College Football Week 1, 2021: Wednesday notes and observations

Monday’s notes and observations

Tuesday’s notes and observations (ratings and rankings)

A few more links for today:

My game review of the last time Coastal Carolina and The Citadel met on the gridiron

Coastal Carolina preview in the Myrtle Beach Sun News

One sentence from the preview: “How will the Chants react to a loss, if there is one?”

Coastal Carolina preview from WMBF-TV

Jaylan Adams’s learning curve will be a key to success for The Citadel

Broadcast information

The Citadel at Coastal Carolina, to be played on James C. Benton Field at Brooks Stadium in Conway, South Carolina, with kickoff at 7:00 pm ET on September 2, 2021.

The game will be streamed on ESPN+ (as should be the case for every game The Citadel plays this season). Jeff McCarragher will handle play-by-play, while the Renaissance Man himself, Nate Ross, supplies the analysis.

The contest can be heard on radio via The Citadel Sports Network. WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station. Other stations carrying the game include WQXL in Columbia (100.7 FM/1470 AM) and WDXY in Sumter (105.9 FM/1240 AM).

Luke Mauro (the “Voice of the Bulldogs”) calls the action alongside analyst Lee Glaze.

Of the 117 players on The Citadel’s online roster, 66 are from South Carolina. Other states represented: Georgia (17 players), Florida (11), North Carolina (9), Virginia (5), Alabama (2), Texas (2), and one each from New York, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Tennessee. 

Tight end Hayden Williamson played his high school football in Okinawa, Japan.

Coastal Carolina lists 128 players on its current squad. There are 34 Chanticleers from South Carolina. Other states that have contributed players to the roster: Georgia (22 players), North Carolina (16), Florida (15), Virginia (6), Tennessee (5), Maryland (4), Massachusetts (3), Alabama (2), Arizona (2), Illinois (2), Mississippi (2), New Jersey (2), Texas (2), and one each from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. 

Two CCU players (Wilt Gabe II and Enock Makonzo) are from Canada, while P/PK Kieran Colahan is a native of Australia.

While the majority of Coastal Carolina’s players were recruited to CCU out of high school, a fair number of them arrived via other four-year schools or junior colleges. Two players went to both a four-year college and a JuCo before transferring to play for the Chanticleers.

Among the four-year institutions that various CCU players originally attended: Charleston Southern, Frostburg State, Georgia State, Georgia Tech (two players), Guilford, Indiana, Lehigh, Middle Tennessee State, Morgan State, North Carolina State, North Carolina Wesleyan, Old Dominion, Oklahoma State, Presbyterian, Tiffin, and Vanderbilt.

The junior colleges that have provided players for the team include several well-known for producing talented athletes, such as Coffeyville, Hutchinson, and Independence (all in Kansas), Northeast Mississippi, and Glendale (Arizona).

Two players attended New Mexico Military Institute, whose best-known football alumnus is Roger Staubach, the legendary former Navy and NFL quarterback. Speaking of USNA, two other Chanticleers spent time at USNAPS.

The transfers have definitely made an impact at Coastal Carolina. Quite a few are on CCU’s two-deep, including projected starters at nosetackle, wide receiver, b-back, linebacker, cornerback, and the “spur” position.

Here are a few statistics of note from Coastal Carolina’s 2020 season. The Chanticleers finished 11-1, winning their first eleven games before losing to Liberty in the Cure Bowl.

Among FBS teams (127 of which played last season), CCU ranked as follows in these categories:

  • 1st in turnover margin (+13)
  • 1st in forced fumbles, defense (16)
  • Tied for 3rd in defensive interceptions (16)
  • 36th in defensive havoc rate (17.53%)
  • 13th in yards per play, offense (6.71)
  • 6th in adjusted yards per pass attempt, offense (9.02)
  • 46th in adjusted yards per rush attempt, offense (5.32)
  • 30th in sack rate, offense (4.7%)
  • 6th in big play rate passing, offense (one every 6.84 attempts)
  • 62nd in big play rate rushing, offense (one every 25.20 attempts)
  • 29th in combined big play rate, offense (one every 12.58 plays)
  • 45th in yards per play, defense (5.48)
  • 18th in adjusted yards per pass attempt, defense (5.58)
  • 90th in adjusted yards per rush, defense (5.38)
  • 17th in sack rate, defense (8.5%)
  • 15th in big play rate passing, defense (one every 13.79 attempts)
  • 50th in big play rate rushing, defense  (one every 28.46 attempts)
  • 20th in combined big play rate, defense (one every 18.33 plays)

Note: the “adjusted” yards per pass attempt (and rush attempts) is a reference to sacks, which are included in passing totals in these calculations. Also, big plays are defined here as any play from scrimmage of 20+ yards (rushing or passing).

While the number of forced fumbles by the Chanticleers’ defense is notable, that is not necessarily why CCU led the nation in turnover margin. Coastal Carolina’s opponents fumbled 22 times in 12 games (including those 16 forced fumbles); CCU recovered nine of them. That’s not a completely unexpected outcome; in terms of fumble luck, the Chanticleers were actually -2 on defense (and +0.5 on offense).

The statistic that really jumps out: 16 interceptions. Coastal Carolina defensed 42 passes last season, not an overwhelming number (47th-most in FBS). CCU had a PD rate of 11.47% (42 defensed in 366 opponent attempts).

However, 16 of those 42 PDs wound up being picks, which is remarkable. The average pass defensed results in an interception a little over 20% of the time; CCU’s INT/PD rate last season was 38.1%, which ranked third nationally, and is almost certainly not sustainable.

Other teams with outlier pick numbers in this respect included Kentucky, Indiana, and Wake Forest. Conversely, Missouri only intercepted four passes despite 45 PDs.

Incidentally, The Citadel’s defensive INT/PD this spring was 20.7%, right around the national average. The Bulldogs had a passes defensed rate of 15.76% (29 defensed in 184 attempts).

Coastal Carolina’s offensive numbers were almost uniformly excellent, a fact that can be easily gleaned from the category rankings listed above. CCU was about as efficient a passing team as there was in the country, and its rushing numbers were also good. Defensively, the Chanticleers were generally solid, with the somewhat puzzling exception of the squad’s rush defense, which was statistically below average.

A few other odds and ends for today:

  • Thursday night’s game will be played on artificial turf, which will be the case for all of The Citadel’s 11 regular-season games this fall. That is a first in program history.
  • The Citadel has a record of 2-3 for games played on September 2. Both wins came against Newberry, in 1995 and 2017. I posted a review of the 2017 contest that can be read here: Link 
  • In the 1995 contest against Newberry, Scott Belcher proved to be the difference, with 29 tackles and a blocked PAT late in the game that enabled the Bulldogs to hang on for a 21-20 victory. (I will never understand why Newberry didn’t go for two in that situation.) Stanley Myers rushed for 176 yards and a TD.
  • Congrats to Dee Delaney for making the 53-man roster for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; not bad for an assistant football coach at Whale Branch High School.

College Football Week 1, 2021: Tuesday notes and observations (ratings and rankings)

Monday’s notes and observations

Let’s talk about ratings and rankings for a moment…

There are a lot of computer ratings out there, and some of them include FCS schools. Below is a chart of the SoCon schools in which ten such ratings systems are listed, with their respective preseason rankings of each school compiled and averaged.

Key: 

Please note that I am just listing in-conference ordinal rankings before the first games were played last week; for example, Samford is the highest-rated SoCon team in the Massey Ratings, with VMI second and Chattanooga third. In terms of their ranking within FCS, those schools entered the 2021 fall campaign ranked 42nd (Samford), 51st (VMI), and 53rd (Chattanooga) by Massey.

 

2021 PreseasonMDLBECVSGRRatings avg
Samford11112352332.20
VMI22526134112.70
Chattanooga34433421253.10
Furman57381643424.30
ETSU75658215644.90
Wofford46264766775.50
Mercer83847577566.00
The Citadel68775988887.40
WCU99999899998.90

A few quick observations:

– In general, the computer ratings systems do not favor SoCon schools. An extreme example of this is the Dunchess Ratings, where the highest-ranked league team (VMI) is only 57th nationally. Western Carolina ranks next-to-last in all of FCS in that system.

– The highest-ranked conference squad in any of the ratings systems is Samford, ranked 13th by the Born Power Index. SU fares better in the computer ratings systems than any other league team, both by average and from a median perspective (not ranking lower than third in the SoCon in any of the surveyed systems).

– The computers do not know what to make of Furman this season. ETSU is also a source of considerable confusion.

I also averaged four “human” polls — the SoCon media and coaches’ polls, and the predicted order of finish for Lindy’s magazine preview and The Analyst.

2021 FallLindy’sSoCon MediaSoCon coachesThe AnalystRank avg
Chattanooga31111.50
VMI22322.25
ETSU14433.00
Samford74254.50
Furman64544.75
Mercer46665.50
Wofford57876.75
The Citadel88787.75
WCU99999.00

These rankings tend to mirror each other much more than the computer ratings systems. The humans do not think as much of Samford as the computers do, but like East Tennessee State a lot more than the machines.

I have to wonder if the computers like Samford’s offensive output (this might also explain the ratings systems’ inexplicable love affair with Ivy League teams). On the other hand, there might be a mathematical bias against ETSU’s tendency to play close games.

Flesh-and-blood observers are more inclined to look at the overall record from the previous season, and extrapolate from that — regardless of how that record came to be.

Does any of this matter? Not really. Ultimately, we won’t need computers or preseason polls, as everything will be settled on the field.

(Hopefully.)

College Football Week 1, 2021 — Monday notes and observations

In years past, I would always produce a weekly post about the upcoming football game for The Citadel. I did that for about a decade. As I wrote earlier in the summer, though, I’m changing things up this season.

Time constraints are part of the reason for that, but to be honest I also got tired of the routine involved in preparing the posts — and after a while it felt a bit like diminishing returns for me as a writer and perhaps for anyone who actually read them.

This has led to what will be something of an experiment. I’m going to just make quick posts when I can. Some of the discussion will be similar to what I did before, but there will be differences as well. Much of what I write will still be focused on the Bulldogs and its opponent for a given Saturday (or Thursday, as is the case for the Coastal Carolina game this week), but I’ll also delve into other college football-related stuff on occasion.

That is my intent, anyway. I happen to really enjoy college football, flawed and ridiculous as it is.

First, here are links to my posts from this summer. Most of them, of course, are statistical summations and analyses of The Citadel’s spring football season, so they are (hopefully) a good primer for anyone ready to get deep into prep work for the Bulldogs’ 2021 fall campaign:

Here are a few recent links of interest:

Season preview for The Citadel from The Charlotte Observer

The Citadel’s football practices have been top secret (not even Val Kilmer can watch them)

Phil Kornblut of SportsTalk (SC) interviews Brent Thompson, Jaylan Adams, and Willie Eubanks III

Game notes from The Citadel for its game against Coastal Carolina

Coastal Carolina’s game notes are also available

Brent Thompson’s Monday afternoon (8/30) press conference

Associate AD Kevin Olivett discusses The Citadel’s plans for the home football schedule on The Mauro Midday Show

The weather forecast for Thursday night in Conway, per the National Weather Service: mostly clear, with a low of 66°.

This will be only the second game between the two programs contested at Brooks Stadium. The first, of course, was the 2015 playoff game, which was played in the afternoon in November, with a gametime temperature of 71° (and almost no wind). Attendance that day: 6,751.

A few sportsbooks set lines late last week for The Citadel-Coastal Carolina. When the lines were initially released on Friday, Coastal Carolina was favored by 31½, but by Saturday evening the spread had already moved to 35½ . As of Monday night, it is 34½, with an over/under of 54½. The moneyline for The Citadel is currently +4750.

Incidentally, here are the point spreads for The Citadel’s last 15 games against FBS competition:

  • 2009, North Carolina: 32
  • 2010, Arizona: 40
  • 2011, South Carolina: 39
  • 2012, North Carolina State: 14
  • 2013: Clemson: 40
  • 2014, Florida State: 58
  • 2015, Georgia Southern: 25½
  • 2015, South Carolina: 20
  • 2016, North Carolina: 21½
  • 2017, Clemson: 47
  • 2018, Alabama: 51
  • 2019, Georgia Tech: 26
  • 2020, South Florida: 18
  • 2020, Clemson: 48
  • 2020, Army: 30

The Citadel is 6-9 ATS during that stretch, with (obviously) two outright victories.

Last year, Coastal Carolina was 9-2-1 against the spread, while the Bulldogs (F20/S21) were 5-7.

In Week 0, there was only one FCS vs. FBS matchup. San Jose State beat Southern Utah 45-14 (the line closed at 28 in most places, so the Spartans wound up covering).

Some other lines of note for this week around the country (and the SoCon), as of Monday evening; this is just a selection, and not the entirety of the slate by any means:

Wednesday night game

  • UAB is a 14½-point favorite over Jacksonville State (in Montgomery)

Thursday night games 

  • Chattanooga is a 2½-point favorite over Austin Peay 
  • Samford is a 14½-point favorite over Tennessee Tech 
  • UNLV is a 10½-point favorite over Eastern Washington (hmm…)
  • Appalachian State is a 10½-point favorite over East Carolina (in Charlotte)
  • Ohio State is a 14-point favorite at Minnesota
  • North Carolina State is an 18-point favorite over South Florida 
  • UCF is a 4½-point favorite over Boise State 

Friday night games 

  • North Carolina is a 5½-point favorite over Virginia Tech 
  • Wake Forest is a 31-point favorite over Old Dominion
  • South Dakota State is a 3½-point favorite at Colorado State (yes, the FCS team is favored)

Saturday games

  • Georgia State is a 2-point favorite over Army
  • Connecticut is a 2½-point favorite over Holy Cross (only 2½?!)
  • Boston College is a 50½-point favorite over Colgate
  • Nebraska is a 42½-point favorite over Fordham
  • Air Force is a 42½-point favorite over Lafayette
  • Wisconsin is a 4½-point favorite over Penn State (up to 5½ in some places)
  • VMI is a 19½-point favorite over Davidson
  • Furman is a 1½-point favorite over North Carolina A&T
  • Eastern Kentucky is a 10½-point favorite at Western Carolina
  • Wofford is a 6½-point favorite at Elon
  • Vanderbilt is a 21½-point favorite over East Tennessee State
  • Alabama A&M is a 5½-point favorite over South Carolina State
  • West Virginia is a 2½-point favorite at Maryland
  • Iowa is a 3½-point favorite over Indiana
  • Marshall is a 2½-point favorite at Navy
  • Alabama is an 18½-point favorite over Miami [FL] (in Atlanta)
  • Texas is an 8-point favorite over Louisiana
  • South Carolina is a 43½-point favorite over Eastern Illinois
  • Southern California is a 14-point favorite over San Jose State
  • LSU is a 3-point favorite at UCLA
  • Oregon is a 20½-point favorite over Fresno State
  • Clemson is a 3-point favorite over Georgia (in Charlotte)

Sunday night game

  • Notre Dame is a 7½-point favorite at Florida State

Monday night game

  • Mississippi is a 10-point favorite over Louisville

More to come in the next day or two…

FCS vs. FBS, 2021 — a quick rundown

Other preseason posts:

There are 117 FCS vs. FBS games this fall. Of the 128 programs in FCS (a total that includes schools transitioning to D1), 97 will face at least one FBS opponent during the autumn campaign.

The majority of the 31 FCS teams not playing an FBS outfit are from the Pioneer League and the Ivy League. None of the Pioneer League schools are tangling with an FBS team, while only one member of the Ivies will do so (Yale, which plays Connecticut).

Of the remaining 31, most have rarely (if ever) faced an FBS opponent. There are three notable exceptions, however — James Madison, North Dakota State, and Sam Houston State. Any of those three programs would be worthy adversaries for just about any FBS team, which might explain why none of them has such a squad on their respective schedules.

It is worth noting that defending SWAC champ Alabama A&M does not have an FBS opponent on its slate, either.

There are 18 FCS schools playing two FBS teams this season, and one which will play three.

That one would be LIU, which will do battle with FIU, West Virginia, and Miami (OH). I am guessing that most casual college football fans (and more than a few sportswriters) are unaware that LIU has a football program. For good or ill, a lot of people will learn about the Sharks this year. 

Not counting LIU, here is the list of the FCS schools with two FBS opponents:

  • Bethune-Cookman
  • Charleston Southern
  • Duquesne
  • Fordham
  • Gardner-Webb
  • Grambling State
  • Idaho
  • Idaho State
  • Jacksonville State
  • Maine
  • Murray State
  • Nicholls
  • Norfolk State
  • Portland State
  • South Carolina State
  • Southern Utah
  • Texas Southern
  • Wagner

Idaho is the lone FCS school playing two P5 opponents; the Vandals face Indiana and Oregon State. 

The only FCS vs. FBS contest being played at a neutral site is Jacksonville State-UAB, which will be held at the Cramton Bowl in Montgomery, Alabama. That game is being played on Wednesday (!), September 1.

Every other FCS vs. FBS matchup will be hosted by the FBS team.

In the 48 contiguous states category, the distance award this year for FCS vs. FBS goes to Stony Brook, which travels to Eugene, Oregon to play the Ducks. That is a trip of 2,964 miles. The longest overall voyage is by Portland State, which will journey to Hawai’i.

I’ve already mentioned the Idaho-Indiana and LIU-FIU contests; other long-distance FCS vs. FBS matchups include Monmouth-Middle Tennessee State, Duquesne-TCU, Western Carolina-Oklahoma, Eastern Illinois-South Carolina, Lafayette-Air Force, South Carolina State-New Mexico State, Central Connecticut State-Miami (FL), and Maine-Northern Illinois. A special mention must be given to Fordham, which has games at Nebraska and at FAU.

Connecticut and Massachusetts are the only FBS programs this year that scheduled two FCS teams. As noted earlier, the Huskies will play Yale; UConn also has a game versus Holy Cross. UMass faces Rhode Island and Maine.

There are 15 FBS schools that will not face an FCS squad. Those programs are Boise State, Georgia State, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Navy, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Purdue, Southern California, Stanford, Texas, UCLA, and Wisconsin.

In all, 62 G5 schools face an FCS opponent, while 53 P5 schools will do so.

The season is about to start. About time…

Looking at the numbers, 2021 preseason: returning starters in the SoCon

Other preseason posts from July:

One of the major storylines for the upcoming football season is the large number of experienced gridders who are returning to college this fall. The “free year” that was the F20/S21 school year has led to a glut of so-called “superseniors”, players in their sixth years (or fifth-year players who haven’t redshirted).

As a result of the extra year being granted, Clemson has at least two players (linebacker James Skalski and punter Will Spiers) who could conceivably play in 70 games during their college careers. That is just a ludicrous number of games for a college football player, but we live in ludicrous times.

Illinois has 22 superseniors, most in the country (the Illini also have 18 “regular” seniors). In February, the AP reported that over 1,000 superseniors were on FBS rosters, a number that has probably declined since then, but still obviously significant.

Information on FCS programs is sketchier, but there was a recent report confirming that Southern Illinois has 16 superseniors, which has to be close to the most in the subdivision, if not the most. Between Illinois and SIU, there are a lot of veteran pigskin collegians in the Land of Lincoln.

Incidentally, one of Southern Illinois’ superseniors is former Western Carolina running back Donnavan Spencer, who transferred from Cullowhee to Carbondale for the fall 2021 campaign.

All of this is reflected in sizeable “returning starters” lists among a lot of teams throughout the sport, including both the FBS and FCS. As an example, here are some numbers from the ACC and SEC, per Phil Steele’s 2021 College Football Preview:

  • Wake Forest: 20 returning starters (but with tough injury news over the last week)
  • North Carolina State: 19
  • Miami: 19 (and only lost 9 out of 70 lettermen)
  • Syracuse: 19
  • Arkansas: 19
  • North Carolina: 18
  • LSU: 18 (hopefully some of them will play pass defense this season)
  • Florida State: 17 (joined by a bunch of D-1 transfers)
  • Boston College: 17
  • Georgia Tech: 17
  • Vanderbilt: 17 (possibly not a positive)
  • Mississippi: 17

The team in those two leagues with the fewest returning starters is Alabama, with 11. Of course, the Tide had six players from last season’s squad picked in the first round of the NFL draft, so a bit of turnover in Tuscaloosa was inevitable. I suspect Nick Saban isn’t too worried about replacing them.

The returning production totals are unprecedented at the FBS level.

The top 10 includes several very interesting teams, including Louisiana-Lafayette, Arizona State, Nevada, and UCLA. It is somewhat incredible that Coastal Carolina has a returning production rate of 89% and doesn’t even crack the top 15.

Some of the teams at the bottom of this ranking are national powers that reload every year. Alabama was already mentioned, but the same is true for Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Florida.

BYU and Northwestern also had outstanding seasons last year (and combined for three first-round draft picks). The story wasn’t the same for Duke and South Carolina, however.

Okay, now time to talk about the SoCon. Who in the league is coming back this fall? An easier question to answer would be: who isn’t?

SoCon returning starters, Fall 2021

The spreadsheet linked above has 12 categories. A quick explanation of each:

  • F20/S21 Games Played: total number of games played by a team during the 2020-21 school year, both in the fall (F20) and the spring (S21)
  • F20/S21 Participants: the number of players who suited up during 2020-21
  • F20/S21 Starters: the number of different starters during 2020-21
  • F20/S21 Returning Participants: the number of returnees who played during 2020-21
  • F20/S21 Returning Starters: the number of returning starters from 2020-21
  • F20/S21 Returning Starters 2+: the number of returnees from 2020-21 who started at least two games
  • Spring 2021: total number of games played by a team in the spring (all conference games, except for VMI’s playoff matchup)
  • Spring 2021 Participants: the number of players who took the field during the spring
  • Spring 2021 Starters: the number of different starters during the spring
  • Spring Returning Participants: the number of returnees who played in the spring
  • Spring Returning Starters: the number of returning starters from the spring
  • Spring Returning Starters 2+: the number of returnees who started at least two games during the spring

Most of that needs no explanation. The idea of including a category for multiple starts was inspired by Chattanooga’s game against Mercer, when the Mocs fielded what was essentially a “B” team. UTC had 19 players who started that game, but did not start in any of Chattanooga’s other three spring contests.

There are a few players who started one game in the spring, but also started at least one game in the fall. They are listed as having started multiple games for F20/S21, of course, but not for the spring.

The list of starters does not include special teams players. Some programs list specialists as starters, but they generally are not treated as such from a statistical point of view, and for the sake of consistency I am only listing offensive and defensive starters.

Returnee stats are based on each school’s online football roster as of July 26 (the league’s Media Day). 

Players on current rosters who did not start in F20/S21, but who did start games in 2019, are not included as returning starters. There are two players from The Citadel who fit this description; undoubtedly there are a few others in the conference.

I also did not count any incoming transfers with prior starting experience. That is simply another piece to a team’s roster puzzle.

There is no doubt that transfers will have a major impact on the fall 2021 season. For example, Western Carolina has 15 players on its roster who arrived from junior colleges or other four-year schools following the spring 2021 campaign (the Catamounts have 26 transfers in all).

Five of the nine SoCon schools did not play in the fall. Thus, their overall numbers are the same as their spring totals (and are noted as such on the spreadsheet).

As I’ve said before, when it comes to the veracity of the game summaries, I think the athletic media relations folks at the SoCon schools did quite well for the most part, especially when considering how difficult staffing must have been at times during the spring. There were a few miscues, and in terms of data input, the participation charts seemed to cause the most problems.

Did Mercer start a game with no offensive linemen? Uh, no. Was a backup quarterback a defensive starter for Chattanooga? Nope. In three different contests, did Furman take the field after the opening kickoff with only 10 players? It did not.

There was also a scattering of double-counted players, usually a result of misspellings or changes in jersey numbers. Hey, it happens.

Ultimately, I am fairly confident in the general accuracy of the numbers in the spreadsheet linked above, particularly the categories for starters. The totals for participants should also be largely correct, although I will say that it is harder to find (and correct) errors in online participation charts for participants than it is starters. That is because the players who tend to be occasionally omitted from the charts are special teams performers and backup offensive linemen — in other words, non-starters who do not accumulate standard statistics.

According to the SoCon’s fall prospectus, 553 of the 636 players who lettered in F20/S21 are playing this fall (86.9%). That tracks with my numbers, with 83.2% of all participants returning (573 of 689). I did find one player listed as a returnee in the prospectus who is not on his school’s online roster; it is possible there are one or two more such cases.

Samford had by far the most participants, with 95 (in seven contests). Of that group, however, 24 only appeared in one game during the spring. The number of multiple-game participants for SU is more in line with some of the other spring-only teams, such as Furman; the Paladins also played seven games, with 71 participants, 64 of whom played in at least two games.

Having said that, kudos to Samford for being able to maintain a roster that large this spring. That is a credit to its coaching and support staff.

Mercer, which played three games in the fall and eight in the spring, has the most returnees that started multiple games, with 37. There are 25 Bears who are returning after making at least two spring starts.

The Citadel has the most players returning who had 2+ starts in the spring, with 28. Wofford has the fewest (19), not a huge surprise given the Terriers only played in five games.

Chattanooga and East Tennessee State combine to return 122 out of 128 players who participated in the spring season. Those returnees include 75 players who started at least one spring game.

Conference teams average 30.44 returning starters from the spring. No squad has fewer than 25.

For the SoCon, I’m not really capable of fully replicating the formula Bill Connelly uses for his FBS returning production rates; I lack access to some of the necessary data. Therefore, I am just going to list some of the (very limited) spots throughout the conference in which teams will have to replace key performers from the spring. I realize that is more anecdotal in nature than the rest of this post.

  • Furman must replace three starters on its offensive line, including the versatile Reed Kroeber (41 career starts for the Paladins). FU also loses first-team all-SoCon free safety Darius Kearse.
  • Wofford has to replace its second-leading rusher from the spring (Ryan Lovelace), and players who accounted for 61% of the Terriers’ receiving production.
  • VMI loses three defensive stalwarts who were second-team all-conference selections; one of them, lineman Jordan Ward, will be a graduate transfer at Ball State this fall.
  • The Keydets will also miss Reece Udinski, who transferred to Maryland (as was announced before the spring campaign even began). However, Seth Morgan certainly filled in at QB with aplomb after Udinski suffered a season-ending injury.
  • Mercer must replace leading rusher Deondre Johnson, a second-team all-league pick.
  • Samford placekicker Mitchell Fineran, an all-SoCon performer who led the conference in scoring, graduated and transferred to Purdue. He is the only regular placekicker or punter in the conference from the spring not to return for the fall.
  • I mentioned earlier that Western Carolina running back Donnavan Spencer (a first-team all-conference choice) transferred to Southern Illinois. The Catamounts also lost another first-team all-league player, center Isaiah Helms, a sophomore who transferred to Appalachian State. That has to sting a bit in Cullowhee. 
  • WCU’s starting quarterback last spring, Ryan Glover, transferred to California (his third school; he started his collegiate career at Penn). Glover and VMI’s Udinski are the only league players to start multiple games at quarterback this spring who are not returning this fall.
  • Western Carolina defensive tackle Roman Johnson is listed on the Catamounts’ online roster, but also reportedly entered the transfer portal (for a second time) in mid-July. I am including him as a returning starter for now, but there is clearly a lot of uncertainty as to his status.
  • The Citadel must replace starting right tackle Thomas Crawford (the only spring starter for the Bulldogs who is not returning).
  • A few players who appeared in fall 2020 action but not in the spring eventually found their way to FBS-land. Chattanooga wide receiver Bryce Nunnelly, a two-time first team all-SoCon selection during his time with the Mocs, will play at Western Michigan this season. Mercer wideout Steven Peterson, who originally matriculated at Coastal Carolina before moving to Macon, is now at Georgia. Strong safety Sean-Thomas Faulkner of The Citadel will wear the mean green of North Texas this fall.

Odds and ends:

  • Of the 51 players on the media’s all-SoCon teams (first and second), 42 will return this fall. 
  • One of those returnees is ETSU linebacker Jared Folks, who will be an eighth-year collegian this season (the only one in D-1). Folks started his college career at Temple in 2014 — the same year in which Patrick Mahomes debuted for Texas Tech.
  • Robert Riddle, the former Mercer quarterback who did not appear in F20/S21, is now at Chattanooga. Riddle made nine starts for the Bears over two seasons, but his time in the program was ravaged by injuries.
  • Chris Oladokun, who started Samford’s spring opener at QB, transferred to South Dakota State. Oladokun began his college days at South Florida before moving to Birmingham, where he started eight games for SU in 2019. His brother Jordan will be a freshman defensive back at Samford this fall.

So, to sum up: every team has lots of players back, which means (almost) every team’s fans expects the upcoming season for their respective squads to be truly outstanding. College football games this year will all take place in Lake Wobegon, because everyone will be above average.

Looking at the numbers, 2021 preseason: close games

Here are links to other posts I’ve written this month as the 2021 fall campaign approaches:

I’ve often stated that marginal improvement in various statistical categories can make an outsized difference in a team’s success, and lead to winning more games. For example, in my post about havoc rates, I wrote:

…one play — a forced fumble, a big tackle for loss, an interception — could well be the difference between a win or a loss. After all, just think about how many close games The Citadel has played in the conference in recent years.

This is certainly true, but it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually researched just how many close games the Bulldogs have played over the past few seasons. It was time to change that oversight.

Thus, I created a spreadsheet (of course). This one includes all Southern Conference games played between 2011 and the 2021 spring campaign for every league team which played during the period. That is ten seasons of data.

I am defining close games by the more-or-less standard definition, matchups decided by eight or fewer points — in other words, one-score games. That obviously includes all overtime contests.

Close games in the SoCon, 2011-S2021

The chart includes three teams no longer in the conference (Appalachian State, Elon, and Georgia Southern) and all of the current league members, including two teams (ETSU and VMI) that rejoined the conference since the 2011 season.

As mentioned, only conference games are listed. I’ve also noted the total number of league games played each year.

Since 2011, 44.81% of all SoCon contests have been close games. The rate has been quite consistent over the years; the highest percentage of close games during that time was last season (55.17%), while the lowest was in 2014 (32.14%). If you combine those two campaigns, the average comes out to 43.86%, right near the mean — and the other years are all between 41%-50%.

A few random observations:

  • Not counting Appalachian State or Georgia Southern (both of which left the SoCon after the 2013 season), the team with the best record in one-score games has been Wofford, while the unluckiest team in that respect has been VMI. 
  • In its five seasons since rejoining the conference, East Tennessee State has played by far the highest percentage of close games (68.42%).
  • Conversely, Western Carolina has the lowest rate of close games (26.32%).

The Citadel has played 78 league games since 2011. In 39 of those contests — exactly half — the Bulldogs have been involved in a one-score game. 

In all SoCon matchups over the period, The Citadel has a record of 41-37, so the Bulldogs have a slightly better record in games that are not close (22-17) than in games that are (19-20).

What does it all mean? Does it mean anything at all?

Generally speaking, over time a team’s record in one-score games should be right around .500, and that is the case for The Citadel. When it comes to close contests, the program has not been a statistical outlier from a historical perspective (which might comes as a surprise in some quarters). 

One takeaway, then, might be that instead of hoping small advancements will lead to a better record in close games, the actual intended results should be for fewer close games, with the difference being several more decisive victories.

Regardless, odds are that at least three of the Bulldogs’ league matchups this season will go right down to the wire. As always, critical plays have to be made in those key moments.

The fans have to be ready, too…

Looking at the numbers, 2021 preseason: taking advantage of 4th down

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, this time I’m focusing on how to increase offensive productivity with a fully realized 4th down “go for it” philosophy. That isn’t a radical or new concept, but I just wanted to discuss the advantages a team can accrue on other downs when it has a high 4th down go rate.

First, links to other posts I’ve recently written in the leadup to the 2021 fall campaign:

As usual, I’ll start with the statistical spreadsheet for The Citadel’s spring 2021 season, which I’ll be referencing at times throughout:

The Citadel, 2021 Spring Football

Of note for this discussion, one of the tabs on that spreadsheet lists all decisions made on 4th down by The Citadel (and its opponents) in conference action; another catalogs short-yardage plays and results, including those on 4th down; and there is also a tab dedicated to down-and-distance plays by the Bulldogs and their opponents, broken down by run and pass.

Let’s start with the down-and-distance numbers. The Citadel in spring 2021, on offensive plays from scrimmage:

  • Rushed 85.6% of the time (all plays)
  • Rushed 87.1% of the time on 1st down
  • Rushed 88.0% of the time on 2nd-and-short (3 yards or less)
  • Rushed 94.0% of the time on 2nd-and-medium (4 to 6 yards)
  • Rushed 96.3% of the time on 3rd-and-short (2 yards or less)
  • Rushed 89.2% of the time on 3rd-and-medium (3 or 4 yards)

Those aren’t surprising percentages, of course. That is the nature of the triple option offense. On standard downs, The Citadel is going to run the football. It will run the football a lot on passing downs, too.

(“Standard” in this case means downs that aren’t considered expected passing downs in a regular offensive system.)

One thing that can be said about the Bulldogs under Brent Thompson is that the playcalling, from a run-pass perspective, has been consistent. Eerily consistent.

For example, take a gander at the numbers in conference games from his first season as head coach (2016) and the most recent campaign (spring 2021):

  • 2016: 494 rushing plays, 83 passing plays
  • 2021: 492 rushing plays, 83 passing plays

It doesn’t get much closer than that.

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the results from those passing plays were not exactly the same. The adjusted yards per pass attempt for those seasons:

  • 2016: 7.41
  • 2021: 2.98

That is not a typo. When sacks allowed are included in the passing numbers (as they should be), The Citadel averaged fewer than three yards per pass play last spring. 

The Bulldogs were sacked on 17.07% of their pass plays, by far the highest rate suffered by any offense in the SoCon (Mercer was second at 10.45%; Furman 3rd at 8.81%). Samford threw 226 more passes than The Citadel, but its quarterbacks were only sacked three more times.

The Citadel’s sack rate allowed was 16.55% when including its four games in the fall. Among all 97 FCS schools that played at least once in the fall and/or spring, that was the third-worst percentage overall, with Cal Poly and Kennesaw State the only other two teams with worse rates. Kennesaw State is also a triple option outfit, while Cal Poly was transitioning out of a triple option offense into a spread offense under new coach Beau Baldwin.

Triple option teams do tend to be on the wrong end of this statistic, for a bunch of obvious reasons. In the FBS, Navy had the worst sack rate allowed (15.65%), while Army was 10th-worst (10.59%). On the other hand, Air Force (3.17%) had one of the lowest rates in the country.

The average sack rate for FCS teams (F20/S21) was 6.77%. The average in the SoCon this spring was 7.39%, a figure reduced to 6.88% if The Citadel’s totals aren’t included.

One major reason for the Bulldogs’ high sack rate on offense was that a significant percentage of The Citadel’s pass plays occurred in the 4th quarter, with the Bulldogs trailing. In the final period, The Citadel was 10 for 27 through the air, with one interception and nine sacks allowed.

A team that doesn’t throw the football very often was largely ineffective in the passing game when the opponent knew a pass was probably coming. This is not a shock to informed observers. It is also not a shock to uniformed observers.

The real issue, it seems to me, is that such a large percentage of the Bulldogs’ aerial attack came on obvious passing downs, instead of on standard downs.

The Citadel attempted 32 pass plays on 1st down or 2nd-and-short. Those are generally not passing downs, and so the element of surprise would normally be quite beneficial for the Bulldogs.

All but seven of those pass plays, however, came while A) trailing in the 4th quarter — often by multiple scores — or B) down 10+ points in one of the other three quarters. There was nothing unexpected about most of those plays.

For the record, here are the seven pass plays for The Citadel on 1st down/2nd-and-short in true “standard down” situations:

  • Against Mercer, down 7-0 in the 1st quarter, first-and-10 pass at TC 45 (result: incomplete)
  • Against Western Carolina, down 7-6 in the 1st quarter, first-and-10 pass at WCU 39 (result: incomplete)
  • Against ETSU, tied 7-7 in the 1st quarter, first-and-10 pass at ETSU 49 (result: 44-yard gain to set up TD)
  • Against ETSU, down 21-14 in the 3rd quarter, first-and-10 pass at TC 25 (result: 7-yard gain)
  • Against ETSU, down 21-14 in the 3rd quarter, first-and-15 pass at TC 31 (result: interception)
  • Against Furman, first play from scrimmage, first-and-10 pass at TC 25 (result: incompletion)
  • Against Furman, ahead 13-7 in the 2nd quarter, first-and-10 pass at Furman 40 (result: incompletion)

To be honest, the Bulldogs were not overly efficient on those occasions, either. Completing 2 of 7 passes for 51 yards (with a pick) is nothing to write home about. On a positive note, 7.29 yards per attempt isn’t half-bad, although it clearly needs to be a lot better for such plays.

The larger point is that The Citadel needs to be a bigger threat in the passing game, regardless of its status as a triple option offense. It needs to do so in order to keep defenses honest (which will also help the rushing attack), and to increase its number of explosive plays. 

I believe that the best way to do that, besides improvement in execution, is by throwing the ball more on standard downs. I don’t mean that the Bulldogs should be throwing 15 more passes per game or anything like that, though.

I think The Citadel should take advantage of its pugnaciousness on 4th down when calling plays on other downs, particularly first and second down. Basically, once the Bulldogs are past a certain point on the field (probably their own 30), the assumption should be that they are going to go for it on any 4th down play of 4 yards to go or less.

Instead of having three downs to make 10 yards, and almost always trying to grind out three runs to get there, a pass play on first down, or second-and-short (or medium), should be employed a little more often. If it doesn’t work, there are still three other downs available to move the chains. 

That should be the mindset.

Now, I freely admit that I am not a coach. I do not claim to have an advanced knowledge of the game (although I am a former championship football player¹). There are certainly a lot of things I don’t know about the program, especially related to personnel. I’m merely a dude with a computer; a less witty Statler.

It is just my unenlightened opinion that throwing the football on select first-and-second down plays a few more times per game (maybe once every other possession, or twice every three possessions) could open things up. The Citadel really needs more of those long gainers on offense, too; 22 plays of 20+ yards in eight contests is not enough.

Only three of those big plays came via the pass. Incidentally, all three of them came on first-and-10.

I’ve actually written about this concept before, but I believe that with the gradual increase in scoring in recent years, creating big plays is even more crucial to sustained offensive success. In the current game environment, a pure “three yards and a cloud of dust” offense has its limitations (and The Citadel is playing all 11 of its regular-season games this season on artificial turf, so there won’t be a lot of dust to kick up).

Having said all that, it must be duly noted that long, time-consuming drives should and will remain the Bulldogs’ bread-and-butter. As ESPN college football writer Bill Connelly has stated:

The key to explosiveness is efficiency. The key to making big plays is being able to stay on the field long enough to make one.

Negotiate the ball down the field. Pump it in there. Just keep matriculating the ball down the field. Yes, sir.

There are less than 50 days until the season starts. We’re getting closer.

 

¹City of Orangeburg (SC) Parks and Recreation Department — Pee Wee Division

Looking at the numbers, 2021 preseason: 4th down decision-making

When it comes to gridiron discussion, one of my favorite topics is 4th down decision-making. This is an area of the game in which I think it is still possible to gain a competitive advantage, simply by being slightly ahead of the curve from a tactical perspective.

First, a quick list of the posts preceding this one so far in July:

As always, I begin with the statistical spreadsheet for The Citadel’s spring 2021 campaign:

The Citadel, 2021 Spring Football

One of the tabs on that spreadsheet goes into 4th down decision-making at a somewhat granular level, both for The Citadel and its opponents; another lists the success rates for short yardage plays on 3rd and 4th downs.

Did the Bulldogs go for it on 4th down more often than other SoCon schools? You better believe it:

Team (offense)4th down conv4th down att4D%4D att/gm
The Citadel193259.4%4.00
Furman91850.0%2.57
VMI101566.7%2.14
Western Carolina41330.8%2.17
Samford61250.0%1.71
Chattanooga41136.4%2.75
Mercer51145.5%1.38
ETSU2922.2%1.50
Wofford6966.7%1.80
Total6513050.0%2.22

It should be pointed out that The Citadel also faced more 4th down situations than any other SoCon team. However, the difference on a per-game basis wasn’t enormous. The Bulldogs averaged exactly nine 4th down situations per contest, which led the league, but Samford (8.86) and Furman (8.71) weren’t far behind, and the two schools with the fewest per game, Chattanooga and Wofford, each averaged seven.

Now, The Citadel did have fewer possessions per contest than other teams, and that has to be taken into account. The Bulldogs averaged 10.88 possessions per game, and so on most drives were faced with at least one 4th down call to make. 

The Citadel was very aggressive in those situations, going for a first down 44.44% of the time, the highest percentage in the conference, and considerably higher than every other squad except Chattanooga. Here is a table illustrating that:

Team (offense)4th down attPunts4D FGA4D total plays4D go rate
The Citadel323467244.44%
Chattanooga111252839.29%
Furman183766129.51%
VMI1526115228.85%
Wofford92063525.71%
Western Carolina133445125.49%
ETSU92894619.57%
Samford1233176219.35%
Mercer114676417.19%
Total1302707147127.60%

Incidentally, “4D FGA” refers to the number of field goal attempts on fourth down. Most field goal attempts take place on 4th down, of course, but not all do (end-of-half clock situations, for example). Thus, field goal attempts that took place on other downs (which happened six times in league play) are not listed on the chart. 

As expected, I did not find any punts in league games that occurred on a down other than 4th. Those halcyon days of yore, when “quick kicks” were a regular feature of the game, are gone forever.

It can occasionally be disorienting to read complete play-by-play newspaper stories from contests played decades ago, when teams frequently punted on 3rd down. They were not averse to punting on first and/or second down, either.

Indeed, The Citadel’s 12-7 Homecoming victory over Clemson in 1928, one of the more famous upsets in school history, included several first down punts by both teams. The Citadel’s second touchdown was scored directly off a botched punt snap by Clemson on first down. The Bulldogs’ first score was set up by a blocked punt that came on third down.

The Citadel blocked a third down punt for a TD in its 19-7 victory over South Carolina in 1950 as well, so maybe that strategy should make a comeback after all, at least among certain power conference teams…

I noted in a couple of previous posts that trying to compare FCS statistics for F20/S21 is largely pointless, and also a difficult task at any rate. However, while I can’t determine 4th-down situational stats for every team in the subdivision that played, a perusal of readily available information allows me to say with a reasonable amount of confidence that The Citadel’s “go rate” would have ranked third overall in FCS for the spring campaign.

The two teams ahead of the Bulldogs in this respect were Davidson (54.17%) and Eastern Illinois (47.69%). EIU, which like The Citadel is located in a town called Charleston, is a program with at least a short history of going for it a lot on 4th down; the Panthers led the nation in 4th down tries in 2019, going 28 for 52.

Alas, in spring 2021 they were not nearly as successful, only converting 10 of 31 4th down attempts en route to a record of 1-5.

Davidson finished the spring season 4-3, but that included an FCS playoff appearance, as the Wildcats won the automatic bid out of the non-scholarship Pioneer League. Davidson was 15 for 26 on 4th down attempts, to go along with six 4th down field goal tries and just 16 punts — the only team in all of D-1 to have attempted more 4th down conversions that punts/FGA combined.

I also ran the numbers for FBS, with one caveat. I could not find a way to remove field goal attempts that were not 4th-down plays from the list, and I was not about to go through 551 game summaries. Sorry, but I do have my limits.

Therefore, the FBS numbers that follow are possibly off by a percentage point — probably no more than that, though (and in most cases less), and for some teams they will be completely accurate. Any change would be a slight increase in the go rate.

Last year’s leading riverboat gambler in the bowl subdivision, to the surprise of no one, was Lane Kiffin, with Mississippi going for it 33 times (with only a combined 37 punts/FGA). That adds up to a go rate of 47.14%, easily tops in FBS.

Kiffin is a naturally aggressive tactician and play caller; the fact that the Rebels were truly terrible on defense also factored into the equation. Expect more of the same this season, as Kiffin is still Kiffin and Mississippi’s D might not be much better.

Army was second (39.08%), which is not exactly a shock. Jeff Monken is now well known for his willingness to go for it on 4th down.

Some of the other teams near the top of the list suffered through tough seasons, which might have impacted their number of attempts. However, there were also very successful squads with high go rates — including BYU, Kent State (albeit in just four games), Buffalo, and Liberty.

At the other end of the spectrum was Maryland (127th and last), which in five games only attempted one 4th-down conversion (leading to a more-no-than-go rate of 2.78%). The Terrapins did make that conversion try, though, and thus finished with a 100% success rate on 4th down.

Some coaches leaned heavily on excellent field goal kickers, and that clearly affected their 4th down decision-making. Oklahoma had a go rate of just 12.99% (6th-lowest in FBS), in part because the Sooners attempted 28 field goals in 11 games (making 22 of them). Only Pittsburgh attempted more field goals per game.

Then there were a few teams that didn’t go for it too often on 4th down because there was basically no need to do so; teams in the bottom 25% of the category included Notre Dame, Ohio State, Clemson, and Alabama.

Here is a list of select FBS teams and their 4th down “go rate”:

  • BYU, 34.92% (6th nationally)
  • Kent State, 34.78% (7th)
  • UCLA, 34.69% (8th)
  • Buffalo, 34.21% (10th)
  • Liberty, 32.35% (14th)
  • Navy, 32.26% (15th)
  • Northwestern, 31.33% (22nd)
  • Air Force, 30.56% (29th)
  • South Carolina, 28.40% (34th)
  • Coastal Carolina, 26.15% (48th)
  • North Carolina, 26.03% (49th)
  • East Carolina, 22.22% (72nd)
  • Kentucky, 20.24% (85th)
  • Georgia Southern, 17.89% (97th)
  • North Carolina State, 14.29% (113th)

Along these lines, I also took a quick look at punts per game. Kansas led the nation with 7.67 punts per contest, which sums up the Jayhawks’ football fortunes as well as just about anything. Massachusetts was second, as natural an outcome as could be imagined.

The teams with the fewest punts per game: Kent State (only 2.25 per contest), BYU, Liberty, Florida, and Alabama. Yep.

I’m very appreciative of Brent Thompson’s aggressiveness when it comes to going for it on 4th down, particularly in short-yardage situations. The Bulldogs faced 22 plays of 4th down and 3 yards or less in spring 2021, and went for it 21 times. 

There were actually three other short-yardage plays on 4th down that aren’t included among those 22, because of subsequent penalties; Thompson either went for it on those plays or would have, if given the chance. That means his intended go rate on 4th-and-short was 96%. That is the way it should be, especially given the core tenets of the offense.

I know there are a few fans who believe The Citadel was a little too aggressive on 4th down. I respectfully but firmly disagree, however. In order to be successful, the Bulldogs have to maximize their opportunities. One of the best ways to do that is use all the downs which are available. 

I do think that The Citadel could be even more productive when it comes to taking advantage of the program’s 4th down mindset, though. That will be the subject of my next post.

Looking at the numbers, 2021 preseason: Big Plays

That’s right, talkin’ Big Plays today. We’re living large and we’re in charge.

For anyone just arriving to this website (welcome!), here is a quick list of the posts that have preceded this one over the past couple of weeks:

I suppose I should explain what a Big Play is for the purposes of this post. While there are a lot of different statistical methods to group long-gaining plays from scrimmage, I’m defining them here as I have for several years now: any scrimmage play, running or passing, that gains 20 yards or more. Note that this does not include defensive/special teams returns.

Also, even if there is a turnover at the end of the play in question, if the net gain (prior to the possession change) is at least 20 yards, that still counts. You could make a decent argument that it shouldn’t, but I’ve elected to include such plays in the totals for the sake of consistency. (For the record, I only found two such events in the entirety of the SoCon spring slate.)

The Citadel, 2021 Spring Football

The Bulldogs had a negative overall margin as far as big plays are concerned (22 for, 40 against). That was the largest per-game deficiency in the league (-2.25 per contest). 

Here is the breakdown of offensive big plays in conference action (spring games only):

  • Samford: 48 (7 games)
  • Mercer: 39 (8 games)
  • VMI: 33 (7 games)
  • Furman: 30 (7 games)
  • Chattanooga: 24 (4 games)
  • The Citadel: 22 (8 games)
  • East Tennessee State: 21 (6 games)
  • Wofford: 19 (5 games)
  • Western Carolina: 19 (6 games)

Samford had the most plays from scrimmage of 20+ yards, while Chattanooga averaged six big plays per game, which was the second-best rate in the conference. The Citadel’s rate of 2.75 big plays per contest ranked last.

How do those numbers compare nationally? Well, as I mentioned in my previous post, trying to compare FCS stats for F20/S21 is largely a waste of time, for a host of obvious reasons, and even if you wanted to do so, compiling all of those statistics would be very difficult, if not impossible. (I can attest that assembling these types of stats for just the SoCon teams isn’t easy.)

On the other hand, FBS statistics are more manageable when it comes to organizing such numbers. Here is a sampling from that subdivision, in which 127 teams participated in 2020. On a per-game basis, the top 5 in big plays (20+ yards or more) were UCF (8.30 per contest), Ohio State, North Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi.

No one reading this who follows college football is shocked at all by that list. Other teams that fared well in this area included BYU, Clemson, Alabama, and Oklahoma.

The bottom five: Massachusetts (last in FBS at 2.0 per game, with the Minutemen only playing four contests in all), Western Kentucky, FIU, Kansas, and Syracuse. Again, nobody is surprised.

Incidentally, The Citadel’s 2.75 big plays per game exactly matched the average for Army, which had 33 in 12 games. The Black Knights ranked 121st overall in FBS.

Another, arguably more substantive way to look at this is on a per-play basis, rather than per-game. In terms of big plays per offensive snap (lower is better, of course):

  • Chattanooga: 10.50 snaps per big play
  • Samford: 11.40
  • Mercer: 14.13
  • Furman: 16.30
  • VMI: 16.55
  • Wofford: 17.05
  • Western Carolina: 17.53
  • East Tennessee State: 18.71
  • The Citadel: 26.09

Let’s compare those numbers to FBS programs.

The list of top schools is similar to that of the per-game grouping. This time, Ohio State led all squads, with a rate of just 9.50 snaps per big play. BYU was second (9.63).

A somewhat surprising team in this category is Maryland, which finished fifth (10.00). The Terrapins only played five games, but there is no doubt that when Mike Locksley’s offense is rolling, it can produce a lot of long gainers.

The bottom five on a per-play basis matched the bottom five on a per-game rate, except that Wisconsin (!) replaced Syracuse, with the Badgers only recording a 20+ yard play every 26.05 snaps from scrimmage. That was still better than Western Kentucky, which finished last (29.15).

The Hilltoppers decided to do something about it, though. WKU brought in Houston Baptist’s starting quarterback as a transfer, along with his top three receiving targets.

Houston Baptist was one of the FCS teams that played a few games in the fall, but did not compete in the spring. HBU faced three FBS squads, and while losing all three of those games, the Huskies put up 31, 33, and 38 points. In one of those games, against Texas Tech, star quarterback Bailey Zappe had 560 yards of total offense.

Now, Zappe and several of his friends are taking their talents to Bowling Green, Kentucky. It’s a brave new world.

One of the things that I wondered about as I looked over these numbers: does the triple option offense tend to inhibit big play production? By and large, the FBS triple option teams did not fare well in this category. I’ve included them in this list of “other teams of interest” in the big plays per-snap statistic, along with all teams facing SoCon opposition this fall, plus a random team or two:

  • Florida: 9.66 big plays per snap (3rd in FBS)
  • North Carolina: 9.76 (4th)
  • Alabama: 10.37 (8th)
  • Oklahoma: 10.85 (12th)
  • Clemson: 11.12 (14th)
  • North Carolina State: 11.75 (19th)
  • Coastal Carolina: 12.58 (29th)
  • Kent State: 13.04 (36th)
  • South Carolina: 15.09 (64th)
  • Georgia Southern: 15.96 (73rd)
  • East Carolina: 16.38 (79th)
  • Navy: 17.34 (93rd)
  • Air Force: 17.76 (98th)
  • Kentucky: 17.87 (100th)
  • Vanderbilt: 23.22 (120th)
  • Army: 25.50 (122nd)

Of course, one reason why triple option teams don’t have as many longer plays from scrimmage is because they are primarily (and sometimes almost exclusively) running teams, and the majority of 20+ yard plays are via the air — for example, last season in FBS, 68.2% of such plays were passes.

That percentage was almost reversed in the triple option universe. Last year, Georgia Southern, Navy, Army, and Air Force combined for 140 plays of 20+ yards, with 61.4% of them coming on the ground. There was room for outliers — Navy had almost as many big passing plays (17) as it did rushing (18) — but when you run the ball 83.1% of the time (the combined percentage for the four-team tandem), that is the end result.

What it means, though, is that those triple option teams still had a higher percentage of pass attempts result in big plays than their rushes. This wasn’t true for The Citadel, which actually had fewer snaps per rushing big plays (25.89) than pass plays (27.33). Intuitively, that needs to change this fall for the Bulldogs’ offense to be more successful.

You might have noticed that I referenced both rushing and passing big plays in those last few paragraphs. I did break down big plays in SoCon action by run and pass; while I’m not going to list them out separately in this post, they can be found on this handy-dandy spreadsheet:

Big Plays, SoCon spring 2021

Not only does it list big plays by run and pass, it is color-coded! And not completely impossible to understand!

Okay, now to talk about defending big plays.

Big plays allowed in SoCon action, spring 2021:

  • Chattanooga: 7 (4 games)
  • East Tennessee State: 17 (6 games)
  • Western Carolina: 23 (6 games)
  • Wofford: 28 (5 games)
  • VMI: 29 (7 games)
  • Furman: 31 (7 games)
  • The Citadel: 40 (8 games)
  • Mercer: 40 (8 games)
  • Samford: 40 (7 games)

Chattanooga was by some distance the best league team at preventing big plays, albeit in a smaller sample size. Samford allowed 5.71 per game, the most on average, with Wofford just behind at 5.60 per contest.

Air Force allowed the fewest big plays in FBS on a per-game basis, at 1.67 (the Falcons played six contests in 2020). Marshall, Iowa, Louisiana-Lafayette, and BYU rounded out the top five; influential backers of the Thundering Herd were so impressed that head coach Doc Holliday was fired.

The worst team in FBS in this category was LSU, which gave up 79 such plays in 10 games (7.90 average). Did the Tigers do any better when considering big plays allowed on a per-play basis? Uh, no. LSU was last by that metric as well, as it allowed a big play every 8.58 snaps.

In term of pass defense specifically, the Tigers allowed the most plays of 20 yards or more…and the most of 30 yards or more…and the most of 40 yards or more…and the most of 50 yards or more. LSU was also one of seven FBS schools to give up a pass play of more than 90 yards.

Former defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s three-year contract was guaranteed, and he had two years remaining on his deal at $2.3 million per annum when he was fired last December. LSU had to pony up $4 million in severance pay by January 31, 2021. What a country.

Here is that list of FBS teams from earlier, this time ranked on defending big plays on a per-snap basis (to avoid confusion, just remember that for defenses, a larger number is better when it comes to this statistic):

  • Air Force: 36.00 snaps per big play allowed (1st in FBS)
  • Coastal Carolina: 18.33 (20th)
  • Alabama: 17.48 (26th)
  • Kentucky: 17.36 (28th)
  • Clemson: 16.98 (34th)
  • Florida: 15.98 (50th)
  • Navy: 15.71 (56th)
  • North Carolina: 15.64 (58th)
  • North Carolina State: 15.15 (62nd)
  • Army: 15.02 (66th)
  • Georgia Southern: 14.79 (68th)
  • Oklahoma: 14.57 (70th)
  • South Carolina: 12.74 (95th)
  • East Carolina: 12.71 (96th)
  • Kent State: 12.43 (104th)
  • Vanderbilt: 10.22 (123rd)

The spring 2021 SoCon list of big plays allowed, per snap:

  • Chattanooga, 36.14
  • East Tennessee State, 23.59
  • Western Carolina, 22.00
  • VMI, 16.93
  • Samford, 14.30
  • Furman, 14.19
  • Mercer, 13.83
  • Wofford, 11.68
  • The Citadel, 11.65

Clearly, the Bulldogs have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to both producing and preventing big plays. I went back and looked at the numbers for the 2016 season, just to compare:

  • 2016 offense — 26 big plays (15 runs, 11 passes), 22.19 snaps per big play
  • 2016 defense — 28 big plays allowed (9 runs, 19 passes), 16.46 snaps per big play

I think it is interesting that the 2016 championship team did not actually have an exceptionally large number of offensive big plays. It must be pointed out, though, that its big plays were often BIG.

Eight of the 26 long gainers in 2016 were over 50 yards in length, including three that were 70+. In contrast, the Bulldogs had just two plays from scrimmage this spring that went for 50 yards or more.

Defensively, 16 snaps per big play allowed would seem like a respectable target to try to reach for the Bulldogs this fall. That would be about 1½ fewer such plays per game. In the spring, The Citadel had all kinds of defensive problems on the opening possession; eliminating most of those issues would be a very good start (pun intended).

More statistical reviews and thoughts to come, as the season creeps even closer…

Looking at the numbers, 2021 preseason: Havoc Rate

This is the first in an occasional preseason series (at least, I hope it is occasional) in which I take a closer look at a few of The Citadel’s spring football 2021 statistics.

What improvements can the Bulldogs make? What are their most significant deficiencies from a statistical perspective? What are their strengths? How do they compare to other SoCon teams in various categories?

I’ll also highlight various FBS teams as points of comparison, in part because for some of these statistics, FCS numbers are very hard to come by. Besides, let’s face it — the F20/S21 season for FCS on a national level was a slow-motion trainwreck anyway.

In a previous post, I introduced the spreadsheet from which I’ll be working. Here it is again:

The Citadel, 2021 Spring Football

What is havoc rate? Well, it is a statistic that was essentially created by Bill Connelly (now of ESPN) in 2015. In recent years, it has gained a lot of credence, particularly in the coaching community, as this 2019 article about Georgia football suggests:

On the first day of spring practice, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said he wanted to improve the team’s havoc rate. The term has been tossed around for months now by players and coaches in Athens…

Havoc rate comes from the total number of tackles for loss, passes defensed (interceptions and breakups) and forced fumbles divided by the total number of plays.

“We feel that we should have 20 percent of the plays, two of every 10 should be a ball disruption, a turnover, a PBU, a tackle for a loss, so we’re charting that,” Smart said this spring…

…Smart said Georgia studied the top 10 teams in havoc rate….“We’re trying to do some of the things they do and we’re trying to put guys in position to do that,” Smart said…

…Safety J.R. Reed said the first of two preseason scrimmages produced the most forced turnovers in the last two years.

That came after a spring in which a player a day was asked to stand up and give a definition of havoc in the defensive team meeting room.

“Everybody in that room, from the highest SAT/ACT to the lowest has got to stand up and give us what havoc rate is,” Smart said. “If they understand what it is, they know we’re trying to cause it.”

Basically, this stat is about how often a defense creates disruptive and/or negative plays. The national average for havoc rate tends to be around 16%, while the top teams in the category will exceed 20%.

In eight league games this spring, The Citadel had a defensive havoc rate of 14.38%. How did that compare in the SoCon? I’m glad you asked. Here is each conference team’s rate (league games only):

  • East Tennessee State: 17.21%
  • Chattanooga: 16.60%
  • Furman: 15.91%
  • VMI: 15.89%
  • Mercer: 15.01%
  • Samford: 14.86%
  • The Citadel: 14.38%
  • Wofford: 11.93%
  • Western Carolina: 8.89%

Keep in mind the disparity in games played this spring. Chattanooga only played four contests, while Wofford suited up for five. Western Carolina and ETSU played six; Furman, VMI, and Samford played seven; and The Citadel and Mercer each completed the full slate of conference matchups, with eight.

UTC’s defensive havoc rate would have been 19.67% if you took out the results from its game versus Mercer, when the Mocs fielded what amounted to a “B” team. On the other hand, that number would have been for just three games anyway; we’re talking about a lot of statistical variance in this instance.

Last season, Pittsburgh led all FBS teams in defensive havoc rate at 22.75%, just ahead of Clemson. Other squads with rates greater than 20%: Utah, San Diego State, Notre Dame, and TCU. Colorado and Oklahoma just missed hitting that mark.

One thing I’ll try to do in this series is list (when applicable) the category statistics for other teams of interest in FBS, with a particular focus on those which will be facing SoCon opposition this fall. Each league team will play one FBS foe in 2021.

I’ve already mentioned Oklahoma, the FBS opponent for Western Carolina this year (good luck, Kerwin Bell). The Sooners had a defensive havoc rate of 19.78%, which was 8th-best in FBS. Others of note:

  • Army, 18.76%, 19th nationally (9-3 last season, with two wins over SoCon squads)
  • Alabama, 18.59%, 20th (SoCon opponent in 2021: Mercer)
  • North Carolina State, 17.71%, 32nd (SoCon opponent in 2021: Furman)
  • Coastal Carolina, 17.53%, 36th (SoCon opponent in 2021: The Citadel)
  • Kent State, 17.24%, 43rd (SoCon opponent in 2021: VMI)
  • Florida, 15.58%, 71st (SoCon opponent in 2021: Samford)
  • North Carolina, 15.08%, 79th (SoCon opponent in 2021: Wofford)
  • Kentucky, 13.35%, 102nd (SoCon opponent in 2021: Chattanooga)
  • Navy, 12.89%, 108th (3-7 last season)
  • Vanderbilt, 11.44%, 118th (SoCon opponent in 2021: ETSU)
  • South Carolina, 10.90%, 125th (2-8 last season)
  • Air Force, 9.44%, 126th (3-3 last season)
  • Akron, 7.95%, 127th and last (1-5 last season)

From The Citadel’s perspective, I think a reasonable goal in 2021 would be to increase its defensive havoc rate to at least 16%. That might not sound like a major step forward from 14.38%, but if the Bulldogs were to have a DHR of 16%, it would be an increase of almost exactly one more disruptive/negative play per game.

That one play — a forced fumble, a big tackle for loss, an interception — could well be the difference between a win or a loss. After all, just think about how many close games The Citadel has played in the conference in recent years.

One specific area of potential improvement for The Citadel in this regard could be sack rate. The Bulldogs had a defensive sack rate of 4.17%, which if applied to FBS statistics would have ranked in the bottom 15% nationally (with the same percentage as that of Michigan).

It is also possible to calculate Havoc Rate Against (as I call it), or how disrupted offenses are by negative plays. I don’t have FBS numbers for this (finding forced fumble and TFL stats for offenses can be difficult), but I did put together a chart for SoCon spring play, similar to the one for the defenses. Here is the HRA breakdown for league games in 2021 (remember, the lower the percentage in this category, the better):

  • VMI: 11.17%
  • The Citadel: 11.67%
  • Chattanooga: 14.29%
  • Western Carolina: 14.71%
  • Wofford: 15.12%
  • Samford 15.54%
  • Mercer: 15.79%
  • ETSU: 16.28%
  • Furman: 16.36%

While the Bulldogs are second in this grouping, I tend to believe that 11.67% is not necessarily an outstanding outcome, given the nature of the triple option attack.

For example, a tackle for loss should be an unusual outcome for a play in The Citadel’s offense. However, the Bulldogs suffered a larger-than-expected number of tackles for loss in spring 2021, almost entirely due to an abysmal sack percentage against (17.07%).

This can be attributed in large part to the fact that most of The Citadel’s pass plays occurred when the Bulldogs were trailing (64.3% of the sacks came in the 4th quarter).

Another team that had issues with negative plays on offense was Furman. If not for a completely dominant performance in its opener versus Western Carolina, FU’s havoc rate against would have been even higher; if you take out the Paladins’ numbers against WCU, their HRA jumps to 18.84%.

Of course, that game still counted. Removing it from the remaining six games Furman played tends to unfairly skew things in the opposite direction.

Conversely, 11.17% is surely a very impressive result for VMI’s pass-happy offense. 

Incidentally, the league average for havoc rate (which obviously applies both defensively and offensively) was 14.42%. The median was slightly above 15% on both sides of the ball.

In my next post, I’ll discuss another statistical category, one that can dovetail with havoc rate.

Sometimes they are referred to as long gainers, but here at The Sports Arsenal, we call them BIG PLAYS.

You’ve been warned…