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Stats Relevance Watch, Part Two

There are, as they say, lies, damn lies, and statistics. The numbers mean something, yet often we know not what. Here SMQ will look at the final regular season statistics in more than a dozen major categories to suss out who succeeded in what and how that statistical success correlated to overall success in terms of final record. SMQ does not have the luxury of a high-powered supercomputer or degree-type qualification in mathematics or statistics, but his analysis will be driven as deep as his egghead, tinfoil cap curiosity and cell phone calculator will take it. That is to say, quasi-scientific at best.

Part One: Which stats most closely correlate with success?
Part Two: What do the best teams do best?

In Part One, success was defined by record; here, it's defined by ranking. SMQ's sample group of the most successful teams is the AP Top 25 (which, it happens, features the same 25 teams as the most recent BlogPoll, if not in exactly the same order), and they're measured in two groups - the Top 10, which are then also included as part of the entire Top 25 - to determine as a whole where the elite of the sport are separating themselves from the pack.

The Method: It should come as no surprise, because of the wide range of styles of play in the poll, that ranked teams come out in the "above average" range of nearly every statistical category. There's much variability: West Virginia and Arkansas had elite rushing offenses but ranked at the bottom in passing; Notre Dame and Tennessee lived by the pass. Virginia Tech had no offense, statistically, of either variety to speak of. Every team won its own way. What this attempts to do is find the most commonly successful traits of the entire group, as an overall trend.

Ordered by average rank of the top 25 as a whole:

Avg. Rank of Top 10 Avg. Rank of Top 25 Ranked Teams in Category Top 20 Ranked Teams in Category Bottom 40
Rushing Defense 17.2 24.68 13 0
Pass Eff. Defense 15.2 27.6 11 1
Total Defense 15.4 29.08 10 1
3rd Down Defense 24.5 29.88 8 2
Turnover Margin 37.1 31.36 9 1
3rd Down Offense 25.0 31.8 10 1
Total Offense 26.3 31.96 10 2
4th Down Offense 21.2 35.48 11 4
Rushing Offense 26.7 37.04 9 4
Time of Possession 27.2 37.8 7 3
4th Down Defense 35.7 43.32 7 5
Fewest Yards Penalized 53.0 61.24 4 6

Again, penalty yards stand out as utterly meaningless; as in Part One, higher penalty yardage actually correlates slightly more with success, which makes no sense and should not indicate that jumping offsides is desirable or even, in the short term, meaningless (hello, Louisville), but the overall, cumulative consequences of flags were apparently nil.

The rallying cry here is de-fense, validated by defensive categories carrying the top half of the chart in a sweep. Ranked teams not only found their run defenses among the nation's best more often than in any other category, but also never among the worst; run defense had the "highest basement" (Tennessee, surprisingly, ranked 71st), and the Vols were the only ranked team not in the top 50 against the run. The other defensive categories, total and pass efficiency defense, can make similar claims - only a couple ranked teams had to overcame a serious weakness in any of the defensive categories. More were able to make do, though, with average or bad aspects of their offense, where playcalling can more easily hide deficiencies. So the numbers show a general trend among ranked teams towards good defense across the board and efficiency and balance more than big yardage offensively.

In general, of course, and there are worthy cause-and-effect arguments: good teams, being ahead, allow less rushing yardage because teams have to throw to keep up, and likewise are less likely to throw for a lot of yards while running to maintain leads. That's perfectly valid. But also extremely difficult to account for.

In an effort to account for such details, SMQ will move on in Part Three to specific, game-by-game looks that aren't beholden to following averages, but that he expects will also reveal a few trends of their own.