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Stat Relevance Watch, Part Three

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?


Part Three: ACC Game-by-Game Results

Cumulative statistics and statistical rankings, as assessed in parts One and Two, are nice, neat and telling in their own right, but the overall averages also have the power to mislead: SMQ's own beloved Southern Miss squad, for example, averaged about 173.4 yards per game rushing over 13 games - 8 wins, 5 losses - which is the overall mean that would have informed either of the Stat Relevance Watch's first two installments. In reality, though, the Eagles barely came within 30 yards of that average in any game until falling just shy of it in the Conference USA title game. On a game-by-game basis, USM topped 200 yards on the ground in six of its eight wins, including each game of a four-game winning streak to close the regular season, and averaged nearly 100 yards more rushing in those wins (208) than in losses (117). So while the season average may give a certain impression about the year-end statistics and their relationship to winning in a big picture sense, the game-by-game look reveals certain numbers - in USM's case, rush offense - actually correlate much more closely to winning than the averages can show alone.

The Method: SMQ used ESPN box scores to pull out specific numbers from 34 of the most competitive and reasonably well-matched of the 49 conference games played in the ACC this season, and developed a winning percentage for each of ten major statistical categories (the stats below are listed in offensive form, but merely flip the records for a defense-centric point of view). That is, if the winning team outgained its opponent running the ball, that game was marked as a "victory" for the rush offense category; if the loser had a higher conversion rate on third down, the game was marked as a "defeat" for the third down efficiency category. And so on for each of the categories in each game until the supply of competitive examples was dry. After which each category's "record" was added up to determine its correlation to victory among the group as a whole.

The quick and dirty, portable results:

Rank Category Win %
1. Turnover Margin 0.748
2. Rush Offense 0.706
3. Yards Per Carry 0.656
Yards Per Pass 0.656
5. First to Score 0.588
6. 3rd Down Efficiency 0.567
7. Total Offense 0.546
8. Time of Possession 0.519
9. Penalty Yards 0.485
10. Pass Offense 0.424

This means teams in this sample that had a positive turnover margin in any given game won that game 74.8 percent of the time, teams that out-rushed their opponents in any given game won that game 70.6 percent of the time, etc.

The more detailed OCD version follows the jump...

Here, each category is painstakingly broken into sub-categories that hopefully shed more insight.

Stat Category Win % Stat Category Win %
Rush Offense .706 (24-10) Yards Per Carry .656 (21-11)
> 300 yards 1.000 (1-0) > 6.0 1.000 (3-0)
250-299 1.000 (1-0) 5.5 - 5.9 .600 (3-2)
200-249 1.000 (5-0) 5.0 - 5.4 .714 (5-2)
150-199 .462 (6-7) 4.5 - 4.9 .500 (1-1)
100-149 .588 (10-7) 4.0 - 4.4 .750 (3-1)
50-99 .455 (10-12) 3.5 - 3.9 .600 (6-4)
< 50 .111 (1-8) 3.0 - 3.4 .375 (3-5)
Pass Offense .424 (14-19) < 3.0 .345 (10-19)
>400 yards .000 (0-1) Yards Per Pass .656 (21-11)
350-399 .000 (0-0) > 12.0 1.000 (1-0)
300-349 .000 (0-4) 10.0 - 11.9 .750 (3-1)
250-299 .375 (3-5) 8.0 - 9.9 .692 (9-4)
200-249 .571 (8-6) 6.0 - 7.9 .458 (11-13)
150-199 .588 (10-7) 4.0 - 5.9 .400 (8-12)
< 150 .520 (13-12) < 4.0 .250 (1-3)
Total Offense .546 (18-15) 3rd Down Efficiency .567 (17-13)
> 500 yards .000 (0-0) >70 % .000 (0-0)
450-499 .333 (1-2) 60-69 % .000 (0-1)
400-449 .600 (3-2) 50-59 % .333 (2-4)
350-399 .400 (4-6) 40-49 % .643 (9-5)
300-349 .611 (11-7) 30-39 % .542 (13-11)
250-299 .600 (9-6) < 30% .455 (10-12)
< 250 .313 (5-11) Turnover Margin .748 (21-6)
> + 3 1.000 (5-0)
Fewest Penalty Yards .485 (16-17) 2 .750 (6-2)
1 .692 (9-4)
Time of Possession .519 (14-13) -1 .308 (4-9)
-2 .250 (2-6)
First to Score .588 (20-14) < - 3 .000(0-5)

Conclusions about anything between .400 and .599 should probably be regarded warily because a) that's pretty close to a wash and b) it's a pretty small sample size at just 34 games, and some of the catch-all categories - especially turnover margin, in the case of contests with a margin of zero - are even smaller because of ties in a game or two (time of possession, for some reason, was not listed in every summary). But it's still hard to reconcile evidence that less penalty yards more often than not results in losing, or that it's better to pass for less yards than your opponent.

Much of this latter, obviously, is an effect rather than a cause of winning - and moreso, perhaps, of losing. The low, low quality of quarterbacking in the ACC this season, a league whose championship was won by the 107th-ranked passing attack guided by a backup redshirt freshman, indicates most of the wins clustered in the lower reaches of the "Pass Offense" category came against similarly dismal numbers on the losing side. The big passing numbers, though, highlighted by a single 400-yard game (Will Proctor in Clemson's early overtime loss at Boston College), are a rather stunning o-fer compared to the better rushing performances, which emerge as big winners over their many, many dreadful, sub-100-yard counterparts. As in parts One and Two, efficiency and balance on offense reign over sheer yardage production: it only took about 3.5 yards per carry to win a substantial majority of the time, as long as the offense took care of the ball, and teams that outgained their opponent per pass, though not necessarily in total yards, won at exactly the same rate as offense that outgained opponents per carry.

Turnover margin emerges as a bigger deal here than it did in the earlier reports. This makes sense for the same reason as Southern Miss' rushing average in the example up top, because turnovers are highly variable and more likely than any other stat to come out close to even over the course of an entire season, but in individual games, they prove decisive. In this case, almost nobody was good enough to overcome a negative ratio and win in such a parity-driven conference. Maybe that's just what you get when conservatism takes hold and forces battles of attrition week after week.


It's about time the whole league saw the virtues of Gailey Ball

Part Four: The slightly less stodgy (but only slightly) Big East.