The 2011 Irish season was full of a lot of “what if?” questions. What if Jonas Gray holds on to the ball against USF? What if Dayne Crist doesn’t snap the ball for a second time against USC? What if Denard never got a visit from Aladdin’s Genie? (By the way, I looked up the characters from Aladdin and his name was actually “Genie” – you would think Disney could have had a little more creativity) What if Tommy Rees played a little more Madden so he could learn how to read a Cover 3 defense?
I decided to do a statistical analysis to find out if ND’s luck was actually bad (and they really were two fewer fumbles away from being 10-2) or if this team had 8-4 written all over it from the beginning.
For those of you who haven’t thought about regression analysis since your freshman statistics class, I envy you. For the entire reading audience, I’ll try to make this as short and sweet as possible while still showing you how I came up with this data.
I took a multitude of team statistics from the NCAA database in an attempt to find the 5 that were the most predictive of overall team success in terms of regular season wins. The Final Five were: Offensive Passing Yards, Offensive Rushing Yards, Passing Yards Allowed, Rushing Yards Allowed, and Turnover Margin. All of these were accounted for on an average-per-game basis.
In the end, these Final Five statistics account for 74% of the variation in regular season wins among FBS teams during the 2011 season. In predicting the number of wins you would expect a team to have based on these Final Five statistics, you can use the following equation:
Expected Wins = 6.0 + (0.022 * Offensive Passing Yards) + (0.021 * Offensive Rushing Yards) â€“ (0.026 * Passing Yards Allowed) â€“ (0.017 * Rushing Yards Allowed) + (1.40 * Turnover Margin)
Please remember that all of the stats are on an average-per-game basis. Also please note that giving up passing yards actually hurt teams more than giving up rushing yards…hmm…
Before diving into the college football world in general, let’s start with the Irish. According to this model, you would have expected Notre Dame to win (drumroll please…) 6.03 games in 2011. Wow – it must be the turnovers; IT MUST be the turnovers, right??? Wrong. Holding all else equal, improving the per game turnover margin from -1.15 to 0 would only change the expected win total to 7.64 which (while clearly not a possible win total) is still just below the actual number of wins. In all honesty, this truly shocked me. I would have guessed that if we simply had turned the ball over 5 times fewer we would have been spending New Year’s in New Orleans or Glendale.
Looking at the college football world more generally, who were the biggest BCS conference overachievers?
And the biggest BCS conference underachievers?
Seeing an analysis that says an 8-win regular season was overachieving was certainly not the result I was hoping for (or expecting), and I imagine that most of you would feel the same way. Looking at the other teams that cracked the top 10 overachievers in terms of wins you’ll find that, for the most part, these schools had what we would consider more successful seasons than the Irish did.
This analysis is by no means perfect. There is clearly something to be said about the timing of turnovers (yes–8 turnovers instead of 10 against USF and Michigan could have meant the difference between an 0-2 start and a 2-0 start), and there is also something to be said about quality of opponents and whether or not yards are picked up in critical points during the game or during garbage time. Nonetheless, it is still a useful tool to look at teams that were able to capitalize on the yards they gained, the yards they prevented others from gaining, and the turnovers they caused or avoided.
So where does this leave the Irish for this upcoming season? Well, a top 10 turnover margin (like Kelly has done before in his career) would have put the Irish at an expected win total of about 9 for the regular season last year (still needed to improve that yardage differential). It isn’t fair to expect that kind of turnaround based on last year’s pathetic effort, but a move into the realm of a positive differential could pay enormous dividends.
Outside of Notre Dame, what made the other teams on the list so successful? Why were they able to rack up more wins than you would have expected based on their on the field performance? While numbers are nice, there are other very important elements (that may be difficult to measure) that the best teams are able to display—making big plays at the end of the game, differentiation in field position from special teams, avoiding 99 yard fumble returns that end in 14-point swings (you can tell I’m scarred by these), nailing opportune field goals, getting out to an early lead, etc. Frankly, these are areas we struggled in last season (other than some thrilling exceptions) and along with a less-insanely-awful turnover differential could have led to a season that looked more like Michigan’s.
To our readers: Do these numbers surprise you? Where do you see the most room for improvement this coming season? On a scale of 1-10, how much do you cringe when you hear the term “multiple regression”?
On a side note, I am excited to be part of the HLS team and hope to provide you with some thought provoking and interesting material in the future. If you are a Tweeter/Twitterer, you can follow me @HLS_Twibby.