No matter when your “COLLEGE FOOTBALL IS ALMOST HERE!” alarm is set for — when the preview magazines come out? When your team’s head coach goes up to the dais for media days? — it has, by now, gone off. The 2019 season is little more than a month away, and to further prepare ourselves, let’s take one last look back at some of the primary statistical storylines of 2018 and what they might say about the season ahead.
1. The race to 200
Sure, the passer rating formula is all sorts of flawed. And sure, it seems like someone’s setting a record every year. It is a product of the times, and the times are increasingly passer-friendly.
We still don’t have a member of the 200 club — producing a 200 passer rating for an entire season — but we now have two 199ers. After Baker Mayfield set the single-season record with a 198.9 in 2017, both Tagovailoa and Murray ended up ahead. And the race was pretty fun to follow.
Six games into the season, Tua’s stats were something I had never seen before. He was completing 75% of his passes at nearly 20 yards per completion. His passer rating was 60 points higher than Mayfield’s had been in 2017; it was also better than the best six-game sample of Mayfield’s career.
After dominant performances against Missouri (passer rating of 200.7) and Tennessee (199.7), though, the best defenses on the schedule showed up. He torched Auburn (214.7) but struggled against LSU (129.5), Mississippi State (138.5) and Georgia (a ghastly 92.3).
That offered Murray a way back into the race. After Tua’s dreadful performance against Georgia, Murray’s season rating had crept ever so slightly ahead. That final impression, plus an obvious rushing advantage (he had 1,110 non-sack rushing yards to Tagovailoa’s 302), helped him in creeping ahead of Tagovailoa by 296 points in the Heisman voting.
Tagovailoa had a trump card in the ratings race, though: He got to play against the dreadful OU defense, and Murray didn’t. Tua posted a downright disrespectful 236.7 rating against the Sooners in the College Football Playoff semifinals, while Murray managed only a 139.1 against Bama’s D. That knocked Tua back over 200 for the season and knocked Murray just below.
Tua’s rating remained at 200 heading into the fourth quarter of Bama’s national title game loss, but he ended up with basically one incompletion too many. The roster of 200ers remains empty.
Tua’s back, though, and he has got his top four receiving targets back as well. The chase begins again.
2. UConn and the wrong kind of history
This has not been the best year for Connecticut football. First, the Huskies went 1-11 in coach Randy Edsall’s second year in charge during this tour of duty. Their lone win was a last-minute nail-biter over FCS team Rhode Island. To give his offensive coordinator a raise, Edsall had to pay it out of his own pocket. A couple of weeks later, said OC left for another job. Then the school announced it was leaving the American Athletic Conference for the Big East, meaning its football program would be unanchored and independent within the FBS universe. A tough job seemingly just got tougher.
On the bright side, however, the Huskies did make history on the football field. The wrong kind of history, sure, but spectacular all the same.
The 2018 UConn defense took the field for 138 drives, not including 15 that were ended by either the halftime or end-of-game buzzer. Of those 138 …
• 28 ended in a punt. No other FBS team forced fewer than 37.
• 11 resulted in a turnover. Only four teams forced fewer.
• 81 resulted in a touchdown. Only two other teams allowed more than 68 — Louisville (71) and Oregon State (76). Nearly three touchdowns to every punt!
Including 14 field goals, an incredible 95 of 138 drives (69%) against the UConn defense resulted in points. Opponents scored 605 points in all, 50.4 per game. The Huskies allowed at least 49 points in 10 of 12 games, at least 7.6 yards per play in 11, and at least 516 total yards in 11. If you got a chance to watch this defense play, you were witnessing something truly special.
Let’s put it this way: Oklahoma’s offense averaged 8.6 yards per play and 570.3 yards and 48.4 points per game. But really, it was at any point only the second-best offense in the country behind Whoever Was Playing UConn That Week.
Edsall mercifully fired defensive coordinator Billy Crocker and replaced him with former UCLA DC and Alabama analyst Lou Spanos. At the very least, this year’s two-deep won’t be quite as young — 16 of UConn’s 19 leading tacklers were freshmen or sophomores.
3. A return to chaos? Please?
According to Sports Media Watch, here were the 15 most-watched games of the 2018 college football season:
1. Clemson 44, Alabama 16 (CFP title game) — 25.3 million viewers (including streaming)
2. Alabama 45, Oklahoma 34 (CFP semifinals) — 19.1 million
3. Alabama 35, Georgia 28 (SEC championship) — 17.5 million
4. Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3 (CFP semifinals) — 16.8 million
5. Ohio State 28, Washington 23 (Rose Bowl) — 16.8 million
6. Texas 28, Georgia 21 (Sugar Bowl) — 13.3 million
7. Ohio State 62, Michigan 39 — 13.2 million
8. Alabama 29, LSU 0 — 11.5 million
9. Oklahoma 39, Texas 27 (Big 12 championship) — 10.2 million
10. Ohio State 27, Penn State 26 — 9.1 million
11. Alabama 52, Auburn 21 — 9.1 million
12. Ohio State 45, Northwestern 24 (Big Ten championship) — 8.7 million
13. LSU 40, UCF 32 (Fiesta Bowl) — 8.5 million
14. Florida 41, Michigan 15 (Peach Bowl) — 8.4 million
15. Army 17, Navy 10 — 8.1 million
That’s about five or six truly good games and a whole bunch of blowouts. I’m not going to say that’s symbolic … but it isn’t entirely non-symbolic. You can always find fun and enjoyment in college football if you try, but unless you were a Clemson fan, you maybe had to try a little bit harder to enjoy yourself last season. There’s always wackiness beneath the surface, but the national title race, the most direct source of entertainment, wasn’t all that entertaining.
Only four teams ranked in the top two in the AP poll at some point during the season: Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia. For reference, seven did in 2017, and there was an average of 5.8 over the past six years. Not since 2009, when Alabama, Texas and Florida took over as the top three in Week 4 and squatted on those spots for the rest of the regular season (Alabama and Texas played for the title), have we had such a by-the-book title race.
By bringing this up, am I attempting to jinx us into a wild title race this fall? You betcha. Remember the amazing 2007 season, which featured a decade’s worth of surprise contenders and plot twists? That year featured 11 different top-two teams. The 2008 season featured nine. I’d settle for seven this year.
4. A maiden CFP voyage
That said, we did at least add a new member to the list of teams that have played in the College Football Playoff: Notre Dame.
Total CFP bids to date:
• 5: Alabama
• 4: Clemson
• 3: Oklahoma
• 2: Ohio State
• 1: Florida State, Georgia, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Oregon, Washington
Alabama and Clemson alone have taken 45% (9 of 20) of the CFP bids to data. If 2019 goes according to expectations, it’ll be 46% (11 of 24) in about five months.
5. Rise of the fourth-down conversion?
The 2018 Army Black Knights found a football cheat code last season: They stole downs. Hopefully other teams take notice.
Jeff Monken’s squad not only went for it 36 times on fourth down last season (fourth most in FBS), it also converted 31 of them. That’s more conversions than anyone has managed in at least 15 years, and it’s an almost unmatchable success rate, too. (For all we know, it might be unsustainable, too. We’ll see.) They used third downs often just to set up fourth-and-short, then they converted. Opponents first got frustrated, then got tired.
This was clearly a winning strategy. Army won 11 games for the first time in school history — a year after winning 10 games for only the second time, no less.
Now to see if others follow Army’s lead. Obviously, with their option offense, the Black Knights are uniquely equipped to both create and convert fourth-and-shorts. But this strategy might catch on — 19 teams attempted at least 30 fourth-down conversions last year, after only 10 did in 2017.
6. Kansas was … lucky?
One of the concepts I’ve played with a lot in my time as a writer/stats guy has been turnovers luck. We understand that, with a pointy ball and a reliance on males 18 to 22 years old (aka the least stable members of the population), college football is going to be defined by bounces and breaks sometimes, but attempting to strip that out has always been, to me, an essential part of creating a predictive system such as S&P+.
Here are the two tenets to how I measure turnover luck:
1. Over time, your fumble recovery rate regresses to the mean. If you recovered 70% of all fumbles in a given year — and at least one team usually does — it’s going to have a massive effect on your performance, and it’s probably going to be a lot closer to 50% the next year. Same goes for the team that was at 30%.
2. This one’s a little bit funkier for some people: On average, about 21-22% of your passes defensed (interceptions plus breakups) will result in interceptions. In a given year, that number could be 8% for a given team, or it could be 35%. That could be the difference of five or six interceptions in a given year.
With those two things in mind, I create an “expected turnovers” measure based on what your TO margin would have been with proper fumble recovery and passes defensed ratios, and I compare your actual turnover margin to it. The difference is what I record as turnovers luck.
• The most unlucky college football teams in 2018: Florida State (plus-2.2 expected turnover margin, minus-11 actual turnover margin, for a difference of minus-13.2 turnovers), UTEP (minus-10.5), Rutgers (minus-10.1), Tulane (minus-9.7), and Louisiana-Monroe (minus-8.9). For as bad as FSU’s offensive line was last season — and it was horrible — a proper number of good breaks probably results in an extra win or two for the Noles.
• The most lucky college football teams in 2018: Kansas (plus-16.2!), Florida International (plus-9.9), Maryland (plus-9.7), Arizona State (plus-9.6), and Georgia Tech (plus-8.8).
Poor 3-9, 100th-in-S&P+ Kansas was … LUCKY. The Jayhawks recovered 21 of 35 fumbles in 2018 (60%), but the biggest difference was in the passes defensed category. They defensed 45 passes, and their opponents defensed 48, but they ended up with 16 interceptions to their opponents’ four. Their expected turnover margin was about minus-0.2. Their actual turnover margin was plus-16. That’s almost guaranteed to regress in Les Miles’ first season.
7. Louisville’s spectacular collapse
Bobby Petrino’s final Louisville Cardinals team managed something rare: a triple-digit drop. In a single season, the Cardinals managed to fall from second to 102nd in offensive S&P+. Only one other team had managed to do that in what I’ll call the S&P+ era (2005-18).
Largest single-year S&P+ drop for an offense or defense:
1. 2009 Rice offense (101 spots, from 11th to 112th)
2. 2018 Louisville offense (100 spots, from second to 102nd)
3. 2009 Ball State offense (98 spots, from 15th to 113th)
4. 2013 Louisiana Tech offense (97 spots, from 18th to 115th)
5. 2007 Notre Dame offense (97 spots, from 18th to 115th)
6. 2017 UCLA defense (94 spots, from 10th to 104th)
7. 2008 Kentucky offense (88 spots, from 15th to 103rd)
8. 2011 Kentucky offense (86 spots, from 27th to 113th)
9. 2006 Iowa State defense (84 spots, from 15th to 99th)
10. 2015 UCF defense (83 spots, from 22nd to 105th)
David Bailiff’s 2010 Rice offense managed to rebound from 112th to 80th the season after their amazing collapse. Louisville should be happy with something similar in Scott Satterfield’s first year in charge.
8. All hail Braden Mann
Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher and offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey fielded an excellent attack in their first year in College Station. The Aggies improved from 38th to 10th in offensive S&P+ as Trayveon Williams rushed for 1,760 yards and Kellen Mond threw for 3,107. Their best offensive weapon, however, might have been punter and senior-to-be Braden Mann, who averaged a stunning 51 yards per kick. For however many yards A&M gained in a given drive before punting, Mann basically tacked on an extra first down to the end of it.
Mann’s season didn’t quite have the finesse that Texas’ Michael Dickson managed in 2017 — Dickson averaged 47.4 yards, but with 33 fair catches and 41 punts downed inside the 20 (Mann had 11 and 13, respectively). But blunt force is fun sometimes, and 51 yards was the highest average on record.
9. Can Jarrett Guarantano get some help?
ESPN’s David Hale recently named Tennessee’s Guarantano as maybe the leading candidate for 2019 breakout player of the year. To back up his case, he compared Guarantano’s numbers to that of Oregon’s Justin Herbert, one of the established darlings for this coming season.
Who had the better season?
Player A: 59.4% completions, 7.8 yards per pass, 3.4-1 TD-to-INT ratio, 35% conversions on third-down throws
Player B: 62.2% completions, 7.8 yards per pass, 4-1 TD-to-INT ratio, 41% conversions on third-down throws
Pretty close, but you’d probably give the nod to Player B, right? Well, once again, that’s Guarantano. The other player is Herbert, widely considered one of the top QB prospects in college football.
If you’re still unconvinced, maybe this will sway you?
Guarantano pulled off Herbert-esque numbers despite living life with one of the worst run games imaginable.
Not even including sacks, 32.6% of Tennessee’s rushes were stuffed at or behind the line, worst in FBS. Only 41% of the carries gained at least 4 yards (119th). The Vols ran the ball constantly (and predictably) on early downs — their run rate was 64% on standard downs, nearly 5 percentage points higher than the national average — and all it produced were lots of second-and-11s and heavy pass rushes when Guarantano was looking to make up ground.
When he had time to pass, though, he did well. His passer rating was 152.0 on second downs and 150.4 on third downs with between 4 and 9 yards to go.
New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is one of the better coaches in America when it comes to crafting a system around the standout talent he has at his disposal. Sometimes that means a run-heavy approach, and sometimes it means a lot of passing. With Guarantano and almost his entire receiving corps back (including a hell of a wideout trio in Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings and Josh Palmer), I’m guessing Chaney leans toward the latter.
10. Every week, a new Minnesota
In my Big Ten West preview, I noted just how ridiculously up-and-down PJ Fleck’s 2018 Minnesota Golden Gophers were. They beat Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech (bowl teams, all) by a combined 77 points and lost to Maryland, Nebraska and Illinois (13 combined wins) by 78. They won their first three games and four of their last six but lost four straight by at least 16 points each in between.
They even befuddled Vegas. Minnesota overachieved by at least 14 points against the spread five times and underachieved by at least 10 points five times.
In all, the spread was off by at least three touchdowns, one way or the other, six times in 13 games. It was off by 33.5 points in the loss to Illinois and by 43.5 points in the win over Purdue. On average, Vegas was off by 20.1 points per game.
Largest average absolute error, Vegas vs. team outcomes: Minnesota (20.1 points per game), Duke (19.5), Old Dominion (18.9), Wake Forest (18.8), Purdue (18.5), Army (18.2), Louisville (18.0), Virginia Tech (17.8), East Carolina (17.7), North Texas (17.3).
The Gophers were one of the youngest teams in the country, which would explain a decent amount of the volatility. But a pro tip for you: Maybe avoid betting on Minnesota games for a bit until we see how volatile things are, or aren’t, this fall. And since there were four ACC teams also on the above list, maybe avoid that entire league, too.