Game Week: Stanford Statistical Analysis

Nov. 27 -- Stanford has one of the elite defenses in the country, and a wholly mediocre offense...

It’s just SC—after winning the quarterfinals, the Bruins advance to the semifinals of their Personal Pac-12 Championship Playoff. UCLA is coming off probably the most complete effort of the Mora era, a 38-20 detonation of the happy-to-lose-by-a-fair-amount-but-not-too-much Trojans, and are now one win away from the coveted rematch with Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship game. In their way stands a Stanford team that, despite being the worst Stanford team in years, is still home to far and away the most consistently fearsome defense in the league, and possibly 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 Stanford stacks up so far this season:

No surprise—a lot of burnt orange in the offensive stats, a lot of green and blue in the defensive stats.


The Cardinal offense has been pretty inconsistent from the moment their FBS season began; steamrolling Southern Cal yet losing after striking out on an insane EIGHT scoring opportunities, overrunning Washington State, Oregon State, and Cal, and completely disappearing against Utah, Arizona State, and Notre Dame. Cassius Peat’s older brother has been pretty excellent in what should be his final season on the Farm, but the Stanford line as a whole hasn’t been the dominant conference-winning force that it was in 2012 and 2013. According to Football Outsiders, Stanford is 58th in Adjusted Line Yards, an opponent-adjusted stat that tries to isolate the performance of the line from that of the running backs. That’s a pretty mediocre ranking, and for a Stanford team that needs its line to maul people (exhibit A: Stanford passing the ball 3 times while controlling the ball for over 10 minutes in the fourth quarter in last year’s matchup), it isn’t good enough. By comparison, the UCLA line that was pretty mediocre for the first half of the season is ranked 17th in ALY.

The UCLA defense has had two elite performances in the past three games, dominating the Arizona and Southern Cal offenses that are a good deal better than the Stanford offense. The Bruins weren’t nearly as effective against Washington, however, and the Cardinal have to see the way that Shaq Thompson was able to pound the ball as their best hope for offensive success in this game. If the UCLA defense plays like it did against Arizona and SC, we believe they have an opportunity to record their first shutout in some time, but if they allow themselves to be worn down like they were against Washington (albeit against a Stanford team that has no backs with near the talent of Thompson), things could get a little hairier.


Yes, skeptical Bruin fans, this is a great defense. The Cardinal defense is 18th in Adjusted Line Yards allowed and 11th in Sack Rate. Their Yards Allowed Per Play number is just stunningly low, and they are also doing a great job of preventing efficiency and scoring. Among Pac-12 teams, Stanford is over two standard deviations better than average at Yards Allowed Per Play, and over one standard deviation better in every other defensive stat we track, retaking the league lead in all defensive stats after Utah finally ran out of depth last week.

This is a great defense that prioritizes pressure on the quarterback, and it will be like nothing the Bruins have seen since Utah. The UCLA offense has turned in two consecutive fantastic outings, though, and even playing poorly were able to put 28 points up on the Utes. It will be interesting to see if the locked-in Bruin line can fight its Stanford opponents to at least a draw; if UCLA can score, get big plays, and move the ball at anywhere near the rate they have the last two games, they will win comfortably. This is a Stanford defense that has only allowed more than 20 points before garbage time twice all season, so it will take the best effort of the year for the Bruins to have a really successful offensive day. Our spies inform us that sideline comeback routes have been relatively successful against the Cardinal, so Jordan Payton needs to have a big day on the edge.


Stanford hasn’t been nearly as good at controlling field position this year as it was in years past, possibly due to its horrific turnover rate. The Cardinal have turned the ball over an astounding 20 times this year (to give some idea of how bad that is, Washington State has 22 turnovers). Turnover rate is generally pretty random and over time regresses to the mean, but Stanford just hasn’t held onto the ball well enough for an offense built on ball control and field position.

After several weeks of positive field position differential, the Bruins lost the battle (by an acceptably small margin) against Southern Cal. A field position win against Stanford would go a long way towards earning a spot in Levi Stadium.

The Computers

The Massey College Football Ranking Composite, taking 117 different rating systems into account, has UCLA as the #9 team in college football (up 2 slots from last week), while Stanford is #35. The Bruins’ rankings range from #2 to #43 with a standard deviation of 6.82. This is the second-highest standard deviation among teams ranked in the top 15 behind the Florida State team that kind of reminds us of the fun-but-not-that-good 2005 Cardiac Bruins (on the field, not in the horrifying off-field stuff). Stanford’s rankings range from #4 to #65, with a standard deviation of 11.23. This is a pretty high standard deviation for that ranking level, suggesting that the ratings, like everybody else, are confused by inconsistent Stanford.

Using a Simple Ratings System (solid descriptive article here), we see the following: Using’s numbers, UCLA has a SRS of 53.5 (somehow having decreased after the big win this past weekend, possibly due to Utah’s big loss) while Stanford has an SRS of 46.6, meaning that when we take +3 for home field into account, Football Perspective predicts a 10 point Bruin win. Using’s numbers, UCLA has an SRS of 16.64 while Stanford has an SRS of 9.27, meaning that Sports Reference predicts a 10 point UCLA win.

This is what we wrote after the Oregon game: The margin of error has disappeared; the Bruins probably must sweep the rest of the year, including the November Arizona-Washington-Southern Cal-Stanford stretch that will define the season. UCLA is peaking at the right time. Despite some shaky moments, the Bruins have survived through to the last week of the regular season with a chance to win their way to Levi Stadium. The last two senior days have ended in bitter disappointment, so Brett Hundley, Eric Kendricks, and company should be even more motivated to end the losing streak against Stanford and earn the right to face down Oregon again. The semifinals of the Personal UCLA Pac-12 Championship Tournament kick off in what we hope to be a raucous Rose Bowl on Friday.

Questions? Comments? Excitement at getting to watch Kai’imi Fairbairn and Jordan Williamson kick in a Santa Ana windstorm? Meet us on the Premium Football Forum or tweet us @Bruinalytics.

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