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Truths, Whole Truths, and Advanced College Football Statistics: Bill Connelly Answers Questions About the Georgia Bulldogs

Bill Connelly writes for Football Outsiders, Rock M Nation, Football Study Hall, and SB Nation, and he and I have a lot in common. In addition to our shared association with the finest sports blogging network of them all, Bill and I both root for SEC teams that recently have dealt with embarrassing arrests of high-ranking athletic department employees, though it could be worse.

Now that Dawg Sports has become a bit more statistically sophisticated, I thought it was time to call in the big guns and let Bill bring us up to speed on the numbers. ("I was told there would be no math" comment from vineyarddawg in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .) I caught up with Bill earlier this week, and here is our exchange:

T. Kyle King: You’re an advocate of what I suppose might be called "safermetrics," since it adapts sabermetric principles from baseball to football. Bearing in mind that we went to the liberal arts institution in the Classic City instead of the trade school on North Avenue, give us the short course on how your approach to college football statistics works.

Bill Connelly: Everything is based on one simple principle: your output versus your expected output. Regular college football stats are filled with so much "who did you play?" context that simply seeing that a team is averaging __ points per game or __ yards per game tells you almost nothing. Both Brian Fremeau (my Outsiders counterpart) and I take divergent routes, but the idea behind our methods is the same. He looks at per-drive metrics, and I look at per-play metrics.

Kyle: We have a regular contributor, oneloyaldawg, who examines ten statistical measures each week to gauge how the ‘Dawgs are doing. As a general proposition, which metrics matter most? If I could only look at one stat, which stat should it be?

Bill: Honestly, the single best piece of data in your typical box score (besides "points scored and allowed," of course) is yards per play. In a given game, teams will typically run anywhere between 60 and 100 plays, so think about that for a moment: if you average a modest 5.0 yards per play, that's the difference between 300 and 500 yards. Last week alone, Kansas gained an "impressive" 401 yards against Baylor, while Florida State gained "just" 259 yards versus Miami. But Kansas also ran 91 plays; Florida State: 52. That doesn't mean KU's performance was terrible and FSU's was fantastic, but seeing that FSU averaged 5.0 yards per play and KU averaged 4.4 tells you a lot more than the raw totals.

Kyle: Just looking at standard box scores, I’ve concluded that Georgia was as dominant on the field over Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Florida as the Bulldogs were over Auburn, with the only difference being that Georgia’s dominance between the white lines finally showed up on the scoreboard in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. Am I right? Why or why not?

Bill: Georgia's per-play numbers have been rock solid all year. One thing I noticed with their performances this season has been the tendency to play it very conservative once the game is in hand. They gained 282 yards in the first half against Ole Miss, 186 in the second. 218 in the first half versus MSU, 83 in the second. They gained 33 yards in 18 plays their last three possessions versus Tennessee once the game was in hand. You can get away with this if you have a good defense and a good running game. Georgia is getting there in both cases. And since we throw away garbage-time results with our metrics, UGa doesn't really get punished for packing it in early. Still, remaining conservative and letting teams get a little closer than it feels they should be is a sure way to give the fanbase a bit of anxiety, especially when a lead disappears like it did for Georgia against Vandy.

Kyle: Bearing in mind your answer to the previous question, just how good is this Georgia team right now? What’s the difference between the Bulldogs today and the Bulldogs who lost badly to Boise State?

Bill: This is a very good team. Not Top Five good by any means, but quite possibly Top 15 good. I said it after the South Carolina game, too. They lost to two very good teams -- both Boise State and South Carolina were elite in September before injuries/dismissals took their toll -- and it wasn't that difficult to see them going on quite a run as long as they rebounded. They've pretty clearly rebounded.

Kyle: Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Georgia and LSU will meet in the SEC Championship Game for the third time in a nine-year span. Can the Bulldogs beat the Tigers, and, if so, what must they do to claim Mark Richt’s third SEC championship?

Bill: UGa absolutely can beat LSU, there's no question about that. You won't see me predict it, but it could happen. Georgia's defense is nicely balanced -- Top 20 both against the run and pass -- and they are deep enough offensively to figure out a weakness to exploit (at least once) on LSU's defense. The problem, of course, is that you have to make your field goals to beat LSU. Can Blair Walsh do that?

My thanks go out to Bill Connelly for taking the time to speak with us, even if he does think the Bulldogs are only going to beat Kentucky by a measly 25.7 points!

Go ‘Dawgs!