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The Guide to the Green Light: College Football Analytics in 2014
by Ben Tompkins,posted Jun 18 2014 11:25PM
Last year was the inception of something that I’ll do for the rest of my career in this industry; Benny’s Picks. Every week during the season, I gave five or six picks that I researched and made my best-educated prediction on whether or not a particular team would cover the spread.
At first, I wasn’t placing money on the games; I was just offering my picks to the public to build credibility. I wanted to get my feet wet and see how I would fare arm wrestling Vegas in my freshman year of picks.
Predictably like any newcomer, I started out slow. I had to get my footing. Midway through the season, I began to get into a rhythm in terms of research and statistical analysis. I found the sites I now consult on a consistent basis and I began grinding out hours reading into what the numbers said about teams.
After I began to catch on, I started throwing some money on the games. I opened an account on Bovada with an initial investment of $30 and told myself we’d see how it went and if I lost all $30 then it was gone.
As the season progressed, I was pleased. I finished the last month of college football going 19-10 ATS (against the spread), which might not sound like a great margin of victory, but anytime you can win nine more times than Vegas you’re doing pretty well.
Then bowl season came along and a mix of luck and a consistent routine yielded a 20-7 ATS bowl record. I finished the regular season 41-33 with two pushes, went 60-39 on the year, and multiplied an initial $30 investment 12.8 times into a $384 cash out.
Admittedly, the bowl season transcended my record, but I still held a 55% winning percentage throughout the regular season. While I know that the odds of repeating the bowl streak are slim, the fact remains that I’m onto something. And with the newly found comprehension of the analytics behind the game, I have high expectations for my sophomore season.
Bill Connelly, a writer for SB Nation, Football Outsiders and author of Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories, recently had an article published in Athlon Sports college football magazine titled Become a Smarter Fan. In a sports world now driven by analytics, Connelly’s article outlined five statistical factors that determine and factor into whether a team wins or loses a game:
If you win the field position battle, you win the game 72% of the time.
If you win the turnover battle, you win the game 73% of the time.
If you finish drives better than your opponent, you win 75% of the time.
If you are more efficient than your opponent, you win 83% of the time.
If you are more explosive than your opponent, you win 86% of the time.
So what do these mean?
Field position: Look at the numbers and ask yourself two questions: Where do you begin your drives and where does your opponent begin theirs? Are you creating an advantage or a disadvantage to yourself? Your opponent?
Turnover battle: How many times do you turn the ball over? How many times do you take it away? What is your margin of turnovers? Per game? What about your opponent? How do you compare against the top 10 teams?
Finishing drives: Connelly’s article defined finishing a drive by examining how many points per trip teams scored when inside the 40-yard line. How many points do you score when inside the 40? What percentage were touchdowns? What percentage were field goals? On what percentage of overall drives did you score? Conversely, what do the numbers of you opponent say?
Efficiency: A team’s success rate is dictated by their ability to offensively stay on schedule, meaning you’re able to gain 50% of the necessary yards on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third down.
Standard v. Passing downs: Connelly defined standard downs as first down, second-and-7 or fewer, and third-or-fourth-as-5 or fewer. Passing downs were defined as second-and-8 or more and third-or-fourth-and-4 or more.
In 2013, on average, a team’s success rate on standard downs was 48% and 32% on passing downs. If your team is successfully gaining the necessary yards and staying on schedule, you’ll win the game 83% of the time.
Explosiveness: Explosiveness examines the average number of yards you gain per play. What is it? What about your opponent? How many yards per play does your defense allow? What about theirs? How do you compare against the top 10 teams?
After looking at the numbers, ask yourself these three questions:
Does your team have an elite quarterback?
What pieces does he have around him?
Do you have a strong D-Line to pressure their quarterback?
This isn’t a guaranteed guide to winning, I’m not a physic and beating Vegas is a daunting task. But numbers never lie. Analyze the statistics, the roster, the schedule, and other trends surrounding your team, cross your fingers, and let me make your money some money.
Ben Tompkins is an intern and contributing writer for WLXG ESPN Sports Radio 1300. Follow him on Twitter @bennytomp18, on Instagram @bennythekid01, and like his page on Facebook, Benny & The Jets.