Inside the numbers: a winning formula

What does the ole BootComputer say about Stanford's 2008 stats – and how do the numbers portend for the Card's 2009 season?

Winning Formula Full disclaimer: I'm trying to write a computer program that can automatically analyze NCAA football stats so I can develop a set of rankings and predict games both straight-up and against the spread. It's a tough task – made that much harder because my last computer science class was basic HTML in ninth grade – and any Booties with any advice or ideas, I'd love to hear from you. But even though my final rankings aren't yet up and running, to put it charitably, I have been able to generate some pretty cool stats. These are stats would never see in a newspaper, and numbers which I think reveal a lot about Stanford's 2008 season and, in turn, what to expect for 2009.

All figures below are per-game averages, and may not add to one due to rounding. Stats that deviate far from the NCAA means are bolded.

2008 Stanford Offense Stats (NCAA average in parenthesis)
Points: 26 (25)
Total Yards: 352 (359)
Plays: 65 (67)
Yards per Play: 5.4 (5.3)
Rush Yards: 200 (147)
Rush Attempts: 41 (36)
Yards Per Carry: 4.8 (3.9)
Pass Yards: 152 (211)
Pass Attempts: 24 (31)
Yards Per Pass: 6.3 (6.9)

Pass Completion Percentage: 56 (58)
Fumbles Lost: 0.8 (1.0)
Fumbles per Play: .013 (.015)
Interceptions Thrown: 1.3 (0.8)
Interceptions per Pass: .019 (.012)

2008 Stanford Defense Stats (NCAA average in parenthesis)
Points: 27 (25)
Total Yards: 380 (359)

Plays: 68 (67)
Yards per Play: 5.7 (5.3)
Rush Yards: 153 (147)
Rush Attempts: 36 (36)
Yards Per Carry: 4.1 (3.9)
Pass Yards: 227 (211)
Pass Attempts: 32 (31)
Yards Per Pass: 7.1 (6.9)
Pass Completion Percentage: 63 (58)

Fumbles Forced: 1.1 (1.0)
Fumbles per Play: .018 (.015)
Interceptions Forced: 0.6 (0.8)
Interceptions per Pass: .008 (.012)

2008 Stanford Balance
Percent of Total Plays on Offense: 49 (50)
Percent Rush Plays on Offense: 63 (55)
Percent Rush Yards on Offense: 56 (40)
Percent Pass Plays on Offense: 37 (45)
Percent Pass Yards on Offense: 44 (60)

Percent Rush Plays on Defense: 53 (55)
Percent Rush Yards on Defense: 40 (40)
Percent Pass Plays on Defense: 47 (45)
Percent Pass Yards on Defense: 60 (60)

2008 Stanford Overall Stats
Net TOs: -0.3 (0)
Net Fumbles: +0.3 (0)
Net Interceptions: -0.7 (0)
Total Points: 54 (53)
Vegas Line: +4.7 (0) *for the non-degenerates among us, Stanford was an underdog on average
Vegas Cover Percentage: 63 (50)
Win Percentage: 42 (50)

A pretty simple picture, really. Stanford was slightly worse than average on defense, about average on offense, and thus finished slightly below the median both in its overall statistical profile, and its 5-7 final record. The stats suggest that, by season's end, the good luck had cancelled out the bad – this is very much the statistical fingerprint of a team just a whisker below .500.

The Card, however, hardly took an average path in arriving at just below average. Well, the defense was pretty consistently okay, with no single glaring deficiency or strength. One possible exception is that the 2008 staff's lack of aggression in the secondary is noticeable as pass completion percentage was way up and, in marked contrast to 2007, interceptions forced were way down.

Stanford's offense, on the other hand, was All Pac-10 caliber rushing and All Sun Belt caliber passing, as we know well. I won't belabor this point too much, as the numbers speak for themselves, but I would like to point out one hidden statistic. All else being equal, when a predominantly running team does pass, it can expect to do better than the NCAA average, as opposing defenses are in a 4-4 or some other formation to sell out to the run. Similarly, when a pass-first team does run, it can expect soft nickel coverage, open running lanes, and better than average gains. For Stanford, however, both of these trends are reversed – despite facing eight or nine men in the box, Team Gerhart was still able to average nearly five yards per carry, while the aerial attack completed a lower percentage of its passes for lower than average gains.

What I learnt most, then, from these numbers is that however poor we thought Stanford's passing was last year, it was actually worse, and however strong we thought the rushing was, it was actually better. Looking ahead to next year, then, these numbers raise three key questions:

1. With the element of surprise and several linemen no longer present, how well will Stanford be able to replicate its rushing prowess from last year?
2. Can the defense take the next step from not-a-glaring-liability to an actual strength? The secondary creating more havoc would be a great first step.
3. Will the passing attack continue to be this team's Achilles heel, or will a new quarterback and receiver move the pass game to the middle of the Pac-10 pack?

We'll have to wait until fall to find out, but the numbers suggest that these three questions will spell the difference between 4-8 and 8-4.

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