Stats & Info: NCF

Advanced stats favor Kaminsky over Okafor

February, 19, 2015
Feb 19
videoWhen the Wooden Award Top 25 Watch List was unveiled in the middle of January, the race for the top player in college basketball was wide open.

Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky, Virginia’s Justin Anderson and Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein headlined the midseason list, but others such as Utah’s Delon Wright, Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell and Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant were also in the conversation.

One month later, when the list was narrowed to 20, it seemed to be a two-man race between Kaminsky and Okafor.

When comparing these players’ base-level stats, the competition for the top player in college basketball appears to be a dead heat; both players are averaging at least 17 points, eight rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, playing for one of the nation’s top teams against similarly rated schedules.

When digging deeper into advanced metrics, however, Kaminsky has the edge because of his versatility on offense, above-average defense and overall contributions to his team’s record.

There is no denying that Okafor is one of the most efficient 2-point scorers in the nation (he ranks sixth in field goal percentage), but Kaminsky adds the ability to spread the floor and make free throws. Accounting for these factors, Kaminsky and Okafor have comparable true shooting percentages, with Okafor having a slight edge as a scorer.

What sets Kaminsky apart on the offensive end, however, are his contributions beyond scoring. He has almost twice the assist rate and half the turnover percentage as Okafor, using a similar number of possessions.

Because of his all-around offensive contributions, Kaminsky is averaging more points per play and has a higher offensive rating than Okafor (via College Basketball Reference)

Although many of the advanced offensive metrics favor Kaminsky, both players are having extremely efficient seasons on that end of the court. They are major reasons why Wisconsin and Duke are two of the most efficient offenses in the nation.

The one major difference when comparing the two players, though, is their contributions on defense. Despite his size, Okafor is 14th in the ACC in defensive rebound percentage and has struggled to keep opponents out of the paint (Duke allowed 62 paint point Wednesday against UNC). Kaminsky leads the Big Ten in defensive rebound percentage and is rebounding almost 27 percent of his opponents’ missed shots.

Basketball Reference’s defensive rating is an estimate of the points a player allows per 100 possessions that he faces while on the court. It is based on his rebounds, blocks, steals, turnovers and forced misses. Based on this all-encompassing measure, Kaminsky is a top-35 defender and Okafor ranks outside of the top 300 (minimum of 20 minutes per game and 20 games played).

Overall efficiency
There are many ways to measure a player’s overall impact on the game, but no matter which metric you chose, Kaminsky comes out on top.

Player efficiency rating (PER) is a catch-all metric that adjusts for the pace of the game. It measures the per-minute productivity of a player while he is on the court. Kaminsky leads the nation in PER, and Okafor ranks third.

Wins shares is a similar metric, designed to measure how many wins a player produces for his team. Kaminsky has produced a Division I-high 6.4 wins for Wisconsin, compared with 4.8 win shares for Okafor.

To see Kaminsky’s value to his team, look no further than Wisconsin’s 67-62 loss to Rutgers. Kaminsky missed that game with a concussion, and Wisconsin posted its worst game of the season, as measured by Game BPI. With Kaminsky, Wisconsin is 24-1 and has the second-best BPI rating in the country, behind Kentucky.

Although Duke beat Wisconsin in a head-to-head matchup of these players, no player has contributed more to his team’s success than Kaminsky, making him, by most advanced metrics, the favorite to win the 2015 Wooden Award.

What will it take to beat Kentucky?

February, 16, 2015
Feb 16

Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesWillie Cauley-Stein’s all-around contributions have helped Kentucky stay unbeaten.
At 25-0, the Kentucky Wildcats have tied the best start in school history. But tight wins over the Florida Gators and the LSU Tigers have shown that the Wildcats are vulnerable. What will it take to knock them off?

• Win the battle in the paint
Kentucky has six wins this season by single digits. In those games, they’ve allowed an average of 29.7 points in the paint. In their other 19 games, they’ve allowed 18.6 points in the paint. LSU, which is second among major conference teams with 37.5 points per game in the paint, topped that mark with 40 in its two-point loss to the Wildcats on Feb. 10.

Best chance: Among Kentucky’s remaining opponents, Arkansas (31.8 points per game) and Georgia (30.8) get the most production in the paint. The Wildcats average 31.4 paint points.

• Take care of the ball
Kentucky averages 19.2 points per game off turnovers, fifth-best among major conference teams. The six teams that have kept the game close against the Wildcats have done a much better job of protecting the ball. In their 19 double-digit wins, the Wildcats have forced turnovers on 25 percent of opponents’ possessions. In the closer games, that number has dropped to 19 percent.

Best chance: Arkansas. The Razorbacks turn the ball over on 17 percent of possessions, the lowest turnover rate in the SEC.

• Exploit Kentucky’s weakness on the defensive glass
If you look at Kentucky’s page on, one number leaps out. The only area in which Kentucky is below average is on the defensive glass, where it ranks 238th in the nation by allowing opponents to get 33 percent of offensive rebound opportunities.

Best chance: Tennessee (the Wildcats’ opponent Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN) gets 36 percent of its offensive rebound opportunities, second-best in the SEC (behind Kentucky). Arkansas does a better job turning its offensive rebounds into points, averaging 14.0 second-chance points per game (third-best among major conference teams).

• Force the Wildcats outside
Kentucky’s outside shooting has been streaky this season. In their last two close wins, the Wildcats made only 5 of 26 attempts (19 percent) from 3-point range.

Best chance: Georgia holds its opponents to 31 percent from behind the arc this season and limited Kentucky to 32 percent (7-for-22) in their first meeting.

Looking ahead to the NCAA tournament
If Kentucky enters the NCAA tournament without a loss, who has the best chance to prevent the Wildcats from becoming the first men’s team to finish 40-0?

• Virginia: The Cavaliers come the closest to checking off all four boxes. They are fourth nationally in turnover rate (15 percent) and also rank in the top 30 nationally in 3-point defense (30 percent). Virginia outscores its opponents by 9.5 points per game in the paint and is in the top 75 nationally in offensive rebound percentage.

• Duke: The Blue Devils match up well inside, ranking 16th in offensive rebound percentage (38 percent) and third among major conference teams in paint points per game (37.0). Duke turns the ball over on 17 percent of its possessions, 35th among 351 Division I teams.

• Wisconsin: The Badgers turn the ball over on a Division I-low 12 percent of possessions. But Wisconsin averages only 29.5 points per game in the paint and is near the Division I average in both offensive rebound percentage and 3-point defense.

• North Carolina: Among teams outside the top 10 in the polls, don’t overlook the Tar Heels. UNC averages 38.4 paint points per game, most among major conference teams. The Tar Heels also rank near the top nationally in offensive rebound percentage (second, 42 percent) and 3-point defense (ninth, 29 percent).

Preseason FPI: Ohio State is No. 1

February, 9, 2015
Feb 9

National Signing Day is complete, which means that the 2015 college football season is officially underway.

It also means that there is enough information available for ESPN’s Preseason Football Power Index (FPI) to determine the best and worst teams heading into next season.

Preseason ratings are historically flawed. Team reputations are generally overvalued, and the top historical programs often end up on top.

Preseason FPI takes a lot of the subjectivity out of the process. It uses data that has been found to be predictive of future performance to project how strong each FBS team will be in the coming season. Last year, the top three teams in preseason FPIFlorida State, Oregon and Alabama – made the playoff.

This year, FPI projects that reigning national champion Ohio State is the strongest team in the nation entering the 2015 season.

It is important to note that this is the first version of preseason FPI. In the offseason, ESPN will gather updated information on returning starters based on injuries, suspensions, transfers, etc., increasing the accuracy of the predictions. A final version of the rankings will be released before next season along with team projections.

The projections will likely look different than the current rankings because the projections account for schedule. For example, LSU ranks third in preseason FPI, but that does not mean that the Tigers will win the third-most games or make the College Football Playoff. LSU plays a tough SEC schedule, including road games against Alabama and Ole Miss; therefore, the Tigers might not rank in the top 10 in projected win total even though they are one of the strongest teams in the country on a neutral field.

What goes into preseason FPI and why?
Four components are factored into the ratings: prior years’ efficiency, information on returning starters, recruiting and coaching tenure. Based on statistical modeling, these factors interact with one another and are assigned different weights depending on the team.

The most important features of the ratings are prior years’ performances using ESPN's efficiency ratings. The most recent year’s performance generally has the greatest impact, but previous years’ performances have also been found to be predictive. For example, Baylor and Texas A&M have ranked in the top 10 in offensive efficiency in each of the last three years, despite starting multiple quarterbacks during that time. The system and coach have an impact, which is why both of those teams are expected to have a top-five offense in 2015.

The second-most important factor is returning-starters information, which was provided by ESPN Insider Phil Steele. All teams – even bad ones - are helped by a large number of returning starters. Offensive and defensive starters are tracked separately, with special consideration given to teams returning a quarterback. In fact, a team returning a quarterback and at least three other starters results in about a three-point boost in offensive efficiency (equal to about three points per game), on average.

In 2015, Notre Dame is expected to return a Power 5-high 19 starters, including its starting quarterback. Despite finishing 35th in overall efficiency last year, Notre Dame’s unusually high number of returning starters, as well as solid recruiting and a sixth-year head coach, has the Irish ranked seventh heading into next season.

The third component of preseason FPI is recruiting. A four-year average recruiting ranking of four systems (ESPN, Scouts, Rivals and Phil Steele) is used to measure the talent on the roster. Whether teams recruit well because they are successful or teams are successful because of recruiting is a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg discussion. Nonetheless, recruiting makes a difference – though probably not as big of a difference as many would think – when measuring future performance.

LSU not only returns 15 starters (nine on offense), but also, based on its four-year average recruiting rank, has a talented pool of players. The Tigers might surprise some as the third-ranked team, but given whom they are returning, not many programs will field a more talented team than LSU.

Finally, coaching tenure is accounted for in the rankings, mainly to capture the impact of a new head coach. A first-year coach brings his own system, which likely is different from the one used by the former coach. Therefore, the year-to-year correlation with efficiency ratings will be smaller with a new coach. Depending on a team’s performance in prior years, a new head coach can have a positive or a negative impact on the projections.

With Will Muschamp as its head coach, Florida was weak on offense (ranked 77th in the last four years) and strong on defense (ranked fifth in the last four years). Jim McElwain, in addition to other factors such as returning starters, helps Florida’s offensive projections (57th) but hurts its preseason defensive ranking (11th).

For a more detailed explanation of what we learned while developing preseason FPI last year, click here. Keep an eye out for the newest version of the preseason rankings and team projections coming out before next season.

Video data polishes College Total QBR

February, 9, 2015
Feb 9
Wire photosConnor Cook (left), Blake Sims were among those most affected by postseason adjustments to QBR.
Every year, ESPN’s College Total QBR metric undergoes minor changes at the end of the season. In the interest of complete transparency, an explanation and analysis of the 2014 changes are below.

Total QBR is an all-encompassing metric that captures all aspects of a quarterback’s play – passing, rushing, sacks, fumbles, penalties, etc. It is built off play-by-play data and accounts for down, distance, field position, clock and score to determine which quarterbacks are the most and least efficient in the country. A full explanation of Total QBR can be found here.

College QBR differs from the NFL version in a few important ways. First, College QBR adjusts for the strength of opposing defenses and the NFL version does not. This is necessary in college because of the varying competition faced in conference and non-conference play.

Another important difference is that the NFL version uses live video tracking to capture data such as air yards of passes, number of pass rushers, run type, etc. This information is not widely available for all FBS schools, particularly the lower-level ones, so - during the season - this component of QBR is estimated from play-by-play data (down, distance, target position, etc.). The estimates are based on statistical analysis and modeling.

Once the season is complete, ESPN obtains video-derived data for the majority of FBS conferences (all Power 5, American, Mountain West and a few others) and replaces the estimated component of QBR with exact data.

Factoring in the exact data generally does not result in significant changes to a player’s season QBR, though there were some notable changes in 2014. A complete list of updated player QBRs can be found here, but below are some notable changes. As you will see, most changes are a result of air yards and scrambles for quarterbacks.

2014 final QBR numbers
Marcus Mariota remained No. 1 in Total QBR after the postseason adjustments. His QBR remained relatively unchanged, and he ended the season with a sizable lead over the second-place finisher, J.T. Barrett.

The biggest mover in the top 10 was Michigan State’s Connor Cook. Why? Sixty-three percent of Cook’s passing yards came through the air (rather than after the catch), the highest percentage of any Power 5 quarterback with at least 100 passes. In other words, Cook did not rely on yards after the catch for his passing yards.

Blake Sims fell from second to fifth in QBR for reasons similar to Cook’s rise. Led by Amari Cooper, Alabama gained 54 percent of its passing yards after the catch, the third-highest percentage in the SEC. Sims also benefited from some improbable long plays; he led the SEC with 24 completions of 30 yards or longer, yet six of those completions came on passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage (see Cooper’s 52-yard touchdown against FAU). No other Power 5 player had more 30-yard completions (six) or touchdowns (four) on passes behind the line of scrimmage than Sims.

Barrett replaced Sims as No. 2 in Total QBR. Barrett was helped by his scrambling: a Big Ten-high 315 rush yards (7.3-yard average) and three touchdowns.

Looking beyond the top 10, Clemson’s Cole Stoudt had the largest decrease in Total QBR (-7.8 points) among qualified players after the addition of tracked data. Stoudt’s average pass traveled 6.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, two yards shorter than the Power 5 average (8.7).

Conversely, UNLV’s Blake Decker had the largest increase in Total QBR (+4.8 points). His average pass traveled 10.9 yards past the line of scrimmage, two yards farther than the Power 5 average. He gained 364 of his 366 rush yards on scrambles, and a player generally receives more credit for a scramble than a designed rush in the Total QBR calculation.

Overall, the teams that relied heavily on quick, short screens (Washington State, West Virginia, Texas Tech) were negatively affected by the updated information, and the ones that passed downfield more frequently (Michigan State, Minnesota, Florida) were positively affected.

Though these changes were minor – two players had QBR changes of more than five points – adding the additional information at the end of the season made QBR more accurate by adding information that allows us to isolate the quarterback's effect on each play. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section of this post and we will do our best to answer.

Ohio State at top of Preseason FPI

February, 6, 2015
Feb 6

Preseason college football ratings historically have been flawed. Team reputations are generally overvalued, and the top historical programs often end up on top. ESPN Stats & Information has again created an automated set of preseason ratings for all FBS teams heading into the 2015 season, designed to predict how strong each team will be this coming season. (More detail on how Preseason FPI is determined is available in this post.)

FPI is an estimate of team strength – not a ranking of who will have the highest win total (which is dependent on schedule) and not who is most likely to make the College Football Playoff. Preseason FPI is calculated using three major components for each FBS team: prior years’ offense, defense and special teams efficiencies; returning starters and head coach information; and recruiting rankings.

Last season, the top three teams in Preseason FPI (Florida State, Oregon and Alabama) made the inaugural College Football Playoff.

SEC stays atop recruiting rankings

February, 4, 2015
Feb 4

The SEC continued its stranglehold on recruiting, and USC and UCLA were the biggest winners for uncommitted players as FBS teams collected letters of intent from top high school prospects Wednesday on national signing day.

According to ESPN's recruiting rankings, the SEC finished with 10 of the top 20 classes. The conference landed 118 players ranked in the ESPN 300, 24 more than the next two conferences combined.

Why does signing day matter? Consider this: The past four national champions had a four-year average recruiting ranking in the top six.

SEC, Alabama cash in
Five of the top 10 players in the ESPN 300 were defensive linemen. All five went to SEC schools. Of the top 15 players in the ESPN 300, 10 signed with SEC schools.

Looking at the top 100 players, 44 signed with SEC schools (3.14 recruits per school). Taking it a step further, the SEC West has 33 of those 44. The Pac-12 ranked second among conferences with 20 of the top 100 (1.67 per school).

Alabama had a fairly quiet national signing day, but the lack of surprises turned out well for the Crimson Tide. They finished with the No. 1 class for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year.

The Tide signed 19 players in the ESPN 300, three more than any other FBS school (USC). This is the fourth year in a row Alabama has been No. 1 in ESPN 300 signings.

Signing Day winners: UCLA, USC
Los Angeles rivals UCLA and USC combined to sign eight of the 17 players who announced their college choice on ESPNU on Wednesday.

Among UCLA's nation-high five players committing on signing day was Cordell Broadus, the No. 14 wide receiver in the nation and son of noted USC supporter Snoop Dogg.

Landing Broadus helped UCLA rise from 17th in the team recruiting rankings entering the day to 11th at the end of the day, the largest jump of any school that began in the top 40.

USC signed its highest-ranked class since the team was put on probation. The Trojans signed 16 players in the ESPN 300 (three of whom committed Wednesday).

USC signed three players who were No. 1 at their position: cornerback Iman Marshall, running back Ronald Jones II and inside linebacker John Houston Jr.

Florida signs two five-star recruits
Florida began the day outside the top 40 in the team rankings, but after signing two five-star players, the Gators rose to 20th. This is the first year since 2006 that Florida ranks outside of the top 12, but it might have been lower without a late push by coach Jim McElwain.

The Gators signed two five-star players Wednesday: offensive tackle Martez Ivey and defensive end CeCe Jefferson. The Gators have signed five five-star players the past three years, second most in the nation behind Alabama (eight).

Top five classes fill needs
Alabama has to replace wide receiver Amari Cooper, who declared for the NFL draft. Cooper had 107 more targets and 84 more receptions than any other Crimson Tide player. The Tide signed the No. 1 wide receiver, Calvin Ridley, and another top-10 receiver Wednesday.

Florida State had an FBS-high five early declarations for the NFL draft. The Seminoles rebounded with the most five-star players (three) of any school in 2015.

Clemson got eight ESPN 300 commitments from players on the offensive or defensive lines -- both positions of need -- tied with Georgia for the most in the FBS.

USC, with top-ranked Jones at running back, has someone to succeed Javorius Allen, who gained a Pac-12-high 1,947 yards from scrimmage. The Trojans signed three defensive tackles from among the ESPN 300 with the potential to replace Leonard Williams.

Tennessee allowed 43 sacks last season, most in the SEC, and signed three ESPN 300 recruits on the offensive line in its 2015 class.

Recruiting picture a repeat: SEC rules

February, 3, 2015
Feb 3

Miller Safrit/ESPNFive-star recruit Kendall Sheffield committed to Alabama last month.
National Signing Day is one day away, and the SEC looks poised for another dominant recruiting year.

The SEC has eight of the top 15 classes, according to ESPN’s RecruitingNation, and many of the top undecided recruits have at least one SEC school on their list of contenders.

Although top-notch recruiting does not always translate to on-field success, the SEC has recruited like no other conference in recent years.

Consider these numbers. From 2012 to 2014:

• Looking at the top five classes each of the three years, 10 of the 15 belong to the SEC.

• The SEC signed 302 players ranked in the ESPN 300, 181 more than any other conference.

• The SEC signed 21 five-star recruits; the rest of the country, 16.

No. 1 within Alabama's reach
The SEC’s recruiting dominance begins with the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Tide have signed a top-three class in each of the last seven seasons and are likely to sign an unprecedented fourth straight No. 1 class in 2015.

No other team this decade has come close to Alabama in terms of recruiting. Since ESPN started giving out five-star ratings in 2010, 77 players have earned that distinction. Alabama has signed an FBS-high 10 of the 77, with a commitment from another in 2015 (cornerback Kendall Sheffield).

In 2015, Alabama is set to sign another top class. Entering Signing Day, the Tide have 25 commitments, 18 from players in the ESPN 300. To add context, no other team has commitments from more than 14 ESPN 300 players, and the entire Big Ten has 31 ESPN 300 commitments (2.2 per school).

Alabama probably will lead the nation in ESPN 300 signees for a fourth-straight season. It’s not surprising that Alabama had nine more ESPN 300 players on its active roster last year than any other FBS team.

The SEC’s recruiting dominance begins with Alabama, but plenty of other teams are making an impact on the recruiting trails. Last season, in Butch Jones’ first full recruiting season, Tennessee signed a top-five class. The Volunteers, with 29 committed players, are likely to sign another top class in 2015. Georgia joins Tennessee with a projected top-five class, the Bulldogs’ first in the last three seasons.

As Ole Miss’ fifth-ranked class in 2013 showed, top-notch recruiting can have an impact on the field. SEC schools Ole Miss, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas A&M, LSU, Auburn and Mississippi State are all projected to sign a top-15 class. If those numbers hold, it will be the most top-15 classes (eight) for any conference in any year since 2006.

Those class rankings are likely to change on Wednesday, with six of the top 10 players set to announce their intentions on ESPNU. All six of those players have at least one SEC school on their shortlist, which means it could be another dominant Signing Day for the schools down south.

Buckeyes show: Yards per game deceive

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14

Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesOhio State’s defense Monday night performed better than traditional stats say.
In Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, Oregon gained 465 yards against Ohio State. That’s about 56 yards more than the FBS average in a game in 2014, and it dropped Ohio State’s FBS rank in total defense from 17th to 19th. So by yardage numbers traditionally used to rate and rank defenses, Monday night’s performance was below average.

But defense is about more than yards allowed. Looking at it on a drive-by-drive basis, Ohio State held Oregon without points on 10 of its 14 drives -- six punts, two turnovers on downs, the end of the first half and the game-ending interception. Preventing the Ducks from scoring on fourth-and-goal early in the second quarter and holding them to field goal attempts on two other red zone drives were particularly strong defensive sequences the yardage numbers don’t capture well.

So even before adjusting for how strong Oregon’s offense is, Ohio State’s defense added more than four points to the scoring margin in terms of expected points added (EPA), taking into account all it did based on the situation before and after every play. That’s not a tremendous number, but given that the FBS average is about zero, it does show that the defense was a positive for the Buckeyes within the game.

To get a more accurate measure of Ohio State’s defense compared with other teams across all games, the performance should be adjusted for the fact it came against Oregon’s offense, which ranks best in FBS in terms of offensive efficiency (based on EPA per game, adjusted for opponent strength). With that adjustment, Ohio State’s defense comes out as plus-23.8 in the national title game -- an extremely positive performance. In fact, it was the third-best defensive performance of the 2014 bowl season and the 11th-best in any BCS/New Year’s Six bowl game going back 10 seasons.

In summary, if you use yards, Ohio State’s defense played worse than average Monday night. If you use expected points added, it looks better than average. And if you adjust that for the quality of Oregon’s offense, it looks way better than average -- which is more in line with reality.

Most champions rank better in efficiency than yards or points per game
National champion Ohio State finished the season fourth in offensive efficiency and 16th in defensive efficiency. Efficiency measures the contribution of the given unit to the scoring margin across all plays, adjusted for opponent strength.

The Buckeyes, like each of the eight national champions before them, ranked better in offensive efficiency than in yards per game and points per game at the end of the season. Specific to yards per game -- the default measure of offense -- the national champion ranked better in efficiency each time, by an average of 13 to 14 spots.

The story is similar but not as extreme with defense. Each of the past five and eight of the past 10 national champions rank at least as highly in defensive efficiency as yards or points allowed.

Looking across both offensive and defensive efficiency, each of the last 10 national champions has ranked in the top five of at least one of these categories at the end of the season, with nine of the 10 ranking in the top 16 of both categories. This cannot be said about the yardage or points-based measures of offense and defense.

A set of 10 good teams ranking better in efficiency than the traditional stats is by no means proof that the efficiency stats are better -- they are better because of all they take into account that the traditional stats miss or wrongly assign. But it’s also good to know that the efficiency numbers align more with reality than the traditional stats do for the offenses and defenses of the college football teams that finished at the top the past 10 years.

Efficiency hallmark of NFL-bound Mariota

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14

Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesAmong FBS quarterbacks with 100 or more TD passes, Marcus Mariota has the fewest interceptions.
Marcus Mariota, one of the most efficient and accurate quarterbacks in college football history, announced Wednesday he will leave the University of Oregon with a year of eligibility remaining and make himself available for the NFL draft. The 2014 Heisman Trophy winner is the No. 2 player on the Scouts Inc. Big Board and No. 1 in Todd McShay’s first mock draft.

Mariota finished his Oregon career with the lowest interception percentage in FBS history (1.2 percent). Among quarterbacks with at least 14 starts, his 88.8 career Total QBR is the second best in the past 10 seasons. Of the top five players on that list, three were drafted No. 1 overall (Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and Sam Bradford).

It’s worth noting that the five Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks active in the NFL have a winning percentage of 46 percent. Early-entrant quarterbacks chosen in the first round in the past 10 seasons also have a winning percentage of 46 percent.

NFL draft
Mariota and Florida State’s Jameis Winston, the 2013 Heisman winner, are widely expected to be the first two quarterbacks chosen in the NFL draft this spring. Winston declared for the draft last week.

Early-entrant quarterbacks generally have struggled in the NFL. Since 2006, the first year of ESPN's Total QBR, 13 early-entrant quarterbacks have been chosen in the first round. Three -- Luck, Mark Sanchez and Vince Young -- have winning records as starters; four have posted career Total QBRs of 25 or worse.

If Mariota or Winston is chosen first, he would be the sixth Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback chosen first overall in the common draft era (since 1967). There are five active Heisman-winning quarterbacks in the NFL, and none of them has a career record above .500. The group had zero combined playoff wins until Newton and the Panthers defeated the Cardinals earlier this month.

Each of the teams in the top six of the NFL draft order finished in the bottom 10 in Total QBR last season. Mariota’s former coach, Chip Kelly, has the No. 20 pick with the Eagles.

College career
Mariota led the FBS in Total QBR this season (90.8) after ranking second each of the previous two seasons. He has 21 games with a Total QBR of 90 or greater (including an FBS-high nine games this season), the most by any player in the past 10 seasons.

From a total offense perspective, Mariota finished his career as the most efficient player in FBS history. There have been 180 players to gain at least 9,000 yards of offense, and six have averaged at least eight yards a play. Mariota is No. 1 at 8.67. Second, at 8.47 yards per play, is Luck of Stanford.

Among the 20 FBS players who have thrown at least 100 touchdowns, nobody has thrown fewer interceptions than Mariota, and it's not even close. Five players have 100 or more passing touchdowns and fewer than 30 interceptions. Mariota doesn't even have 15 interceptions.

Mariota improved against the blitz each season. His touchdown passes against the blitz have gone up every year, and his 2014 statistics against extra pass-rushers -- including a 71.6 completion percentage -- were his best across the board.

Mariota was consistently accurate (completion percentage of at least 58 percent in every game) and consistently productive (responsible for at least one touchdown in 28 of 29 halves this season). He didn’t play the second half against South Dakota and didn’t account for a touchdown in the first half of the Rose Bowl against Florida State.

Mariota finished his career with 14 interceptions in 1,167 passes. His rate of 1.2 interceptions per 100 passes is an NCAA record (min. 1,050 passes), breaking Geno Smith’s record (1.43 per 100).

Pac-12 tops final conference rankings

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
After posting a Power 5-best 6-3 record in bowls, the Pac-12 rose to No. 1 in ESPN Stats & Information’s Conference Power Rankings -- a system that equally weighs the rankings from The Associated Press poll and ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) to determine the best and worst conferences in the country.

The Pac-12 not only had the best record, but it also outscored its opponents by more than eight points per game in bowls. Oregon, Utah and Stanford won by 24 or more points, and UCLA, Arizona State and USC won hard-fought contests. After an impressive bowl season, which included a trip to the national championship, the Pac-12 finished the year with six teams ranked in the AP poll, tied for the most of any conference with the SEC.

As the Pac-12 excelled, the SEC’s top teams struggled through bowl season. The SEC West in particular -- which was 28-0 against nonconference opponents entering bowls -- went 2-5, including 0-4 in New Year’s Six bowls.

Although many were quick to bury the SEC, the Conference Power Rankings account for the entire season and all teams in the conference, and the strength at the bottom of the SEC is unrivaled in college football.

We learned throughout bowl season, however, that there is more parity across the top of conferences than might have been expected. Each Power 5 conference had two teams in the top 10 of the final AP poll, and all had a team ranked in the top six.

After Ohio State's 42-20 victory over Oregon Monday night, the national champion is from the Big Ten for the first time since 2002. The Big Ten’s reputation had taken a hit in recent years, but Ohio State helped dispel the myth that the Big Ten could not compete with other top conferences by taking down the SEC and Pac-12 champions on its path to the title.

Michigan State and Wisconsin also beat top-20 opponents to help the Big Ten post its first winning record in bowls since 2009. Even more impressive is that the Big Ten was a Vegas underdog in all 11 of its bowl games and was expected to win about four games, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. After exceeding expectations, the Big Ten rose 6.1 points in the Conference Power Rankings, the biggest rise of any conference during bowl season.

Elsewhere, the Big 12 had the worst bowl record of any Power 5 conference. Besides TCU’s 39-point victory over Ole Miss, the Big 12 was outscored by an average of 10.7 points in its other six games. The Big 12 ended the year 3-12 against nonconference opponents ranked in the top 40 of ESPN’s Football Power Index, the worst record of any Power 5 conference.

Next year, expect another great competition between the Pac-12 and SEC for the top conference in the nation. The SEC’s weakness this year, inexperience at quarterback, should become a strength as nine of 14 teams are returning their starting QBs next season.

The Big Ten and Big 12 also should make a splash with TCU, Ohio State and Baylor ranked as the top three teams heading into next season in Mark Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early Top 25. Keep an eye out for ESPN’s Preseason FPI, which will be released this spring, to see where your team and conference rank heading into next season.

Elliott, Buckeyes run over Ducks

January, 13, 2015
Jan 13

Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesEzekiel Elliott rushed for 246 yards -- a national championship game record -- in the Buckeyes’ win.
Much of the attention heading into Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T was centered on Ohio State’s backfield. That was a key area, but the attention, as it turned out, should have been on two players.

Ezekiel Elliott continued his late-season surge, and starting quarterback Cardale Jones belied his inexperience, helping carry the Ohio State Buckeyes to a 42-20 victory over the Oregon Ducks.

Elliott gained 246 yards and four touchdowns on 36 rushes, setting national championship-game records (since the BCS era began in 1998) for rushing yards and touchdowns. Texas’ Vince Young and USC’s LenDale White rushed for three touchdowns each in the 2006 Rose Bowl.

With his third consecutive 200-yard rushing game, Elliott also broke Ohio State’s bowl record for rushing yards, surpassing the mark of Raymont Harris, who had 235 yards in the 1993 Holiday Bowl in 1993.

Jones strong in bowl debut
Jones, thrust into the starting quarterback job after injuries to Braxton Miller and J.T. Barrett, didn’t play like a third-string quarterback. He entered the game with two career starts. That is the fewest starts for an official championship-winning quarterback, beating the 12 starts of Alabama’s AJ McCarron (2012 season), LSU’s Matt Flynn (2008) and Tennessee’s Tee Martin (1999) before the championship game.

Jones continued the type of play that had led Ohio State to 101 points in his first two starts. The 6-foot-5, 250-pound sophomore completed 16 of 23 passes for 242 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

The interception came on a drop when Oregon’s Danny Mattingly nabbed a bobbled ball at the end of Ohio State’s first drive of the third quarter. That interception was part of the Buckeyes’ minus-3 turnover margin, a stat that Ohio State is alone in being able to overcome in a championship game.

Four teams had been minus-3 or worse in turnover margin in the championship game era: Notre Dame (minus-3) in 2012, Texas (minus-3) in 2009, Oklahoma (minus-5) in 2004 and Miami (minus-3) in 2002. All four of those teams lost the championship game. And Oregon had been 31-1 in the past five seasons when having a turnover margin of plus-2 or better.

The Ducks didn’t exploit the turnovers or maximize their red zone opportunities. The Ducks scored 13 points in four red zone trips compared with Ohio State’s 35 points in five chances.

Led by Heisman Trophy winning Marcus Mariota, Oregon took the opening kickoff and drove for a 7-0 score. Mariota finished with 24 completions on 37 passes (two touchdowns, one interception), but he became the latest current Heisman winner to lose in the championship game.

Quick hitters
Ohio State’s win probability at halftime, leading 21-10, was 84 percent (Oregon’s was 16 percent). The Ducks ranked second in the FBS with on average an 80 percent chance to win at the half and never had lower than a 30 percent halftime win probability this season. … Ohio State improved its record under coach Urban Meyer when an underdog to 6-0. … The Buckeyes have trailed in four of their past five bowl wins.

Why RBs will decide CFP title game

January, 9, 2015
Jan 9

Getty ImagesEzekiel Elliott and Royce Freeman could be high-impact players on Monday.
Heading into the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship, much of the focus has been on the quarterbacks, but it may be the running backs who ultimately decide the game.

Nine of the last 10 BCS National Championship games were won by the team that ran for more yards, and for Ohio State and Oregon, establishing a run game is essential to success.

Both teams run on more than 55 percent of their plays and use the run to open up the passing game. For this reason, Oregon's trio of running backs and Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott are key players to watch Monday night.

Oregon’s Trio of RBs
Oregon has utilized three running backs throughout the season – Royce Freeman, Thomas Tyner and Byron Marshall.

Freeman is Oregon’s leading rusher (95.9 YPG) and the first freshman in school history to run for 1,000 yards. He leads the Pac-12 in rushing touchdowns (18) and is tied for the lead in 20-yard rushes (12).

At 229 pounds, Freeman has added a toughness between the tackles that Oregon lacked in seasons past. He is the only player in the Pac-12 this season with at least 550 yards rushing both inside and outside the tackles, and he got stronger as the season progressed.

Tyner missed four games due to injury, but in the Rose Bowl CFP semifinal against Florida State he had a team-high 13 carries and a season-high 124 yards rushing. He adds a dimension of speed that pairs well with Freeman’s power.

Finally, Marshall was Oregon’s leading rusher in 2013, but he has been split out wide for most of this season. On 51 carries this season, he has averaged 4.7 yards before first contact and has gained at least 10 yards on 25 percent of those carries.

Why do they matter?
Oregon has attempted 63 percent of its passes off play-action this season, the highest percentage of any Power 5 offense. Establishing the run increases the effectiveness of play-action and opens up downfield throwing lanes.

Mariota leads all Power 5 players with 55 completions on passes thrown 15 yards or longer, and 44 of those completions came after a run fake.

An effective run game also forces teams to focus on the running backs on zone-read plays. One incorrect dive by a defensive end could mean trouble for Ohio State; Mariota is averaging 10.3 yards per rush and scores a touchdown once every seven rushes when he keeps the ball on zone-reads.

Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliot
Since the start of November, Elliott ranks third in the FBS with 992 rushing yards, including 450 yards in his last two games.

With Cardale Jones at quarterback, Elliott is averaging a whopping 11.3 yards per rush, including 18.1 yards per rush on 10 zone-read rushes.

What sets Elliott apart is his ability to make plays between the tackles and speed to breakaway when he hits a hole.

He is averaging 7.7 yards per rush inside the tackles this season, second-best among Power 5 players (minimum 100 rushes), and has seven rushes of 40 yards or more (tied for fifth in the FBS).

Why does he matter?
If Ohio State can establish the run, Oregon may have to stack the box to stop Elliott. In the last two games, Ohio State’s passing game has relied heavily on downfield passes (53 percent of their pass yards in that time have been gained on passes of 20 yards or longer), so eliminating a safety could create one-on-one opportunities on the outside for Devin Smith.

Additionally, if Elliott is effective, he could be Ohio State’s best defense. Once the Ducks get on a roll, they are hard to stop; they have scored at least 20 consecutive points in 12 of 14 games this season. By sustaining drives, Ohio State will keep the Ducks’ potent offense off the field and increase their chances for offensive success.

Stat to Know
The team with the rushing advantage may be holding the trophy on Monday night. In the last three seasons, Oregon is 34-0 when it outrushes its opponent and 2-4 when it does not. Similarly, Ohio State lost the rushing battle in two of its three losses during that time.


Mariota's case for best season ever

January, 8, 2015
Jan 8

Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesThe numbers say Marcus Mariota has had a historically great season.
Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota already has one remarkable performance in the College Football Playoff. And if he has his typical game and leads the Ducks to victory Monday night against Ohio State, a case could be made that his 2014 season will be the best in college football history.

Let’s go by the numbers to break down what Mariota has achieved and what’s at stake in the CFP National Championship Game.

Touchdowns vs. turnovers
56 – Mariota has been responsible for a Pac-12 record 56 touchdowns this season. He has been responsible for at least four touchdowns in 10 games, tied for the most such games in the last 10 seasons with Tim Tebow (2007) and Colt Brennan (2006).

50 – Mariota is on pace to become the first player in FBS history to account for at least 50 more touchdowns than turnovers in one season (56 touchdowns, six turnovers)

0.7 – With three interceptions in 408 passes, Mariota is threatening the record for lowest interception percentage in a season. If Mariota throws at least 23 passes in the national championship game without an interception, he will break the record for lowest interception percentage in a season, held by Boise State’s Kellen Moore (2009).

Heisman Trophy
10 – If Oregon defeats Ohio State on Monday night, Mariota will be the 10th quarterback in the poll era (since 1936) to win a Heisman Trophy and national title in the same season.

90.9 – Mariota received 90.9 percent of possible points in Heisman Trophy voting, second to Troy Smith in 2006 (91.6).

788 – The first-place votes Mariota received for the Heisman Trophy are the third-highest of any player in the history of Heisman voting.

Team and player efficiency
24.9 – Oregon leads the FBS with a +24.9 offensive efficiency this season, meaning the Ducks’ offense contributed almost 25 points per game to the team’s final scoring margin, compared with what an average offense would contribute. That is three points higher than any other FBS team this season.

91.7Total QBR is a complete measure of quarterback efficiency, and Mariota is on pace to post the third-highest single-season QBR since 2004. Neither of the two players with higher QBRs won a Heisman or a national championship.

Total player
4,852 – Mariota has 4,852 yards of total offense this season. His last three seasons rank in the top four in Oregon history. Mariota’s 4,121 passing yards this season alone would rank second in total offense in school history - behind his 4,380 yards last season.

ESPN’s Football Power Index predicts Oregon with a 63 percent chance of winning the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Ducks will again depend on Mariota’s arm and legs. Will he deliver another memorable performance to cap what might be the greatest season in college football history?

Winston leaves mark on FSU, eyes NFL

January, 7, 2015
Jan 7

Rob Tringali for ESPNJameis Winston will head to the NFL next season.
On Wednesday, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston announced he would declare for the NFL Draft after his redshirt sophomore season. Winston is the No. 6 player on the Scouts Inc. Big Board and is projected to go No. 2 overall in Todd McShay’s first mock draft.

Florida State career
Winston had an impressive career at Florida State. He was 26-1 as a starter, with his loss coming in the Rose Bowl to Oregon last week. His 26 straight wins to begin his career is the longest win streak to start a career in the 21st century.

Winston had 65 career touchdown passes - second in Florida State history - in two seasons. He threw a touchdown pass in each of his 27 career games at Florida State.

Winston’s 2013 season was one for the ages. He won the Heisman Trophy, Walter Camp Award and Davey O’Brien Award, led the nation in Total QBR (89.4) and yards per attempt (10.6) and set an FBS freshman record with 40 Pass TD.

He became the sixth player since 1950 to win the Heisman, go undefeated and win the national title in the same season.

He had a drop-off in 2014, however. Winston had 20 turnovers this season, tied for fourth-most in the nation. His 18 interceptions tied for second-most in the FBS. Only four of the 18 came when Winston was under duress, and none were a result of a dropped ball.

Fifteen of Winston’s 18 interceptions in 2014 came on passes thrown 10 yards or longer. His 15 interceptions on such passes are three more than any other Power 5 quarterback.

A big part of Winston's 2013 success was performing well under pressure. He led all Power 5 quarterbacks by completing 60 percent of his passes when under duress in 2013, throwing for eight touchdowns and two interceptions. This season, he was under duress at a similar rate, but he completed 39 percent of his passes, throwing for two touchdowns and four interceptions.

Winston in the draft
Winston is likely to be a high pick in the draft, as the majority of the teams picking near the top could use some help at quarterback. Each of the teams picking in the top six of the draft finished in the bottom 10 in Total QBR this season.

Being a high pick is no guarantee of success, however. Since 2006, the first year of ESPN's Total QBR, 13 early-entrant quarterbacks have been chosen in the first round. Three have winning records as starters (Andrew Luck, Mark Sanchez and Vince Young). Four have posted career Total QBRs of 25 or worse.

Winston could be the third Florida State quarterback to be drafted in the first round. The first two were EJ Manuel (16th overall in 2013) and Christian Ponder (12th overall in 2011). If that happens, it would be the first time in the Common Draft Era (since 1967) that three quarterbacks from the same school were picked in the first round in a five-year span.

The previous six draft-eligible Heisman Trophy winners went in the first round, five of whom were quarterbacks. Of the five active Heisman-winning quarterbacks in the NFL - Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, Sam Bradford and Carson Palmer - none has a career record above .500. In fact, until this past weekend, when Cam Newton and the Panthers defeated the Cardinals, none of them had won a playoff game, either.

Top 10 bowl comebacks in last 10 seasons

January, 2, 2015
Jan 2
With two improbable comebacks this bowl season by Michigan State Spartans and Houston Cougars, we take a look at the most unlikely bowl comebacks in the last 10 seasons based on a team’s minimum win probability (lowest chance to win) throughout the game. Two of the top five most unlikely wins occurred in the last two days.

10. Oregon State def. Missouri (39-38) in the Sun Bowl
Dec. 29, 2006: min win prob = 2.7%

Oregon State converted a 4th-and-3 with 47 seconds remaining and then scored a 14-yard touchdown to pull within 1-point of Missouri. The Beavers were successful on a two-point conversion to take the lead with 22 seconds remaining and ended up winning the game, their fourth win by three points or fewer on the season.

9. Colorado State def. Washington State (48-45) in the New Mexico Bowl
Dec. 21, 2013: min win prob = 2.4%

In last year’s New Mexico Bowl, Colorado State scored 18 points in the final three minutes of the game, including a game-winning field goal as time expired. Washington State had two fumbles in those final three minutes to complete one of the worst collapses in a bowl game.

8. Louisiana-Lafayette def. San Diego State (32-30) in the New Orleans Bowl
Dec. 17, 2011: min win prob = 2.4%

San Diego State scored a go-ahead touchdown with 35 seconds remaining to take a one-point lead. When the game seemed all but over, the Ragin' Cajuns drove 49 yards and kicked a game-winning 50-yard field goal.

7. North Carolina def. Tennessee (30-27, 2OT) in the Music City Bowl
Dec. 30, 2010: min win prob = 1.8%

Highlighted by a controversial ending in regulation in which it appeared that time had run out, North Carolina was given another chance to kick a game-tying field goal. The Tar Heels went on to win the game in overtime.

6. Arizona def. Nevada (49-48) in the New Mexico Bowl
Dec. 15, 2012: min win prob = 0.8%

Arizona outscored Nevada 21-3 in the fourth quarter and scored twice in the final 46 seconds to win the New Mexico Bowl. It was the first of two straight improbable New Mexico Bowl victories (see No. 9 above).

5. Houston def. Pittsburgh (35-34) in the Armed Forces Bowl
Jan. 2, 2015: min win prob = 0.7%

Houston recovered two onside kicks and overcame the largest fourth-quarter deficit in a bowl game (25 points) to defeat Pittsburgh on Friday. At its lowest point, when trailing by 25 points early in the fourth quarter, Houston had a 0.7 percent chance to win.

4. Texas Tech def. Minnesota (44-41, OT) in the Insight Bowl
Dec. 29, 2006: min win prob = 0.5%

The Red Raiders trailed by 31 points early in the third quarter before scoring 31 unanswered points to send the game to overtime. Texas Tech won it there, marking the largest comeback in bowl history.

3. Michigan State def. Baylor (42-41) in the Cotton Bowl
Jan. 1, 2015: min win prob = 0.4%

Trailing by 20 entering the fourth quarter, Michigan State had a win probability as low as 0.4 percent before blocking a Baylor field goal with 1:05 remaining that would have put the Bears up by nine. The Spartans scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, including a game-winning touchdown with 17 seconds remaining, to complete their improbable comeback.

2. Boise State def. Oklahoma (43-42, OT) in the Fiesta Bowl
Jan. 1, 2007: min win prob = 0.1%

Trailing by seven points under a minute to play, Boise State completed a 50-yard hook-and-ladder play on 4th-and-18 to tie the game against Oklahoma. The Broncos won the game in overtime on the famed "Statue of Liberty" play.

1. Idaho def. Bowling Green (43-42) in the Humanitarian Bowl
Dec. 30, 2009: min win prob 0.1%

Trailing by seven points with 32 seconds remaining, Idaho drove the length of the field for a touchdown and converted a two-point conversion to take a 43-42 lead and win the game.