LB Kenny Young (Photo by Steve Cheng)

UCLA vs. Stanford Statistical Preview

Sep. 23 -- How does UCLA stack up against Stanford from a statistical perspective?

Let's assume Stanford has been the better team in each of the last eight times it played UCLA, and be huge fans of the Cardinal and give them an 80% win probability in each game. Even in that unrealistic scenario, there is only a 17% chance that the Cardinal win eight straight. Karl Dorrell took a team whose best pro prospect was the kicker and beat a #2 ranked Southern Cal team before they could win eight straight! This has been so so so so so frustrating, even if Stanford is probably the best program to never get a title shot in the last decade. Unfortunately, if I’ve learned anything over the last 28ish years or so of fandom it’s that the Universe doesn’t care what we want. Hell, if Kai Forbath is born one year later the Bruins probably beat Stanford and win the Rose Bowl and oh let’s not continue with this it’s too depressing to recount too much.

As we wrote on the message board, the annoying fact of probability is that just because it’s unlikely that Stanford beats UCLA 9 times in a row (less than 14% chance using that 80% win probability), there is no change in the odds on that ninth game (assuming the games are independent from year to year, which is a whole different can of worms). So, the Bruins are underdogs again in their quest to finally knock off a Top 10 team in the Mora era (Kansas State was #11 in the game directly after Kevin “I Learned My Throwing Motion From Tebow And Somehow Looked Like College Tebow Every Time Against UCLA” Hogan went 14-15 in the first half). What do the statistics say about the Bruins’ chances to finally knock off the Cardinal?

As in previous years, we track the following stats:

  • Yards Per Stop: A measure of efficiency
  • Yards Per Play: A measure of explosiveness
  • Points Per Drive and Points Per Trip Inside the 40: A measure of scoring proficiency
  • Field Position Margin
  • Turnover Margin

UCLA Offense/Stan Defense

It’s probably fair to say that neither of these teams is playing quite as well as it would like to on this side of the ball. Stanford is in the just-ok Top 50 tier of both our explosiveness and efficiency ratings. They have only allowed two touchdowns on the year, but both Kansas State and Southern Cal were able to move the ball. Interestingly, after moving the ball into scoring position, the Wildcats and Trojans were able to do absolutely nothing with the opportunity, with the Cardinal holding them to an astoundingly low 2.56 Points Per Trip Inside the 40. As a result, despite middling efficiency and explosiveness prevention, the Stanford defense has elite Top 10-level Points Allowed Per Drive. We’re still firmly in small sample size territory, but it seems clear that as the season moves on, the Cardinal will move towards one of the two defensive identities—an elite unit whose efficiency and explosiveness prevention numbers will eventually catch up to their already-elite point prevention numbers, or a maybe-ok-for-the-Pac-12 unit whose point prevention will slow as teams begin taking advantage of the opportunities to be efficient and explosive that the Stanford defense provides them. This is therefore an opportunity for the UCLA offense, which besides the 4th quarter against Texas A&M and first half against UNLV has been pretty bad. It is in the mediocre Top 100 tier of all of our numbers besides Points Per Trip Inside the 40, where it is only in the just-ok Top 50 tier. This site has spilled gallons of digital ink on analysis that shows all of the opportunities the Bruin offense has missed by drops, poor blocking, or missed open receivers. Against what appears to be a non-elite defense, the Bruins have an opportunity to have a very successful game if they start taking advantage of the opportunities they create. We wrote the same thing before the Stanford game last year, however, and the offense was unable to keep up (albeit against an otherworldly Oregon-with-Mariota-FSU-with-Jameis level Stanford offense).

UCLA Defense/Stan Offense

This is where it gets interesting. Stanford’s offensive stats…look pretty similar to their defensive stats. The Cardinal do an ok job of being efficient and explosive, in the Top 50 tier of both of those stats. They are very good at scoring, with a Top 25 level Points Per Drive stat, though this is actually not boosted by any remarkable behavior in scoring position, where the Cardinal are again just in the Top 50 tier. Stanford is 70th in the nation in success rate according to Football Study Hall. This is a huge step back from last year (albeit in a very small sample size), when Stanford was one of the very top offenses in the country. Kansas State and Southern Cal may end up being tough defenses, but last season the Cardinal were able to rip through every non-Northwestern defense they faced. This could very well become a very good offense, but it is not there yet, even with McCaffrey.

After a middling start to the season, the UCLA defense burst to life on the road at BYU, steamrolling the Cougars and playing with an aggression we probably haven’t seen since last season’s game at Utah. As a result the Bruins are in the very good Top 25 tier in preventing both efficiency and explosiveness. They still aren’t great on Points Allowed Per Drive, though their Points Allowed Per Trip Inside the 40 has finally begun to fall from the ridiculous 6.5 it had been at after 2 games. This is not an unstoppable offense, so it will be interesting to see if the UCLA defense is able to turn in a big time performance against a similarly talented team. It would probably be fair to say that a large part of the offseason shift towards more bulk on the line is a response to Stanford. On Saturday, we’ll get a chance to see if that shift has borne fruit.


Against Kansas State, Stanford was up to their old Field Position Margin trips, winning the Average Field Position Margin game by an astounding 14 yards. They actually lost the battle against Southern Cal, but their Average Field Position Margin for the season is still at a very healthy +5. The very first article we wrote on this site talked about how Stanford’s huge Field Position Margin allowed it to win that 2012 Pac-12 Championship Game despite the Bruins dominating most of the other stats. It would behoove the Bruins to cover kicks well and take care of the football. Stanford as a program has made its living on tilting the field—it will be important for the Bruins to neutralize that advantage.

McCaffrey hasn’t had a huge return yet this year, but it is a little worrying that the Bruins have yet to force a touchback on a kickoff at sea level. The coverage teams, which already did a pretty good job bottling up the dangerous Christian Kirk, must again be perfect.

The Computers

The Massey College Football Ranking Composite, taking 71 different rating systems into account, has UCLA as the #28 team in college football, while Stanford is #3. The Bruins’ rankings range from #12 to #50 with a standard deviation of 9.81. This standard deviation is a little lower than it is for most teams with similar ranking levels, meaning there is pretty strong agreement that this is where UCLA belongs right now.  The Cardinal’s rankings range from #1 to #51, with a standard deviation of 6.19. This standard deviation is a little higher than it is for most teams at the same ranking level, meaning there is some disagreement that this is where Stanford belongs.

Using Brian Fremeau’s FEI ratings, FEI predicts a 34-23 Stanford win. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ predicts a 34-33 Bruin victory.

Somebody is going to beat this not-elite Stanford team this season. Looking at their schedule, there is a good chance that it happens soon. Will it, could it possibly, maybe, finally happen for the Bruins?

Your Saturday TV Schedule

9 AM Slot: There are two good games to check out while flipping your omelettes—Wisconsin vs. Michigan State (average Massey rating: 13.5) and Georgia-Ole Miss (average rating: 21).

Noon Slot: It is an uncommonly weak noon slot, so you can probably focus on getting your tailgate set up properly. The best of a mediocre group is Florida vs. Tennessee (average rating: 16, though both teams are very banged up). A couple hours later, we get to learn if Colorado really is for real when they take on Oregon (average rating: 42).

Early Evening Slot: Once more unto the breach, dear friends. Remember your clear bag (and to take down your tailgate setup earlier than usual to account for the inevitable lines).

#Pac12AfterDark Slot: Washington finally plays a real team against Arizona, but the real game to watch after leaving the Rose Bowl is Arizona State vs. Cal, which has a chance to set the entire western United States alight with points and torched defenses.

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


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