Hot Reads: A Points-Per-Play Look at the Big Ten West
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: A Points-Per-Play Look at the Big Ten West

May 28, 2019

The preseason consensus at hasn't started updating yet for 2019–it is still early–but I've been keeping a running list of every preseason ranking I've come across since the day after Clemson waxed Alabama for the 2018 national championship. That list includes more than 20 individual rankings when you include the post-spring updates from outlets that had already ranked teams in the "way too early" fashion in January.

One thing I hadn't seen after looking over all of those: A set of rankings that included Iowa as the highest-ranked team in the West.

Pro Football Focus has changed that now. It realized its preseason top 25 last week––based on an Elo ratings system––and Iowa took the "best in the West" honors at No. 10.

The second Big 10 team in the top 10 returns some firepower to their top-10 defense, as well as multiple-season starter Nate Stanley at quarterback. Their 5-4 Big 10 record last season was an aberration and might lead to them being a value in betting markets early in the 2019 season. A.J. Epenesa, with 80 total pressures the last two seasons, has the potential to be one of the nation’s best defensive players and will help curb the loss of Anthony Nelson (Bucs) up front and Amani Hooker (Titans) on the back end. Improving despite the loss of two first-round tight ends will be a tough task, but if they want to finish the season in the top 10 by the end of 2019, Stanley will likely have to do so to do his part.

Iowa was a bit better than its 9-4 record showed last year. Pythagorean wins produced an expected-wins total of 10.28 based on the Hawkeyes' scoring margin. Look at it on a points-per-play basis (PPP) and Iowa's differential was .176. That ranked third in the Big Ten, one spot ahead of conference champ Ohio State (.160). Iowa's 2018 PPP differential was also better than the 2015 team (.166) that went 12-2 and played in the conference championship game.

I mention points-per-play here because it highlights how difficult coming up with preseason projections can be. First, you have to decide how to weight the previous season (and maybe seasons before that). Second––based on returning talent, schedule, maybe quarterback and coaching changes––you have to determine if a team is poised to, in this example at least, increase or decrease its differential (however you weighted that from the first task). You don't have to take a numbers-based approach to come up with a preseason top 25, of course. You can just, say, look at Clemson, what it returns, what it added, who it plays, who is playing quarterback and come up with where you think the Tigers should rank. Whether the numbers are part of the equation or not, the logic is pretty much the same.

But I think numbers can offer some clarity.

In the Iowa example you have an offense that averaged .452 PPP last year (40th nationally). It loses two of the best tight ends in the country from that offense, but returns its starting quarterback, top three rushers and three starters on the offensive line (including two pretty good tackles). The Hawkeyes face Iowa State, Middle Tennessee and Miami (Ohio) in nonconference play and draw Rutgers, Michigan and Penn State from the West. Would you project Iowa to be better or worse than .452 PPP on offense in 2019 based on that loose collection of facts?

That's one half of the equation.

On defense Iowa lists four starters returning––that's its own count from the Big Ten prospectus the conference releases––but that doesn't include perhaps the best defensive lineman in the conference, A.J. Epenesa. The secondary returns three of four starters. The Hawkeyes allowed .276 PPP last year, 11th nationally. Will that number be better or worse in 2019?

The best thing about Iowa, and perhaps the limiting factor, is that the Hawkeyes have remained remarkably steady in PPP differential over the last four years after a deficit in 2014.

2018 .452 .276 .176
2017 .439 .283 .156
2016 .399 .274 .125
2015 .462 .296 .166
2014 .386 .393 -.007

You could interpret that any number of ways. My best guess for Iowa in 2019? I don't see the Hawkeyes expanding its PPP differential based on how much it has to replace and three tough games (ISU, Michigan, Penn State) outside of division play, but I also don't see its differential taking a major plunge. If that happens, it could very well still win the West. That's an entirely separate discussion. Northwestern won the West last year with a PPP deficit. The right string of results, not PPP, is still how championships are determined. "Good" is sometimes different than "winner."

But I find PPP as a useful starting point for projecting how good teams could be. Here are those numbers from last year for the West Division as a whole.

Illinois .380 .546 -.167
Iowa .452 .276 .156
Minnesota .433 .408 .025
Nebraska .415 .419 -.004
Northwestern .324 .331 -.007
Purdue .437 .397 .040
Wisconsin .441 .361 .080

From there you can start adding in all the typical preseason info we're used to talking about this time of year. When you do, keeping PPP as a starting point, who do you have as the top team in the West?

UPDATE: Realized that a five-year look might be helpful here to determine a team’s recent range of results. So, here’s one more table, this one showing the season-by-season PPP differential for the West teams since 2014. Division leader each year noted in bold, first year with a new coach in italics.

SCHOOL 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014
Illinois -.167 -.171 -.105 -.025 -.066
Iowa .176 .156 .125 .166 -.007
Minnesota .024 -.014 .125 -.022 .077
Nebraska -.004 -.155 .010 .039 .150
Northwestern -.007 .099 .047 .002 -.051
Purdue .040 .061 -.212 -.161 -.083
Wisconsin .080 .261 .150 .149 .152


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