2019

On this episode of The Football Analytics Show, I’m joined by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders. Each year, he and his team put out the Football Outsiders Almanac, an indispensable resource for my NFL preparation.

Among other topics, we discuss:

  • the most interesting frontier in football analytics (2:55)
  • the defensive statistic that is least stable from season to season (5:34)
  • the surprising fact about play action (7:53)
  • the team that will be Jacksonville 2.0 in 2019 (19:36)
  • the team from the NFC North that might surprise you (24:15)

Aaron also discusses Cleveland, Green Bay and Seattle in our wide ranging discussion.

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To listen on Apple Podcasts, click here.

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Preview #10: Three overrated college football teams for 2019

To listen to the tenth and last episode of the 2019 preview series, click on the right pointing triangle or check out Apple Podcasts. A written version is below.

It’s August, and the humid air brings hope for college football fans. They dream of a conference title and a college football playoff berth for their team.

Then the calendar turns to September, the air gets crisp and that team starts to play games. Maybe they survive that early non-conference opponent.

But then they trip up in their first conference test. Then they lose again, as we start to wonder: Maybe that team was overrated.

Preseason hopes can be irrational. It’s like buying Bitcoin at $19,000 thinking that the hockey stick growth is going to continue forever.

Let’s look at how to identify overrated teams.

How to identify overrated teams

To gauge expectations, let’s use the preseason AP poll. This might seem like an easy target, but the preseason AP poll is actually a powerful predictor of performance.

Consider these two rates about the preseason AP poll:

  • The higher ranked team in the preseason AP poll has won 58.4% of bowl since 2005.
  • In the playoff era, 12 out of 25 teams ranked in the top five of the preseason AP poll made the college football playoff.

No predictor is perfect though, and the preseason AP poll is no different. I’ll consider two factors in identifying overrated teams.

First, I’ll use my preseason regression model to identify these teams. This model considers team performance the past four years, turnovers, and returning starters.

Second, I consider the context for each team. No model is perfect, and I do my research on the caliber of players lost, coordinator changes, etc.

I’ve written a 3 overrated college football teams for the 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 seasons at SB Nation. I was wrong about West Virginia last year at 17th in the preseason polls, as QB Will Grier was too good. I took a push on Penn State and Oklahoma State in 2017. I’ve gotten the other nine right.

Let’s look at three overrated teams for 2019.

Texas

10th AP, 42nd The Power Rank

Texas had a fantastic 10-4 season in 2018. They capped this with a 28-21 bowl win over an excellent Georgia team.

This win helped Texas in my team rankings, which take margin of victory and adjust for strength of schedule. This is how I judge team performance in my preseason model.

In my team rankings, Texas ranked 14th in 2018 after a rank of 18th in 2017. With that kind of performance, one might expect Tom Herman’s team to make the jump into the top ten in 2019. They’re 10th in the preseason AP poll.

Expectation might be even higher consider the return of quarterback Sam Ehlinger. He completed 64.7% of his passes in 2018.

However, Texas is only 42nd in my preseason regression model because of the lack of returning starters (8). The departing players include many big contributors on defense:

  • DE Charles Omenihu, 1st team all Big 12, 18 tackles for loss, 5th round NFL draft pick
  • LB Gary Johnson, 16.5 tackles for loss
  • CB Chris Boyd, 1st team all Big 12, 6th round NFL draft pick

They lose quantity on top of his quality on defense as well. In terms of tackles, they lose their top three on the line, top two at linebacker, and three out of five in the secondary.

In addition, this defense wasn’t even elite last year. By my adjusted yards per play, they ranked 24th in the nation. With the losses on this side of the ball, it’s hard to expect improvement this year.

The offense under Ehlinger also wasn’t great in 2018. Overall, they ranked 58th in my adjusted yards per play. The offense was dragged down by an awful running game. Texas was better throwing the ball, as they ranked 35th in my adjusted yards per pass attempt.

Texas starts 2019 at 10th in the pre-season AP poll. The numbers and the context suggest that this is way too high.

Oregon

11th AP, 20th The Power Rank

Oregon got great news when quarterback Justin Herbert decided to return for his senior year. Herbert might have been the top quarterback taken in the 2019 NFL draft.

In addition to Herbert, Oregon gets another 16 returning starters back for 2019. Expectations are high in Eugene, as Oregon ranks 11th in the preseason AP poll.

However, my model has Oregon at 20th even with all those returning starters. The reason: lack of performance over the past four seasons.

Let’s look at how Oregon by my team rankings, which take margin of victory and adjust for schedule.

  • 2018, 47th, Mario Cristobal
  • 2017, 49th, Willie Taggart
  • 2016, 73rd, Mark Helfrich

For Oregon to perform better than the 20th in my preseason model, they must make a leap in 2019. This is certainly possible with the talents of Justin Herbert.

However, Herbert only completed 59% of his passes last year, not an elite rate. He did struggle with injuries, as he went into the concussion protocol after the Arizona game and also had shoulder issues.

Herbert did have a higher completion percentage in his previous two seasons. In addition, the NFL draft hype means that Herbert has a high ceiling.

Also, the defense could make a leap with all the returning starters. In my adjusted yards per play, Oregon ranked 37th last year. They lost defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who has a stellar reputation. But they add talents like defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, the second overall recruit in the nation.

However, the schedule doesn’t help Oregon. They open with a semi road game against Auburn in Arlington, Texas as the underdog. They have to travel to Washington, most likely their toughest opponent in the Pac-12 North. They also have road games against Stanford and USC, two upper middle Pac-12 teams that would be much easier contests at home.

It’s going to be tough for Oregon to live up to 11th in the preseason AP poll.

UCF

17th AP, 22nd The Power Rank

UCF has lost once in the past two years. Let that sink in for a moment. Alabama and Clemson have lost twice as many games over the same period.

In 2017, Scott Frost led UCF to the “national title” as they went undefeated. This included a bowl win over Auburn.

In 2018, Josh Heupel took over and kept the train rolling, as UCF won another conference title. Their only loss of the past 2 years came in their bowl game, a respectable eight point loss to LSU.

UCF is the undisputed king of the Group of Five, and the prospects might look good in 2019. They get their top two running backs back, top two receivers, three all conference linemen, and three all conference starters in the secondary.

However, two things might hold this program back.

First, UCF has a big mark at the quarterback position. McKenzie Milton has been the starter the last two years. If he were returning for his senior year, UCF would most likely live up to 17th in the AP poll.

However, Milton suffered a gruesome leg injury that almost required amputation last year and will not return for UCF in 2019. Sophomore Darriel Mack Jr. would have competed for the starting job, but he broke his ankle in the off season.

This leaves Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush, who struggles to throw the ball. He had a career completion percentage of 50%, and he lost his starting job at Notre Dame last year to Ian Book. I have my doubts about the offense under Brandon Wimbush.

Second, UCF might struggle this year because they were clutch last year. Let me explain.

I was trying to figure out why UCF ranked 12th in my team rankings but only 32nd by adjusted yards per play. They looked better on the scoreboard than by the efficiency of moving the ball on offense and preventing movement on defense.

UCF’s offense was great in 2018. They ranked 10th by my adjusted yards per play. However, the defense was terrible, as they ranked 84th in my adjusted yards per play.

But, the defense came through in clutch situations. Bill Connelly tracks points per trip inside the opponent 40, and the UCF defense ranked 10th. This rankings was almost certainly aided by their 28 takeaways, sixth best in the nation.

The data shows that randomness plays a big role in turnovers. If UCF’s defense struggles again in 2019, don’t expect a similar clutch performance when opponents get inside the 40.

UCF also doesn’t play the most difficult schedule in the American Athletic Conference. I can see them going 9 and 3 and maybe ending up somewhere near 17th in the final AP poll. However, I don’t think they will rank as a top 25 team in more precise measures of team strength like my team rankings.

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