After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
11 Oct 2013
by Bill Connelly
The seventh week of the college football season is a landmark of sorts for Football Outsiders. After seven weeks, the preseason projections are completely flushed out of the formulas, plus you get expanded numbers for both FEI (offense, defense, special teams, field position advantage) and S&P+ (drive efficiency data).
With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to take stock in where we stand currently.
Around this time last year, FEI and S&P+ were agreeing on quite a bit. Alabama was No. 1 in both measures, and thanks to a significant lead in S&P+, the Tide were an easy No. 1 in F/+ as well. And in all, seven of the teams in the FEI top 10 were also in the S&P+ top 10. There were some oddities -- Kansas State (FEI No. 3, S&P+ No. 26), Oregon State (FEI No. 5, S&P+ No. 25), Michigan (S&P+ No. 9, FEI No. 47), Georgia (S&P+ No. 20, FEI No. 42) -- but most of the names at or near the top were similar.
At first glance, it appears to be a different story this year. The top three teams according to S&P+ (Baylor, Florida State, and Florida) rank 17th, 13th, and 15th, respectively, according to FEI. Meanwhile, three top FEI teams (No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 4 Missouri, No. 5 UCLA) are seeing less S&P+ respect (No. 17, No. 18, and No. 24, respectively).
So what gives? And how in the world is Baylor, No. 17 in one of the two measures that combine to make F/+, No. 1 overall in F/+?
Part of the answer lies in standard deviations. The standard deviation for S&P+ ratings this time last year was 31.1; this year, without Alabama (350.8 after six weeks) skewing things up and a lot of dead weight skewing things down (10 teams had overall ratings below 160.0 in 2012; only four do in 2013), it's 26.4. To make sure everything is carrying equal weight, the F/+ ratings are based on teams' performance versus the standard deviation for both S&P+ and FEI. So with fewer teams separating themselves at the top and bottom in S&P+, the F/+ ratings are more compressed, too.
Let's illustrate this a different way. This time last year, a plus-27.7 percent rating would have ranked ninth in the F/+ rankings; in 2013, it's good enough for first place. In 2012, the difference between No. 3 Oregon (plus-36.7 percent) and No. 10 LSU (plus-22.8 percent) after six weeks was 13.9 percent. This year, the difference between No. 3 Florida State (plus-26.1 percent) and No. 10 Georgia (plus-19.6 percent) is 6.5 percent. The cream has not yet risen in 2013, and for all we know, it might not.
So basically, Baylor is No. 1 in F/+ right now because of a ridiculously dominant offense, a competent/capable defense, and the simple fact that the distance between first in S&P+ and 17th in FEI isn't that great. It's the same thing for Florida, really. Baylor's Off. S&P+ rating of 175.7 is 25.8 points higher than that of No. 3 Texas A&M, and Florida's Def. S&P+ rating of 171.2 is 32.3 points higher than that of No. 3 Virginia Tech. In a year that has seen minimal separation thus far, these teams have broken S&P+, so to speak, with incredible dominance on one side of the ball (and general competence on the other).
Because of this minimal separation, one particularly poor game from either of these units (Baylor's offense, Florida's defense) could cause a pretty impressive drop in rankings; you don't have to fall far to fall far, if you get what I'm saying. This goes double when it comes to Baylor, which has sent games into garbage time in record time. Somehow, entering Week 7 of the college football season, Baylor's offense has only been on the field for 99 plays while the game was considered "close" (within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 in the second, 21 in the third, and 16 in the fourth). Part of that, of course, is because the Bears have only played four games while other teams have played five or six; the other part of that is that they don't waste a single second.
Game 1 (vs. Wofford): Baylor was up 28-0 after 13 minutes, and the game was no longer "close" at the start of the second quarter.
Game 2 (vs. Buffalo): Buffalo actually scored twice in the first quarter, but the game was still no longer in "close" range with 7:11 left in the half, when Baylor went up, 42-13.
Game 3 (vs. ULM): Baylor landed two pick sixes in the first 13 minutes of the game, and the game was no longer "close" when quarterback Bryce Petty scored from two yards out to give the Bears a 35-0 lead with 2:13 left in the first quarter.
Game 4 (vs. West Virginia): Glasco Martin scored 20 seconds into the second quarter to put Baylor up, 35-7.
No, Baylor's four opponents have not been elite, or anything close to it. Of course not. But first, I've always maintained (with stats on my side) that how you perform against lesser teams says as much about you as how you perform against good ones. Every game has a baseline for performance; against bad teams, you have to blow them out to prove something, but you can still prove something.
Second, just compare what Baylor has done against these teams to what others have done.
Wofford. The Terriers have not played another FBS team this year, but they rank 12th in the FCS polls and took down Georgia Southern a few weeks ago. In all, Wofford is part of the top tier of FCS, one that has featured quite a few impressive wins this season. No. 13 South Dakota State led Nebraska after one quarter. No. 10 Fordham beat Temple. No. 9 McNeese State destroyed South Florida. No. 7 Montana State blew a late lead and lost by one point to SMU. No. 6 Eastern Washington beat Oregon State. No. 4 Northern Iowa beat Iowa State. No. 3 Towson whipped UConn. And No. 1 North Dakota State beat Kansas State. Elite FBS teams are obviously supposed to beat these teams with relative ease; but "relative ease" is not "lead 38-0 at halftime and cruise, 69-3."
Buffalo. Buffalo actually stayed pretty close to Ohio State for a while, trailing just 23-13 midway through the second quarter. The Bulls have outscored UConn and Eastern Michigan 83-26 in the last two weeks and have moved up to No. 78 in the F/+ rankings. No, 78th is nothing amazing; but 78th is also higher than 80th (N.C. State), 81st (North Carolina), and 83rd (Syracuse). And I'm assuming people would be relatively impressed if Baylor led UNC, 56-13, at halftime.
ULM. UL-Monroe has been a very disappointing team in 2013. I thought the Warhawks should emerge as a Sun Belt contender, but instead, the Warhawks are 2-4 overall, 0-1 in Sun Belt play (after a 21-point home loss to Western Kentucky), and 112th in the F/+ rankings. That's not good. Still, they trailed Oklahoma by just 13 points (13-0) at halftime in Norman to start the season. They trailed Baylor by 35 after 13 minutes.
West Virginia. Without Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey, WVU was projected to be all sorts of mediocre this season, and in that sense, the Mountaineers have not disappointed. They are a perfectly average 3-3 with an almost perfectly average F/+ ranking of 65th. They looked awful in falling to Maryland, 37-0 (it was 30-0 at halftime), but they balanced that out with a solid showing at Oklahoma (16-7 Sooners) and with a home upset of Oklahoma State (30-21). Granted, the OSU win was more "OSU shooting itself in the foot every 30 seconds for the entire game," but at the very least, it proved that WVU can play average ball. And average teams aren't supposed to allow 56 points and more than 600 yards in one half of football like the Mountaineers did against Baylor.
Through four games, Baylor has been absurdly, ridiculously good on offense, and for the minimal time that a game was actually in doubt, the Bears' defense has sufficed as well. Even while taking into account the level of competition, I have no problem justifying Baylor at No. 1. But due to the minimal close-game sample size, it wouldn't take much for the Bears to fall from that perch. If Kansas State, for instance, were to hang around a while with Baylor in Manhattan this weekend -- and now would certainly be a good time to point out that Baylor has lost nine of its last 10 Big 12 road games, and its one win (31-30 over Kansas in 2011) was terribly unimpressive -- I wouldn't be surprised if BU were to fall four or five spots at least. Or if this offense, which is traveling at about 125 miles per hour right now, were to slow down to mortal levels due to injuries or simple "Holy crap, nobody can keep this up, right?" regression, then S&P+ and FEI might quickly come to agree about Art Briles' squad.
That said, if you're an AP voter still sticking Baylor in the teens for one reason or another, shame on you. And if you're just a general skeptic rolling your eyes at Baylor's competition or sticking the Bears in the same camp as West Virginia last year, don't. This could change at any moment, but what Baylor has done to date is completely and totally legitimate, and the Bears are much, much more sturdily built than West Virginia was last season.
As for the whole "S&P+ and FEI are disagreeing" thing, the correlation between S&P+ and FEI ratings is currently at 0.847. This time last year, it was 0.803. There might be a little more disagreement at the top, but most of that comes from the rankings, not the ratings. That's what happens when teams are more bunched together, as they are in S&P+.
There will still be movement, by the way. This time last year, Texas Tech had climbed to an improbable fifth in the F/+ rankings, bolstered by strong ratings in both S&P+ (fourth) and FEI (10th). But the defense crumbled over the last half of the season, and so did the Red Raiders' rankings. They finished 45th. Teams like Iowa State (from 14th to 55th), Iowa (from 16th to 72nd), and Tennessee (from 32nd to 57th) also fell a long way. In all, though, the shakeup was minimal. Eight of the top 10 teams after six weeks were in the top 10 when the season ended, and of the teams in the season-ending top 20, only two moved up more than 10 spots between Week 7 and the end of the season (Georgia moved from 21st to sixth, Oklahoma State moved from 28th to 12th). So while we can question some of the teams in lofty positions (No. 1 Baylor, No. 4 Florida, No. 8 Miami, No. 12 Missouri), most of them are going to stay close to where they currently are. Meanwhile, most of the teams that are perhaps surprisingly low in the rankings (No. 16 Ohio State, No. 18 Clemson, No. 20 Texas A&M, No. 28 South Carolina) probably aren't going to move too far up in the coming weeks.