Photo by Steve Cheng

Game Week: UCLA vs. BYU Statistical Analysis

Sept. 18 -- How do the Cougars stack up against the Bruins from a statistical perspective?

The cardiac adults (consider that the reference to BYU’s age that by law every article about the Cougars must include) of Brigham Young bring college football’s most compelling late show to the Rose Bowl this weekend in the nonconference finale. The Cougars exist in some weird in-between state of independence where they aren’t nearly as well-respected as Notre Dame but are on a higher tier than Navy (not to mention their former conference mates in the Mountain West), and have ridden two wins against solid competition to a Top 20 national ranking. An 11 or 12 win season from the Cougars would put them in line for a New Year’s Six bowl game, though we really don’t think even an undefeated BYU would make the playoff.

It took BYU 4 games last year to figure things out after losing Taysom Hill to injury, but that experience (plus the addition of former big-time recruit Tanner Mangum) meant that the Cougars recovered much quicker from this season’s catastrophic Hill injury. Last year, the Cougars had a very solid offense, finishing 25th in opponent adjusted IsoPPP+ (a measure of explosiveness developed by Football Outsiders) and 32nd in adjusted Red Zone S&P+ (a measure of drive finishing developed by FO). Their success rate (a measure of efficiency) was a shade over 44%, good for 42nd in the country. On defense, 2014 BYU wasn’t quite as good (though they weren’t bad, just mediocre), ranking in the high 50s to low 70s in the above categories.

That was 2014, though. How is the 2015 iteration faring?

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

Ranking Buckets

BYU Preview

We repeat the early-season mantra of being careful to take too much from a small sample size. BYU has also faced two real opponents, while UCLA has faced one real opponent and one team that threw for 4 yards in the final three quarters and kicked a field goal down by 37 points.

So far, the Cougars offense has depended on big plays and taking advantage of their scoring opportunities. The two game-winning Hail Marys will get some of the credit for their impressive Yards Per Play, but the Cougars have already managed 14 plays of 20 yards or more, one fewer than Southern Cal has managed against the Sun Belt All Stars. Against Boise State, BYU only made it inside the Bronco 40 yard line four times, but scored a touchdown every single time it got there. That kind of scoring efficiency wins football games. The overall offensive efficiency measured in Yards Per Stop and Points Per Drive is a step behind the rest of the offense, much like it was for the Cougars in 2014. If the pattern continues to hold, this will be an interesting test for a UCLA defense that has spent the last 3+ years oriented towards stopping big plays rather than preventing an offense from being efficient. Tom Bradley’s unit has been brilliant so far, but this will be their biggest test yet (at least until next week…and the week after that).

The BYU defense has been much more consistent than the offense, with good-not-great stats across the board. They have been best at preventing opposing offenses from being efficient, being just outside the Top 25 tier of Yards Allowed Per Stop. The Cougars have allowed 8 plays of 20 yards or more, though only one of those plays went over 30 yards. This means that Josh Rosen must get comfortable attacking that mid-range area. Last year’s Cougars were stout against the run, so it will be interesting to see if the ballyhooed UCLA offensive line can create holes for Paul Perkins. This year’s Cougars seem to be much better at rushing the quarterback than the 2014 iteration, with 7 sacks through two games a year after finishing 99th in Adjusted Sack Rate.

The Cougars are +2 in turnovers, and iced their win over Boise State with an interception return for a touchdown. Despite their wins, they are -1.5 in Field Position Margin, and the Bruins would do well to have a third straight game with a decisive average field position advantage.

The Computers

The Massey College Football Ranking Composite, taking 56 different rating systems into account, has UCLA as the #11 team in college football (up one from last week) while BYU is #24. The Bruins’ rankings range from #2 to #44 with a standard deviation of 6.39. This standard deviation is about the same as most teams near the UCLA ranking level, meaning that rating systems aren’t more sure or unsure than average of where to peg the Bruins. BYU’s rankings range from #2 to #63, with a standard deviation of 12.09. This standard deviation is about the same as most teams near their ranking level.

Small sample sizes are fun, so welcome back the Simple Ratings System!

Using a Simple Ratings System (solid descriptive article here), we see the following: Using’s numbers, UCLA (ranked #2, by the way) has an SRS of 51.38 while BYU (ranked #10) has an SRS of 41.47, meaning that when we take +3 for home field advantage into account, Sports Reference predicts a 12 point UCLA win.

Using Brian Fremeau’s FEI ratings, FEI predicts a 34-20 Bruin win.

Your Saturday Schedule

Every week we are going to give you the optimal college football Saturday viewing schedule, recommending the games with the highest mean Massey Composite ratings. Here is our recommendation this week:

Morning Slot: The first two weeks have seen pretty good games come in the early slot, with Stanford’s surprising loss to Northwestern and Houston beating Louisville 34-31. This week’s choice is Northwestern at Duke

Noon Slot: For the second week in a row, Notre Dame is the pick in the noon hour, with Georgia Tech at Notre Dame (average rating: 13.5) tops in the slot. We think Georgia Tech would have rolled even if Malik Zaire hadn’t broken his foot, so if that game gets out of hand then it might be fun to watch Les Miles vs. Gus Malzahn, as disappointing Auburn travels to LSU (average rating: 16). It will be 92 degrees and humid in Death Valley at kickoff, so good luck to the fans.

Mid-Afternoon Slot: This is the perfect time to head to the Rose Bowl, as the 3 PM slot is pretty weak. The highest rated game is South Carolina at Georgia (average rating: 25.5), though we personally have more interest in the 4 pm Cal at Texas game (average rating: 50).

Early Evening Slot: For those of you at the Rose Bowl (this should be all of you who live in Southern California!), it’s time to get the DVR ready. Starting things off is the always ugly Stanford-Southern Cal game (average rating: 18) at 5 pm. Next comes what might be the game of the year in the SEC, Ole Miss at Alabama (average rating: 4.5).

#Pac12AfterDark Slot: For the second week in a row, the Bruins play after dark. Get to your seats early—Mora demands it.

Questions? Comments? Meet us on the Premium Football Forum or tweet us @Bruinalytics.

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