Varsity Numbers Takes on the Hosses

Varsity Numbers Takes on the Hosses
Varsity Numbers Takes on the Hosses
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bill Connelly

In the last Varsity Numbers column, we took a look at what some of the staple VN measures -- particularly EqPts, Points Per Play, and PPP+ -- could tell us about individual running backs' performances. Today we look at the faceless entity known as the offensive line. How do some of the core Football Outsiders measures translate to college numbers?

At the broadest level, the pro side of FO looks at Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate to gauge line play. We can do basically the same thing at the college level. Predictable disclaimers apply, of course: Both Line Yards and Sack Rates are muddied a bit by the talent at hand. Certain running styles may lead to more lost yardage that isn't completely the line's fault, while some quarterbacks are more susceptible to sacks than others -- either they are completely immobile, or they wait too long for a receiver to come open. On the other hand, a more elusive quarterback can bail his line out of trouble. Clearly these measures aren't perfect, but they are an excellent place to start.

Line Yards+

First, we'll take a look at Line Yards. Since this is Varsity Numbers and everything comes back to the "+" concept, our main method of evaluating collegiate line play will be the Line Yards+ measure. For VN newbies, the "+" is the comparison of all output to an expected output based on a team's opponents. For any "+" numbers, 100 is average, over 100 is good, and under 100 is bad. In terms of line yards, the "+" is determined simply by taking a team's line yardage output and comparing it to what would have been expected based on the defenses against which the carries came.

So without further adieu, let's take a look at the best run-blocking offensive lines in the country:

Offensive Line Rankings, Line Yards+
LY+ Rk Team LY+ LY/Carry LY/C Rk Ret. Starts
in 2009*
1 Florida 139.4 3.34 17 51
2 Alabama 130.8 3.26 23 50
3 Texas Tech 130.4 3.54 3 52
4 Penn State 130.1 3.52 4 39
5 Oklahoma 127.0 3.56 2 29
6 Iowa 123.8 3.43 8 98
7 Wisconsin 119.7 3.35 15 49
8 Syracuse 119.5 3.29 21 45
9 USC 119.5 3.34 18 91
10 Oregon 119.4 3.35 16 20
LY+ Rk Team LY+ LY/Carry LY/C Rk Ret. Starts
in 2009*
11 West Virginia 117.8 3.08 36 25
12 Ohio State 116.8 3.08 37 62
13 Stanford 116.6 3.00 48 53
14 Memphis 116.4 3.37 14 18
15 Nevada 116.3 3.66 1 62
16 Georgia Tech 116.1 2.99 49 55
17 N.C. State 116.1 2.87 61 45
18 UAB 115.2 3.38 13 107
19 Kansas 115.0 3.12 31 26
20 Cincinnati 114.0 3.01 46 64
* Most of the rankings in today's column refer to one of the more talked-about college football articles of the offseason, the Wall Street Journal's look at offensive line experience.

OK, we'll go ahead and point out the elephant in the room. Syracuse??? That's right. Of all the problems Syracuse had in 2008, run blocking was apparently not one of them. Beyond the Orange, the top ten is relatively predictable. You've got two run-heavy SEC teams at the top and three Big Ten lines in the top ten as well. Texas Tech and Oklahoma took advantage of opposing defenses that were on their heels and wary of the pass to open up large rushing lanes, and out west, Oregon and USC's lines were both highly touted and highly productive.

The Returning Starts measure is an interesting one. Like Returning Starters, it does not even remotely tell the whole story -- a team returning four of five starters, or 80 career starts, will look pretty magnificent in the offseason, but if the line simply wasn't very good, or if the one lost starter was an All-American, then the positive numbers are leaving out some important details. Regardless, it is, like Line Yards+ and Sack Rate+, a good place to start.

And what do Returning Starts tell us here? First of all, they tell us that Penn State and Oklahoma took some pretty big hits here in the offseason, as did Oregon, West Virginia, Memphis, and Kansas. Meanwhile, Iowa and USC (and to a lesser, non-BCS extent, UAB) are loaded with both quality and experience. Depending on how much weight we give the Returning Starts measure, the Hawkeyes and Trojans could have the top two run-blocking lines in the country heading into the 2009 season.

Adjusted POE

So if we can use Line Yards+ to say, for instance, that the average Florida rush could have produced 39.4 percent more output than average based on what the line produced, then does that mean we could use this figure to adjust our POE totals from the last column? Let's take a look.

We last defined POE as follows:

POE = EqPts - Expected EqPts

If we multiplied the Expected EqPts by a factor of LY+ (meaning, if Florida's LY+ was 139.4, then we would multiply the expected EqPts for the rusher by 1.394), then here are the new leaders of a line-adjusted figure we'll call Adjusted POE (AdjPOE).

Adjusted POE Rankings
Player Team AdjPOE AdjPPP+ Raw
1 Jahvid Best California +41.3 167.1 1 0
2 LeGarrette Blount Oregon +31.4 164.1 3 +1
3 Jonathan Dwyer Georgia Tech +27.9 142.4 4 +1
4 LeSean McCoy Pittsburgh +26.8 131.5 13 +9
5 Shun White Navy +24.7 155.1 10 +5
6 Jeremiah Johnson Oregon +23.8 141.3 6 0
7 Chris Brown Oklahoma +23.1 129.8 7 0
8 Kendall Hunter Oklahoma State +22.3 124.6 5 -3
9 Knowshon Moreno Georgia +22.3 130.1 8 -1
10 Charles Scott LSU +21.8 131.9 11 +1
Player Team AdjPOE AdjPPP+ Raw
11 Derrick Washington Missouri +21.6 134.2 14 +3
12 Shonn Greene Iowa +20.6 118.6 2 -10
13 Donald Brown Connecticut +20.4 118.1 12 -1
14 Brandon Minor Michigan +18.3 174.3 26 +12
15 Jeffrey Demps Florida +16.9 158.1 16 +1
16 Evan Royster Penn State +16.8 124.7 9 -7
17 Roy Helu, Jr. Nebraska +15.0 137.1 28 +11
18 Javon Ringer Michigan State +14.6 114.5 137 +119
19 Phillip Tanner Middle Tennessee +14.6 131.3 130 +111
20 Roddy Jones Georgia Tech +14.3 152.8 23 +3

The top names mostly don't change, though Iowa's Shonn Greene takes a hit for running behind one of the nation's best lines. New Philadelphia Eagle LeSean McCoy gets bumped into the top five, while other top runners like Kendall Hunter and Evan Royster take a small hit, but further down the list, there were some pretty significant movers.

Biggest Rise in the Rankings from POE to AdjPOE

  • 1. Yonus Davis, San Jose State: +161 (251st to 90th)
  • 2. Javon Ringer, Michigan State: +119 (137th to 18th)
  • 3. Brandon Rutley, San Jose State: +117 (184th to 67th)
  • 4. Phillip Tanner, Middle Tennessee: +111 (130th to 19th)
  • 5. Marquell Colston, New Mexico State: +84 (160th to 76th)

Apparently San Jose State's offensive line was absolutely brutal. Who knew? Meanwhile, the biggest name on the rising list is Javon Ringer, who was described thusly in the last Varsity Numbers:

Ringer was fourth in the country in rushing yards last year, but where did he stack up in POE? A whopping 137th, between Ball State backup Cory Sykes and Colorado backup Demetrius Sumler. Ringer's 390 carries merited a POE of -0.3, meaning an average college running back would have put up exactly what he did in 390 carries. While there is certainly skill (or at least good genes) involved in managing 30 carries per game without breaking down, it is unlikely that the skills Ringer possesses will in any way translate to pro success.

For now, hold that thought on Ringer. With more years of college-to-pro data, we can look at what would be a bigger predictor of NFL success -- POE or AdjPOE -- but in the meantime, the line-adjusted data does suggest that Ringer might have more to offer than, say, Cory Sykes and Demetrius Sumler.

Biggest Fall in the Rankings from POE to AdjPOE

  • 1. P.J. Hill, Wisconsin: -143 (68th to 211th)
  • 2. Curtis Steele, Memphis: -127 (114th to 241st)
  • 3. Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State: -116 (100th to 216th)
  • 4. Jake Sharp, Kansas: -105 (93rd to 198th)
  • 5. Shannon Woods, Texas Tech: -98 (64th to 162nd)

Pretty sure Oregon fans are probably enjoying these rankings columns more than Oregon State fans. The line adjustment pokes some pretty big holes in the numbers of a couple of well-renowned rushers -- P.J. Hill, who declared for the NFL draft but wasn't selected, and Jacquizz Rodgers, Oregon State's Javon-Ringer-in-Darren-Sproles'-body rusher who helped Oregon State to the brink of a Pac-10 title last year as a freshman. He may not have hurt the Beavers' chances, but AdjPOE suggests he didn't help them a whole lot either.

Sack Rate+

Moving on to pass blocking, we will take a look at a simple figure called Sack Rate+ (SkRt+). It is the same output-versus-expected-out measure as any of the other "+" numbers.

Included also in the table below is a measure called, in familiar fashion, Adjusted Sack Rate. It does not take expected output into account, but it does balance out pass attempts that came on Standard Downs and Passing Downs (it is, literally, an average of the sack rates from Standard Downs and Passing Downs). The idea was to avoid punishing or rewarding a team that was particularly bad or good at run blocking and affecting the team's pass blocking numbers. Adjusted Sack Rate balances the two just in case a team faced a lot more or fewer Standard Downs or Passing Downs than average.

The pass blocking numbers brought a lot more midmajors to the table:

Offensive Line Rankings, Sack Rate+
SkRt+ Rk Offense SkRt+ Adj. SkRt Adj.
SkRt Rk
Ret. Starts
in 2009
1 Texas Tech 334.9 2.5% 2 52
2 Oklahoma 266.0 2.6% 3 29
3 Boise State 233.1 2.9% 5 40
4 Boston College 204.6 3.1% 8 80
5 Western Michigan 202.8 3.0% 7 70
6 Kentucky 191.5 2.8% 4 83
7 Kansas State 186.0 3.5% 12 57
8 Florida 184.1 4.7% 35 51
9 UNLV 178.8 4.1% 21 61
10 Eastern Michigan 178.7 4.0% 20 78
SkRt+ Rk Offense SkRt+ Adj. SkRt Adj.
SkRt Rk
Ret. Starts
in 2009
11 Troy 173.2 2.2% 1 54
12 Florida Atlantic 173.1 3.2% 10 30
13 Marshall 171.1 3.5% 13 61
14 Virginia 170.8 3.6% 14 68
15 Oregon State 169.0 4.4% 31 37
16 Missouri 167.9 2.9% 6 56
17 Rice 164.1 5.4% 50 31
18 Penn State 163.1 3.2% 9 39
19 Miami (Ohio) 159.1 3.9% 18 N/A*
20 Middle Tennessee 158.3 3.6% 15 99
* Miami (Ohio) did not have this data available. They do, however, return three of five starters from 2008, for what that is worth.

Not surprisingly, Texas Tech and Oklahoma possessed the best two pass blocking lines in the country. What is a surprise, however, was just how much better Texas Tech's unit was than everybody else. Third-place Boise State's SkRt+ was much closer to Middle Tennessee's (20th) than to Texas Tech's. Only Oklahoma had a SkRt+ within 100 of Tech's.

Looking at Returning Starts figures again, you do see that there is a ray of hope for Boston College in 2009. Despite the offseason coaching drama, and the departure of basically all experience from the quarterbacking position, the winner of the quarterback battle next month will at least be protected by a talented, experienced unit of pass blockers. A good line makes breaking in a new quarterback infinitely easier. It appears that a good line will be one of Kentucky's bigger assets as well.

In case you were keeping score, here were the lines that finished in the nation's Top 20 in both Line Yards+ and Sack Rate+: Texas Tech (3rd in LY+, 1st in SkRt+), Oklahoma (5th, 2nd), Florida (1st, 8th), and Penn State (4th, 18th). Tech and Florida return a reasonable amount of experience here in 2009, while Oklahoma and PSU are lagging behind a bit in that department.

Overall Offensive Line Rankings

So if we have nice, sturdy measurements for both run blocking and pass blocking, can't we combine them to come up with some decent overall OL rankings? Yes and no. Yes, we can, and we will. No, we can't simply add the two numbers (LY+, SkRt+), for one simple reason: Did you see the volatility involved with SkRt+? Whereas just about every LY+ figure in the country fell between 140 and 70, the SkRt+ figure's range was between 40 and 335. To rank the two, we need to more evenly weight the two categories. With that in mind, here is a rough "OL+" figure that more evenly weights LY+ and SkRt+ to come up with an overall rating and ranking:

Overall Offensive Line Rankings
OL Rk Team LY+ LY+ Rk SkRt+ SkRt+ Rk OL+ Ret. Starts
in 2009
1 Texas Tech 130.4 3 334.9 1 154.3 52
2 Oklahoma 127.0 5 266.0 2 141.2 29
3 Florida 139.4 1 184.1 8 133.7 51
4 Penn State 130.1 4 163.1 18 125.6 39
5 Boston College 104.0 56 204.6 4 119.5 80
6 Oregon 119.5 9 149.6 23 118.1 20
7 USC 119.5 9 149.6 23 118.0 91
8 Missouri 112.3 25 167.9 16 117.5 56
9 Boise State 89.4 105 233.1 3 116.9 40
10 Oregon State 108.8 37 169.0 15 115.9 37
OL Rk Team LY+ LY+ Rk SkRt+ SkRt+ Rk OL+ Ret. Starts
in 2009
11 Memphis 116.4 14 143.5 29 115.4 18
12 Rice 108.7 39 164.1 17 115.1 31
13 Kansas State 100.6 62 186.0 7 114.6 57
14 Kentucky 97.4 75 191.5 6 114.0 83
15 Western Michigan 92.4 93 202.8 5 113.4 70
16 Georgia 111.5 27 143.7 28 113.0 99
17 Oklahoma State 110.2 30 147.1 26 113.0 86
18 Troy 101.1 61 173.2 11 112.8 54
19 Alabama 130.8 2 83.3 85 112.6 50
20 BYU 111.8 26 138.9 32 112.4 22

And for fun, here are the five worst BCS conference offensive lines according to OL+ (rankings are out of the 120 teams in the FBS subdivision):

  • 120. Washington State (78.3)
  • 113. Arizona State (88.8)
  • 112. Texas A&M (90.6)
  • 110. Minnesota (90.9)
  • 106. UCLA (92.9)

As we've seen thus far, Washington State was pretty awful in every single positional category. They really did make a case for being one of the worst BCS-level teams ever. But they won the Apple Cup and didn't finish winless, so that "honor" will go to others.

Anyway, Oklahoma and Texas Tech had by far the two strongest offensive lines in the country, further accentuating just how much of a risky venture it was for Sam Bradford to return to Norman for his junior season. Needless to say, with just one returning starter on the line, Bradford will be having to scramble and improvise a bit more in 2009, which could be great for his overall skill set and potentially bad for his draft stock (though "bad" in this case could just mean a fall to later in the draft's overall top ten).

Again, a team like Boston College or Kentucky could be deceptively good this season if they can get decent skill position production behind stalwart offensive lines. Meanwhile, teams like Oregon, Memphis, and BYU have some work to do to build back the fortresses they fielded in 2008.


What is great about line play figures is that they can be used to evaluate both offensive and defensive lines. In the next Varsity Numbers, we'll take a look at defensive line rankings and the strongest returning individual performers for 2009.


3 comments, Last at 30 Jul 2009, 11:41am

#1 by Pete (not verified) // Jul 28, 2009 - 4:44pm

Any chance you could include "athletes", such as Percy Harvin, with the Running Backs when considered for running plays?

Tebow is obviously more like a fullback (he is far more likely to run over defenders rather than leave them in his dust) and could be compared against fullbacks for running plays... although is that even a recognized difference here?

What about individual linemen? Will losing X starts from player #61 matter more or less than losing Y starts from player #72? For the pro-level are sacks/tackles for a loss recognized errors for OL? Offsides?

Points: 0

#2 by Scott C // Jul 29, 2009 - 2:14am

Sack rate, depends a lot on the QB and the scheme. Of course, a spread offense will look pretty good in that metric, especially with a QB capable of getting rid of the ball quickly and with some decent pocket presence.

Its not possible to do with the data at hand, but the length of time between the snap and the throw / sack might be more useful for breaking it down to identify better pass blocking teams. At this point in the pros and ncaa, adj sack rate doesn't tell you that much about pass blocking since that is too intertwined with the passer's ability to avoid sacks. But it does tell you about how good a D is at getting to a passer.

Points: 0

#3 by Mike (not verified) // Jul 30, 2009 - 11:41am

Good stuff.

Varsity numbers is my favorite FO feature.

Points: 0

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