Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

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» OFI: SEC Surprises

In an opening week where even the elite teams in college football looked mortal, the SEC had two big surprises in Texas A&M and Georgia defeating their South Carolinian opponents by big scores.

07 Nov 2008

Varsity Numbers: Playing with Fire

by Bill Connelly

A week ago, I wrote this:

[I]f Colt McCoy wins the Heisman this year, you can thank the constantly successful tightrope act of thriving on passing downs. Yet again, Texas was better on passing downs than non-passing downs, and while you have to worry that the magic could suddenly, violently disappear (it did for Chase Daniel for about six quarters, long enough to kill his Heisman chances and his team's title chances), who knows, it might not. In that regard, the Texas Tech game is the biggest challenge remaining on the regular season schedule. Every time Texas faces a third-and-8 or third-and-10, Jones AT&T Stadium will be three shades of crazy, and that, combined with the fact that the Red Raider pass rush really is not too shabby, could spell trouble.

As you'll see in the Varsity Numbers Box Score of UT-Tech below, the magic did indeed "suddenly, violently disappear."

Varsity Numbers Box Score: Texas Tech 39, Texas 33
Texas Texas Tech
Close % 87.4%
Field Position % 38.4% 68.6%
Leverage % 69.4% 75.3%
TOTAL
Plays 62 81
EqPts 22.90 31.66
Success Rate 38.7% 59.3%
Points Per Play (PPP) 0.37 0.39
S&P (Success + PPP) 0.756 0.983
CLOSE GAME ONLY
Plays 45 80
EqPts 18.63 31.19
Success Rate 44.4% 58.8%
PPP 0.41 0.39
S&P 0.858 0.978
RUSHING
EqPts 6.32 7.65
Success Rate 41.7% 61.5%
PPP 0.26 0.29
S&P 0.680 0.910
Line Yards/carry
2.19 3.81
PASSING
EqPts 16.57 24.01
Success Rate 36.8% 58.2%
PPP 0.44 0.44
S&P 0.805 1.018x
NON-PASSING DOWNS
Success Rate 44.2% 63.9%
PPP 0.41 0.37
S&P 0.852 1.012
PASSING DOWNS
Success Rate 26.3% 45.0%
PPP 0.28 0.45
S&P 0.540 0.895
S&P by Quarter
Q1 S&P 0.283 0.873
Q2 S&P 0.469 1.246
Q3 S&P 0.651 0.625
Q4 S&P 1.744 1.121
S&P by Down
1st Down S&P 0.921 1.135
2nd Down S&P 0.578 0.904
3rd Down S&P 0.657 0.716
TURNOVERS
Number 2 1
Points Lost 0.87 0.94
Points Given 7.00 3.41
Total T/O Pts 7.87 4.35
Turnover Pts Margin -3.52 +3.52

In the end, there were three main reasons Texas lost in Lubbock Saturday night:

  • Texas Tech came out aflame, and Texas came out tired. Texas started looking tired at the end of the Oklahoma State game, and the murderer's row of four straight marquee games against top teams seemed to have finally caught up to them. Power to them for keeping it close (you look at the overall EqPts numbers, and you realize Texas was lucky to get as close as they were), but the flat start put them in a deep hole.
  • Texas Tech was much better in the trenches than just about anybody thought they would be. The Red Raider offensive line is not only gigantic but very experienced. They protected Graham Harrell against Texas' stout line better than anybody else has; of course, it helps that Brian Orakpo got hurt. Meanwhile, Texas Tech's defensive line was amped and active. Sophomore Colby Whitlock has improved by leaps and bounds this season.
  • Passing downs absolutely murdered Texas. There is no other way to put it. In Texas' first four conference games, their passing downs S&P was better than their non-passing downs S&P three times.
Texas Offense S&P
Opponent Non-Passing Downs S&P Passing Downs S&P
at Colorado 0.902 0.909
vs Oklahoma 0.926 0.777
Missouri 1.107 1.722
Oklahoma State 0.905 1.095
at Texas Tech 0.852 0.540

As the Rolling Stones (or Lil Wayne) might say, play with fire (enough times), you get burned.

Disproportionality

With this in mind, it might behoove us to take a look at the other teams at the top of the BCS rankings, which ones seem to be having disproportionate success on passing downs, and what that could mean for the rest of their schedules.

(And once again, the data is only complete for BCS teams, so for now we're going to skip over No. 8 Utah and No. 10 Boise State. And by the way, I love that there are four non-BCS teams in the Top 15.)

0- and 1-loss BCS Teams and Passing Downs Disproportionality
BCS Rank Team PD S&P NPD S&P Ratio Record
1 Alabama 0.727 0.886 0.821 9-0
2 Texas Tech 1.009 1.104 0.914 9-0
3 Penn State 0.904 1.023 0.884 9-0
4 Texas 1.026 0.985 1.042 8-1
5 Florida 0.781 1.027 0.761 7-1
6 Oklahoma 0.896 1.033 0.867 8-1
7 USC 0.923 0.987 0.935 8-1
9 Oklahoma State 0.994 1.065 0.934 9-1

Now let's look at these teams' remaining opponents. Opponents in bold have allowed sub-.500 S&P on passing downs:

Alabama

  • at LSU (Passing downs S&P allowed: 0.684)
  • Mississippi State (0.591)
  • Auburn (0.533)

Texas Tech

  • Oklahoma State (0.562)
  • at Oklahoma (0.468)
  • Baylor (0.706)

Penn State

  • at Iowa (0.385)
  • Indiana (0.612)
  • Michigan State (0.603)

Texas

  • Baylor (0.706)
  • at Kansas (0.665)
  • Texas A&M (0.707)

Florida

  • at Vanderbilt (0.552)
  • South Carolina (0.461)
  • The Citadel (N/A)
  • at Florida State (0.405)

Oklahoma

  • at Texas A&M (0.707)
  • Texas Tech (0.455)
  • at Oklahoma State (0.562)

USC

  • California (0.486)
  • at Stanford (0.708)
  • Notre Dame (0.556)
  • at UCLA (0.639)

Oklahoma State

  • at Texas Tech (0.455)
  • at Colorado (0.623)
  • Oklahoma (0.468)

Iowa's defense is the second best among BCS teams in terms of shutting down teams on passing downs. Meanwhile, Penn State has a rather high ratio of passing downs success to non-passing downs success (the national ratio is 0.802). And they're hosting Penn State this weekend. Consider that an upset alert.

Summary

The list of teams with the highest proportion of passing downs success to non-passing downs success includes some with awful offenses (Wake Forest, Arkansas, Auburn, Syracuse) who have high proportions only because neither S&P number is very good; however, the list also includes a lot of teams who simply have good offenses and good quarterbacks (Texas, USC, Texas Tech, Penn State). Having a high proportion here does not necessarily mean something bad. It just means that you probably cannot count on passing downs success for all 12 (or 13, or 14) games of a given season. At some point the magic will run out, at least temporarily, and you will find yards and points a lot harder to come by.

It also means that both teams playing in Lubbock Saturday night (Texas Tech and Oklahoma State) have outstanding passing downs defenses, and whoever can convert on second-and-9 or third-and-7 is going to win the game.

Posted by: Bill Connelly on 07 Nov 2008

4 comments, Last at 10 Nov 2008, 9:55am by Rover

Comments

1
by Pat (filler) (not verified) :: Fri, 11/07/2008 - 7:13pm

Iowa's defense is the second best among BCS teams in terms of shutting down teams on passing downs. Meanwhile, Penn State has a rather high ratio of passing downs success to non-passing downs success (the national ratio is 0.802). And they're hosting Penn State this weekend. Consider that an upset alert.

Yeah, Iowa's one of those teams that's just quietly putting together a solid, but unspectacular seasons due to a bunch of close losses (much like Ole Miss), and is therefore just flying under the radar completely. They haven't lost a game by more than 5 all year.

But I'm not sure that just looking at passing down S&P is a great way of finding an upset, because in order to get to a passing down, you have to stop a team on a non-passing down. So really, without knowing what the non-passing down S&P comparison is, it doesn't really help much.

One of the things with the Texas Tech/UT game is that Texas was way imbalanced on their run/pass ratio on first down (when it's not that situationally biased). They ran 7 times on first down, and passed 20 times: granted, 4 of those came with little time to go, but that'd still be 2:1 passing over rushing. I haven't checked but from casual memory, it didn't seem that different than previous games: so really, Texas's play does lend themselves to ending up in non-passing downs on 2nd down.

In contrast, for instance, Penn State is typically nearly exactly balanced on first down during unbiased situations, so they don't lend themselves nearly as much to ending up in non-passing down situations.

I'm actually surprised Texas's 1st down S&P is as high as it is - I'm guessing it's primarily from PPP based on the few long plays, but that does make me wonder whether the weight of "success" to "PPP" for ideal success is the same on all downs. I doubt it is: 1st and 10 is one of the few "non-passing downs" where failure = "passing down", which means that a 91-yard touchdown is probably not going to really make up for a bunch of 2nd and 10s.

Whereas on 2nd and short, for instance, success isn't that important, but PPP probably is. Failure still puts you in a favorable situation.

2
by Reinhard (not verified) :: Fri, 11/07/2008 - 9:20pm

Which gets at an interesting question: is it better to get another first down on first down, or a 2nd and 1?

3
by Whatev (not verified) :: Mon, 11/10/2008 - 8:52am

I would imagine it depends heavily on the relative effectiveness of the running and passing games given your team's offense and the opposing team's defense.

4
by Rover (not verified) :: Mon, 11/10/2008 - 9:55am

Iowa's defense is the second best among BCS teams in terms of shutting down teams on passing downs. Meanwhile, Penn State has a rather high ratio of passing downs success to non-passing downs success (the national ratio is 0.802). And they're hosting Penn State this weekend. Consider that an upset alert.

Wow. Great call.