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.


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.


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 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.

Preview #4: Michigan and science of explosive plays

Despite going down to Ohio State as the favorite last season, Michigan lost a heart breaking 62-39 game.

I explore the hidden side of the game based on modern football analytics. In particular, I look at study by Bill Connelly, now of ESPN, on explosive plays.

Then I project whether Michigan can catch Ohio State in 2019.

To listen to the fourth episode of the 2019 preview series, click on the right pointing triangle.

To get the episode on Apple Podcasts, click here.

3 insights into Michigan vs Villanova

Michigan faces off against Villanova tonight in the championship game of the 2018 tournament. Villanova has a 81% win probability by my numbers, and a 75% implied chance according to the markets.

However, this game fascinates beyond analytics and markets. I follow this Michigan basketball team and watch most of their games. It’s an opportunity to combine numbers with basketball insight.

Here are 3 key insights into Michigan versus Villanova.

How Michigan and Villanova play defense

Jay Wright’s teams always play great defense. Based on my points per possession adjusted for schedule, Villanova hasn’t ranked worse than 11th the past 3 seasons.

Heading into the 2018 tournament, Villanova ranked 19th on defense. I thought this might be a flaw, as their biggest player Omari Spellman stands only 6’8″. However, their defense rank has risen to 12th heading into this championship game.

Despite their lack of size, Villanova has athletic, long wing players like Mikal Bridges. Michigan will see flying limbs when they shoot, much like their Elite Eight game against Florida State.

In contrast, John Beilein isn’t known for defense. When Michigan made the championship game against Louisville in the 2013 tournament, they finished 39th on defense that season. Michigan played their best defense towards the end of the season as they entered the tournament 59th in the nation.

However, Michigan’s defense has improved dramatically over the past two seasons. Heading into tonight’s championship games, they rank 4th in defense. When the offense sputtered against Florida State and Loyola Chicago, Michigan’s defense carried them to victory.

Michigan is particularly good at not allowing opponents to shoot 3 pointers. Opponents take 29.8% of their field goal attempts from 3, which makes Michigan 5th best in the nation at preventing 3 point shots.

In addition, Ken Pomeroy has shown that 3 point field goal rate is useful in predicting future games. This means Michigan should be able to limit Villanova’s 3 point attempts.

Jalen Brunson vs Zavier Simpson

Point guard Jalen Brunson runs Villanova’s high powered offense, ranked 1st by my points per possession adjusted for opponent. However, he will face a tough test in Michigan’s Zavier Simpson, an elite defender.

My guess is that Simpson will get close to Brunson so he can’t shoot a jump shot. In addition, Brunson is left handed, so Simpson can shade him to his right. Simpson will trust his quickness to recover should Brunson drive to his right.

Simpson won’t be able to shut down Brunson. However, slowing down the leader of the Wildcats is key to pulling off the upset.

3 point shooting

Villanova has a much better offense (1st) than Michigan (25th) by my points per possession adjusted for opponent. A big part of this edge is three point shooting, as Villanova has made 40.1% compared to 35.7% for Michigan.

However, these 3 point shooting rates have inherent error. For a Michigan team that has taken 988 attempts, their true 3 point percentage has a two in three chance to be between 34.4% and 36.9%.

To guess whether a team’s shooting percentage is higher or lower than their true skill, we can look at how a player’s rate compares with previous seasons.

For Michigan, Moritz Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman have shot the same percentage from 3 as last year. However, Duncan Robinson’s 38.7% this season is down from his 42.4% and 45.2% the past two seasons.

Some of this change comes from better defense, as every opponent knows Robinson can shoot. However, he has missed his share of wide open 3 point shots this year. I don’t think he’s a worse shooter now than the past two season. Robinson is most likely better than this 38.7% this season, and Michigan will need this shooting against Villanova.

For Villanova, Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges and Donte DiVincenzo have all shot career highs from the 3 point range. And they probably didn’t just get lucky with their shooting this season. Players can improve their shot with practice in the gym during the off season.

However, whenever a team is top 10 in the nation from 3, you can expect regression. In addition, Brunson, Bridges and DiVincenzo played big roles on last year’s Villanova team that shot 36.9% from 3. They will especially difficult against a Michigan defense designed to not allow open 3 point shots.

Michigan and Villanova shoot a ton of 3 point shots, as they take 43.2% and 47.5% of their field goal attempts from 3 respectively. The shots will fly, and we will see a small sample size of the results.

If Michigan can get fortunate with the 3 point lottery, it will help their efforts to pull off the upset.

How sports analytics helped Michigan basketball in way so obvious even Ohio State fans noticed

Why should you believe in sports analytics? Have numbers ever helped a team?

Predictive analytics can help you win your March Madness pool, but how about a real example in which numbers helped a team? An example so obvious that even a team’s most bitter rival can see the change?

I stumbled across a story this fall.

Tracking technology on Derrick Walton

In November of 2017, Michigan basketball coach John Beilein spoke at the Exercise and Sports Science Initiative (ESSI) Symposium at the University of Michigan. He talked about how his team uses technology from Catapult to track the work rate of players.

During the 2016-2017 season, he noticed point guard Derrick Walton was working harder than his teammates the day before games. If Catapult quantified the work rate of others at 800, then Walton measured at 1000.

Beilein didn’t think this 25% extra work was necessary, so he asked Walton to tone it down the day before games. After his talk, I raised my hand to ask whether he made this change in January.

To understand why I asked about this specific time, let’s go back to Michigan’s 2016-2017 season.

Michigan’s struggles in 2016

Michigan struggled during the first part of conference play in January of 2017. They started 1-3 against Big Ten competition and looked terrible.

Derrick Walton was a part of the problem, as he wasn’t playing well. We’ll get into specifics soon.

But first, let’s look back on why many Michigan fans liked Walton. He started as a freshman on a Michigan team that made the Elite Eight. He got injured his sophomore year, but his three point shooting and ability to get to the basket seemed to projected a bright future.

During the start of his junior year, I tweeted this.

More than a year later, this tweet didn’t seem insightful as Walton struggled into his senior season. He looked like an average Big Ten point guard, and I gave up on him as a game changing player.

I remember asking Sam Webb about Walton, as the point guard seemed like a hard worker destined for success. Webb, the ultimate Michigan football and basketball insider, confirmed his work ethic but also wondered why Walton wasn’t playing better.

Then, starting in January of 2017, Walton goes on a tear.

A tale of two seasons

On January 14, 2017, Michigan played Nebraska. Before this game, Walton converted 38% of his two point shots. Starting with Nebraska, he made 49% of his two point shots.

For a guard like Walton, two pointers represent high energy shots like lay ups or a pull up jumpers. More energy during games could contribute to this increase in field goal percentage.

Randomness plays a bigger role in 3 point jumpers, but Walton also improved in this area. He hit 40% of his 3 pointers before Nebraska, but then 44% after.

Known as a great rebounder, Walton’s rebounding improved as well. His rebounds per minute increased 25% starting with the Nebraska game compared to before that game.

Michigan played better basketball starting with Nebraska. They ended the season 9-5 against Big Ten competition. However, they still needed to win games in the Big Ten tournament to make the NCAA tournament.

Then, the Michigan basketball team almost died.

Post season play for Michigan

As they tried to fly to Washington DC for the Big Ten tournament, strong winds swept their plane off the runway. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt.

The experience shook Michigan to a higher level. They won the Big Ten tournament, as Derrick Walton took home Most Valuable Player honors.

Michigan now had an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, and they beat Oklahoma State in a close opening round game. Then, as a 7 seed, Michigan beat 2 seed Louisville in their best game of the season to make the Sweet 16.

Their Sweet 16 game against Oregon went down to the wire. Down 1 point in the waning seconds of regulation, Walton had a pull up jumper from about 15 feet that would have won the game.

In the fairy tale, the shot drops and Michigan advances to the Elite Eight. In reality, the shot bounced off the rim.

No matter the result, Derrick Walton’s play led Michigan on a remarkable run to close the 2018 season. He now plays for the Miami Heat.

Walton’s run started in January, so it prompted me to ask coach Beilein whether he made Walton tone it down in practice around then because of the player tracking data.

Yes, said Beilein.

Data. Analytics. It works.

Cover image courtesy of Marc-Gregor.

How Line Yards Divides Credit on Running Plays based on Michigan, 2017

How should you divide credit between the offensive line and running backs on rush plays? One method is Line Yards, a metric developed by Football Outsiders to capture the contribution of the line.

Based on regression analysis, the Line Yardage formula takes all running back carries and assigns responsibility to the offensive line based on the following percentages:

  • Losses: 120% value
  • 0-4 Yards: 100% value
  • 5-10 Yards: 50% value
  • 11+ yards: 0% value

The offensive line gets full credit for the first 4 yards of any run, but half credit for the next 6 as the running back gets past the defensive line. The running back gets full credit beyond 10 yards.

To give a football example of how this works, consider the line yards per carry for Michigan through week 10 for the 2017 season.

  • Florida: 2.86
  • Cincinnati: 2.55
  • Air Force: 2.68
  • at Purdue: 2.41
  • Michigan State: 3.19
  • at Indiana: 3.23
  • at Penn State: 3.48
  • Rutgers: 3.62
  • Minnesota: 3.54

Michigan struggled early in the season against teams like Air Force and Purdue. But since the Michigan State game, Michigan’s run blocking has improved by line yards per carry.

The last two games show how line yards breaks down the contribution between the offensive line and running backs.

Against Rutgers, Michigan had 3.62 line yards per carry. They rushed for 334 yards on 6.55 yards per carry (numbers do not include sacks, although Michigan didn’t allow any against Rutgers).

Michigan had slightly worse line yards per carry against Minnesota: 3.54 compared to the 3.62 against Rutgers. However, the offense rushed for 394 yards on 11.59 yards per carry, an astounding rate.

The line yards gives about the same credit to the Michigan’s offensive line against both Rutgers and Minnesota.

The running backs get the extra credit against Minnesota, as Karan Higdon (47, 77 yards) and Chris Evans (60, 67 yards) both broke long runs. In contrast, Michigan’s longest runs were 49 and 32 against Rutgers.