Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace
Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bill Connelly

There has been a lot of coverage on the pace of the Oregon Ducks offense and how it eventually makes defenses implode. Teams like Tennessee, Washington State, and Stanford were able to hold the Ducks in check for a while but eventually ran out of gas because of, we assume, the sheer number plays the Ducks run and the speed at which they run them.

In my ongoing Oregon obsession and my successful quest to overthink why the Ducks rank lower in the S&P+ ratings than in any other computer system, I decided to look into the role pace might play, positive or negative, in the development of the S&P+ rankings. Since this is a play-by-play system, the number of plays you run in a given game is of no importance. This has helped slower-paced teams like Virginia Tech in the past, and that is by design. The idea of stepping away from the go-to, commonly accepted, per-game stats is to put everybody on even footing no matter what style they might be running. If Team A runs 15 more plays per game than Team B, they are likely going to end up with more yards, whether or not they are truly more technically proficient.

But at the same time, is there a fatigue factor with higher-paced teams? Do they wear down opposing defenses, thereby causing a defined competitive advantage that should be taken into account?

Below is a breakdown of the "fastest" teams in college football. We start with the basic plays-per-game measure, but since teams that pass more are naturally going to end up running more plays (more clock stoppages), it was best to factor in each team's run-pass ratio. A simple regression formula was used to determine how many plays a team would be expected to run given their run-pass splits. The teams were then ranked according to the difference between their actual plays and their expected plays.

Of course, there are, as always, mitigating circumstances. If your defense is good and forces quite a few three-and-outs, then that could have an impact on the number of plays you run. (At the same time, if you are allowing a lot of quick touchdown drives, one could say the same thing.) Your field-position advantage, or lack thereof, could also play a role. But the goal was not to complicate matters much, not yet anyway.

Top 20 Teams According to Pace
Team Plays/
Rk Run
Exp. Plays/
Diff. Pace
Off. S&P+
Oklahoma 85.9 2 47.3% 69.9 +16.0 1 16
Texas A&M 86.1 1 43.5% 71.4 +14.7 2 50
Southern Miss 79.8 3 50.0% 68.8 +11.0 3 85
Oregon 78.1 6 53.7% 67.3 +10.8 4 15
N.C. State 79.8 3 46.8% 70.1 +9.7 5 30
Air Force 69.2 48 69.8% 60.8 +8.4 6 28
Louisiana Tech 77.6 8 48.3% 69.5 +8.2 7 64
Buffalo 75.6 11 51.2% 68.3 +7.3 8 115
Tulsa 77.8 7 45.4% 70.6 +7.1 9 57
Georgia Tech 69.0 50 66.5% 62.1 +6.9 10 58
Top 20 Teams According to Pace
Team Plays/
Rk Run
Exp. Plays/
Diff. Pace
Off. S&P+
Army 68.6 53 67.3% 61.8 +6.8 11 66
TCU 71.7 30 58.7% 65.2 +6.4 12 31
Oklahoma State 76.9 10 45.8% 70.5 +6.4 13 10
Texas Tech 78.8 5 40.4% 72.6 +6.1 14 46
Northwestern 75.3 12 49.1% 69.1 +6.1 15 81
Troy 77.0 9 44.7% 70.9 +6.1 16 78
Duke 74.3 17 51.1% 68.3 +5.9 17 52
Kansas 72.3 28 56.0% 66.3 +5.9 18 118
Arkansas State 74.4 15 50.5% 68.6 +5.8 19 88
Nevada 72.8 24 53.6% 67.3 +5.4 20 27

The usual suspects are on this list. Tulsa and Oklahoma set an insane pace for overall plays in 2008, and they are near the top of the list once again. Oklahoma State makes an appearance, as does Southern Miss -- Golden Eagles coach Larry Fedora was Mike Gundy's offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State for three seasons. Texas Tech is also on there. Dana Holgorsen (noted Matthew McConaughey doppleganger) coached and helped recruit a lot of Tech's personnel as Mike Leach's protégé before leaving to be Oklahoma State's offensive coordinator. And as expected, Oregon is right there near the top. They run much more than any other team in the Top 5, giving credence to the thought that they are capable of wearing teams down to an otherwise unheard of degree.

The question, of course, is whether a higher pace portends offensive success, perhaps beyond the bounds of S&P+. To get to that answer, we must also look at the slowest teams.

Top 20 Teams According to Pace
Team Plays/
Rk Run
Exp. Plays/
Diff. Pace
Off. S&P+
San Jose State 56.3 120 49.7% 68.9 -12.5 120 111
Wyoming 56.6 119 57.0% 66.0 -9.4 119 87
Vanderbilt 57.6 118 55.0% 66.7 -9.1 118 92
South Florida 59.4 115 52.2% 67.9 -8.5 117 53
Boston College 62.8 101 44.9% 70.8 -8.1 116 94
Temple 58.0 117 57.1% 65.9 -7.9 115 71
Akron 60.2 114 51.9% 68.0 -7.8 114 117
Tennessee 61.5 110 49.3% 69.1 -7.6 113 75
Ohio 58.6 116 57.0% 66.0 -7.4 112 79
Marshall 62.5 103 47.7% 69.7 -7.2 111 82
Top 20 Teams According to Pace
Team Plays/
Rk Run
Exp. Plays/
Diff. Pace
Off. S&P+
Alabama 62.3 106 48.9% 69.2 -7.0 110 5
Florida Atlantic 60.6 113 53.1% 67.5 -6.9 109 84
Pittsburgh 62.9 100 47.9% 69.6 -6.7 108 8
Hawaii 65.6 72 41.8% 72.1 -6.5 107 19
Memphis 60.8 112 54.0% 67.2 -6.4 106 113
Kent State 65.1 75 43.9% 71.2 -6.1 105 112
Syracuse 62.5 103 50.7% 68.5 -6.0 104 90
Maryland 62.1 109 52.2% 67.9 -5.8 103 77
Michigan State 63.3 99 50.0% 68.8 -5.4 102 13
Western Kentucky 61.0 111 56.3% 66.2 -5.2 101 104

Again, there are some predictable teams here. You rarely thinks of Vanderbilt or Boston College and "fast-paced" in the same sentence. Meanwhile, run-heavy teams like Alabama and Pittsburgh also make the list. Hawaii is a total surprise, but in all, this list looks pretty accurate in terms of which teams we perceive to be moving slower than others.

Is there a tie between fast-paced teams and success, or slow teams and ineptitude? Not really. The correlation between a team's Pace ranking and their Offensive S&P+ ranking is 0.09. The top 20 teams according to Offensive S&P+ have an average Pace ranking of 64th, while the bottom 20 teams have an average of 63rd. There is a small tie between Pace ranking and per-quarter success: while correlations between Pace and Q1/Q3 success lie in the 0.06 range, correlations between Pace and Q2/Q4 success are in the 0.12 range. This is not a significant tie by any means, but it is something.

Of course, the point was to see if S&P+ is missing something, so what is the correlation between Pace and other offensive ratings?

  • Correlation Between Pace Ranking and OFEI Ranking: 0.21. (The Top 20 teams according to OFEI had an average Pace ranking of 51st, while the bottom 20 teams averaged 74th.)
  • Correlation Between Pace Ranking and the Difference Between S&P+ and OFEI Ranking: 0.22
  • Correlation Between Pace Ranking and raw Yards Per Play Ranking: 0.13.
  • Correlation Between Pace Ranking and the Difference Between S&P+ and Yards Per Play Ranking: 0.06.

The tie between Pace and OFEI are a bit intriguing; correlations of 0.21 and 0.22 are still not amazingly strong, but it does suggest there is more of a tie between per-drive success and pace than between per-play success and pace.

What can we conclude from this? It appears that a high pace might have a slight impact on your success levels on a per-drive basis or late in halves, but the bottom line, is that running more plays really only benefits good offenses. If you have a per-play advantage over your opponent, running more plays maximizes that. If you don't, then it might just end up digging you more of a hole. When inferior teams try to "slow down" their opponents in sports like football and basketball, they are trying to minimize their per-play disadvantages and hoping that a break or two will benefit them. You could draw a conclusion that moving faster helps you in the end, but it doesn't help nearly as much as simply being good at what you do.

We can also conclude that S&P+ really doesn't seem to be missing the boat much on this. Pace might have a role to play in the differences between S&P+ and FEI -- this is something we might need to investigate in the offseason -- but really, good is good, no matter how many plays you run.

F/+ Rankings

Full rankings here.

F/+ Top 25 (After Nine Weeks)
1 Boise State 7-0 +27.7% 2 +1 262.2 1 0.244 4 +16.6% 3 +11.1% 9
2 Auburn 9-0 +27.0% 1 -1 246.8 6 0.305 1 +23.4% 1 +3.5% 39
3 Nebraska 7-1 +24.9% 8 +5 246.8 5 0.263 3 +12.7% 13 +12.1% 7
4 Iowa 6-2 +24.7% 12 +8 251.5 3 0.237 5 +9.8% 22 +14.9% 1
5 Alabama 7-1 +23.8% 6 +1 248.5 4 0.233 7 +15.7% 4 +8.1% 19
6 Ohio State 8-1 +23.8% 5 -1 255.2 2 0.199 15 +11.7% 15 +12.0% 8
7 Missouri 7-1 +22.6% 4 -3 244.3 7 0.230 9 +13.3% 11 +9.2% 14
8 TCU 9-0 +21.7% 7 -1 242.1 8 0.223 12 +7.5% 27 +14.2% 4
9 Virginia Tech 6-2 +21.3% 9 +0 238.5 10 0.233 7 +13.0% 12 +8.3% 18
10 Oregon 8-0 +21.3% 18 +8 230.5 18 0.273 2 +13.7% 10 +7.5% 22
F/+ Top 25 (After Nine Weeks)
11 South Carolina 6-2 +21.2% 3 -8 239.8 9 0.225 10 +14.1% 8 +7.1% 24
12 Stanford 7-1 +20.0% 15 +3 235.2 12 0.225 10 +11.3% 19 +8.8% 17
13 Wisconsin 7-1 +18.7% 16 +3 232.3 17 0.213 13 +15.5% 5 +3.3% 41
14 Oklahoma 7-1 +18.7% 11 -3 233.3 13 0.208 14 +11.5% 16 +7.2% 23
15 Oregon State 4-3 +18.1% 19 +4 237.5 11 0.175 19 +15.4% 6 +2.7% 48
16 Miami 5-3 +17.5% 10 -6 232.7 16 0.186 18 +3.2% 44 +14.2% 3
17 Michigan State 8-1 +16.2% 13 -4 233.3 15 0.157 22 +8.4% 25 +7.8% 21
18 Arizona 7-1 +15.8% 17 -1 225.7 25 0.187 17 +6.5% 30 +9.2% 13
19 Oklahoma State 7-1 +15.6% 20 +1 233.3 14 0.145 25 +10.8% 21 +4.8% 33
20 Pittsburgh 5-3 +15.5% 22 +2 227.7 22 0.172 20 +11.8% 14 +3.7% 37
F/+ Top 25 (After Nine Weeks)
21 LSU 7-1 +15.4% 21 +0 214.4 35 0.236 6 +5.8% 33 +9.6% 12
22 USC 5-3 +14.8% 14 -8 226.7 24 0.163 21 +13.7% 9 +1.1% 54
23 Utah 8-0 +14.7% 25 +2 229.2 19 0.148 24 +3.9% 42 +10.8% 11
24 Arkansas 6-2 +14.2% 23 -1 228.3 20 0.143 26 +11.5% 17 +2.8% 47
25 N.C. State 6-2 +14.1% 26 +1 218.1 30 0.191 16 +6.1% 31 +8.0% 20

Despite Auburn looking good last weekend, they were passed by Boise State atop the F/+ rankings. They are basically even, however, and are a couple of percentage points ahead of the next batch of teams. It was nice to see Bill's White Whales (a.k.a. Oregon) rising as expected this week. If they decimate Washington to the degree that everybody seems to expect, they might be in store for another move.

"What The ...?" Team of the Week

Iowa. Powered by a ridiculous defensive performance against Michigan State, Iowa moved both to No. 1 in Defensive F/+ and No. 4 overall. Both S&P+ and FEI like the Hawkeyes quite a bit, and really, it makes sense. Their two losses were basically one-play losses to No. 13 Wisconsin (if the game were 60 minutes and 10 seconds in length, they might have won) and No. 18 Arizona (they gave up a kickoff return touchdown and lost by seven points), and they fought both of those teams to a statistical draw at worst. Meanwhile, they crushed No. 17 Michigan State, and they have not allowed a single lesser team on their schedule to have much of a chance. As has been said many times on this site, destroying bad teams tells you almost as much about a team as beating good ones. Iowa has killed one good team, fought two to basically a draw, and handled everybody else with relative ease. And they really did look incredible last week.

AP + F/+ = BCS?

Here is how the BCS rankings would take shape if derived from a mix of 60 percent AP poll, 40 percent F/+ ranking. This is simply a way to see how much the national championship hunt might change if using a slightly different approach to both the human and computer aspects.

1. Boise State (Actual BCS Ranking: 4)
2. Auburn (2)
3. Oregon (1)
4. Alabama (6)
5. TCU (3)
6. Nebraska (7)
7. Ohio State (11)
8. Wisconsin (9)
9. Iowa (16)
10. Stanford (13)
11. Missouri (12)
12. Oklahoma (8)
13. Utah (5)
14. Arizona (15)
15. South Carolina (19)

It is pretty clear that, according to FO numbers, Utah has the most to prove this weekend. Luckily, they have been given quite the stage to do such a thing. Now if only Utah-TCU were on something other than CBS College so that a much larger portion of American could actually watch it.

Upset Watch

None of this week's potential upsets would qualify as major-league shockers, as none of the spreads are higher than 3.5 points. Regardless, they all qualify.

N.C. State over Clemson. Spread: N.C. State +3.5 | F/+ Projection: N.C. State by 1.8. Like TNT, N.C. State knows drama. If games were 57 minutes long, N.C. State would have beaten Virginia Tech and East Carolina (late comebacks on the part of the Hokies and Pirates gave the Wolfpack their two losses) but lost to Florida State. They have shown a high ceiling, but they are playing against a total question mark in Clemson. Your guess is as good as anybody's what kind of Clemson team shows up from week to week.

Kansas State over Texas. Spread: Kansas State +3.5 | F/+ Projection: Kansas State by 1.8. Kansas State is far from amazing, but this line shows just how much people are still assuming Texas will turn things around this year. If you lost to Iowa State and UCLA at home, you can obviously lose to Kansas State rather easily. Then again, the road has treated the Longhorns much better this season.

Duke over Virginia. Spread: Duke +1 | F/+ Projection: Duke by 1.9. Both of these teams looked much better last week in upsets over Navy and Miami, respectively. So they've got that going for them.

Illinois over Michigan. Spread: Michigan -3 | F/+ Projection: Michigan by 0.02. Poor Denard Robinson. He still has a fighting chance at a 2,000-2,000 season (assuming the Wolverines become bowl eligible soon), but thanks to nagging injuries and a god-awful defense, he has been completely written off in terms of Heisman possibilities. Now he faces a no-win situation against Illinois, which ranks very well defensively (second overall in Defensive S&P+), but perceptions of the Illini haven't caught up to reality yet. If he only does well against Illinois, rather than great, few will give him any credit. Then again, at this point, wins are more important than perceptions, and this one is a toss-up.

The Playlist

In honor of the huge mid-major game going on in Salt Lake City (TCU-Utah) this weekend and the ongoing quest for the "little guy" to get a title shot against the big boys ...

"Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town," by Pearl Jam
"Little Child," by The Beatles
"Little Child Runnin' Wild," by Curtis Mayfield
"Little Dawn," by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists
"Little Doll," by The Stooges
"Little Drop of Poison," by Tom Waits
"Little Man," by Atmosphere
"Small Axe," by Bob Marley & The Wailers
"The Small Print," by Muse
"Small Town," by John Mellencamp

Closing Thoughts

The allegations that Cam Newton took, or at least attempted to take, illegal benefits come at a very interesting time in the national title and Heisman races. Auburn and Newton both deny any wrongdoing, with Auburn coach Gene Chizik stating emphatically that Newton is eligible and will not be suspended. This makes sense, of course -- if he is indeed ineligible, then they will be forfeiting wins anyway. What's the difference between nine forfeited wins and 10 or 11? (Not that this was the thought process Chizik used, but you get the gist.)

Meanwhile, Heisman voters soured on the Reggie Bush experience will now have a huge choice to make. Newton was easily the Heisman favorite heading into the home stretch of the season, and the odds are not good that the NCAA will have reached any major conclusions in their impending investigation (to say the least, they are not known for their speed and timeliness) before Heisman ballots are due. Do voters punish him for what he might have done, thereby giving Oregon's LaMichael James (or my own personal favorite, Baylor's Robert Griffin III) a boost? Do they stick with their original intentions, vote for Newton, and just hope they won't regret it? Newton was beginning to seem like the cut-and-dried leader, but things just got thrown up in the air once again.


21 comments, Last at 09 Nov 2010, 10:25pm

1 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

Any chance the reporter who broke the story went to Oregon or Baylor? (Gotta love a conspircy theory).

2 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

As for the play list:

"Little Willy" by Sweet
"Little Wing" by Hendrix
"All the Small Things" by Blink 182 (yeah, I know it's a cover)

3 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

[I]t does suggest there is more of a tie between per-drive success and pace than between per-play success and pace.

That sounds right to me, but hmm...

Wouldn't this show up in field-position stats? If a faster pace leads to more successful drives, wouldn't opponents have worse-than-expected field position after punts and turnovers?

I also wonder if a fast-paced offense impacts opponents' pacing. Do opponents try too hard to match the pace? The botched snap to Matt Barkley in the Oregon-USC game looked to me a direct result of that sort of thing. Or maybe the opposite: teams slow things down offensively in an attempt to give their defense a breather?

4 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

Field position stats show that Oregon has a HUGE field position advantage, or at least did as of a couple weeks ago; I think they were 2nd in the nation in FPA according to FEI.

Oregon also tends to be good at exploiting turnovers, though whether that's a function of their offense simply being awesome or that they get so many, it's hard to say.

The snap to Barkley was entirely because of the coach freaking out. UCLA tried to slow the pace and simply ended up prolonging their pain; they had the ball for 40 minutes but were blown away. Time of Possession helps only when the game is close and when you want to limit the amount of possessions. As far as I can tell, past a certain point of possessions (or even plays) the opponent gets so gassed that they are simply done, period, and getting a little bit of rest doesn't help.

6 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

On a similar note, I went back and looked at the Pac-10 games and Tennessee game that Oregon played, and tried to figure out when the game became one-sided (IE, when Oregon made the team look like New Mexico). I did this not on ToP but on the number of plays run, thinking that regardless of whether or not the play is a run or pass the Ducks will run the plays at or around the same speed and the more plays run, the harder it is on the defense.

What I found is that both Stanford and USC called 'uncle' around the 50-60 play mark. Stanford actually did the best here, lasting more than 60 plays before they started becoming fatigued obviously. Tennessee started giving up at the 50-play mark. ASU, to their credit, never really did, and it shows in the play by play - Oregon didn't hit the 60-play mark until late in the fourth quarter, and the game was still competitive. WSU gave up significant drive lengths but shortened the game enough that it didn't get out of hand until well past the 60s.

UCLA, of course, didn't have any real correlation here, but that was a route almost as soon as the game was done. It's more related to the New Mexico/PSU games.

In any case, it does look like in three cases a very reasonable correlation between the number of plays and the fatigue/performance change of the other team. Furthermore, the teams that have done the best against the Ducks managed to limit the amount of plays that the Ducks did, even if they did not manage to limit the score as much.

My suspicion is that the Ducks can be best beaten by a team that forces stops above all else. Slowing down is too dangerous. Negative yards, turnovers or incompletes are preferable, even if big plays are given up. Limiting time of possession seems to potentially harm the Ducks from getting to that fatigue point, but this only works really well if you can also combine it with stops.

8 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

What's funny about that is that I don't think Alabama matches up well in that regard (they allow a decent amount of gain per play) but a team like LSU - which sells out for big plays on defense - could have a fair amount of success. In theory a team that simply let Oregon score after 4 plays could also succeed, but I doubt anyone would have the balls to do that.

Another correlation to this is that it would almost certainly be better to onside kick after every score to the Ducks. Even giving them good field position, it's better to shorten the drive (either by scoring or by stopping) than it is to give up long drives that kill the other team. I have no idea what team would dare to do that, however.

10 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

In their last two losses, Ohio State ran 89 plays to Oregon's 53, and Boise State ran 89 to Oregon's 44. Perhaps the key is to have a good enough offense to keep the ball away from the Ducks? In both games, Oregon's offense had possession for less than 19 minutes and was abysmal on third down (2-11, 1-10).

No one raves about your pace when your run 5 plays in 2 minutes and punt the ball away.


11 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

Keeping away is nice if you can't keep pace or you don't have a good offense. But all keeping away does otherwise is shorten the amount of possessions, which isn't necessarily a big deal.

The trick that both Boise and OSU did was make the Ducks have lots of 3rd ands, and to do that they made them one-dimensional. Both OSU and Boise took away the run and forced a pass, and in that situation it's a lot easier to defend. Plus they were defending against Masoli.

I think that strategy could work, kinda, but Thomas is a much better passer than Masoli. The reason that would work is that passes aren't going to tire out a team as much as runs are due to how much yardage you'll get. Giving up 8 yards on first and 10 is worse than giving up 15 because it means the Ducks will be on the field for at least one more play than they would have. My theory is that either you force them into long yardage situations or you let them go. No middle ground.

16 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

The weather becomes important now. If the Ducks run into a bad weather game, the strategy outlined in your post has a better chance of working. Force them to pass in difficult weather. The Ducks have two out of their next three games in Oregon, so it is probable they could run into a game with bad weather.

13 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

Illinois D is getting RAPED.

Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.

15 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

Thanks for the article Bill. Not looking deep into the numbers I figured Oregon would be #1 on the list, and would be matching Oklahoma and Tulsa's numbers of 2008.

After all Oregon is on pace to become the first team since 1944 to score 54+ points per game in a season. Oregon would also be one out of 13 major college teams to score 54+ points per game in a season, in the entire history of major college football (the others listed at the link below). Most of the teams on the list though go way back in time, and scored 100+ points in a few games, thus boosting their ppg stats; most of the teams also played a handful of lower level teams. Amazingly Army (current Division 1 FBS ppg record holder according to the NCAA) scored 56 ppg, playing all major opponents except one (Coast Guard), and with their highest scores being 83, and 76 points. It's to bad reliable play by play data isn't available from the 1944 Army team, I'm sure the numbers would be amazing.

19 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

Check out the list below. It shows every team that has allowed 500+ points in a season. North Texas (571) in 2008, and Washington State (570) in 2008 were tops amongst major college programs. Both are under 50ppg though. Your more likely to find higher ppg numbers from teams in the past, since the seasons were shorter.

18 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

S&P+ is not going to like Oregon after almost 3 quarters of struggles against lowly Washington.

Going back to Kal's comments, it wasn't until after the 56 play mark that they start brutalizing Washington. This Oregon team is much more vulnerable than the major media lets on, and I think S&P+ is correct about them. They might not lose a game in the Pac-10, but if they were playing in a title game against Boise or TCU, I'd definitely be putting money on the little guys.


20 Re: Varsity Numbers Picks Up the Pace

To be fair I wouldn't use the Washington game as the canonical example. It was clear that Washington took that game very seriously and like a rivalry game, and Oregon came out chippy, sloppy and flat. Against teams where they considered them worthy of their attention they performed a lot more strongly; UCLA is one example, but so is USC or Stanford.

I do agree that Oregon isn't this invulnerable juggernaut, but at the same time it's not like Washington barely lost. If a team can last 4 quarters with the Ducks they've got a very good shot, but so far no one has.