QUALK TALK BLOG: Relationship Between Pace and Defense

QUALK TALK BLOG: Relationship Between Pace and Defense

Qualk Talk

QUALK TALK BLOG: Relationship Between Pace and Defense

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I want to start out by saying I really enjoyed putting this entry together. I won’t lie to you: It is long, and you math nerds—like me—will have a field day because this has some very interesting statistical analysis in it. It can get lofty and theoretical at times, but just hang with me. I’ll try to make sense of it all at the end.

Over the past few days on the radio, we have been having an ongoing discussion about pace and how it affects defenses. Specifically, it has been an examination of exactly what to expect on a game-by-game basis for Clemson’s defense this season, given how fast the offense wants to run plays and score points.

Conventional wisdom can tell us some things about up-tempo offenses. Playing at a fast pace allows for more points to be scored and more yardage to be gained in less time. This means defenses are on the field for a larger chunk of the game if the team’s offense decides to function this way. Therefore, it would stand to reason that cumulative statistics for defenses playing alongside up-tempo offenses might skew the perception of an otherwise solid unit.

We continued down this theoretical road by saying if faster paces lead to more yardage, then slower paces could do the opposite. This could—in theory, of course—skew the statistics of average defenses, inflating the rankings and making them look better than the play on the field would indicate.

As you can plainly see, there are many layers to this discussion. There is no way I can address all potential factors in a single column. But we can examine a certain correlation between pace and yardage allowed to see if there is any existing relationship.

I struggled with how to do this, but then I found a great chart that was incredibly helpful to me. Bill Connelly calculated pace factoring in run/pass ratios and expected plays versus actual plays. His reasoning behind it is that passing teams tend to have more stoppages of play (first downs, incompletions, etc.) than running teams do, so a quality statistic should normalize such a disparity.

Have I totally lost you? If so, don’t worry. This will all make sense in a moment.

Below is a chart featuring the 20 fastest teams in college football last season, based on the difference between expected plays and actual plays. In addition to their bottom line plus/minus differentials, I have also included their respective points and yardages allowed, complete with rankings in each category. Enjoy:

PACE

RANK

YA/Gm

RANK

PA/Gm

RANK

Marshall

+18.1

1

456.8

103

43.1

123

Louisiana Tech

+16.1

2

526.1

124

38.5

119

Nevada

+13.3

3

442.5

97

33.8

102

Tulsa

+12.7

4

347.8

26

23.6

35

Oregon

+12.0

5

374.1

44

21.6

25

Baylor

+11.7

6

502.2

123

37.2

113

Arizona

+11.6

7

499.0

122

35.3

104

Clemson

+10.6

8

396.5

64

24.8

46

Houston

+9.0

9

483.0

118

36.0

110

Rice

+8.6

10

425.9

84

30.0

78

Ball State

+8.4

11

462.4

105

32.0

93

Troy

+8.3

12

443.6

98

30.5

83

Syracuse

+8.1

13

377.4

47

24.8

46

Arizona State

+7.3

14

350.8

27

24.3

40

NC State

+7.2

15

404.7

69

25.6

52

Oklahoma State

+6.7

16

421.7

82

28.2

64

Air Force

+6.6

17

409.4

73

29.0

71

UCLA

+6.5

18

415.9

78

27.6

58

Ohio

+6.3

19

388.8

56

24.8

46

Penn State

+6.0

20

353.4

29

19.1

16

There are a couple of interesting takeaways from this chart. First of all, there are some porous defenses included in this list. The three worst yardage defenses and six of the bottom 25 scoring defenses are ranked within the top nine fastest teams. Also, not one top-25 yardage defense is on this list, and only four of the top 40 scoring defenses are represented.

Based on this, it is clear that either teams are masking horrific defenses by playing incredibly fast or that it is incredibly difficult to have a quality statistical defense when a team’s offense plays with tremendous quickness.

But in order to see if the inverse is also true—that slow offenses breed stout-looking defenses—we also need to examine the bottom 20 teams in pace from last season. Once again, enjoy:

PACE

RANK

YA/Gm

RANK

PA/Gm

RANK

Iowa

-5.5

105

381.6

49

22.9

33

Memphis

-5.6

106

383.6

51

30.8

80

Alabama

-5.6

107

250.0

1

10.9

1

Western Kentucky

-5.8

108

346.6

25

25.5

50

Kentucky

-5.9

109

391.4

60

31.0

86

Maryland

-5.9

110

336.8

21

27.2

56

Tulane

-6.2

111

482.6

117

38.4

118

Idaho

-6.2

112

472.2

111

42.4

122

New Mexico State

-6.3

113

476.2

114

39.4

120

Florida

-6.4

114

286.7

5

14.5

5

Mississippi State

-6.4

115

387.4

53

23.3

34

Temple

-6.6

116

436.7

92

31.2

87

USC

-6.7

117

394.0

61

24.3

40

Texas State

-7.1

118

484.4

119

33.5

100

Michigan

-7.1

119

320.0

13

19.8

19

Eastern Michigan

-7.4

120

478.9

115

37.6

115

Rutgers

-7.9

121

311.6

10

14.2

4

Central Michigan

-8.0

122

432.4

90

32.4

95

Colorado State

-9.0

123

405.6

70

30.3

80

Auburn

-12.3

124

420.5

81

28.3

65

There are some interesting notes to take away from this chart as well. First of all, Auburn really sat on the ball all season long—no wonder they were putrid. In all seriousness, the Tigers were one of five SEC teams on this list.

Could it be that the defensive numbers throughout the league are at least somewhat inflated due to the plodding style of the offenses in the conference? I’m not saying, but I’m just saying…

It is apparent that bad defenses are bad defenses, regardless of offense. Five of the worst 15 yardage defenses appear on this list, which blows that portion of the theory out of the water. But there are also six defenses ranked above the best defense in yardage allowed from the first list, which is bizarre considering the fairly large sample size we’re using here. This would seem to indicate some sort of relationship.

Also, three of the top five scoring defenses are on this list, and the top four from the second list gave up fewer points per contest than all of the first list except for Penn State, who finished 20th in pace (read: bottom of the fast heap).

These numbers can be read any number of ways. Based on the way I see them, here are some conclusions that can be reasonably drawn. First of all, the data suggests a possible correlation between quality of defense—based on stats—and pace on offense. Slower teams are more likely to have statistically good defenses, while the numbers slip for faster offensive teams.

This is a difficult topic because there’s really no way of knowing for sure whether a defense would have been good or bad in a different style of play. It simply suggests that it’s not enough to merely consider a team’s statistical ranking on defense anymore to determine its worth.

As far as Clemson is concerned, if we assume the potential for a slight bump in the actual ranking based on an average pace, this defense was probably in the middle of the pack last season, possibly on the bottom side of the upper third. I would expect similar things from the defense this season, especially if—as Chad Morris suggests—the Tigers plan to go even faster.

God Bless!

WQ

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