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Processing the Numbers, Football Edition |
The Big Fiesta Bowl Preview

Boise State's better than you think, and this game is not going to be a cakewalk for Arizona

Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

All statistics are courtesy of Football Outsiders, home of the F/+ Combined Ratings for college football.
The Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) was created by Brian Fremeau; check out his website BCFToys for other goodies.
The S&P+ rating was created by Bill Connelly; check out his college football analytics blog, Football Study Hall.
Hat tips to Addicted to Quack's kalon and FO's 7th Day Adventure column for the inspiration.

So, what’s next?

This time we’re looking at the Vizio Fiesta Bowl, which will be contested between the PAC-12 runner-up Arizona Wildcats and the Mountain West champion Boise State Broncos. The game kicks off Wednesday, December 31st at 3 PM CST / 4 PM EST at University of Phoenix Stadium1 in Arizona — the game will be televised on ESPN. Arizona has ridden their early-season upset win over Oregon straight into the New Year’s Six after being pasted in their rematch with the Ducks, and Boise State was the lucky winner of the automatic bid afforded to the highest-ranked champion from the Group of Five conferences. Some other members of the RBR staff have already weighed in on this one, so give the roundtable a read if you missed it before the holidays.

1 | The entire playing surface is retractable outside the stadium, so they have natural grass in there. That’s cool!

Before we get to The Goods, let’s take a look at how these two teams got here.

The Resume — Arizona

As a reminder, the schedule tables do not include games against FCS teams, primarily because the advanced metrics are not calculated for those teams. In the event of a schedule that does NOT include FCS schools, the lowest-rated FBS opponent by F/+ will be omitted from the table so everyone’s on a level playing field. In this case, both Arizona and Boise State played schedules comprised completely of FBS teams2.

2 | Everybody needs to get on board with this, there’s no reason to play Western Carolina.

Team F/+ S&P+ FEI OF+ DF/+
ARIZONA 12.7% (33) 210.9 (44) 0.183 (14) 6.9% (33) 6.2% (37)
OREGON3 35.6% (3) 253.4 (3) 0.317 (1) 19.9% (2) 12.6% (13)
UCLA 18.8% (19) 221.6 (24) 0.208 (12) 15.0% (7) 3.0% (49)
USC 16.9% (22) 220.1 (26) 0.203 (13) 7.9% (28) 8.0% (28)
ARIZONA STATE 15.7% (26) 214.1 (35) 0.175 (16) 6.6% (35) 7.9% (29)
UTAH 10.2% (38) 200.3 (62) 0.156 (21) -3.4% (76) 8.8% (27)
WASHINGTON 5.0% (51) 197.4 (70) 0.089 (40) -5.4% (92) 7.7% (30)
CALIFORNIA 0.8% (61) 199.8 (65) 0.024 (55) 6.7% (34) -5.6% (91)
NEVADA -1.8% (64) 193.2 (78) 0.046 (47) 1.8% (53) -4.9% (84)
COLORADO -7.8% (81) 188.3 (89) -0.046 (75) -0.1% (59) -6.9% (97)
WASHINGTON STATE -11.5% (89) 194.2 (76) -0.024 (68) 3.7% (45) -6.8% (96)
UTSA -15.3% (100) 180.1 (103) -0.147 (104) -15.6% (126) -1.5% (66)
UNLV -22.2% (120) 163.2 (126) -0.152 (109) -7.0% (101) -15.8% (125)
AVERAGE 6.2% 206.1 0.090 3.8% 1.5%

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

3 | Arizona played Oregon twice, and Oregon's stats were counted twice in calculating the averages.


  • Average F/+ Opponent: Maryland (F/+ #45)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Michigan (S&P+ #56)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Washington (FEI #40)
  • Average Offense: Minnesota (OF/+ #44)
  • Average Defense: Wake Forest (DF/+ #55)
  • Best Win: Oregon (F/+ #2)
  • Wins against F/+ Top-25: 1 (#2 Oregon)

This is a decent schedule, on par with the Wildcats’ PAC-12 nemesis Oregon. No FCS opponents to be found here as noted, although UNLV barely escaped a thoroughly mediocre Northern Colorado team and might as well be in the FCS. Arizona faced three opponents in the Top-25 of the F/+ rankings, but eventually lost to all three. That being said, the win over Oregon was huge — you could make the argument it was a better win than Ole Miss’ victory over the Tide given that it was in Eugene and was considered a total upset at the time. Arizona followed that up with a 2 point loss at home to USC, which is a classic example of a letdown game. After a tough win over Washington and a thoroughly impressive one against Utah in Salt Lake, Arizona put the final nail in Arizona State’s coffin to end the season as PAC-12 South champions. Oregon has the same affliction Alabama does in that they get the absolute best effort from those good-to-great teams, which is part of the reason Stanford has been their bugaboo for a couple of seasons. I watched the first game, and the Arizona defensive line in particular was unbelievable4. If they can generate that kind of effort against Boise State, this could get very ugly in a hurry.

4 | Oregon was having some significant offensive line issues at the time, but still.

Similarity — Boise State

  • Offense — Rushing: UCLA (RUSH OS&P+ #11)
  • Offense — Passing: USC (PASS OS&P+ #16)
  • Defense — Rushing: UTSA (RUSH DS&P+ #26)
  • Defense — Passing: Oregon (PASS DS&P+ #33)

UCLA managed to rack up 271 yards on the ground against the Wildcats, but 131 of that came from quarterback Brett Hundley. Hundley’s a big guy at 6’3" and 227 pounds, so some of those may have come on designed QB runs, but usually most quarterback running production is off of scrambles. Grant Hedrick is mobile but not the athlete Hundley is, so Arizona’s focus will undoubtedly be on workhorse Jay Ajayi. Those non-Hundley carries were still produced at 4 yards a carry, which isn’t terrible. Oddly enough, USC worked Arizona on the ground, not through the air – Cody Kessler only produced 185 yards at 6.2 yards per attempt, which is rather pedestrian. To say the Arizona defense has has an up-and-down season would be somewhat of an understatement.

No, that is not a typo — relative newcomer Texas-San Antonio produced the 26th best rushing defense in the country this season. They also got their clocks cleaned by Nick Wilson, who went for 174 yards in that game at nearly 6 yards a carry, which doesn’t bode well for Boise. The passing numbers are a little less frightening, as Anu Solomon played poorly against Oregon — 265 yards at 6 yards an attempt over two games, and he got benched in the second one. Oregon undoubtedly has the more talented secondary, but if Boise puts up a similar performance Arizona will have to lean hard on that run game.

The Resume — Boise State

Team F/+ S&P+ FEI OF+ DF/+
BOISE STATE 15.9% (25) 235.6 (13) 0.107 (36) 7.3% (31) 9.1% (26)
OLE MISS 29.3% (4) 248.2 (7) 0.242 (7) 9.2% (21) 18.8% (3)
COLORADO STATE 13.5% (30) 219.4 (28) 0.117 (32) 9.9% (19) 1.3% (57)
BYU 8.3% (42) 210.7 (46) 0.060 (46) 6.5% (36) 0.6% (59)
AIR FORCE 6.4% (44) 207.5 (52) 0.036 (50) -3.8% (79) 7.4% (32)
UTAH STATE 1.8% (59) 207.4 (53) 0.011 (61) -4.2% (81) 7.2% (33)
NEVADA -1.8% (64) 193.2 (78) 0.046 (47) 1.8% (53) -4.9% (84)
SAN DIEGO STATE -2.5% (66) 200.1 (64) -0.030 (73) -4.8% (86) 0.6% (60)
UL-LAFAYETTE -9.8% (86) 200.3 (63) -0.141 (100) 0.2% (57) -10.8% (111)
NEW MEXICO -11.5% (88) 187.1 (93) -0.128 (94) 2.5% (51) -13.3% (121)
FRESNO STATE5 -15.9% (101) 178.8 (107) -0.109 (93) -7.9% (105) -8.6% (103)
CONNECTICUT -19.1% (113) 172.4 (118) -0.150 (108) -13.7% (122) -3.7% (76)
WYOMING -20.7% (119) 178.6 (108) -0.174 (117) -4.6% (83) -8.8% (104)
AVERAGE -2.9% 198.7 -0.025 -1.3% -1.8%

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

5 | Boise State played Fresno State twice, and Fresno's stats were counted twice in calculating the averages.


  • Average F/+ Opponent: Oklahoma State (F/+ #68)
  • Average S&P+ Opponent: Duke (S&P+ #66)
  • Average FEI Opponent: Washington State (FEI #68)
  • Average Offense: Virginia (OF/+ #66)
  • Average Defense: Central Michigan (DF/+ #67)
  • Best Win: Colorado State (F/+ #30)
  • Wins against F/+ Top-25: 0

Well that’s a horrific schedule. Despite not playing any FCS teams, Boise State managed to only play 5 teams that were above-average according to F/+, and their only game against a Top-25 team was an early-season loss to Ole Miss. A lot of this is outside of their control — they have no control over who is in their conference, and they're good enough to make major conference teams think before they schedule them. Still, they performed well against that schedule, as evidenced by the #25 finish in the F/+ rankings. Colorado State was a solid team before the departure of Coach Mac, and that loss to Air Force is a little more understandable when you realize they committed 7 turnovers in that game, a clear aberration. They did luck out by getting BYU after Taysom Hill was lost for the season — that would not have been a cakewalk if he had been playing. Part of the reason the averages stink is they had to play an abysmal Fresno State team twice, compared to Arizona who got to double up on Oregon. In truth, the Broncos probably would not be here if not for the automatic bid6, but I don’t really have a problem with it7. Boise, Utah, and TCU all performed well in BCS appearances under the old system, and while the latter two have moved to major conferences it would be a shame to leave a team like Boise out if and when they deserve to be there.

6 | Cut to Kansas State fans nodding angrily.

7 | Cut to Kansas State fans sharpening pitchforks.

Similarity — Arizona

  • Offense — Rushing: San Diego State (RUSH OS&P+ #60)
  • Offense — Passing: Nevada (PASS OS&P+ #72)
  • Defense — Rushing: BYU (RUSH DS&P+ #38)
  • Defense — Passing: Colorado State (PASS DS&P+ #44)

SDSU put up very little on the ground against Boise, and it all came from one of the country’s more productive rushers in Donnel Pumphrey. Pumphrey gained 147 of the Aztec’s 169 yards in that one, at 6.1 yards per carry, which suggests talented runners can find holes on this defense. That being said, Pumphrey tore up everybody this year, and what he put up against Boise was actually 0.7 yards less per carry than he averages, so there’s that. The Nevada game was interesting, as Cody Fajardo put up 306 yards on the Wildcats at an ok 7.1 yards per attempt, but also chucked 4 interceptions. Solomon has only thrown 7 picks all year, so I would not expect a repeat of that performance. These two comps suggest Arizona may be able to move the ball on Boise a little bit.

BYU gave up 118 yards to Ajayi and 227 yards to Boise on the ground, at a decent clip of 4.7 yards a pop. A fair portion of the second half of that game was in garbage time though, and it’s unclear if Boise’s rushing numbers were depressed as a result. Hedrick had an outstanding game against Colorado State, putting up 352 yards at 10.7 yards per attempt, albeit with an interception. Boise’s offense is fairly potent, as those are better-than-decent numbers against better-than-average defenses in each regard. Arizona’s defense has been somewhat mercurial over the course of the year, and if they don’t show up in this one Boise will make them pay.

The Goods

Overall Quality
F/+ 12.7% (33) F/+ 15.9% (25) PUSH
FEI 0.183 (14) FEI 0.107 (36) ARIZONA
S&P+ 210.9 (44) S&P+ 235.6 (13) BOISE STATE
Spread -3 Spread +3 ARIZONA

When Arizona Has the Ball
OF/+ 6.9% (33) DF/+ 9.1% (26) PUSH
OFEI 0.341 (20) DFEI -0.31 (29) PUSH
OS&P+ 104.6 (44) DS&P+ 116.6 (19) BOISE STATE
Rush OS&P+ 102.0 (67) Rush DS&P+ 115.6 (28) BOISE STATE
Pass OS&P+ 98.7 (71) Pass DS&P+ 110.1 (40) BOISE STATE
SD OS&P+ 102.3 (65) SD DS&P+ 106.0 (49) BOISE STATE
PD OS&P+ 96.8 (80) PD DS&P+ 129.3 (14) BOISE STATE
OALY 102.1 (64) DALY 119.5 (12) BOISE STATE
OASR 94.7 (77) DASR 131.0 (18) BOISE STATE

When Boise State Has The Ball
DF/+ 6.2% (37) OF/+ 7.3% (31) PUSH
DFEI -0.295 (33) OFEI 0.148 (44) ARIZONA
DS&P+ 106.3 (43) OS&P+ 119.0 (14) BOISE STATE
Rush DS&P+ 114.1 (31) Rush OS&P+ 126.9 (16) BOISE STATE
Pass DS&P+ 111.9 (37) Pass OS&P+ 131.3 (12) BOISE STATE
SD DS&P+ 112.2 (27) SD OS&P+ 130.0 (7) BOISE STATE
PD DS&P+ 116.4 (36) PD OS&P+ 121.0 (33) PUSH
DALY 114.2 (21) OALY 108.0 (40) ARIZONA
DASR 125.7 (26) OASR 121.1 (40) ARIZONA

The Matchup on Special Teams
ST F/+ -0.5% (75) ST F/+ -0.4% (74) PUSH
FPA 0.531 (22) FPA 0.518 (31) ARIZONA
FGE -0.206 (87) FGE -0.042 (69) BOISE STATE
KE -0.235 (23) KRE -0.294 (123) ARIZONA
PE -0.129 (49) PRE -0.072 (64) ARIZONA
PRE -0.14 (85) PE -0.152 (42) BOISE STATE
KRE -0.212 (97) KE -0.18 (54) BOISE STATE

(Bold) numbers indicate national ranking.

Wondering what all these terms are?

  • FEI: The Fremeau Efficiency Index, an overall team quality metric that is drive-based and opponent-adjusted. For a more detailed discussion of FEI, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.
  • OFEI: The offensive component of FEI.
  • DFEI: The defensive component of FEI.
  • FPA: FEI Field Position Advantage, a measure of how much field position value a team earned against its opponents.
  • Fremeau Special Teams Efficiency Components - The special teams component of F/+ is based on Brian Fremeau’s Special Teams Efficiency, which is made up of the following five components of special teams play (per FootballOutsiders):
    FGEField Goal Efficiency, the scoring value per field goal attempt earned by the field goal unit as measured against national success rates.
    PREPunt Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent punt earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
    KREKickoff Return Efficiency, the scoring value per opponent kickoff earned by the receiving team as measured against national return rates.
    PEPunt Efficiency, the scoring value per punt earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
    KEKickoff Efficiency, the scoring value per kickoff earned by the opponent's receiving team as measured against national return rates.
  • ASRAdjusted Sack Rate, which is a version of sack rate (defined as sacks / [sacks + passing attempts] ) that has been opponent-adjusted. The metric is scaled based on an average rate of 100; the higher the rate the better. ASR is calculated for both the offense (OASR) and defense (DASR).
  • ALYAdjusted Line Yards, which is a measure of success in the running game specific to the line. This is accomplished by taking each carry by running backs only and weighting the yardage as follows:
    • Runs for a loss are weighted 120%.
    • Runs for 0-4 yards are unweighted.
    • Runs for 5-10 yards are weighted 50%.
    • Runs for 11 or more yards are not included.
    After the weighting process, the runs are further adjusted for game situation and opponent, and then averaged out per carry, resulting in adjusted line yards — a more detailed explanation of the entire process is available here. ALY is calculated for both the offensive line (OASR) and the defensive front seven (DASR).
  • S&P+: Another overall team quality metric, S&P+ is primarily play-based and consists of three components: Success Rate, Equivalent Net Points per Play, and a drive efficiency component. The "+" refers to opponent adjustments. For a more detailed discussion of S&P+, check out this sectin of the PTN Football Primer.
  • OS&P+: The offensive component of S&P+.
  • DS&P+: The defensive component of S&P+.
  • Rush OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at running the ball.
  • Rush DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on rushing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at stopping the run.
  • Pass OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at throwing the ball.
  • Pass DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at defending the pass.
  • PD: Passing Downs, defined as later downs with medium yardage or more to go (3rd, 4th downs in excess of 5 yards to go), as well as 2nd down with more than 8 yards to go.
  • SD: Standard Downs, defined as all downs that are not Passing Downs.
  • SD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.
  • SD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on standard downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on earlier downs and short yardage.
  • PD OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the offense — a good measure of a team's offensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.
  • PD DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing downs for the defense — a good measure of a team's defensive effectiveness on later downs and long yardage.
  • F/+: The F/+ combined ratings combine FEI and S&P+ into one metric that serves as Football Outsiders' official rankings for college football. For a more detailed discussion of F/+, check out this section of the PTN Football Primer.
  • Off. F/+: The offensive component of F/+.
  • Def. F/+: The defensive component of F/+.
  • ST F/+: The special teams component of F/+.
  • Swanson Giddiness Index: Easily the most accurate predictor of success in college football, the Swanson Giddiness Index is a qualitative, completely unsupportable metric that is presented via the tone of that week's image/animated gif of Ron Swanson — beloved Parks and Recreation character and official spirit animal of Processing the Numbers.

Wondering what all of this means? Check out the PTN primer!

So, what do we know?

FEI has been smitten with the PAC-12 all season, and that’s clearly evident here as well. Arizona is the #14 team in FEI but #44 in S&P+, which is a rather large disparity. One of the reasons I like F/+ is it inherently adjusts for when one of the component ranking systems overrates or underrates a team due to the vagaries of that system, and #33 seems a lot more reasonable for Arizona to me. I’m not trying to pick on FEI specifically here — #4 in S&P+ is way too high for Marshall, for instance — but there’s a reason I start you off with all three metrics in these previews. F/+ has Boise as the higher-ranked team, but Vegas has Arizona installed as a slight favorite.

The second chart indicates Arizona may have a problem moving the ball on the Broncos. Boise has a significant edge in every phase, particularly in the line stats. The only thing bumping up Arizona’s OF/+ rating is their OFEI rating, and again that’s probably FEI’s slant toward the PAC-12. The similarity analysis was uneven, but did indicate Boise might be vulnerable to good runners. You don’t really see that here, as Boise has a 52 rank advantage in ALY and a 39 rank advantage in Rush S&P+. They are particularly nasty on passing downs, ranking 14th in the country in that component of S&P+, further evidenced by the #18 ranking in ASR. Boise’s generally hung their hat on the defensive side of the ball during this run of excellence8, and this year is no different.

8 | Last year was the first time they had a below-average defense according to F/+. The 2010 unit was one of the best of the F/+ era.

The third chart is somewhat similar, with Boise having the edge on Arizona down the line outside of FEI. The one unit that is truly excellent on Arizona is the defensive front seven, in particular PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year Scooby Wright. Wright led the country in tackles for loss and was top-5 in sacks this season, and the effort also earned him the Lombardi, Nagurski, and Bednarik awards. If Arizona is able to limit Ajayi on the earlier downs and force the Broncos into passing situations, they will have the advantage.

In terms of overall special teams strength these teams are effectively tied, with only 0.1% separating them in ST F/+. The edge in efficiency components is all over the place, but the only resounding edge belongs to Arizona on kickoffs, as Boise State is in the bottom-10 FBS teams in the country when returning kicks. Boise State does have the slightly better field goal unit if the game comes down to those.

Much like the Peach Bowl this is going to come down to defense, particularly Arizona’s. If the Wildcat line that played Oregon in Autzen shows up, it’s going to be a long afternoon for Hedrick. Boise’s line will have to open holes for Ajayi on earlier downs — if Arizona’s able to crank up the pass rush they will be in trouble. On the other side, Wilson is the key to this game. The true freshman has been solid for Arizona all year, and if he’s able to get going that takes the pressure off of Solomon. Solomon’s had some amazing performances this year, but he’s not going to win the game by himself. As noted the last time we saw him he was getting benched, and if Boise consistently gets in his face the Wildcats are going to be in trouble.

One last thing — you likely noticed from the similarity analysis that Boise and Arizona both played Nevada this season. The Broncos went in to Reno and won 51-46 in turnover-filled performance for both teams. Boise outgained the Wolf Pack and had a 0.9 yard per play edge in the game. Arizona got Nevada in Tucson and won 35-28 in a much less sloppy game; they also outgained the Wolf Pack at an edge of 1.5 yards per play. The turnovers are a concern, but given the change in venue I'd call the two performances roughly equivalent.

Any intangibles to consider?

This game is in a domed stadium, so weather is not a factor. I can’t imagine it’s not going to be a favorable atmosphere for the Wildcats, as Tucson is merely two hours away from Glendale. Also, Boise was having some issues filling their ticket allotment, so as far as I’m concerned this is a home game for Arizona.

Boise State has lost several players over the course of the season, but outside of starting receiver Matt Miller (out since Week 5), most appear insignificant. The possible exception is part-time safety starter Chanceller James, who injured his leg late in the season and is done for the year.

Arizona's largely in the same boat, with a few guys who have been missing all year and some rotational players out for the bowl. The major exception is starting center Steven Gurrola, who will miss the first half of the game due to suspension.

THE PICK: I’m going against Vegas here and taking the Boise State Broncos; I think it will end up being one of those back-and-forth kind of games but Boise is the better team and should take it.