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Penalties: A Numerical Analysis Part One

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"Penalty." The word makes Baylor fans shudder. Is Baylor really that undisciplined of a team or are they victim of poor refereeing? Let's take a look.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Baylor is, through seven games, far and away the most penalized team in the NCAA. The Bears have racked up a staggering 10.9 penalties per game with an average of 104.6 penalty yards per game. That is, almost quite literally, giving away a touchdown a game due to penalties. That is horrible, no good, and very bad.

To attempt to find out the root of the problem, I took penalty and offensive data from cfbstats.com as well as Baylor's own website (for the West Virginia game) and massaged the data in an attempt to discern something meaningful. Now, I'm no Bill Connelly, but I will do my best.

Note: All data was taken before the games that occurred on 25.10.2014.

The Up-tempo Offense

A common claim in the college football world is that up-tempo offenses are penalized more often because they run more plays. In order to determine the validity of that claim, I plotted Penalties per Game data versus Total Number of Plays data for every FBS team. The results are below:

There is a good deal of information to look at here, so before any data analysis comes data clarification. The blue diamonds represent each team in the FBS. The red square in the middle of the graph is the average of these blue diamonds. The purple circle is an adjusted average that excludes Baylor's blue diamond, rather it includes the green triangle, which represents Baylor's statistics sans West Virginia game. The labels with boxes around them are the top ten teams in terms of plays per game and the teams that have a label but not a box around the label are the top ten teams that are farthest from the average in terms of magnitude. Baylor falls into both categories while Baylor Adjusted is in the top ten in terms of plays per game, but is actually below average in terms of distance from the average. Alles Klar?

Taking a deeper look at things, 34 teams are in the top half of the FBS in terms of penalties per game (6.3) and plays per game (72.7). That means 52% of the teams that are above average tempo-wise are also above average with respect to penalties. Not exactly a convincing number.

32 teams are in the top half of plays per game, but not penalties per game and 21 teams are above average in penalties per game and below average in plays per game. Note on the penalties data: The average is currently 6.307. Since the cfbstats data only goes to one decimal place, there are numerous teams sitting at 6.3 penalties per game that fall "below average". As such, there are only 55 teams "above average". Doesn't entirely make sense, but that's what the data says.

The first thing I notice when looking at the teams in these respective categories is that Oregon is above average in penalties per game (7.6), yet somehow below average in plays per game (71.143). On the other hand, West Virginia runs the third-most plays per game at 87.429, yet only racks up an average 6.3 penalties per game. Nonetheless, 70% of the teams in the top ten of plays per game are in the top half of penalties per game and the three that aren't all have 6.3 penalties per game. That's pretty telling. Only four of the teams in the bottom ten of penalties per game are in the top half of plays per game.

Although there are obviously exceptions, it seems clear that the most plays per game a team runs, the more penalties they are likely to receive. This makes logical sense too. More plays means more opportunities to commit a penalty.

Plays per Penalty

Perhaps a better indicator of how effective a team is is to look at how many plays they get off between penalties.

Unsurprisingly, Kansas State and two of the three service academies are in the top ten. These teams are know for having very well-disciplined programs that do not incur many penalties. To my surprise, Clemson is third on the list. The Tigers are in the top 11th percentile of plays per game, but only commit 3.9 penalties per game. Tennessee, Iowa, and Air Force are also in the top half of the table with respect to plays per game.

On the other side of the table, only Miami (Florida) and Utah State are not in the top 10 of penalties per game, though both commit over 8 penalties a game. Baylor is actually the only one of this group to be in the top 10 in penalties per game AND plays per game. Seven of the ten most-penalized team do, however, run an above-average number of plays. Half of the teams on the right side of the picture above run more than the average number of plays per game. If you take out the West Virginia game, Baylor moves up to 9.33 plays per penalty, good for the 109th spot. That's still really bad. Oh, yeah, they're STILL in the top ten in penalties per game with 9.67.

What does this all mean? Well, for one, the data appears to confirm the results of the first section; more plays tend to lead to more penalties. Two, Clemson is surprisingly efficient. Finally, Baylor has a penalty problem. Yes, Baylor had nearly double their average in penalty calls in the West Virginia game, which means they either caused an abnormal number of penalties that day or that the refs were not at all consistent with the referees from earlier Baylor games. In all likelihood, it is a bit of both.

Penalties per Game versus Penalty Yards per Game

Baylor accumulates 12 more penalty yards per game (104.6) than the next closest team, Texas Tech (92.6). Why? It's pretty simple, actually. Baylor gets called for pass interference penalties which are up to a healthy 15 yards every penalty.

Unfortunately, the data I used did not break down penalties by type, so I am purely going from memory here with respect to Baylor's types of penalties. Maybe for a future post I can find data that breaks down penalties by type.

See that far top-right diamond? That's Baylor. A simple distance formula reveals that Baylor is 48.87 away from the average. The next closest? Tech, at 36.85. Yeesh. Funnily enough, if you take that line on the graph and get the equation from it, then plug in the x values for every data point, you'll see that Baylor actually earns 0.4151 yards LESS per penalty than they theoretically should. Adjust for the WVU game and the Bears are back to earning 0.2502 yards more than they should. Celebrate the small victories, I guess?

Another small victory; Baylor isn't the worst when it comes to penalty yards per penalty. There they are only 27th with 9.59 yards per penalty. Colorado State leads that list with 10.37 and the average is 8.88 yards. OSU, the Kansases, and Texas are all below average in this category.

Wrap-Up and Look Ahead

So, what have we learned? Baylor commits a ton of penalties. But we knew that. I think the biggest takeaway from the data is that in nearly every category, Baylor is on the extremes of the bad end, even when the West Virginia game is ignored. Yes, that game was uncharacteristically bad, even by Baylor standards, but ignoring it isn't even enough to drop us out of the top ten by most penalty metrics. Baylor is essentially giving up a free touchdown every game due to penalties and, on average, a free first down on every penalty. That is not okay.

However, we still have not gotten to the root of the problem: Why is Baylor committing so many penalties? Yes, they run the fastest offense in the nation and fast offenses tend to be penalized more, but they are teams that run almost as many plays as Baylor, yet commit nearly 4 less penalties per game.

The next post will compare conferences to see if the Big 12 calls more penalties than other conferences and if that, perhaps, is why Baylor is penalized so often. After that post, I will hopefully be able to break down the data by penalty type and see if Baylor commits an abnormal number of pass interference penalties, as is my suspicion.

Special thanks to BearsIllustrated's Ryan Resch and Baylor MBA student Joe Gastler for their help and ideas on this post. You'll see more of Ryan's work next time.

Questions? Comments? Anything you would like to see? Post below!