Around the turn of the century, we came into possession of a hat used by the Colorado football program’s strength team (current students: we swear there was a time when Colorado football was a thing) . It contained the slogan “It all counts, it all matters.” They may have been talking about squats and sprints, but we can slightly rework that saying to be “we count it all, it all matters” to give an idea of the use of statistics in sports today.
Statistics have been a basic part of the football environment for a very long time. In the excellent Study Hall: College Football, its Stats and its Stories, Bill Connelly writes that our current box score “has barely changed in 80 years…there is a lot of information featured in the basic box score. And a lot of it is perfectly descriptive.” For 80 years, people have been looking to at least some form of statistic to try to figure out what happened in a given game—every big-time coach you have ever heard claim that he doesn’t look at or care about statistics has been lying. The best way to answer a question about a team or its opponent is by consulting the best available statistics.
For a team, analytics help with self-scouting for strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies, scouring your opponent for those same attributes, and uncovering any hidden variables you may have missed. They can tell you where it might make sense to focus recruiting efforts and if a given referee crew is more likely to call a certain penalty. The well-informed team measures everything that might possibly provide an insight in how to win the next football game.
For fans, who might not care quite as much about the minutia of day-to-day game planning, advanced analytics can still give a better sense of what is really happening with their team. The well-informed fan will not be fooled the next time a color commentator brings up defensive rankings based on basic yards allowed per game, and will be able to tweet (with great civility, of course) at said commentator that such a simple analysis without a sense of the actual rate at which the defense gives up yards is foolish and skewed against teams that run more plays. Analytics will lay some truths out starkly, while illuminating the different shades of more complex ideas. They are, more than anything else, a set of tools with which we further our knowledge of the game.
Stats taken without a holistic view are nowhere near infallible and are always evolving—one of the most well-respected statistics-based ranking systems ranked 2013 Southern Cal #11 in the country, ahead of the #13 Arizona State and #15 UCLA teams that each beat Southern Cal by three touchdowns. Overall, however, we are confident that analytics do help tease out the important stories of the game. Over the coming weeks and months, we will use this space to give Bruin fans a statistics-focused look at the team’s past performance and future prospects. At the dawn of the biggest UCLA football season in a generation, our statistical analyses will help you understand what the team does well, what it needs to improve upon, and what to look for in the exciting months ahead.
One of the reasons we find ourselves gravitating towards college football is the sheer diversity of play. There are many, many ways to be a successful football team. Successful offenses can be balanced pro-style, run-heavy pro-style, run-heavy spread, pass-heavy spread, or triple option among others. Successful defenses can be 4-3, 3-4, 4-2-5, 3-3-5, or 5-4-4 (the Tennessee specialty). Everything, even the Pistol, is a possibility as long as you can execute well.
In order to measure this level of execution, there are just about infinite stats we can use. Throughout the season, we will keep a report card on how UCLA is doing, using some of the best publically available stats (these will not be the absolute best possible stats—if Bruin opponents want those they should hire a statistician, while BROs should just come by our tailgate—but they will be good enough to tell the story).
Piggybacking on a Football Study Hall analysis, the five most important factors for victory are:
EFFICIENCY—How well can you put yourself into 2nd and 3rd and short (and keep the opponent from doing so)
EXPLOSIVENESS—How well can you make big plays (and stop the opponent from making them)
SCORING—How well can you finish drives (and hold your opponent to a field goal or 0)
FIELD POSITION—How well do you give yourself a short field (and give your opponent a long one).
TURNOVERS—How well do you create opportunities for turnovers (and not give the opponent the opportunities)
Within these factors, we will track the following publicly available stats:
Yards Per Stop: This is a stat that Brian Fremeau has been tracking over at BCF Toys. It is a measure of efficiency and represents the total yardage earned on the remaining possessions divided by the number of times the offense was stopped short of the end zone (turnover, field goal attempt, punt, safety, or turnover on downs). Last year, a top ten YPS team would have averaged at least 70 yards per stop and allowed less than 30 yards per stop, so we’ll make those our benchmarks
Yards Per Play: This is a pretty self-explanatory stat that help measure explosiveness. Over the last five years, a top ten team has averaged at least 6.6 yards per play and allowed fewer than 4.6 yards per play, so we’ll make those our benchmarks.
Points Per Drive: Another Fremeau stat, this measures total points scored per drive. Over the last five years, a top ten team has averaged at least 3.03 points per drive and given up fewer than 1.34 points per drive, so we’ll make those our benchmarks.
Field Position Margin: This measures the difference in starting field position between a team and their opponents. Over the past five years, a top ten team has averaged at least +5.74 field position margin, so we will make that our season benchmark, keeping in mind that Football Study Hall has calculated that teams with at least a +10 margin in a given game have an over 86% chance of winning. In the 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game, UCLA dominated in most statistics, but lost field position margin by 170.4 yards.
Turnovers: Analyses tend to say that turnovers are both random and exceedingly important. We’re not going to set a benchmark here, but we will keep an eye on turnover margin to see if the Bruins are getting especially lucky or unlucky.
Throughout the year, we will also use slightly more sophisticated stats to talk about Bruin opponents, though we’ll get to those when the time is right.
We obviously don’t have any data on 2014 UVA, but here is their 2013 Report Card:
Offensive Yards Per Stop: 26.1, #119 in the Country
Defensive Yards Per Stop: 45.2, #78
Yards Per Play: 4.44, #119
Yards Allowed Per Play: 5.66, #75
Points Per Drive: 1.15, #117
Points Allowed Per Drive: 2.39, #89
Field Position Margin: -4.6, #106
Turnover Margin: -0.92, #94
Unlucky and bad. But at least it will be hot, humid, and early!
Statistical Analysis: Virginia
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