Hot Reads: A Statistical Mystery at UCF
Photo Credit: Tommy Gilligan - USA TODAY Sports

Hot Reads: A Statistical Mystery at UCF

March 01, 2018

I decided to do some serious stat-gazing over the weekend. This isn't that unusual. If I get an idea – or a question – I can lose hours just trying to follow it. The idea over the weekend was to do a comparison of Nebraska and UCF in 16 offensive and defensive categories – loosely categorized into efficiency, explosiveness, rush and pass – that I think matter.

Defensively, Nebraska wasn't much good in any of these categories. The Huskers' "no-crease" defense did a good job of limiting explosive (20-plus yards in this case) touchdowns, but that was about it and it didn't matter when opposing offenses could just stroll down the field. UCF was middle-of-the-road in most categories, which is plenty good enough when you also have the nation's second-best offense.

As for the offenses, it was the landslide you expected . . .

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. . . but there was one category in there that didn't make sense to me. Overall, UCF had a lethal blend of efficiency and explosiveness, and it showed in the numbers minus one category. The Knights' averaged third-down distance (7.2 yards) ranked 78th nationally. For an offense that ranked fifth in average yards gained on first down (7.6) and fourth in overall success rate (49%), it didn't add up. 

It obviously didn't matter much. The Knights converted 45.8 percent of those third downs (16th), led the nation in scoring and got to 13-0. But perhaps because of those achievements I was still left wondering how UCF ended up in so many third-and-longs.

As I continued to dig in, I think there are a couple of answers. One, UCF didn't face many third downs. The Knights third-down attempts were just 17.86 percent of the total plays, tied for second (with Oklahoma State) behind Oklahoma. That plus the still-good conversion rate explains why third-down distance didn't really slow UCF down.

But how did it get there? There are two potential explanations there, and each probably merits watching in Nebraska's first year in this attack. One, for an offense that ranked 19th in rushing yards per play UCF's run game was stuffed a lot. Per Football Outsiders 20.9 percent of the Knights' runs were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. For comparison, Nebraska's anemic run game managed a stuff rate (19.0%) that ranked 56th.

Two, UCF's offense ranked high in one of the various mayhem measures, the number of pass breakups, interceptions and sacks allowed versus total plays. Numbers like this are becoming more popular as people place more focus on creating negative plays defensively to counter ever-escalating offense. (Nebraska's defense ranked 126th nationally in this category in 2017, by the way.) Teams created one of those plays against UCF 25.7 percent of the time per cfbanalytics.com's numbers (94th).

Taken together do those two things explain the higher-than-expected average third-down distance?  I think they get us pretty close. UCF had a bunch of big plays, but also high rates of runs stopped at the line and dead or negative plays overall. It's the picture of a high-flying, aggressive offense. Teams could get some negative plays on UCF, but they couldn't prevent positive plays at anywhere near the rate necessary to win.

Here's why I think this matters for Nebraska in 2018. The Huskers probably aren't going to come close to matching most of UCF's efficiency or explosiveness numbers. That's going to make less exciting numbers like stuff rate and some tally of negative-plays percentage an important way to make early progress. Nebraska's offense actually outranked UCF in both categories last year, two of just a handful of categories where that was the case.

It won't be nearly as sexy as what the Knights did in 2017 – and I don't think anyone comes in expecting that – but manageable third downs have their own sort of beauty, too.

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