What do champions have in common?

There are many folkloric ideas out there when it comes to winning football games.

You gotta run the ball. You gotta stop the run. You gotta be disciplined–avoid penalties, win the turnover battle. And on and on we go.

While the game of football has progressed rapidly in the last decade or so, becoming more rapid and obsessed with “space,” the idea of what it takes to win still conjures an image of Vince Lombardi diagramming the power sweep on a chalkboard.

That prompts a question (or at least it did for me): What actually works today?

To answer that question, I recorded the national rank of the last six national champions (2007 to 2012) in 45 different statistical categories. No advanced stats here, just standard stuff — rushing offense, scoring defense, turnover margin, etc. National rank is nice because it offers a measure of the teams’ strengths and weaknesses relative to the rest of college football in that given year.

What I wanted to see was not what the last six national champions did best — though that ended up covering the majority of the top categories anyway — but what those teams had most in common. To do that, I used standard deviation. A small standard deviation represents a tightly grouped data set. It represent, for lack of a better term, more “consistent” results than a larger standard deviation.

For example, say the last six national champions ranked 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 6th, 4th, and 3rd nationally in passing offense. The average rank is 3rd with a standard deviation of 1.63, meaning the national champions, with about 68 percent certainty on a standard curve, rank in the top five in passing offense. If those same ranks were 10th, 20th, 20th, 6oth, 40th, and 30th, the average rank is 30th with a standard deviation of 16.3. The range of expected results expands to approximately 14th through 44th nationally in the second example.

With that out of the way, of the 45 categories recorded, here are the 10 with lowest standard deviations. Call it the “Profile of a National Champion: 2007 to 2012.”

If we were to write out those results in plain English, the profile of a national champion over the past six years would read something like this: The last six national champions have consistently ran the ball well (rushing YPG and YPC), pressured the quarterback (sacks/g), stopped the run (rushing YPG and YPC allowed), scored enough points to rank in the top 25 (PPG) because they get to the red zone frequently (red zone attempts) and convert those attempts (red zone scoring percentage), had a merely adequate passing game (passing YPG), and got off the field on third down (opponent third down conversion percentage).

Ideally, the sample wouldn’t be SEC exclusive. This profile, as it is, represents the SEC way of winning but the SEC is winning. Nothing you can do about that. Still, it does allow for some interesting conclusions.

The ground game, on both sides of the ball, is more important than the passing game. While the national champions all passed for a similar amount of yards, those per game averages were all slightly worse than average nationally. Whereas for the other nine categories, the national champs all tended to congregate in the top-third nationally. There aren’t a ton of outliers among the last six title-winners. Alabama (’12, ’11, ’09), Florida (’08), and LSU (’07) were pretty similar teams–well balanced offensively and defensively with a strong run game. Auburn was a little different in that it was significantly stronger on offense than defense, but, and this is the value of using standard deviation, even with the Tigers struggles on defense (60th nationally in total defense) they were able to succeed where it mattered — stopping the run (9th nationally in rushing defense).

What didn’t matter for the past six national champions? Penalties per game ranked dead last. Based on recent history, you can win a national title while committing many or very few penalties. Passing defense — a Bo Pelini specialty at Nebraska — wasn’t that important either. Completion percentage allowed, pass attempts defended, passing yards per game allowed ranked 37th, 38th, and 39th respectively.

So how does Nebraska compare to the national champion profile? We’ll use average national rank here as it’s a little easier to comprehend at a glance. Here’s where the last six national champions ranked in those 10 categories side-by-side with the Huskers’ average rank between 2008 and 2012:

Based on that chart, the Huskers are really only close to the profile of a national championship team in two categories: 1) Sacks per game (a somewhat surprising stat to see in the top 10), and 2) passing yards per game (which a team hasn’t really needed to do very well). The alarming thing if you’re a Nebraska fan is that the Huskers don’t fall within one standard deviation — where you could expect about two-thirds of the national champs to land on a standard distribution curve — in any of the 45 categories.

Maybe that isn’t surprising. Nebraska hasn’t really been close to a national championship under Pelini, but, with 45 different categories to choose from, you’d think the Huskers — conference championship game participants three different times — would fall within the “national championship range” in at least a couple of them.

That hasn’t been the case. What do the Huskers do consistently under Pelini? There’s a chart for that too:

The standard deviation results, as could be expected, were higher for a single team with varying results when compared to six teams that all had a national championship in common. But the glaring difference here is that for the national championship profile, nine of the 10 categories (excluding only the less than average passing numbers) were “positive” statistical results. For Nebraska, three of the categories — third down attempts, penalties per game and penalty yards per game — would qualify as negative results. Total plays doesn’t really make Husker hearts race and completion percentage allowed has been something of a throwaway stat for the past champions.

If we were to write out Nebraska’s profile in the same way we did the national champions, it would read like this: Nebraska, under Bo Pelini, has most consistently prevented first downs (note: the Huskers have been merely average, and worse than the national champions, at limiting explosive plays of 20+ yards which factors into that first down stat somewhat), gotten to the red zone frequently (red zone attempts) and converted those attempts (red zone scoring percentage) at an above-average clip, been in third down situations too frequently (third down attempts) but converted an above-average amount of those attempts (third down conversion percentage), ran a lot of plays (total plays), and committed a lot of penalties (penalties per game, penalty yards per game).

(You’re probably wondering where turnovers fell on the list. National championship teams were consistently in the top third in turnover margin per game, with the category ranking 12th out of 45. Nebraska isn’t as consistent. The Huskers’ turnover margin per game ranks 27th by standard deviation with Nebraska finishing with a negative margin in four of five years.)

Sound like a reasonable profile of Nebraska over the past five seasons? The question of what the Huskers need to do to get back into national title contention is one that gets asked frequently here because that is still the expectation for Nebraska. Considering that the national championship profile only has two crossover categories (both red zone measures) with Nebraska’s five-year profile, the above data offers some pretty interesting guidelines for how the Huskers get there.

If Nebraska wants to get back into the national title hunt the Huskers need to run the ball a little bit better (Nebraska is already pretty good), stop the run more consistently, score more points (something this year’s squad is poised to do), and get off the field more often when they’re expected to (third down).

That’s a pretty traditional prescription for football success. While the modern era is defined by increased intricacy, the results say winning football games come down to a few basic things.

Maybe we’re not that far removed from the era of Vince Lombardi’s chalkboard after all.

(Photo courtesy of Alabama Media Relations/collegepressbox.com)