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Reconciling CFB stats with perceptions

By Steve Makinen  () 

We’re deep enough into the college football season to make judgments about some teams. Most teams have played at least three games, and that is typically when I switch from making adjustments off the previous year’s numbers to trusting the new data. While this season has been and will continue to be unique, one exercise I like to do after a few games is analyze the play-by-play data against common perceptions. I believe this is a way to find overrated and underrated teams to take advantage of in the next couple of games.

This report will discuss the top five teams whose Effective Yards Per Play statistics don’t match up with their perceived strength. I’ve assigned my Effective Offensive and Defensive Yards Per Play figures an equivalent power rating on the scale I use. I then compared these EYPP Equivalent Ratings with the combined average of my current power ratings, which are based heavily on betting markets and those of the ESPN FPI, a more mainstream indicator of team strength. This should strengthen my findings and eliminate chances for judgment errors.

The assumption is that if the Effective Yards Per Play Equivalent Rating is higher than the average SM/ESPN power rating, that team is playing better than its perceived strength, and vice versa. Does this mean the teams playing better should automatically be play-on teams in the coming weeks, or those playing worse should be faded? Not necessarily. Other factors could affect a team’s perceived ability. For instance, I can think of five factors off the top of my head that would have a lesser impact on an oddsmaker’s, analyst’s or fan’s perception of team strength when compared with analyzing records or scores. These include:

— Turnovers. Nothing changes a score or perception of a game more quickly than turnovers. Teams on the positive end of the turnover battle might not be as good as advertised, and vice versa, as in many cases, turnovers can be a matter of fortune.

— Sacks for and against. Sacks can be very influential plays that lead to uncomfortable down-and-distance settings. This naturally leads to atypical play-calling, which can lead to misrepresentations of teams’ tendencies and strengths.

— Third-down success. Very few stats run parallel with success or lack thereof more than the third-down conversion indicator. On both sides of the ball, how a team fares on third down directly impacts the scoreboard.

— Strength of schedule. Teams can play well and get beat handily or play poorly and survive, simply depending on whom they play. These results might not harm or help a team’s perceived strength adequately for those simply looking at scores and records. But they do show up in my effective stats.

— Time of possession. How much a team possesses the ball can be overrated. With most teams running pass-happy offenses and calling plays at the line of scrimmage rather than in the huddle, long drives can prove scarce. The ability to hit big plays seems like the preferred result nowadays, whereas long drives used to be paramount. Defenses yield those big plays while causing turnovers and forcing teams into long down-and-distance situations.

 

Teams with Effective Yards Per Play stats better than their perceived strength, along with their influential statistics (national ranks out of 75):

1. NORTH CAROLINA: PR Avg - 54.5, EffYPP Equiv: 74.4 - Difference: + 19.9

Turnover margin per game: -1 (60)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 2.3 (44)/3.7 (9)

Third Down Conv % Off/Def: 0.51 (10)/0.38 (32)

Strength of schedule: 44.5 (28)

Time of possession: 29:40 (43)

Analysis: Things look promising for North Carolina. At 3-0, the Tar Heels have been on the bad side of the turnover luck but have demonstrated strength up front. They are getting after the passer on defense and showing great balance on offense. I believe UNC should be in the ACC title contender discussion all season and should be on your betting radar immediately.

2. MISSISSIPPI STATE: PR Avg - 45.3, EffYPP Equiv: 60.2 - Difference: + 14.9

Turnover margin per game: -3 (75)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 2.7 (50)/4 (6)

Third Down Conv % Off/Def: 0.34 (59)/0.31 (15)

Strength of schedule: 49.4 (13)

Time of possession: 33:52 (12)

Analysis: Mississippi State is just 1-2 but seems much better than that. In fact, its Effective Yards Per Play equivalent power rating is 60.3, which is similar to the actual power rating a team like Florida enjoys. Ironically, the defense has been the far better unit thus far, a strange phenomenon for a Mike Leach-coached team. I could certainly see myself getting behind this team in the coming weeks, especially in the underdog role, as QB K.J. Costello gets more comfortable in the offense.

3. BYU: PR Avg - 54.1, EffYPP Equiv: 68.1 - Difference: + 14

Turnover margin per game: + 0.2 (32)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 0.5 (5)/3.2 (15)

Third Down Conv % Off/Def: 0.51 (12)/0.25 (7)

Strength of schedule: 34.5 (60)

Time of possession: 35:04 (3)

Analysis: BYU has been the talk of the town this season, although the close win against UTSA last weekend could be a sign to hit the pause button on wagering. The weakness of schedule is of utmost concern, and this week’s opponent, Houston, will be the best team BYU has faced. It will be a challenge for BYU to match the dominance it has shown on the line of scrimmage across all key stats, considering that most opponents faced to date have dropped dramatically in 2020. 

4. MISSOURI: PR Avg - 44.7, EffYPP Equiv: 58 - Difference: + 13.3

Turnover margin per game: -1.7 (71)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 1.7 (25)/2 (39)

Third Down Conv % Off/Def: 0.46 (20)/0.41 (53)

Strength of schedule: 57.2 (3)

Time of possession: 29:11 (47)

Analysis: I didn’t expect much from Missouri this season, but the Tigers have put together a pair of respectable performances in home games against LSU and Alabama. Even in the road game at Tennessee, Mizzou showed some unexpected offensive explosiveness. The Tigers seem to have taken a nice step forward offensively behind new QB Connor Bazelak and new coach Eli Drinkwitz, and they could be live underdogs, assuming they clean up their early turnover problems.

5. ARKANSAS STATE: PR Avg - 37.5, EffYPP Equiv: 48.5 - Difference: + 11

Turnover margin per game: -1 (60)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 3 (56)/1 (64)

Third Down Conv % Off/Def: 0.4 (46)/0.44 (49)

Strength of schedule: 40.9 (37)

Time of possession: 23:21 (75)

Analysis: As expected, Arkansas State’s offense has been a big-play machine behind its quarterback rotation of Logan Bonner and Layne Hatcher. The two have combined for 14 TD passes in four games. The Red Wolves are only 2-2 because they can’t get off the field defensively. They are next to last in the country in time of possession and are down a turnover per game to opponents. These are areas that can be cleaned up, and with only familiar Sun Belt foes left on the slate, I expect things to go better the rest of the way.

Teams with Effective Yards Per Play stats worse than their perceived strength:

1. LSU: PR Avg - 54.4, EffYPP Equiv: 33.5 - Difference: -20.9

Turnover margin per game: + 2 (3)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 3 (56)/3 (17)

Third Down Conv % Off/Def: 0.23 (73)/0.47 (58)

Strength of schedule: 40.2 (42)

Time of possession: 29:18 (46)

Analysis: Things were expected to be different for LSU after last year’s sensational title season. The magnitude of the drop defies logic, however, as it was assumed the Tigers would be able to restock the shelves adequately. Despite having a + 2 margin in turnovers per game, coach Ed Orgeron’s team is 1-2 with the treacherous part of its schedule upcoming. This year’s team appears even worse than the experts had thought. To put it in perspective, the Tigers’ EffYPP Equivalent power rating of 33.5 matches the actual power rating of a team like Georgia State.

2. GEORGIA SOUTHERN: PR Avg - 34.2, EffYPP Equiv: 19.4 - Difference: -14.8

Turnover margin per game: -0.5 (53)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 0.5 (5)/0.5 (73)

Third Down Conv % Off/Def: 0.63 (3)/0.38 (34)

Strength of schedule: 24.1 (74)

Time of possession: 35:03 (4)

Analysis: I don’t care if the opponent is recognized widely as the nation’s worst FBS team, I’m not sure Georgia Southern is worthy of being a four-touchdown favorite over anyone, as it is Saturday vs. UMass. The Panthers are 2-1, but the wins are by one point over FCS Campbell and by five over downtrodden Louisiana-Monroe. Despite dominating in time of possession and being among the nation’s best in third-down conversion percentage and sacks allowed, GSU should not command the respect it is getting.

3. NAVY: PR Avg - 35.9, EffYPP Equiv: 21.7 - Difference: -14.2

Turnover margin per game: + 0 (37)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 2.2 (41)/0.5 (73)

Third Down Conv % Off/Def: 0.37 (54)/0.41 (54)

Strength of schedule: 43.9 (30)

Time of possession: 29:07 (48)

Analysis: It is nearly impossible to have a good feel for where this Navy team is headed. Having gone without significant practice time before the season opener, the Midshipmen were whipped by what has proven to be a high-quality BYU team. They were also trounced by rival Air Force. However, in its two other games, both in conference play, Navy looked more like Navy and came away with wins. At this point, Navy is alone atop the AAC standings. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out.

4. VANDERBILT: PR Avg - 31.6, EffYPP Equiv: 18 - Difference: -13.6

Turnover margin per game: -0.3 (47)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 2.7 (50)/1 (64)

Third Down Conv % Off/Def: 0.33 (60)/0.39 (47)

Strength of schedule: 51.7 (10)

Time of possession: 31:06 (33)

Analysis: I read on Outkick that this week’s postponement of the Vanderbilt-Missouri game might be the only thing that keeps the Commodores from going 0-10 in 2020. However, the game was rescheduled. Vanderbilt’s Effective Yards Per Play equivalent power rating is an ugly 18, which would put it at or near the bottom of the Sun Belt Conference in team strength. Looking at the rest of Vandy’s schedule in terms of the opponents’ EffYPP, the Commodores are not within 28.5 points of any of their remaining seven opponents.

5. LOUISIANA TECH: PR Avg - 32.9, EffYPP Equiv: 20.7 - Difference: -12.2

Turnover margin per game: + 0 (37)

Sacks Against (Off)/For (Def): 3.3 (63)/1 (64)

Third Down Conv % Off/Def: 0.47 (18)/0.47 (61)

Strength of schedule: 30.1 (66)

Time of possession: 31:59 (25)

Analysis: After winning 10 games last year, including the Independence Bowl, a drop-off was expected. While the Bulldogs are 3-1 to open 2020, their Effective Yards Per Play statistics are more reflective of a 1-3 or even an 0-4 team. They are being outgained by 57 yards per game, despite an edge in time of possession and a schedule strength tougher than only 10 other teams. The schedule gets a little harder over the next month, making this team a prime play-against target.

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