Advanced stats in college football: a Q&A with Study Hall author Bill Connelly
College football in 2013 is going through constant change; it's like an adolescent raging against his hormones, each crisis more important than the last. At times, it seems as if everything is transitioning so quickly that it might suddenly fall apart. (Hint: it probably won’t.)
The game is still the one with which most of us fell in love, replete with terrific fans and traditions, but it's continually evolving. One of the more exciting developments is happening off the field: the rise of the use of advanced statistics in understanding college football.
Over the past decade or so, advanced stats have been widely adopted in baseball, and more recently, basketball and hockey. But football has been slow to follow suit. Whether that’s rooted in the culture of the sport or the sheer fact that more luck is involved in a game in which the ball is pointed at both ends (as Campus Union alum and current Grantland writer Holly Anderson says, “It’s so wiggly”), football -- and especially college football -- is taking its time to catch up to the metrics-based disciples of other major sports.
That doesn’t mean good work isn’t being done in the field. Just look at SB Nation, Football Study Hall and Football Outsiders contributor Bill Connelly. The Missouri graduate recently published a book, Study Hall: Collect Football, Its Stats And Its Stories, in which he talks with coaches and writers from around the country about fandom, the current state of the NCAA and the expanding role of advanced stats.
I had a chance to talk with Bill about his book, stats and college football at large.
SI: To begin with, how long was this book in the making? And what gave you the idea to finally write it? Talk me through the process. I've always been interested in writing a book, but every time I sit down to think about it, I get panic attacks.
Bill Connelly: I figured, if you're going to start with one [book], this is the one to start with. These are the things I enjoy talking about. My idea for this book was just to talk about those things with other people, rather than writing about them myself. It's a lot more fun when you talk to really smart people and people you respect about the things you like talking about. For me, that meant a lot of stats, underdog tactics, all the stuff about college football current events, and the idea was to do something you're really familiar with and figure out a way to present yourself in book form.
I wanted to write a book because I wanted to explore the stage. It's a different writing experience. It took a lot more prep work, obviously. Much of what I do at SBN is template based: There's the preview template and the team preview template in the offseason, and this was figuring out a structure from scratch, taking all the bits and pieces and quotes from people and putting them in place like a puzzle, basically. It was really fun, and it will have informed stuff I do in the future, in terms of interviews and the prep side of things.
SI: You briefly touched on it, but reading the interviews was a joy for me, because they're with people I'm either colleagues with or have respected for a long time. Not to mention your interviews with various coaches, who were generally very candid. What was the process of setting up those interviews like? Did you lean heavily on previous relationships?
BC: Pretty much all the writers I talked to said yes. That was really cool. The college football writer and blogger community is really close. It doesn't have to be that way, though. We could all be competing for hits and whatnot. That wouldn't be fun at all. But the college football community, we just like talking about college football. People saw the opportunity to do that, so everyone was willing to take 30 minutes or an hour out of a given day to talk about these things. It was rapid fire. I started with about 12 or 13 topics, and it was bang bang, one right after another. From the writer side, I expected a good amount of feedback and I got it.
The coaches, I had no idea what to expect. In the end, it was kind of predictable. I don't know how many I contacted, but the final number I interviewed was in the teens. I probably contacted 60 SIDs. ... It would have been neat to have a laundry list of coaches at the top -- Urban Meyer or Nick Saban, etc. -- but I tried for the most part to focus on the ones who would talk. I was as interested for this type of project to talk to [Ball State coach] Pete Lembo or [Cal coach] Sonny Dykes. Or [New Mexico coach and former Notre Dame coach] Bob Davie. I knew he would be a great interview, and he was. I thought that helped a lot.
Even if I had all the clout in the world and was able to sweep the top 10 coaches in the country, it doesn't mean they'd say anything interesting. I tried to focus on the ones who would be interesting, and for the most part I think I succeeded. The ones who talked, talked a lot.
SI: Say someone isn't familiar with S&P+, F/+ or other metrics in that vein. Why are advanced stats and the work you're doing so important?
BC: You either ask questions or you don't. For a lot of people, they don't care about asking questions, they just like football for the way they like football. And that's fine. But there are a lot of people out there who are more analytical, and to enjoy a sport they have to understand it as deeply as possible, whatever that means. Instead of just assuming, "yards are good," why do yards lead to wins? Why do all the truisms we come to blurt out at any given time matter? Which ones are true, and which ones aren't? Which ones really matter and why?
The general goal with my exploration of stats is to get more answers. I was a football nerd long before I was a football numbers nerd. I was on TigerBoard.com in 1999 writing long, rambling posts that would probably embarrass me if I went back and looked at them. I was using the best tools I had at that point to try and get somewhere in talking about college football. Around 2007 or so, as I had started my own little Missouri blog and was looking for offseason content, I thought, "Well I love baseball stats, I wonder what's out there for college football stats."
At that point I was a blogger, but I started looking around to see what existed and Brian Fremeau's work at Football Outsiders was there. But really in terms of play-by-play stats, it just didn't exist. If somebody else had been doing it and I found what I was looking for, I maybe would never have gone down this road in the first place. But it's been really fun because you are kind of creating your own path.
Six years later, it's still kind of like that in college football. There just aren't as many hands there yet, compared to baseball or basketball or anything else. There are a lot of us playing around and figuring things out and asking questions, but the pure volume of people involved isn't very high yet.
SI: Sabermetrics in baseball kind of flew under the radar for a while, but when they first came up, the internet didn't function in the same way it does today. Perhaps that was a reason those stats took a longer time to catch on. To that end, do you think we're seeing an expedited movement for advanced stats in college football? Could they become the next big thing? Advanced stats in basketball have exploded over the last few years, and now it's almost strange when an analyst doesn't take such metrics into consideration.
BC: Well, football in general has taken longer and it will take longer because a bouncy ball means more luck and more randomness. That's something at the past MIT Sloan conference everybody mentioned. Nate Silver doesn't really touch football. Part of it is personal preference, but part of it is just that football is a more random game. There is more chance involved, there are fewer games involved. Making strong predictions is harder. Just grasping what really matters in wins and losses is a lot harder to do with fewer games. The nature of the sport makes it more difficult.
But then also, we got a later start as well. Football Outsiders just celebrated its 10-year birthday, or whatever you call it for a website. On the pro side, they've kind of gotten somewhere. They played a role in that ESPN Numbers Never Lie show when they actually talked about numbers. But college football is a giant wilderness. There are fewer games. There are infinitely more teams. And you just don't know where to start. That was my big deal. I was doing Missouri play-by-play, then the entire Big 12.
At some point, I was like, "screw it, if I want to actually play with this, I need everybody." I spent the offseason after 2007 entering all the games, and I finished in like May. The next season I did it a bit faster, and then I hooked up with other people. But it takes so much to get anywhere in college football, and that's thinned out the herd a little bit.
SI: Now you've taken on a charting project. What kind of impact do you hope that will have?
BC: The thing about charting data is it makes sense to people. There are no pluses, no opponent adjustments. Right now, if I talk about S&P+, if you don't know what it means you tune it out. But you probably have a good idea if we're using data to talk about the frequency of blitzing or the distance a pass is traveling in the air as opposed to the final yardage tallies of the play. The things we're charting and tracking is just that second level of data you don't get from the play-by-play.
Sometimes you get little bits and pieces from STATS, Inc. during a game, and it's the grid for passing (5-for-5 passing over the middle, or 2-for-8 to the right). But we don't get that during the game, we only get it when it's brought up during the broadcast. It's things like yards after contact or what your odds of success are if you blitz six people.
We only had a small sample size of 100 games last year, but if we can chart 20-30 games a week, you can do so much with that data. The draw here I hope is if you participate in this you get access to the data, you can write posts based on your team's stats week to week, and you can do scouting. There's value in that in just having neat analytical posts. It's a little overwhelming, but we'll figure out a way to use it.
SI: Switching gears for a second, I want to talk about college football fans. In general, I think they're such an interesting part of the sport. I think I could make a whole career writing about fans rather than actual games, because there's so much meat there. In the first couple chapters of your book, you write about the nature of fanhood and how everyone's story is different. So here's my question: What have you learned about fanhood over the course of networking with writers and putting Study Hall together?
BC: The cool thing was I still liked college football as much when I was done as when I started. When you get everybody's story, everybody I talked to I asked, "What hooked you with college football?" Sometimes it was a game, sometimes it was being born an Alabama fan, sometimes, like with Stewart Mandel, he was a student when Northwestern made it to the Rose Bowl in 1995. Or Bruce Feldman started off in basketball and moved over to realize football was so much more involved and intense. We all got to the same place, but figuring out how we all got there differently was a big draw and exciting with regard to the book as a whole.
SI: There seems to be a divide between fans who embrace stats and fans who don't. Are you trying to reach both sets of people? Or are you more interested in simply informing the game?
BC: I use numbers with my own goals in mind. For me, the numbers fill in the holes. I learn a lot about my team and the things your eyeballs would lie to you about. Whenever I am doing team previews, I have worked with the numbers enough to trust what I am seeing and know I can tell a reasonably accurate picture even if I can only see a team three or four times a season. I use the stats so that I can be as good at possible at analyzing football.
If you don't care about the numbers, that's fine, then skip the numbers and go to the words. Hopefully, you can find value in the analysis because it's good analysis. What I'm saying is still words, and it might inform how you look at a game coming up or a game that already took place. You're never going to win everybody over, and you know that from the start. All I want to do is be as well informed as possible, analyze the game well, and if you're wondering, "That was pretty good, how did you pick up on that?" then there's a path to follow to get you to Football Outsiders and elsewhere.
SI: So are "stats for losers," or are they for everybody?
BC: I was a blogger who started in my mother-in-law's basement, so you can apply the loser label if you want. What's funny about that quote is when I shared that with [Wake Forest coach] Jim Grobe, he laughed, like knowingly. It's almost like a truism. It's funny because that was one of the things I wanted to explore with this book. From the start, college football coaches are some of the most analytical coaches around. They have to be. They've been watching film for decades. They've been breaking things down and looking for tendencies with basically what are analytics since the start of time. But they get in the "stats are for losers" mode when numbers are quoted to them, like "You sure are giving up a lot of passing yards per game, coach." They don't care about yards per game. When they go down the "stats are for losers" mode, it is because the stats being presented don't matter to them at all. But stats do. I wanted to talk to coaches in part because I wanted to bridge that gap. In my "Stats 101" chapter, I structured it as a coach trying to figure out what they can get from this. There's an enormous gap there, and I wanted to bridge it between how coaches use stats and how everybody else does.
SI: Fans and writers often use numbers to craft or support a claim. How do coaches use them?
BC: Coaches don't look at them like that. They're not looking to make themselves look good; they're trying to learn about themselves and their opponent. They use charting data a lot. They go to that level in their film study. They could learn a lot about numbers, but we can learn a lot about how they use the numbers.
SI: It’d be interesting if we could find a way to take coaches' statistics -- and they’re not going to share them with the public if they have anything groundbreaking -- and find a way to incorporate them with the stats we use on an everyday basis. That information seems like it'd be so useful to the average fan, even just knowing how coaches are charting games and whether they’re using scouting methods employed by Bill Belichick’s dad forever ago [The book Football Scouting Methods by Steve Belichick is like $6 on Amazon. Go buy it.] or Gene Stallings’ charts. This stuff isn’t new. College football is an old game, and things haven’t changed as much as we like to think it has.
BC: Maybe that’s a series of posts for Football Study Hall for the future, is go through Belichick’s book and update it. The things you scout haven’t changed, but the way you scout has completely changed. Coach Davie gave me a great example of that when he said his first job in coaching was cutting up film and putting it together with different formations. A grad student with a DVD player and a computer can do that in about an hour now. You can plow through so much more information. It’d be interesting to take that book and include numbers or the new methods we have today.
SI: What was your biggest takeaway from this project? Did you learn something that took you by surprise?
BC: Coaches are really normal. That could just be the ones I talked to, but if you get these guys going down the right road, they do open up a decent amount. They work long hours. They’ve probably been coaching for 20 years to be good at their job. It’s just a career path you choose like anything else. You try to get better at your job based on the way you’ve been taught and the new things that are coming out. A lot of them seemed very curious about stats and asked me questions, too.
There is no specific one way to coach. I loved that in the “Field Position and Finishing Drives” chapter. It was really neat to see one coach say they would never use jumbo because they do spread, and another spread coach say they never use jumbo personnel. And they’re both right. Coaches aren’t flying blind. You just have to come up with something and stick to it and in the end it comes down to execution and talent on the field. There’s no magic bullet or magic way to coach.
SI: It’s that cat-and-mouse game. It just keeps going until someone says, “let’s just run the dang football.”
BC: It’s chess with players you can only semi-control. Your knight is only kind of able to do what a knight is able to do. Sometimes it’s going to mess up. There’s so much luck involved. You just have to decide and hope it works out for you more often than it doesn’t. Bill Connelly's book, Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories, is available on Amazon. Go buy it here.