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Baseball has sabermetrics. Basketball has KenPom’s efficiency rankings. What does football have?
When it comes to advanced analytics, the game of football has lagged behind the other major American sports. Additionally, the college game trails well behind the more powerful (and better resourced) NFL.
That hasn’t stopped stat wizard Bill Connelly from introducing the college football world to advanced statistics. Athlon Sports brought in the accomplished author and statistician to help our readers become smarter and better football fans and the response has been exciting to say the least.
Connelly provided Athlon Sports’ magazines with a myriad of interesting, illuminating and critical advanced stats for every Big 5 team in the nation. Here are the Big Ten’s best.
Every time Illinois and a Big Ten opponent traded possessions, the Illini basically gave up 8.4 yards. The Illini had by far the worst field position margin in conference play; their average possession started at their 24.8 while opponents started at the 33.3, a margin of minus-8.4 yards. It’s hard to win when the field is constantly tilted in your opponent’s favor.
Indiana’s defense gave up by far the most yards per play in Big Ten games in 2013 (7.4), but if it’s possible, the Hoosiers’ defense actually got even worse near the goal line. They allowed 5.3 points per trip inside their 40-yard line, easily 12th in the conference. The offense ranked second at 4.8 points per trip, but the defense was far too much of a sieve and did the offense no favors.
Iowa was able to raise its scoring output by a touchdown per game (from 19.3 points to 26.3) in 2013, in part because the Hawkeyes were great at creating third-and-manageable situations. The average Iowa third down required only 5.9 yards to go, fifth-lowest in the country. It’s not a coincidence that Iowa’s third-down conversion rate also improved, from 36.4 percent to 43.8.
Big plays are important, and Maryland’s offense generated quite a few of them – the Terrapins gained 20 or more yards 73 times last fall. But you still have to gain 10 yards every four plays, and efficiency was a problem. Success Rate is an efficiency measure that determines each play a success or failure, an on-base percentage for football; Maryland’s success rate was just 38.9 percent, 96th in the country.
With such a shaky running game, it felt like every pass quarterback Devin Gardner attempted came on third-and-8. That actually wasn’t far from the truth: the average Michigan third down required 8.0 yards to go, 121st in the country. That makes the Wolverines’ 39.2 percent third-down conversion rate (75th in the country) actually seem rather impressive.
Michigan State: 3.8
Against the first three FBS opponents on the schedule, the Spartan offense averaged only 3.8 yards per play; for a full season, that average would have ranked 123rd out of 125 FBS teams. But State committed to Connor Cook at quarterback, and eventually it paid off. In their final 10 games, the Spartans averaged 5.7 yards per play and 29.6 points per game, more than enough for the MSU defense.
Minnesota quarterbacks took a few too many sacks in 2013. Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner were sacked on 9.3 percent of their pass attempts; only two FBS teams had worse rates (Kentucky and Pittsburgh). You can get away with negative plays if you’re getting the ball downfield, and Nelson and Leidner did average 14.1 yards per completion, but this was still far too high.
Nebraska’s defense made a lot of aggressive plays in 2013; the Huskers recorded 93 tackles for a loss (17th in the country) and defended 54 passes (66th) and came up big on third downs by holding opponents to a 31.0 percent conversion rate (sixth-lowest). This level of successful aggression is impressive considering the Huskers allowed 6.3 yards per play on first down, 97th in the country.
Northwestern went 1–4 in games decided by one possession in 2013, a 0.200 win percentage. From 2007-12, the Wildcats win percentage in such games was 0.676 (25–12). Be it sudden regression to the mean in the luck department, total randomness, or something else, fortunes changed drastically for Pat Fitzgerald’s squad.
Ohio State: 4.5
Ohio State allowed an average of 4.5 points per trip inside its 40-yard line in conference play. That ranked the Buckeyes ninth in the Big Ten. The Ohio State offense was predictably great at cashing in on scoring opportunities — its 5.2 points per trip led the conference — but the defense gave away a lot of those gains. It was the story of the Buckeyes’ season.
Penn State: 48
Penn State managed only 48 plays of 20 or more yards from scrimmage in 2013, 95th in the country. This was down from 53 in 2012. The Nittany Lions were reasonably efficient considering the youth at quarterback, but there weren’t enough big plays to create easy scores, and if you have to sustain drives, you are likely to make a mistake at some point.
Purdue was perhaps the worst third-down team in the country. The offense ranked 119th in third-down conversions, and the defense ranked 124th. But the damage was done mostly on first and second downs: the offense averaged 7.9 yards to go on third downs (119th) while the defense averaged 5.7 (dead last in FBS). On third down, the Boilermakers simply performed as dictated by first and second.
When you’ve got shaky quarterback play — and to be sure, a 55 percent completion rate with 21 touchdowns to 20 interceptions could certainly be considered shaky — the last thing you want to do is put them in uncomfortable down-and-distance situations. But Rutgers couldn’t avoid third-and-long; the Scarlet Knights averaged 8.0 yards to go on third down, 123rd in the country.
Almost nobody controlled the ground like Wisconsin. S&P+ is a comprehensive play-by-play measure at Football Outsiders that measures explosiveness and efficiency and adjusts for the quality of the opponent, and in Rushing S&P+, the Badgers ranked fifth on offense and ninth on defense. Alabama was the only other team to rank in the top 10 on both sides of the ball.