For obvious reasons, field position is critically important to the success of a football team. This is a timeless fact. Teams starting with poor field position have a tougher time scoring because they must move the ball further to get into scoring position. Football geeks wearing green eyeshades and helicopter caps such as myself talk about an obscure stat related to this; I’m not sure it even has a name. I’ll refer to it as points per field position, meaning the average number of points a team has scored (or allowed) from a given starting field position. I thought it’d be interesting to look at this week’s matchup through this prism. For this analysis I’ve split the field into 25 yard chunks for simplicity’s sake and also to boost statistical significance. I’ve excluded Montana St. from MSU’s dataset since they are an FCS opponent and therefore not worthy of analytical scrutiny. I keed…not really. Onward
Advantage: Push with a nod to Michigan. The reason I say push is that the overall averages of both teams are within 0.1 points of each other. I don’t pretend that this analysis is able to reliably detect this level of separation. However, closer scrutiny of the data reveals an apparent advantage for Michigan. That is, in addition to being awesomer.
Starting in their own territory, both offenses perform about the same. The separation comes when the offenses start drives in enemy territory. There are only 2 drives available for MSU, which I take as evidence that their offensive special teams (the return teams) are not sweet, but there’s nothing to say that more data will necessarily improve their average rather than hurt it. So, for now, I’ll believe my flimsy 2 drive average of 3 pts per possession. For equal filed position, Michigan scores an average of 4 points per possession. Hence they get the nod for having demonstrated proficiency in enemy territory. Also from what I’ve seen on the field I think Michigan does show more offensive prowess and schematic advantage than does MSU. Also I’m a homer. Plus we have the Force. And I have a chart…go go gadget CHART!
Advantage: Michigan. This is probably better characterized as Michigan having a lower disadvantage than Sparty because I think it is safe to say that both defenses are pretty damned bad. Think of it as having a lower handicap. I’m actually surprised at Michigan’s overall average of 1.8 points per possession…it felt like it’d be higher. Sparty on the other hand is basically allowing as many points as its scoring, 2.8 points per possession. Again, see the chart.
Advantage: Michigan. Here I’ve split special teams play into coverage and return units with each establishing defensive and offensive field position respectively. The numbers here reconcile nicely. Michigan’s coverage units and State’s return units have both ended up at about the same field position to date; at about the 26 yard line. On the flip side, Michigan’s return units and State’s coverage units have also ended up at about the same field position; at about the 31 yard line. These are just averages so, presumably, Michigan will have a few more drives starting in sector 2 and State will have a few more drives starting in sector 1. No chart here, just a table.
Obviously Zoltan is a huge asset for establishing defensive field position and Darryl Stonum is doing a kick ass job at establishing good field position for the Offense. What’s kind of aggravating is that the woes of last year seem to have the coaching staff content with simply holding onto the ball, which, yeah duh. But damn, we should be able to improve our average field position on punts if Mathews or some satisfactory replacement would be allowed to attempt a return. If the staff insists on not attempting a return then, why not skip even putting a guy back there altogether and sending 11 every time for a block? I know catching the ball stops the roll but, I wonder how much of a difference it makes overall. I dunno, it’s just annoying that we forfeit better field position simply because we’re scared of dropping the ball.
This work is based on past performance and doesn’t account for key injuries, personnel changes, and what not. Another issue is that of unequal opposition. Obviously playing weaker opposition (such as FCS caliber Montana St.) would inflate a team’s numbers so strength of schedule has something to do with the numbers. However, Sparty’s opponent record to date is 5-2 where as Michigan’s opponents are 6-3, and I've already thrown out MSU's game against Montana State so I think the relative strength of schedules are pretty even.
This analysis indicates that Michigan has performed better in all three phases than Michigan State has so far this year (as if the respective win-loss records didn't already say this). What’s not shown here is that both defenses have given up about 100 points so far this year but Michigan State has done it in about 30% fewer possessions; Yowza. Our offense has been more efficient at hitting pay dirt and our special teams have done a good job at setting up field position. These three things should at least neutralize Sparty’s home field advantage. All of this data includes possessions ending in turnovers so, barring another Notre Dame 2008 type scenario, that shouldn’t be a concern.
While analyzing the past is neat, synthesizing the future is what everybody is really interested in. I’ve got a little sumpin sumpin cooking on that but that’ll have to wait until later tonight because I’m tired of writing and you all are probably tired of reading.