In the “big data” world that we currently live in today it’s no surprise how large of a role statistics play in modern athletics.
Statistics, however objective numbers may appear, don’t always provide the most objective perspective possible. Specifically in college football, where there exists incredible parity among the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, it is known that statistics can be skewed and perhaps even misleading. Strength of schedule and “garbage” or “mop up” time are two instances where standard college football statistics can become perverted. Differing playing styles and philosophies can also lead to misrepresented data.
For example, Georgia Southern, Air Force and Navy, in that order, were the top three teams in regards to rush yards gained in 2015. Alabama, last year’s national champion, ranked 18th in terms of rush yards gained. Did the former three teams represent the three best, most effective, or most efficient rushing attacks in college football last year? Likely no, rather the statistics reflect the heavy run oriented, triple-option style offense that these teams identify with. It’s no wonder that pundits, analysts, and fans struggle to compare, contrast, and critique teams without overusing the dreaded (not to mention utterly biased, unscientific, and downright lazy) “eye test.” Standard statistics are obviously useful, but the frustrations and inconsistencies often present a subjective rather than objective view on the college football landscape.
Thankfully, Bill Connelly and the cerebral people at FootballOutsiders.com have developed an innovative analysis to minimize the discrepancies that skew standard statistics. They labeled their advanced statistics the S&P+ model. The S&P+ model can be applied to total offense, rush offense, pass offense, total defense, rush defense, pass defense, and overall team ranking. Using their own words to describe how they compile and calculate this data:
The S&P+ Ratings are a college football ratings system derived from the play-by-play and drive data of all 800+ of a season’s FBS college football games (and 140,000+ plays). The components for S&P+ reflect opponent-adjusted components of four of what Bill Connelly has deemed the five factors of college football: efficiency, explosiveness, field position, and finishing drives. (A fifth factor, turnovers, is informed marginally by sack rates, the only quality-based statistic that has a consistent relationship with turnover margins.)
As defined, their ratings system is “opponent adjusted” while also omitting statistics that were recorded during what they consider “garbage time.” The criteria they used to identify this portion of the game is classified as follows, “a game is not within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 points in the second quarter, 21 points in the third quarter, or 16 points in the fourth quarter.” You can take an even more in depth dive into the S&P+ model and many other advanced statistics concepts here (phenomenal stuff if you are a stat geek).
With that necessary and brief introduction into the S&P+ system we can move onto the good stuff – how has Notre Dame fared in this analysis throughout the past decade? Below is a compilation of where #NDFB has ranked in Overall Team S&P+, Total Offense S&P+, Rush Offense S&P+, Pass Offense S&P+, Total Defense S&P+, Rush Defense S&P+, Pass Defense S&P+, and Football Outsiders own strength of schedule rankings. To provide national championship context, included is every national champion for the past ten years and how they ranked in the year they won their national championship.[table “” not found /]
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Many interesting takeaways, theories and observations can be drawn from the data. Addressed below are some that stood out when first reviewing the data.
The biggest finding was the affirmation that “defense wins championships” is not your father’s old cliche, but rather it’s statistically supported. Eight of the last 10 national championships were won by a team with a defense that ranked in the top 10 Total Defense S&P+. Of the two teams that did not possess top 10 defenses, one was Ohio State in 2014 and they ranked 11 (close enough?) and the other is perhaps the antithesis or outlier being Auburn in 2010 winning the national championship with a mediocre ranking of 36th. One could make the argument that boasting a transcendent dual threat quarterback in Cam Newton, who buoyed the offense to number one rankings in Total Offense S&P+, Rush Offense S&P+, Pass Offense S&P+ (the only national champion in the last decade to hold the top spot in all three categories), was good enough to protect and carry the average defense. Another argument could be made from Auburn example, in that the Irish should choose the quarterback that can produce the most dynamic offense possible – worth a thought at least.
This isn’t to say that teams with great offenses didn’t win national championships. But adding more fuel to the importance of defense, Alabama (2015, 2011, 2009), LSU (2007), and Florida (2006) showed that a phenomenal defense can come to the aid of a good, but not top 10 worthy offense. These offenses were obviously not duds, but defense does appear to be slightly more influential than offense when determining a national champion. Look no further than 2012 where the Irish made a BCS National Championship game appearance. #NDFB rode on the back of the fourth ranked defense in Total Defense S&P+ while performing outside of the top 20 in Total Offense S&P+.
From a purely statistical perspective, it is hard to imagine how Notre Dame didn’t wind up with a double-digit figure in the wins column in 2010. Neither Total Offense S&P+ or Total Defense S&P+ were ranked in the top 10, but they were fairly consistent across the board. Surely not 8-5 worthy, so how is this possible? The numbers are likely highly impacted by the subdivision’s second-hardest schedule, thus adding more weight to successes achieved in 2010 while being less critical of the missteps taken during losses.
Drawing conclusions on the most recent season and on the upside for #NDFB, the offense was as good as we (fans) thought it was. It was consistently among the top 10 offenses in the country. However, the defense was unable to produce equal results – and the statistics show it. The defensive performance was by no means poor, but it certainly was not worthy of a playoff berth.
One could sit and hypothesize numerous theories that may be represented in the data – we actually encourage you to and please post your findings in the comments! But moving forward into the intriguing 2016 season, one of two things are a must if the Irish want to make the coveted playoff birth (let alone win the ever elusive national championship): either (1) the defense must find a way to improve or transform or evolve into top 10 caliber, or (2) the offense must make the leap from great to prolific.
Once again, let us know what conclusions you draw from the data and post in the comments below.
Cheers and Go Irish!