Seven Predictions for College Football’s Second Half Based on One Telling Metric: Yards Per Play

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We’ve hit college football’s midway mark, but what do we really know? At this point last season, Oregon and Kansas State looked like legitimate BCS championship contenders, Geno Smith looked like a stronger Heisman candidate than Johnny Manziel, and Oregon State looked like a Rose Bowl Cinderella. College football’s short season makes every week a thrill, but it also generates a small sample size that hamstrings our ability to properly evaluate each team.

In order to gain clarity, we need to look beyond pervasive but potentially misleading statistics such as points per game. Instead, we need to examine yards per play. This stat isolates the relative strength of each unit, capturing an offense’s ability to move the ball and a defense’s skill in preventing such drives. Yards per play can also be adjusted for strength of schedule, a key factor in evaluating teams.

A team’s average points per game still matters, but it’s become college football’s ERA: an outdated metric that doesn’t always provide the flexibility we need. FIP, which accounts for variables a pitcher can actually control, has emerged as a preferred metric in baseball. Yards per play is college football’s peripheral-stat equivalent.

So what does examining yards per play actually tell us? Well, quite a bit. Using that metric, here are seven predictions for the season’s remaining weeks.

Alabama Will Not Win the National Championship

The two-time defending BCS champions are 6-0 and ranked first in the AP poll. Nick Saban remains arguably the best head coach alive today. So, what’s the problem?

Yards per play suggests that Alabama lacks a national champion’s credentials.

The Alabama defense has allowed 4.8 yards per play this season compared to the 5.54 FBS average. While most teams would celebrate ranking 23rd in this metric, it’s a letdown for Saban’s squad. Last season, Alabama allowed 4.2 yards per play, second best in the nation. This year, the Tide surrendered 8.85 yards per play to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. That’s an extreme example, but it’s also emblematic of Alabama’s defensive regression.

The offense has also regressed from last season’s stellar production. AJ McCarron and crew have gained 6.9 yards per play, 10th best in the nation. However, four of Alabama’s six opponents to date (Texas A&M, Kentucky, Colorado State, and Georgia State) field defenses ranked worse than 100th in yards per play, adjusted or unadjusted. After accounting for schedule, Alabama’s offensive ranking dips from 10th to 26th.

Saban summed up his team’s offensive ills in his halftime interview during the Mississippi game: “We’re not executing. … Most people say it’s the plays you call. Well, really, it’s the execution of the plays that really matters.” Trust Saban to deliver the key to the college football pecking order with one pithy sentence.

Alabama must still play LSU, which emerged defensively against Florida in Week 7, and the SEC East champion should the Tide advance to Atlanta. It’s reasonable to think that Alabama is a better team than yards per play suggests, but the metrics are still telling: With a combined offensive and defensive ranking of 19th, Alabama is not currently playing well enough to three-peat.
Alabama-YPP

Louisville Will Crash the National Championship Conversation

Teddy-Bridgewater

Teddy Bridgewater is good. This isn’t a news flash. The Louisville quarterback has completed 71 percent of his passes and looks poised to become a top pick in April’s NFL draft.

But Bridgewater is no longer the Cardinals’ lone bright spot. Now, he’s sharing the spotlight with a defense that has surprised this season by allowing 3.99 yards per play, third best in the nation. The D has already helped Louisville survive a scare: Bridgewater wasn’t at his best last Thursday night against Rutgers, posting his lowest QBR of 2013, but the Cardinals survived thanks to a defense that held Rutgers to 3.8 yards per play.

Adjusting for schedule to date drops Louisville’s defense from no. 3 to no. 17. However, the Cardinals are about to see a dip in competition, as they face a weak American Athletic Conference slate to finish the season.

By converting yards per play into win probabilities, we see that Louisville has a 57 percent chance to go undefeated during the regular season. While a 12-0 record doesn’t guarantee a spot in the BCS title game, it would certainly put the Cardinals in the conversation. Unfortunately for Bridgewater and his defensive teammates, conversation won’t factor into the title-game pairing until the selection committee debuts after next season.

James Franklin’s Injury Will Cost Missouri a Shot at the SEC East

James-Franklin

In its first year in the SEC last season, Missouri went 5-7. Critics said the Tigers didn’t belong in the best conference in the nation. However, those doubters overlooked the rash of injuries Missouri suffered on offense, including to starting quarterback James Franklin and every starter on the o-line.

As a result, Missouri entered this season amid low national expectations, only to immediately notch big road wins against BCS opponents Indiana and Vanderbilt with a healthy Franklin back under center. Posting large margins of victory against decent competition signals future success, and sure enough, the Tigers upset national-title contender Georgia in Week 7.

If Franklin hadn’t injured his throwing shoulder against Georgia, we’d be asking if Missouri could legitimately contend in the SEC East. At 6-0 overall and 2-0 in SEC play, the Tigers are well positioned as the only team in the East without a conference loss. Moreover, they play their most difficult remaining opponents (Florida and South Carolina the next two weeks and Texas A&M to end the season) at home in Columbia.

To estimate Missouri’s odds of winning the division based simply on the team’s performance to date, we can use yards per play instead of points per game, since Georgia’s four turnovers on Sunday skewed the Tigers’ margin to plus-nine, altering the margin of victory in the process. We can use yards per play to generate a win probability for each remaining SEC game. Then, we can use a Monte Carlo simulation to calculate the odds each team has of winning the SEC East. Using this calculation, Missouri has a 26 percent chance to win the division. That’s smaller than Georgia’s and Florida’s odds, but larger than South Carolina’s.

However, we can’t ignore the fact that Franklin is likely out three to five weeks. The best way to estimate the effect of this injury is to assume that without its veteran starting quarterback, who had amassed 1,867 total yards and 17 touchdowns to date, Missouri’s offense will regress from 22nd in adjusted yards per play back toward the average. As a result, the Tigers’ probability of winning the SEC East drops from 26 percent to 9 percent. Georgia benefits the most, since Missouri is more likely to drop conference games without Franklin, thus eliminating its tiebreaker over the Dawgs.

SEC-East-Probabilities-James-Franklin

No pressure, redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk …

Michigan’s 4OT Loss Was a Sign of Things to Come

Penn-State-Michigan

Michigan traveled to Penn State in Week 7 with a 5-0 record and no. 18 ranking in the AP poll. However, those numbers masked a disappointing football team.

The Wolverines’ season looked promising after a big win over Notre Dame in Week 2. Then Michigan let Akron hang around until the final play and needed a late field goal to beat Connecticut. In subsequent weeks, Akron lost to Ohio at home by 40, while Connecticut lost at Buffalo by 29, costing coach Paul Pasqualoni his job.

Examining yards per play confirms that these lackluster performances were more than mere aberrations. The Michigan offense ranks 54th. Quarterback Devin Gardner has struggled with his accuracy, and the offense has not been able to consistently run the ball. The defense ranks 47th. While the Wolverines’ D has been better than the offense, the defensive line has struggled to generate a pass rush, hampering the unit’s impact.

In Week 7, Michigan lost to Penn State in four overtimes. The offenses spent the game trading turnovers. While Michigan still faces a number of theoretically winnable games against middling opponents, the Penn State game foreshadows the rest of the Wolverines’ season. This is no longer a dominant Big Ten team, and most of Michigan’s remaining games will be 50-50 affairs that come down to the final play.

Baylor Is Legit and Will Win the Big 12

The Bears’ offense has been off the charts this season. Just look at how Baylor’s offensive yards-per-play average (adjusted for schedule) compares to other FBS schools’ marks.

Baylor-Offense

Baylor is no stranger to this level of offensive dominance, as coach Art Briles has fielded an elite unit in three consecutive seasons. The Bears ranked fourth in yards per play (adjusted for schedule) under Robert Griffin III in 2011, then reloaded with Nick Florence in ’12.

This season, first-year starter Bryce Petty has elevated the offense to no. 1 in the nation. (Petty’s already impressive 70 percent completion rate would be even higher had his receivers not dropped so many passes against Kansas State this past weekend.) While Baylor’s 9.3 yards-per-play average is likely unsustainable the rest of the way, it’s worth noting that the Bears’ success is a product of the system more than any one player, making it less susceptible to dips. While Griffin was a four-star recruit, Florence and Petty were both three-star guys, and yet they were able to perform at an elite level in this offense. If Briles isn’t coaching the Longhorns next season, he should challenge himself by giving the student manager a go at QB.

By typical Baylor standards, the Bears are also fielding a relatively solid defense this season, one that ranks 41st in yards per play. The D performs better against the rush than the pass, but that’s not a bad thing this year, as the Bears are not scheduled to face a single elite passing offense in Big 12 play.

Wisconsin Is the Best Team No One Will Notice

Melvin-Gordon

The Badgers entered the season amid uncertainty. Head coach Bret Bielema had left for Arkansas, while running back Montee Ball had gone off to the NFL.

Things weren’t much better once play began. Wisconsin’s game at Arizona State ended in truly bizarre fashion, costing the Badgers a game they likely would have won. (While the announcer in this clip gets it wrong, quarterback Joel Stave did get his knee down, and the Pac-12 reprimanded the officiating crew for blowing the call and costing Wisconsin a chance to win.) Two weeks later, Wisconsin traveled to Ohio State to play a game that probably decided the Big Ten Leaders Division. Wisconsin could not overcome a missed field goal or a Stave pick deep in Ohio State territory in a seven-point loss.

Don’t be misled by the preseason drama or the season’s rough start, though: This is an elite Wisconsin team. The offense ranks no. 8 by adjusted yards per play, and running back Melvin Gordon has put up video game stats against all opponents except Ohio State. The defense is no. 5 nationally. In Week 7, the Badgers held a potent Northwestern offense to 3.8 yards per play.

Unless a miracle happens and Ohio State loses two games against weak competition, Wisconsin will not win the Leaders Division. Amid a weak season for the Big Ten as a whole, that means we probably won’t hear about the Badgers again until they upset a higher-ranked SEC team in the Outback Bowl.

Clemson Will Not Play in the National Championship Game

Tajh-Boyd

The Tigers began the season with a dramatic three-point win over Georgia. Fielding a resurgent defense to support a prolific offense led by quarterback Tajh Boyd, Clemson looked destined for a title run. At no. 3 in the current AP poll, they’re well positioned to make that a reality.

However, looking at yards per play tells a different story. While Clemson’s offense is considered elite because of its 514.5 yards per game, that total belies a unit relying more on volume than efficiency. Clemson runs a hurry-up offense that generates an increased number of plays per game, but the Tigers rank just no. 33 nationally with 6.3 yards per play. Adjusting for schedule bumps Clemson’s offense up to no. 20, but that’s still not national-title-level elite.

The defense is worse. While the Tigers have allowed 5.1 yards per play, 31st nationally, adjusting for schedule drops them to 49th. ACC opponents Syracuse, Boston College, Wake Forest, and NC State all field below-average offenses.

Clemson faces Florida State this weekend in a critical ACC game. Even if the Tigers can beat a better Seminoles team, they must still travel to South Carolina to end the regular season. While fielding a good but not great offense and a mediocre defense, winning both of those games is highly unlikely. Clemson is a good team, but it’s not a national champion.

Ed Feng (@thepowerrank) has a PhD in chemical engineering from Stanford and runs ThePowerRank.com, a sports analytics website.

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