Vols-Gators: Looking at the Key Performance Metrics
What correlates to winning and losing a football game?
In other sports, particularly baseball, the use of certain descriptive and analytical statistics has been a developing subject for nearly 40 years (Sabermetrics). However, it is a relatively new endeavor for football. The book The Hidden Game of Football, the highly influential book published in 1988, is considered by many as the first systematic statistical approach to analyzing football in a book. Now there are subscription services, websites, blogs, and other media outlets that assess football games with statistics that have been further developed beyond what Pete Palmer, Bob Carroll and John Thorn started with their 1988 book. The website Football Outsiders is probably thought of as the leader in this arena of assessing the relative rankings of teams and game performances.
Borrowing some ideas from these sources, as well as using some more obvious numerical descriptions, I thought I’d take a crack at examining last Saturday’s Florida-Tennessee game with numbers beyond what you normally find in the game’s box score. All of the tallies and calculations are my own and thus any inaccuracies are due to the same type of errors that caused this author to make B’s in stead of A’s in calculus in two of my three quarters of classes in Ayres Hall.
The two main descriptive statistics used here are (1) Successful Plays, and (2) Big Plays.
Successful Plays are defined based on a percentage of the number of yards needed to gain a first down, with the percentage based on the down. This concept is derived from the earliest work of Palmer, Carroll and Thorn. Subsequent developments of more sophisticated statistics are not considered here as they are either too time consuming or are based on information not at my disposal.
So, based on the simplest assessment, a “Successful Play” is one that meets any of the following criteria.
- On first down, a play from scrimmage that gains 45% of the yardage needed for a first down. For example, on a 1st & 10 situation, a play that gains 5 yards or more is deemed a successful play, whereas 4 yards or less is not. On a 1st & 15 situation, those yardage metrics would be different.
- On second down, a play from scrimmage that gains 60% of the yardage needed for a first down.
- On third and fourth downs, a play from scrimmage that gets a first down.
For our purposes here, Successful Plays can be any play from scrimmage, but also includes plays where yardage is gained or lost via penalty. Field goal attempts, extra point attempts, punts, and the like are not considered to be eligible to be deemed a Successful Play. However, a fake field goal, fake extra point, a fake punt, and the like are considered.
Basically, when viewed in aggregate over the course of a drive, a quarter, a half, or a game, Successful Plays are a measure of efficiency.
The second main descriptive statistic used here is that of the Big Play. A Big Play is defined very simply: any play from scrimmage (as defined above) that gains 20 or more yards.
Obviously, a touchdown pass on a 4th & goal at the opponent’s 9 yard line could be considered as a “big play”, but the objective here is to look at the long gains because those are the plays that (1) are a measure of the difference in player speed; and (2) have the biggest tendency to break down the will of the opponent, especially if accomplished multiple times.
So, the following is a brief discussion of the Vols-Gators clash based on these and some other statistics to provide some insight to the relative performance of both teams.
As lopsided as was the final score of game (37-20), the comparison of Successful Plays achieved by both teams was relatively even when viewed as a percentage of the total number of plays from scrimmage. Tennessee’s success rate was 41% of plays from scrimmage compared with Florida’s 39%. And, because the Vols had a significantly higher total number of plays from scrimmage (82 to 67), Tennessee had significantly more Successful Plays than did Florida (34 to 26).
The difference was even more lopsided when considering only the first three quarters: 34 for the Vols to 19 for the Gators. But the tables turned in the fourth quarter during which Florida completely outplayed Tennessee, with a 7-0 margin in Successful Plays.
So, based on this metric, Tennessee actually outplayed Florida, and did so by a fairly wide margin, for the first three quarters. The Vols became completely inept in the final quarter however.
An interesting additional statistic is the split of Successful Plays according to the type of play: Runs/Passes/Penalty Yardage Play. Tennessee’s slash line is 13/17/4 with the Gators having a 17/8/1 line.
This is one of the key metrics where the difference in the game was clearly borne out. The Gators had 9 Big Plays compared with the Vols’ 4. But the greater margin of performance is seen in Big Play yards: Florida’s Big Plays totaled 356 yards whereas Tennessee could amass only 109 yards on their Big Plays.
And even more illuminating is the fact that 3 of Florida’s Big Plays were for TDs. None of Tennessee’s Big Plays went for a score of any kind. That is a 21-0 difference in points (counting the extra points onto the Big Play point tally).
Big Plays won this contest. But, you already knew that if you watched the game.
Also illuminating is the tally of Big Play yards per possession. Florida won this line easily, 25-8.
The other defining statistics for this game are in the turnover tallies. Florida intercepted two Tyler Bray passes, whereas Tennessee was unable to receive a single turnover by the Gators. [The fumble on the very first Gator play from scrimmage near their own goal line that was not recovered by Tennessee is particularly important to note. A recovery there could have changed the entire complexion of the game.]
More importantly, both of those turnovers led directly to Florida scores in the subsequent possessions, and both of those scores were TDs. Thus, the Points from Turnovers tally was 14-0 for the Gators.
So, based on these last two fundamental metrics — Big Plays and Turnovers — combined with Successful Plays, Tennessee lost this football game in moments of poor execution and lesser speed (and/or good execution with superior speed by the Gators) while maintaining an overall better performance during the vast majority of the game.
Some other performance metrics are interesting.
Short Yardage Performance
A short yardage play is defined here as one with 3 or less yards to go for a first down regardless of the down. Tennessee had 13 short yardage plays from scrimmage whereas Florida only had 6. Of the 13, the Vols achieved a Successful Play (previously defined) 9 times (69% success rate). Florida achieved only a 50% success rate on their 6 short yardage plays.
First Down Performance
Yardage achieved on first down is a crucial but sometimes overlooked metric — it is not included in any typical football box score.
Both teams had about the same number of first down plays: Vols 33 to Gators 31. Both teams had nearly identical success rates (based on Successful Plays on first down): 45% for Tennessee and 52% for Florida. But the Gators achieved a superior performance on the number of first downs gained on first down plays: 9-3.
Another simpler description related to first down plays is what kind of play was run on first down plays. Using the Runs/Passes/Penalty Yards slash line shows each team’s inclinations: Florida’s was 24/6/1, whereas Tennessee’s was a more pass-happy 18/14/1.
Kickoffs and Punts
This aspect of the game was uneventful for the entire game in terms of the ability of either team to make anything happen when receiving a kick.
The Vols received 7 kickoffs, 6 of which were not returned because they were touchbacks. All 4 of the kickoffs received by Florida were returned. This was the difference in the leg strength of Sturgis vs. Palardy. Fortunate for Tennessee, none of the Gators’ 4 returns amounted to anything significant.
Punts show as similar story. Florida received 8 punts, with 7 not being returned (fair catch or downed in bounds or kicked out of bounds or a touchback). Of Tennessee’s 5 received punts, only 1 was returned. Neither of the 2 returned punts in the gamed amounted to any significant yardage.
What is not in the numbers is how the Gators’ punter (Christy) successfully flipped field position with his booming punts from deep in Florida territory, especially early in the game: a 55 yard punt from the Gator 7; and a 50 yard punt from the Gator 10 were the first two Florida punts of the contest, preventing Tennessee from maintaining a dominant field position advantage in the first quarter that could have otherwise produced a lopsided contest early.