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Conference USA midseason advanced analytics breakdown

If you’re looking for defense in Conference USA you’d best look to the west.

R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl - Louisiana Tech v Georgia Southern
Louisiana’s defense may be playing a bit too much “bend but don’t break”
Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

As we’ve reached the midpoint of the season we finally have a large enough sample size to start to get a statistical understanding of where each team in Conference USA has impressed and disappointed.

This season I’ve really found myself missing former SB Nation contributor (now with ESPN) Bill Connelly’s advanced stats profiles. I thought these profiles were a great way to quickly see how good or bad a given team was, as well as get an understanding as to what a team’s defining characteristics were. Is State University a grind-it-out offense with a strong offensive line? Or are they a high-flying air attack on offense and as porous as a sponge on defense? Since these advanced stat profiles are no longer being updated, I decided to write a bit of code to create my own.

Looking at points and yardage totals can be misleading, as they can be heavily distorted by the level of competition, fluke plays, etc. These advanced statistics give us a more reliable lens through which to view the play-by-play success and efficiency of a team. Let’s see what we can gleam from the data, starting with the offense. If you’d like to read through the descriptions of each statistic in the tables please follow this link.

Jared Kalmus, @CFB_Data, @cfbfastR

The first thing that jumps out here is just how much better Western Kentucky’s offense is than the rest of the league per PPA or Predicted Points Added, one of the best metrics for measuring an offense’s ability to surpass expected yardage and scoring expectancy in any given down and distance scenario.

Anyone who has watched transfer quarterback Bailey Zappe and his connection with receiver Jerreth Sterns shouldn’t be surprised, but the gap between the Huskies Hilltoppers and the rest of the league is shocking. The UTSA Roadrunners out-dueled the Hilltoppers last Saturday, but their season-long PPA as the league’s second-best offense is still 32% lower than WKU! And the Hilltoppers have played an extremely challenging schedule!

Other teams in the conference are surpassing the Hilltoppers in various other categories other than success rate, where WKU reigns supreme. This shows that the offense is doing what it takes to keep drives moving, even when big time explosive plays may not be available. That’s exactly what the air raid is designed to do.

One puzzling outlier in the offensive statistics is Middle Tennessee’s success in closing out drives. The “Finishing Drives” stat looks at how many average points an offense walks away with whenever they cross the opponent’s 40 yard line. There’s typically a strong correlation between an offense’s overall performance and their ability to finish drives, but the Blue Raiders are actually the worst offense in Conference USA until they get to within the opponent’s 40, at which point they tend to end their drives with more points than any other team in the conference!

My gut immediately told me that Rick Stockstill must not trust his placekicker... and it turns out the Blue Raiders have only attempted one field goal this season! They have also had the least number of trips deep into opponent territory, as they’ve crossed the opposing 40 yard line just 17 times this season. I guess if MTSU can figure out the other 60 yards on the field they’ll be in good shape.

Jared Kalmus, @CFB_Data, @cfbfastR

Moving over to the defensive side of the ball, it’s clear that only one division in this conference is playing any defense. The eastern division is averaging .24 defensive PPA, while the western division is averaging .17 defensive PPA, a nearly 30% difference in favor of the west! The three worst defenses are all in the eastern division, with FIU, WKU, and Charlotte all struggling to get their opponents’ offenses off the field. These three teams all seem to have some differing shortcomings, but all are getting beat in the trenches as they’re getting killed in power run situations.

Havoc is one of my favorite stats in football. It’s not a perfect indicator of how good a defense is, but is does a good job of telling you how frustrating a defense is to play against as they disrupt plays with tackles behind the line of scrimmage, pass break ups, etc. Defenses with high havoc rates are typically fun to watch. In that case, Louisiana Tech’s defense must not spark joy in the hearts of Bulldog fans as they’ve disrupted the opposing offense on just 10% of snaps, the lowest in the conference and drastically lower than the conference average of 18%.

On the flipside, the Bulldogs’ are allowing the least explosive plays in the conference, which seems to indicate an overly-conservative approach from Defensive Coordinator David Blackwell. Taking a few more gambles on blitzes and single-safety coverage may help Louisiana Tech force opposing offenses off “schedule” and create turnover opportunities. With La Tech coming off a bye week, I’ll be interested to see if their defensive play calling evolves at all.