Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, September 17, 2012 at 4:48 PM
Since it's still early in the season and we have a couple of non-football days ahead of us on Tuesday and Wednesday in terms of major college conferences or the NFL, we wanted to take a few minutes in the NOTEBOOK to review what we think to be the most important football statistics at the college and pro levels.
Tuesday we'll focus on college football. Wednesday, we'll do a few tweaks and talk about key stats in the NFL. Then, we jump right back into NOTEBOOK previews with the NY Giants/Carolina game on Thursday, showcase college games Friday and Saturday (a few good ones to choose from this week!) and then the prime time pro matchups Sunday and Monday.
If you're serious about handicapping football...meaning understanding the true REALITY of what's happening on the field right now in this sport, we suggest you start studying the following stats in game-by-game boxscores and full season tabulations.
OFFENSIVE PLAYS PER GAME
A few notable college teams have had great success by pushing tempo in a way that theoretically allows them to run more plays than their opponents (as long as their defenses can get some stops), so that's becoming the new copy-cat sensation in the sport. We strongly advise you to start paying attention to offensive plays per game (rushing plays plus pass attempts) so you can see who's REALLY gaining an advantage here...and which lesser teams are getting overpowered.
College football is always in flux. For awhile, variations of the spread offense took hold...earning "genius"labels for about a dozen coaches across the landscape. Soon defenses adjusted, and the head men in Purdue, Maryland, and elsewhere were exposed as one-trick ponies and couldn't keep their jobs. There are still variations of the spread that do some damage. Just remember that not every team has the talent to make this work. And, teams from mid major conferences are often in a unique handicapping spot where they can bully bad teams in their own leagues, but they get squashed when stepping up in class to face better defenses.
Looking at plays-per-game will help you get a read on what each team is trying to do, and how successful they are at doing it. We've decided to put this first on the list because there are still many misconceptions about fast break football held by the media and oddsmakers. You may money by exploiting those kinds of misperceptions.
Once you know how many plays teams are running, you want to know how much their gaining on a per-play basis. Some statheads consider this the single best number for evaluating college teams after you make an adjustment for strength of schedule. We can't argue with that. But, the market is now very aware of this stat after some handicappers made a killing with it a few years ago. It's not as potent as it used to be in terms of the market. We'd argue that using it in tandem with plays per game makes it more potent.
And, it's VITAL that you understand what's happening with this stat on DEFENSE. Defense is still what matters most in this sport in terms of winning championships. Looking at total yardage allowed used to do the job by itself. But, now that there are so many varied approaches to clock management...you must switch to a per-play analysis on defense. It's possible to have a bad defense that allows 350 yards per game if you're playing in a plodding, slow league. It's possible to have a good defense that allows 375 if you're playing in a conference that loves fast break football. The per-play numbers tell you what you need to know.
RUSHING YARDS PER GAME AND PER CARRY
The media loves to focus on quarterbacks and the passing game in this sport. Things aren't as extreme as in the NFL in this regard, because fewer viewers play fantasy football with college players! Still, rushing yardage gets pushed by the wayside too often. You will find if you study the matter that rushing yards gained per carry and per game still have a very strong correlation to winning. If you can move the ball on the ground, there's no reason to risk interceptions, sacks, holding penalties, and injuries to your quarterback by throwing all the time. You can simply pound away....gain yards...run the clock...and grind out comfortable wins.
We've seen too many public bettors and handicappers fall in love with pure scoring volume. If they see 40-50 points on the scoreboard and 500 total yards in the boxscore, they assume an offense must be awesome. Well, Alabama doesn't play like that. Part of an offense's job is to keep the other team off the field. Teams who can't run can't do that because they stumble into bad stretches with turnovers or incomplete passes and the game gets away from them. Many old school handicappers still do well in this sport because they've always emphasized rushing stats and they never stopped working!
This may strike you as odd...because sports fans are used to counting up things that did happen rather than things that didn't. If you see that a quarterback passed for 350 yards, you don't think about what it took to get there. Well, something like 20-30-0-350 is fantastic, while something like 28-55-3-350 obviously isn't. One quarterback was very efficient, only throwing 10 incomplete passes within an aggressive gameplan. The other threw 27 incomplete passes (and 3 picks!) desperately trying to make things happen within a one-dimensional or desperation gameplan. (Also, one gained 11.7 yards per pass play while the other only gained 6.4 yards per pass play)
Focusing on passing yardage will have you investing in losing quarterbacks. Focusing on sharpness will have you investing in productive quarterbacks on winning teams. On one hand, we wish places like ESPN would pay more attention to this so they'd stop hyping mid major quarterbacks posting false yardage on weak teams. On the other hand, it's easier to pick winners if Vegas isn't adjusting for efficiency!
With defenses, you definitely don't want to back teams who allow opposing quarterbacks to play efficiently. You want disruptive defenses who cause incomplete passes and turnovers.
We're constantly amazed by how many people think that turnovers are just random in the sport of football. What's going to happen on any individual play certainly has luck involved. But, over time, low risk teams who move the ball on the ground and pass efficiently don't make many turnovers. High risk teams who are constantly passing the ball DO make a lot of turnovers. That's not random, that's logic played out in front of your own eyes.
From the defensive perspective, physical teams with a good pass rush will force more turnovers, while passive teams who stay back in a "prevent"and just tackle whoever catches the ball won't force many.
If you've been in the handicapping field for any length of time, you've seen those stories talking about the strong correlation between turnovers and ATS success. Well, if turnovers are reasonably predictable, then it only follows that you'll enjoy ATS success by being smart about trying to predict them! PLEASE stop thinking that turnovers are random...or that "you can't handicap turnovers."You can make very reasonable estimates that will win a lot more than they lose over a large sampling.
THIRD DOWN CONVERSIONS
This is always a great stat for evaluating head coaches, offenses, and quarterbacks. It's not quite as important at the college level because there are more big plays that result from talent mismatches. When a powerhouse is laying 28 points or more to a relative creampuff, it's not the end of the world if they don't have a great third down rate. They probably scored on a few big passing plays, a few long runs, and maybe even a special teams play.
But, when relatively even teams are playing each other...then this IS a very important stat that typically tells you who the better team is. We strongly suggest you evaluate each performances in this stat by every offense and defense (particularly vs. competitive opposition) so you can have insight into what's going to happen in future challenge games. Pretenders are EXPOSED in this stat year after year.
On defense, you'll find that teams playing a "prevent"are horrible at stopping opponents on third downs...and it's the main reason they get pushed around so much.
There are no college games for a couple of days...and we don't have another busy college schedule until Saturday. Midweek is the PERFECT time for YOU to catch up on what's happened in these stats through the first three weeks of college action...and for you to map out plans for tracking these stats in games that are played from this point forward. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, you'll be very pleased with the results in the coming weeks.
If this seems like too much work for you, well...rest assured...the statheads at JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK are already doing the work and have been for years! You can sign up for seasonal packages at great rates right now online. Or, call the office at 1-800-323-4453.
Back with you tomorrow to talk about key stats in the pro's...including some discussion on how some of these stats are important in the NFL but for slightly different reasons. There aren't any football games on TV Tuesday or Wednesday Night to distract you. GET TO WORK or lock in for the full season at JIM HURLEY'S NETWORK!