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» 2017 ALEX: Midseason Report

The latest ALEX update looks at the recent draft class that is struggling, the unusual Chicago strategy, and what's gotten into Alex Smith? We also looked at Tyrod Taylor's declining ALEX, but rising conversion rate that Buffalo just sent to the bench.

26 Sep 2014

Varsity Numbers: Little Things, Inc.

by Bill Connelly

Those waiting for ESPN to dip further into the world of college football analytics got a nice boost today when Insider's Dean Oliver and Hank Gargiulo, after working with Washington head coach Chris Petersen, published a "Six Factors" of sorts for the sport. The list, which includes box score items like rushing yards, turnovers, etc., was intended to give coaches something to point out to their players in reference to "Why did we win/lose this game?"

With an eye to Oliver's Four Factors for basketball, I came up with my own list of factors this past January, things that aren't directly tied to the everyday box score: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers. It is a bit more of an abstract list, for better and for worse, but I've spent time here and there trying to flesh out and untangle each of those factors from the others. For instance, I've taken to using what I call IsoPPP instead of my go-to PPP measure; it isolates the explosiveness of only a team's "successful" plays, therefore giving you a way to strip apart efficiency from explosiveness. I broke field position and drive finishing into individual components as well.

There's still work to be done in this regard. Stripping apart the controllable and not-so-controllable aspects of turnovers has been a chore; plus, once I've set up a longer list of components, the goal changes to how best to use this information for evaluating football teams, projecting games and seasons, etc. This has been my version of Writing a Novel—it has been an eight-month process, there is a lot of work still to do, and I'm not sure I'll ever actually finish. But it has been an educational process.

Four weeks into the season, I thought it would be interesting to check in on a couple of these factors, the prototypical Little Things of the list: field position and finishing drives. I wrote a chapter about these in my book, Study Hall, and they remain both pertinent and somewhat ignored. Who is doing these little things right to date?

First, field position. My work at Football Study Hall basically boiled the field position battle down to turnovers, team efficiency, kicks, and punts. Turnovers tend to flip field position, sometimes drastically; efficiency tells us how far teams advance the ball before giving it to opponents; and kicks and punts obviously finish the field position job. And as was the case last year, Stanford is once again mastering the art of field position in 2014.

(Note: Drive data below comes from the data provided by CFBstats.com and Sports Source Analytics.)

Team Avg. Starting FP (Off.) Rk Avg. Starting FP (Def.) Rk FP Margin Rk
Stanford 41.6 1 18.9 1 22.7 1
Georgia 38.1 3 22.6 4 15.5 2
Memphis 36.7 8 21.3 2 15.4 3
Temple 37.7 4 23.9 9 13.8 4
Ohio State 36.2 11 23.4 6 12.8 5
TCU 36.9 6 24.2 11 12.7 6
Duke 35.3 17 22.7 5 12.6 7
Baylor 39.8 2 28.0 51 11.8 8
Michigan State 37.6 5 26.2 31 11.4 9
Utah 33.7 29 22.5 3 11.2 10
Pittsburgh 36.7 9 26.2 28 10.5 11
Akron 34.3 22 23.8 7 10.5 12
Maryland 35.6 15 25.9 19 9.7 13
Virginia 36.0 12 26.7 37 9.3 14
Miami 36.8 7 27.7 49 9.1 15
Washington 34.0 24 25.1 17 8.8 16
North Carolina 35.0 19 26.5 34 8.5 17
Kansas State 35.4 16 26.8 38 8.5 18
N.C. State 32.2 45 23.9 10 8.3 19
LSU 32.1 49 23.9 8 8.2 20
Northwestern 35.0 20 26.9 39 8.1 21
Texas A&M 33.4 30 25.5 18 7.9 22
Florida 36.4 10 28.7 65 7.7 23
UTEP 31.7 51 24.2 12 7.5 24
Arkansas 33.7 27 26.2 30 7.5 25
Team Avg. Starting FP (Off.) Rk Avg. Starting FP (Def.) Rk FP Margin Rk
Mississippi State 32.4 42 25.1 16 7.3 26
Oregon State 35.1 18 28.2 57 6.9 27
BYU 33.7 28 27.2 42 6.5 28
Georgia Southern 32.3 43 25.9 21 6.4 29
Notre Dame 33.8 26 27.5 46 6.4 30
UAB 32.1 47 25.9 20 6.3 31
Purdue 35.8 14 29.9 79 5.9 32
Appalachian State 34.3 23 28.5 62 5.8 33
UTSA 33.0 37 27.3 45 5.7 34
Air Force 30.3 70 24.6 13 5.7 35
Marshall 33.3 34 27.7 48 5.6 36
Hawaii 32.2 46 26.6 35 5.6 37
Arizona State 31.6 52 26.1 24 5.5 38
Tennessee 33.4 31 28.0 52 5.4 39
Minnesota 34.8 21 29.5 75 5.3 40
Indiana 31.3 56 26.3 32 5.0 41
Kansas 33.3 33 28.4 59 4.9 42
Arizona 29.7 78 24.9 14 4.7 43
Army 33.9 25 29.3 71 4.6 44
Central Florida 36.0 13 31.5 107 4.5 45
Nebraska 30.5 65 26.1 26 4.4 46
Auburn 32.8 39 28.5 61 4.3 47
UNLV 29.3 84 25.0 15 4.3 48
Kentucky 32.4 41 28.2 54 4.3 49
Missouri 30.4 67 26.4 33 3.9 50
Team Avg. Starting FP (Off.) Rk Avg. Starting FP (Def.) Rk FP Margin Rk
Oklahoma 30.9 61 27.1 41 3.8 51
Wisconsin 31.3 55 27.5 47 3.8 52
Arkansas State 33.2 35 29.4 72 3.8 53
West Virginia 30.2 71 26.6 36 3.6 54
Ole Miss 29.5 81 26.1 25 3.4 55
Oregon 29.3 83 25.9 22 3.4 56
Utah State 33.3 32 30.4 92 2.9 57
Florida Atlantic 30.5 64 27.7 50 2.8 58
North Texas 32.9 38 30.4 90 2.6 59
Iowa 28.4 94 25.9 23 2.4 60
Georgia Tech 30.5 63 28.2 55 2.3 61
UL-Lafayette 29.5 80 27.2 44 2.3 62
Rutgers 32.1 48 30.0 83 2.1 63
South Florida 32.2 44 30.1 88 2.1 64
Houston 33.1 36 31.4 104 1.7 65
Oklahoma State 31.5 53 30.0 84 1.5 66
Alabama 28.3 96 27.2 43 1.1 67
Penn State 30.3 68 29.2 70 1.1 68
Illinois 31.0 60 29.9 81 1.1 69
Cincinnati 31.5 54 30.5 93 1.1 70
East Carolina 29.7 76 28.8 66 0.9 71
California 31.9 50 31.3 101 0.7 72
Vanderbilt 31.2 58 30.7 95 0.5 73
Texas State 30.0 73 29.5 76 0.5 74
Boston College 30.9 62 30.4 91 0.5 75
Team Avg. Starting FP (Off.) Rk Avg. Starting FP (Def.) Rk FP Margin Rk
Washington State 28.7 90 28.3 58 0.5 76
San Diego State 28.3 98 28.1 53 0.3 77
Ball State 28.6 92 28.6 63 0.0 78
Toledo 28.4 93 28.4 60 0.0 79
Boise State 28.8 89 29.2 69 -0.4 80
Navy 26.0 116 27.0 40 -0.9 81
Central Michigan 30.3 69 31.3 102 -1.0 82
Western Kentucky 31.2 57 32.4 115 -1.1 83
USC 30.1 72 31.4 105 -1.3 84
Old Dominion 28.3 97 29.6 77 -1.3 85
Michigan 29.5 79 31.0 97 -1.4 86
Florida State 28.6 91 30.1 86 -1.5 87
Louisiana Tech 31.1 59 32.6 116 -1.5 88
Buffalo 30.4 66 32.0 113 -1.6 89
Syracuse 28.2 100 29.8 78 -1.7 90
Massachusetts 29.8 74 31.5 108 -1.7 91
New Mexico State 28.0 101 29.9 80 -1.9 92
Western Michigan 29.0 87 31.0 96 -2.0 93
UCLA 24.2 125 26.2 29 -2.0 94
UL-Monroe 26.9 111 29.0 68 -2.1 95
Tulsa 27.3 108 29.5 74 -2.2 96
Florida International 32.6 40 34.7 122 -2.2 97
Colorado State 23.8 126 26.2 27 -2.4 98
South Carolina 27.7 103 30.1 87 -2.4 99
Virginia Tech 29.2 85 31.6 110 -2.5 100
Team Avg. Starting FP (Off.) Rk Avg. Starting FP (Def.) Rk FP Margin Rk
Nevada 25.9 118 28.7 64 -2.7 101
Connecticut 27.6 104 30.5 94 -2.8 102
Ohio 26.0 115 28.9 67 -2.9 103
Texas 28.8 88 31.9 112 -3.0 104
Clemson 28.4 95 31.5 106 -3.1 105
Texas Tech 26.4 113 29.5 73 -3.1 106
Southern Miss 27.4 107 31.1 100 -3.7 107
Iowa State 24.5 124 28.2 56 -3.8 108
Bowling Green 27.6 105 31.4 103 -3.8 109
Idaho 28.3 99 32.2 114 -3.9 110
South Alabama 27.2 110 31.6 109 -4.5 111
Fresno State 27.3 109 31.8 111 -4.5 112
Colorado 25.5 120 30.3 89 -4.8 113
Northern Illinois 25.0 121 29.9 82 -4.9 114
Middle Tennessee 29.5 82 34.5 121 -5.0 115
New Mexico 27.7 102 32.8 117 -5.1 116
Rice 24.9 122 30.1 85 -5.2 117
Tulane 29.7 75 35.1 123 -5.4 118
Louisville 29.7 77 35.9 126 -6.2 119
Miami (Ohio) 29.1 86 35.6 124 -6.5 120
Wyoming 24.5 123 31.1 98 -6.6 121
Troy 26.0 117 33.1 118 -7.1 122
Kent State 23.7 127 31.1 99 -7.4 123
Wake Forest 25.8 119 33.3 119 -7.4 124
Georgia State 26.3 114 33.9 120 -7.6 125
Eastern Michigan 26.9 112 35.8 125 -8.9 126
San Jose State 27.5 106 38.1 127 -10.6 127
SMU 23.5 128 42.2 128 -18.8 128

You don't see many bad teams near the top of this list or good teams near the bottom. Some exceptions:

  • Memphis and Temple are currently third and fourth, though that really shouldn't be a surprise. Both have been better than projected so far, coming in 70th and 80th, respectively, in the current F/+ rankings. The Tigers nearly took down UCLA in Week 2, while Temple destroyed Vanderbilt in Week 1.
  • Akron was semi-competitive against Akron and whipped Howard (for what that's worth), and while the F/+ rankings don't really reflect too much improvement, field position hasn't hurt.
  • Virginia is up to 50th in the F/+ rankings and has looked genuinely competitive after cratering in 2013; outdoing opposition by 9 yards of field position per possession hasn't hurt.
  • San Jose State hasn't been terrible, whipping North Dakota, hanging with Minnesota, and ripping off some big plays (while losing big) against Auburn. But field position has been a massive deterrent for success.
  • Louisville has handled Miami, Murray State, and FIU so far this year, but Bobby Petrino's Cardinals slipped up against Virginia. Wonder why? Average starting field position: UVA 46, Louisville 22. Guh.

What about finishing drives? Anybody who watched Week 4 upset bids by Kansas State (against Auburn) or Clemson (against Florida State) fall short because of ridiculous troubles in the red zone can tell you how much of a difference this can make.

You can basically boil drive-finishing ability down to explosiveness, red zone success, overall efficiency (again), and field-goal kicking. Which teams are tripping themselves up, or getting a leg ahead, in this regard?

Here's a list of teams and their ability to both score and prevent scores on scoring opportunities. (I am defining "scoring opportunities" as drives that include a first down from inside the opponent's 40 or a touchdown from outside the opponent's 40.)

Team Pts. Per Opportunity (Off.) Rk Pts. Per Opportunity (De.) Rk Opportunity Margin Rk
Texas A&M 6.0 7 2.5 2 3.5 1
Louisville 6.3 2 3.2 9 3.2 2
Oregon 6.3 3 3.1 8 3.1 3
Auburn 5.9 10 2.8 5 3.1 4
Notre Dame 5.0 55 2.4 1 2.6 5
Temple 5.7 19 3.2 10 2.5 6
Duke 5.1 48 2.7 3 2.4 7
Ole Miss 5.5 28 3.1 7 2.4 8
North Texas 7.0 1 4.7 64 2.4 9
Cincinnati 5.9 8 3.6 23 2.3 10
Oklahoma 5.8 16 3.5 19 2.3 11
Maryland 5.9 11 3.7 25 2.2 12
Missouri 6.1 5 4.0 30 2.1 13
Mississippi State 5.3 35 3.3 14 2.0 14
Wake Forest 5.8 15 3.9 28 1.9 15
USC 4.8 66 3.0 6 1.8 16
Georgia Tech 6.0 6 4.3 45 1.8 17
Minnesota 5.1 46 3.4 16 1.8 18
BYU 5.2 43 3.4 18 1.8 19
Baylor 5.6 23 3.9 27 1.7 20
Marshall 4.9 59 3.3 11 1.7 21
Alabama 4.9 58 3.3 13 1.6 22
LSU 5.8 18 4.1 39 1.6 23
Utah 6.1 4 4.6 63 1.5 24
Nevada 5.0 52 3.5 21 1.5 25
Team Pts. Per Opportunity (Off.) Rk Pts. Per Opportunity (De.) Rk Opportunity Margin Rk
Kentucky 4.7 70 3.3 15 1.4 26
Virginia Tech 4.8 69 3.4 17 1.4 27
Florida State 4.9 64 3.5 22 1.3 28
Georgia 5.8 13 4.5 57 1.3 29
Georgia Southern 5.5 24 4.3 47 1.3 30
Arizona State 5.9 12 4.7 65 1.2 31
Washington 5.5 28 4.4 52 1.1 32
Penn State 3.9 109 2.8 4 1.1 33
California 5.2 38 4.1 39 1.1 34
Colorado State 5.2 40 4.2 41 1.0 35
N.C. State 5.4 33 4.4 50 1.0 36
Wisconsin 5.4 32 4.4 51 1.0 37
Texas State 5.8 17 4.8 76 0.9 38
Middle Tennessee 5.2 37 4.3 48 0.9 39
Boise State 4.9 60 4.0 36 0.8 40
UTEP 4.7 74 3.9 29 0.8 41
Air Force 5.5 26 4.7 67 0.8 42
Louisiana Tech 5.5 25 4.8 69 0.8 43
Texas 4.8 68 4.0 32 0.8 44
Iowa State 5.6 20 4.9 81 0.8 45
Nebraska 5.5 27 4.8 71 0.8 46
East Carolina 4.9 57 4.3 45 0.7 47
Arkansas 5.9 9 5.2 99 0.7 48
Houston 4.2 97 3.5 20 0.7 49
Stanford 3.8 113 3.3 11 0.5 50
Team Pts. Per Opportunity (Off.) Rk Pts. Per Opportunity (De.) Rk Opportunity Margin Rk
Oregon State 4.1 100 3.6 24 0.5 51
Bowling Green 5.2 39 4.8 68 0.5 52
Northwestern 4.5 83 4.1 37 0.4 53
Oklahoma State 5.0 54 4.6 58 0.4 54
Western Michigan 5.6 20 5.3 101 0.3 55
North Carolina 5.8 14 5.5 107 0.3 56
Old Dominion 5.1 50 4.8 69 0.3 57
South Carolina 5.4 31 5.1 92 0.3 58
Rutgers 4.3 94 4.0 32 0.3 59
Western Kentucky 5.2 41 4.9 83 0.3 60
Pittsburgh 5.1 47 4.9 84 0.2 61
Florida 4.7 75 4.5 55 0.2 62
Colorado 5.2 45 5.0 86 0.2 63
UCLA 5.6 22 5.5 109 0.1 64
Ball State 3.9 107 3.8 26 0.1 65
Syracuse 4.6 79 4.5 55 0.1 66
Idaho 4.6 77 4.6 59 0.1 67
Iowa 4.0 103 4.0 32 0.0 68
Texas Tech 5.3 36 5.2 100 0.0 69
Memphis 5.4 34 5.4 103 0.0 70
New Mexico 4.7 72 4.8 74 0.0 71
UTSA 3.9 106 4.0 32 -0.1 72
Arkansas State 3.9 108 4.0 31 -0.1 73
Washington State 4.4 86 4.6 60 -0.2 74
Michigan 4.6 80 4.8 71 -0.2 75
Team Pts. Per Opportunity (Off.) Rk Pts. Per Opportunity (De.) Rk Opportunity Margin Rk
Illinois 5.5 30 5.7 115 -0.2 76
Fresno State 5.0 52 5.2 95 -0.2 77
Central Florida 4.2 99 4.4 53 -0.3 78
Eastern Michigan 4.8 66 5.1 91 -0.3 79
Army 4.9 63 5.2 93 -0.3 80
Purdue 4.2 98 4.6 61 -0.4 81
Utah State 4.0 104 4.5 54 -0.4 82
New Mexico State 5.0 51 5.5 108 -0.5 83
San Jose State 4.4 84 4.9 82 -0.5 84
South Florida 5.1 48 5.6 114 -0.5 85
Florida International 3.7 114 4.2 44 -0.5 86
Vanderbilt 4.9 61 5.4 104 -0.5 87
Ohio State 4.7 76 5.2 95 -0.5 88
Ohio 3.5 119 4.1 38 -0.6 89
Wyoming 3.6 117 4.2 42 -0.6 90
Indiana 4.2 96 4.8 78 -0.6 91
Buffalo 5.2 44 5.8 118 -0.6 92
Tennessee 4.3 92 5.0 87 -0.7 93
UAB 4.7 71 5.5 105 -0.7 94
Clemson 4.6 78 5.4 102 -0.7 95
Arizona 4.4 85 5.2 94 -0.8 96
UL-Lafayette 4.9 56 5.8 117 -0.8 97
Miami 4.3 89 5.2 98 -0.9 98
Navy 4.1 101 5.0 87 -0.9 99
UNLV 4.1 102 5.0 87 -0.9 100
Team Pts. Per Opportunity (Off.) Rk Pts. Per Opportunity (De.) Rk Opportunity Margin Rk
Michigan State 5.2 42 6.1 126 -0.9 101
Florida Atlantic 3.8 111 4.7 66 -0.9 102
Kent State 3.9 109 4.8 77 -1.0 103
Boston College 4.2 95 5.2 95 -1.0 104
Georgia State 4.8 65 5.9 121 -1.0 105
Central Michigan 3.6 118 4.6 62 -1.1 106
Appalachian State 4.5 81 5.6 113 -1.1 107
San Diego State 4.0 105 5.1 90 -1.1 108
Massachusetts 4.4 88 5.5 106 -1.1 109
Toledo 4.9 62 6.0 124 -1.1 110
West Virginia 4.5 81 5.8 116 -1.2 111
Northern Illinois 4.7 72 5.9 122 -1.2 112
Akron 2.9 126 4.3 49 -1.4 113
Kansas State 4.4 87 5.8 120 -1.4 114
Tulane 3.3 121 4.8 73 -1.4 115
South Alabama 2.7 127 4.2 43 -1.6 116
Rice 4.3 93 6.0 123 -1.6 117
Miami (Ohio) 3.1 123 4.8 74 -1.7 118
Virginia 4.3 91 6.1 125 -1.7 119
Tulsa 3.7 115 5.5 111 -1.9 120
Kansas 3.1 124 4.9 85 -1.9 121
Southern Miss 3.0 125 4.9 79 -1.9 122
UL-Monroe 3.4 120 5.5 109 -2.1 123
Troy 3.6 116 5.8 119 -2.2 124
Hawaii 3.1 122 5.6 112 -2.4 125
Connecticut 3.8 112 6.2 127 -2.5 126
TCU 4.3 90 7.0 128 -2.7 127
SMU 1.7 128 4.9 80 -3.2 128

Poor SMU. Not only have the Mustangs been awful on both offense and defense (especially the former), but they have also been the worst Little Things team in the country, ranking last in both Field Position margin and Finishing Drives margin. Matt Hinton checked in on the Mustangs this week for Grantland; they're still hopeful, but their struggles have been so comprehensive to date that it's hard to imagine any sort of serious rally this year.

(Meanwhile, one probably shouldn't worry about Michigan State just yet. The Spartans have allowed just 21 points in games not against Oregon, and all three of those touchdowns came in the second half of blowouts. So basically, State has proven only that it can't stop Oregon very well near the goal line. There are worse crimes in the world than that.)

New Queries and Fat Fingers

A quick note: a reader pointed out to me that some of my Success Rate numbers looked off this year, a few percentage points lower than any previous year. I thought they seemed a little bit low, but it was quite a bit lower, so I looked into the queries ... and found that I was missing an "=" in my queries. I had to redesign my databases this summer because of a change in the way data was collected, and in doing so, I was accidentally requiring that "successful" plays gain more than 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, etc. It was asking for "greater than" instead of "greater than or equal to." It's the little things that get you, man.

Anyway, the success rate data on the Offensive and Defensive S&P+ pages) was, therefore, artificially low. The proper numbers will be reflected in next week's data.

This Week at SB Nation

Monday
Alabama QB Blake Sims is awesome at his job ... and so is his offensive coordinator

Tuesday
The Numerical, Week 4: Ameer Abdullah's incredible start and more big stats
Indiana 31, Missouri 27: Beyond the box score

Wednesday
Projecting the Big Ten's conference race using advanced stats
Week 4 advanced box scores

Thursday
The four big keys in Arkansas-Texas A&M, a potential styles-make-fights classic
Week 5 F/+ picks

Friday
UCLA looks explosive and ready for a run thanks to blowout win
Missouri at South Carolina preview: Line play and quarterbacks should tell the tale

Posted by: Bill Connelly on 26 Sep 2014

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