Stats Aren't Helping
I wrote a post during the 2011 season - we were 6-1 and ranked #21 at the time (yes, Illinois football, ranked). I had developed all these fears that the 6-0 start was a mirage (and I wrote about it), and then I looked up a bunch of stats and felt even worse. So I wrote a post I called Nerdstats Aren't Helping to talk about how everything pointed towards a disastrous finish. We then lost the rest of our games. The stats were right.
I've now been in a funk since Saturday. Yes, we nearly won, and yes, that's a huge improvement over last year, but I've had that same "mirage" feeling. I hate that feeling - I could have found Illini positivity in the middle of the Slush Fund Scandal - but it's been hanging over me for 48 hours now. We're 2-1, the Big Ten West is a train wreck, meaning wins are available, and I'm... bummed?
So, like 2011, I turned to the stats. And, like 2011, they delivered brutal news. As in, so far we're basically Rutgers. Meaning that if we traveled to Kansas this weekend, we'd likely lose 55-14. I don't want that to be true, and my eyes don't tell me that true, but that's what the statistics say so far.
Most of the stats I follow are S&P+ stats from Bill Connelly. You can find all kinds of stats on his Google Docs page or on Football Outsiders. He'd tell you that it's still too early to look at season statistics, so that's not really where I'm going with this. We're currently "ranked" 99th nationally per the S&P+ statistics, but that ranking won't be very reliable until about halfway through the season. It's scary, but it's only three games so it's not fully reliable yet (see: LSU dropping nine spots after winning on the road at Auburn). Mostly, I just want to look at these first three games and our statistical performance on the field.
And he has a way of doing that: Postgame Win Expectancy. Meaning, if you played this game again, with the same statistics, what are the odds you'd win? Here's how he defines the statistic:
Presented in the team stat profiles, this makes the following statement: "Based on the key stats from this game -- success rate, big plays, field position components, turnovers, etc. -- you could have expected to win it X percent of the time." Luck and randomness play a major role in the game of football, and this is an attempt to look at just how random a given outcome may have been.
Our postgame win expectancy against Ohio State last year? 0%. There aren't enough crazy bounces in the world to overcome that kind of statistical domination. Our postgame win expectancy against Purdue in 2015? 100%. We dominated the game so thoroughly that no amount of luck could help Purdue win that game. Ke'Shawn Vaughn just ran for 75 more yards on Purdue as I was typing that.
The postgame win expectancy this year is... alarming. Against Kent State it was 92% - our domination in the second half was legit. Against Western Illinois it was, let's see here.... 49%.
~record scratches off~
49%? Meaning, statistically, Western Illinois should have won that game? Yes, statistically, with total yards being even + the field position Western had + their big play ability on offense, if we play that same game 100 times, they win 51 and we win 49.
South Florida? Now it gets really ugly: 4%. Meaning, we play THAT game 100 times - same yards, same big plays, same field position, same turnovers - South Florida wins 96 times. That "close" game we saw was us nearly getting once-every-25-games lucky.
I mean, one only had to look at the total yards (626-380) to realize how lucky we were that the game was close, but 4% is fairly stunning. That was a 51-20 South Florida win... that turned into 25-19 because of missed field goals, 15 USF penalties, and long drives for South Florida that ended in zero points time after time after time. They shot themselves in the foot so many times that they almost let us win.
That doesn't help my mood when trying to evaluate where we stand so far this season. You just can't count on teams to shoot themselves in the foot 23 times. You have to put up yards and make big plays (and you have to limit yards and prevent big plays) if you want to win consistently. And we're giving up 6.4 yards per play so far this season, which is 104th out of 130 teams. (We are putting up 5.4 YPP on offense, which isn't bad - 67th nationally.)
So while a game like Saturday might make you think the stats will love us (we hung close with a fringe top-25 team!), we actually dropped 22 spots in the S&P+ rankings because of all the frightening statistics. Which means that after three weeks, statistically, we're 64th out of 65 Power Five teams (with only Rutgers lower than us). That's... not good.
And we also dropped in the S&P+ Expected Wins chart. Connelly's system said last week that our expected win total was 4.9 (offense was better! defense wasn't bad! Big Ten opponents on the schedule are surprisingly weak!). After South Florida, that dropped to 4.0. Basically, that's the statistics saying "yeah, after what we saw South Florida do, this defense probably isn't going to stop anyone from moving the ball at will, so Illinois isn't going to win many games". Giving up 624 yards can just kill a statistical profile this early in the season. You'd need ridiculous turnover luck.
And, uh, we're been wildly lucky there so far. There's a stat called "Adjusted Turnover Margin". Here's the definition:
What a team's turnover margin would have been if it had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in its games, and if the INTs-to-PDs for both teams was equal to the national average, which is generally around 21-22 percent.
If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles, dropped interceptions, or other lucky/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 either in the next season or in the rest of the current one.
Our expected turnover margin based on those stats? -2.4, 114th in the country.
Our actual turnover margin? +5, 10th in the country.
What does that mean? We've been once-every-ten-years-or-so lucky. I've written about this stat so many times - it's random, and it has nothing to do with skill, and one year Alabama will be 117th and the next year 22nd just because it's an oblong ball that bounces weird - and we finally have a three game span where we're lucky as hell... and we didn't really capitalize (unless you consider Western Illinois as "capitalizing" given that the statistics suggest we should have lost).
Again - and I always emphasize this because it's a polarizing statistic - this is just luck. When Dawson DeGroot blocks a punt (great play) it's completely up to chance whether we get 2 points or 7 points. Completely, 100% on the shape of the ball. If it hits on the point, it probably bounces out of the endzone for a safety. If it hits on the fat part of the ball, it bounces into the air and softly falls in Stanley Green's hands. It's completely up to chance at that point. Remember Terry Hawthorne batting down the pass at Michigan that softly fell into the Michigan receiver's hands for a touchdown to send it to the next overtime? 4 times out of 5 that's an incompletion and Illinois wins. It just so happened that the point of the ball hit Hawthorne's hand a just the right angle. Total luck.
And we've been totally lucky so far. One of the luckiest teams in the country. And we kind of have nothing to show for it. Blurgh.
Shall I get to some good news? Statistically, the Big Ten West looks as bad as it does when using the eye test. Our 4.0 Expected Wins doesn't look the greatest, but here's the expected wins for the rest of the Big Ten:
Ohio State 10.8
Penn State 9.7
Michigan State 7.5
Again, it's still early, and Purdue's offensive performances suggest they'll win way more than 3 games (although that defense is a disaster). It's too early to be saying that these stats "mean" everything. Indiana might tumble. Nebraska might surge. There is a lot that needs to play out. But so far, the stats put us right at 4 wins (which, I think, is what many of us expected from Youngest Team In College Football - The Sequel.
So all is not lost. We need to acknowledge some things.
- We still don't have the suspended players back. We're putting up these (poor) statistics while shorthanded. Bennett Williams and Nate Hobbs will be a big boost to the defense. Lou Dorsey and Carmoni Green will be a big boost to the offense. Help is (hopefully) on the way.
- Injured players are hopefully returning soon. Like, you know, the starting quarterback (AJ Bush) and perhaps our best defensive lineman (Jamal Milan). That might improve our chances just a tiny bit. Take away South Florida's starting quarterback and best defensive linemen and I bet their statistics go down 10 spots in every category.
- The Big Ten West is awful-to-horrific. Has anyone mentioned that? Oh, it's all they're talking about on every college football show, radio, RV, and podcast? Good. Because the Big Ten West is awful-to-horrific.
- It's still a young team that will hopefully be significantly better in November than in September. We might not have an opponent who will shoot themselves in the foot like South Florida, but we might turn up the pressure and force some mistakes against, say, Nebraska in November.
- Special Teams stats so far: #4 in the country. The stats say what our eyes see: we probably have the best kicking/punting game in the country. That's the kind of thing that can win every close game. Please, defense, keep 'em close.
In that sense, this should be a statistical low point for the season. We get players back, we play 3-expected-wins Nebraska instead of 9-expected-wins South Florida, and we start moving up in all these categories. I'm still clinging to November being solid.
But for the first three games? We're lucky to not be 1-2 right now, we're coming off what should have been a 51-20 drubbing, and the schedule only gets harder from here. This is not the encouragement I was looking for.