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A different top 25: The best of the offseason at Football Study Hall

With the 2013 season upon us (!!), I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the best Study Hall posts from the offseason. I want to thank SBN for investing in Study Hall and allowing me to bring in some lovely authors to help build this site, and I've gotta say ... there are some simply phenomenal posts below. I'd forgotten about some of them.

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Kevin C. Cox

February 14: The No-Back Formation: College football's curveball

Bill C.

February 19: An Advanced College Football Stats Glossary

Bill C.

Adj. TO Margin: What a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles, dropped interceptions, or other unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

February 22: Leach v. Holgorsen: A look back

Mike Nixon

This season, we charted seven on Washington State’s games and eight of West Virginia’s games. If you include sacks as pass play calls, Washington State called pass plays on nearly 80% of the plays charted. West Virginia only called passes about 55% of the time. The refusal to run the ball, or even threatening to run the ball, caused a ripple effect of negativity throughout the Cougars’ offense.

As seen in the chart below, the threat of the run forced Mountaineers’ opponents to bring four rushers and drop seven defenders in coverage the majority of the time in order to maintain soundness against the run. This opened up passing lanes for Smith to exploit. In contrast, Cougars’ opponents relied much more heavily on a three-man rush with eight defenders in coverage because there was a little threat of the ground attack hurting them. The additional defender in coverage, often times dropped into the low hole, wreaked havoc on Washington State’s short crossing game, which is traditionally a staple of Leach’s Air Raid offense.

February 28: Quarterbacks and the passes they throw

Bill C.

That Teddy Bridgewater is awesome and Andrew Maxwell very much is not ... this is not a surprise. But seriously, what do we make of Collin Klein at this point? He isn't the quickest decision maker, he doesn't have a quick release, and he takes a lot of sacks in the pocket; but he is unafraid to step into the pocket and make throws, and ... he completes passes. With all applicable context involved (yes, defenses were more concerned with the run than the pass against Kansas State, and yes, this sample features some bad defenses like West Virginia's), Klein completed passes at a really high rate, and he did so without an Amari Cooper or Marqise Lee. And, of course, we know he can run the zone read that NFL offenses are finally discovering.

Another fun aspect of this list: look at the bunching. Manuel, McCarron, Florence, Mariota, Manziel, Smith and Jones are all within two percent of each other, and then there is a bit of a cascade down toward the middle, where Barkley, Ash, Mannion, Murray, Nassib, Mettenberger, Doege and Hundley are also bunched together.

March 13: The effect of pressure

Mike Nixon

Football is essentially a chess match where each side of the ball is trying its best to disguise its intentions. Neither the offense nor the defense wants to play in a reactionary fashion. It is each unit's goal to make the opposition play on its heels once the ball is snapped.

Obviously, offenses are at an extreme advantage in this respect. Being the ones with the ball and the one determining when the ball is snapped, offenses can dictate much more of the game. Some offenses hurry things up. Some huddle up. Some hurry-up, check with their coaches, have a mini-huddle, then rush the snap to beat the play clock. Every strategy is meant to put the respective offense in the most advantageous position as possible. So what can defenses do to take back some of this advantage? Well, they can blitz.

When defenses bring additional pressure, it is the offense that must react. Whether it is an adjustment in the type of play call, the protection, or just a simple alteration in a route, bringing blitzers forces offenses to into a reactionary position. The tables are somewhat turned.

In the charting from this past college football season, there were a total of 1,690 pass attempts in which a defense brought five rushers, and 325 plays when a defense brought six rushers (most base defensive schemes bring just four rushers). It should be noted that it is often difficult to tell the difference between five- and six-man pressure if a defense is playing an aggressive man-to-man coverage behind it. Many teams will Green Dog, or blitz to engage, a linebacker who is covering a running back or tight end who stays into block. As covered in that piece, when this happens, the man in coverage essentially blitzes and the five-man rush quickly turns into a six-man rush. For charting purposes, we simply did the best we could to distinguish the number of rushers.

April 9: The Big Shootout: The documentary of the 1969 Texas vs Arkansas game

C.J. Schexnayder

FbSH: How did the game affect both the programs afterward?

Looney: Both teams had a pretty darned good run through the late-1960s. Arkansas and Texas had the same amount of wins in the '60s (82), and only Alabama had more (84). But in the '70s both those schools became more ... mortal. It's hard to say what exactly caused that, but this was the high point for them both. Both Royal and Broyles stepped down the same year a few years later [1976].

It's not really generally known why Royal chose to quit. Royal was convinced he would not be able to recruit black athletes because of negative recruiting. He resigned with the understanding [longtime assistant] Mike Campbell was going to get the job, and then, when they gave the job to Freddy Akers, he said, "Hell, I wouldn't have quit if I knew they weren't going to give you [Campbell] the job."

FbSH: What about for Arkansas?

Looney: One of the thing I was really struck with making this film was how the "agony of defeat" was so much more powerful than "the thrill of victory." It was a huge wound for them and for Broyles. It caused a rift between Broyles and his players. Several of the the [Arkansas] players say that that game was so devastating that it taught them how to handle adversity for the rest of their life. And this thing had an incredible impact on the people of Arkansas. And we hope this film can help some with the healing because the wound is still there for many of them.

April 10: 2013 NFL Draft profiles: Tavon Austin

Nickel Rover

Conversely, what are the defining features of a running back? Primarily, his skill with the ball already in his hands. Most plays that feature the running back don't require a great deal of effort to get the ball into his hands. Instead, they focus on setting him up for success after the delivery has been made.

The innovation of the spread is that, more than setting up the ball-carrier with running lanes created by blocks, they set him up with space in which to operate. Spreading out the defense helps an offense pinpoint where the defense is poorly aligned or leveraged and susceptible to being flanked or over-stressed. In particular, the spread really challenges the edge where corners have to balance the responsibility to prevent deep passing plays with the almost contradictory responsibility for not allowing someone like Austin to make an easy catch and run.

In adherence with Mike Leach's guiding wisdom of "throwing it short to people who can score," up to November 17th Holgorsen had utilized Austin mostly with screen passes, shallow crossing routes, sweeps, and other short passes that could easily be completed and caught. From there, Austin would put his real skill to work.

May 2: Jarvis Jones and the Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker tradition

Nickel Rover

That extra instant caused by the pump fake is all that Jarvis Jones needs to blow inside past the running back and slam into McCarron from behind, leading him to drop the ball.

Even with extra protection and future NFL tackles like Fluker and Cyrus Kouandjio, Alabama was unable to protect McCarron from Jarvis Jones in this game, and he had two sacks. Fortunately for Nick Saban, the middle of the Georgia defense could not withstand the Warmack-Jones blocking duo, and Alabama ran up the middle all night long en route to their tight victory.

As a perimeter run defender, Jones also demonstrated elite athleticism and play-making skill over the course of the year and accumulated 24.5 tackles for loss. Against Florida, whom Jones absolutely decimated, he found himself in a situation he will frequently face in Pittsburgh.

May 7: Best College Football Books: Football Study Hall Staff Recommendations

C.J. Schexnayder

They weighed the value of field position. They took a different approach to determining football's greatest quarterbacks, running backs and receivers. They mocked the "you have to establish the run in order to pass" truism. They tracked how the game of football had become what it was in 1988. And they did so with personality. There is not a single dry sentence among the 400 pages or so of words and numbers.

I don't agree with every word, but that's not really the point. And in looking for the quotes above, I stumbled across a couple of things I'd forgotten, things that made me think "Huh, I wasn't thinking of it like that." Chances are, The Hidden Game will do the same for you.

May 22: How the hell do you stop Baylor? Part I: What are they doing?

Nickel Rover

Defenses have to make choices with their alignments against Baylor. Are you going to maintain a normal six-man box to stop the Baylor run game and give up screen passes to the outside, or will you widen out your linebackers to stop the screens and hope they can get back inside to stop Baylor's run game?

In the image above you can see that Oklahoma has a five-man box with their outside linebackers out wide to match the Baylor splits and their safeties deep to prevent scores. Baylor ran for 252 yards in that game.

May 23: How the hell do you stop Baylor? Part II: The defensive gameplan

Nickel Rover

Nearly all of the Big 12 is utilizing either the 4-3 defense with nickel personnel, or the more permanently nickel-based 4-2-5 of Gary Patterson and the TCU Horned Frogs. The more successful efforts in 2012 were those initiated by Oklahoma, Iowa State, and TCU, who all fit that description.

The latter two teams played mostly 4-2 personnel, while Oklahoma followed Mike Stoops' overall gameplan for the 2012 season of using Dime personnel against four-WR formations in order to feature the necessary athleticism and cover skills to avoid being lit up by spread passing games.

TCU and Iowa State placed a lot more trust in their linebackers and were thus able to achieve the essential goal of stopping the Baylor running game. In the four games over the last two years in which Baylor was held below 30 points, they were held below four yards per carry in each contest. If you can avoid being gashed by the Bears' run game, their explosive play-action strikes become considerably less dangerous. It's also more difficult to complete accurate screen passes than it is to hand the ball to a back.

However, if you're going to leave your linebackers on the field to try and stop Baylor, you'll have to help them out a lot with your alignments.

June 25: The effects of the 2012 NCAA Kickoff Rule change


The main effect of the rule change is definitely the touchback frequency, the spike at your own 25 yard line is huge. But other than that, there have only been small shifts in kickoff returns. In total the new kickoff rule changes moved the receiving team back by about an extra yard and a half per drive on average. Teams used to start the drive with about 72 yards to go, and teams now start their drives with 73.5 yards to go, on average. We actually could have calculated this without using any data on returns whatsoever. If we assume that 35% of kickoffs in 2012 were going to get the 5 yard boost from the new touchback spot, our average start spot would increase, in favor of the offense, by 1.75 yards (.35*5). If we assume that the other kickoffs that were returned had a 5 yard penalty from the new kickoff spot, that would hurt the offense by 3.25 yards (.65*5). Adding these together and we get a difference of 1.5 yards in favor of the kicking team, and this is exactly what we see empirically. The change, or lack there of, in return length had no affect on the average start spot of a drive. It was entirely driven by the change in kickoff spot and touchback spot. What do you guys think? Any other changes that might have occurred that I missed? Put them in the comments.

June 28: Caution: The problem with Yards Per Point as a football efficiency metric


t's also useful when a metric can isolate a unit on the field, like offense, defense and special teams. However, Yards Per Point does not do this well.

For offensive Yards Per Point, defense and special teams play a crucial role in this metric. First, these units can score points. These scores lower Yards Per Point since no offensive yards are gained on these scoring plays. This assumes that return yards are not included in Yards Per Point, the method Chou used in his talk.

Second, the defense and special teams affect field position. The 2012 Kansas State team is a great example of how special team can enhance an offense's Yards Per Point. They ranked first and second in kickoff and punt returns. Their average of almost 30 yards on kickoff returns makes the offense look good by Yards Per Point.

For Yards Per Point on defense, the offense and special teams also play a role through turnovers, touchdowns allowed and field position.

July 3: The run game renaissance and the return of the fullback

Nickel Rover

The necessary leverage technique, strength, and willingness to line up across from a defensive end such as one can find in the game today, is difficult enough to find. Pairing it with competence, much less skill, as a receiver is even harder. Many teams have built their offenses around such players but several more have been totally unable to find and develop these gems. Oklahoma has vacillated between having elite tight ends and being unable to find one worthy of taking the field from year to year.

The position of fullback, or halfback, is an entirely different story. Typically shorter than 6-2, slower than 4.5 in the 40, and possessing more in the way of grit and power than quicks in the open field, these players are far more readily available in the high school ranks. In the Pistol, this player lines up in the backfield and has a great deal of schematic freedom about where they'll be used as a blocker.

In the "Diamond formation," invented by Dana Holgorsen for the 2010 Oklahoma State Cowboys and quickly stolen by the Land Thieves from Norman (much like the wishbone in the past), presents a defense with a multiplicity of options to defend.

July 8: Introducing Similarity Rankings


Here's where I would like to go with this project: we could have looked at this list prior to the Fiesta Bowl, when K-State was matched up with Oregon's up-tempo offense. We could have looked at how teams similar to K-State did against teams similar to Oregon. I'm interested to see what we can learn from that type of analysis.

Finally, here's where K-State and their peer group compares to BCS title winners:


Generally speaking, this group of teams is very good, but not quite good enough to win a national championship.

July 10: Prospect Theory and football (Part 1)


What better place to start an article on Prospect Theory than on first down? The success or failure of a first-down attempt does, in large part, determine the play-calling for the rest of the drive. If a play called on first down succeeds, coaches have the opportunity to further disguise second- and third-down play calling because the offense has a shorter distance to go to attain a new set of downs. Should a play called on first down fail, or, worse, result in negative yards, the offense must play from behind schedule, which makes the threat of a pass increasingly likely and therefore easier for defenses to scheme against.

When coaches weigh the potential positives and negatives of their first down play-calling, we see that they choose running nearly three out of every five times. So even though passing has a higher yards-per-attempt average (7.8) than running (5.2), coaches are electing to run rather than pass. For the most part, coaches determine that even a few yards of forward progress are better than risking a sack, an interception or an incomplete pass.

July 11: Prospect Theory and football (Part 2): An example of risk aversion in offensive play calling


Kiffin made his decision to run the ball by determining passing to be risky, right? But why? And was it actually safer to keep the ball on the ground? Though open to interpretation and highly subjective, we can examine this scenario given some undeniable facts.

First, USC was having minimal success running the ball that night, though the Trojans were sill averaging more yards per down than needed for the score.

Second, for the past two years, USC has been, without a doubt, a pass-first offense led by Matt Barkley and Robert Woods, and even with Barkley sidelined by injury, USC’s offense performed admirably to that point, putting up 186 yards passing.

Finally, even with a relatively green quarterback, USC still had two of the most dynamic receivers in the country.

July 31: Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories is now for sale

Bill C.

August 8: The value of an elite cornerback

Nickel Rover

Jason Verrett is the best corner in TCU's loaded secondary and possibly the best corner in the Big 12 (Aaron Colvin and Carrington Byndom are preparing opening arguments) and his versatility is a sterling example of what college defenses are looking for in their best corners.

He begans the play in a press coverage alignment so as to dissuade Michigan St. from hitting them with a quick hitting pass play, but he drops back before the snap indicating that the safety behind him is the boundary defensive back with run stopping responsibilities while Verrett is in charge of job #1 for a great corner: handling the deep sideline without assistance on vertical routes.

As it happens, Michigan St's inside run sucks the safety (Hackett) inside and unable to stop Bell from bouncing outside for a potentially big gain. Verrett plays the role of a Cover-2 safety in responding to the run and making a tackle for a minimal gain. Because he's good enough in coverage to play the sideline without bailing into a deep alignment immediately, and because his reaction time and speed are both good, Verrett makes this play much closer to the line of scrimmage than your average Cover-2 safety lined up 15 yards off the ball.

August 16: Comparing advanced college football stats to traditional stats: Defense edition


When Oklahoma State was left out of the BCS title game in favor of Alabama, their weak defense was often brought up as a reason for voters to choose Bama. As someone who watched every Oklahoma State game that season, I would testify that Alabama's defense was unquestionably better than Oklahoma State's. Still, the Cowboys were victimized by traditional stats in a way -- I listened to several national commentators talk about Oklahoma State's terrible defense. By the way, according to F/+ the 2011 Bama defense is the best of any unit from 2005 to 2012. I don't have an issue with Bama playing for the title that season, by the way. Oklahoma State's loss to Iowa State was inexcusable for a national title contender.

Okay, I'm done with my therapy session. One more comment about Oklahoma State. In the last three seasons the Cowboys have had an excellent or decent defense according to F/+ (#18, #4, #24) but a terrible or mediocre defense according to total defense (#88, #107, #80). Defensive coordinator Bill Young oversaw all three of those units, and he was shown the door in the offseason. Another victim of traditional stats?

August 16: Final Takes: Quantifying the Clowney Curve

Matt Hinton

To grasp how that's possible – how a junior defensive end can not only threaten the transcend the traditional offensive stranglehold on the award, but actually be expected to – the first thing to understand is that it has virtually nothing to do with numbers.

It also has nothing to do with his background, charisma, media savvy or reputed good works. The argument is strictly visceral: More than any other candidate in history, Clowney's campaign is built on the sheer physical absurdity of his presence cementing his status as a kind of contemporary, dreadlocked Paul Bunyan. In a little less than two years on campus, reactions to his seemingly limitless physical prowess have begun to outstrip the available vocabulary – lazy, worn-out superlatives like "freak" and "stud" are woefully inadequate – and approach the early stages of legend. Here is an athlete of such terrifying size, speed and power that even before he reached campus, there were rumors of NFL coaches drooling over film of Clowney as a 6-foot-6, 17-year-old high school senior. Here is a man – still only barely a man – capable of such sudden, explosive force that it cannot be understood within the context of recreational violence.


August 19: Apparent Talent, Team Quality and Coaching Effects


Yeah, but Other than Proving the Sky is Blue, What Good is This?

This is the part that is really interesting. While this model has some predictive power, it is still very simple and crude and probably not something I would want to use to say…put futures bets down on teams at a Vegas sports book. For instance, it isn’t as predictive as a simple naïve forecast that a team would have the exact same F/+ rating in a given season as it had in the previous one. And how could it be? That sort of naïve forecast has the advantage of capturing much of the same talent information (since the 4 year average recruiting ratings don’t move that much in a single year), while also capturing a whole host of other factors…like how those players are actually doing playing the game of football.

But the fact this model doesn’t capture those things actually makes it pretty useful for other purposes. Consider this simple conceptual model of team quality:

Team Quality (F/+Rating) = Apparent Talent + Coaching Effect + "Noise"

August 22: Final Takes: Making sense of Taylor Martinez

Matt Hinton

The result is a kind of cognitive dissonance over Martinez that doesn't exist over any other current quarterback with such an extensive body of work. The guy who ties defenses into knots with his speed and vision in the option game is the same guy who consistently struggles to stretch Big Ten secondaries with his arm. The guy who punched his "clutch" card last year in come-from-behind wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Northwestern – the latter two on the road – is the same guy who served up a game-killing pick in the fourth quarter at UCLA, and committed multiple turnovers before halftime in each of the three biggest games of the season, double-digit defeats by Ohio State in October, Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game and Georgia in the Capital One Bowl. The offense that scored at least 30 points in all four losses is the same offense that contributed to opponents racking up 52 points off turnovers in those four games. At any given moment Martinez is the most heart-stopping player on the field, for both sides.

At this stage in his career – fifth-year senior, fourth-year starter – there is not much precedent for a great leap forward, especially for a guy who a) Has never been considered a blue-chip, NFL-bound talent in terms of his arm, and b) Has already logged two full seasons under the current offensive coaching staff. With a few exceptions, young quarterbacks tend to find their level relatively quickly, and more or less remain on that level for the rest of their careers. The question is, just how great of a leap from its quarterback does Nebraska need? Since his coming-out party in 2010, Martinez has settled into a reckless, boom-and-bust pattern that has undermined both his own outsized production and his team's chances of snapping a 12-year drought since its last conference championship. But the basic production is there: Resolving the ball-security/turnover issues would close most of the gap between the Huskers and the top of the Big Ten by itself. From there, even a modest step forward from the defense in big games would take care of the rest.

August 23: College football, Week 1: How can TCU beat LSU?

Nickel Rover

Despite LSU's own great success utilizing 4-2-5 alignments in the SEC, there will undoubtedly be much talk about how talented running back Jeremy Hill, 272-pound wrecking-ball fullback J.C. Copeland, and an LSU line that averages 6'5, 321 pounds across the board will be moving downhill all night against the Frogs.

In answering this assumption, let's start by talking about the fifth defensive back in the nickel defense, strong safety Sam Carter. The strong safety position in the Frog defense is similar to the role played by Mathieu in LSU's schemes, except Carter is 6'1, 215 pounds. He finished 2012 with 63 tackles, three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and four interceptions. Equally skilled in coverage, run defense, and blitzing, Carter is not likely to be a weak spot for the Frog defense.

Next, it's worth mentioning that the TCU defensive line, which despite missing potential All-American weakside end Devonte Fields, is one of the stronger units Patterson has had in Fort Worth. In particular, nose tackle Chucky Hunter will present difficulties for the Tiger run game with his squatty 6'1, 300-pound frame and quickness off the ball. For massively tall linemen like the ones LSU fields, it can be immensely difficult to latch on to and root out shorter and quicker defensive linemen on inside runs.

The design of TCU's 2-deep base coverages is a perfect blend of "bend don't break" principles geared towards keeping receivers in front of defensive backs while actively involving TCU's defensive backs against the run game. "Spill it and kill it" is the name of the game for the defensive front, which relies on linemen and linebackers aggressively plugging interior gaps and spilling runners outside, where the presence of five well-leveraged and quick defensive backs means quick pursuit.

August 23: Turnover Margin vs. Winning Percentage



It's not shocking to see that on average, a higher per-game turnover margin leads to more wins. The relationship is somewhat strong, but obviously there are many other factors that go into winning percentage. The R squared (coefficient of determination) for the trendline shown in the chart is 37%, meaning that turnovers "explain" 37% of the win total data in this model.