“Advanced” stats from The Citadel’s 2018 SoCon campaign

Other recent posts about football at The Citadel:

Inside the Numbers, Part 1: The Citadel’s 2018 run/pass tendencies and yards per play statistics, with SoCon/FCS discussion as well

Inside the Numbers, Part 2: The Citadel’s 2018 4th down decision-making, plus Red Zone stats, 3rd down conversion info, etc.

– Football attendance at The Citadel (and elsewhere) — an annual review

– 2019 preseason rankings and ratings, featuring The Citadel and the rest of the SoCon

– During the 2019 football season, which teams will the Bulldogs’ opponents play before (and after) facing The Citadel?

– Homecoming at The Citadel — a brief gridiron history

Additional links about the Bulldogs’ upcoming gridiron campaign:

Hero Sports previews The Citadel

Five questions as The Citadel opens fall practice

WCSC-TV was at the first fall practice

What about a preview of the Bulldogs’ first opponent, Towson?

What follows is mostly (but not exclusively) about the “Five Factors” of college football. This is the third straight year I’ve written about The Citadel and the Five Factors; you can read my previous efforts here and here.

Later in this post I’ll discuss a few stats not directly related to the Five Factors, but we’ll start with the 5F. First, here is Bill Connelly of ESPN (formerly of SB Nation; he moved to the four-letter about a month ago) on what the Five Factors actually are. This is from 2014, but it still applies:

…I’ve come to realize that the sport comes down to five basic things, four of which you can mostly control. You make more big plays than your opponent, you stay on schedule, you tilt the field, you finish drives, and you fall on the ball. Explosiveness, efficiency, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers are the five factors to winning football games.

  • If you win the explosiveness battle (using PPP), you win 86 percent of the time.

  • If you win the efficiency battle (using Success Rate), you win 83 percent of the time.

  • If you win the drive-finishing battle (using points per trip inside the 40), you win 75 percent of the time.

  • If you win the field position battle (using average starting field position), you win 72 percent of the time.

  • If you win the turnover battle (using turnover margin), you win 73 percent of the time.

Connelly later adjusted some of the formulas that result in the five factors, but the basic principles are the same.

I’ve already discussed a lot of other statistics in my annual post on per-play numbers, conversion rates, etc. (see Part 1 and Part 2, linked above), but these are slightly different types of stats.

They are “advanced” statistics for the Bulldogs’ 2018 season. Is there a really convenient spreadsheet that goes with this post? You bet there is!

Keep in mind that these stats are for SoCon games only. Eight games. Sample size caveats do apply.

Also, please remember that the stats were compiled by me, so they may not be completely perfect. However, finding “ready-made” FCS stats for these categories is not easy. Actually, it’s just about impossible. I’m not complaining…okay, maybe I am complaining.

Since there are no readily available equivalent stats online for FCS teams, I will occasionally be using FBS data for comparisons. With that in mind, let me quote something from last year’s post about advanced stats.

Now, you may be wondering whether or not FCS stats would be similar to those for the FBS.

For the most part, they should be — with a couple of possible caveats. I asked Bill Connelly a question about FBS vs. FCS stats and potential differences, and he was nice enough to respond. Here is what he had to say about it on his podcast:

…The one thing you will notice is the further down you go, from pro to college, from FBS to FCS, Division II to high school and all that…the more big plays you’re going to have, and the more turnovers you’re going to have. That’s going to be the biggest difference, because you’re going to have more lopsided matchups, and you’re just going to have more mistakes. And so if you go down to the FCS level, it’s not going to be a dramatic difference with FBS — but that’s going to be the difference. You’re going to have more breakdowns, you’re going to have more lopsided matchups to take advantage of, you’re not going to have quite the same level of proficiency throughout a defense, and so there will be more mistakes on defense, and I think the reason North Dakota State has been so good is that they’re about as close as you can get to kind of being mistake-free in that regard.

As long as an FCS team plays in a league in which most, if not all, of the teams are competitive (such as the SoCon), statistical variance should be relatively normal, so I feel reasonably confident that there is validity to the numbers I’m about to present.

Okay, time for the Five Factors.

Field position

Annual reminder: the key to evaluating and understanding this category is that an offense’s effectiveness (in terms of field position) is measured by the starting field position of its defense (and vice versa).

Special teams play is obviously critically important for field position as well. Net punting, kickoff coverage, the return game — it all counts. Last year, The Citadel benefited from strong special teams play.

The FBS national average for starting field position in 2017 was the 29.6 yard line. Unfortunately, I was unable to determine the average starting field position for 2018, but it is probably similar. There may have been a very slight uptick due to the rule change for fair catches on kickoffs.

-Average starting yard line of offensive drives-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 32.3 24.3  8.0
Road 33.9 28.7  5.2
Avg. 33.1 26.5  +6.6

The Citadel won the field position battle in six of eight league contests. The exceptions were Mercer and ETSU.

However, the numbers for the Mercer contest do not include Rod Johnson’s game-winning 94-yard kickoff return for a TD. That is because this statistic only reflects where offensive drives started, and the Bulldogs did not have an offensive drive after Johnson’s return (because he scored).

There is a similar issue with Dante Smith’s touchdown in the Western Carolina game, which came directly after a blocked punt by Bradley Carter. This isn’t a flaw in the statistic, but just something that has to be kept in mind.

The Citadel’s net punting average in SoCon play was 38.3 (third-best, behind Mercer and Furman). The league average was 35.5. Trust my numbers on that, as the net punting averages on the SoCon website are incorrect.

The Bulldogs were fourth in both punt return average and kickoff return average in conference play. The Citadel was third in kickoff return coverage, with a touchback rate of 43.2% (second-best in the SoCon). That TB rate is in line with the 2017 average (46.7%).

A corollary stat to field position is “3-and-outs+”, which is forcing an offense off the field after a possession of three plays or less that does not result in a score.

After a sizable edge in this stat in 2016 (a 7.7% positive margin), the Bulldogs’ differential in during the 2017 campaign was -2.5%. Last year, The Citadel rebounded in a major way, with a differential of almost 9% (33.70% – 24.73%). It helped that the offense reduced its number of 3-and-out drives by a significant margin (though there were occasional struggles in this area).

Toledo (+8.2) and Syracuse (+7.6) ranked 1-2 in field position margin for FBS. Other teams that had sizable edges in field position included Michigan, Marshall, Ohio State, LSU, and Auburn.

Florida State, with a FP margin of -9.3, was the worst FBS team in the category. It was a tough year in Tallahassee.

Efficiency

For defining efficiency, a stat called “Success Rate” is useful. Via Football Outsiders:

A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

The FBS average for Success Rate in a given season is roughly 40%.

-Success Rate-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 41.37% 41.21% 0.17%
Road 38.53% 39.76% -1.23%
Avg. 40.02% 40.42% -0.40%

The Citadel was 3-5 in the efficiency battle in league games, coming out ahead against Mercer, ETSU, and Western Carolina. (Yes, VMI edged the Bulldogs in Success Rate, and by more than you might think.)

Two years ago, The Citadel had a differential of -4.24% in Success Rate, so 2018 was an improvement. That said, the Bulldogs have to stay “on schedule” on offense with their triple option attack, and 40% is not quite good enough.

During the 2016 season, The Citadel had an offensive Success Rate of 45.4%. Last year, such a percentage would have resulted in about 30 more “successful” plays in league action for the Bulldogs, or 3.75 per game. Three or four more successful plays per contest, whether they were long gainers or just helped move the chains, could have made a difference in several close games.

In FBS, Alabama led the way in offensive Success Rate, at 56.2%. Oklahoma ranked second, at 54.9%. Other squads that fared well in this sphere included Ohio, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Wisconsin, and Missouri. Army was also solid (22nd nationally).

Rice, Central Michigan, and Rutgers (130th and last) were the most inefficient offensive units in the subdivision.

UAB ranked first in defensive Success Rate. Another C-USA team, Southern Mississippi, was second, followed by Michigan and Cincinnati. Alabama, Fresno State, and Appalachian State also finished in the top 10.

It should come as no surprise that the worst defensive teams in this category were Louisville, Oregon State, and cellar-dweller Connecticut, with the Huskies in particular having a historically bad defense.

In terms of margin, Alabama dominated (+22.0%). Clemson was second. Also in control from a marginal efficiency perspective: Wisconsin, Florida, Mississippi State, and Ohio State.

Explosiveness

Here is an explanation of “IsoPPP”:

IsoPPP is the Equivalent Points Per Play (PPP) average on only successful plays. This allows us to look at offense in two steps: How consistently successful were you, and when you were successful, how potent were you?

The triple option offense does not lend itself to explosive plays, as a rule. Now, big plays are certainly important to the overall success of the offense. However, the modest-but-successful plays generally associated with the attack tend to cancel out the “chunk” plays when calculating the stat.

The Bulldogs only came out ahead in this category in one of eight league contests, the third consecutive season that was the case. That one game was against Samford.

-Explosiveness (IsoPPP)-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 0.98 1.25 -0.27
Road 1.06 1.41 -0.35
Avg. 1.02 1.33 -0.31

The averages are slightly worse than last season, with the largest discrepancy the defensive rate at home (it was 1.05 in 2017).

FBS rankings are from Football Outsiders, which also includes “IsoPPP+”, which adjusts for opponent strength. However, I’m just going to list the unadjusted IsoPPP averages here.

The FBS national median for Explosiveness was 1.17. Oklahoma led the subdivision, at 1.46, followed by Maryland (in a bit of a surprise), Memphis, Houston, and Alabama.

As would be expected, the triple option (or triple option oriented) teams were all below average in explosiveness, with the notable exception of Georgia Southern (1.19, 53rd overall). Navy was 111th, New Mexico 112th, Georgia Tech 113th, Air Force 120th, and Army 129th (next-to-last, only ahead of Central Michigan).

BYU was the champion when it came to defensive IsoPPP (0.90). The rest of the top five: Iowa, Georgia, Washington, and Wyoming. Clemson was 8th, South Carolina 12th, and Georgia Southern 15th.

Last season, Georgia Southern was next-to-last in defensive IsoPPP, so there was a dramatic improvement on defense for that program. Beautiful Eagle Creek shimmered in the moonlight again.

On the wrong end of too many explosive plays: Virginia Tech, Coastal Carolina, South Alabama, East Carolina, Georgia State, and (of course) Connecticut, which had a defensive IsoPPP of 1.50. Yikes.

Imagine what would have happened if Oklahoma had played Connecticut last season…

Finishing Drives

This category calculates points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line, based on the logical notion that the true “scoring territory” on the field begins at the +40.

The FBS national average for points per trip inside the opponent’s 40-yard line in 2017 was 4.42.

-Finishing Drives-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 4.56 3.90 0.66
Road 4.82 5.41 -0.59
Avg. 4.69 4.55 0.14

This was a big improvement over a terrible 2017, when the Bulldogs struggled to put points on the board while in the Red Zone or the Front Zone.

The margin in 2018 might have been modest, but it was much more respectable than the -2.64 put up the year before. The defense does need to do a better job of bending (as opposed to breaking) when on the road, but that unit still improved by over a point in this category from 2017.

  • Scoring margin per game in SoCon play, 2016: 11.1
  • Scoring margin per game in SoCon play, 2017: -6.6
  • Scoring margin per game in SoCon play, 2018: 2.0

There are usually a lot of close games in the Southern Conference (five of the Bulldogs’ eight league games last season were decided by 7 points or less). That makes it all the more important, when approaching the goal line, to put the pigskin in the end zone.

Oklahoma led FBS in finishing drives (offense) last year, with a borderline-ridiculous 5.7 points per trip inside the 40-yard line. UCF was 2nd, followed by Utah State, Houston, Clemson, and Washington State. The worst team at finishing drives was UTSA.

The best defense inside the 40-yard line was Clemson, which allowed only 3.0 points per trip. Other stout defensive units in this area included Mississippi State, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Miami (FL), Kentucky, and Appalachian State. The worst defense inside the 40 was also the worst defense outside the 40, or on the 40, or above the 40, or anywhere — Connecticut.

As you might imagine, Clemson topped the charts in finishing drives margin, at +2.4. As succinctly noted in Athlon’s college preview magazine, that meant opponents needed to create twice as many chances as Clemson to score as many points. That never happened, obviously.

Mississippi State (+2.1) was second. In last place was Louisville, at -2.0, but at least the Cardinals were consistent — they finished 126th in finishing drives (offense), and 126th in finishing drives (defense). Louisville’s scoring margin from 2017 to 2018 dropped by an incredible 35 points per game, a monumental collapse.

Turnovers

First, a table of the actual turnovers:

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 7 2 -5
Road 4 10 6
Total 11 12 1

This was the second year in a row the Bulldogs didn’t fare well at home in the turnover department.

The next table is the “adjusted” or “expected” turnovers:

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 6.04 3.82 -2.22
Road 5.70 8.02 2.32
Total 11.74 11.84 0.10

As mentioned in previous posts, the expected turnovers statistic is based on A) the fact that recovering fumbles is usually a 50-50 proposition, and B) a little over 1/5 of passes that are “defensed” are intercepted. The “passes defensed” interception rate is calculated at 22%.

Essentially, The Citadel’s turnover margin was almost exactly what you would expect it to be. There was a bit of “turnover luck” both at home and on the road, but it all canceled out in the end.

The luckiest FBS team by far, at least in terms of turnovers, was Kansas — which makes one wonder how bad the 3-9 Jayhawks would have been if they hadn’t received a friendly roll of the dice when it came to takeaways.

Also fortunate in 2018: FIU, Maryland, Arizona State, and Georgia Tech. Among those teams not so lucky: ULM, Connecticut, UTEP, Tulane, Rutgers, and Florida State, with the Seminoles having the worst turnover luck in the country. Did I mention it was a tough year in Tallahassee?

How did The Citadel fare in the “Five Factors” head-to-head with each opponent in league play?

  • at Wofford: 2-3, with sizable edges in field position and turnovers, but a terrible efficiency number
  • Chattanooga: 2-3, again winning the field position battle, and with a slight edge in finishing drives
  • at Mercer: 2-3, coming out ahead in efficiency and turnover margin
  • ETSU: 1-4, with only an edge in finishing drives (though with most categories closely contested)
  • at VMI: 2-3, with an enormous edge in field position (and committing one fewer turnover)
  • Furman: 1-4, again having a field position edge, but not in front in any other category
  • at Western Carolina: 4-1, only trailing in explosiveness
  • Samford: 3-1-1 (neither team committed a turnover), with The Citadel playing its best 30 minutes of football all season in the 2nd half

There are three other statistical categories that I’ll mention here. All of them are included in tabs on the linked spreadsheet (and all reference SoCon games only).

-First down yardage gained per play-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 6.50 5.59 0.91
Road 5.00 5.95 -0.45
Avg. 6.01 5.78 0.23
  • The Citadel’s offense averaged 6.21 yards on first down in 2016
  • The Citadel’s offense averaged 5.83 yards on first down in 2017
  • The Citadel’s offense averaged 6.01 yards on first down in 2018

In 2017, the margin in this category was -0.23; last year, it flipped (in a good way) in the other direction. The Bulldogs’ first-down defense was better on the road in 2018 than it had been the previous season.

-3rd down distance to gain (in yards)-

The Citadel Opponent Margin
Home 5.99 8.68 2.69
Road 6.09 7.85 1.76
Avg. 6.04 8.28 2.24

The margin in 2017 was 1.64, while it was 2.49 in 2016. Thus, last year was a nice rebound, but there is room for improvement.

In FBS, Army’s offense averaged 5.4 yards to go on third down, best in the nation. Army’s opponents averaged 8.4 yards to go on third down, also best in the nation.

In related news, Army won 11 games last season.

Definition of “passing downs”: 2nd down and 8 yards or more to go for a first down, 3rd/4th down and 5 yards or more to go for a first down

-Passing down success rate: offense-

Rushes Pass Attempts Success rate
Home 62 23 20.00%
Road 71 12 19.28%
Total 133 35 19.64%

Last season, the Bulldogs ran the ball 79.2% of the time on “passing downs”, a dramatic increase from 2017 (65.6%), and actually a higher percentage than in 2016 (75.6%). The success rate declined by more than ten percentage points, though.

I think this is an area that needs work. I will say that the emphasis on running the ball on passing downs — even more so than might be expected from a triple option team — may at least in part have been an attempt to position the offense for a more manageable 3rd-down or 4th-down play. This is not a bad idea (Army last year was extremely effective with a similar philosophy).

Still, that success rate has to increase.

-Passing down success rate: defense-

Rushes Pass Attempts Success rate
Home 36 62 30.61%
Road 31 66 29.90%
Total 67 128 30.26%

This isn’t bad; the passing attempts success rate against the Bulldogs’ D was 32.0%. That 26.8% success rate for opponents when running the ball on passing downs was too high, though.

No matter how “advanced” the statistics are now or might become in the future, the essence of football remains the same. Run. Throw. Catch. Block. Tackle. Kick.

That is why people love watching the game. It was true 100 years ago, and it is still true today.

It is almost time for another season. It cannot come soon enough.

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