The perfect illustration

<P>If before the game, the T.V. talking heads had known that Florida St. would end the day with 418 total yards and N.D. with 301, their smirks would've been even more pronounced, their confidence that N.D. was about to meet with doom even greater.</P>

Of course, they would've been wrong, just as they've been wrong all year. Actually, the computers have been on to something about N.D. all year that the "analysts" have missed, but let's come back to that.

The category of "total yards" is one of the least useful statistics in football and the N.D.-F.S.U. game is a perfect illustration. As I've been preaching all year, per-play statistics are much more helpful. Let's look at the N.D.-F.S.U. box score in a little more detail. N.D. ran 32 times for 116 yards and F.S.U. ran 32 times for 93 yards. Thus, N.D. owned the per carry advantage 3.6 to 2.9. F.S.U. passed 43 times for 325 yards and N.D. passed 21 times for 185 yards. So N.D. owned the per pass attempt advantage 8.8 to 7.6.

A team that owns both the rushing and passing per-play advantage wins the game more than 90% of the time. In fact, essentially the only thing that can keep a team from winning under these circumstances is either losing the turnover battle or being on the wrong side of big special teams plays. In this game there were no big special teams plays (unless you count F.S.U.'s two recovered on-side kicks late in the game) and N.D. won the turnover battle: 4-0. Game over: N.D. would win such a game 100 times out of 100.

Let's look at the game another way. N.D. had 13 possessions and its average starting position was its own 42. N.D.'s average drive went about 23 yards, so on average N.D.'s drives ended up at the F.S.U. 35, which is right on the edge of scoring range. F.S.U.'s average starting position was its own 23 and its average drive went 27 yards, so on average F.S.U. ended at mid-field, well out of scoring range. F.S.U.'s statistics were helped along here by the two on-side kicks that actually gave F.S.U. its best starting field position of the day at its own 44 and 49. If you take those and the last drives out the equation, N.D. was averaging roughly 3 points per possession up until that point and F.S.U. less than 1 point per possession. And, of course, all of this ignores the penalty yardage that favored N.D. by a net 58 yards.

The silliness of labeling N.D.'s offense the 109th best becomes manifest once one starts to look at per-play averages. (The 109th ranking, of course, is a total yards figure.) N.D. averages 3.8 per carry, which is exactly the average figure for a Division I-A team this year. N.D. averages 6.7 per pass, which is slightly below the average figure of 6.9. In reality, N.D.'s offense is right about in the middle of Division I-A offenses and its defense is stellar by any measure.

There's also the huge factor of the level of competition played. N.D. scores 24 points per game and its opponents have on average given up about 21 points per game when they haven't played N.D., so N.D. is actually a higher-scoring-than-average team by this measure. N.D.'s defense is astonishingly good: the Irish give up about 13 points per game to teams that have scored about 33 points per game when they haven't played N.D. Thus, on average, N.D. holds the opposition 20 points or so below its scoring average. F.S.U. for example, averaged almost 37 points per game coming into the contest and N.D. was set to hold them to more than 20 below that figure until the late touchdowns more than doubled F.S.U.'s point output.

Really solid teams own substantial per-play advantages in both the rushing and the passing columns, and N.D. has owned these advantages all year: currently they stand at + 1.3 per rush and + 0.7 per pass. One of the reasons that I was quite confident that N.D. had a very good chance to beat F.S.U. was that F.S.U. didn't own these season advantages. While F.S.U. had a nice rushing advantage of 2.1, the Seminoles were negative 0.7 on passing plays, and that turned out to be a major Achilles heel for them against the Irish. In fact, as I mentioned in some of my pre-game writings, before the game the Seminoles reminded me of another suspect 2-loss team: the 2000 Notre Dame team. That N.D. team was strongly positive on rushes (more than a yard per play) but about 0.8 negative on pass plays and thus risked exposure when they played a complete team. The same thing happened to the Seminoles when they faced a much more complete team in the Irish.

So what has so thoroughly misled the "analysts" this year? Some of it, of course, is psychological. Mel Kiper's dogged insistence even until mid-season that N.D. would do well to win 6 games is a clear effort on this part to justify his pre-season evaluation of N.D. as having weak talent. A large part, however, has been a mistaken belief that N.D. truly had one of the worst offenses in the country, when the truth of the matter is that N.D. had a below-average, but not terrible, offense at the beginning of the season and that it has steadily progressed to the point where, accounting for the level of competition, it's probably one of the best 40 or so offenses right now. The defense has been ferocious all year; accounting for the level of competition, I suspect that the only defense in the country that could claim to be in N.D.'s league is Oklahoma's. But, of course, ESPN doesn't show many defensive highlights, and if all one watches are the highlights then one might conclude that N.D. isn't very good.

The thing that the computers have seen all year, but the analysts somehow haven't, is primarily the level of competition. Counting only Division I-A opponents, N.D.'s opponents thus far are 35-18 when they don't play N.D. For Miami it's 22-20, for Oklahoma it's 28-17, for Georgia it's 30-18, for Ohio St. it's 34-31, for Virginia Tech it's 26-25 and for N.C. St. it's 22-36. N.D.'s opponents' opponents have a strong record of 239-183, suggesting that N.D.'s opponents have earned their impressive 35-18 mark against good competition. Only Ohio St.'s opponents have played a similar level of competition. Thus, N.D. has played BY FAR the hardest schedule of any undefeated team and, well, when you run the table against the hardest schedule, most objective observers will put you at the top, which is precisely where the computers have put N.D.

Of course, many of the talking heads will continue to insist that it's the "luck of the Irish", but the truth is that it's anything but.