Varsity Numbers: Four Truths
by Bill Connelly
We now reach the second part of the new Varsity Numbers format. The goal for the Friday column is to discuss an interesting and/or random topic or two, then move on to this week's games by looking at the week's official F/+ rankings (as a reminder, F/+ is the combination of FO's FEI and S&P+ rankings) and a handful of interesting matchups. But first, some truths. For those who are still in the "dipping in the toe" portion of understanding and enjoying our college data, here's a good place to start.
I'm always trying to find ways to synthesize or summarize data in ways that are both useful and easy to remember. One of my favorites uses of sports data is the Four Factors concept seen in basketball. I'm sure it is a bit of an over-generalization, but the Four Factors concept basically says that the four most important things in basketball, however you get to them, are Shooting (~40 percent), Turnovers (~25 percent), Rebounding (~20 percent) and Free Throws (~15 percent). A team can win these categories in a lot of different ways, but those are the concepts key to winning basketball games. One could easily come up with a similar macro list for football -- running, passing, turnovers, and special teams. But from an advanced statistics standpoint, there are not necessarily four magic bullet measures that cover everything you need to know about winning football games.
There are, however, truths. And as we begin to get into the true heart of the 2010 college football season, now seems like a good time to share some absolute conclusions I have drawn after a few years of swimming in data. Some of this is probably obvious, some is not. We will likely expand this list in the offseason.
Truth No. 1: The old adage of "You can't win a game in the first quarter/half, but you can lose it," rings true.
If you run correlations between situational S&P+ statistics and win percentage, you see quite a few first- and second-quarter statistics near the top of the list. For instance, second-quarter Offensive S&P+ and first-quarter Defensive S&P+ had almost exactly the same correlation to winning as overall S&P+ did. From a statistical standpoint, the first half carries far more weight than the second, because, quite simply, with a bad first half, the second half might not matter much (unless you are Jacksonville State playing Ole Miss).
This is, of course, how sports mostly operate. We remember a given Game 7, but there would be no seventh game if you don't win three other games first. You probably don't pull off a dramatic, memorable overtime victory if you fall down by four touchdowns in the first half (unless your quarterback is Frank Reich). You don't notch the World Series-winning save in the ninth if you don't build a lead in the first eight (or eight and a half) innings. We remember the games that are decided late, but more often, the biggest impact on a game occurs in the first 30 minutes.
Truth No. 2: Big plays win games.
The OPS measure in baseball is a direct split between on-base percentage and slugging percentage. It is a wonderful measure, but it is not quite as accurate as it could be, as on-base percentage matters more to good offense than slugging. The opposite is true in college football -- the explosiveness measure (PPP, the "slugging percentage" of the S&P equation) is almost always tied more closely to winning games than success rates (the 'on-base percentage' piece). Both matter, but on offense and defense, PPP matters more.
Again, this is the way it should be. Nothing is more demoralizing than giving up a 20-play, 80-yard, nine-minute drive. But unless your team is Navy, that doesn't happen too often. Defensive coaches often teach their squads the concept of leverage -- prevent the ball-carrier from getting the outside lane, steer him to the middle, make the tackle, and live to play another down. It is the bend-don't-break style of defense, and it often works because if you give the offense enough opportunities, they might eventually make a drive-killing mistake, especially at the collegiate level. If you allow them 40 yards in one play, their likelihood of making a drive-killing mistake plummets.
Truth No. 3: Leverage Rate gives us what we think we get from third-down conversion rate.
This is probably a less obvious truth. Announcers and coaches talk endlessly about how games are won and lost on third downs, and it is absolutely true. But it is also without context. Some defenses, particularly young ones, give up far too many demoralizing third-and-8 conversions. But most of the time, a team that allows a high third-down conversion rate is doing so because they're giving up too many yards on first and second down, and their opponent is converting third-and-3 instead of third-and-8.
The difference in the level of success on standard downs and passing downs is staggering. If you have a significant talent advantage -- always possible in college football -- you might be able to get away with falling into passing downs. But the team that wins is the team that better avoids passing downs. That is why Leverage Rate is included atop the Varsity Numbers box scores I analyze (now on Tuesdays). If your Leverage Rate is too far below the national average of 68 percent, then your quarterback better be Colt McCoy (who was truly a magician at converting third-and-7 and, it appears, masked some serious, developing deficiencies for Texas on the offensive side of the ball) or you are probably going to struggle to win.
Truth No. 4: Field position matters so very, very much.
So far in 2010, the winner of a given game typically runs 50.2 percent of their plays in their opponent's field position. For losing teams, it is 36.2 percent. That is why Field Position Percentage is above even Leverage Rate on the Varsity Numbers box score, and that is why Brian Fremeau's FPA statistic is so telling. Field position numbers fill in all of the gaps the other statistics miss. If you lose a game despite beating your opponent in both S&P (or total yardage) and turnovers, chances are that you badly lost the field position battle.
Winning the game of field position can be done in too many ways to count. Maybe you have an outstanding punter. Maybe you avoid three-and-outs and at least advance the ball a bit before punting. Maybe you have a good return man. Maybe you avoid turnovers. Whatever the cause, field position often matters as much or more than turnovers on the "What wins games" hierarchy. (Don't tell that to Arizona State, of course; they lost to Oregon last week because they lost the turnover points battle by 25.0 points.)
The current F/+ rankings are the perfect mix of the volatility of the current S&P+ rankings and the reasonably stable approach of FEI. FEI can tamp down the over-exuberance of S&P+ toward teams like Arizona, UCLA, or Missouri (though Miami might still be a little too high), while S&P+ can knock projection-laden FEI stalwarts like Virginia Tech and Texas down a few notches. Here are your increasingly interesting and relevant F/+ rankings for Week 4.
|F/+ Top 25 (After Four Weeks)|
|1||Ohio State (4-0)||+37.1%||2||+1||315.3||1||.210||4|
|9||Boise State (3-0)||+18.2%||19||+10||238.3||15||.206||5|
|15||Virginia Tech (2-2)||+16.4%||20||+5||231.6||24||.203||6|
|17||South Carolina (3-1)||+15.7%||7||-10||237.1||18||.161||13|
|24||West Virginia (3-1)||+11.4%||26||+2||227.9||30||.121||23|
26. Michigan, 27. Wisconsin, 28. Oklahoma State, 29. Kentucky, 30. Michigan State, 31. Utah, 32. N.C. State, 33. Pittsburgh, 34. Nevada, 35. Notre Dame, 36. Penn State, 37. North Carolina, 38. Florida State, 39. Mississippi State, 40. Texas A&M, 41. Arizona State, 42. Texas Tech, 43. Oregon State, 44. Georgia Tech, 45. Ole Miss, 46. Georgia, 47. Boston College, 49. Kansas State, 50. Tennessee.
F/+ vs AP
A month into the season, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at which teams are the source of the biggest disagreement between the AP poll and the F/+ rankings. Below are the teams who seem to be the most over-appreciated or underestimated by AP voters.
Utah (AP Rank: 13th, F/+ Rank: 31st). Utah has almost reached the Top 10 on the basis of an overtime, home win against Pittsburgh and the decimation of three unworthy foes (UNLV, New Mexico and San Jose State, all of whom rank 108th or lower in this week's F/+ rankings). After Miami crushed Pittsburgh, people's perceptions of the Panthers fell. So should Utah still be significantly rewarded for barely beating Dave Wannstedt and company in overtime?
Wisconsin (AP Rank: 11th, F/+ Rank: 27th). As I mentioned on Tuesday, Wisconsin finally put more than two quarters of great play together, but they wasted the effort on Austin Peay. They face No. 30 Michigan State in East Lansing this week, so if they are truly the 11th-best team in the country (according to AP voters), they will win and advance their F/+ ratings this week.
Penn State (AP Rank: 22nd, F/+ Rank: 36th). Penn State is another Big Ten team who can prove its worthiness this week, in Iowa City. F/+ ratings do not care much whether you win or lose. If they put together a strong effort in a losing cause against Iowa, their rating might still rise (if they do indeed lose a close game, their F/+ ranking might actually exceed their AP votes this time next week, since you are semi-arbitrarily punished for even respectable losses in the AP poll).
Oklahoma (AP Rank: 8th, F/+ Rank: 18th). They started in the Top 10, and they are 4-0, so of course they are going to stay in the Top 10. But they have been as unimpressive as possible in the process. They remain in the F/+ Top 20 because of both preseason projections and their home massacre of Florida State. Needless to say, though, the ratings are unimpressed with their seven-point win over Utah State (F/+ ranking: 101st), three-point win over Air Force (57th) and two-point win over Cincinnati (58th).
Miami (AP Rank: 16th, F/+ Rank: 3rd). If you believe that Ohio State is truly one of the two best teams in the country, then the fact that Miami's only loss came to the Buckeyes in Columbus should not punish them much. The Hurricanes are propped up as much by Ohio State's success (and its impact on their strength of schedule) as anything they have accomplished this year, though they certainly looked sound in defeating Pittsburgh. Simply by playing teams not currently ranked No. 1 in the F/+ rankings, Miami's strength of schedule will suffer in coming weeks.
Clemson (AP 'Rank': 32nd, F/+ Rank: 19th). After disappointments in past years, voters are clearly taking a wait-and-see approach with Dabo Swinney's Tigers. The F/+ rankings like them, however, both because of positive preseason projections and a fine performance on the road against F/+ No. 8 Auburn. The fact that they almost beat a Top 10 team on the road should mean something, even if they ended up losing (partially by their own doing ... or undoing).
UCLA (AP 'Rank': 33rd, F/+ Rank: 20th). They lost to F/+ No. 5 Stanford and killed No. 23 Texas on the road. We will see how long the Bruins can maintain their current level of play (is it a surge or a new baseline?), but through four games, their schizophrenic body of work sneaks them into the Top 25.
Missouri (AP 'Rank': 28th, F/+ Rank: 16th). Missouri has benefited from two near-perfect performances against bad teams (Miami-Ohio and McNeese State, or "FCS Tier 2" as they are known in the database -- you can still move up in the rankings by playing these teams if you completely and totally annihilate them), along with surprisingly decent F/+ rankings from their two other opponents, Illinois (No. 52) and San Diego State (No. 70 and rising). They are a team that has proven very little, but hasn't done anything too wrong just yet.
"What The ...?" Team of the Week
The biggest oddity in this week's F/+ rankings still has to be the presence of Virginia at No. 25. Their resume consists of two wins over FCS teams and a loss to USC, but the way they have gone about things still keeps them in the rankings for another week. One FCS victim was a "Tier 1" team in Richmond. FCS Tier 1 teams have claimed victims and provided multiple scares so far this season, and the fact that Virginia was able to eventually win rather easily against the Spiders did them favors. Plus, as mentioned last week, holding USC to just 17 points and 329 total yards looks more impressive with each passing week. Their ratings fell this past week just by playing an "FCS Tier 5" team in VMI, but we will not have to wait long to find out if Virginia's early ratings are a 50-percent mirage or 100-percent. They play Florida State, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina in the next three weeks. Go 2-1 in these games, and they will officially be a dark horse ACC contender. Go 1-2 or 0-3, and it will be clear that they will be scraping to make a bowl.
Virginia over Florida State. Spread: Virginia +7 | F/+ Projection: Virginia by 7.8. Obviously if the F/+ ratings have the Hoos at No. 25 and Florida State at No. 38, and if the game is in Charlottesville, then Virginia will be the predicted victor. As I said, we will find out if Virginia is even semi-legitimate soon enough.
Kentucky over Ole Miss. Spread: Kentucky +3 | F/+ Projection: Kentucky by 1.2. The Rebels certainly looked better this past weekend than they did all year, but they still showed plenty of defensive deficiencies that Randall Cobb and the Wildcats might be able to exploit. (Side note: I cannot possibly be the only person who continuously wants to call Randall Cobb, "Tex," right? It is almost too easy and/or obvious.)
Michigan State over Wisconsin. Spread: Michigan State +2 | F/+ Projection: Michigan State by 2.5. Again, if Wisconsin is truly a dark horse Big Ten contender, they will find a way to beat a salty Spartans club. Michigan State will likely have plenty of early adrenaline pumping with the return of coach Mark Dantonio to the sidelines just two weeks after suffering a mild heart attack. (And on another side note, a wag of the finger to Coach Dantonio for setting the "returning to work" bar a little too high. I realize that installing a stent is almost a routine procedure at this point, but still. You were back at work in about nine days or so? Come on, coach.)
Miami (Ohio) over Kent State. Spread: Miami (OH) +3 | F/+ Projection: Miami (OH) by 5.6. I just wanted to mention this one so I could say that I have absolutely no idea how 1-2 Kent could be favored by three on the road against 2-2 Miami. I don't want to say that Miami is some juggernaut -- though they deserve congratulations for needing only three weeks to surpass last year's win total -- but how in the world are the Golden Flashes favored here?
Since we're in sharing some truths ...
"Gimme Some Truth," by John Lennon
"Let the Truth Sting," by David Gray
"True Love" and "True Love Pt. 2" by X
"True Love Tends To Forget," by Bob Dylan
"True Magic," by Mos Def
"True Reflections," by Dave Matthews Band
"True Urban Grit (T.U.G.)" by D.J. Nu-Mark
"The Truth," by Handsome Boy Modeling School
"Truth Is," by Brother Ali
"Truth No. 2," by the Dixie Chicks.
That makes two David Gray songs in two weeks. I am not sure what to think about that.
Ask the Expert
With Stanford's surge to near the top of the F/+ rankings, I contacted the San Francisco Chronicle's Tom FitzGerald for a Stanford-related Q&A.
Bill Connelly: In college football, the best predictor of future program success is past success. Because of that, Football Outsiders had Stanford projected just 37th -- their four-year track record has been far from excellent. How has Jim Harbaugh managed to build what seems like a rather stout program, at a non-traditional power, in what really is a short amount of time?
Tom FitzGerald: First, he's a terrific recruiter. You've got to have talented players to build a program this good, and he has done that. The last two recruiting classes were top-25 groups, and the 2011 group is supposed to be even better than the last two. Second, he is a gifted motivator. Some of his slogans may sound corny to hardened media people like myself, but the kids buy into it. He preaches a kind of blue-collar, tough guy mentality; this isn't at all the typical Stanford team, which had a fine quarterback, a few good skill people and not much defense. Harbaugh wants to run the ball down your throat. Third, he is a very good offensive coordinator. He calls the plays, which frequently include double-tight ends but run out of a wide variety of formations. Fourth, he has Andrew Luck, the best quarterback in the country.
BC: Despite their reputation as a bullying, power offense, Stanford ranks much higher in passing (8th in our Passing S&P+ measure) than rushing (88th). The rankings are volatile this early in the season, so everything might balance out later on, but how successful do you feel the running game has been so far? Is the run important to the success of the pass, or is Andrew Luck already reaching "he could do it all himself" status?
TF: The running game obviously isn't as strong as it was last year with Toby Gerhart, but it is very important to the passing game in helping sell the play-action. So far I'd say the running backs are just average in the Pac-10. That might change as Stepfan Taylor or Tyler Gaffney get more experience. Thanks to Luck, Stanford can win with an average ground game, but, no, he can't do it all.
BC: So far this season, the Cardinal have put together one of the better rushing defenses in the country (10th in Rushing S&P+). Is this sustainable? How will they match up against Oregon's speed this weekend?
TF: They don't have the speed that Oregon has. Few teams do, for that matter. Under new coodinator Vic Fangio, the defense has been very sound and has been good at switching things from snap to snap to keep offenses guessing. The outside LBs -- Chase Thomas and Thomas Keiser -- are good, and so is inside LB Shayne Skov. The other inside backer, Owen Marecic, is still learning. The secondary is much improved over last year, when it wasn't very good at all. So I expect James to gash them once or twice, and otherwise the rushing defense will be sound. For the season, the defense should be excellent if the first four games are any indication.
BC: Again, the rankings are volatile and can shift greatly from week to week, but the Pac-10 currently has the No. 4, No. 5, No. 7, No. 13, No. 15 and No. 16 teams in the country. UCLA killed Texas, Stanford killed Notre Dame, Oregon killed Tennessee, California killed Colorado ... the conference has always had star power, but is the depth truly that strong at this point? Are there 5-6 legitimate Top 15-20 teams?
TF: The Pac-10 has looked very good so far. I guess I'm still a little skeptical, though. In Stanford's case, Wake Forest and Notre Dame weren't very good. Tennessee isn't very good either, and Colorado is awful. So far the big wins were UCLA beating Houston and Texas and Arizona beating Iowa. Those were terrific. I don't think there will be more than four teams in the Top 20 because some of the good Pac-10 teams will have two losses in short order, so they'll be bounced out. I wish Pac-10 teams would schedule more aggressively (hello, Ducks).
Since F/+ picks are bombing so badly this year against the spread (at least compared to last year), I am going to pound my chest for just one second. In SDA yesterday, I suggested that the Texas A&M-Oklahoma State game could come down to the yards-versus-turnovers battle when A&M has the ball. Indeed, the Aggies gained 535 yards but turned the ball over an incredible five times and lost by three. In the last two ballgames, against Florida International and Oklahoma State, Jerrod Johnson has personally lost two fumbles and thrown eight interceptions. When he is rolling, he is so fun to watch; I have mentioned before that in some ways, he is what people think Jake Locker is. But when he is off, it gets very painful, very quickly ... which, unfortunately, is also comparable to Jake Locker.