May 19, 2019

Geek Speak: Total Yards Matter – 2014 Version

While I don’t believe total yardage is the “end-all, be-all of football” it’s pretty clear to me that total yards are an important stat in college football.

Besides the obvious – it generally takes yards to score points – I have some numbers that back up this theory.

There are many guys smarter than me that say total yards mean little, are an “overrated” or “simplistic” metric and spend many hours devising complicated formulas to prove why that is.

I’m not smart enough to understand all of the mathematics behind those theories, but my general operating theory is “the simpler the better”.

It’s difficult to find a simpler metric than total yards, and this seems to give those smarter than me fits.

Specifically, out gaining your opponent is important.  The more the better.  If you think about it, out gaining your opponent takes into account many factors that occur during the game.  If you turn the ball over consistently you are likely to gain less yards, score less points and win less often, for example and using the difference between teams total yardage also means defense is factored into the equation.

So while gaining  yards is important, this analysis looks at the difference in yardage between winners and losers.  Another way to put it is, if Team A gains 600 yards and gives up 575 yards in game 1 and gains 125 yards and gives up 100 in game 2, Team A has the same odds of winning both games.

It’s not about the number of yards you gain, it’s about the difference between the number of yards you gain and the number of yards your opponent gains.

The charts and graphs below cover 2,116 games (6 games resulted in teams having exactly the same number of yards) between Division I teams from 2011 through 2013 and tell a simple story: Outgain your opponent and you will likely win. The more you outgain your opponent the higher your odds of winning.

A little further proof that yards matter? Teams with more yards than their opponents cover 64.6% of the time. And, as with the winning %, the higher the yardage differential the more likely a team is to cover, without exception.

Using the Pearson Coefficient I found a solid 0.606149 correlation between total yard differential and winning.

How did Clemson fare using this metric in 2013? I’ve previously posted on why I wasn’t that worried as Clemson fell behind in the Orange Bowl vs. Ohio State and the Tigers were 9-1 (lost South Carolina) when they outgained their opponent and 1-1 when being outgained (won Georgia, lost Florida State). Against the spread the Tigers were 6-5 when outgaining an opponent and 1-1 when being outgained.

No, total yards aren’t the end-all, be-all of football. But total yards, specifically when compared to your opponents total yards, matter and this simple metric can also increase the odds of picking the team that’ll not only win, but cover the spread, too.

It’s important not to confuse correlation with causation and I’m not saying having more total yards causes teams to win by itself.  Other factors (turnovers, for example) can cause a team to have more (turnovers gained) or less (turnovers lost) total yards and win or lose the game.

I’m saying total yards is an important factor in determining winners and losers, more than many want to acknowledge.

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