With most college football teams having played five or six games this season, we can make some judgments about them and their prospects. One exercise I like to do at this point each season is to analyze all teams’ play-by-play data against what the power ratings — in essence, the betting markets — think about them. I believe this is a good way to find overrated and underrated teams of which to take advantage in the next few weeks.
So we’ll look at the top and bottom five teams whose effective-yards-per-play statistics don’t match up with their perceived strength. I assigned my Effective Offensive/Defensive Yards Per Play figures an equivalent power rating on the scale I use. I then took these EYPP equivalent ratings and compared them with the combined average of my power ratings, which are based heavily on betting markets, and those of the ESPN FPI, a more mainstream indicator of team strength. By doing this, it strengthens my findings and reduces chances for judgment errors by me or ESPN.
The assumption is that if the Effective Yards Per Play Equivalent Rating is higher than the average power rating, that team is playing better than its perceived strength, with the inverse also true. Does this mean teams playing better should automatically be play-on teams in the coming weeks or those playing worse should be faded? Not necessarily, as other factors might affect each team’s perceived ability. I can think of several factors that could impact an oddsmaker’s, analyst’s or fan’s perception of a team’s strength when compared with analyzing records and 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 turnovers often 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 leads to atypical play-calling, which can in turn lead to misrepresentations of teams’ tendencies and strengths.
— Third-down success. Few statistics correlate more closely with success or lack thereof than third-down conversions. 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 still survive, simply depending on whom they played. These results might not help or harm a team’s perceived strength level for those simply looking at scores and records. They do show up in my effective stats, however.
— Time of possession. How much a team possesses the ball in a game or a season can be an overrated statistic. With most teams running pass-happy offenses and calling plays at the line of scrimmage rather than in a huddle, long drives can be scarce. The ability to hit big plays seems like the preferred result nowadays, whereas long drives used to be paramount. Defenses try to suppress those big plays while causing turnovers and forcing teams into long down-and-distance situations.
— Penalties. The number of times and yards a team is penalized — and perhaps more importantly, the timing of those penalties — can influence down and distance and play-calling, and thus results.
Teams With Effective-Yards-Per-Play Stats Better Than Their Perceived Strength (national ranks in parentheses)
1. Western Kentucky
Power ratings average: 38.9; Effective-yards-per-play equivalent: 51.5; Difference: + 12.6
Record: 1-4 SU and 3-2 ATS
Turnover margin per game: -0.2 (82)
Sacks against/for: 2 (53)/1 (119)
Third-down conversion (off/def): 50.0 percent (10)/54.7 percent (128)
Strength of schedule: 36.4 (79)
Time of possession: 25:21 (129)
Analysis: Quarterback Bailey Zappe has had as much impact on his team as any transfer in the country. The former Houston Baptist star already has thrown for 2,235 yards and 21 TDs. The dynamic change has been a shock to the system for bettors, as the Hilltoppers are scoring 40.4 ppg after averaging just 19 la st season. However, WKU has played some pretty good teams and is just 1-4 SU and 3-2 ATS because of it. This is the definition of a team putting way too much pressure on its defense. That unit has been on the field for more time than all but one FBS team, and probably due to fatigue, it is struggling to pressure the opposing passer and stop teams on third downs. But none of WKU’s opponents has matched up offensively. This team has a good chance to go on a run in the last two months.
PR average: 55.5; EffYPP equivalent: 67.9; Difference: + 12.4
Record: 4-2 SU and 5-1 ATS
Turnover margin per game: -0.8 (110)
Sacks against/for: 1.5 (29)/1.7 (98)
Third-down conversion (off/def): 36.8 percent (78)/30.2 percent (15)
Strength of schedule: 49.8 (1)
Time of possession: 30:01 (61)
Analysis: After six games, Arkansas has played what amounts to the toughest schedule in the country. Even so, the Razorbacks are 4-2 SU and 5-1 ATS and showing signs of a team fully capable of competing with anyone. In fact, their yards-per-play-equivalent power rating numbers are nearly 5.0 points better than Alabama. KJ Jefferson has been great at quarterback, and the defense, particularly in the first four games, was much improved over a year ago. Despite a -0.8 turnover differential, Arkansas continues to compete and thrive. The schedule doesn’t get a lot easier, but this team has shown it probably doesn’t matter. Coach Sam Pittman is truly building something here.
3. Texas Tech
PR average: 44.9; EffYPP equivalent: 55; Difference: + 10.1
Record: 4-2 SU and 3-3 ATS
Turnover margin per game: + 0.2 (49)
Sacks against/for: 1.8 (45)/1.8 (88)
Third-down conversion (off/def): 43.6 percent (43)/50.7 percent (122)
Strength of schedule: 40.1 (56)
Time of possession: 29:02 (82)
Analysis: Texas Tech’s offense has proven to be one of the best in college football in the third season under coach Matt Wells. In fact, the Red Raiders haven’t missed a beat even after losing Oregon QB transfer Tyler Shough to injury, continuing to soar behind replacement Henry Colombi. However, the defense allowed 52 points in a loss to TCU last week and 70 to Texas two weeks earlier. Texas Tech gave up 730 yards rushing in those two games alone! In the other four games the Red Raiders were pretty good defensively. That’s a big reason the overall yards-per-play numbers look good. With Kansas on deck, this looks like a team capable of blowing someone out and then playing spoiler the rest of the way.
PR average: 39.3; EffYPP equivalent: 48.5; Difference: + 9.2
Record: 2-4 SU and 3-3 ATS
Turnover margin per game: + 0.6 (30)
Sacks against/for: 2.2 (67)/2.6 (36)
Third-down conversion (off/def): 39.2 percent (63)/44.1 percent (98)
Strength of schedule: 42.4 (27)
Time of possession: 30:17 (55)
Analysis: Since a stunning upset loss to UC Davis in the opener, Tulsa has played a pretty tough schedule and has proven quite competitive. The offense put up 501 yards in a misleading 41-20 loss at Ohio State, then came back a week later and gained 663 yards against Arkansas State. Quarterback Davis Brin is throwing for a lofty 8.5 yards per attempt. Not much stands out in the stats to indicate the Golden Hurricane are on the good side of luck either. In other words, they just might be better than oddsmakers are giving them credit for. I would have no problem backing Tulsa as it gets deeper into AAC play.
5. Michigan State
PR average: 54.9; EffYPP equivalent: 63.9; Difference: + 9
Record: 6-0 SU and 5-1 ATS
Turnover margin per game: + 0.8 (17)
Sacks against/for: 1.6 (36)/4 (4)
Third-down conversion (off/def): 35.6 percent (84)/37.1 percent (50)
Strength of schedule: 39.7 (61)
Time of possession: 27:08 (112)
Analysis: Michigan State has been a very pleasant surprise and goes into this week’s game at Indiana at 6-0, having covered five times. What are the Spartans doing well? Almost everything. Their equivalent-yards-per-play power rating of 63.9 puts them among the country’s elite. They are enjoying good fortune on turnovers and are getting solid play from both lines. QB Payton Thorne has been a revelation, throwing for 1,575 yards and a 14-2 TD-INT ratio, and RB Kenneth Walker III is on pace for nearly 2,000 yards. This could be a team of magic, so don’t mistake the difficulty of the rest of the schedule as the end of their run.
Teams With Effective-Yards-Per-Play Stats Worse Than Their Perceived Strength
1. Boise State
PR average: 47.5; EffYPP equivalent: 33.9; Difference: -13.6
Record: 3-3 SU and 4-2 ATS
Turnover margin per game: + 1.3 (6)
Sacks against/for: 2.3 (76)/2.3 (52)
Third-down conversion (off/def): 44.6 percent (34)/45.6 percent (107)
Strength of schedule: 41.5 (41)
Time of possession: 29:37 (69)
Analysis: Despite a 4-2 ATS mark, Boise State has to be considered one of the bigger disappointments in college football. The Broncos have lost two games as favorites and another against Oklahoma State that in previous years it probably would have pulled out. In short, this year’s team seems to lack its trademark grit under first-year coach Andy Avalos. What’s more, the yards-per-play stats stand as evidence of a team that is simply not as good as it is being given credit for. The schedule eases up a lot in the second half, but I would not trust this team as a big favorite the rest of the way.
PR average: 36.1; EffYPP equivalent: 23.3; Difference: -12.8
Record: 1-4 SU and ATS
Turnover margin per game: -0.8 (109)
Sacks against/for: 3.2 (109)/0.5 (127)
Third-down conversion (off/def): 23.5 percent (130)/39.6 percent (67)
Strength of schedule: 42.1 (32)
Time of possession: 26:28 (119)
Analysis: Colorado truly has some of the ugliest numbers in the country in the selected categories. The Buffaloes are on the short end of the turnover battle, they can’t protect their QB or pressure the opposing one, and they’re unable to sustain drives. On top of that, the yards-per-play-equivalent power ratings show Colorado as a low-level Group of 5 team. Perhaps the Buffaloes are just not very good, and thus not worth your money. Fade them until oddsmakers price them accordingly.
3. Virginia Tech
PR average: 48.2; EffYPP equivalent: 35.7; Difference: -12.5
Record: 3-2 SU and 2-3 ATS
Turnover margin per game: + 1.0 (9)
Sacks against/for: 2.2 (73)/3.2 (15)
Third-down conversion (off/def): 46.6 percent (21)/30.0 percent (12)
Strength of schedule: 39.9 (58)
Time of possession: 31:43 (28)
Analysis: When Virginia Tech upset North Carolina on opening weekend, it certainly had the makings of a result that could catapult the Hokies to big things. But since then, UNC’s struggles and their own mediocre play have taken a lot of luster off that win. Despite a very healthy + 1.0 turnover margin per game as well as great third-down numbers, coach Justin Fuente’s team is just 3-2 SU and 2-3 ATS. This has the makings of an ugly finish, especially with four of the final five games on the road.
PR average: 57.9; EffYPP equivalent: 45.5; Difference: -12.4
Record: 6-0 SU and 5-1 ATS
Turnover margin per game: + 2.5 (1)
Sacks against/for: 2.3 (76)/2.3 (52)
Third-down conversion (off/def): 36.4 percent (81)/34.1 percent (31)
Strength of schedule: 42.3 (28)
Time of possession: 33:14 (11)
Analysis: Iowa is getting a lot of the breaks needed to be undefeated at this point. But the Hawkeyes are nowhere near the level of a No. 2 team in the country when considering the per-play statistics. If anything, they are closer to a No. 50 team. Iowa is the top team in the nation in turnover differential and has won three games by 10 or fewer points. This type of good fortune can go on for entire seasons. Don’t be surprised if it does, especially while oddsmakers continue to incentivize the Hawkeyes with disrespect. But don’t count on winning comfortably with your bets on the Hawkeyes because they don’t have the firepower to make things easy.
PR average: 37.7; EffYPP equivalent: 25.8; Difference: -11.9
Record: 2-3 SU and 1-4 ATS
Turnover margin per game: + 0 (58)
Sacks against/for: 2.5 (84)/1.8 (94)
Third-down conversion (off/def): 41.9 percent (50)/42.6 percent (90)
Strength of schedule: 36.3 (80)
Time of possession: 29:17 (77)
Analysis: Northwestern was one of the country’s biggest surprises last season, reaching the Big Ten championship game. This year the Wildcats look like an inexperienced team unable to replace massive personnel losses. Oh, wait: That’s what they are and were expected to be by analysts like me. It would have been virtually impossible to duplicate last year’s incredible defensive effort. However, this drop is far more than lost talent; this is a change in scheme that isn’t working. In three games against Group of 5 opponents, Northwestern has allowed 41.3 ppg. Don’t expect much improvement the rest of the way as the Wildcats aren’t showing much on either side of the ball.