Thursday, December 04, 2008

Which is the Best Team in the Land? It all Depends on Who Plays Whom : Offensive and Defensive Strengths and Weaknesses Result in Paradox Outcomes

Who is the best college football team in the land? and how can it be that team A beats team B, team B beats team C, and then team C beats team A? Maybe there is often no true national champion but simply a mix of top teams.

A good example here is the triumvirate of games in the 2008 college football season between Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech, where Texas beat Oklahoma, Oklahoma beat Texas Tech, and Texas Tech beat Texas. What accounts for this?

In some cases it is simply serendipity chance, but in others, it can be explained very simply by looking at the matchups in terms of each team's strengths and weaknesses.

A strong running team, for example, will run over a team having the best pass defense in the country, but a weak rushing defense. A strong passing team, on the other hand, can beat a team with a weak pass defense, even if that same team is otherwise superior.

For example, the Texas Longhorn loss to the Texas Tech Red Raiders during the current football season was not a fluke in this context, as we examine the football statistics for the 2008 college football season that we recently posted. Texas is clearly the stronger team in almost all statistical categories, but it has one of the weakest pass defenses among the top teams. This does not match the Longhorns well against top passing teams like Texas Tech.

If we want to know how a super team like the Florida Gators lost to the good - but clearly not as good - Mississippi Rebels, we find the answer in the statistic that Florida, which ranks nationally at the top in nearly every statistical category, ranks number two in the nation in yards per play gained on rushing offense, whereas Mississippi, otherwise not ranked that highly in any other statistical category, ranks number two in the nation in yards per play allowed on rushing defense.

Hence, facing stiff running defense, Florida lost three fumbles to Mississippi, which cost them the ball game 31-30 in which they were otherwise clearly the dominant team, outgaining Ole Miss 443 yards to 325. But the Gators gained only 124 yards rushing against the Rebels as compared to their average of 237 yards per game (10th in the nation).

Consider that, even though Alabama beat Mississippi 24-20, Mississippi outgained the Crimson Tide, 350 yards to 326. As written about that game by AP Sports Writer John Zenor, "The Tide has the league’s top running game and rush defense, but was outgained 158-107 on the ground."

But the Rebel passing defense is weaker, so that a good passing team like South Carolina could beat them, 31-24.

Accordingly, in analyzing any given college season, and any game in the regular season or any postseason bowl, one has to look at the matchups very closely in terms of the head-to-head battle between offenses and defenses.

Texas, for example, would fare well against Alabama because of the Longhorn's strong running defense and strong passing attack. Their own main weakness, a weak passing defense, would not hurt them much against the Crimson Tide, since Alabama is not a strong passing team.

Similarly, against Alabama, USC would fare quite well as the Trojans are ranked at the top in both rushing and passing defense, while their own not overly potent offense would not be a great hinderance to them against a team with a much weaker offense.

Florida, on the other hand, which relies on its strong rushing game, could have more trouble with Alabama than expected this weekend, because the Gators have to reckon with achieving much less rushing yardage than normal, which then has to be made up for in the passing game, where Florida ranks only 61st in the nation in total passing yardage, i.e. no better than average. However, the Gators rank 5th in the nation in yardage gained per pass play, so that the potential is there to pass more in order to counter the expected stiff resistance on the ground.

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