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Advanced stats prove what we already knew: Kyle Whittingham is a special teams master

So is Jimbo Fisher.

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Northwestern vs Utah Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Three years ago, when I introduced how I was going to go about creating a Special Teams S&P+, I used a Florida State picture as the header photo. Later that offseason, when I have honed my process a bit better, I posted about it and used a Utah photo.

Those remain some pretty strong photo choices, I must say. Now that I have finally gotten around to calculating Special Teams S&P+ back to 2006, I can say that Jimbo Fisher (who coached FSU until 2018) and Kyle Whittingham (still at Utah) are the two best head coaches in the country when it comes to the specialty units.

Here’s a quick review of how I grade special teams efficiency. There is massive emphasis on the word efficiency.

  • Kickoffs: Any kickoff that results in the opposition starting at its 25 or further back is deemed a ‘successful’ kick.
  • Kick Returns: Any kick return that gets the ball beyond the 25 is deemed a successful return.
  • Punts: Same idea as with kickoffs, only with a moving target based on field position. Based on historical averages, each yard line is assigned a target net value — 32.7 if you’re punting from your 1, for instance, 27.6 if you’re punting from the opponent’s 40, and up to about 37 or 38 in between. If your punt results in net yardage higher than that, it’s a successful punt.
  • Punt Return: Same as kickoff returns — if it prevents a successful punt, it’s a successful return.
  • FGs: Also based on historical averages, each yard of FG distance is given a Net Expected Points figure. An 18-yard FG is worth 2.92 points (97% accuracy * 3 points), for instance, a 55-yarder is worth 0.95 points, etc. If you make the field goal, your net value is 3 points minus the expected value (so, +2.05 if you make a 55-yarder or +0.08 if you make an 18-yarder.) If you miss, it’s 0 points minus the expected value (minus-2.92 for missing an 18-yarder, minus-0.95 for the 55er). Average those net values together, and voila: average FG value.

You’ll notice that with kickoffs and punts, there is no added value to a long return. Either the kick is successful or it isn’t. I keep assuming there’s a way to build explosiveness into this, but I haven’t found a way that makes Special Teams S&P+ (and, therefore, S&P+ as a whole) more predictive, so I haven’t incorporated it yet. This is completely and totally about efficiency.

This makes sense if you think about it. As I write basically every time I write about special teams, special teams is the ultimate small-sample exercise. If you return the first kick of the season for a touchdown, you’re going to rank at or near the top of the kick returns list for a while even if every return thereafter results in you getting tackled at the 19. Looking merely at 1s (success!) and 0s (non-success!) gives us something more replicable to follow.

Based on what’s most sustainable, place-kicking carries the most weight in the Special Teams S&P+ formula, followed by punting, kickoffs, and, far behind, returns.

I’m using some time in January to redesign S&P+ as a whole, and one of those steps will be working these special teams numbers into the overall ratings. (As you might have seen at FO, ST S&P+ ratings are only found going back to 2014.) But I still wanted to share some data and some insights, so for now I’m including them in another wonderful, clunky-as-hell Google doc.

Now for the fun part: LISTS.

First, you’ll find a second tab in that Google file that ranks coaches (min. 3 years as head coach between 2006-18) by their average Special Teams S&P+ percentile rating. Here are the top 20. Active FBS head coaches are bolded.

  1. Kyle Whittingham (13 years, 89.8% average)
  2. Jimbo Fisher (9 years, 89.8%)
  3. Ron Prince (3 years, 85.6%)
  4. Seth Littrell (3 years, 83.8%)
  5. Bo Pelini (7 years, 82.6%)
  6. Mike Norvell (3 years, 81.4%)
  7. Jim Tressel (5 years, 80.8%)
  8. Rick Neuheisel (4 years, 80.3%)
  9. Bobby Bowden (4 years, 79.6%)
  10. David Shaw (8 years, 77.4%)
  11. Bill Snyder (10 years, 77.2%)
  12. Mack Brown (8 years, 76.7%)
  13. Gary Patterson (13 years, 76.6%)
  14. Greg Robinson (3 years, 76.2%)
  15. Bob Stoops (11 years, 76.1%)
  16. Les Miles (11 years, 76.0%)
  17. Justin Fuente (7 years, 74.9%)
  18. Dave Wannstedt (5 years, 74.0%)
  19. Pete Lembo (5 years, 73.0%)
  20. Lovie Smith (3 years, 72.9%)

And now, the other side of the coin: the bottom 10.

244. Lance Leipold (4 years, 4.4%)
243. Hal Mumme (3 years, 8.6%)
242. Mark Whipple (5 years, 8.7%)
241. Jeff Monken (5 years, 10.0%)
240. Bob Toledo (5 years, 11.2%)
239. Everett Withers (4 years, 13.4%)
238. Doug Martin (11 years, 15.7%)
237. Jeff Quinn (5 years, 16.0%)
236. Turner Gill (7 years, 16.0%)
235. Sylvester Croom (3 years, 16.4%)

The lesson I get from that list: coaching special teams at Buffalo is really, really hard — either Leipold, Quinn, or Gill has been HC at UB since 2006. And they’re all in the bottom 10. (Gill didn’t help himself by ranking 129th with Liberty in 2018.)

10 best punt success rates (2006-18):

  1. 2016 Utah (87.5%)
  2. 2018 Cincinnati (84.7%)
  3. 2016 Oklahoma State (84.2%)
  4. 2018 Texas A&M (84.0%)
  5. 2016 Ohio State (83.9%)
  6. 2017 Texas (82.1%)
  7. 2015 Utah (82.0%)
  8. 2014 Utah (81.3%)
  9. 2018 Auburn (80.7%)
  10. 2018 Ohio State (80.6%)

Three Whittingham teams, two Urban Meyers, and one Michael Dickson team (2017 Texas).

NCAA Football: Arizona at Utah
Utah’s Mitch Wishnowsky
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

10 best kickoff success rates (2006-18):

  1. 2016 Virginia Tech (96.8%)
  2. 2018 LSU (96.2%)
  3. 2018 Rice (96.1%)
  4. 2017 Virginia Tech (96.0%)
  5. 2011 Utah (95.6%)
  6. 2011 WMU (95.3%)
  7. 2018 UAB (95.0%)
  8. 2014 UCLA (95.0%)
  9. 2018 Auburn (94.9%)
  10. 2017 Georgia (94.8%)

Two Virginia Tech teams? Beamerball! Oh wait, both were led by Justin Fuente...

10 best punt return success rates (2006-18):

  1. 2017 Akron (100.0%)
  2. 2012 Tulane (92.3%)
  3. 2009 Minnesota (90.0%)
  4. 2008 Buffalo (90.0%)
  5. 2006 Army (88.9%)
  6. 2006 UCF (88.9%)
  7. 2017 Navy (87.5%)
  8. 2010 Tulsa (87.5%)
  9. 2009 Navy (87.5%)

Granted, efficient punt returns only matter if you’re forcing punts...

10 best kick return success rates (2006-18):

  1. 2012 Kansas State (84.2%)
  2. 2014 Marshall (79.6%)
  3. 2012 Kent State (79.2%)
  4. 2018 Alabama (77.3%)
  5. 2016 Navy (77.1%)
  6. 2006 Maryland (77.1%)
  7. 2017 Memphis (75.0%)
  8. 2015 Tennessee (74.1%)
  9. 2008 North Carolina (74.0%)
  10. 2018 Iowa (73.3%)

And here’s one you don’t want to have to prove your worth at too much (because you don’t want too many kick returns)...

10 best average FG values (2006-18):

  1. 2012 Tulane (+1.03 points per kick)
  2. 2006 North Carolina (+0.93)
  3. 2016 Arizona State (+0.90)
  4. 2014 Maryland (+0.88)
  5. 2009 Fresno State (+0.84)
  6. 2010 Nebraska (+0.84)
  7. 2016 New Mexico (+0.81)
  8. 2008 Utah (+0.80)
  9. 2013 Boston College (+0.80)
  10. 2009 Georgia (+0.77)

In 2012, Tulane’s Cairo Santos went 20-for-20 on field goals ... but that’s not the whole story. TWELVE of them were from 40 yards or more. Damn.

Atlanta Falcons v Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cairo Santos is now with Tampa Bay
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

You can find all Special Teams S&P+ percentile ratings above, but sorting’s likely an issue there (again, working on better presentation), so here are the top 25 special teams units since 2006. 2018 teams are in bold.

  1. 2016 Memphis (99.3%)
  2. 2018 Utah (98.8%)
  3. 2009 Fresno State (98.7%)
  4. 2014 Texas A&M (98.6%)
  5. 2013 Memphis (98.6%)
  6. 2011 Florida State (98.5%)
  7. 2013 Ohio State (98.3%)
  8. 2012 Temple (98.3%)
  9. 2016 Florida (98.3%)
  10. 2018 Syracuse (98.2%)
  11. 2016 Stanford (98.1%)
  12. 2009 LSU (98.1%)
  13. 2014 Utah (98.0%)
  14. 2018 LSU (97.9%)
  15. 2012 Florida State (97.9%)
  16. 2017 Kansas State (97.9%)
  17. 2008 Florida State (97.8%)
  18. 2008 LSU (97.8%)
  19. 2017 Stanford (97.8%)
  20. 2017 Georgia (97.7%)
  21. 2015 Florida State (97.7%)
  22. 2014 UAB (97.6%)
  23. 2012 Oklahoma State (97.5%)
  24. 2014 Duke (97.5%)
  25. 2010 Oklahoma State (97.4%)

And of course, here are the bottom 10:

1612. 2014 Tulane (0.5%)
1611. 2006 Utah State (0.7%)
1610. 2007 Duke (0.8%)
1609. 2014 San Jose State (0.9%)
1608. 2011 Miami (Ohio) (0.9%)
1607. 2011 Army (0.9%)
1606. 2007 North Texas (0.9%)
1605. 2018 WMU (1.0%)
1604. 2018 Liberty (1.0%)
1603. 2012 BGSU (1.1%)

Anyway ... on with the S&P+ redesign. More to come.