The following is the first in a two-part series on ushering in a new football box score. Part two will run next Tuesday.
This isn't your father's box score. Then again, it's not even the one you've been pouring over since you were a kid.
Meet the box score for the metric age. The one that offers more insight into the game within the game. The one that offers to give a more clear-cut answer to why Team A won and Team B lost.
Let us introduce you to Bill Connelly, the man behind this updated box score. His SB Nation biography states, "He spends his evening playing with excel sheets and watching DVR'd football games from ESPN Classic." Connelly has written for a number of websites and is the author of two successful books: Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories and The 50 Best* College Football Teams of All Time.
"As is typically the case with box scores, the way college football data is presented to us has not changed much through the years. And the changes that have come our way have been glacial," Connelly states in Study Hall.
Connelly additionally quotes sports historian John Thorn saying, "We continue to fight yesterday's war. We are looking at the game of today and measuring it by the way it used to be."
The 'New' Box Score: What's In
- Tempo and yardage (Connelly states, " . . . looking at total plays tells you approximately the same story that time of possession does, and it tells it better. Plus, it gives you the denominator for any per-play calculations that follow . . . Yardage, accompanied by some more general information--total plays, total possessions, yards per play--tells you even more.")
- Turnovers ("Turnovers are one part skill, two parts luck, and they can change a game. They deserve a front row seat in the new box score.")
- Rushing and passing ("sack yardage really, really needs to count against passing totals") Connelly advocates combining interceptions and passes broken up into an overall "passes defenses" number. ("On average, interceptions make up around 21 percent of all passes defensed. Just as you are expected to recover in the neighborhood of 50 percent of your fumbles over a long period of time, you should also expect to regress or progress toward that mark when it comes to your interceptions as a total of overall passes defenses.")
- Third downs ("your third-down conversion rate is usually caused by how well you set up third down, not how well you actually performed on it.")
- Field position ("Know that if your average starting field position was in the low 20s, you probably lost. If it was in the high 30s, you probably won.")
- Special teams ("This one is space-dependent. Special teams accounts for somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of a game's outcome.")
The 'New' Box Score: What's Out
- First downs ("It hints at efficiency in a way that simple yardage (or yards per play) does not. But with the slight expansion of the third-down discussion to include first-down yardage, the first down totals become a little bit redundant.")
- Penalties ("Generally speaking, penalties just do not correlate strongly to wins and losses. If we were to categorize penalties as either procedural or aggressive, we could get somewhere.")
- Time of possession ("Again, this can still be worthwhile for specific types of teams. But you get what you need to know from total plays. This just occupies real estate that could instead be filled by more useful numbers."
What matters the most
Prairie State Pigskin asked Connelly: In your opinion, which of the "new stats" may be most telling for analysis and evaluation of not only a game, but also of a team over a season?
Connelly responded, "Field position and some sort of red zone execution stats (be it my scoring opportunities or just the typical red zone opps) should be no-brainers in a given box score (or season stats), as should either yards per play on first down or average third down distance (or both). And if we're getting into the more advanced stats, success rate is easy to calculate and says so much."
Connelly also threw in two additional measurements:
- Success Rate: 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.
- IsoPPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the equivalent point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game. IsoPPP looks at only the per-play value of a team's successful plays (as defined by the Success Rate definition above); its goal is to separate the explosiveness component from the efficiency component altogether.
The S&P statistic is made by compiling two different numbers: A team's success rate and Equivalent Points Per Play (PPP).
Here's an example:
All yards aren't created equal. The website kusports.com states, "How much is eight yards worth to an offense? Obviously, the answer changes depending on the situation. If it's first-and-10, eight yards is valuable. If it's third-and-26, eight yards doesn't do so much. This is the reason that looking at a team's total yardage oftentimes is misleading, as it doesn't tell us if teams picked up valuable yards or simply junk yards."
Enter Connelly's success rate. He considers each play a "success" for the offense if it meets the following criteria: 50 percent of needed yards on first down, 70 percent of needed yards on second down, or 100 percent of needed yards on third or fourth down.
So on first-and-10, a "success" is if the offense gains five yards or more. On second-and-20, a "success" would be 14 yards or more. On third-and-26, only 26 yards or more would be considered a "success."
Why is success rate important? In short, it measures a team's efficiency.
As Connelly says, "If a team racks up a whole bunch of yards but only has a success rate of, say, 35 percent, they probably are going to struggle to win the game unless their defense is great. Racking up a ton of yards in 3-4 plays while forcing yourself into 3rd-and-8s the rest of the game is not a good recipe for scoring a lot of points."
The "success" rate number, in S&P ratings, is always listed as a decimal. So a 41.1 percent success rate would be .411. A 100-percent success rate (the highest a team could achieve) would be 1.000.
Big play ability
Want to measure a team's explosiveness? Here's Connelly's PPP rating:
While yards per play is one way to measure explosiveness, it doesn't give the complete picture. whole story. Connelly says, "All yards are not created equal. A 10-yard gain from your 15-yard line to your 25 is not the same as one from your opponents’ 10-yard line to their end zone, or one from your opponent’s 40 to their 30, advancing into field goal position."
Connelly's equivalency points system takes over. After breaking down the numbers, Connelly has come up with a point value for each yard line that represents the number of points an average college football team scores from that yard line.
To get a point-per-play number, Connelly simply subtracts the old yard line from the new one.
Let's do an example. Let's say Illinois State (or Eastern or Southern or Western) gains 10 yards from its own 20-yard line to the 30. Let's say the equivalent point value of a team's own 20 is 1.20 and the equivalent point value of a team's own 30 is 1.45. The team's PPP on that play would be 1.45-1.20, or .25.
After Week 2 of the 2009 season, the average PPP of college football teams was 0.34.
For a team's S&P ranking, Connelly simply adds the success rate number (S) to the PPP number (P). Using this, we can judge teams offensively based on both their efficiency and explosiveness.
The average S&P for a team after Week 2 of the 2009 college football season was 0.749 (excluding all FBS vs. FCS games).
Connelly's S&P+ rankings are weighted, where 100 is average for an NCAA team.
Prairie State Pigskin practical numbers
Here's a random sampling with some of Connelly's measurements from last season using Illinois FCS teams.
- Western Illinois and Eastern Illinois kicked off the 2016 season Sept. 1 in Charleston. The Leathernecks starting field position was in EIU territory four times in the first half (two turnovers, a personal foul penalty, and a successful onside kick). That meant WIU's average starting field position was at the Eastern 47-yard line. While things settled down in the second half, Western's average starting field position for the game was at its own 39. EIU's average starting field position was its own 20. Final score: Western 38, Eastern 21.
- Sixteen days later, EIU had a reversal of fortune. The Panthers' average starting position against Illinois State was their own 39 (discounting the final series of the first half off an ISU punt with 29 seconds to play). EIU started in ISU territory three times in the first half as a result of a fumble, interception and poor punt. None of the Redbirds' 13 possessions were on the Eastern side of the field. Illinois State's average starting position was its own 25. Eastern took home the Mid-America Classic traveling trophy with a 24-21 victory.
- On Oct. 15, Illinois State hosted Southern Illinois at Hancock Stadium. The Salukis outgained the Redbirds 384-341 in total yards and won the first down battle 20-11, yet they fumbled twice (losing one) and threw an interception. ISU had only one turnover (an interception). Final score: ISU 31, SIU 28.
- While ISU and WIU each averaged 5.6 yards per play against one another in their Nov. 5 game in Macomb, the Redbirds had a success rate of 43.7 percent. The Leathernecks converted at a 42.8 percent rate (end of half knee downs were not counted). After sputtering a bit in the first half (37 percent), Illinois State's success rate jumped to 49% in the second half. Western ran 68 plays; ISU ran 64. The Redbirds won the game, 31-26.
- Explosive plays helped make the difference as SIU erased a 31-14 deficit to WIU in Carbondale on Nov. 19. While Western had six "explosive plays" in the first half (Connelly defines these as runs over 12 yards and passes over 20 yards), the Leathernecks had just two in the second half. Meanwhile, after just a pair in the first half, Southern had six in the second half. More telling, the Salukis had five in the final 7:21 of the game, including three straight passes that netted 150 yards (two for touchdowns). Final score: SIU 44, WIU 34.
Part Two: Reaction to Connelly's new box score from around the state (story will run June 20)