This week's Varsity Numbers is up at Football Outsiders. It discusses a team that has cracked both the S&P+ and FEI codes early in the season: Arizona.
Field position has been Arizona's friend
Against UNLV, the Wildcats' average starting field position was their 44-yard line; UNLV's was the 25. Against UTSA, it was 35 for Arizona, 23 for the Roadrunners. As I discuss in my book Study Hall, the hidden yardage value in field position is enormous. Not only did Arizona out gain UNLV by 196 yards and UTSA by by 43, but they derived 400 yards' worth of extra advantages in those two games based simply on where they and their opponents began their drives. UNLV and UTSA combined to begin one drive beyond their own 40-yard line. It's hard to score consistently when you're always facing a 60-, 70-, or 80-yard field.
As long as it's not based solely on turnovers, a field position advantage is typically rather sustainable overall. Thus far, punter Drew Riggleman has yet to allow a return in nine punts, with three fair catches, five punts downed inside the 20, and just one touchback. Arizona's offense is consistently generating at least a first down or two, and Riggleman is preventing opposing punt returners from getting any opportunities. Meanwhile, 14 of Jake Smith's 24 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, and eight opponent returns have averaged just 19.0 yards. These stats probably aren't maintainable to this degree, but they're a sign of a strong special teams unit overall.
Defense helps, too
Arizona's defense ranked just 68th in Def. F/+ last season, and while the Wildcats haven't played any great offenses yet, early signs have been encouraging. They still don't have a pass rush (sacks in non-garbage time: 1), and that will eventually cost them, but the run defense has been stellar, and at the very least UTSA has shown solid potential on the ground. In terms of raw, unadjusted advanced stats, Arizona currently ranks eighth in Success Rate, ninth in Points Per Play, sixth in Rushing S&P, 18th in Passing S&P, sixth on standard downs and 24th on passing downs. In terms of raw drive efficiency, Arizona ranks first so far.
Again, this will change when Arizona begins playing real offenses (and in the Pac-12, there are plenty of "real" offenses, beginning with Washington's power-and-counter-attacks unit on Saturday). It bears mentioning that in opponent-adjusted overall Def. S&P+, Arizona currently ranks 15th, but the Wildcats probably aren't going to rank in the Def. F/+ top 10 at the end of the season. Still, they were a top-40 team last year with a defense that was mediocre at best. If the second season in Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 produces even a decent-to-good defense, Arizona's ceiling gets pretty high, pretty quickly, because we know a Rodriguez offense is almost always going to be good.