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Advanced Stats Rundown, Football Edition | Conference Championships

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Three games outside the SEC affecting the Playoff picture in this week's ASR

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The Football Power Index (FPI) Ratings are courtesy of ESPN
All other 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.
All betting lines courtesy of via ESPN, because they’re first on the list and I’m lazy.

So, how’d last week go?

Last week was pretty outstanding, as I went 8/10 both straight up and against the spread — a good week any week, but particularly during Rivalry Week and the chaos that almost always ensues. Florida just didn’t have enough in the tank to keep pace with the ‘Noles, despite statistically being nearly dead-even with their in-state rivals for a majority of the contest. An inability to finish drives will kill you every time; both teams accrued the same number of scoring opportunities, but FSU turned theirs into touchdowns whereas UF got a whole lot of nothing. A last-second FG pushed the Cardinal over the Fighting Irish, and Clemson played down to a severely overmatched South Carolina squad they should have blown off the field. Other than that, nailed it.

And with that, the regular season picks come to a close, and frankly I could not be more pleased with the year I had. Essentially 60% against the spread is straight up ridiculous, especially given the fact I’ve never done formal picks like this before. A lot of it is S&P+, of course — Bill C.’s brainchild was 52% against the spread for the season — but I’d like to think I added a little value here and there. At any rate, I will be making picks for the majority of the postseason — the three championships below, the SEC championship in Processing the Numbers,[1] and every bowl game — but I will be tracking those separately. My goal is to stay above 54% against the spread for the year, which will require me to get 18 of the next 45 picks against the spread correct. We’ll see how it goes.

1 | Coming this afternoon. Having one of those weeks, etc.

2015, Straight Up:    90/112 (81.2%)
2015, Against the Spread: 67/112 (59.8%)

All statistics and spreads as of December 1st, 2015.

Wondering what all these terms are?

Overall Quality

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.

FPI: The Football Power Index, an overall team quality metric produced by ESPN. Presented as a scoring margin, FPI weights factors such as offensive, defensive, and special teams efficiencies, as well as turnovers and big plays, and also includes opponent adjustments.

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.

S&P+: Another overall quality metric constructed primarily from a play-by-play perspective, the S&P+ rating underwent big changes prior to the 2015 season. Check out the primer article for more details.

Offensive Metrics

Off. F/+: The offensive component of F/+.

OFEI: The offensive component of FEI.

OS&P+: The offensive 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.

Pass OS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the offense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at throwing the ball.

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.

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.

Defensive Metrics

Def. F/+: The defensive component of F/+.

DFEI: The defensive component of FEI.

DS&P+: The defensive component of S&P+.

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 DS&P+: S&P+ calculated on passing plays for the defense — a good measure of a team's effectiveness at defending the pass.

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 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.

Special Teams Metrics

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.

Line-Specific Metrics

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).

PAC-12 Championship
USC Trojans vs. Stanford Cardinal, Saturday, December 5th
6:45 PM CST / 7:45 PM EST, ABC / ESPN

The Matchup
F/+ 41.0% (10) F/+ 32.9% (16) PUSH
FPI 19.2 (11) FPI 20.0 (8) PUSH
FEI 0.235 (4) FEI 0.165 (13) PUSH
S&P+ 15.2 (15) S&P+ 13.6 (21) PUSH
OS&P+ 41.7 (7) DS&P+ 25.6 (49) STANFORD
DS&P+ 26.5 (56) OS&P+ 39.1 (15) USC
Home Spread -4.5 STANFORD

Seems hard to believe that we end up with these two in the title game, given where this conference was a couple of months ago. USC had just dismissed their head coach, sitting at 3-3 with two conference losses and staring upward at undefeated Utah in the PAC-12 South. Stanford was still undefeated in conference with a nice cushion over an Oregon team that was just starting to put it together, but was looking at a backloaded schedule that included Oregon, Notre Dame, and an ascendant Washington State.

Stanford managed to go 2-1 in those games, all of which were decided by exactly two points; the win over Washington State in Pullman turned out to be what won them the division as Oregon closed with six straight wins, including over Stanford in Palo Alto. In the South the Utes faltered down the stretch, including a loss at USC in October in newly-minted head coach Clay Helton’s second game at the helm, and USC finished 5-2 after Steve Sarkisian’s departure to claim the South.

The overall quality metrics are all too close to call, with the slight tilt in favor of Stanford overall. Stanford’s easily been the more consistent of the two teams this season — they’re all of 14 points away from being undefeated — but USC’s closed just as well as the Cardinal have, and are a vastly different team from the one that fell 41-31 to the Cardinal back in September. Both offenses have a significant edge over the opposing defense, neither of which is particularly good, so it’s to the components we go to get a read on this one.

Stanford was the subject of the national game of the week in the pre-Thanksgiving ASR, and in that writeup I pointed out the one guy you want to keep your eye on — Christian McCaffrey. McCaffrey was largely contained by the Irish, but still managed to account for half of the Cardinal’s all-purpose yardage on the evening. The 3.5 YPC he accrued against the Irish was his worst performance since the second game of the season against UCF. Given that Notre Dame was not exactly known for their rush defense, that undoubtedly has something to do with the absence of fullback Daniel Marx, who was lost for the year during the game against California.

I pointed out last week that the same situation had greatly impacted Leonard Fournette’s production for LSU, and it appears it may be happening here as well. The going won’t get any easier against the Trojans, who have a pretty solid rush defense at 26th overall in Rush DS&P+. In fact, USC has a slight edge in Adjusted Line Yards and Adjusted Sack Rate as well, which suggests the Trojans defensive line will control the trenches against Stanford.

Assuming he has time to throw, however, Kevin Hogan may have an opportunity for a big day in this one. Fresh off perhaps his finest game in a Cardinal uniform, where he threw as many touchdowns as he did incompletions on his way to 269 yards and 4 TDs against the Irish, Hogan and the #7 passing offense in the country according to S&P+ gets the #45 defense in Pass DS&P+ on Saturday. USC is stout on passing downs — #27 in PD DS&P+ against the #28 unit in PD OS&P+ in Stanford — but they lag a good bit behind on standard downs. Stanford runs almost 70% of the time in those situations, the 18th-highest rate in the country, but against this opponent and without their starting fullback you may be seeing Hogan throwing early and often.

It’s all USC on the other side, with Stanford’s #50 Rush DS&P+ ranking providing the only push against USC’s #41 Rush OS&P+ ranking. USC’s running-back-by-committee approach has piled up plenty of yards, but the strength of this offense is with Cody Kessler and the passing game. Kessler’s long and winding career in LA is coming to a close, and despite all the turmoil in his senior season he’s had a heck of a year. The 7.2 yards per attempt isn’t anything special and the 31 sacks taken is sky-high, but he’s accurate (68.3% completion percentage) and doesn’t make too many mistakes. He has a fleet of athletic receivers led by JuJu Smith-Schuster and the explosive Adoree’ Jackson, and there should be plenty of room to operate against the #65 pass defense per S&P+ and #119 pass rush per ASR.

The overall picture favors the Cardinal ever so slightly, especially if you consider Levi’s Stadium home territory for Stanford. We’re at the point of the season where overall health and how well a team’s playing lately matters,[2] however, and in that respect USC has an edge. There’s some certainty surrounding the program as they transition into the postseason now that Helton’s locked down the head job, and the unfortunate situation with Sarkisian is well in the rear-view mirror. Stanford still has an outside shot at a playoff spot if the unthinkable happens in the ACC and SEC, but unfortunately for them USC is about to take that scenario clear off the table.

2 | See: Ohio State, 2014.

THE PICK: USC Trojans, straight up and to cover.

Big Ten Championship
Michigan State Spartans vs. Iowa Hawkeyes, Saturday, December 5th
7:00 PM CST / 8:00 PM EST, FOX

The Matchup
F/+ 27.8% (24) F/+ 42.1% (8) MICHIGAN STATE
FPI 13.3 (26) FPI 18.0 (14) MICHIGAN STATE
FEI 0.148 (18) FEI 0.23 (6) MICHIGAN STATE
S&P+ 11.0 (29) S&P+ 16.0 (11) MICHIGAN STATE
OS&P+ 32.5 (47) DS&P+ 20.3 (18) MICHIGAN STATE
DS&P+ 21.5 (27) OS&P+ 36.4 (26) PUSH
Home Spread 3.5 MICHIGAN STATE

So, Iowa is undefeated. They are 12-0, which is the first time that’s happened in the 126 year history of their football program. You have to go back to the 1920s to find a year in which they finished the regular season with no losses. There were several close calls along the way — a 10-6 win over Wisconsin in Madison comes to mind — but here we are, in completely uncharted territory for this group. Keep in mind the past five years in Iowa City have ended with five or more losses on the ledger by the end of the season.[3] Yeah. Completely uncharted territory.

3 | Amazing how Kirk Ferentz made it through those years with his job intact. That’s some loyalty.

Michigan State, however, is not undefeated. They lost to Nebraska in Lincoln, on a controversial last-minute touchdown wherein Brandon Reilly re-entered the playing field to make the catch after being forced out by Jermaine Edmondson. The “forced out” part is where the controversy comes in, but regardless they are a mere two points short of being undefeated. Along the way they downed presumed B1G East titans Ohio State and Michigan on a pair of last-second finishes, such that they won two games without spending a single second of game time with the lead in either one. That does not happen very often, let alone twice in the same season to the same team. Suffice it to say that there’s some sort of odd sorcery going on in the Midwest these days.

Here’s the problem, though: Iowa’s schedule has been miserably bad. They rate out 72nd in FEI’s Strength of Schedule metric, nestled amongst major conference heavyweights like Central Michigan, Tulane, North Texas, and Massachusetts. For comparison purposes, Michigan State — who played against Michigan, Ohio State, and Oregon — ranks 27th in the same metric, which puts their one-loss record in a slightly different light.

As all of these metrics are opponent-adjusted, Michigan State has a clear edge in all four overall quality metrics and when Iowa has the ball. The only component in which the Hawkeyes have the edge on offense is on passing downs, where they possess the 19th-ranked offense versus the 48th-ranked defense of Michigan State. An anemic offense has put the onus on the Hawkeyes defense all season long, and there’s no evidence to suggest that will change here.

On the other side the Spartans’ hopes rest upon the shoulders of Connor Cook, as Iowa has a clear edge on the ground with their elite run defense. Michigan State hasn’t had much of a running game this year, pulling the running-back-by-committee approach with two freshmen and a sophomore splitting the carries pretty evenly. It’s unlikely any of those guys get going, however, as Iowa has a 98 rank advantage on the ground. The margins aren’t as crazy through the air, but Michigan State has a definite edge there. Cook’s completion percentage isn’t the best, but the 14 yards he averages per completion makes up for that. The somewhat meager production looks a lot better when you consider their schedule, which contains three of the 10 finest passing defenses in the country per S&P+ — that’s why they rank 12th in Pass OS&P+.

At the end of the day it’s difficult to see where Iowa wins this game. They have some advantages on special teams — particularly kickoff returns, where they rank 17th in the counry in FEI’s Kick Return Efficiency metric vs. the Spartans’ #114 ranking in Kickoff Efficiency —but the other two aspects of the game seem to favor Michigan State. I’ll be a believer if the Hawkeyes pull this out, but right now I’m just not seeing it.

THE PICK: Michigan State Spartans, straight up and to cover.

ACC Championship
North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Clemson Tigers, Saturday, December 5th
7:00 PM CST / 8:00 PM EST, ABC

The Matchup
F/+ 57.5% (2) F/+ 30.7% (19) CLEMSON
FPI 20.9 (6) FPI 17.9 (15) PUSH
FEI 0.252 (3) FEI 0.184 (10) PUSH
S&P+ 25.7 (2) S&P+ 10.9 (30) CLEMSON
OS&P+ 40.7 (11) DS&P+ 27.5 (63) CLEMSON
DS&P+ 15.0 (6) OS&P+ 38.4 (19) CLEMSON
Home Spread -5.0 CLEMSON

North Carolina has put together one of the quieter one-loss campaigns in recent memory, likely because that one loss looks absolutely horrendous in hindsight — a sloppy 17-13 defeat at the hands of lowly South Carolina way back in the first week of the season. The schedule is complete garbage as well, as they got the dregs of the ACC on top of a very weak out-of-conference slate. Clemson’s schedule isn’t great, but they did beat Florida State and Notre Dame, both of which eclipse any win among North Carolina’s 11.[4]

4 | UNC’s best win is… Pitt, I guess? Not much to get excited about here.

The overall metrics favor Clemson heavily, as you might expect, but S&P+ in particular is curiously low on the Tar Heels. While FPI and FEI agree on North Carolina as a top-15 outfit, S&P+ has them at 30, significantly lower than Clemson at #2 overall. The reason for that is their defense, which has made strides under Gene Chizik but is just an average outfit at best. Clemson should have no issues moving the ball on this group, particularly on the ground, where they have an 81 rank advantage on the Tar Heels. The advantages for the Tigers are similar or better in ALY and ASR, which further suggests they have superior line play on that side of the ball. Add in the exploits of Deshaun Watson through the air, and you have a recipe for lots of yards and points.

The other side is where this could get interesting, as North Carolina has one of the more prolific scoring offenses in the country, 11th overall at 41.3 points per game. Much of that is the schedule, of course, but the components suggest this is an offense that doesn’t do anything poorly. Clemson’s line once again has an edge, but only a slight one, and there’s a curious inefficiency here that may prove troubling for Tigers fans. Despite having the #3 defense in Pass DS&P+ and the #14 pass rush per DASR, they are a middling 61st on passing downs, while North Carolina is a very solid 21st on the same. Looking at their defensive profile, it seems like their issue is the big play, as they rank 44th and 119th in standard downs IsoPPP and passing downs IsoPPP, respectively. That’s problematic, as North Carolina rates out well in the offensive versions of those two metrics.

One area of interest is the special teams game, which has not been favorable to Clemson outside of their kicker. They rank 108th in Field Value Efficiency and 76th in Special Teams Efficiency, both well short of the Tar Heels’ marks in those metrics. Most concerning is North Carolina’s advantage in the return game, as the excellent Ryan Switzer and T.J. Logan have consistently produced big returns this year. Clemson has the offensive edge to deal with poor field position, but the game’s not going to get any easier for them if North Carolina is getting extra yards at the beginning of every drive.

This game has shootout written all over it, and North Carolina better hope that’s how it turns out, because I don’t think they have any chance of stopping Watson and the Clemson offense. If they can exploit the Tigers’ weakness on third downs to extend drives and keep it out of the hands of Watson, they have an opportunity to pull the upset here. I think that’s unlikely.

THE PICK: Clemson Tigers, straight up and to cover.