What Did the Last Neanderthal Say to the First Cro-Magnon?: A Book Review of Bill Connelly's Study Hall

I was a college football nerd long before I was a numbers guy. I've always been far too analytical about this sport (and most other things), and the numbers have simply informed my analytical ability. I thrive in the gray area most people are allergic to when it comes to sports debates (or any debates, really), and numbers give you more "Yeah, but..." material than just about anything else. Ranking teams is only the start of it.

Numbers have changed the way I watch the game, but not really in any conscious way. Numbers tell me just how important a fast start to a game truly is. Or how those long, satisfying, 20-play, seven-minute touchdown drives do not happen often enough to rely on them. Or how much of a difference 2nd-and-8 can make over 2nd-and-6 in the long run. Or how random fumble recoveries (and games that turn because of them) can be. Or how one team's offensive personality differs from others'. Numbers have given me a better feel for this game I love, and I feel they have given me a stronger voice.

Bill Connelly (September 19, 2011)

This is a review of Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories by SB Nation’s Bill Connelly, but you should be forewarned that this is going to be an uncommonly personal book review. Ordinarily, I would apologize for such self-indulgence, but, since the first chapter of Bill’s first book (parts of which were adapted from the article quoted above) is titled "It’s Personal" and the acknowledgments include an admission of the "almost autobiographical feel" of the college football chronicle, I feel at least somewhat justified in treating the topic from such an individualized perspective.

Actually, it would have been difficult for me to have reviewed Study Hall with any degree of detachment; Bill and I were former colleagues at this network---he was kind enough to inscribe my copy of the volume, "From one obsessive to another"---and, from the foreword to the contributors to the interviewees, this tome is a veritable "who’s who" of the college football blogosphere, featuring as it does the words of, inter alia, Holly Anderson, Chris B. Brown, Brian Fremeau, Steven Godfrey, Spencer Hall, Matt Hinton, Ty Hildenbrandt, Jason Kirk, Rob Neyer, Dan Rubenstein, C.J. Schexnayder, and Get the Picture’s Senator Blutarsky, who contributed a top ten list and reviewed the book, as well. It was the Senator’s presence as a participant that brought Bill’s work home to me, as it reminded me of my first meeting with Senator Blutarsky, at which he told me, "You’re a real stat guy!"

That may have been the case in the blogosphere’s prehistoric "Wild West" days in 2005, but that was before bright minds like Bill Connelly’s turned determinedly to what fairly might be called safermetrics, the advanced football statistics available at Football Outsiders and Football Study Hall to inform the mind and ennoble the soul.

At this point, I am sure some of you are rolling your eyes and preparing to type, "I was told there would be no math" in the comments, but I am here to tell you to hold your horses. Study Hall is no textbook; it is, resolutely, about college football, and not just about college football statistics. In a tone both impassioned and rational, with an approach neither nihilistic nor naive, while proving points alternately common-sensical and counterintuitive, Bill Connelly has written the gridiron equivalent of Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters, using numbers that are far from dry to whet the audience’s appetite to learn more.

In 296 pages and 192 footnotes, Connelly confirms cliches, rebuts myths, and offers ammunition to anyone who ever wanted to answer a factually accurate but misleading observation with an effective "yeah, but . . ." Did you know, for instance, that, in 2012, Aaron Murray posted his best completion percentages between 15 and 24 yards beyond the line of scrimmage but was average or below average from most other distances? Did you know that, last year, adjusted for the quality of opposing defenses, the Georgia Bulldogs had one of the five best offenses in college football? I didn’t, but, thanks to Bill, I do now.

We’ve all had the experience of looking at a stat sheet that didn’t quite seem to square with what we saw on the field, and Bill provides us with both a template for a new, more useful box score and a deeper understanding of why apparently odd outcomes occur. (The chapter explaining why some cliches are cliches for a reason provides strong statistical support for some of chuckdawg’s instincts and intuitions.) Study Hall clearly communicates concepts that will enrich your comprehension of the game and make you think about what you have watched unfold on the field.

Despite the kind compliment Senator Blutarsky directed my way almost eight years ago, I am not a real stat guy in any meaningful sense; in fact, I’m pretty old school, and my number-crunching is fairly superficial, which is why I am glad that Bill Connelly is writing about college football, both on the internet and, now, in the pages of this fine book. The blogosphere is a better place because Bill Connelly is in it, and the sport we all love will have better, and better-informed, fans (and maybe even coaches!) because of the excellent work he is doing and the useful insights he is providing.

I probably flatter myself by asking what the last Neanderthal said to the first Cro-Magnon; the evolutionary gap separating me from Bill probably makes the more accurate analogy the apes and the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. ("My God! It’s full of stats!") However the question is stated, though, the answer is this: I said, "Good job, Bill." Read this book.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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