Beyond the Box Score: Special Teams

So after yesterday's look at Turnovers, it's now time to establish point values for special teams.  Leaving PATs out of it for now (it will obviously be easy to add them later), there are three major special teams category (and a fourth minor one): Field Goals, Punts, and Kickoffs (and then Free Kicks).  Let's attack them one at a time.

Field Goals

Figuring out what to do about Field Goals was by far the easiest of these categories.  I broke FGs into 5-yard increments (18-22 yards, 23-27, 28-32, etc.), looked at the % made in each group, and determined the expected number of points from each kick.  Here's what I found:

  • 18-22: kickers made 91.4% of these kicks.  3 points * 0.914 = 2.74 expected points
  • 23-27: 88.1%, 2.64 expected points
  • 28-32: 80.3%, 2.41 expected points
  • 33-37: 69.4%, 2.08 expected points
  • 38-42: 67.1%, 2.01 expected points
  • 43-47: 58.1%, 1.74 expected points
  • 48-52: 45.6%, 1.37 expected points
  • 53-57: 35.0%, 1.05 expected points
  • 58+: 20.0% (1-for-5), 0.60 expected points

So with that, we can treat every FG like an addition or loss of points.  For instance, if you miss a 25-yard FG, it's a loss of 2.64 points. If you make it, it's worth 0.36 points.  That may not seem like a lot, but you have to remember that the team has been adding (and possibly subtracting) points all the way up the field.  To get to the opponent's 8-yard line, they've probably earned at least somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3 EqPts, so the 0.36 points seems a lot more reasonable in that regard.

So for the season, who benefited the most from their field goal kickers?

Top 10, FG pts/game

1. Arizona State (1.27/g)
2. Indiana (1.12)
3. North Carolina (1.07)
4. Utah (1.07)
5. UCLA (1.07)
6. New Mexico (1.03)
7. UTEP (1.01)
8. Illinois (1.01)
9. Florida State (0.89)
10. Georgia Tech (0.82)

24. Texas (0.48)
31. Nebraska (0.45)
33. Oklahoma (0.42)
37. Missouri (0.34)

2007 All-American kickers included Arizona State's Thomas Weber, Indiana's Austin Starr, Utah's Louie Sakoda, and New Mexico's John Sullivan, so this seems right to me.  It also seems to me that UNC's Connor Barth and UCLAs Kai Forbath didn't get enough recognition.

Bottom 5

126. San Jose State (-1.56)
125. FCS Tier 3 (-1.34)
124. Duke (-1.26)
123. Miami-OH (-1.00)
122. Oklahoma State (-0.90)

(As a method of verifying this, I looked at OSU's 2007 stats.  Their two kickers--Jason Ricks and Dan Bailey--made 10 FGs, 9 of which were from under 30 yards.  Meanwhile, not only did they miss an under-30 kick, but they were also 1-for-8 from beyond 30.  Sounds like a Bottom 5 performance to me.

On to the kicking/return game...

Punts

The FG idea above was something of a no-brainer for me, but for Punts, Kickoffs, and Free Kicks, I had to toss around a few different ideas.  Here's what I did (and this applies roughly to all three):

  • Take the receiving team's point value for the line of scrimmage of the punt.  for example, you're punting from your 20 yard line.  If your opponent had the ball on your 20 yard line, it would be worth 3.898 points.
  • Take the point value of where the ball ended up.  In the above example, let's say the ball was punted 40 yards (to your opponent's 40) and returned 10 (to the 50).  The point value of the 50 is 2.095 points.
  • 3.898 - 2.095 = 1.803.  That punt was worth 1.803 points.
  • Got it?  So the higher the point total, the better it is for the kicking team.  The lower, the better for the receiving team.

Top 10 Teams, Punting

1. Ohio (2.03 pts/punt) (#53 in net punting-yards)
2. Texas A&M (1.89) (#4)
3. Toledo (1.86) (#2)
4. West Virginia (1.83) (#15)
5. Georgia Tech (1.81) (#7)
6. Eastern Michigan (1.81) (#6)
7. Cincinnati (1.81) (#1)
8. Penn State (1.80) (#3)
9. Oklahoma (1.80) (#24)
10. New Mexico (1.79) (#12)

12. Kansas State (1.75)
34. Texas Tech (1.64)
44. Iowa State (1.61)

So other than the crazy Ohio outlier, there's nothing too strange about these numbers.  When you think about it, the biggest difference between my numbers and the typical net punting-yards numbers are that...well, a touchback isn't too big a penalty with my numbers.  The difference between downing a punt at the 3 and having a touchback may be 17 yards (which is huge), but it's only 0.903 EqPts, a miniscule point margin compared to other areas of the field.

Bottom 5 Teams, Punting

126. Missouri (1.14)
125. San Jose State (1.19)
124. Kent State (1.23)
123. Nevada (1.27)
122. Oregon State (1.31)

Wow.  Strangely, I'm now more excited for 2008.  The single biggest question mark Mizzou has is at punter, where Adam Crossett is gone and Jake Harry and Random Walk-Ons #1-3 are fighting it out, but...well, we were already the worst in the nation in punting last year, and it didn't slow us down much!  What's it going to be in '08...worse than last place?

So what about the punt return side of things?

Top 10 Teams, Punt Returns (remember, the lower the better)

1. Kansas State (0.92 points per punt) (#1 overall in punt return avg-yds)
2. Utah State (1.23) (#2)
3. San Jose State (1.23) (#10)
4. Western Kentucky (1.26) (#9)
5. Army (1.27) (#5)
6. Ole Miss (1.27) (#95?)
7. Florida (1.27) (#7)
8. Alabama (1.29) (#11)
9. Idaho (1.33) (#3)
10. Navy (1.34) (#13)

And the worst?

126. Wyoming (2.04) (#101)
125. Middle Tennessee (1.91) (#86)
124. Virginia (1.88) (#56)
123. Southern Miss (1.79) (#93)
122. South Florida (1.78) (#65)

Kickoffs

For simplicity's sake, I set this up exactly the same.  You kick off from the 30, so that's the first point value in consideration.  The second is, naturally, where the ball ends up.  Simple = better in my eyes here.  I mean, I played around with the idea of figuring out the average point value of each kick (for kickoffs that was 1.46) and comparing teams' averages to that (so that about half the teams would be positive, half negative).  However, that basically leads you to the same order of teams, so in the end it just became an extra, meaningless step. 

So here we go.  The only difference between kickoffs and punts is that the lower number is better here (this is because the team listed as 'offense' in punts is the punting team, while the 'offense' here is the returning team--simply a technicality).

Top 10, Kickoffs

1. Virginia Tech (0.98)
2. UTEP (1.07)
3. Virginia (1.13)
4. Western Kentucky (1.19)
5. San Diego State (1.19)
6. Rice (1.19)
7. Iowa (1.21)
8. USC (1.23)
9. Ohio State (1.23)
10. Georgia Tech (1.24)

Beamer Ball strikes again.

Bottom 5, Kickoffs

(FCS Tier 5 and FCS Tier 6 were the bottom two, so we'll skip those)

126. New Mexico State (1.74)
125. Iowa State (1.73)
124. Temple (1.69)
123. Wyoming (1.68)
122. Washington State (1.66)

On the other end of things...

Top 10, Kickoff Returns

1. Akron (1.74)
2. UCLA (1.71)
3. Fresno State (1.69)
4. UConn (1.69)
5. Kansas (1.68)
6. Wake Forest (1.67)
7. Hawaii (1.67)
8. East Carolina (1.65)
9. Oklahoma (1.64)
10. Purdue (1.64)

Bottom 5, Kickoff Returns

126. Oregon State (1.08)
125. Duke (1.11)
124. New Mexico State (1.13)
123. Northern Illinois (1.14)
122. Virginia (1.14)

Free Kicks

I mentioned that this was a minor category--that's simply because, of 141,000+ plays in 2007, there were 54 free kicks.  They make a difference...but not really. Very few teams were involved in more than one free kick in 2007, so we won't waste the time listing bests and worsts here.  Just know that they're set up exactly the same as kickoffs, only they're from the 20 instead of the 30.

Special Teams Average

I've got a bit of Phil Steele in me, obviously.  Part of the reason I've done all these 'points' measures is for predictive purposes, by all means, but...like Steele, I just love ranking stuff.  (How many "power rankings" does he discuss at given times?  Like, 1,403?)  So with that in mind, you knew I'd attempt to come up with an "overall" Special Teams ranking as well.  I did this by adding together the 'higher is better' numbers, subtracting the 'lower is better' numbers.  So we get something like this:

Kickoff Return Avg + Punt Avg + (FG Avg * 2) - Kickoff Avg - Punt Return Avg = Special Teams Avg

(I multiplied FG by 2 so that FGs would carry the same weight as kickoffs and punts.)

For the hell of it, here are all 120 teams ranked by Special Teams Avg (I removed the 6 FCS 'tier 1-6' teams from this list):

  1. San Diego State (1.69)
  2. Arizona State (1.55)
  3. Georgia (1.50)
  4. UTEP (1.43)
  5. Indiana (1.38)
  6. UCLA (1.36)
  7. Nebraska (1.35)
  8. Illinois (1.27)
  9. Toledo (1.26)
  10. Utah (1.21)
  11. Oklahoma (1.18)
  12. Virginia Tech (1.12)
  13. NC State (1.09)
  14. Wake Forest (1.07)
  15. Kansas State (1.02)
  16. North Carolina (1.01)
  17. Ohio (0.98)
  18. Georgia Tech (0.95)
  19. UConn (0.93)
  20. USC (0.91)
  21. Troy (0.87)
  22. Idaho (0.86)
  23. South Carolina (0.84)
  24. UAB (0.83)
  25. New Mexico (0.81)
  26. Purdue (0.77)
  27. Boise State (0.76)
  28. Akron (0.72)
  29. Central Florida (0.67)
  30. Texas (0.66)
  31. LSU (0.63)
  32. Florida State (0.63)
  33. Maryland (0.61)
  34. UNLV (0.57)
  35. Arizona (0.57)
  36. Wisconsin (0.55)
  37. Hawaii (0.52)
  38. Ohio State (0.44)
  39. West Virginia (0.38)
  40. Bowling Green (0.35)
  41. Syracuse (0.34)
  42. Auburn (0.33)
  43. Buffalo (0.30)
  44. Penn State (0.30)
  45. Alabama (0.30)
  46. Tennessee (0.30)
  47. Missouri (0.24)
  48. Air Force (0.21)
  49. TCU (0.21)
  50. Mississippi State (0.20)
  51. Western Kentucky (0.17)
  52. Oregon (0.16)
  53. Colorado State (0.16)
  54. Fresno State (0.13)
  55. Texas Tech (0.11)
  56. Navy (0.11)
  57. Louisville (0.05)
  58. Marshall (0.05)
  59. Nevada (0.05)
  60. Pittsburgh (0.03)
  61. Virginia (0.02)
  62. Arkansas (-0.01)
  63. Kansas (-0.02)
  64. Washington (-0.02)
  65. Tulane (-0.10)
  66. Florida (-0.11)
  67. Rutgers (-0.14)
  68. Southern Miss (-0.15)
  69. SMU (-0.16)
  70. Utah State (-0.16)
  71. Kent State (-0.18)
  72. South Florida (-0.18)
  73. Clemson (-0.19)
  74. Western Michigan (-0.24)
  75. Florida Atlantic (-0.26)
  76. BYU (-0.26)
  77. Michigan (-0.26)
  78. Michigan State (-0.29)
  79. UL-Lafayette (-0.36)
  80. Minnesota (-0.39)
  81. Cincinnati (-0.41)
  82. Texas A&M (-0.43)
  83. Stanford (-0.44)
  84. California (-0.45)
  85. Wyoming (-0.45)
  86. Colorado (-0.47)
  87. Arkansas State (-0.51)
  88. Kentucky (-0.51)
  89. Florida International (-0.52)
  90. Washington State (-0.54)
  91. Northwestern (-0.58)
  92. Eastern Michigan (-0.58)
  93. Oregon State (-0.59)
  94. Boston College (-0.62)
  95. Iowa (-0.69)
  96. Miami-FL (-0.74)
  97. Houston (-0.74)
  98. Louisiana Tech (-0.75)
  99. Northern Illinois (-0.75)
  100. Miami-OH (-0.76)
  101. Central Michigan (-0.78)
  102. Ball State (-0.78)
  103. Ole Miss (-0.79)
  104. Rice (-0.79)
  105. Army (-0.85)
  106. UL-Monroe (-0.96)
  107. Memphis (-1.07)
  108. Tulsa (-1.11)
  109. East Carolina (-1.11)
  110. Iowa State (-1.12)
  111. Vanderbilt (-1.14)
  112. Oklahoma State (-1.35)
  113. New Mexico State (-1.41)
  114. Temple (-1.46)
  115. North Texas (-1.52)
  116. San Jose State (-1.66)
  117. Notre Dame (-1.67)
  118. Baylor (-1.73)
  119. Middle Tenenssee (-1.99)
  120. Duke (-2.95)

I've bolded the teams who finished in the AP Top 10, just to see how much of an impact Special Teams made on their success.  As you see, some finished high on the list, some in the middle, but 9 of 10 were on the plus side of the ledger.  (Of course, Boston College finished tied for #10 with Texas, and they were pretty bad on this list.)  So I guess this shows that you don't necessarily have to be great in the special teams department, but you can't be too bad unless you're playing a weak schedule (Kansas) or in a weak conference (Boston College).

My original intent here was to rank teams based on a "special teams points per game" type of measure.  However, there's a problem with that--the teams that score a lot are penalized a lot because, well, they also kickoff a lot.  So while the per-game numbers are important as far as adding up the components of a final score goes, it's not very good for ranking teams on their special teams units.  The above way works better, I'd say.

SUMMARY

So what have we accomplished today, class?  Well, we've ranked teams.  That's always fun.  And beyond that, we've now come up with ways to measure the remaining component of the typical football game that impacts the number of points put on the scoreboard.  You can see where this is going, I'm assuming--next up, we'll rank the teams!  I'm a-twitter just thinking about it, and I know you are too!!

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