The Value of Advanced Statistics
One of the first things that got me “deeper” into football was advanced stats. As I’ve started to better understand scheme and personnel, I’ve paid less attention to them, but I still think they serve a very valuable role as an objective, albeit imperfect (they don’t claim to be perfect!) guidepost for where a team is at.
Advanced stats work around a few general principles. They totally eschew “total” statistics such as total yards or total points, instead honing in on per-play or per-drive data (or a mix of both), because those are much more meaningful and predictive. If Navy scores 35 points, but does so in 8 total possessions, that is much more meanginful than if SMU does the same in 17.
The example that always comes to my mind is the infamous 2014 Baylor — TCU “61 - 58” game. The national narrative that formed after that game was that, typical Big 12, neither team could play any defense. But when you looked closer you saw that the defenses played alright in that game. Baylor scored 61 regulation points, but it took them 20 possessions to do so! That’s 3.05 points-per-possession; Baylor averaged 3.32 in 2014. Compare 20 possessions to the 11 possessions Baylor had against Texas this past week, it means Baylor could’ve played as well on offense as they did against TCU in 2014 and only scored 31 points.
The two advanced stat rankings I normally look at are SP+ and FEI. What differentiates them is that SP+ primarily focuses on down-to-down efficiency and explosiveness, while FEI looks at things on the drive level. This naturally leads to differences; for example, Baylor’s 2019 offense ranked higher in SP+ because they were pretty efficient on a down by down basis, but ranked lower in FEI because they did a poor job of converting those successful plays into points. I also love the drive data put out by KSU Fan for the Big 12.
Let’s start with some major positives. Baylor’s defense has been awesome this year. I don’t know if there was anybody predicting that they’d be doing this well. By most measures, Baylor’s 2019 defense ranked anywhere from 5th-15th nationally. After losing 9 starters, most projections had them around 50th nationally, and that’s without factoring in a coaching change and new scheme.
Baylor’s defense is up to 31st in SP+ and 29th in FEI. At this point of the season (just 3 games in), preseason projections still heavily factor into ratings, otherwise you would have wild oscillations early in the season and less valuable projections. Baylor is 22nd nationally in defensive points per drive and 17th in defensive available yards allowed (accounts for field position, giving up a score after an 85 yard drive is much worse than after a 20).
On a down by down basis, Baylor allowed successful plays on 34% of plays against Kansas, 34% against West Virginia, and 46% against Texas. Success rate is defined as attaining 50% of needed yards on 1st down, 70% on 2nd, and 100% on 3rd down. It’s a basic measure of how effective you are at regularly moving the ball. Most games are in the 40-50% range, >50% is really good for an offense, <40% is really bad. So from an efficiency perspective, Baylor was great the first two games and pretty good against Texas.
Baylor is giving up 1.82 points per drive, which is 4th in the Big 12. Furthermore, they’re giving up 26.8 yards per drive, which is also 4th in the Big 12. West Virginia is 1st at 21.2, Texas Tech is last at 38.3. These numbers aren’t opponent adjusted, so it is important to note that Baylor has played the two worst offenses in the Big 12 so far in Kansas and West Virginia.
OK, here’s where it gets ugly. Bringing back 9 out of 11 starters, most projections had Baylor improving from last year’s unit. I saw projections anywhere from 20th to 45th nationally.
Baylor’s offense has fallen to 53rd in SP+ and 58th in FEI. Considering that both of them projected Baylor to be much higher preseason, and preseason ratings still account for a good percentage of the ratings, this is a dramatic fall (just like it has been a dramatic rise for the defense). Out of 101 teams that have played so far, Baylor ranks 81st in points per drive, 80th in % of available yards gained (38.2%), and 90th in a different measure of yards per play.
From an efficiency perspective, Baylor had a success rate of 39% vs Kansas, 25% against West Virginia, and 46% against Texas (see above for explanation of success rate). They are averaging 1.72 points per drive, which is 8th in the Big 12 (there is a big drop off after 7th, Oklahoma State is 7th at 2.23). Baylor is 9th in yards per drive at 24.6, a dramatic fall off from 8th place TCU which is gaining 31.3.
Overall, Baylor is basically the opposite of what I thought was the most likely outcome. Preseason, I figured the most likely probability was a slightly improved offense with a decently worse defense due to turnover and new scheme. Instead, the defense has skyrocketed while the offense has absolutely cratered.
Unfortunately, while I love good defense, you just cannot win without scoring more than 20+ points in the Big 12. For Baylor to get more wins this year, they need the offense to continue the improvement they saw against Texas. It is a bright sign that after weeks of stilted practices and players being out, Baylor was still able to improve on their previous performances. With Brewer as the starting QB with his current physical limitations, I do think that there is a rather low ceiling on how good this offense can get. If they are able to maximize what that is they should be able to grab another couple wins. Unfortunately however, without massive improvement from the offense Baylor quite simply won’t score enough to win more than a few more games this year.
I hope we get to see it so we can see this terrific defense rewarded.