July 5, 2013
By Weller Ross
As Tennessee head coach Butch Jones begins the process of building the Volunteer football program brick-by-brick, UT fans may be curious what the final product might look like once his construction process is complete.
A new statistic developed by Tim Chou, a frontrunner for establishing new and more effective analytical metrics for football, gives them the chance to do just that. And Vol fans should be pleased by his findings as he rates Jones as one of the most successful coaches in college football over the last two years.
Instead of looking at a football team in three different parts (offense, defense, and special teams) and gauging how each one of those units performs separately, Chou's metric generates one number that encompasses how efficient the entire team is as a whole.
This metric is primarily based on the ratio of yards to points. Ideally, a team's offense would prefer a low number of yards gained per point scored, while the defense would consider the opposite to be a success, with a higher number of yards required to score.
Looking at yards per point helps encompass the third phase of the game - special teams - as well. For instance, if you have a coffin-corner punt or good coverage on a kickoff it forces the opposing offense to go further before it can score. Conversely, if you have a good return on a punt or kick it gives your offense the opportunity to score without having to gain a large amount of yardage.
According to this newly developed metric, which Chou presented at the prestigious 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, Jones ranks as the fourth-most efficient coach in college football over the last two seasons (2011 & 2012), behind only Nick Saban, Les Miles and Brian Kelly, the only three coaches to lead their teams to the national championship game in that span.
Two years' worth of data was compiled for the study with Chou gathering information on every NCAA Division I FBS team from 2011 to 2012. He then used the statistics from 2012 to create the metric and tested it with the numbers from 2011 to validate what he had found.
"It took a few months to prove out this method of calculating overall team efficiency," Chou said. "I first modeled it using 2012 college football data. Once I had an initial model that looked acceptable, I tested it using 2011 data to make sure it wasn't a fluke. I then did the same thing with 2012 and 2011 NFL data. The results were very consistent when compared at subjective rankings of the best teams in college (BCS rankings) and the NFL (playoff teams)."
Chou also tested this metric against the teams' actual success throughout a season and, after comparing his rankings to the BCS rankings, found that his numbers held up well. Despite the metric not actually taking wins and losses into account, it has a very high correlation with a team's winning percentage.
Football fans haven't quite bought in the advanced metrics trend quite like those who follow baseball or basketball, but Volunteer gridiron fans may want to take a closer look at this one.
"I strongly believe that we're just scratching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to metrics like these. Measurements like this could be invaluable to coaches, athletic directors and front offices for pro sports teams," Chou said. "You can really start to tie in the impact the player has to wins and losses with a measurement like this. This could be a small step towards the `moneyball' concept in baseball.
"Football is such a complex sport that has so many things that can be measured. Yards, points, conversion percentage, first downs, time of possession- the list goes on and on. The problem I discovered is that each one of these measurements, by itself, will fail to accurately measure how good a football team is. The metric I created is designed to do just that- rate an entire football team based on one number."
A strong correlation between this metric and success for a head football coach is great news for Tennessee fans.
Why? Because teams coached by Butch Jones have ranked exceptionally high according to this metric, coming in as the 11th and 14th-best teams in the nation in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
Not only that, but with how important defense is in the SEC, it's promising that Chou's metric shows Jones' teams rated as the fourth-best defensive team when combining the results from the past two seasons.
Now that Jones is able to recruit to a program with the facilities, resources and tradition available at Tennessee and implement his techniques with a higher level of talent, Chou believes that the sky is the limit for how successful he can be at Rocky Top.
"In his many years of success, [Jones] always fielded one of the top statistical defenses in the nation," Chou said. "I believe that's a result of his coaching philosophy and schemes. I fully expect his coaching methods will translate to success in the SEC despite the increased level of competition."
Despite having less than two months to recruit from the time he was hired at Tennessee, Jones managed to put together a top-30 recruiting class, and now, less than six months since National Signing Day, he and his staff have started to compile a 2014 class that is already ranked as one of the best in the country.
Jones has already displayed his ability to recruit with the best, and this metric shows that he can coach with the best. When you put those two things together, it's clearly an equation for success, illustrating that Jones is already well on his way to doing exactly what he said he was setting out to do, and that's getting the Tennessee football program to rise to the top, brick-by-brick.
Watch Chou's presentation at the 2013 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference: