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Which Stats Correlate To Success?

Allow me to introduce you to Sunday Morning Quarterback, the absolute hands-down premier college football writer on the internet. SMQ's team of choice is Southern Mississippi, but I assure you he's wise enough to know that nobody gives a damn about his thoughts (or anybody's for that matter) on the Golden Eagles of Southern Miss. Instead, SMQ provides outstanding commentary and statistical analysis on and about everything in college football. And when I say everything, I mean everything.

Anyway, SMQ happened to have done an analysis of which stats are most relevant to a team's success. Because we looked at some stats and were wondering which might be most important yesterday, I thought it was worthwhile to take a look at his exhaustive and well-organized study. He defines 'success' as a team's won-loss record, although he does wisely acknowledge that a 3-loss SEC team obviously had more 'success' than a 3-loss team from Conference USA.

The method of his study, in his own words:

The method: From the NCAA's rankings in 13 major statistical categories (rush offense, pass offense, total offense, rush defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, turnover margin, third down efficiency rate, fourth down efficiency rate, third down efficiency defense, fourth down efficiency defense, penalty yards and time of possession), pull out the top 20 teams and bottom 20 teams in each category. Combine the records of those teams into a winning percentage for the best and worst of each category. Rank categories by number of wins of the top 20 and the bottom 20, as well as the margin between the two; the "most important" category, it would follow, would be the one with the best records at the top, the worst records at the bottom and, therefore, the greatest disparity.

Notice the term "correlate," which of course is not "cause." There are a number of reasons for the records in each category to look the way they do, and numerous possible cause-effect relationships to be drawn (i.e., teams that trail often have to throw to catch up, and throwing therefore is inherently tied to bad teams; vice versa in the case of rushing). So the fact that, for instance, the collective records of the best passing offenses do not match those of the best rushing defenses is not an argument against ever throwing the ball.

What did he discover?

Those teams ranked in the top-20 of Pass Efficiency Defense had a higher winning percentage (77% win percentage) than the top-20 teams of the other previously stated statistical categories. Rushing Defense (76% winning percentage by teams in the top-20 of the category), and Total Defense were 2nd and 3rd respectively in terms of their correlation to winning percentage.

Fine, obvious enough. As the old adage goes: Defense wins Championships.

There were however, some much less predictable discoveries. Fewest Yards Penalized for example, had the weakest correlation to winning percentage (52% winning percentage of teams in the top-20 of the category) than all other categories. The second weakest correlation? Time Of Possesion (63% winning percentage).

SMQ then does what all disciplined analysts of statistics do: he flips the data and looks at the other end of the specturm: the relative failure of those teams that finished in the bottom 20 of each of the 13 statistical categories. Again he discovered that Fewest Yards Penalized and Time of Possesion were not strong indicators of whether or not you would win.

Go ahead and click through and check it out for yourself. He lays it all out in pretty tables that is much easier to digest than me putting it in words. After you've looked at the data, let's see if we can relate it to the Steelers thus far this season.

Ok, to win, it helps if you have a good 1) Pass Efficiency Defense 2) Rushing Defense 3)Total Defense 4)Total Offense 5)3rd Down Efficiency Defense and 6)3rd Down Efficiency Offense

How do the Steelers fare in those categories?

1)Pass Efficiency Defense - #6

2)Rushing Defense - #7

3)Total Defense - Top-5

4)Total Offense - Top-10

5)Third Down Efficiency Defense - Top 5

6)Third Down Efficiency Offense - #1


I'll finish by saying that there is no guarantee that these stats correlate in the NFL like they do in NCAA football, but I'd guess they are probably very similar. Let's keep our eyes on these 6 most relevant categories throughout the year as a basic barometer for how we can expect to be doing. Still to come: A look at how we fared in these categories in 2006 - I think this will give us a good idea of whether or not they are in fact strong indicators of a team's success. Feel free to chime in with questions, comments, and thoughts more coherent and well organized than my own. I went through that somewhat quickly and most likely could have done a better job with my explanations of SMQ's dandy work.