Interpreting trove of early CFB data

By Steve Makinen  () 

We’re five weeks into the college football season, and most participating teams have at least a couple of games under their belts. It’s never too early to dive into what we’ve already seen and how we can use the findings.

When I broke down the first four weeks of the season, the logical conclusion was that home teams were struggling most with the COVID-19 environment. That continued last weekend with six outright upsets by road teams, four of which were double-digit dogs. For bettors who pounced on those moneymaking opportunities, congratulations. Even more for those who had the guts to make moneyline wagers in those contests. This method of wagering should be noted, particularly in this strange season. Look at this trend through five weeks:

Road teams own a 60-53-2 ATS (53.1%) edge over home teams and are 46-69 outright for a profit of + 41.75 units. The return on investment for playing all road teams on moneyline wagers this season has been 36.3%.

Incidentally, home teams have lost -79.95 units for their moneyline backers, an ROI of -69.5%. We can’t be certain this pattern will continue, but it’s clearly something we should monitor in this peculiar season. With little home-field advantage, the chance for road wins — and road upsets — is greater than ever.

Let’s look at some other situations and teams that should be given consideration.

Most improved teams since last season

I have bumped up five teams with games under their belts by 8.5 points or more from their end-of-season 2019 power ratings. They are:

Miami (+ 11.5): D’Eriq King has been a major difference-maker at quarterback, as he has the Hurricanes up almost 18 ppg from a season ago. He has accounted for seven touchdowns in the first three games, and the offense has shown balance not seen in many years. With three impressive wins, the Hurricanes get a huge test at Clemson. We’ll know if they’re for real by the end of Saturday night.

NC State (+ 11): The Wolfpack have been interesting, pulling outright upsets in two of their three games while scoring 33 ppg. Both facts were unexpected, and the offensive improvement from last year is about 11 ppg. NC State scored just 22 ppg a year ago, though it brought back 10 starters on that side of the ball, so perhaps the experience gained in last year’s trying 4-8 season is paying off. Quarterback Devin Leary, who posted very modest numbers in 2019, has a 5-0 TD-INT ratio and a rating of 164.3. This week’s opening number has coach Dave Doeren’s team a much larger underdog than my ratings indicate. Perhaps oddsmakers are still sleeping on this team.

UAB (+ 10): After a 3-1 start, I have UAB up 10 points off its 2019 finish. A lot of this was gained in the offseason when the Blazers came back as one of the most stable and experienced teams in the country, with the coaching staff and 18 starters back. However, some of it has been earned on the field, as they’ve won back-to-back games after starting quarterback Tyler Johnson went down with a shoulder injury. UAB put up 918 yards in those two games and did not miss a beat. Something to watch, though: Coach Bill Clark’s team is just 1-3 ATS, and its next opponent will be Western Kentucky on Oct. 17.

BYU (+ 8.5): Without a doubt, BYU’s early-season performance has been one of the most pleasant surprises. While the Cougars haven’t challenged themselves with three opponents that are obviously down in 2020, the point differential of 148-24 can’t be ignored. This week’s opponent, UTSA, doesn’t provide a major challenge on the surface, but the Roadrunners are the first team BYU will play that actually seems better than its 2019 self. The line (-34) seems horribly inflated too.

Coastal Carolina (+ 8.5): I was watching ESPN’s “College GameDay” last week when Pat McAfee loudly declared he just wasn’t buying into what Coastal Carolina was doing. After watching the Chanticleers wallop Arkansas State 52-23 as 3.5-point home dogs, I wonder if he has changed his tune. Coastal is 3-0 and essentially doubling up its opponents thus far all while becoming a legitimate threat to Appalachian State’s reign in the Sun Belt. This week’s game at No. 21 Louisiana will show just how legitimate. Watch freshman QB Grayson McCall — he has been outstanding.

Biggest declines among teams since end of 2019

Six teams have been downgraded by 10 points or more in my power ratings. They are:

LSU (-18.5): After hemorrhaging a decade’s worth of NFL talent for most top teams after the 2019 national-title season, LSU was expected to be down. But this is perhaps the most any team ever has fallen. The Tigers began to fulfill that expectation when they were upset by Mississippi State in the opener. They quickly righted the ship by responding with a blowout win at Vanderbilt. With two polar-opposite performances, the only certainty is that this is not last year’s LSU team. Tread carefully.

Louisiana Monroe (-13.5): Unlike several other teams, ULM has earned its newfound status on the field. After being heavily affected by a COVID-19 outbreak, the Warhawks have struggled to an 0-4 start, being outscored by 20.3 ppg. The last three defeats have come at home, and twice they were blown out by teams against which they should have been highly competitive. Four of the next five games are on the road, and it’s hard to see a spot in which ULM will be expected to win.

Navy (-12): Aside from a highly unexpected second-half outburst against Tulane in its second game, Navy could easily be considered the most puzzling disappointment of the season. The Midshipmen were expected to be down from their 11-2 season of a year ago, but not this much. They were outscored 95-10 in losses to BYU and Air Force and were even favored in the latter. Oddsmakers have no idea what to do with this team. After about a 5-1 ratio of rushing to passing yardage in 2019, the ratio is 1.26-1 in 2020. That is very unlike Navy and not a recipe for success.

Florida Atlantic (-11.5): Having had their first three games postponed and winning the fourth while not covering the Vegas number, the jury is truly still out for new coach Willie Taggart and FAU. However, the Owls are the first team to score a zero on my stability scale, and thus my expectations are low.

Baylor (-11): The Bears earned most of their downgraded power rating in the offseason. They lost a lot of talent and essentially the entire coaching staff from their 2019 Sugar Bowl team. The results are mixed at 1-1, with an easy win over Big 12 doormat Kansas and a loss at West Virginia. The remaining seven games are tough to a degree, so new coach Dave Aranda’s group will be tested.

Missouri (-10): The Tigers were downgraded in the offseason because they lost half their starters and had a new coaching staff in place. They have responded with two losses to open the season, one at home versus Alabama and one at Tennessee. These are two of the better programs in the SEC, so 0-2 was expected. However, with a ton of instability and a conference-only schedule, the 2020 season will go down as one of the uglier ones for Missouri.

Best offenses to date

Last year Oklahoma (9.54) and LSU (9.39) set new standards for offensive performance in terms of my Effective Yards Per Play calculations. While no one is anywhere near that level in 2020, here are the top 10 teams so far in that key statistic. Ole Miss and Alabama, rated Nos. 1 and 3 on this list, square off Saturday with a lofty point spread featuring the Tide favored by 24 points on the road.

Effective Offensive Yards Per Play rankings

1. OLE MISS (8.76)

2. FLORIDA (8.4)

3. ALABAMA (8.36)

4. BYU (7.86)

5. VIRGINIA TECH (7.52)

6. IOWA STATE (7.15)

7. OKLAHOMA (7.15)

8. KENTUCKY (7.1)

9. MIAMI (7.08)

10. MISSISSIPPI STATE (7.01)

Worst offenses to date

In 2019, Akron had the country’s worst offense, averaging 4.07 Effective Yards Per Play. Syracuse is averaging that exact figure so far, worst among the FBS teams that have played.

Effective Offensive Yards Per Play rankings

66. SOUTH FLORIDA (4.81)

67. UTEP (4.7)

68. NAVY (4.66)

69. TROY (4.65)

70. WESTERN KENTUCKY (4.55)

71. VANDERBILT (4.5)

72. KANSAS (4.42)

73. BAYLOR (4.4)

74. MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (4.14)

75. SYRACUSE (4.07)

Best defenses to date

It’s very early, but seeing Georgia atop the defensive rankings should surprise no one. The Bulldogs’ unit was dominant last year, allowing 12.6 PPG, and brought back eight starters. They were expected to carry the team in 2020 and have done so in back-to-back wins. This list contains several surprises, though, including North Carolina, Arkansas and Tulsa.

Effective Defensive Yards Per Play rankings

1. GEORGIA (3.57)

2. NORTH CAROLINA (3.69)

3. ARKANSAS (3.92)

4. BYU (4.02)

5. OKLAHOMA STATE (4.04)

6. PITTSBURGH (4.04)

7. TULSA (4.07)

8. BAYLOR (4.29)

9. MISSISSIPPI STATE (4.35)

10. CLEMSON (4.37)

Worst defenses to date

Conference USA is well represented among teams that have performed worst in terms of Effective Defensive Yards Per Play with six teams listed. Ole Miss will need to be much better Saturday to compete with Alabama’s prolific offense.

Effective Defensive Yards per Play rankings

66. TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO (6.56)

67. EAST CAROLINA (6.74)

68. SOUTHERN MISS (6.87)

69. FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL (6.96)

70. LOUISIANA TECH (7.01)

71. OLE MISS (7.03)

72. LOUISIANA MONROE (7.23)

73. UTEP (7.25)

74. GEORGIA SOUTHERN (7.48)

75. NORTH TEXAS (7.66)

Drastic offensive pace changes we’ve seen so far

These teams have shown big upticks in the number of plays run per minute of possession. Expect higher totals than you’ve become accustomed to from them. Combined they are 16-10 Over, not an eye-opening rate, so opportunity still exists to play these teams Over.

Offensive Plays Per Minute Increase Rankings

1. NORTH TEXAS (+ 0.76) – 2-1 over

2. ARKANSAS STATE (+ 0.51) – 2-1 over

3. MIAMI (+ 0.5) – 2-1 over

4. ARKANSAS (+ 0.41) – 0-2 over

5. GEORGIA TECH (+ 0.39) – 2-1 over

6. DUKE (+ 0.36) – 2-2 over

7. VIRGINIA (+ 0.36) – 2-0 over

8. MISSISSIPPI STATE (+ 0.36) – 1-1 over

9. GEORGIA STATE (+ 0.31) – 2-0 over

10. TENNESSEE (+ 0.3) – 1-1 over

These teams have slowed their offensive pace this season. Expect lower totals from them. Since North Carolina and Boston College are on this list, their game last week had little chance to reach the expected total. These teams have combined to go 18-10 Under the total so far.

Offensive Plays Per Minute Decrease Rankings

66. TEXAS STATE (-0.2) – 3-1 under

67. NORTH CAROLINA (-0.23) – 2-0 under

68. SMU (-0.26) – 3-1 under

69. LIBERTY (-0.27) – 1-2 under

70. IOWA STATE (-0.29) – 1-2 under

71. NOTRE DAME (-0.31) – 1-1 under

72. BYU (-0.38) – 2-1 under

73. TULSA (-0.38) – 2-0 under

74. SOUTH CAROLINA (-0.46) – 0-2 under

75. BOSTON COLLEGE (-0.54) – 3-0 under

Biggest turnover differentials so far

Nine teams have turnover differentials of + 1.5 or better per game. Logic would say this type of good fortune tends to even out. Perhaps these are play-against teams in the near future. As of now, they are 15-8-1 ATS combined.

Best Turnover Differentials This Season

1. UCF (+ 2.3) – 2-1 SU and 1-2 ATS

2. KANSAS STATE (+ 2.3) – 2-1 SU and ATS

3. SYRACUSE (+ 2) – 1-2 SU and 2-1 ATS

4. AIR FORCE (+ 2) – 1-0 SU and ATS

5. TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO (+ 2) – 2-1 SU and ATS

6. ARMY (+ 1.7) – 3-1 SU and ATS

7. BOSTON COLLEGE (+ 1.7) – 2-1 SU and ATS

8. LSU (+ 1.5) – 1-1 SU and ATS

9. TENNESSEE (+ 1.5) – 2-0 SU and 1-0-1 ATS

Here are the teams that have been on the opposite side of the turnover luck, all with worse than a -1.0 differential. It could be theorized that these teams’ best football is still to come in 2020. They are just 9-20-1 ATS combined.

Worst Turnover Differentials This Season

64. MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (-1.2) – 0-3 SU and 1-2 ATS

65. KANSAS (-1.3) – 0-3 SU and ATS

66. NORTH CAROLINA (-1.5) – 2-0 SU and 1-1 ATS

67. LOUISVILLE (-1.7) – 1-2 SU and 1-1-1 ATS

68. DUKE (-1.8) – 0-4 SU and 2-2 ATS

69. KENTUCKY (-2) – 0-2 SU and ATS

70. GEORGIA TECH (-2) – 1-2 SU and ATS

71. MISSISSIPPI STATE (-2) – 1-1 SU and ATS

72. NORTH TEXAS (-2) – 1-2 SU and ATS

73. OKLAHOMA (-2) – 1-2 SU and 0-3 ATS

74. EAST CAROLINA (-2) – 0-2 SU and 1-1 ATS

New coaches’ performances

Twelve teams have been playing under new coaches. Those teams have combined to go 14-14 SU and 12-16 ATS (42.9%). Twelve more teams will be playing with new coaches once the Big Ten, Pac-12, Mountain West and Mid-American conferences join the fray. Of the bright spots so far, Arkansas with Sam Pittman has to be at the top of the list. The Razorbacks are 2-0 ATS and coming off their first SEC win in 19 games. Boston College and UTSA also seem to be better than expected. On the other side, Appalachian State’s Shawn Clark and Florida State’s Mike Norvell are 0-3 ATS, though Norvell has missed two games after testing positive for COVID-19.

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