The Bill Jamesian fascination with numbers has spilled over into practically every sport possible.
In baseball, you can judge players by WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, an estimate of how many extra wins a player is worth. You can use stats like OPS+ to weigh a player's on base percentage and slugging via the time period and stadium constraints in which he played. In basketball, there's plus-minus, a number that, quite simply, reflects the team's margin of points when a specific player is in the ball game.
And football has seen the revolution as well, utilizing things like slow grind to account for a defense's ability to make an offense run more plays to score, among other stat-crunching numbers.
But once you have all of the numbers, then what? That's when the search for the most worthwhile statistics begins; the quest for a 'eureka' moment where a coach, writer or fan can look at a number and use it as a realistic gauge of a team's success or failures.
It's that search that was covered so elegantly in Michael Lewis's opus 'Moneyball', a look at the Oakland A's odyssey for success through statistics, one which allowed a money-starved squad to compete with the big boys. A version of the book re-tinkered for the big screen will appear in theaters this September.
That leads to the question: which statistics matter in football? In the case of the Big 12, there's a very real figure that has accurately predicted every conference champion from 2004 on. And it would have worked in 2003, but for Kansas State's monumental upset of Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game.
The conference is known as a passing conference. So it should come as no surprise that a team's ability to pass — and defend the pass — is hugely key to success. That's why Passer Rating Differential (PRD) is such an accurate statistic.
Passer Rating Differential is an easy statistic to figure out. Simply take a team's offensive passer rating, and subtract from that figure a team's defensive passer rating.
The statistic has been accurate outside of the Big 12 as well. In fact, according to a recent CNN/SI article by Kerry J. Byrne of Coldhardfootballfacts.com, 40 of the last 71 NFL champions (56 percent) finished No. 1 or No. 2 in the league in Passer Rating Differential.
Success in that category has had an even more direct correlation to on-field success in the Big 12. First, let's look at least year's Big 12 standings:
Big 12 North
1) Nebraska — 10-4 overall record, 6-2 in the Big 12
2) Missouri — 10-3, 6-2
3) Kansas State — 7-6, 3-5
4) Iowa State — 5-7, 3-5
5) Colorado — 5-7, 2-6
6) Kansas — 3-9, 1-7
Big 12 South
1) Oklahoma — 12-2, 6-2
2) Oklahoma State — 11-2, 6-2
3) Texas A&M — 9-4, 6-2
4) Baylor — 7-6, 4-4
5) Texas Tech — 8-5, 3-5
6) Texas — 5-7, 2-6
Now, let's take a look at each team's Passer Rating Differential:
Big 12 North
1) Nebraska — 133.6 OPR - 96.3 DPR = 37.3 PRD
2) Missouri — 127.5 - 108.4 = 19.1
3) Kansas State — 143.9 - 126.2 = 17.7
4) Iowa State — 110.7 - 134.9 = (-)24.2
5) Colorado — 128.1 - 153.3 = (-)25.2
6) Kansas — 106.1 - 144.8 = (-)38.7
Big 12 South
1) Oklahoma — 145.2 - 107.4 = 37.8
2) Oklahoma State — 155.2 - 122.5 = 32.7
3) Texas A&M — 131.2 - 116.5 = 14.7
4) Baylor — 144.2 - 135.2 = 9.0
5) Texas Tech — 139.5 - 134.7 = 4.8
6) Texas — 111.2 - 118.9 = (-)7.7
That's right: Passer Rating Differential correctly predicted every position in the Big 12 standings. Additionally, the No. 1 team in PRD — Oklahoma — played and defeated the No. 2 team in PRD — Nebraska — in the Big 12 Title Game. What's further, the only Big 12 teams with a losing record last season (Iowa State, Colorado, Kansas and Texas) were the only four teams with a negative PRD.
It's too much to ask that PRD is that great a predictor on a year-in, year-out basis. But the statistic has proven to be incredibly accurate at predicting Big 12 champions:
2010 PRD Leader: Oklahoma (37.8), Big 12 Champion
2009 PRD Leader: Texas (37.9), Big 12 Champion
2008 PRD Leader: Oklahoma (58.1), Big 12 Champion
2007 PRD Leader: Oklahoma (51.8), Big 12 Champion
2006 PRD Leader: Oklahoma (35.4), Big 12 Champion
2005 PRD Leader: Texas (64.2), Big 12 Champion
2004 PRD Leader: Oklahoma (42.1), Big 12 Champion
For each of the last seven seasons, the conference leader in Passer Rating Differential has gone on to win the Big 12 crown.
But that's where the streak stops. In 2003, the conference leader was Oklahoma, with a PRD of 67.9. But the Sooners were ousted in the Big 12 Title Game in a big upset by Kansas State, the conference's third best team in PRD. 2002 was even crazier, as Kansas State led the league in PRD with 55.3, but failed to make the league title game behind Colorado, which had a paltry difference of 1.5. Oklahoma represented the Big 12 South that year with a strong PRD of 34.4, but that figure was below the PRD for Texas, which finished with a PRD of 46.2.
The reason for the shift is somewhat simple: in the Big 12's earlier days, run-first teams dominated the landscape. The 2003 Kansas State team was built around a running quarterback in Ell Roberson and a star running back in Darren Sproles. The 2002 Buffaloes and Sooners were built around the league's top two rushers in Colorado's Chris Brown and Oklahoma's Quentin Griffin.
All three of those running backs — Sproles, Brown and Griffin — topped the 1,800-yard mark in rushing. In fact, five Big 12 runners hit the 1,800-yard barrier between 2002 and 2004. No league runners have rushed for 1,700 yards in a season since, with only one player topping 1,600 rushing yards in a season.
It's that change in emphasis that has made PRD such an accurate category in recent years, more accurate than either scoring offense or scoring margin when determining Big 12 title winners. And with the return of players like Brandon Weeden, Landry Jones and Robert Griffin III, don't expect that to change this season. The emphasis, once again, will be on throwing the ball, while trying to stop your opponent from doing the same.