Game Week: Cal Statistical Analysis

OCT. 16 -- Cal's offensive is explosive, while its defense is poor. UCLA leads the nation in one category...

We wrote in the Oregon preview that the loser would have to win out to have any chance at a division title, so consider this Game 1 of a seven-round single elimination tournament for the Pac-12 championship. The tournament idea actually holds up! The Bruins start with two lower level teams, followed by three games against teams that are a little tougher but very beatable, and finish up with two elite level teams in Stanford and the North Champion. The opening round is against the Cal Golden Bears, who have exceeded expectations for the year and turned themselves into the most exciting team in the country.

As always, we use:

  • Yards Per Stop to measure efficiency
  • Yards Per Play to measure explosiveness
  • Points Per Drive to measure scoring
  • Points Per Trip Inside the 40 to measure drive finishing
  • Field Position Margin to measure field position
  • Turnover Margin to measure turnovers
Here is how the Golden Bears stack up so far this season:





Cal has been the homeless man’s Oregon so far this year. Their offense has been good, playing at mostly a Top 25 level, while the defense has been horrific, playing at a triple digit ranking level.

Offense

Cal can score some points. They’re a Top 25 level team across the board in the numbers we track except for Points Per Trip Inside the 40, where they are a top 10 level team. The Bears have fallen off the pace of Oregon and the Arizona schools a bit, but they’re still playing like a team in the top third of the league offensively. They have scored fewer than 31 points exactly once this season—last week against a Washington defense whose numbers are climbing near the Stanford-Utah range.

We’re not gonna sugarcoat it—there isn’t much in the way of numbers that suggests UCLA will be able to shut down Cal like Washington did, especially with a weak pass rush. The Bears will get their points, so it’s up to the Bruin defense to make enough stops (and hopefully force enough turnovers, as the Bears have already lost ten this year) to give the offense a chance to win.

Defense

Cal can give up some points. They’re awful across the board in the stats we track—they didn’t even force one turnover against Connor Halliday. They have played some tough offensive squads like Arizona and Washington State, but they didn’t play them well and just generally have been a bad defense. Their opponent-adjusted stats are a little better than their raw stats, but they’re still in the bottom half of the country.

Let’s talk a little more about those opponent-adjusted stats, because something interesting came up this week. First, Tracy wrote his review of the Oregon game and was actually relatively complimentary of the UCLA offensive effort even with the team only scoring 10 points before garbage time, for which he was pilloried on the message board. But then today Football Outsiders came out with their updated F+ Ratings and, well, this happened:



Yes, that #1 is UCLA’s offensive ranking. In the country.

I contacted Bill Connelly and Brian Fremeau, whose stats are used to compute F+, to ask how this was possible. Basically, their response was that the Bruins’ solid showings against what Fremeau calculates as the second toughest group of defensive opponents in the country were able to overcome the relative paucity of big plays. According to F+, Memphis was the easiest defense UCLA has played all year, ranked 51st in the country. Cal is worse. If we believe in the general F+ framework, we should expect an explosion similar to the ASU game from the UCLA offense. Given the weakness of the UCLA defense and the strength of the Cal offense, that explosion may be necessary to escape Strawberry Canyon with a win.

The Computers

The Massey College Football Ranking Composite, taking 103 different rating systems into account, has UCLA as the #17 team in college football (down 6 slots from last week), while Cal is #55. The Bruins’ rankings range from #8 to #37 with a standard deviation that plummeted to 6.01, showing that the ratings systems may think they have UCLA pretty well pegged at this ranking level. The Bears’ rankings range from #26 to #86, with a standard deviation of 12.80.

Using a Simple Ratings System (solid descriptive article here), we see the following: Using Footballperspective.com’s numbers, UCLA has a SRS of 53.5 while Cal has an SRS of 39.8, meaning that when we take +3 for home field into account, Football Perspective predicts a 10 point Bruin win. Using Sports-Reference.com’s numbers, UCLA has an SRS of 14.45 while Cal has an SRS of 3.65, meaning that Sports Reference predicts a seven point UCLA win.

This past week was the only FBS game this year for Cal that was not insanely entertaining. For the Bruins to avoid some grey hairs and get a much-needed blowout win, the UCLA defense must play far better than it has over the first half of the year and the offense will need to play up to its potential against a vulnerable Cal defense. It seems more likely that this game will be a relatively close shootout, so consider this a challenge to the UCLA defense to prove itself somewhat worthy of its preseason accolades. Forget January; for the Bruins, the playoffs start Saturday.

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