My commute takes me right past the Rose Bowl, and just about every glimpse I got of the stadium in the summer before the 2015 season gave me a jolt of adrenaline. Now, after the most disappointing eight-win season since Bob Toledo left town, that adrenaline is slower in coming. This season feels like a crossroads.
As another September approaches, there may be no relevant team in the country whose season is tougher to predict than the Bruins. This unsureness of how to peg UCLA comes from several different areas. For the tactics-and-talent crowd, it appears that College Station will be the site of the unveiling of the first real wholesale change in offensive and defensive strategy of the Mora era. In addition, the Bruins combine some of the absolute top talent in the country with depth worries that have already been discussed enough on this site. The preseason AP and Coaches polls disagree vehemently, with a difference in 8 slots, the highest of any team in the country. We shouldn’t care too much about those polls though, because the polls do a pretty terrible job of predicting the future. From last year’s preseason AP poll:
- Unanimous preseason #1 (the first one ever!) Ohio State (finished second in the Big Ten East)
- #6 Auburn (finished the season 7-6, 2-6 in the SEC)
- The following Pac-12 teams ranked before Stanford: Oregon, Southern Cal, UCLA, and Arizona State (Arizona was ranked 22nd, one slot behind Stanford)
You know what happens when you take humans into account? You get Iowa one brutal Michigan State drive from facing Alabama in the playoffs. So what do that actual stats say about the season?
It’s been a few months, so here is a quick primer on some of our stats:
As we have the last two years, we will be using stats based on Bill Connelly’s “Five Factors” of Football Success. We want to measure:
- EFFICIENCY—How well can a team stay on schedule and put itself into 2nd and 3rd and short (and keep the opponent from doing so)
- EXPLOSIVENESS—How well can a team make big plays (and stop the opponent from making them)
- SCORING—How well can a team finish drives with touchdowns (and hold its opponent to a field goal or no points)
- FIELD POSITIONHow well does a team give itself a short field (and give its opponent a long one).
- TURNOVERS—How well does a team create opportunities for turnovers (and not give its opponent the opportunities)
Within these factors, we will measure the following stats:
- Yards Per Stop: This will be our measure of efficiency, and is the total yardage a team earns in a game 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).
- Yards Per Play: This will be our measure of explosiveness, and is the total yardage a team gains divided by the number of plays they run.
- Points Per Drive and Points Per Trip Inside the 40: These will be our measures of scoring proficiency. PPD measures the total number of points an offense scores by the number of drives they have, while PPTI40 divides the total number of points an offense scores by the number of times they get inside their opponent’s 40 yard line.
- Field Position Margin: This measures the difference in mean starting field position between a team and their opponents.
- Turnover Margin: This measures the number of turnovers a team forces minus the number of turnovers a team coughs up. Analytics have shown turnovers to be pretty random, but we have a few tools at our disposal to do checks throughout the year to find whether the Bruins and their opponents have been especially lucky or unlucky.
Those are the main stats that we’ll have every week. We’ll pepper our analyses with other stats as well if we feel they illuminate an important factor in a game. Just as last year, we’ve broken down those stats into five buckets: Top 10, Top 25, Top 50, Top 100, Everybody Else.
Last season, the Bruins finished the year disappointingly in the 20s and 30s of most rankings. This was backed up by the team’s statistical profile as well.
Last Season’s Issues
For a team with high expectations, that ain’t good. The only things the Bruins were acceptable at were scoring inside the 40 (taking advantage of scoring opportunities) and yards per play (explosiveness). Everything else was mediocre at best, with the defense worse than Top-50 at Yards Allowed Per Stop (efficiency allowed).
Digging a little deeper, we can see where the biggest issues were. First, the run defense. According to Football Study Hall, the Bruins were 104th in the country in success rate allowed on running plays (a successful play is considered 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down). This means that the UCLA defense was remarkably bad at putting their opponents in 3rd and long situations, and thus were forced to attempt to stuff the opponents on 3rd and short. Unfortunately, the Bruins’ Stuff Rate (the percentage of runs in which the runner is stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage), was even worse than their success rate allowed—123rd in the country. Worse, the power success rate allowed (percentage of runs on 3rd or 4th down with 2 yards or fewer to go that result in a first down or touchdown) was an astounding 82.2%, good for 127th in the country. There are 128 teams in the entire FBS. Given that level of ineptness against the run and a solid pass defense, it’s a wonder opponents ever passed the ball.
On the other side of the ball, the UCLA offense was just ok at running the ball despite having the services of the brilliant Paul Perkins. The Bruins were 32nd in the country at rushing success rate, and 32nd in the country in yards per rush (as calculated by The Power Rank with QB sacks not included in the rushing numbers). If the Bruins want to forge a new identity as a power running team (and be a good team), the new blood in the backfield and on the offensive line (plus the blocking tight ends and fullbacks) must perform better than last season.
There appear to be two different, but not necessarily opposing, ideas about the Bruins this upcoming season. Very few people or ratings systems are predicting the team to be elite—its highest ranking in the Massey Composite, which as of this writing took 52 different ratings systems into account, is 10th in the country. The Bruins’ mean ranking in the Composite is 28.93, with a standard deviation on the lower end compared to teams with similar rankings. This means that there is a fair amount of agreement among the different ratings systems that the Bruins generally belong there, in the lower end of the 20s. This is as low as we can remember seeing the Bruins start the season among those ratings since Jim Mora’s first season in charge, but there is a catch.
Crucially, the majority of these rankings rate teams in order of which team the system believes would be better against an average opponent on a neutral field. They do not account for schedule. When we begin looking at how those systems see the Bruins when schedule is included, a more interesting picture arises.
Of six opponents in the preseason Massey Top 40 (Texas A&M, BYU, Stanford, Washington State, Utah, and Southern Cal), three come to the Rose Bowl, with only one of the away games being a league game (Washington State). Although under Mora the Bruins historically haven’t had much of a difference in their level of play home vs. away, this still leads to the ratings systems giving the Bruins quite a bump when it comes to the actual Win/Loss predictions. Football Study Hall has the Bruins favored in every single game they play.
Almost as importantly, UCLA’s schedule is one of the easier schedules in the Pac-12. If the Bruins had a more successful season last year, this schedule would have almost certainly propelled them once again into preseason dark horse championship contention, but even without that level of hype, the schedule still presents Josh Rosen and co. with a great opportunity.
You can find a wonderful visualization of this at BCFtoys.com/chartball-sos. The visualization shows the number of losses we would expect for an Elite, Good, or Average team against the schedule the various teams play. Only Utah has fewer expected losses on the schedule for an Elite team, and only Utah and the Washington schools (both of which are in the Pac-12 North) have fewer expected losses on the schedule for a Good team. Considering that this includes the tough nonconference schedule that the Bruins face this season (see you in Aggieland, section 131 row 31!), that means that the Bruins could very well have a path to the division championship thanks to the tough schedules that the teams in the rest of the Pac-12 South face. Hypothetically, UCLA could start the season with a sky-is-falling 1-3 (avoid the forums at all cost if that actually happens!) and still have an ok shot at winning the division.
Before the 2014 season, we wrote that the Bruins’ tough schedule and potentially elite team would lead to an epic season, and the team did very well in finishing 10-3. This season is different. The schedule is slightly easier but the talent may be a little shakier. The external expectations may be a little lower, but the whispers of an opportunity for more will grow louder with each win. It has been a strange, subdued offseason in Bruin country, but make no mistake—this team has a great opportunity to reach the conference championship game for the first time in four years. It should be another fun ride.
Up next: a preview of the season opener against Texas A&M. Do it for the bats!
Questions? Comments? Meet us on the Premium Football Forum or tweet us @Bruinalytics.