One of the most important statistics in football is also one of the most basic – total yards. If you knew nothing else about two teams, be it records, point spread, who was favored and who was the underdog or any other in game stat, but you knew who had the most total yards you would have a 75% chance of picking the winner.
Closer to home Clemson went 9-1 in games where they out gained opponents and 1-2 when being out gained.
It’s usually at this point that football savants remind me of the teams who gained more yards than their opponents and lost as proof that I’m “wrong”. Maybe they feel like I’m taking the physicality and strategy out of football by assigning a value to each yard gained (more on this below), but really the point of this is to reinforce the importance of each and every yard gained or lost, emphasizing the importance of the physical nature and accompanying strategic moves that are part of the game.
Many prefer black and white, yes or no and disdain odds and/or probabilities. The only metric they are interested in is points. Getting more than the other team guarantees a win 100% of the time. Nothing else matters.
Yet if a team starts at its own 10, drives 40 yards, punts and their opponent is backed up inside the 10 the team gets 0 points for that drive – but those 40 yards have a value. Field position has been changed, and so have the odds of winning because of those 40 yards that yielded 0 points.
Every yard is important, at least while the game is in doubt.
Clemson scored on offense, defense, and special teams in 2014. However, the vast majority of touchdowns (and therefore points) came on offense (89.6% of Clemson touchdowns came on offense) and involved gaining some amount of yards. Sometimes it takes a lot of yards, sometimes just a few, but by and large you score by gaining yards.
The graph below plots points and yards of every game over the last four years (between 2 FBS teams). The slope should tell you all you need to know.
Better than that generic “yards equal points” phrase, we are able to determine exactly how many points a team can expect to score based on yards gained. Even more intriguing than that is the close to perfect symmetry of the numbers below. For almost every 11 yard increment one additional point can be expected.
There are no exceptions, meaning there is no instance where gaining more yards means you should expect less points. It sounds amazingly obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many football fans believe total yards is an irrelevant metric.
Of course, the yards you gain are only part of the game and are therefore relative. You can expect to score 36 points if you gain 490 yards, but if your defense gives up 510 yards you will most likely lose.
That doesn’t mitigate the overall point, which remains valid – yards are important because the more yards you gain the more points you are likely score – without exception, statistically speaking – and that means the more likely you are to win.
Total yards is certainly not the only metric I use when determining win probabilities, but its an important one that I give significant weight in my calculation.
Four years ago Chad Morris left Tulsa for the opportunity to reshape a Clemson offense that had stalled under Billy Napier. The Tigers had pieces, but could never quite put it all together, at least not for any extended period of time.
Morris’ arrival is a tale of perfect timing. Tajh Boyd had been on campus for 2 years and had seen his first significant playing time in the Meineke Bowl a week or so earlier. There was some receiver named Sammy Watkins coming from Florida, Charone Peake from Dorman, Martavis Bryant made his way from Hargrave Military and Dwayne Allen was about to break out with Morris’ help. Other pieces, now in the NFL, dotted the offensive roster.
Morris promised a “Go until someone tells me whoa” offense and that’s what Tiger fans got. Racing to an 8-0 start, the offense dazzled and by season end operated 14.7% faster than Napier’s 2010 squad, a remarkable leap in year one, especially with an inexperienced quarterback running the show.
That year Clemson ran a play for every 22.4 seconds of possession and the college football world was talking about the fast paced Tiger offense.
There were incremental year over year improvements in the next 2 years (5.4% in 2012 and 3.0% in 2013) and by the end of 2013 the Tigers averaged running a play for every 20.5 seconds of possession.
Boyd’s eligibility expired with an Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State, but the 2014 offense would be led by 4th year senior Cole Stoudt and freshman phenom Deshaun Watson and most expected more of the same tempo-wise. Perhaps not 20.5 seconds, but certainly not a substantial slowdown.
Yet, that’s exactly what happened. The Tigers slowed to a relative crawl in 2014, running a play every 24.7 seconds, the slowest of the Morris era, but still ahead of Napier’s final season.
While that 4.2 second slower pace may not seem like much, over the course of a game it could mean as many as 15 plays. A 20% decrease means for every 4 plays you ran in 2014, you ran 5 in 2013.
The natural tendency is to look at the season Stoudt had and assume this was somehow related. The fact is that Stoudt started or played the majority (Louisville) of 7 games where the offense operated below (that’s a good thing) their season average in tempo, including the 5 lowest. This wasn’t a Stoudt issue.
The Tigers played slower under Deshaun Watson than they did under Cole Stoudt. The questions are why, is this the new normal and is the up tempo offense that has been the Clemson hallmark during the last 4 seasons a thing of the past?
Some will argue a correlation between the your offensive tempo and your defensive success and on it’s face that seems to be a logical argument as the 2014 defense was the top ranked unit in the land.
The theory is that quick three and outs, which happen can happen a lot under the Hurry Up No Huddle (HUNH) offense, kill your defense by depriving them of rest.
That’s difficult to accept when you consider that 36.6% of Clemson’s 2014 offensive possessions were three plays or less (including TDs, turnovers, etc.) and a whopping 57.2% were 5 plays or less, yet the Tigers led the nation in total defense.
While the offensive slowdown may have had something to do with defensive success, it certainly wasn’t the root cause, as the numbers above attest. There were still a large number of 3 and outs and short drives. Going out on a limb, I would suggest the reason the defense was spectacular in 2014 was talent, depth and experience, not the slower pace of the offense.
What will the pace be under Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott? Scott suggested that tempo will be a part of the game plan moving forward, but while you can’t take a lot away from 1 game in a unique setting (with weeks to prepare) in a bowl game, the pace of play in the bowl game (with Stoudt at QB) was nearly identical (24.6 in bowl, 24.7 on season) to the 2014 season average.
Is the HUNH offense we grew to know and love under Morris a thing of the past? If so, will that make it easier on a rebuilding defense? Was the slow down by design or was there another cause? If by design, will the “decided schematic advantage” Clemson enjoyed over the last 4 years be a thing of the past?
We won’t find out the answer to those questions until September and beyond, but the slow down of 2014 is one thing you can’t blame on Cole Stoudt.
Brody Koerner’s pitching game score of 83 vs. South Carolina remains the high score of the season for Clemson. Koerner also holds the lowest mark of the season (15) in his subsequent start.
Matthew Crownover is having one heck of a season. Through 8 starts the left-hander is 5-1 with a 1.33 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and a .179 opponent’s batting average.
Crownover’s obviously talented and perhaps being left-handed with an even keeled temperament provides an additional edge. His motion is easy, almost like he’s playing catch with Chris Okey, which he often does as batters flail at his pitches.
But a funny thing happened when I dug into the details of how Crownover gets his outs. He’s also defying baseball convention.
For a pitcher, there’s not many better friends than a ground ball. The more the better. Ground balls are typically turned into outs, sometimes double plays, and if they do make it through the infield they’re almost always a single, meaning it generally takes 3 to equal a single run. The odds are with the pitcher and defense getting 3 outs before 3 singles are accrued in an inning.
On the other hand, fly balls sometimes land over the fence, or perhaps in the gap for extra bases, meaning it takes less of these to score and it’s easier to put “crooked” numbers on the scoreboard with extra base hits, which are almost exclusively fly balls of some type.
Generally, you want a ground ball pitcher on the mound for the reasons above. Matthew Crownover is the exception to that rule. Crownover is averaging only a little over 5 ground balls in play per start. It helps that Crownover strikes out about 1 per inning and has accumulated 23 pop up outs (more on this below) on the season, but it still seems like a low number.
Like with every pitcher, fly balls are an issue for Crownover, as opponents are batting .397 in those situations. However, if you compare that number with the two other weekend starters you see how much of an outlier Crownover has been.
Brody Koerner is just the opposite. Koerner has many more ground balls and opponents batting average against Koerner on ground balls is not out of line, but when the ball is in the air against Koerner he’s in trouble.
Zack Erwin has more than twice the number of ground balls as Crownover, but opponents are hitting 74 points higher on those grounders than against Crownover.
Crownover also has far and away the most popups. I track these separately because they’re almost always outs and it tells me the batter is not getting a good swing at the ball.
Put it all together: A strikeout an inning, low batting average on ground balls, relatively low batting average on fly balls and almost 3 pop up outs per game and you have a dominant pitcher.
Crownover makes it look easy, but what he’s doing is remarkable. He’s dominating when the ball is in play and when it isn’t (a strikeout per inning).
Editor’s note: Statistics taken from play by play data. Data on line drives is dubious as no hits are listed as “line drives” in play by play data, but wanted to include information for clarity (and can also give you some idea of pitchers “luck”). Also, there is some interpretation of play by play data on my part as a “double to left field” is considered a fly ball, for example.