Lunch at Cafe’ Malzhan

By Posted on: October 16th, 2013 in Football 17 Comments »

“Try the chicken. They say it’s good here”

A statistical analysis of Auburn and the SEC at mid season

A conversation with a fellow SEC fan at work got me thinking (I know, it’s a dangerous pastime). The discussion began with predicting the games this weekend, and went on to discuss how the various teams were performing both in and out of the conference. But while we were discussing and slinging good natured barbs at each other, a thought began to grow in the back of my mind.

The question that emerged was not whether Auburn could win against our remaining schedule or in any particular game, but where does this team stand in relation to the SEC West division, the SEC conference itself and on the national stage? Better still, where does the SEC, winner of seven straight BCS championships, stand in relation to the other teams now that there are a record setting number of teams in the AP poll?

Posed in the off season, such questions were simple to answer: Of course Auburn wouldn’t compete just a year after their worst in half a century and of course the winner of the SEC will likely go to and win the BCS Championship. Prior history has all but proven that to be the safest bet in Las Vegas.

But what about that idea? Is it still valid? At the halfway mark on most team’s schedule where are we within the conference power grid? And now that we’re ranked, do we even dare compare our team with the top teams of the nation? Should we be ranked?

What measure do we use to determine this? Strength of schedule? Win-Loss record? The various opinion polls?

When I thought about it, those are relatively subjective measurements. They tend to introduce prejudice and conjecture based upon opinion rather than performance. If you remember my article from last January, I’ve done this before. Back in that first Cafe Malzahn article, I specified the basic criteria for what a run-of-the-mill BCS championship team tends to looks like. I chose four relevant statistical indicators that work for both offense and defense based upon average values for each of the last six BCS champions. These are:

The Ideal BCS Championship Offense

Points per game – 38.2
Yards per play – 6.62
3rd Down conversion rate – 47.5%
Red Zone percentage – 89.3%

The Ideal BCS Championship Defense (numbers are for opponents)

Points per game – 14.6
Yards per play – 4.30
3rd Down conversion rate – 31.9%
Red Zone percentage – 71.9%

What these values measure is basic performance. Taken together, they give a good all around measure of a team’s normal function in games both big and small. Big play offenses may have lots of yards per play and score points, but the best performing teams are consistently good in generating points and yards as well and regularly converting third downs or scoring touchdowns in a compressed field near the goal line. The same goes for quality defenses. They can both stop teams on third down or from scoring in the red zone in addition to allowing very few big plays.

Think of these values as less a predictive measure of winners or losers, but rather an ‘efficiency rating’ for the team in general. In other words, a relative grade for coaching and team quality based on measurable performance over time and opponents of varying ability.

If you’d like, you can check the raw data I’ve utilized in this analysis. The management here at Cafe Malzahn prides itself on providing only 100% organically grown grass fed and finished statistics. No ESPN or other sportswriter additives have been used in their preparation. No fan prejudice or slanted valuation of wins and losses are allowed. We keep it pure and natural for your enjoyment.

My comparison of Auburn with the division, conference and BCS teams after half the season after the jump.

“I think I’d rather have a steak”

I’ve expanded my initial analysis to include an efficiency ranking system, based upon the criteria below as the model. I think by adding or subtracting a touchdown or half yard from the first two measures is a way of differentiating a good BCS caliber team from an ideal BCS title contender. Likewise an additional touchdown per game and yard per play separates the good teams from the average, and below that last number are the poor teams who struggle with consistency.

Likewise, a five or ten percent increase or decrease from the ideal serve as the boundaries of good, average and poor for the criteria listed below:

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The logic here is less to predict a winner in one or another game, but to segregate performance in relation to other teams, and highlight the consistent performers over all of these measures. Elite teams are good in all or many areas. Bad teams struggle in all or many areas. Good teams have mostly positive rates across multiple areas while average teams tend to have more spotty performance ratings that even out.

So how does Auburn stack up in the West? Quite well actually, and much better than I anticipated when I started these calculations.

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Offensively, we know we can move the ball, but weren’t necessarily at the same level of Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU. The surprise here is that we’re not that far behind. The other shock was how pedestrian Hugh Freeze’s offense has performed, dead average in all categories after six games and not really much better statistically than Arkansas. MSU has some good numbers but is actually horrendous on third down. Overall, the red zone offense was a surprise, with only LSU, Auburn and MSU achieving ‘good’ status. TAMU scores, as does Alabama, but many of those seem to be on big plays, not consistent power drives.

Defense is a different story:

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This was the real surprise, especially the red zone defense across the division. MSU’s defense has allowed an appalling 94% success rate in the red zone. Also, you can see that TAMU and Ole Miss rank statistically as the worst defenses in the division.

And if we combine these two measures, adding both together for a single number, we get a single value of consistency of play for each team.

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Now that is what I did not expect in this analysis when I started. Auburn’s numbers in their first six games show a marked improvement over even LSU. While Alabama is clearly the front runner, Auburn has gained ground rapidly, progressing furher than even I thought possible in such a short time.

What about the SEC East? Now that’s an interesting story too:

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Florida has a terrific elite BCS quality defense, but statistically the second worst offense in the division, barely half a point better than Kentucky. Even so, the Gators are tied with Missouri as the best teams in that division. As expected, Kentucky is the worst by a mile, but look how the rest of that division shakes out, Georgia especially. A remarkable poor rating when you consider the expectation of that team in the pre and early season polls.

I know what you’re thinking. What about doing the same to the current AP top 25 poll? Ok, if you insist. I’ve colored the results as the following to make it easy to see the quality of each team at a glance:

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Pardon the breaks, but if I didn’t do so, the graphics compress and become unreadable. 

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One thing is for certain from these numbers: Louisville is playing lights out football on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Unfortunately they probably don’t have a prayer of being any more than a ‘Boise State’ type ambush in one of the BCS bowls. Even undefeated, they won’t be invited for the title game. However, take a look at Florida State and their performance in comparison to Clemson’s so far. I know I said this isn’t for predicting games, but if I were a betting man, I know who my money would be on this weekend.

The other surprise was which team scores at the top of the Pac-12. It’s not Oregon, but UCLA that’s doing the best statistically. And Washington is still a very formidable team, despite their loss to Oregon.

Where is Auburn ranked in this analysis? Around 15th nationally, just outside of the likelihood of being in a BCS bowl, but more than capable of reaching a very good New Year’s Day bowl. This is all the more remarkable when you realize that statistically, Auburn is the second best SEC team on the chart. For all the hype and #1 ranking, Alabama is only the sixth best in the nation and the SEC’s only BCS title team, with LSU coming in third among SEC teams right behind Auburn at 16th.

That string of BCS Champions from the SEC may have ended this year.

I don’t say this lightly. This is the rather painful truth in what these numbers are telling me. Collectively the SEC is just not fielding the dominant defenses they have in previous seasons, and while some of the offenses are outstanding, according to this measure there seem to be much more well rounded teams playing in the other conferences.

Before you react too strongly to this analysis, please let me say I know there are severe limitations to this methodology. I realize that statistics have never won a football game yet. If they had, “Punt, Bama, Punt” would never have made it into the Auburn Lexicon, and Tre Smith would have been an unknown name buried deep in the 2002 roster. I also realize that teams like Louisville haven’t played many of the same caliber teams as other schools in the big conferences, and that Auburn’s stats were aided in no small part by the recent record breaking game with Western Carolina.

But in defense of these calculations, all the rest of these teams have played a cupcake or two as well, in addition to some key conference rivals. Georgia’s opponents have been particularly good, but without a doubt, Georgia has also played particularly badly in the areas I’ve measured. Auburn lost a game by two touchdowns and gave up big yardage against LSU, and still did not perform as statistically poorly as Georgia has throughout all of their games. As the season has progressed, the numbers increasingly reflect more than just a single game or a bad series, but habitual play in ALL games, not just the easy, difficult or early season ones.

From what I see here, teams like Virginia Tech and Georgia have no business being ranked where they are. When you let other teams score on you over 90% of the time in the red zone, and convert more third downs than you do, you are NOT a BCS caliber or top 25 team.

I also see in these statistics just how far Auburn has progressed from the 2012 season. Our coaching staff has done an phenomenal job in a very short time. Our players have obviously bought in to the program and are performing at a level that was impossibly out of reach last year, with a attitude that they can go even higher and win any game they play in.

These Tigers are hungry, talented and know what they want. Coach Malzahn and his staff has them heading in the right direction. 


“How fresh is the fish?”

As the weeks go by, it will be interesting to follow this measure to see if what I’ve analyzed pans out. I won’t schedule any trips to Las Vegas if it works, however. More money has been lost on such things than any other speculation, but the amateur statistician in me is definitely intrigued with this data. Since the data increases in reliability as more games are played, I’m considering adding this score card for the SEC to my Dirty Dozen series every week. Let me know what ya’ll think about that.

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  1. Third Generation Tiger Third Generation Tiger says:

    Very nice. I for one would like to see this incorporated into your Dirty Dozen series.

  2. AubTigerman AubTigerman says:

    Great post ,
    Very informative. I don’t know how you do these things Pat but they are great post. Good food for thought as well as seeing where Auburn stacks up half way through the season. Appreciate the hard work and man hours put into it.

  3. AuburnMisfit AuburnMisfit says:

    Very nice analysis! How would you rank the BCSCG teams over past 10 years using this methodology?

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      I haven’t done ten years, but back in January I did analyze the last six (http://trackemtigers.com/?p=10843) with a little more commentary explaining my findings. For brevity sake, I didn’t do as much with this article. 31 teams (25 on the AP poll and the other 6 SEC teams) would take quite a while, which is why I used this easier short cut method for the discussion.

  4. Third Generation Tiger Third Generation Tiger says:

    Turnover margin and quality of opponent might be some interesting factors to introduce.

  5. Tigerstripe Tigerstripe says:

    Daaaaaa-ng!!! Do you do taxes??? Please, please, please update this after the regular season while we are waiting on bowl season to begin and only include SEC games (minus cupcakes) for the year end totals. I’d be interested in how we end up. Good stuff!

  6. Tiger on the mountain Tiger on the mountain says:

    Great job!

  7. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..Pretty interesting. Things like red zone conversion rate I’d have not thought of. I’d second Third Generation Tiger’s idea on turnovers. They will often tell the tale of a ball game. Auburn’s pick-six against Ole Miss really turned that ball game. Prior to that, it was a 6-3 ball game with Ole Miss driving towards an apparent score. It turned into a double digit game for 35 minutes after that stroke-of-lightning play.

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      All good comments. Thank you for reading, I appreciate every one’s input.

      There were many many more stats I could throw at this, some relevant, some less so. The problem is three fold – 1) What is relevant to a ‘good’ or efficient football team? 2) How should it be weighted? and 3) How much is too much?

      It had to be short enough to gather quickly, easy enough to understand, give a good baseline on how well or poorly a team does and yet have enough differentiation between teams in comparison. I’m afraid I am just lazy enough to have stopped at the ones I did use as their very simplicity aided them in measuring on both sides of the ball. Else, how do you equate tackles for a loss and running plays or interceptions and yards per run? The fact that all four measurements could be used on both sides of the ball were my main reason for using them.

      Once I did, I realized another facet of what I chose by accident: These four also serve as a measure of coaching in addition to team execution. Good offenses don’t just pound the same thing for five yards every play, but leverage what the defense has shown a propensity to do and work around it. Likewise, good defenses adjust quickly and aren’t burned by the same or similar plays repeatedly. Over time, this also impacts a team’s ‘efficiency rating’ and I believe that is reflected in the teams that are ranked high on this scale.

      Lastly, this is just one view of things. It is not definitive and always open for debate. Strength of schedule is important, but however fair I try to be it will always include a level of subjectivity. I was trying to avoid my own prejudices and see what the numbers showed instead of dismissing or including what I thought relevant.

      Thanks again for commenting.

  8. War_Eagle_2010 War_Eagle_2010 says:

    If you took the total numerical grade for each opponent a team faces, then average them, you would get something like the strength of schedule for a team. I would only look at teams played to date though, not future opponents.

    On a side note, I love excel, when I’m really bored I’ll read through the function lists . . .

    • Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

      ……Excel is magic for auto-compiling numbers, but I find it maddening for formatting and editing text. Of course, I’ve been a MSWord junky for many years!

  9. DaZeD DaZeD says:

    Nice cyphering! At the end of the day (or season mind you), if Oregon can avoid the stumbling block of Stanford, and assuming Bammar will win out, I believe that the DUCKS are going to tear Bammar a new A$$ in the BCS MNC game next January. Assuming such a matchup occurs, ORE could easily put between 45-50 on the scoreboard and the Updykes would probably be in the low 30s. Don’t ask me why…nothing scientific, I just have a gut feeling its going to be the year of the DUCK regardless who they line up against. I’m not sold on Bammar making it through the SEC unscathed. With our development growing weekly and with LSU finally getting their defense “going”, UA might not make it to Atlanta without a loss…if they even make it. Now back to my kool-aid….

  10. [...] the pre-game win-loss record for each team and their calculated the ER or Efficiency Rating (see my Cafe Malzahn article) of the major or SEC teams. At the end, I’ll show a chart of the pre and post game ER ratings [...]