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Stats Relevance Watch, Part Seven: Into the Trees In the Pac Ten

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Wherein SMQ examines 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. I do not have the luxury of a high-powered supercomputer or degree-type qualification in mathematics or statistics, but analysis here will be driven as deep as my egghead, tinfoil cap curiosity and cell phone calculator will take it. That is to say, quasi-scientific at best. If you've ever said "the only number that matters is the one on the scoreboard" or anything to such effect, click here and don't be such a philistine.
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Part One: Which stats correlate most closely with winning?
Part Two: What do the best teams do the best?
Part Three: ACC Game-by-Game Results
Part Four: Big East Game-by-Game Results
Part Five: Big Ten Game-by-Game Results
Part Six: Big XII Game-by-Game Results



Part Seven: Pac Ten Game-by-Game Results

Here I'm looking for what I've referred to previously as "the forest," the big-picture, macro look at the correlation of statistics to winning on a game-by-game basis. To do that, I'm looking hard at game-by-game data (using very useful box scores from ESPN) in each BCS conference to put into a catch-all chart covering hundreds of games. Here are the results from the 2006 season, with each conference's results linked therein; they're also linked on the left sidebar.

For each of the 45 games played among Pac Ten teams last year, I developed a winning percentage for each of eleven major statistical categories (the stats below are listed in offensive form, but merely flip the records for a defense-centric point of view) as well as a pair of "control" categories, "home team" and "first to score." For example, 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 examples was dry. At that point, each category's "record" was added up to determine its correlation to victory among the group as a whole. Not every category adds up to 45 games because of rare ties or virtual ties.

The first thing to know about the Pac Ten is that, once you get past USC, there's not a lot of distance among the rest of the conference. Past co-champions USC and Arizona State (both 7-2 in-conference) last year and above last place Washington (2-7), seven teams finished between three and six league wins without much sense of hierarchy:

Middle of the Pac, Head-to-Head
ARI CAL ORE OSU STAN UCLA WSU Record
OSU W W W W L W 5-1
UCLA L W W W W L 4-2
ARI L W L L W W 3-3
CAL W W L L L W 3-3
STAN W W L L L L 2-4
ORE L L L W L W 2-4
WSU L L L L W W 2-4

I'd contend those teams are much closer together than their records suggest, based on one consistent determining factor:

Middle of the Pac, Turnover Margin
ARI CAL ORE OSU STAN UCLA WSU +/-
OSU +1 +2 -2 +4 -2 +8 + 11
UCLA 0 +2 +2 +2 +1 0 + 7
ARI -2 +2 -1 -1 0 +1 -1
CAL +2 +4 -2 -1 -2 -2 -1
STAN +2 +2 + 1 -4 -1 0 -2
ORE -2 -4 + 2 -1 -2 +2 -5
WSU -1 + 2 -2 -8 0 0 -9

"Determining factor" may be a misnomer, since, of course, this only measures correlation and correlation is not causation, etc. Sometimes a positive turnover margin coincides with a 237-yard advantage in total offense and a 40-0 halftime lead, in which case a couple interceptions probably are not solely responsible for turning the tide. Still, among the league's middle class, the pattern is obvious: the team with better turnover margin in this subset of games finished 15-3, and the teams with the best records (Oregon State and UCLA) had by far the best margins; the teams with the worst records (Stanford, Oregon, Washington State) had the worst.

Four games in particular stand out: Arizona State over Oregon State, Cal over Oregon, Oregon State over Cal and Stanford over USC. In all four, the loser statistically dominated across the board - the Ducks, Bears and Trojans each outran and outpassed their conquerors in both total yards and on a per play basis and had better third down conversion rates. In the ten categories I tracked, the losers in those games won at least eight of them; USC beat Stanford in nine out of ten, usually by a wide margin. The one area they lost big, though, was turnovers: ASU was +4 against Oregon State, Cal was +4 against Oregon, Oregon State +2 against Cal and Stanford +4 against SC. At that rate, not much else matters.

This is totally different from the Big XII, which featured practically zero snipers pulling out improbable wins from behind the statistical eight ball. There, you took your lickin' like a man (a big, overall-wearin', cornhuskin' man), and you liked it.

That block above only represented a little less than half of the total games, though, and the bigger picture is not exactly the same. On the whole, this year's national trend continues in its most glaring form to date: everybody can throw. Yardage-wise, big passing games in the age of the spread are a dime a dozen; everybody, against a wall, is capable of getting their yards through the air. What set teams apart here, as we've seen elsewhere, is the ability to run and control the ball:

Category Win %
3rd Down % .837 (36-7)
Rush Yards .795 (35-9)
First Downs .786 (33-9)
Time of Possession .767 (33-10)
Turnover Margin .763 (29-9)
Yards/Rush .727 (32-12)
Total Yards .705 (31-13)
Yards/Pass .705 (31-13)
First to Score .644 (29-16)
Yards/Play .622 (28-17)
Home Team .578 (26-19)
Fewest Penalty Yards .469 (15-17)
Pass Yards .455 (20-24)

Since even Arizona and Washington State had the decency to attempt to run when practical, there were no Texas Tech-like teams committed to just throw and throw no matter what. The result was that in virtually all of the games where the winner had more passing yards, the same winner also had more rushing yards (or at least a better combination of the two). Man cannot live by the run alone, but even in the supposedly pass-happy regions west of the Mississippi, he has to run to some degree, and stop the run by turn. This is another area where Oregon State set itself apart (best nationally in rushing defense) and, more than any other, where USC continues to dominate (fourth nationally, in the top ten for the fifth time in six years).

It's still the Trojans, in fact, who are responsible for a lot of the upper tier performances on the OCD chart:

Total Yards .705 (31-13) Yards/Play .622 (28-17)
> + 300 > + 6.0
+ 250-299 5-0 + 5.0-5.9
+ 200-249 6-1 + 4.0-4.9
+ 150-199 4-1 + 3.0-3.9 2-0
+ 100-149 7-2 + 2.0-2.9 9-1
+ 50-99 5-3 + 1.0-1.9 11-5
< + 50 4-6 < + 1.0 6-11
Rush Yards .795 (35-9) Yards/Rush .727 (32-12)
> + 250 3-0 > + 3.0 8-3
+ 200-249 2-1 + 2.5-2.9 2-0
+ 150-199 9-2 + 2.0-2.4 7-1
+ 100-149 9-1 + 1.5-1.9 5-1
+ 50-99 4-2 + 1.0-1.4 3-4
< + 50 7-4 > + 1.0 5-4
Pass Yards .455 (20-24) Yards/Pass .705 (31-13)
> + 250 > + 3.0 10-1
+ 200-249 0-1 + 2.5-2.9 5-2
+ 150-199 4-2 + 2.0-2.4 1-1
+ 100-149 7-5 + 1.5-1.9 3-1
+ 50-99 4-10 + 1.0-1.4 2-5
< + 50 5-6 > + 1.0 9-4
3rd Down % .837 (36-7) Turnover Margin .763 (29-9)
> + 25 % 9-2 > + 4 5-0
+ 20-24 % 7-1 + 3 3-0
+ 15-19 % 3-0 + 2 10-3
+ 10-14 % 9-2 + 1 11-6
+ 5-9 % 2-1 0 7-7
> + 5 % 6-1
Categories Won
10 7-0 First Downs .786 (33-9)
9 8-1
8 3-2 Time of Possession .767 (33-10)
7 9-1
6 7-3 Fewest Penalty Yards .469 (15-17)
5 3-4
4 2-5 Home Team .578 (26-19)
3 1-5
2 3-6 First to Score .644 (29-16)
1 1-8
0 0-11

Under the "categories won" section, half of the number next to ‘10’ – a perfect sweep of all ten categories, minus penalty yards – are by USC, against Arizona State, Washington, Washington State and UCLA. The Trojans were one category away from "shutting out" Oregon State (time of possession) and Stanford (turnover margin). Both Arizona and Cal hung in the two passing categories, but nothing else. The only team that matched SC on the stat sheet was Oregon.

Otherwise, the total non-impact of passing yardage is made more clear – not only did out-passing your opponent lead to no discernible correlation with victory overall, but even out-passing them by a significant margin proved essentially meaningless; a 100-yard advantage was only worth and 11-8 record, probably attributable to other sources. Above the 150-yard mark, it was only 4-3. The other categories show a generally steady trend up the ladder: the wider the margin, the better the record.

Next: The SEC.