The BCS Title Game: Offenses

December 31, 2006

One of the biggest differences cited between Florida and Ohio State is their offenses. Ohio State is credited with having an explosive offense, capable of anything, whereas Florida is characterized as having a sputtering offense that can be hard to watch. As it turns out, the difference between the offenses plays out the exact same way that the differences between Florida and Michigan’s teams do. Heuristically, Florida appears to be inferior, but the statistics say that argument is nothing more than truthiness at work.

Disclaimer: right now, I’m only looking for evidence as to how good the offenses are, not how good the entire teams are. In addition, I am only looking at Florida and Ohio State’s opponents rankings as I do not have the time to go over their opponents’ opponents to determine whether, for instance, Bowling Green’s 43 rank in total defense really makes them better defensively than South Carolina’s 46 rank does them. That’s beyond the scope of this piece and can be debated elsewhere. Also, Florida’s game against Western Carolina has been thrown out of this discussion since it says absolutely nothing meaningful about the Gators.

First, if you look in terms of yards per play, the two teams are a wash. Florida rushed for 4.8 yards per play and threw for 8.54 yards per play. For Ohio State, the numbers were 4.7 and 8.45, respectively. There is no statistically significant difference between the two there. Ohio State averaged 66.25 plays per game to Florida’s 61.15, so it doesn’t make as much sense to compare the absolute numbers. I don’t know what that particular difference is due to, whether it’s because of SEC teams tending to run the ball more than Big 10 teams (this I don’t know) or any number of factors leading to Ohio State being more successful in ball control from their defense or doing better on 3rd downs (again, I don’t know). In any event, Florida wins this phase of the discussion handily since the averages per play are the same, but as we’ll see, Florida achieved those stats against noticeably better defenses.

Next is going to be a series of charts comparing offensive performance and opponents’ defensive rank. The rankings are taken from the NCAA website and the stats from the box scores on ESPN.com. Boxes highlighted red indicate a defensive rank in the top-30, which means top-25% overall (one fourth of 119 Div. I-A teams is about 30), and boxes highlighted green indicate a defensive rank in the bottom-30, or worst-25% overall.

Here is a chart of Ohio State’s offensive output compared with their opponents’ defensive rank:

osu_yards

Here is the same for Florida:

uf_yards

Ohio State out-gained Florida by about 27 yards per game, but remember that Ohio State averaged 5 more plays a game. That 27 comes out to 5.4 a play, which is less than their overall average of 6.28 yards per play, for what it’s worth. In any event, the defensive rank of the average Florida opponent is 14 spots better than the average Ohio State opponent. Florida also faced one more top-30 defense than did Ohio State, while they each played the same number of bottom-30 defenses. I would give Ohio State the slight edge here because I also ran these numbers for Michigan and USC for comparison (and their charts are all the way at the end) and against roughly the same aggregate defenses, Ohio State averaged 22 yards more than the Trojans did. Only nine BCS-conference teams averaged 400 yards a game; it’s very hard to do and the Buckeyes deserve credit for doing it.

Now, I am going to look at scoring. This is a little trickier since scoring is more complex than just plain gaining yards. I am using the scoring defense ranks of the opponents and offensive points. That counts out defensive and special teams scores. I am also going to discount scoring drives in which the offense started within their opponents’ 44, since such scores are nearly automatic and a result of either defense or special teams setting them up in excellent shape. I picked 44 just because a team doesn’t have to get a first down to get into realistic field goal range (defined as 52 yards or less, or a snap from the 35), Chris Hetland’s struggles aside. First, Ohio State:

osu_points

Now, Florida:

uf_points

Now it becomes a bit clearer as to why Florida seemed to have trouble scoring this year. The Gators faced six (!) teams in the top quartile in scoring defense, and three other opponents were within 10 spots of being in that group as well. Ohio State on the other hand had a lot easier of a time since some of their opponents were stingy with giving up yards but not with points. The gap between average opponents’ ranking also jumped to 20 spots between the two. Ohio State averaged a touchdown more a game by my metrics, but they also did not have a four-game stretch in the middle of the season containing four top-30 defenses in a row and got to avoid playing Wisconsin. Conversely, Florida did not miss playing any of the good SEC teams. I’ll give Ohio State another slight edge, keeping in mind that Florida was hurt more than Ohio State was by the must-be-longer-than-44-yards rule for scoring drives since the main way they won this year was by defense and special teams.

Really when it comes down to it, Ohio State won like a college team this year, and Florida won like an NFL team. Ohio State put up lots of yards and points on long, sustained drives. Florida also put up a lot of yards, but not as many points and won by playing defense and doing just enough to win. It’s hard to compare teams with such different styles of winning since it’s impossible to predict accurately which team will mold the game into its image of winning. Ohio State does have the better offense, but it did not have as hard a road to go down.

APPENDIX A

Yes, there are problems with this. Some I have already pointed out. Others are due to oversimplification. In the end, I think this is a good approximation of how the teams performed offensively. For Florida to average as many yards per play as Ohio State did against substantially better defenses overall is impressive, but when the overall offensive effort is taken into account, Ohio State does appear to have the better statistical offense. The total yards numbers account for how well the team moves the ball, and the scoring numbers that I calculated reward a team for long drives rather than gimmies caused by defense and special teams.

This doesn’t account for red zone performance, trying to run out the clock at the ends of halves, putting in backups in blowouts, momentum, psychological effects, and changes in strategy due to changes in the score. It doesn’t differentiate between a 67-yard run and a 12-play, 67-yard drive. It is not perfect. I am not a professional statistician.

APPENDIX B

I also ran the same numbers for the Rose Bowl participants for comparison. Surprisingly, Michigan came out last among the four teams, and USC came out about even with Florida.

Michigan averaged 8 fewer yards per game than Florida did, with its average opponent ranked 22 spots behind Florida’s in total defense. Michigan also averaged only one more point a game, but did so against an aggregate defense that rated 17 places behind Florida’s aggregate opponents’ defense.

USC averaged 5 more yards than UF did, but their average opponent was ranked 15 spots behind Florida’s. The Trojans were a field goal better per game in scoring points, but kicked that field goal against an aggregate defense that rated 16 places behind Florida’s opponents’ aggregate defense.

The final rankings among the four, for statistical offense:

1. Ohio State

T-2. Florida and USC

4. Michigan

The final spreadsheet: PDF Document

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This Makes Sense

December 4, 2006

For most of the year, voters were operating under the assumption that at some point Florida would lose a game. That makes sense somewhat, considering how Florida is about 10 or so plays from being 8-4 right now. Plus, no one was expecting UCLA to beat USC, so why consider the relative merits of Florida and Michigan when it doesn’t matter anyhow?

After Michigan – OSU, people were enamored at how exciting a game it was, and left Michigan at 2. The entire next week, they looked at the records and schedules and realized that #3 USC probably had a better claim to the #2 spot than Michigan did, so they bumped USC up over UM. Simple enough right? They did not put Florida over Michigan though since #3 carries no special significance, so why spend that much time thinking about who really belongs there?

Well, USC lost to UCLA. Now, it was time to actually visit the question of who deserves the #2 spot. Michigan has a better loss than Florida, but that only goes so far since Michigan did in fact lose to Ohio State, and even though the score was close, the Buckeyes gave away a lot of points in the second half through unforced turnovers and they still won. Florida’s 10-point loss to Auburn was really a 4-point loss since Auburn scored on the last play of the game, a failed hook-and-ladder play.

Florida has played more bowl teams. Florida has defeated more bowl teams. Florida has played more ranked teams. Florida has defeated more ranked teams. Florida had the strongest schedule in the country. Florida won the toughest conference in the country. Michigan’s only important injury was to Mario Manningham. Florida played most of its games without Marcus Thomas, and had nagging injuries that hampered Percy Harvin, Deshawn Wynn, Earl Everett, and most of the offensive line. Florida lost Tony Joiner in the first series against Arkansas and later Ray McDonald too, plus Ryan Smith was battling cramps and Drew Miller had trouble staying on the field. Florida still won by 10.

Michigan has the edge over Florida in only one category – best loss, and really, think about that. Their best game was a loss? Florida beats Michigan in every other category. That is why the voters changed their minds, and why Florida is rightly in the BCS Championship game.