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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday, December 11, 2005

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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 seven major categories, who succeeded in what, and how those statistics correlated to overall success in terms of final record. SMQ does have a full-time job and does not have a high-powered supercomputer - or even, at the moment, "basic" spreadsheet technology - 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 TWO: Which teams rank highest across the statistical spectrum? How does this correlate to success? (Read Part One)

In the NFL, final statistics only partially tell the tale of a season; if one were to analyze the league's offensive and defensive rankings, they'd find a skewed template where also rans Green Bay (8th offensively, 20th defensively) and Tennessee (13th offense, 16th defense) match up very favorably on the stat sheet with division leaders Chicago (1st defense, but 28th offense), Denver (23rd defense, 5th offense), Cincinnati (1st offense, but 28th defense) and New England (8th offense, 29th defense). Averaging each team's offensive and defensive rankings, hangers-on San Diego, Dallas and Washington - combined record 23-14 - rank second, third and fourth, respectively, behind only unbeaten Indianapolis and well ahead of guaranteed postseason leaders Chicago, Carolina, Jacksonville, New York Giants, Denver, Cincinnati and New England. SMQ's beloved but hapless New Orleans Saints rank right alongside the Bears, Broncos, Chiefs, Bengals, Panthers, etc. etc.

Anyway...only three teams - the awesome Colts and, at the other end of the spectrum, shameful Texans and 49ers - have aggregate numbers that truly reflect these teams' success. The rest, as should be expected in the parity-driven league, is a big, random pile-up, suggesting that major statistics are a poor predictor, on their own, of success in the standings.

But everything has always been more or less a random pile-up in the NFL. SMQ is more concerned here with the students: do the across-the-board, aggregate statistical leaders in the college game, where there really is a big difference between 7-4 and 4-7, fare better than their professional counterparts?

Method: Simply, rank the nation's top teams in average rank among the seven major (non-scoring) statistical categories (rush defense, rush offense, total offense, rush defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense and turnover margin).

Yes, it took a long time to figure out which teams were in the running (SMQ glanced at almost every team's rankings and isolated 35 to take a hard look at), compile their rankings, average them together and rank the best. Here are the fruits of his labor, the top ten most impressive numerical teams, across the board, in the country:

Rank - School - Average Stat Rank - Win-Loss - SMQ Rank - Best Stat - Worst Stat
1. SOUTHERN CAL - 16.0 - 12-0 - 1a - Turnover Margin/Total Offense (1st) - Total Defense (39th)

2. TEXAS - 16.6 - 12-0 - 1 - Rushing Defense (2nd) - Passing Offense (41st)

3. LOUISVILLE - 20.0 - 9-2 - 14 - Total Offense (7th) - Rushing Offense (27th)

4. TOLEDO - 28.0 - 8-3 - UNR - Rushing Offense (12th) - Passing Offense (23rd)

5. TCU - 29.1 - 10-1 - 16 - Turnover Margin (2nd) - Passing Offense (79th)

6. PENN STATE - 29.4 - 10-1 - 3 - Rushing Defense (12th) - Passing Offense (78th)

7. GEORGIA - 30.1 - 10-2 - 7 - Turnover Margin/Pass Efficiency Defense (9th) - Total Offense (55th)

8. AUBURN - 30.3 - 9-2 - 6 - Total Defense (9th) - Turnover Margin (66th)

9. MIAMI (FL) - 30.7 - 9-2 - 5 - Pass Efficiency Defense (1st) - Total Offense (61st)

10. OREGON - 31.1 - 10-1 - 11 - Passing Offense (7th) - Rushing Offense (69th)

Pretty overwhelming: nine of the ten teams are in the final top 16 of every poll (including seven of the top ten), and the other, Toledo, was 8-3. The top two teams in the standings and in every poll also top the aggregate statistic list. So it's reasonable to say that conventional wisdom relating to non-scoring statistics and success is much more effective for predicting collegiate winners than for forecasting NFL success.

What may be more interesting is to note what these very good teams are very good at: offense stands up to defense on the success side (five teams' best showings are in one of the defensive categories, four in offensive categories), but only USC has excelled with a defensive category at the bottom of its list - and that has more to do with the unreal success of the Trojan offense than any deficiencies in the defense (which finished a respectable 39th overall), whereas TCU, Miami, Penn State and Oregon all won big despite finishing in the bottom half of the country in at least one major offensive category. Only Auburn above struggled to a greater degree with turnover margin than with any yardage-based measures.

So, Part Two's conclusion: good teams have good stats. Um, duh. But also: good teams tend to be, on the whole, more likely to win while struggling with at least one facet of the offense than they are while struggling on defense or in the turnover game. Which is another, slightly more tangible feather in the cap, following Part One's less conclusive endorsement, of old-fashioned defense and hanging on to the ball.

PART THREE: An endorsement, yes, but only a slight one, in a very small sample size. Next, SMQ will expand on what it is, exactly, that good teams do well, and if there's a more definite trend to be identified.
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8:25 PM

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