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02 Sep 2011

VN: What I Did for My Summer Vacation

by Bill Connelly

I spent most of my summer biting off almost more than I could chew: a 120-team, 300,000-word project in which I wrote statistical profiles and 2011 previews for each FBS program for SB Nation. It was a rewarding experience -- if nothing else, it proved once and for all that I am incapable of burning out on writing about college football -- but it would be a shame if I instantly put the project behind me and looked toward the season at hand.

Below are ten lessons I learned from this offseason of writing.

The Footprint Has Potential

I have always thought there were two primary uses for college football stats: evaluation and prediction. We have made progress (and still have progress to make) in both, but there is a third avenue that I began to find extremely worthwhile during these profiles: personality. We are working from the most basic of play-by-play data, but we can certainly do quite a bit with it.

Here are a couple of examples:

From this, we quickly learn the following: A) Oklahoma threw a disproportionally high amount of the time on passing downs under then-offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, making Landry Jones' passing line (7.7 yards per pass, 66-percent completion rate, 38 TD, 12 INT) even more impressive. B) Their pace was, as was typical for Wilson's OU offenses, astronomical. C) With the variability measure, we see that they were reasonably similar in their tendencies, no matter the field position or scoring margin.

Combine that with what we knew from Oklahoma's other stats -- 52nd in Rushing S&P+, 90th in Adj. Line Yards, 20th in Passing Downs S&P+ -- and we get a pretty clear picture. Oklahoma wanted to establish the run on standard downs, but they weren't very good at it (thanks mostly to their offensive line) and relied on Jones, Ryan Broyles and a strong passing game to bail them out. It worked most of the time, but one can see why this formula failed to produce enough on the road at Missouri and Texas A&M.

With this chart, we get the impression that opponents knew they couldn't run on South Carolina, so they didn't really try. Any success opponents thought they could have was going to come through the air. We also see that whatever pass rush the Gamecocks generated, it didn't necessarily come on passing downs, and that S.C. went after the ball (forced fumbles, passes defensed) quite well.

The Gamecocks' stats back this up. They ranked third in Rushing S&P+ and just 20th in Passing S&P+ -- they were good against the aerial game, but obviously not as good. End Devin Taylor broke up eight passes, and four different returning defensive backs defensed at least five passes.

The footprint is a nice complement to the rankings we have developed. It gives us a certain amount of the "how" behind the numbers, and I hope it continues to develop as an interesting tool.

Adj. Score Also Has Potential

Toward the start of each profile, I charted out each team's Adj. Scores to look for interesting trends. I went into detail about Adj. Score here. (NOTE: In that column, I was looking just at non-garbage time plays. After some consideration, I changed that to look at all plays, just to give a more accurate representation of all 60 minutes. For this measure, that seemed like the right move.)

For instance, we see that Oregon's defense was incredible early on, then began to show cracks just as their offense began to surge. Meanwhile, after they got drubbed by Oregon, Stanford was perhaps the best team in the country, and it wasn't really that close.

Really, the biggest issue right now with Adj. Score is that I am not sure I have explained it well enough. Here's another attempt: Adj. Score attempts to tell you how a team would have done against a perfectly average opponent, getting a perfectly average number of breaks, each week. If two very good teams play each other, the odds are good that they will both end up with an Adjusted Win because they both played good enough to beat an average team. Meanwhile, if two bad teams play poorly against each other, one will get the win, but neither are likely to get an Adjusted Win because they couldn't beat an average opponent. It is a great measure for observing trends, and that's how I used it in these profiles.

Utah Is Going to Win the Pac-12 South

USC is the best team in the division, and they are ineligible for the title. Arizona is replacing all five starters on the offensive line. Colorado and UCLA are nowhere near ready to challenge for a division title. That leaves Utah and Arizona State. Look at the schedules for these two teams and Arizona.

Arizona: at Arizona State, Utah, at USC, Oregon, Stanford
Arizona State: Arizona, at Utah, USC, at Oregon, no Stanford
Utah: at Arizona, Arizona State, at USC, no Oregon, no Stanford

The Utes get ASU at home and avoid both Oregon and Stanford. This is why they are projected to tie for the Pac-12 South title in Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 despite a lower projected ranking. When you throw in a simply incredible number offseason injuries for the Sun Devils, it feels right to give a huge edge to the conference newbies, the Utes.

(For now, we'll ignore how unimpressive they looked last night.)

Michigan Is a Big Ten Sleeper

Here's one of my favorite charts from the series. It is a look at two different teams and their F/+ performances over the last four years.

Team A is the Kentucky Wildcats. Team B? The Michigan Wolverines. Not to go cliche on you, but the mighty, they have fallen. But they made one hell of an offseason hire. Brady Hoke has turned around two mid-major programs -- it took him just two years to turn around a dour San Diego State squad -- and his new defensive coordinator, Greg Mattison, inherits a defense that almost literally cannot be worse than they were last year. If their experiment with Denard Robinson, Pro-Style Quarterback, does not end in disaster, then a simply mediocre defense will make the Wolverines strong in a hurry. They avoid Wisconsin and Penn State from the other division, and they get Nebraska at home. That's enough for me to go all-in on the Michigan bandwagon. The Legends Division could potentially become a four-team logjam between Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan State, and the Wolverines could very well be a major sleeper in the race.

Oklahoma State's Schedule Is a Doozy

Oklahoma State is getting a lot of pretty deserved hype this year, and they get Oklahoma at home to finish the season. That could signal that this fall's Bedlam battle will be the biggest ever. But ... the 'Pokes go on the road to face almost every other good conference team: Texas A&M, Missouri, Texas and Texas Tech. That is brutal, and it will be a major hindrance. If OSU wins the Big 12 this year, they'll have really, really earned it.

The Florida State Hype Is Legitimate

Football Outsiders' projections are perhaps best at locating the paper tigers: the teams who are being given too much credit, too quickly. This year's major "too much, too soon" candidate is obvious: Texas A&M. The Aggies played like a top 40 team for the first half of the 2010 season and a top 20 team over the last half. Now they start 2011 as a top 10 team. They will be good, but they might not be that good. The Florida State Seminoles, on the other hand, have the profile to live up to the hype. Their base of talent (i.e. five-year recruiting ranking) is as strong as anybody's, and last year's surge to the ACC title game wasn't actually much of a surge.

FSU's four-year F/+ average ranks them in the top 25; they've finished in the top 30 in each of the last three years, and last year's "surge" only took them from 29th to 15th. The major difference was, before 2010, this was certainly a "whole is less than the sum of its parts" situation. The foundation has always been rather strong.

Whether the 'Noles can get past what might be an undefeated Virginia Tech team in the ACC title game is a different story. But this is going to be a damn good team.

This Is An Enormous Year for TCU

TCU has performed at a Top-Five level in recent years, and with a move to the Big East coming next year, they will be getting a lot more attention this season. In theory, that's good; Gary Patterson has done an unbelievable job in Fort Worth, and he deserves all the commendation he gets. One problem: the Horned Frogs return just eight total starters, four on each side of the ball, and they must replace both quarterback Andy Dalton and four offensive line starters, including Rimington Award-winning center Jake Kirkpatrick. The defense will be good because, well, Gary Patterson doesn't put a bad defense on the field, but the offense could regress enough to lead to an early slip-up on the road. TCU plays Baylor, Air Force and San Diego State over the first half of the season, then heads to Boise State in November. That's a lot to ask of such a young team.

Manny Diaz Is an Accidental Friend of Football Outsiders

The new Texas defensive coordinator did some amazing things at Middle Tennessee and Mississippi State in recent years, and evidently he's a fan of PPP+, or so he told Bruce Feldman. We see you, Coach.

We Have Not Escaped the '80s

Remember all those crazy stories of guns and drugs from places like Oklahoma and Miami in the 1980s? It was easy to think we had somewhat moved past that. At least, it was until Yahoo! investigative journalist Charles Robinson started digging. His story on the drugs-and-yachts-and-abortions saga at The U was incredible. Discouraging, somewhat depressing, and incredible.

The NCAA Is Becoming the NFL's Minor Leagues

The NFL got a lot of polite claps for the way they have decided to enforce Terrelle Pryor's NCAA suspension. Personally, that is rather terrifying. If we want to have any shot of returning some sort of perceived amateurism to college football, then we have to a) disconnect the NCAA from the NFL as much as possible and b) give players a more direct path to professional opportunities so that they aren't forced to go to college just to eventually make the pro ranks. Granted, the CFL exists and should be utilized. That would help. But while we're figuring out how to move in one direction, the NFL's treatment of Pryor took us very far in the other.

My Wife Is Awesome

She sat patiently while I cranked out profile after profile this summer, and she produced this right in the middle of the window between the final profile and the season's kickoff. She wins.

Projected 2011 S&P+ Rankings

Just so people can see the entire picture of how we came about developing our F/+ projections, here are the S&P+ projections that matched Brian Fremeau's FEI data. These have not been updated to account for recent suspensions, injuries, etc. I just ran out of time on that one.

Rk Team Proj. S&P+ Rk Team Proj. S&P+
1 Alabama 247.4 61 San Diego State 204.5
2 Boise State 243.2 62 Kansas State 204.3
3 Oklahoma 239.3 63 Air Force 204.0
4 Auburn 238.6 64 N.C. State 203.5
5 TCU 237.3 65 Minnesota 203.2
6 Arkansas 233.5 66 UCLA 202.6
7 South Carolina 232.9 67 Colorado 202.5
8 Stanford 232.9 68 SMU 202.4
9 Oregon 231.5 69 Troy 201.9
10 Virginia Tech 231.0 70 Connecticut 201.6
11 Florida State 230.5 71 Virginia 201.4
12 Oklahoma State 229.8 72 Houston 200.5
13 LSU 229.3 73 Northwestern 200.1
14 Wisconsin 228.1 74 Fresno State 198.9
15 Notre Dame 228.0 75 Syracuse 196.9
16 Florida 227.4 76 Toledo 196.9
17 Missouri 226.0 77 Florida International 196.3
18 Michigan 225.3 78 Rutgers 196.0
19 Georgia 224.5 79 Duke 195.4
20 Miami 224.4 80 Iowa State 195.3
Rk Team Proj. S&P+ Rk Team Proj. S&P+
21 Ohio State 224.3 81 Indiana 195.1
22 USC 223.4 82 UAB 194.9
23 Texas A&M 223.3 83 Louisiana Tech 194.8
24 West Virginia 223.2 84 Purdue 194.2
25 Pittsburgh 222.8 85 Western Michigan 193.8
26 Nebraska 221.2 86 Arkansas State 193.5
27 Iowa 219.2 87 Wake Forest 193.1
28 Clemson 219.2 88 Temple 192.6
29 Michigan State 218.4 89 Miami (Ohio) 190.6
30 Utah 218.3 90 Ohio 190.2
31 Arizona 218.0 91 Marshall 189.9
32 Penn State 216.9 92 Central Michigan 189.6
33 Oregon State 216.8 93 Wyoming 189.0
34 Nevada 215.2 94 Vanderbilt 187.4
35 Mississippi State 214.5 95 Washington State 186.6
36 Texas 213.7 96 Kent State 186.4
37 Navy 213.6 97 Army 186.4
38 Arizona State 213.3 98 Kansas 186.1
39 Maryland 213.2 99 Rice 185.8
40 Tennessee 213.2 100 North Texas 185.2
Rk Team Proj. S&P+ Rk Team Proj. S&P+
41 Illinois 213.1 101 Utah State 185.2
42 BYU 211.9 102 San Jose State 184.2
43 Cincinnati 211.6 103 UL-Monroe 183.9
44 Texas Tech 211.4 104 Idaho 183.5
45 North Carolina 211.1 105 Colorado State 183.2
46 Washington 210.6 106 Middle Tennessee 183.0
47 Kentucky 210.3 107 Tulane 182.1
48 Ole Miss 210.2 108 UTEP 181.5
49 Baylor 209.5 109 Florida Atlantic 181.3
50 Central Florida 208.5 110 UL-Lafayette 179.8
51 California 207.7 111 UNLV 179.8
52 South Florida 206.9 112 Western Kentucky 179.6
53 Louisville 206.6 113 Eastern Michigan 178.8
54 Hawaii 206.5 114 Bowling Green 178.5
55 Boston College 206.5 115 Ball State 178.0
56 Georgia Tech 206.2 116 Memphis 177.1
57 East Carolina 205.8 117 Akron 175.8
58 Southern Miss 205.2 118 New Mexico 172.7
59 Northern Illinois 205.2 119 Buffalo 172.5
60 Tulsa 205.0 120 New Mexico State 166.8

I cannot tell you how happy I was to see actual football on my hospital television last night. Here's to a damn good season, one that doesn't end with "We'll fondly look back at this brilliant game when Vacated beat Vacated, 22-19" jokes like last year.

Posted by: Bill Connelly on 02 Sep 2011

14 comments, Last at 04 Sep 2011, 6:35pm by Dales

Comments

1
by Marcus (not verified) :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 1:23pm

Regarding the Miami scandal: Why would anybody have thought we'd moved past behavior like that? The money involved in college football is bigger than ever, the recruiting is even more competitive, and the big punishment designed to scare people into complying with the rules--the Death Penalty--was essentially taken off the table because it did its job too well with SMU. Based on the punishments handed down over the past several years, there's no reason not to cheat if you're so inclined. Assuming you actually get caught, maybe you lose a few scholarships and bowl games for a couple years. Small price to pay if you can grab a national title or two and maybe a Heisman Trophy winner.

Random bit of nothing that probably only would occur to me: If you're building a chart with two teams and you know they are Michigan and Kentucky, why wouldn't you just have the key include the names instead of calling them Team A and Team B?

5
by Bill Connelly :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 2:28pm

I pulled the Michigan-Kentucky graph straight from the Michigan profile; didn't figure there was any reason to change it up before repurposing it.

2
by bird jam :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 1:25pm

I bet I could project more accurate 2010 rankings than that.

4
by Bill Connelly :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 2:27pm

Yeah, fixed. I have trouble making my brain accept that another year has passed, but ... it's been eight months, so ... no excuses, eh?

3
by Marcus (not verified) :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 1:31pm

"If we want to have any shot of returning some sort of perceived amateurism to college football..."

Who is "we"? Are there college fans really concerned about the state of affairs? Maybe a few, but I think most are just enjoying the games which are really good. And pro fans don't care at all. If anything, they may see it helping their sport if college is more of a farm system. And the NCAA is raking in dough over how things are now, so they're not going to kill the golden goose. (Just look at how slowly they've moved over the years to penalize schools that don't graduate players. That's easy to track and seems pretty central to the idea of college, but they don't do anything about it at all.)

7
by sundown (not verified) :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 7:15pm

I think big time college sports are completely eating away at the ideals colleges are built around. They create a privileged class that isn't expected to actually learn or earn degrees which they throw away the moment their eligibility has run out. In some ways they actively work to keep these guys from excelling in school because that gets in the way of their sport. And the way they make millions off these guys is shameful, imo. But you are right that there is no sense of urgency to fixing things. I see the problem but still watch the games. I bet plenty others don't even see the problem.

Cheating is tolerated. When's the last time a successful coach had his career ended by a rules violations? You get at least a couple chances, sometimes more if you win enough. Schools have no problem stealing coaches away from each other and you never see anybody force a coach to honor his contract. Meanwhile, players have to sit out a year if they want to transfer. And to make matters all the worse, declining budgets are causing many of the big conference schools to become dependent on the TV money being generated by sports, so they're going to be even less inclined to clean things up.

12
by Anon (not verified) :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 9:40pm

I somewhat agree with the "professional path to the NFL", but I'm not so sure about the role the CFL could have in it.

I mean, some players were able to do the transition quite well (Cameron Wake, Jeff Garcia, Doug Flutie if you are a Bill's Flutie Fan) but those players first went to college in the USA, using USA football rules and USA football fields. Kids learning the game might have major difficulties adjusting from 3 downs and short, wide fields to the game we are accoustumed here. I mean, we see rookies give up on plays after taking a knee on the ground every year...

I'd say the best they can do is come up with a minor league system, like baseball does (which, coincidentally, has the least problems with the NCAA among the Big 3 college sports). Upgrading the UFL, for instance, they might reach a bigger audience.

13
by Bill Connelly :: Sat, 09/03/2011 - 9:53am

Yeah, I only mentioned the CFL because it is technically an option, not because it's a great option. I agree, though, that some sort of developmental league would be the perfect solution, though I don't know how feasible that is. They could certainly attempt to swallow up the UFL, and I wouldn't complain. The goal, though, is simply to provide kids a path to the pros without forcing them to go to college.

6
by Dennis :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 6:25pm

"I have always thought there were two primary uses for college football stats: evaluation and prediction."

Isn't that true of all sports statistics?

9
by Bill Connelly :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 9:06pm

Pretty much ... though I only really care about one sport in particular. :-)

8
by Salur (not verified) :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 7:50pm

I don't have anything productive to say here, but I just wanted to say that all of the profiles were awesome, and thanks a ton for doing them. Great work.

10
by Bill Connelly :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 9:07pm

Thanks!

11
by Jeff H. (not verified) :: Fri, 09/02/2011 - 9:28pm

Bill, amazing work. Simply amazing. I love seeing the individual numbers, but I'd never put them together (mentally) the way you have here. Analysis like what you posted about Oklahoma -- that could open entire new avenues of how we view the game.

14
by Dales :: Sun, 09/04/2011 - 6:35pm

If we want to have any shot of returning some sort of perceived amateurism to college football

Perceived amateurism might be possible.

Amateurism in any meaningful fashion, not so much.