It's taken a while, but advanced analytics are now firmly a part of the mainstream football lexicon. Don't get me wrong - I can appreciate the beautiful simplicity of using something like total yards to compare two offenses, but that doesn't mean we have to ignore things like efficiency and explosiveness, right? Here are 5 such statistics that will tell the tale of our 2018 season.
Explosive Play Differential
One idea that's gained widespread acceptance in recent years is the importance of explosive plays. Exactly what constitutes an explosive play seems to vary from team-to-team, but I define them as runs of 10+ yards and passes of 20+ yards, and West Virginia has traditionally been very good at generating them offensively ever since the mid-2000s. It's just a part of who we are. However, one thing that usually plays a big part in how our seasons play out is how good we are at preventing them. Just look at recent history - in 2012 we were our customary selves offensively, with Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey headlining a group that created 137 explosive plays, but unfortunately our defense allowed 126, including a national worst 64 explosive passes, and we floundered to 7-6. Meanwhile, in 2016 Skyler Howard and Co created 150 explosive plays and surrendered just 106, and we won 10 games for just the sixth time in school history.
Considering that, you will rightly see that it's a problem when I tell you that we finished 2017 with an EPD of -12. Now admittedly, our explosive play generation took a nose dive after Will got hurt against Texas, but that still doesn't excuse the 133 that we gave up. That averages out to about 10 explosive plays that we allowed every game, or to break it down even further, almost 1 on every single possession. We actually weren't terrible against the pass (though we certainly weren't great either), but our 89 explosive runs allowed ranked 118th nationally. It's really hard to win when you're getting gashed like that.
Looking ahead to 2018, I think we can safely assume that Will Grier and Co will again be among the nation's best in terms of creating explosive plays, but our defense has to figure out how to get better at preventing them, and particularly those backbreaking gains on the ground. Fortunately it sounds like we're on track to do just that. Word out of camp is that our defensive line is progressing very well, with a number of young guys receiving praise for their development and Tony Gibson even going so far as to say of Dante Stills, "In my 13 years here, I'd be hard-pressed to say that we've ever had [a freshman defensive lineman] like that." Transfers Kenny Bigelow (USC) and Jabril Robinson (Clemson) are reportedly the real deal, as well, and should bring some much needed leadership and experience to the group. We're not going to be Alabama, but if we can improve by even two or three explosive plays per game we'll be in much better shape defensively.
It's long been accepted that winning turnover battles usually translates to winning games, but as I just mentioned, it's also more evident than ever that the same is true regarding explosive plays. Toxic Differential, a term coined by former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick, attempts to combine both ideas by simply adding a team's Explosive Play Differential to its Turnover Margin.
Toxic Differential = (Big Plays For - Big Plays Against) + (Takeaways - Giveaways)
In 2017, Alabama led the country in Toxic Differential by a wide margin with an absolutely ludicrous +107 (based on my previously mentioned definitions), and coincidentally they won the National Championship. Their opponent in that game, Georgia, finished 3rd nationally with an extremely respectable +71. West Virginia finished at -19 (-12 EPD, -7 TO Margin). I've already covered how we can improve on the explosive play part of that equation, and I think we're in good shape there (especially offensively), but TO margin still needs to be discussed.
West Virginia finished 2017 with a -7 turnover ratio, which was good for 105th nationally. Our defense was actually in the middle of the road in terms of forcing turnovers, but our offense was absolutely abysmal at preventing them, ranking 116th with 26 giveaways. We were particularly bad at not fumbling (12 lost, 107th nationally), and in my opinion that's the spot where we can (and need to) improve the most heading into 2018.
The good news here is that we might be better based simply on attrition. Justin Crawford, for all that he brought to the table, had an unfortunate knack for fumbling at inopportune times, and his graduation means that about a quarter of our fumbles have graduated, as well. Also gone is Chris Chuganov, who despite trying his best was definitely to blame for a fumble or three in his limited action. If we can trust Grier to take better care of the ball this year (and I'd like to think that we can), and if the skill guys can do their part in bringing that fumble number down to somewhere closer to the national average of 8 (and I'm going hope that they will), we've effectively eliminated about 1/3 of our turnovers. And if we can actually do that and finish with somewhere between 15-20 giveaways this year, we have a really good chance of at least breaking even in the turnover department, which, considering our offensive firepower, should put us on track for a very non-toxic year. I realize that's about thirty-seven "if's" in one hundred words, but remember that we won 10 games with Skyler Howard in large part because we played a relatively non-toxic brand of football (+37 in 2016); just imagine what we might do IF we can replicate that with Billy F'ing G..
Defensive Success Rate/Iso PPP/Havoc Rate
The main point I've been trying to convey so far is that we need to both generate and limit explosive plays to be successful, but one question remains: how exactly do we do that, and what's the trade off? I’d like to share a passage from an article written by Bill C over at the mothership, and give a shout out to my esteemed colleague Jake Lantz for calling it to my attention:
"A few years into his tenure as Duke’s defensive coordinator, Knowles evidently said, 'You know what? Screw it. Attack.'
In 2014, Duke’s defense ranked 105th in success rate and third in IsoPPP explosiveness allowed, the prototypical bend-don’t-break profile. In 2017: 17th in success rate, 95th in IsoPPP.
Considering efficiency is the most important, repeatable thing in football, this was a net gain for the Blue Devils, even if it resulted in some gashes.
When you’ve got a prolific offense and can absorb the occasional gash, this aggressive approach can be devastating. If you can force an extra couple of three-and-outs or turnovers per game, that’s a service break the other team just can’t cope with. You just have to make sure you’ve got the athletes to turn aggression into production."
DSR, IsoPPP, and especially Havoc Rate aren't necessarily indicative of how good or bad a team's defense is, but when examined together they can provide some pretty interesting insight into how each team weighs risk vs reward, as well as how aggressively they play - do they sell out to create chaos (strong success rate, weak Iso PPP), or are they content to bend but not break (weak success rate, strong IsoPPP)? There's obviously not a universally correct answer, but for a team with an offense like ours that can theoretically “absorb the occasional gash” as described above, it probably makes sense to be a bit more aggressive.
The good news here is that we already tend to play that way, and generally do a pretty good job using our aggressiveness to keep teams off-schedule. Here are our Success Rate/IsoPPP/Havoc Rate splits over the past three years:
2015 - 34.1% Success Rate (8th); 1.43 IsoPPP (118th); 19.1% Havoc (17th)
2016 - 40.4% (46th); 1.28 (77th); 13.9% (97th)
2017 - 38.6% (38th); 1.27 (109th); 16.4% (57th)
The bad news, at least last year, is that we didn't wreak quite enough havoc to make that aggressiveness worth it. We simply gave up so many big plays that they mitigated the bad situations we were able to put teams in, and worse, when we gave up big plays, we gave up BIG plays (15 50+ yarders allowed, only four teams conceded more nationally). Our havoc production was particularly poor along the defensive line, which accounted for just 48% of our sacks and 30% of our TFL last year. Now I realize that our defense isn't necessarily set up for lineman to post huge numbers, and that 2017 was always going to be difficult due to consecutive years of high personnel turnover, but now that we appear to have a bit of talent and continuity we need to get back to where we were in 2015 with that Nwachukwu, Brown, and Rose group. If we can be marginally more disruptive up front, it'll go a long way towards getting our Success Rate back down into the mid-30's and our Havoc Rate back up closer to 20, and ultimately towards our defense exceeding expectations this year.
Net Field Position
BFCToys.com defines Net Field Position as "the difference between the average starting field position for the team’s offensive possessions (OFP) and its opponent’s offensive possessions (DFP) measured in terms of yards from the end zone." I'm sure you'll be shocked to find that most of college football's best and most consistent teams were at the top of the 2017 NFP rankings, and even more shocked to find that we're nowhere to be found. And honestly, even "nowhere to be found" undersells just how bad we were - we finished at -5.6 (124th out of 128 nationally) and came off worse in 8 of our 12 games against D1 competition.
And unfortunately that's nothing new for us. In the Holgorsen era we've finished a season with a positive NFP just once (2016; seeing a recurring theme here?) and have finished the season ranked outside the top 100 in 4 out of 7 years. There are probably various things we could point to to try to explain that trend (bad hires, bad specialists, bad playcalling), but the fact of the matter is that if you're looking for somewhere to objectively criticize Holgs, look no further.
Fortunately though, that also means it's an area ripe for improvement, and even moving up from the basement to the middle of the pack would likely have a marked improvement on our record. Consider that BCFToys also has a tool that charts the average points per possession of all drives based on starting field position using data from 2007-2017, and that the difference between starting on your own 27 (our average starting position in 2017) and your own 33 (our opponents' average) is about 0.2 points per possession. That may not sound like much, but over the course of a 20-30 possession game it could mean a difference of 4-6 points on average, and that's before you factor in any other single variable. I'm not saying we have to suddenly turn into a team that wins the field position battle by 10 yards per game or else, but if we can at least break even there and stop digging ourselves that 4-6 point hole before our regular units even step on the field, it'll go a long way towards a memorable 2018.
Net Points Per Drive
If you're going to use one stat to compare teams in 2018, use this one. Simply put, NPD measures the difference between the number of points your offense scores every time it steps out on the field and the number of points your defense allows everytime they step out on the field, and there's not a better number out there for objectively evaluating two teams.
For reference, the best teams in the country generally have an NPD somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0, but honestly if you're anywhere over 1.0 you probably had a really good season. According to BCFToys.com, we finished 2017 at -0.18 (2.28 points scored per offensive drive, 2.46 points allowed per defensive drive). I'm not going to go too far into what we need to do to improve here because if we make the stated improvements in these other areas then this one should take care of itself, but if we're anywhere over 1.0 by the time December rolls around we're going to be very happy with the way our season is going.