Varsity Numbers: The Teams They Leave Behind
by Bill Connelly
Back in 2005, organizers of the re-imagined Lollapalooza festival held a nice, two-day event in Chicago's Grant Park. It was successful enough that they felt they could draw the acts and attention needed to expand the event to a full, three-day affair. Sure enough, it was a major success. Acts like the Flaming Lips, Kanye West, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers brought people to the lovely park in droves. (Included in the crowd: yours truly.) Draw it out to three days, and you get some dead spots where everyone sits around bored, but the three-day festival has quickly become a big annual happening in Chicago. As long as the organizers continue to bring great acts to the park, it will continue to be successful in its extended format.
The three-day version of the NFL Draft is pretty similar. It is exhausting, and we do not enjoy ourselves 100 percent of the time, but as long as we continue to be entertained by acts like Gerald McCoy's "teary-eyed bear hug" (great fun for all involved ... like The Flaming Lips) and "I can't believe they actually sent Jeremy Schaap to Tim Tebow's house" (more ambitious than entertaining, and a bit embarrassing to boot ... like Lady Gaga), we will lap up every second of the three-day April event.
Football analysts right now are discussing the NFL Draft's winners and losers, and most are justifiably talking about NFL teams and players. Very few are talking about what impact the draft will have on 2010's college football teams. The New York Times' The Quad blog had a lovely thing going with its "The Impact" series, but I wanted to use this column space to explore what we can learn about the impact losing players in the NFL Draft will have on the teams they've left behind.
Draft Points and Projections Data
When we are thinking about how a college football team will change from year to year, we tend to go straight for either one or two questions: 1) How many starters do they return, and maybe, 2) How much talent did they lose to the draft? While we tend to think of draft losses as a bad thing, it can signify as much good as bad. The more players of yours that are drafted, the more talent you are proving you can develop, and the more talent you will probably attract in the near future. (Nothing brings in recruits like "I will get you to the pros." Just ask John Calipari.) Looking at draft data, therefore, is quite the balancing act. It's bad that you lose significantly talented players -- even if you recruit well, there's no guarantee the incoming 5-star freshmen (say, Joe McKnight) are as good as the outgoing 5-star juniors/seniors (say, Reggie Bush) -- but it's good that you got them there in the first place. As we say often in the college analysis here at Football Outsiders, the best predictor of future success is past success.
To look at the overall impact of the draft on a given season's projections, we need to define "talent lost." Is it too easy to look at total picks lost? If you lose three players in the seventh round, clearly that won't have as much of an impact as losing three first-rounders, right?
We are going to define talent lost by doing what nerds always do in a situation like this: create a points system, of course! The concept of Draft Points isn't going to be a carbon copy of the Draft Trade Value Chart (that was the first attempt, but it overvalued early-round picks and didn't hold strong correlations). After much experimenting, here was the formula that held the highest correlation to success in the following season:
* Top-10 Pick = 13 points
* Rest of First Round = 12
* Second Round = 9.5
* Third Round = 8.5
* Fourth Round = 7.5
* Fifth Round = 4.5
* Sixth Round = 3.5
* Seventh Round = 2.5
As mentioned above, the Draft Trade Value Chart gave too much value to the top picks. When you've got 120 FBS teams and 11 conferences, even late-round picks from small schools were probably highly valuable to their college teams. The above Draft Points scale gives them a more proportional value.
You would expect that draft data would hold at least a decent correlation to the future season's success, but here's something you may not have expected: Using draft points and total picks lost, you can derive almost as much about a team's success in the upcoming season as you can looking at returning starter data.
Here are some correlations for you: On offense, returning starter data holds a 0.36 correlation to improvement or regression the following season. Draft Points holds a 0.33 correlation. On defense, returning starters hold a 0.27 correlation; Draft Points, 0.22. For a change factor, these are rather strong numbers. More concrete, stable values like 5-year data and recruiting rankings hold correlations in the 0.6s and 0.7s, and they do not change much from year to year. But complementary factors like returning starters and draft data will absolutely play a role in FO's 2010 projections, if a more minor one.
Others might wonder why the correlations aren't even stronger. Two main reasons: 1) There are enough differences between college and pro styles of football that simply being successful at the college level doesn't promise pro success or, more importantly, high draft status. 2) The draft can be used almost as much as a sign of strength instead of a sign of soon-to-be weakness. As we will see, the teams that lose the most to the draft are the ones most likely to lose the most to the draft again in the near future.
The Impact on Offense
It is interesting to note that talent lost, in terms of both starters and draftees, tends to have a more consistently strong impact on offenses than it does on defenses. This somewhat advances my ongoing theory that talent matters more on offense, and coaching matters more on defense (and that constantly complaining about play-calling to explain offensive woes is the world's biggest waste of time ... next to arguing about politics, anyway).
Below is a look at the teams at the top of the meter since the 2003 Draft -- teams that lost the absolute most in a given year. It is important to note that the years associated with different college teams below are the years following the draft. So you need to read this like "The 2006 USC team had to cope with the recent loss of 70 Draft Points on offense" instead of "The 2006 USC team lost 70 points to the draft the next season."
Top 10 Draft Points Lost Since 2003 -- Offense
1. USC 2006 (70)
2. Oklahoma 2005 (46)
3. Ohio State 2007 (45)
4. Oklahoma 2010 (43)*
5. Ohio State 2004 (42)
6. North Carolina 2009 (39)
7. USC 2008 (38)
8. Auburn 2005 (38)
9. Michigan 2008 (37)
10. LSU 2007 (37)
*Sam Bradford was, of course, lost for most of the 2009 season already, and Jermaine Gresham didn't play a down, so incorporating their loss into the 2010 draft totals is a bit misleading as it pertains to 2010 projections. OU's offensive F/+ performance regressed by a staggering 36.7 percent last year, and it is unlikely to regress too much more in 2010. Adjustments will be made before these losses are taken into account in our 2010 projections.
The question that comes to mind when looking at the above list is, how much did the production of the above teams change the following season? To define improvement/regression, we are going to use F/+ data where possible (F/+ data now exists for the 2005-09 seasons, and we will explore some of that data over the summer), and Estimated S&P+ data (derived from points scored and allowed) where F/+ data does not exist (i.e. 2003-04). The percentage changes referenced below are in terms of a team's F/+ (or S&P+) production on offense and defense.
Of the nine teams on the above list (not including Oklahoma), six regressed the season after the draft, four by double digits. The only ones that didn't: Auburn 2005 improved by 7 percent, LSU 2007 improved by 17 percent, and USC 2008 improved by 19 percent.
Whereas Ohio State 2004 (-3.6 percent) basically broke even, and the damage for Ohio State 2007 was minimal (-7.5 percent), the others saw significant regression. USC 2006, which lost much more talent than any other team on the list (Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, LenDale White, Dominique Byrd, plus a fullback and lineman), regressed by 18.8 percent, as did North Carolina 2009 without receivers Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate, and tight end Richard Quinn. Michigan 2008 (-14.9 percent), with the loss of eight starters and 37 draft points, not to mention the addition of a new head coach, tumbled pretty drastically as well.
With the unique circumstances surrounding Oklahoma's draft "loss," are there any teams in danger of serious regression in 2010? Here are the top 10 teams in terms of offensive draft points lost in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Top 10 Draft Points Lost to 2010 Draft - Offense
1. Oklahoma (43, or 18 if we don't count Bradford and Gresham)
2. Florida (36)
3. USC (29)
4. Oklahoma State (28, or 16 if we don't count Dez Bryant)
5. Tennessee (26)
5. Notre Dame (26)
7. Iowa (23)
7. Illinois (23)
9. Clemson (21)
10. Ole Miss (18)
Florida is in a bit of a danger zone. Their 36 draft points lost tie them for 11th overall since 2003. The average change of the 10 teams surrounding them on the list (five above, five below), is -4.4 percent. Three of those 10 teams regressed by double digits. Beyond that, no team lost more than 30 points. Some of other teams on the list could regress a bit, but the danger of a precipitous fall isn't as high as Florida's. That is good news for a team like Illinois, whose offense was pretty bad already, despite the decent talent.
The Impact on Defense
Top Ten Points Lost Since 2003 - Defense
1. USC 2009 (65)
2. Ohio State 2006 (63)
3. Florida State 2006 (58)
4. Miami 2004 (54)
5. Florida 2007 (54)
6. Ohio State 2004 (53)
7. USC 2008 (52)
8. Miami 2006 (51)
9. Florida 2010 (50)
10. Alabama 2010 (49)
When we discuss USC's precipitous fall from the top of the rankings in 2009, it certainly bears noting that they lost more talent to the draft than any team in the last seven seasons.
As a whole, the eight teams above this year's iterations of Florida and Alabama regressed by an average of 11.2 percent. Seven of eight tumbled (only USC 2008 improved, and that was by just 0.9 percent), with three dropping by at least 13 percent. USC 2009 regressed by a startling 25.1 percent, Florida 2007 by 19.1 percent, and Florida State 2006 by 13.7 percent.
Even though "talent factory" teams like USC, Ohio State, and Miami show up multiple times on this list, that does not change the fact that teams losing a boatload of talent to the draft still tend to regress a decent amount the following season. Even if it is just temporary regression, it is still regression. Of the 25 teams since 2003 who have lost at least 32 Draft Points, 17 saw their production fall the next year by an average of 7 percent. Miami 2003 (45 points lost) skews the averages quite a bit -- they managed to improve by 24 percent. Meanwhile, Ohio State 2009 (43 points) improved by 10 percent and Tennessee 2007 (33) improved by 9 percent. Remove these three relative outliers from the equation, and the remaining 22 teams regressed by an average of 10 percent.
So if 32 points is a pretty accurate cut-off point for "likely regression," who is affected in 2010?
Top 10 Draft Points Lost to 2010 Draft - Defense
1. Florida (50)
2. Alabama (49)
3. Texas (39)
4. Penn State (33)
4. South Florida (33)
6. USC (26)
6. Iowa (26)
6. Georgia (26)
9. Oklahoma (25)
9. Tennessee (25)
9. Nebraska (25)
It is pretty easy to see how Florida was such a heavy favorite heading into the 2009 season. As we will see below, their combined 86 draft points is one of the highest totals in recent years, and the highest for a team not named Ohio State or USC. They will be trotting out a host of new faces when their season starts in September against mighty Miami of Ohio.
The major question for Alabama's title defense in 2010 will be how quickly their newer batches of star recruits can fill the holes left by players like linebacker Rolando McClain, corners Kareem Jackson, Javier Arenas, and Marquis Johnson (that's right, they even had a backup drafted) and defensive tackles Mount Cody and Brandon Deaderick. They have all the talent (and coaching acumen) in the world at their disposal, but new pieces still sometimes take a while to settle into place.
It also bears mentioning that Skip Holtz might have a little rebuilding to do in his first season at South Florida. Luckily his offense returns quite a few cogs.
Just for fun, here is the list of the top Draft Point totals in a single draft. You may think you know the top team on the list (starts with "Southern," ends with "Cal"), but you are incorrect.
Top 10 Draft Points Lost -- Overall
1. Ohio State 2004 (95)
2. Ohio State 2006 (94)
3. USC 2008 (90)
4. USC 2006 (90)
5. USC 2009 (87)
6. Florida 2010 (86)
7. Oklahoma 2005 (86)
8. Miami 2004 (82)
9. Miami 2006 (77)
10. Florida State 2006 (74)
This list does nothing to dispel the notion that college football is one giant oligarchy, with a well-defined ruling class that tends to refuse new members too often.
And here is this year's list:
Total Draft Points Lost to 2010 Draft - Overall
1. Florida (86)
2. Oklahoma (68 -- 43 without Bradford and Gresham)
3. Alabama (58)
4. Texas (56)
5. USC (55)
6. Tennessee (51)
7. Iowa (49)
8. Penn State (40)
9. LSU (39)
10. South Florida (36)
10. Georgia Tech (36)
The Big 12 made waves by nabbing five of the top six slots in the draft, and understandably so. But in the end, four SEC teams made the top nine of the Points Lost list, and that gives them a bit of chest-pounding assistance as well (not that they needed any).
The Draft and 2010
To see what kind of impact draft points data and returning starter data will have on the overall projections, let's isolate each factor to see what projections would look like if we took only these two factors into account, and nothing else. To determine this information, two sets of regression equations were set up: one for the six automatic-bid BCS conferences, and one for the other conferences. Each set of teams is impacted in a different way by these factors. At the non-BCS level, experience and talent lost tend to matter more because non-BCS teams, not surprisingly, tend to have much worse depth. So the data you see below takes that extra impact into account.
|Top Projected Offensive F/+ Decreases
(Using just Returning Starters and Draft Points data)
|7||Colorado State||Mountain West||+2.0%||57||2||4||-3.1%|
|8||Florida Atlantic||Sun Belt||+8.7%||40||4||4||-3.1%|
As the above table shows, regression equations tend to produce rather conservative data,. Chances are, at least half of the teams on the above list are going to regress by well more than 4 percent, but the occasional outliers tend to tamp down the overall projections quite a bit.
Other teams of note that finish pretty high (low?) on the projected change list: Illinois (65th in 2009, projected change: -3.0 percent), Mississippi (35th, -2.5 percent), Texas (13th, -2.4 percent), Arizona State (99th, -2.0 pecent).
Now let's look at the offenses atop the 2009 F/+ rankings and their projected 2009-to-2010 change.
|Projected Change for 2009's Top 10 F/+ Offenses
The 2010 season could be a pretty fun one from an offensive perspective. Of the top 10 teams above, only two are projected to decrease by more than 1.8 percent. There are certainly some losses to account for -- Georgia Tech loses Demaryius Thomas and Jonathan Dwyer, Cincinnati loses Mardy Gilyard and Tony Pike, Stanford loses Toby Gerhart -- but the losses appear at least somewhat manageable. Obviously there is some turmoil in Oregon that is not yet quelled (Jeremiah Masoli was suspended for the season, and we have yet to see how this winter's drama will impact star back LaMichael James), but they still have quite a few strong pieces in place. In all, 12 of last year's F/+ top 20 return at least seven starters, and 17 return at least six.
Now, to defense.
|Top Projected Defensive F/+ Decreases
(Using just Returning Starters and Draft Points data)
|2||South Florida||Big East||+14.2%||31||4||33||-4.0%|
|6||East Carolina||Conference USA||+11.7%||36||3||12||-3.0%|
|8||Penn State||Big Ten||+41.0%||8||5||33||-2.6%|
As mentioned above, Alabama has to replace quite a bit of talent and experience on the defensive side of the ball. We are all assuming they will do just fine with the next batch of studs, but ... they really did lose a lot. They will almost certainly still be atop the 2010 Projected F/+ list this summer, but they are not a total slam-dunk.
Meanwhile, Tim Brewster's Golden Gophers look to be on precarious ground on the defensive side of the ball. They weren't great last year, and they have to replace quite a few starters.
|Projected Change for 2009's Top 10 F/+ Defenses|
|5||Ohio State||Big Ten||+47.5%||6||15||+0.3%|
|8||Penn State||Big Ten||+41.0%||5||33||-2.6%|
In all, 11 of the top 20 defenses return six starters or fewer next year, lending further credence to the fact that 2010 will be an offense-heavy season. On the above list, Nebraska will be the most interesting case study. They have to replace only four starters, but they were all big-time players. Safeties Larry Asante and Matt O'Hanlon patrolled the back of NU's defense for many years, linebacker Phil Dillard was the only steady contributor in last year's linebacking corps, and of course, Ndamukong Suh simply put together the most transcendent season of defensive tackle play I can remember. If they truly can break even on defense, then they have the schedule to have a really nice season (toughest road game: Washington). But if they regress, as is quite possible, then their offense still probably will not be good enough to bump them back into the country's top tier, even with an easy schedule.
Random Golf Clap
To the Chargers and Lions, for trading up to select Ryan Mathews and Jahvid Best, respectively, assuring that last week's POE column, in which Mathews and Best were determined the best running backs in the draft, was relevant. If only Cleveland had read the column and known to avoid Montario Hardesty at all costs ...
My father sent me an e-mail last Friday morning that said the following:
Subject: No. 25
Message: I'm so old, I can remember when being picked No. 1 was the most important story of draft day.
Let's just say that e-mail covers today's mini-rant topic ... and it uses significantly fewer words than I would have.
Random Reasons to Love College Football
I am pretty sure this was a "reason to love college football" at some point last season too, but no matter. The NCAA has approved of 35 bowl games for the 2010 season! Let the glory of the Pinstripe Bowl rain down upon you (nothing like The Bronx in late December)! Gaze in wonder at both of this year's Dallas bowl games! Count your lucky stars that the St. Petersburg Bowl has been renewed for a third go-round!
And more importantly, ask yourself this: Why weren't the Cure Bowl and Christmas Bowl also approved?? What do you have against breast cancer fundraising, good sirs?
Since we are talking about the impact of the draft and all ...
"Cowboy Take Me Away" by Dixie Chicks (The Dez Bryant song)
"I Want You" by Bob Dylan
"I Want You" by Common
"I Want You" by Elvis Costello
"I Want You" by Marvin Gaye
"Take Take Take" by White Stripes
"The Choice is Yours" by Black Sheep
"Top Rankin'" by Bob Marley & The Wailers
"What You Want" by The Roots
"Why Do I Have to Choose" by Willie Nelson
Add to it, of course, all of J Dilla's Ruff Draft as well. And if this picture were a song, it would make the list too.
With the Football Outsiders Almanac 2010 looming on the horizon, this will be the last Varsity Numbers column for a while. Once a good portion of the FOA writing is in the rearview mirror, I plan to take a look back at recent seasons. With five years of data, we might as well have some fun with it, right? So be on the lookout for 2005-2009 capsules sometime this summer.