As a math major in college, I've always been a fan of finding the best metrics to measure the success and failure of football teams, and as technology has progressed in sports, it's given fans new ways to quantify what we're seeing on the field. While this hasn't taken off in football as it has in basketball, Bill Connelly has been doing great work over at RockMNation and Football Outsiders for a while now. And the big stat that he has used (and I frequently reference) is S&P+. If you're unfamiliar with this stat, he has a great primer on it here.
This stat has been very useful for the last few years, as Oregon's pace has created a need for analysis on a per play basis, rather than the standard metrics of total yards and total defense. But after a few years of love, Oregon has taken a significant dip this year.
According to the recent S&P numbers, Oregon ranks only 20th in the country, with the 24th ranked offense, and the 34th ranked defense. This has been a bit baffling to me, as Oregon's offense has been nothing short of dominating, and their defense has been at least very good, no matter how you define it.
So what does this S&P+ ranking mean, and what does it show about beating the Ducks? We'll explore after the jump.
The biggest reason that Oregon is sliding in the S&P+ rankings (which or normalized based on strength of opposition) is because they've let poor teams hang around for a decent amount of time in a lot of games. Oregon has let Tennessee, Washington State, and Washington keep the game "close" for much of those games, which has made Oregon look worse than it is. This last week, Oregon dropped two spots in the rankings despite beating the spread against UW.
One of the Varsity Number commenters presented a good theory regarding the Ducks' opposition and the 60 play mark of the game.
I went back and looked at the Pac-10 games and Tennessee game that Oregon played, and tried to figure out when the game became one-sided (IE, when Oregon made the team look like New Mexico). I did this not on ToP but on the number of plays run, thinking that regardless of whether or not the play is a run or pass the Ducks will run the plays at or around the same speed and the more plays run, the harder it is on the defense.
What I found is that both Stanford and USC called 'uncle' around the 50-60 play mark.
This observation makes a lot of sense. Oregon has excelled this season by wearing down opponents and imposing their will and style of play on the opposition. Oregon is playing a style that simply hasn't been executed to this degree, and there are few teams that can keep up.
So what can we take from this? Oregon has been pretty spectacular this season, but it also raises the question, what if Oregon can't get to the place where they wear the other team down? This could happen this season, and will almost definitely happen next season as other teams learn from Oregon's success.
The first key to staying in the game with Oregon is getting stops. While you always hear the talking heads say things like, "you gotta keep the Oregon offense off the field," to some degree that is true, though not for the reasons that the talking heads mean. Opposing teams simply must stop the Oregon offense early and often.
This was the recipe for tOSU, who bottled up the Oregon offense for much of last year's Rose Bowl. But the big problem, is that even when it doesn't seem to be clicking at full speed, Oregon's offense has been far more efficient than last season. This season, even if Oregon isn't scoring early, they are moving the ball, getting first downs, and beginning to wear the other team down.
Last season, Oregon had 56 drives without a first down. Though a bit inflated with 11 against BSU, Oregon averaged over 4 drives without a first down per game. If you remove the BSU game, they still averaged 3.75 drives without a first down per game.
In contrast, this season Oregon has only had 20 drives without a first down, good for a 2.2 average per game. This is even more impressive as 8 of those drives came in the Arizona State game, and a majority of those happened in the second half, when the Ducks seemingly stopped trying on offense, and were content to bleed the clock and let Steven Threet throw eleventy-billion interceptions.
Oregon has improved offensively this year with Darron Thomas at the helm, to such a degree that it has become almost impossible to get consistent stops against the Oregon offense. Last year we saw many drives end in three-and-outs, as the offense struggled mightily for large stretches. This year, that has not happened, and we've seen the results.
Can Oregon be stopped this season? In my mind, only by a team with a dominant defense. USC and Stanford hung tough with the Ducks because of their strong offenses, but could only stand the pressure for so long, because their defense couldn't keep the Ducks off the field.
Oregon is better than the S&P+ stats show, but those stats also give us some good answers on just why and how this Oregon team is so good. They have imposed their gameplan on other teams, and that has led to the Ducks leading the country in margin of victory. Can a team get those stops? Maybe, but if the offense continues to produce efficiently throughout the games, it will be very hard to stop these Ducks.