I love almost everything about college football. In my eyes there is no better sport on the planet. There are just a very few things that I don’t like about it. One of them tends to happen most in the first couple of weeks of the season – when top level teams from BCS conferences play virtual exhibition games against FCS teams. There are a handful of BCS teams that can give BCS teams a good contest, but for the most part it’s just a massacre. I don’t take any pleasure at all in watching a team lose by 50 points, and I don’t gain any respect for a college football team that wins like that. I just wish they didn’t exist – I’d rather cut the schedule to 11 games than have one game for a lot of teams look like this. Regardless, the games do exist, so we have to deal with them. The biggest question, then, is what can actually learn from these games? How do we assess what we actually learned from these games, and what was deceptive? Here are six things to keep in mind as a college football handicapper when you try to make your assessment:
Opponent’s YPC – When a BCS team plays a squad with far fewer scholarships and much less access to talent there should be a massive disparity in skill. The BCS team should be bigger, stronger, and faster than the FCS team – almost without exception. What we need to do, then, is to look at ways that we can see if they truly were dominant. The first way to do this is to look at the opponent’s running game. Just think about the dynamics of a running game. In order for one to succeed the offensive lineman need to consistently be able to push the defensive lineman aside and create holes for the running back. The running back needs to be able to exploit those holes, and they need to be strong enough to fight for extra yardage after the initial contact. Realistically, most FCS teams should not be able to do any of those things against a BCS team – at least not on a sustained basis. The easiest measure of how well they did is their yards per carry. If a team was able to rush for 5 or 6, or even just 4 yards per carry, then they had a pretty good day – certainly better than they should have been able to. That’s an indicator that the BCS team didn’t perform particularly well against the run, and that they could have problems when they face higher caliber opponents. On the other hand, if the FCS team could only manage 2 or 3 yards per carry then they were dominated by the defensive line, and there is no reason to be concerned about the BCS team. Another good measure if the FCS running back is a veteran starter is to look at how his YPC against the BCS team compared to his career average, or his typical performance in his last eight or ten games. If the FCS back had a good day in comparison then alarm bells about the BCS team should be ringing loud.
NPP% – This is another way to measure the effectiveness of the BCS defensive line. NPP% is the negative pass play percentage, or the number of passing plays by the opposing offense that ended up as either a sack or an interception. A BCS team should have an NPP% that is well above 10 percent. If they do then it’s a sign not only that they got sacks and interceptions, but that they were getting consistent pressure all day. If the NPP% is too low then you have to wonder why the bigger, stronger, faster defensive lineman couldn’t penetrate, and what that means against guys who are as big, strong, and fast as they are.
YPA – This is my favorite single stat in football because it gives such a good picture not only of how a QB is performing, but also how the offensive line is, and how the running game is working – a QB can’t have a good yards per attempt number if those factors aren’t clicking. It’s a holistic stat. Typically, the threshold for a YPA is 7. If a QB is averaging less than seven yards per passing attempt then he’s just not that effective. At that level he’s competent, and well above that he is performing well. When a high level BCS team is playing a lower level FCS team that YPA should be considerably higher than that. If I have a lot of faith in the quarterback then I’d be concerned if the YPA isn’t at least 10.
YAC – The BCS receivers should be bigger, stronger and faster (notice a theme?) than the FCS corners. That means that they should consistently be able to add a lot of yards after the catch. If they aren’t then you really have to look at what went wrong and what it means when those receivers face tougher corners.
How long the starters played – This is crucial. As soon as the starters were pulled – the quarterback especially – I no longer care about anything that happened in the game. The second-stringers won’t play meaningful time against a real opponent unless something dire has happened, so I just don’t care about what the FCS team did against those second stringers. Often times a score in a game like this will look close until you see that the FCS team had scored in the later parts of the game when the stars were out and cooled down.
Penalties – What I’m interested in here is whether the BCS team took what seems like an extreme number of penalties – more than you would expect from them in this situation. Penalties are most often the result of desperation – a player does something out of fear of the consequences if he doesn’t. If a BCS team is committing a lot of penalties – especially on defense – against a team that they should outmatch then there is probably something college football handicappers should be concerned about.