The Toxic Differential Top 25 After 4 Weeks
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

The Toxic Differential Top 25 After 4 Weeks

September 27, 2017

Unless your team had its season affected by a natural disaster, the college football regular season is 25 percent over at this point. That felt like a reasonable enough time to wait to revisit toxic differential, one of the stats I've been toying with since we sent the Hail Varsity Yearbook to press three months ago.

It's an easy enough stat to understand. It's simply the difference between explosive plays and turnovers gained minus explosive plays and turnovers lost. (Get the full background here.) And while it's simple, it's pretty powerful. Since 2004, Nebraska has won 95 percent of its games when having a toxic-differential edge.

So which teams are winning that battle the most so far this season? Before we get to the top 25 toxic differential teams, an important note: Like most stats, these numbers probably aren't predictive. Big plays and turnovers are two of the most random parts of the sport, and we're only really measuring what happened, not what will happen. But, when you look at records side-by-side with toxic differential, you might get an idea of which teams are fortunate to be where they are and which ones should be. Given the number of postponements and cancellations, we're doing this on a per-game basis (toxic differential/games played), and I'm including where each offense and defense ranks as well. (Note: I quantified explosive plays as any run of 10-plus yards and any pass of 15-plus yards, same criteria Nebraska uses.)

South Florida 12.75 3 2 4-0
Wisconsin 12.67 4 1 3-0
Alabama 11.25 9 2 4-0
Miami 9.00 1 80 2-0
Louisville 8.75 5 35 3-1
Oregon 8.75 2 44 3-1
Penn State 8.25 12 8 4-0
Oklahoma 8.00 8 35 4-0
Ohio State 7.75 6 44 3-1
Central Florida 7.50 20 7 2-0
Georgia Tech 7.33 17 14 2-1
Clemson 7.00 20 8 4-0
Virginia Tech 7.00 11 25 4-0
North Texas 6.75 12 25 2-2
Washington 6.50 58 4 4-0
Arkansas 6.33 28 14 1-2
Southern Miss 6.33 24 18 2-1
UTSA 6.33 14 33 3-0
Colorado State 5.75 20 24 2-2
San Diego State 5.75 49 8 4-0
Washington State 5.25 58 8 4-0
Arizona 5.00 40 23 2-2
Mississippi State 5.00 28 25 3-1
Duke 4.75 64 16 4-0
West Virginia 4.75 6 95 3-1
Nebraska (66th) 1.50 75 52 2-2

Some takeaways on that data:

>>I included Nebraska's ranking on there as a reference point. Thanks primarily to the giveaways the Huskers are dead average, which is fitting considering the 2-2 record. The Blackshirts meanwhile are slightly above average and I suspect that number will continue to improve.

>>For the most part, you see teams that are good in both phases in the top 10. Below that, things can get a little uneven. None more so than Miami, which has been good at getting positive toxic differential plays (explosive gains, takeaways) and bad at avoiding them. That said, the Hurricanes have only played two games so sample size might have something to do with that.

>>Wisconsin, minus the first half against Utah State, is playing really good football right now.

>>Given all of the talent it has, it's a bit surprising to see how average Ohio State is at limiting the big play. Nebraska has only given up one more explosive play than the Buckeyes.

>>Hi, Central Florida. Scott Frost's power-spread offense seems to be the thing people are drawn to, but his defense has been even better. This is another team with just two games played, so we'll learn more when the Golden Knights host Memphis this week, but so far this is a well-rounded team. Frost's history of coaching on both sides of the ball will be pretty enticing for any team that wants to hire him away from Orlando.

>>Don't bury Bret Bielema yet. Arkansas is 1-2 with losses to TCU and Texas A&M and the natives are getting restless. But, based on toxic differential, the Razorbacks should be no worse than 2-1 and Bielema's Arkansas has a history of getting better as the season goes along.

>>North Texas is a bit of fool's gold. The Mean Green have put up good numbers against FCS foe Lamar and renaissance FBS program Alabama-Birmingham, but the scoring differential tells you those games are propping up the numbers.

>>Fellow C-USA school Texas-San Antonio might be the same way, but I don't think so. The Roadrunners should be pretty solid by year's end and I only mention that because Jerry Palm's latest bowl projections had Nebraska facing UTSA.

>>Throw out everything you think you know about Mike Leach. His Cougars are 4-0, but it's really because of the defense. If you're wondering how long Washington State can really stay in the Pac-12 title race, this indicates that they have a good shot at sticking around.

>>To go the other way for a moment, if you're looking for a team that is probably inflated at this point it's Florida. The Gators rank 122nd in toxic differential per game, but are 2-1 thanks to some close wins. Expect that to change soon.

>>Also, as it pertains to this week, Illinois is only one spot ahead of the Gators.

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