Things were just getting fun in this game. The nailbiters in 2011-2013. The 2014 blowout. The big personalities of Jim Mora and Todd Graham. Perhaps no conference matchup outside of Stanford-Oregon had benefited more from the switch to divisions than UCLA-Arizona State, with the winner of the game going on to win the South Division the first three years of the Pac-12’s existence. The game was beginning to get the unmistakable whiff of those awesome secondary rivalries that define the SEC, and before the season we circled this game as probably the best home game of the year.
Then Arizona State got dominated by a good-not-great Texas A&M team. Then they struggled to put away Cal Poly SLO. Then they let New Mexico within 4 points in the 4th quarter. Then they decided to help produce Adoree Jackson’s NFL draft highlight video in a home blowout loss. You could say the luster has come off the game just a little.
When we asked a coworker about the rivalry, he smirked “yeah, I guess they think it’s a rivalry,” as if considering the Sun Devils a rival was beneath a team with the stature of UCLA. And yet, after all this game has been over the last half-decade, we would like to humbly suggest that yes, this is a rivalry, and further that this is still a big game as the Bruins play for sole possession of first place in the South (thanks to a Utah bye). This game matters, and it will continue to matter as long as Jim Mora and Todd Graham are in charge. Now what do the stats say?
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
This…this is worse than we expected.
It is certainly true that two of the three games we have data from (we toss out all FCS stats) are against Texas A&M and Southern Cal, but those teams aren’t exactly renowned for their defenses yet the Sun Devils have really mediocre offensive numbers across the board. Arizona State is in the Top 100 tier in efficiency, explosiveness, and taking advantage of scoring opportunities, and they’re even worse in scoring rate. Compared to the high flying ASU offense of the last few years, this is a stunning drop off (and, we must say, one that very well may be ripe for a correction back up to the mean if Mike Bercovici picks up his level of play).
Other advanced stats (thanks to Football Study Hall) aren’t much kinder to Mike Norvell’s crew. The Sun Devils’ 41.8% success rate is good for just 72nd in the country. It gets worse—they are 100th in the country in passing explosiveness, and 79th in rushing success rate. The only ok stat for the Arizona State offense is rushing explosiveness, which is 30th in the country. Let’s not mince words here—if the ASU offense is able to gash the UCLA defense this week, you can probably put hopes of a truly breakthrough Bruin season to rest. Even without Eddie Vanderdoes, Myles Jack, and Fabian Moreau, the Bruin defense should really be able to handle the suddenly anemic Sun Devils. While we do expect UCLA defensive stats to begin to slide out of the Top 10 tier due to the injuries and overall tougher competition, the Bruins should at least be able to come close to replicating what A&M, New Mexico, and Southern Cal were able to do to Arizona State.
The Arizona State defense hasn’t been quite as bad as the offense (and it’s probably safe to say that the Texas A&M and Southern Cal offenses are good), but it hasn’t really stopped anybody yet this year either. Among the stats we track, they are stuck in the mediocre Top 100 tier across the board. The other advanced statistics aren’t much kinder. The Sun Devils are the #20 team in the country in preventing explosive rushing plays, but their rushing success rate allowed of 42.9% comes in at 80th in the country, meaning they allow opposing run games to stay on schedule. Their passing defense numbers are flipped, only allowing a 32.6% passing success rate (22nd in the country) but currently ranking an incredible 124th in the country in preventing explosive pass plays. Big pass plays were an important part of last year’s Bruin blowout, and we have to imagine that Josh Rosen is very excited to unleash the deep ball on this overmatched Arizona State defense. Coming off of one of the best offensive showings of the Mora era in Tucson, the Bruins should be brimming with confidence, and this Sun Devil defense looks very vulnerable.
Arizona State has done a terrible job of taking care of the football, as turnovers put their game against Southern Cal out of reach and the numbers say Todd Graham’s crew are actually lucky to only be -3 in turnover margin. They aren’t much better in controlling field position, as their -4 number places them squarely in the very bottom tier. When your offense and defense have been mediocre, it is important to do the little things to stay competitive with good teams, and so far the Sun Devils simply have not been able to do that.
The Massey College Football Ranking Composite, taking 82 different rating systems into account, has UCLA as the #3 team in college football (up an incredible seven slots from last week) while Arizona State is #63. The Bruins’ rankings range from #1 to #22 with a standard deviation of 4.58. This is the lowest standard deviation among the Top 120 teams in the country, meaning that there is pretty good consensus among the different rating systems that the Bruins belong in this slot. Arizona State’s rankings range from #22 to #105, with a standard deviation of 20.74. This standard deviation is higher than most teams around their ranking level, meaning there is a little more uncertainty among rating systems about just where to put the Sun Devils.
Using a Simple Ratings System (solid descriptive article here), we see the following: Using Sports-Reference.com’s numbers, UCLA has an SRS of 41.30 while Arizona State has an SRS of 15.84, meaning that when we take +3 for home field advantage into account, Sports Reference predicts a 25 point UCLA win.
Using Brian Fremeau’s FEI ratings, FEI predicts a 30-19 Bruin win.
We do caution that the problem with many numbers is that they don’t take injuries into account. We only have one game of data of UCLA without three defensive starters, therefore the Bruins may be a bit overrated by computer systems.
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: This is the best batch of morning games yet, so while you’re preparing your tailgate, Houston at Tulsa, Texas at TCU, Minnesota at Northwestern, and Iowa at Wisconsin are all worth a look. The pick, however, is the Big 12 Air Raid battle between West Virginia at Oklahoma (average rating: 12). Really, any time two reasonably good Big 12 teams play you should probably watch, as there will probably be a ton of points scored.
Noon Slot: There are only two really big games in the noon hour, but they are each worth a look. Texas Tech tries to get over its heartbreaking loss to TCU when it travels to Baylor in yet another Big 12 Air Raid clash, but the ratings pick is Alabama at Georgia (average rating: 6.5). You could probably not get two more different games if you tried, and it will be fun to see just how much faster the SEC game finishes.
Early Evening Slot: Get to the Rose Bowl if you live anywhere close. We personally think 4:30 (or 5) is the best start time, with the game beginning in sunlight, then getting sunset behind the San Gabriels, and finishing under the lights. Perfection.
#Pac12AfterDark Slot: After what will hopefully be a glorious UCLA victory, finish off the night with Arizona at Stanford (average rating: 29). Might things get really weird when Oregon visits Colorado? Nah.
Questions? Comments? Meet us on the Premium Football Forum or tweet us @Bruinalytics.