CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Larry Fedora is somewhat of a stat geek.
He has compiled full statistical breakdowns of his offenses dating back his first offensive coordinator job at Middle Tennessee in 1999, long before the advanced metrics movement worked its way into college football.
During a 2013 coaching clinic in Charlotte, N.C., Fedora told the story of Middle Tennessee quarterback Wes Counts, who led the NCAA in pass completion percentage (72.6) in 2001. What most observers failed to recognize, however, is that 88 percent of his passes were completed into the boundary because he didn’t have the arm strength to consistently make throws down the field, according to Fedora.
Defenses elected not to defend Counts any differently, which allowed Fedora to capitalize on his quarterback’s strengths while field corners spent time covering wide receivers that were more often than not decoys.
Looking beyond the basic stats on the box score is required to find that pivotal edge, the one that flips a potential loss into a comfortable victory, or a likely defeat into a competitive finish.
Various websites have attempted to isolate the stats that really matter, while others have constructed their own formulas to define efficiency. USA Today’s Jeff Sagarin has been publishing and tweaking his ratings system since 1985. Footballoutsiders.com is part of the advanced metrics push, developing its S&P Ratings off 140,000+ plays each season to combine efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers to – hopefully – determine what makes a team successful.
More websites pop up each year, offering a unique look on the vast array of stats available.
“I think all of those things are really interesting,” Fedora said on Monday. “Every time they put something out, I’m reading it. I’m interested in all of that. I’m kind of fascinated by numbers and all of those kind of things. I keep all of our stuff, and I’ve been doing it for as long as I’ve been running this offense, so I can compare over the years what things I think are really important to our success.”
It’s hard to argue with the results, especially midway through the 2015 regular season. UNC ranks 10th in passing efficiency (168.3), 20th in rushing offense (218.5), 21st in total offense (482.2) and 34th in passing offense (263.7).
The Tar Heels also rank fourth nationally in yards per play (7.57), a statistic that takes tempo into account. The school record for yards per play is 6.49, which was Fedora’s first offense in Chapel Hill in 2012.
Fedora’s 17 years as either a head coach or an offensive coordinator have led him to focus primarily on turnovers and explosive plays (running plays of at least 12 yards and pass completions of at least 16 yards).
“Those two things for us, if we can win those two battles, the turnover battles and the explosive play battles, we’re usually going to be pretty successful,” Fedora said.
UNC is tied for 56th nationally in turnover margin (0.17) through six games. The yards-per-play statistic sheds light onto UNC’s amount of explosive plays (already 40 snaps of 20+ yards).
There are other crucial statistics that prompt dedicated practice periods during game prep.
“Critical situation execution is what he calls it,” sophomore running back Elijah Hood said. “Red zone efficiency, [and] how we operate on third down. It’s something we practice all of the time…
“One day of our practice is usually just focused primarily on red zone - red zone passing, red zone running, goal line situations and all of that stuff. So we do a lot to make sure we perform on third down and in the red zone.”
UNC ranks fourth nationally in third-down conversion percentage offense (.507) and 88th in third-down conversion percentage defense (.413). The Tar Heels are tied for 63rd in red zone offense (0.846) and tied for 21st in red zone defense (.765).
The fourth-year UNC head coach admits that he does not spend much time breaking down advanced metrics during the season. There’s plenty of opportunity, though, in the offseason, when Fedora and his staff can look not only at UNC, but across the college football landscape to dissect trends and determine which direction the game is moving, including what defenses are doing and how they are doing it.
“Let’s just say you’re looking at red zone defense, and what teams are being really successful and why,” Fedora said. “So you go back and you start studying them to see what they’re doing down there. Then, from the offensive side, you’re looking, 'okay, so we need to be prepared for that, more teams are probably going to start doing this. How are we going to attack that?'”
Regardless of his love for statistics and the seemingly infinite catalog of advanced metrics and formulas, Fedora narrowed his focus down to one number that dates back to the beginning of the game when asked how he prefers to judge efficiency.
“Scoring offense and scoring defense are the two things that are really the only thing that’s going to matter in the long run, so I guess I’d say those two,” Fedora said.
UNC ranks 10th in scoring in offense (40.5) and 18th in scoring defense (17.3) nationally.