The National Championship Secret Sauce, Part 2

Submitted by The Mathlete on April 3rd, 2014 at 10:52 AM


In March, I posted Part 1, looking at the recruiting make-up of the last ten BCS Champion football teams. For those of you lost in the three week basketball coma, the key takeaways were:

  • Defensive line is the position with the highest average rating (5th) of any position
  • Offense (7th) and Defense (5th) are both important but defenses feature more highly rated recruits for national champions.
  • No national champion has been crowned with a roster profile (Ratings + Age) outside of the top ten, a group Michigan will likely sit on the fringes of next year.

For Part 2, we’ll move to the on field performance. Looking at conversion rates and big play potential on both offense and defense as well as field position.

Some quick notes on methodology.

Conversion rate = [1st Downs gained]/[1st Down plays (including first play of drive)]. A three and out is 0/1. A one play touchdown is 1/1. Two first downs and then a stop is 2/3, etc.

Bonus Yards = [Yards gained beyond the first down line]/[Total plays from scrimmage]

This is an adjustment to how I have previously calculated, to account for the plays a team runs.

Field Position = The expected point difference per game for where a team’s offense starts and where a team’s defense starts. Each drive is given an expected value based on the start of scrimmage, all of the drives for the offense and defense are totaled and compared. This accounts for all elements of field position: turnovers, special teams, drive penetration etc.

I am only looking at teams from the BCS conferences since those are the only reasonably eligible team for the championship. To account for yearly rule changes and variations, I will use annual ranks for each season.

The Offense

Conversion Rate

Median Rank: 5.5th, 76.0% conversion

Average Rank: 11th

Top 3: Texas 2005 (2), Auburn 2010 (3), Florida St 2013 (3)

Bottom 3: Florida 2006 (26), Alabama 2009 (23), Alabama 2011 (23)

2013 Michigan: 36th, 69.9%

Best Michigan Team: 2003, 3rd, 75.2%

Bonus Yards

Median Rank: 8th, 2.95 Bonus Yards per play

Average Rank: 11th

Top 3: Texas 2005 (1), Auburn 2010 (1), USC 2004 (3)

Bottom 3: LSU 2007 (26), Alabama 2011 (26), Florida 2006 (17)

2013 Michigan: 33rd, 2.35

Best Michigan Team: 2010, 3rd, 3.20

On the offensive side, there is a strong correlation between conversion rate and bonus yards among national champions. 6 of the 10 champions were in the top 8 in both categories while the other four champions where 13th or higher in both.

The Defense

Conversion Rate

Median Rank: 10th, 59.9% conversion allowed

Average Rank: 12th

Top 3: Alabama 2009, Alabama 2011, Alabama 2012, Florida St 2013 (1)

Bottom 3: Auburn 2010 (52), Florida 2006 (18), LSU 2007 (13)

2013 Michigan: 24th, 68.9%

Best Michigan Team: 2006, 7th, 58.7%

Bonus Yards

Median Rank: 7.5, 1.75 Bonus Yards per play allowed

Average Rank: 11th

Top 3: Alabama 2011, Florida St 2013 (1), Alabama 2012 (3)

Bottom 3: Auburn 2010 (39), LSU 2007 (20), Alabama 2009 (12)

2013 Michigan: 12th, 1.98

Best Michigan Team: 2013

The last three champions have all been dominant on defense. Only 2012 Alabama wasn’t ranked first in both categories and they were first in conversion rate and third in bonus yards. Prior to that, the last seven champions have been ranked 10th or worse in at least one of the two categories.

Field Position

Median Rank: 6th, +3.9 points per game

Average Rank: 8th

Runner-Up Average Rank: 11th

Top 3: Florida St 2013 (1), USC 2004, Texas 2005, Florida 2008 (2)

Bottom 3: Florida 2006 (21), Auburn 2010 (20), LSU 2007 (12)

2013 Michigan: 43rd, –0.9

Best Michigan Team: 2006, 4th, +4.5

Six of the top ten finished in the top 7 of field position. Field position is a pretty good approximation for offense, defense and special teams, with turnovers factored in. Other than a surprising 2006 Florida team and the 2010 offense-heavy Auburn teams haven’t been at the top end in overall field position.


While the last five Alabama driven years have pushed the needle toward the defensive side, the ten years as a whole are fairly balanced between offense and defense. One thing is clear, you have to be really good at least one side. Eight of the ten champions ranked in the top 2 in at least one of the five categories.

Five teams won the national championship with a higher rated defense than offense, three with a better offense than defense and two with units evenly matched. Overall the averages are roughly the same, largely thanks to the mediocre to bad Auburn defense from 2010 dragging down the averages.

Half of the teams that went on to win national championships were good at everything. 2004 USC, 2005 Texas, 2008 Florida, 2012 Alabama and 2013 Florida St all ranked in the top 10 in all five categories. 2009-2011 saw champions that were very strong on one side of the ball and 2006-2007 just saw a strange collection of champions. Since 2004 the only team to rank in the top 10 across the board and not win the championship was 2008 USC.

For Michigan, the roster look from Part 1 is a much more compelling case for Michigan’s readiness for the national elites than the on-field one. Only in defensive big play prevention was Michigan remotely at a national elite level last year. The other four categories are all several tiers away from the top teams. This is year probably won’t be a make or break year for the staff, that’s probably two years away barring a major disaster this season, but big strides will have to be made this season. The roster is there on the fringes of elite, 2014 will be the year the results should be ready to come into line, as well.


Everyone Murders

April 3rd, 2014 at 12:13 PM ^

Mathlete -

Did you make an exception for Notre Dame (who is not in a BCS conference for football but is a "special case" school with preferential BCS treatment)?*



*Special case" means whatever the reader wants it to mean here.


April 3rd, 2014 at 12:22 PM ^

Cool to have this look at things from a Michigan perspective, but did you do this with any other teams?  It would be interesting to me to see where other B1G teams fall with this look, some potential favorites for this coming year out of the usual suspects, and potential surprise teams to be on the lookout with this methodology. 


April 3rd, 2014 at 2:25 PM ^

Yeah, I kind of see this as a 9-3 type team that makes strides, doesn't get whopped by anyone in the way they did by MSU last year, gets a few wins on the road (at least one of OSU, MSU, or ND), and plays with a lot more consistency on both sides of the ball.  All in all it seems like the talent is there, yet they remain young and inexperienced.  That will get better and better each year.  2015 should be a very good team and this year a better, but still not great team IMO.  I am optimisitcally hopeful for a 9-3 finish and a split with MSU and OSU.  Couple that with an improved but still not great running game, an improved but not dominant defense, some great performances by the Devins here and there, and a few flashes of playmaking from the youngsters like Norfleet, Peppers, Stribs, Canteen, Taco, etc. and that about does it.


April 3rd, 2014 at 5:36 PM ^

First, once again, I see Lloyd Carr's last four teams, and I wonder how the heck went 1-7 against Ohio and in Bowl Games.  From Part 1, we know they had the talent to contend.  Now Part 2 tells us they were statstically dominant in several key areas.  But no B1G Championships, and the aforesaid incompetence in the last two games of the year.  Were DeBoard and English really that terrible as coordinatiors?

Second (and sort of OT), I think a 9 wins season is a pretty likely result, and a rather conservative expectation.  Looking at the 2014 schedule, I see 7 likely wins, 2 likely losses (MSU and OSU) and 4 toss-ups (Notre Dame, Penn State, Northwestern and the Bowl Game).  It seems to me I am being fairly pessimistic counting both OSU and MSU as losses, and Northwestern as a toss-up.  That leads me to conclude that a deviation upward to 10 or 11 wins is more likely than a deviation downward to 8 or 7.  Bottom line: I think Brady Hoke rights the ship and keeps his job.