A Word on SEC Championship Game Rematches

The conventional “wisdom,” if you can call it that, from the ESPN pundits is that Auburn so thoroughly dominated Georgia the first time around, that there isn’t much Georgia can do if they play again. If you watched the game, and I did, that is certainly the way it looked. Auburn’s defensive line dominated, their offensive line won the battle, Auburn moved the ball, Georgia didn’t, and they led the game 40-10 before a meaningless late touchdown. So… case closed right?

Well, that’s an interesting theory, or, uh… hypothesis, if you will. How does it hold up to further analysis, or, uh… data. Yes, data. Let’s see. Like many things in college football, the data is limited. Small sample size yada yada yada. The sample size is 7. But here they are. All of the SEC Championship game rematches in history (plus LSU-Bama in 2011, rematching in the national title game):

Year Teams Regular Season Postseason Difference
1999 Florida/Alabama Alabama by 1 Alabama by 27 26
2000 Florida/Auburn Florida by 31 Florida by 22 9
2001 LSU/Tenn Tenn by 8 LSU by 11 19
2003 LSU/UGA LSU by 7 LSU by 21 14
2004 Auburn/Tenn Auburn by 24 Auburn by 10 14
2010 Auburn/S.Car. Auburn by 8 Auburn by 39 31
2011 LSU/Alabama LSU by 3 Bama by 21 24

First things first, only 2 times in 7 rematches has the result changed, in that the loser of the regular season matchup won the postseason game. Those occurred in 2001 and 2011. However, perhaps the biggest takeaway is that 6 times out of 7, the game changed significantly. Only in 2000 was the result basically the same – that being a comfortable win for Florida both times. The other 6 games all went from a close game to a blowout, or vice versa. The average difference in score is over 19 points. Maybe the first game is not a very strong predictor of the second game?

Well, hold on you say. This is only 7 games. And you’d be right, it is a small sample size, but you work with the data you’ve got. Here, I can also add this list of bowl games that have been regular season rematches. Going back to the same starting point (1992, beginning of the SEC title game), there have been 14 such games, and only 4 of these 14 bowl games were won by the team that won the regular season game (excluding the 1995 Sugar Bowl, the “Fifth Quarter in the French Quarter,” because the two teams tied the regular season game).

So, still a small sample size. But the data certainly suggest the first game is not a good predictor of the second game. Not at all. Stated differently, the hypothesis that the first game played between two teams will be a reasonable predictor of a hypothetical rematch has very little support. Thus, when two teams play twice in the same season, the first game is not a good predictor of the second game. That is the “what.”

The “why” is just speculation. We don’t have any data that goes to the cause. However, I can guess as to some reasons. First of all, I’d simply say that the logic is wrong in the first place. Most fans seem to think that a football game is good evidence of something. It shows you who the better team is. I’d argue that’s wrong. Maybe a team’s 12 or 13 game record is good evidence (maybe it’s only so-so evidence). But I’d argue that one game isn’t good evidence of anything. Too many variables, too much luck. In other words, the first game might be a poor predictor of the second game because the first game has a significant luck factor, and so does the second game.

Other possible explanations for this phenomenon are psychological. The players and coaches from the winning team feel like all they have to do is not make any mistakes, and they’ll win again the same way they won the first time. They may have a hard time getting up for the game. The coaches may feel pressure not to change their scheme. After all, it worked the first time. Meanwhile, the second team is adjusting. Its players are angry, and out to prove the first game was a fluke. The opposite can also happen. Consider 2010 – Auburn may not have thought it was a great team during the first matchup, early in the year, when they beat South Carolina by 8. But after finishing the year unbeaten, Auburn was in a different mental state, and out to prove they actually were much better than a 3 loss South Carolina team.

Those are my two best guesses, but there are other conceivable explanations. However, the facts are what they are. And the facts suggest that if Auburn and Georgia play in the SEC Championship game, Auburn may not be as big of a sure thing as the media thinks. In fact, Auburn did get a number of apparently lucky breaks the first time around (fumbled punt, the “leaping” personal foul) which resulted in extra possessions. For whatever its worth, the computers mostly think Auburn would be favored by about a field goal and would have perhaps a 55-60% chance to win. That doesn’t sound very much like the first game. Based on the above, that probably means its exactly right.

Perhaps UGA fans should be cheering for Auburn to win this weekend, so they get a rematch, rather than playing Alabama for the first time.

Advertisements

2016 Oregon is the Oregon Everyone Thought They Were Watching for the Last Decade

There is a myth that exists in college football that some really good teams are great offenses with bad defenses. These teams win games by scores like 62-51 or 45-38, and, so the theory goes, they are just good enough on offense to outscore any opponent.

In reality, all great teams are fairly complete, meaning that they are good in all phases of the game. You can’t really be a great team if you have a bad defense. What apparently fools everybody is the fact that football is a game with no set pacing. A baseball game is nine innings, or twenty-seven outs if you prefer. Golf is eighteen holes. A set in tennis is six games. Games like football and basketball are different. A football game can range, at the extremes, from something like seven possessions (this year, Navy v. Notre Dame) to as many as seventeen or eighteen. The typical range is more like 9-10 for a low-possession game, and perhaps fifteen for a high-possession game. But, as with basketball, certain teams tend to play high-possession games, and certain teams tend to play low-possession games. Teams that play high-possession games generally feature hurry-up offenses, or pass-happy offenses, or defenses that prefer to gamble for stops rather than playing “bend but don’t break”. Teams that play-low possession games will be teams that run the ball a lot, or play conservative defense that seeks to avoid giving up big plays at the expense of allowing lots of first downs. As should be somewhat obvious, teams that play high-possession games tend to score more points, and they allow more points, all else being equal. For some reason, we collectively seem to appreciate this in basketball, and we don’t necessarily consider low scoring teams to be “bad” on offense. We look to efficiency rankings instead.

Football analysis is catching up, but nobody seems to be taking notice. The stats I will be quoting are from Football Outsiders (very good site if you’ve never seen it).  This site ranks offenses and defenses as units, based on some advanced per-possession stats that attempt to adjust for quality of opponent. This is obviously an imperfect process, but in my opinion it provides much better information than simply saying that, because a team averages 35.6 points per game, they are “good” on offense.

Oregon has long had a reputation as a high-flying offense and a poor defense. I think it is time to challenge that assumption. Offensively, they’ve been good, no question. Since 2007, their offensive ranks have been 7th, 13th, 11th, 11th, 5th, 2nd, 6th, 1st, 13th, and 18th. This year, their 18th rank is their worst on offense in a decade. That’s pretty good. But what about defense? Since 2007, they have been 19th, 42nd, 22nd, 5th, 9th, 4th, 29th, 28th, 84th, and 126th. Raise your hand if you are surprised, particularly about the stretch for 2010 to 2012 (5th, 9th, and 4th). The 2010 national title game was billed as two great offenses against two bad defenses (Auburn and Oregon), yet somehow, those two defenses held the great offenses to some of their lowest point totals all season (22 to 19). Turns out, when analyzed properly, both were great defenses as well (that just so happened to be playing with extreme, hurry up offenses, so they played many high scoring games).

I still consider the absence of a playoff in 2012 to be a travesty. 2012 Oregon vs. 2012 Alabama would have been a great game, and we needed to see it. If only somebody could have beaten Notre Dame during the regular season…  Oh well.

In any event, Oregon’s national-title-contender status from 2010 to 2014 was based upon great offense AND great defense. Last year they still managed to be 9-4, a pretty good year, with the 84th defense. But this year, with a truly terrible defense, they are 4-8, despite still having a great offense.

And that is normal. Many teams follow that formula. For example, 2013 Indiana (8th offense, 105th defense, 5-7 record), 2012 Baylor (5th offense, 94th defense 8-5 record), 2010 Michigan (8th offense, 107th defense, 7-6), 2009 Stanford (4th offense, 104th defense, 8-5 record). Another prominent team that had this reputation was West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez. As a 2007 national title contender that lost in an upset to Pitt to drop out of the title game, then routed Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, they were 3rd on offense and 9th on defense. Not quite what most people thought.

The bottom line is that you won’t be a great team without being at least good on defense. There may be an exception or two (I haven’t researched every team from all time), but the general rule is pretty clear: if you are an elite offense and a below-average defense, you will be .500 or maybe a little better. 8-5 or 9-4 is about the best you can possibly do, and most do worse. Anybody winning 11 or 12 games has a good defense. Don’t be confused if a team like that sometimes gives up a lot of points. Maybe they are playing against a great offense, and/or defending more possessions than most other teams. If they are 12-2, its virtually guaranteed they’ve got a strong defense. Don’t believe the myth.

A False Narrative Anywhere is a Threat to Truth Everywhere

As a first-time blogger here on ALDLAND, with hopes of semi-regular future contributions and an eye towards establishing a reputation for taking on the most popular burning questions of the day, my topic essentially selected itself.  Obviously, I’m compelled to address the issue that is certainly on the minds even of casual fans – the media portrayal of Georgia Tech’s struggles with third and long.  I know, I know, you are probably thinking that is a rather ambitious topic, but hear me out.

If you have watched any Georgia Tech games recently, or in the past 8 years, you have almost certainly heard the television commentators’ familiar refrain whenever Paul Johnson’s option offense gets off schedule.  “This offense isn’t really built for this.”  “This is not where Georgia Tech likes to be.” “Paul Johnson has a good offense, but here is the weakness.” Or my favorite, “they really need to be in third and manageable.”

Odds are, most of you have not watched many, or any, Georgia Tech games.  And those of you who have probably haven’t noticed these comments or paid them much attention.  The few of you who have noticed presumably nodded in relatively indifferent agreement, quickly moving on and largely forgetting the idea.  Meaning, it is just us die hard Georgia Tech fans who care enough to object, and believe me, the twelve of us can get pretty irked.  Downright inflamed at times. 

If you’ve already stopped reading, I urge you to continue.  I know, thus far, I have given you no reason to do so, but there is a chance I will successfully make a worthwhile point eventually.  Anyway, without further ado, here are the numbers from ACC teams since Paul Johnson arrived at Georgia Tech in 2008.  These are compiled from cfbstats.com, and, for a fair and accurate if barely scientific comparison, only examine the 11 teams that have been in the ACC during this entire period.

3rd and 7 or More, All Plays

3rd and 7 or More, Passing Only

3rd and 10 or More, All Plays

3rd and 10 or More, Passing Only

Boston College

11th – 22.73%

11th – 25.49%

10th – 19.00%

11th – 22.34%

Clemson

4th – 30.49%

4th – 36.46%

5th – 22.92%

4th – 28.41%

Duke

7th – 28.61%

8th – 31.72%

6th – 22.40%

8th – 25.33%

Florida State

1st – 34.8%

1st – 42.48%

1st – 30.65%

1st – 41.22%

Georgia Tech

2nd – 32.7%

3rd – 36.92%

2nd – 27.59%

3rd – 31.84%

Miami

8th – 27.81%

7th – 32.14%

7th – 22.13%

6th – 26.48%

North Carolina

6th – 29.00%

5th – 34.34%

11th – 18.72%

9th – 23.37%

NC State

5th – 30.00%

6th – 33.09%

4th – 24.24%

5th – 26.86%

Virginia

9th – 26.42%

9th – 30.63%

9th – 19.21%

10th – 23.03%

Virginia Tech

3rd – 30.88%

2nd – 37.73%

3rd – 27.09%

2nd – 34.62%

Wake Forest

10th – 25.81%

10th – 30.44%

8th – 21.49%

7th – 26.40%

As you can see, Georgia Tech is among the best in the ACC at third and long.  Actually, Georgia Tech is even better than the chart shows, because in addition to being good at converting third and long, Paul Johnson’s offense is excellent at avoiding it.  This is important because, as the numbers illustrate, nobody converts third and long very often.  Georgia Tech faces third and seven or longer just under 8% of all plays, while the conference average is just over 10%.  Georgia Tech faces third and ten yards or longer just 4.4% of all plays, while the conference average is 5.69%.  Georgia Tech is first in the ACC in both categories.  Continue reading