Auburn preview for 2014 on Grantland

winprob_ringI wrote an article on Grantland questioning the prospects of Auburn this season. The article made two points.

First, Auburn got lucky last season. They need a tipped hail mary to beat Georgia and beat Alabama on the return of a missed field goal for a touchdown.

Second, the Tigers have a wicked schedule this season. They play Georgia and South Carolina, two teams most think are the best in the SEC East. This explains their low win probability in the visual despite being 6th in my preseason rankings.

I thought Auburn fans would be ticked about the prediction. Instead, they got incensed about my calling them lucky last season.

Twitter showed us a range of responses. Some were thoughtful.

Others were not.

But this is why I love college football. Passionate fans can get pissed that I downgraded their team because of a few plays last season.

The article also has a visual of the top 15 teams in my preseason rankings.

To read the article, click here.

5 insights into Florida State and Auburn you won’t find anywhere else

Will Auburn beat Florida State in the BCS title game and make it 8 straight titles for the SEC?

Or will Florida State dominate as they have all year and cover the 8.5 point spread?

Modern football analytics can shed light on these questions. First, you need to look at efficiency metrics. Yards per game is a dinosaur in this age that features teams that play at warp speed while others struggle to snap the ball. Yards per play is a much better metric.

Moreover, sacks count as rush plays in typical college football statistics, which makes no sense. To properly evaluate rushing and passing, these sack plays must count as pass plays before one calculates efficiency.

This visual, presented by Onside Sports, accounts for these factors in showing football efficiency statistics. Better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons. The unit further to the right has a higher positive deviation from the FBS average.

The visuals show Florida State has an edge on both sides of the ball but especially on offense (click on Florida State to see this). Does this imply they will cover?

Here, we’ll dig past these raw efficiency metrics to find out.

How much better was Auburn the second half of the year?

The most difficult aspect of evaluating this game is Auburn’s improvement over the season. In coach Gus Malzahn’s first season as head coach, QB Nick Marshall didn’t get his first practice until August. The Auburn team that takes the field Monday night is probably different from the one that beat Washington State by 7 to open the season.

I looked at this in two different ways. First, consider the team rankings, which take margin of victory and adjust for strength of schedule. By only considering Auburn’s last 7 games and not the first 6, you get an estimate of their improvement.

But it’s also important to factor in luck. Against Georgia, Auburn scored an improbable touchdown on a bomb that deflected off a Georgia defender. Against Alabama, they returned a missed field goal for a game winning touchdown. I subtracted these two lucky scores from the margin of victory.

Auburn’s team rating, or predicted margin of victory against an average FBS team, was 4 points higher for the second half of the season than the entire season. I also performed the same calculation for yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule and got about the same answer (3.5 points).

Auburn performed about 4 points better over the second half of the season than the entire season.

How great was this Florida State team?

Some have criticized Florida State for playing a soft schedule. However, it’s not their fault that their conference is weak and Florida had an off season. Florida State pounded every opponent that took the field against them. Their closest game was a 14 point affair against Boston College.

The team rankings consider margin of victory and rate Florida State 36 points better than the average FBS team. This rating is higher than the 2011 Alabama team (35.2) that pounded LSU in the BCS title game. It’s better than the 2005 Texas team (33.6) led by QB Vince Young that defeated USC in the BCS title game.

In fact, the only team to end the season with a better rating than this Florida State team was the 1995 Nebraska team (40.9).

However, the team rankings most likely overestimate the strength of Florida State. The 36 point rating is an estimate, and regression to the mean implies it’s too high. This clearly has consequences for the title game.

Auburn’s passing attack

Auburn likes to run the ball with QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. They run on over two thirds of their plays for the season.

However, they are also efficient at throwing the ball. In my pass rankings that consider yards per pass attempt adjusted for strength of schedule, they rank 16th in the nation.

In addition, Auburn is even more efficient in situations in which they typically run. On first down in the first half, Auburn runs on 78% of plays, showing their true identity. But on those other 22% of those plays, they throw for 9.9 yards per attempt, significantly more than the 7.7 they average over the game.

Nick Marshall can get it done through the air.

Does Florida State have any weakness?

With the dominance of Florida State on both sides of the ball, it’s difficult to find any weakness. I could only find one thing.

Florida State’s offense gets tackled for a loss on 9% of plays, 71st worst in the nation. QB Jameis Winston probably holds on to the ball too long looking for open receivers. It’s something to watch for in this game.

Florida State’s offense makes up for these negative plays with big gains. They average 7.8 yards per play, best in the nation.

The back up running backs.

Running backs Tre Mason and Devonta Freeman have carried the load for Auburn and Florida State respectively. However, their back ups might be the players to rip off a big play.

Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne gets 6.8 yards per carry compared to 5.7 for Mason.

Florida State’s Karlos Williams, who started the season as a safety, averages 8.2 yards per carry over a significant 86 carries. Freeman gets 5.8 yards per carry.

Prediction

Florida State has been great this season. They should put points on an Auburn defense that ranks 61st in yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule. And if they can slow down Auburn’s rush attack? The game could get ugly for Auburn.

However, funny things happen in bowl games after these kids get another 15 practices under their belt. Michigan State’s offensive line handled Stanford’s pass rush, allowing QB Connor Cook to pick apart the defense. Oklahoma’s defensive line racked up 7 sacks against Alabama’s offensive line.

Auburn’s defense will need to have a similar performance for the Tigers to win this game. I do not see this happening, so I’m leaning towards Florida State to cover the point spread.

Florida State 38, Auburn 28.

UPDATE: When I wrote this on the Friday before the game, the line favored Florida State by 8.5. Now it’s less than 6 hours before the game on Monday night, and the line has shifted to 10.5.

Is Auburn safe from an upset against Missouri?

Before we dive into the SEC title game, the most intriguing game of championship weekend, let’s take a quick look at a few other games.

Check out my Google+ post on Stanford at Arizona State in the Pac-12 title game.

Does Duke have a chance against Florida State?

No. Well, it’s quite unlikely.

From both my calculations and the Vegas odds, Florida State has a greater than 90% chance to win this game. Duke throws the ball well, ranking 30th in yards per pass attempt adjusted for schedule. But that’s about it.

Can Ohio State remain undefeated?

Probably.

The Big Ten title game’s most intriguing match up is Ohio State’s rush offense against Michigan State’s rush defense. The Buckeyes rack up 7.4 yards per carry, by far the best in the nation. You don’t need schedule adjustments to claim they run the ball better than anyone, even Auburn.

However, Michigan State only allows 3.0 yards per carry, by far the best in the nation. This strength on strength match up will determine the outcome of the game.

The Power Rank’s team rankings predict a 4 point win for Ohio State while yards per play gives an 8 point win. This suggests the line that favors Ohio State by 5.5 is about right. The Buckeyes have about a 60% chance to remain undefeated.

Auburn is a traditional powerhouse

Before discussing the match ups in Saturday’s game between Auburn and Missouri, let’s look at the history of these teams.

For each of the last 30 years, the team history visual shows both wins and rating, which gives The Power Rank’s calculation of an expected margin of victory against an average team.

Auburn Team History

Auburn has been mostly successful over the last 30 years. This started with coach Pat Dye, who recently made headlines through his ignorant comments about Condoleeza Rice. He passed the torch to Terry Bowden in 1993, who did quite well before his team imploded in 1998. Tommy Tuberville took over in 1999 and peaked in 2004, the year an undefeated Auburn was not chosen to play in the national title game.

Gene Chizik became head coach in 2009. Behind stellar junior college transfers Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, Auburn won the national title in 2010. Then the wheels fell off the following two years. 2012 was the only year of the last 30 in which Auburn did not rate as a better than average team.

Guz Malzahn came back this season and has worked miracles. Most of us remember Auburn’s stunning kick return to beat Alabama in the final seconds of the Iron Bowl last weekend. But this event was much more likely than the deflected hail mary that miraculously fell into the hands of an Auburn receiver to beat Georgia.

Despite this luck, Auburn is a very good football team. They rank 11th in my team rankings with a rating of 18.2.

Missouri’s ascension under Gary Pinkel

Missouri does not have the same tradition as Auburn.

Missouri Team History, The Power Rank

Except for two good seasons in 1997 and 1998, the Tigers did not emerge as a consistently good team until Gary Pinkel took over as coach in 2001. Missouri went 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl over Arkansas in 2007. That was their highest rated team until this season.

Ranked 4th in The Power Rank, Missouri is more than 3 touchdowns better than the average FBS team this season. The media continues to talk about whether Auburn or Ohio State should play in the national title game as if the Auburn has already won the SEC. Their rich tradition probably has a lot to do with that. However, Missouri should be the favorite in Atlanta.

Drilling deeper into match ups

By my offense and defense rankings by yards per play, Missouri has an edge on offense. They rank 11th in the nation behind QB James Franklin and RB Henry Josey. Auburn’s defense has been near average (55th) this season.

However, Auburn has a potent offense, ranking 9th in the nation. They primarily run the ball with QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. Auburn’s rush attack ranks 3rd in yards per carry adjusted for strength of schedule.

And rush defense happens to be Missouri’s only “weakness”. This match up visual, in which better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons, shows the adjusted statistics for Missouri’s offense against Auburn’s defense.

The blue dot for better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons.

Better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons.

Members of The Power Rank have access to interactive versions of these visualizations for all 125 college football teams. To learn more, click here.

Prediction

While my team rankings predict a 3 point win for Missouri, yards per play gives an even larger margin (6) for Missouri. The Vegas line seems to agree. It opened favoring Auburn by 3 but has since shifted to 1.5. It should be a close game, with Auburn’s ability to run the ball as the key to the outcome.

Thanks for reading.

College football’s best conference and 5 predictions for Thanksgiving weekend, 2013

I was watching the Arizona State and UCLA game last weekend when the Pac-12 standings popped onto the screen. It said that Utah had 1 conference win.

One conference win? The Utes have only beaten Stanford?

Despite their 4-7 record, Utah is a good team. In their non conference schedule, they beat BYU and Utah State, team ranked 22nd and 47th in The Power Rank. In conference, they have played almost all opponents tough, coming within a touchdown of beating UCLA despite throwing 6 interceptions. Overall, Utah ranks 27th in The Power Rank.

If a team with one conference win ranks 27th, how good is the Pac-12 overall? The visual shows the ranking of conferences by averaging over each team’s rating (The Power Rank’s estimate of that team’s expected margin of victory over an average FBS team).

Computer rankings of conferences in college football, 2013.

The Pac-12 slightly edges out the SEC as the top conference. While this does not conclusively show the Pac-12 is the better conference, it does suggest the two conferences are closer than anyone thinks.

A few other insights from the visual.

  • How bad is the bottom of Conference USA? UTEP (121st), Florida International (124th) and Southern Miss (125th) are the bottom of the FBS barrel.
  • There is a clear distinction between the top 5 conferences and rest. The American Athletic Conference (formerly the Big East) does not make the cut… not by a mile.
  • If not for the brilliance of Florida State, the Big Ten might move past the ACC as the 4th best conference.

The Pac-12 has been remarkably tough this season. We’ll look at games with national title implications today, and none will involve a Pac-12 team.

Alabama at Auburn

Last season, Auburn did not win a single SEC game. This meltdown landed them 76th in The Power Rank by year’s end and got coach Gene Chizik fired, two years after winning a national title.

Former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn took over as head coach and immediately elevated this team, as Auburn ranks 17th in The Power Rank. Some programs always have talent, which makes a quick turn around possible. As another example, Jim Mora has performed miracles at UCLA over the past two seasons.

Auburn has only one loss all season, and a win over Alabama gives the Tigers the SEC West title and a place in the conference championship game. Can Auburn win?

Auburn has an advantage because of their 11th ranked offense based on yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule. They run an up tempo spread attack that runs the ball on 69% of plays. However, they are also efficient through the air. QB Nick Marshall has led Auburn to the 14th best pass offense (yards per attempt adjusted for strength of schedule).

Check out this match up visual for Auburn’s offense against Alabama’s defense. Better defenses appear further to the right to facilitate comparisons.

auburn_bama_Nov2013

Auburn has an edge in the passing game.

Members of The Power Rank have access to interactive visuals like this for all college football teams. For more information, click here.

Alabama is the favorite in this game, and this edge depends on their 15th ranked offense over Auburn’s 40th ranked defense. The Crimson Tide offense started slowly this season. Coach Nick Saban would get steamed each week at their poor execution. This poor play prompted me to predict that Alabama wouldn’t win another championship on Grantland.

But with each passing week, Alabama makes me look more stupid. They are clearly executing better and can throw downfield with QB AJ McCarron.

The line favors Alabama by 9.5, but my yards per play numbers predict a 3 point win. Either way, the margin is close enough that a few turnovers or big plays on special teams could flip the result in favor of Auburn.

Ohio State at Michigan

What will be higher: the win probability for Michigan (25%) or the fraction of red in the Big House on Saturday?

Michigan has struggled this season, losing 3 of their last 4 games. Meanwhile, an undefeated Ohio State creeps further into the national title game conversation each week despite their weak schedule.

Ohio State has a prolific offense, ranked 5th by yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule. While their rushing attack behind Carlos Hyde gets most of the attention, they can also throw the ball well. QB Braxton Miller has completed 68% of his passes, leading the 29th best pass offense in the nation. They face a Michigan defense ranked 32nd.

Ohio State does not have such an elite unit on defense. Their 22nd ranked defense is good, but has allowed teams like Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern to stay in games. They face a Michigan offense that has caused their fans more indigestion than Uncle Tony’s nachos last Thanksgiving.

Florida State at Florida

Florida State has jumped to elite this season. The Power Rank gives them a rating of 36 points, which implies they would beat the average FBS team by this margin. Over the last 30 years, this puts them behind only 1995 Nebraska (41 points) and just head of 2011 Alabama (35 points, beat LSU in title game).

Florida State might not maintain this level with at least 3 more games on their schedule. But the Seminoles look potent on both sides of the ball. The offense and defense rank 4th in the nation by yards per play adjusted for strength of schedule.

Florida could stay in this game. Just like Auburn and UCLA, the Gators always have talent, no matter how many wins they have this season. Despite a rash of injuries, their defense still ranks 10th in the nation, which could keep them in this game. However, they continue to struggle on offense, with the 95th ranked unit.

Both the team rankings and yards per play predict a 25 point win for Florida State.

Texas A&M at Missouri

Not many people are talking about Missouri in the national title picture. However, the one loss Tigers will win the SEC East if they beat Texas A&M. If Missouri then beats Alabama or Auburn in the SEC championship game, the BCS title game either includes Missouri (potentially over an unbeaten Ohio State team) or excludes the champion of the conference that has won the last 7 titles.

The offenses will dominate the game between Missouri and Texas A&M.

Missouri has senior QB James Franklin back from a separated shoulder. Their 10th ranked defense faces a Texas A&M defense that has struggled at 92nd in the nation.

Texas A&M’s offense has been just as potent this season as last when QB Johnny Manziel won the Heisman. Both units ranked 2nd in the nation in yards per play adjusted for schedule. Manziel will look for redemption after a terrible game against LSU last week.

The line started at Missouri by 3 but has since moved to 4. Both the team rankings (10) and yards per play (6) predict a bigger margin of victory for Missouri, suggesting some value in this game.

Clemson at South Carolina

South Carolina could lose this non conference game and still make the SEC title game. They win the SEC East if Missouri loses to Texas A&M. Then there is the potential for a 3 loss team to win the SEC championship game.

This game should be close, as both the line and my team rankings predict only a 4 point win for South Carolina at home.

Thanks for reading.

Grantland, Betting Dork and 3 football predictions

I got into some NFL football this week.

First, I agreed to appear on Betting Dork, the podcast of Gill Alexander. During the NFL season, he invites a guest to appear with his regular round table that talks NFL games. Gill is a friend and all around great guy; dork might be the last word I would use to describe him. You can listen to the podcast each week here.

Second, an opportunity at Grantland came up. They made an excellent video on Kevin Kelley, the high school football coach in Arkansas that always goes for it on 4th down and always onside kicks. They wanted a blog post to accompany the video, so they asked me this: if not punting is one revolution in football analytics, what’s the next big revolution?

My first thought was that NFL teams should stop running the ball.

While this might seem crazy, numbers back up the argument. Including negative yards from sacks, NFL teams throw for 6.10 yards per pass attempt. On the ground, they only gain 4.17 yards per rush.

Moreover, over the last 10 NFL seasons, there is no correlation between rush efficiency, measured by yards per rush on offense, and winning. I found this lack of correlation shocking. The NFL is truly a quarterback’s league. Winning teams can throw the ball downfield while preventing their opposition from doing the same.

The article left a lot of room for further analysis, as people noted in the comments. Pass efficiency might decline with a higher percentage of passes. (Note that I do not think this is a given, especially with good play calling.) There’s also a higher risk for turnovers on pass plays. Hopefully, Grantland will let me follow up on these thoughts later.

You can read the article here. Be sure to watch the awesome video at the bottom on Kevin Kelley’s Pulaski Bruins.

I do think passing matters most in the NFL, especially if you want to predict the future. Yards per pass attempt correlates with winning even more than yards per play, the key stat I look at in college football.

This analysis is based on my NFL yards per pass attempt adjusted for strength of schedule. I’ll make all these numbers available soon.

Of course, I couldn’t resist talking about a college game at the end.

Kansas City at Denver

Kansas City has been one of the luckiest NFL teams this season. They have played a soft schedule and have benefitted from turnovers. The Chiefs needed 2 defensive touchdowns to beat Buffalo 23-13 in their last game.

So I was shocked when my numbers came down on the side of the Chiefs. The line has held steady at Denver at 8, while yards per pass attempt predicts Denver by 5. What gives?

I think people understand the problems with Kansas City. ESPN ran a piece on how the Chiefs were the most troubled 9-0 team in the history of the NFL. And I think that’s right.

However, people might be missing how bad Denver’s defense is. They are 28th in my pass defense rankings, which is just terrible for a Super Bowl contender. They have been a bit better the last 3 games since Von Miller has returned.

Overall, Denver gets its edge in this game from Peyton Manning and it’s top ranked pass offense against Kansas City’s 6th ranked pass defense. Denver has better than even odds to win.

However, don’t be surprised to see the Chiefs go to 10-0, especially if they can generate a pass rush against Manning and get some more turnover luck.

Minnesota at Seattle

Seattle is a legit Super Bowl contender. Minnesota is a poor team that features Christian Ponder at QB. However, a line that favors Seattle by 12 seems like too much. Yards per pass attempt predicts a 8.6 point win for Seattle. Remember, this prediction includes the throwing performance of both Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman.

Moreover, the run game could play a role in this game. Minnesota has RB Adrian Peterson, one of the most explosive players in the game. Their rush attack, ranked 5th by raw yards per rush, faces a Seattle defense ranked 21st in rush defense. While I don’t recommend building a team around a RB like Peterson, his presence can certainly affect this game in favor of Minnesota.

Georgia at Auburn

This game plays a surprising role in the national championship race. A Georgia win (with an Alabama win over Mississippi State) locks up the SEC West for Alabama. Auburn would have 2 conferences losses, and it wouldn’t matter if they beat Alabama in 2 weeks.

However, if Auburn wins, then their game with Alabama decides the SEC West. Then an Auburn win puts Alabama out of the title picture… like I predicted in Grantland a month ago.

Can Auburn win? My team rankings predict a 6 point win for Auburn. However, these rankings can be heavily impacted by turnovers, and Georgia has 7 more give aways than take aways this season. Had they performed better in this department, Georgia probably beats Missouri in their key SEC East battle.

Yards per plays predicts a Georgia win by 2 based on the strength of their offense. Despite a rash of injuries to key skill players, QB Aaron Murray has led the Bulldogs to 6th in my offensive rankings by yards per play. The line favors Auburn by 3.5, so expect a tight game that could come down to a last second field goal.

Thanks for reading.