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Blueprint for BCS Championship Success IV: Outlining the Blueprint

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Blueprint for BCS Championship Success IV: Outlining the Blueprint

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of a five-part series detailing the blueprint for winning the BCS national championship and measuring the Irish performance against this standard.

As the offensive and defensive results indicate, there is certainly a blueprint for winning a BCS national championship. The overwhelming majority of the last 10 champions performed at very similar levels in the same statistical categories, and, while there are always exceptions to the rule, most of the data is consistent and compelling.

Teams that follow this blueprint ensure a high probability of winning a title. The fundamental concepts that enable teams to perform at this level is potentially of more value, but setting the bar is also of merit as it establishes a benchmark for success.

The Blueprint Defined

The value and ranking cutoffs are outlined below for the three categories (miscellaneous, offense, defense).  As with the offensive (which include the miscellaneous metrics) and defensive results, the data is presented in tabular form with the ranking and value cutoffs, as well as the number of teams above/below these cutoffs, identified for each metric.

Only those metrics found to be common and/or important are shown here but the full list of investigated metrics can be found in the introduction.  Metrics absent from this discussion were excluded because of insufficient data (more on this below) or because the majority of the last 10 champions did not perform at a high level in the statistical category. Keeping consistent with the three previous installments, the cutoffs presented below only include the last 10 BCS champions, although some distinctions are made between the winners and losers of these games.


Miscellaneous Blueprint
MetricCutoffNumber above cutoffCutoffNumber above cutoff
Turnover margin68299

Simply put, a team must protect the ball and generate turnovers to win a championship. No team with a BCS title in the last decade had a turnover margin lower than five and the average of 14.2 is worth about an extra possession per game. Comparing the winners and losers reinforces the importance of this metric. The losing squads posted an average turnover margin of approximately nine and an average ranking of 27.5—five less in turnover margin and almost 14 spots lower in ranking than the winners.


Offensive Blueprint
Offensive categoryMetricCutoffNumber above cutoffCutoffNumber above cutoff
TOTAL3rd down efficiency0.437----
Yards per play (YPP)5.89289
Yards per game (YPG)4038318
Points per game (PPG)32.18239
Yards per attempt (YPA)4.39328
Yards per game (YPG)177.48338
PASSINGYards per attempt (YPA)7.98248
Completion percentage0.618308
Pass Efficiency138.59158

Offensively, BCS championship caliber teams are solid overall units that rank in the top quarter of the country, are efficient and effective running the ball, and efficient in the passing game.

Eight of the past 10 champions ranked 31st or better in yards per play, yards per game, and points per game, and the 10 teams posted a very high average third down efficiency of 43 percent.

The data also indicates a high level of efficiency (4.3 rush YPA cutoff) and effectiveness (177.4 rush YPG cutoff) running the ball and scoring on the ground. As a group the 10 teams averaged 4.9 rush YPA (average ranking of 20.4), nearly 200 rushing YPG (average ranking of 25.3), and more than 32 rushing touchdowns per season (average ranking of 13.7) with every offense scoring at least 24 times on the ground.

These squads were also very efficient throwing the ball. Yards per attempt, completion percentage, and pass efficiency all have relatively high value and ranking cutoffs that strongly indicate the necessity of being proficient in the passing game.

Last decade’s championship teams averaged 8.2 pass YPA, a 62.4 percent completion rate, and nearly a 149 pass efficiency rating, good for average rankings of 17.8, 21.2 and 14.5 respectively. These squads were also productive scoring through the air as the group averaged 25.8 passing touchdowns per year (average top 30 ranking) with eight offenses notching at least 22 passing scores.

But while efficiency in the passing game is important, the majority of these teams didn’t employ pass-first offenses, weren’t overly productive throwing the ball, and didn’t excel vertically stretching the field.

Only three units ranked in the top 38 in pass attempts and only four attempted more than 400 passes as the group averaged 375.3 attempts per year (average ranking of nearly 60), roughly 29 pass attempts per game. Expressed differently, seven of the last 10 championship offenses ranked 45th or lower in pass attempts. None of the previous 10 title winners ranked in the top 10 in passing YPG, only four teams ranked 34th or higher, and six ranked 40th or lower. As a group, these teams averaged a modest 232.3 passing YPG (average ranking of 47.5). Finally, only five teams ranked in the top 37 in yards per completion, with an average YPC of 13.2 and an average YPC ranking of roughly 37.

Furthermore, the BCS title game losers were typically more pass-heavy than the winners—the losing squads averaged 3.7 pass attempts and 33.3 passing yards more per game, and nearly seven more passing touchdowns per season.

So while balance is important, particularly scoring balance, running the ball is preferred to a dynamic air attack as the last 10 BCS champions were far more productive on the ground via a run/pass split of approximately 60/40.


Defensive Blueprint
Defensive categoryMetricCutoffNumber below cutoffCutoffNumber above cutoff
TOTAL3rd down efficiency0.337----
Yards per play (YPP)4.59109
Yards per game (YPG)3039109
Points per game (PPG)16.4989
RUSHINGYards per attempt (YPA)3.49259
Yards per game (YPG)1098238
PASSINGYards per attempt (YPA)5.7999
Yards per completion (YPC)11.88278
Yards per game (YPG)2009349
Completion percentage0.59198
Pass Efficiency101.3999

In contrast, championship defenses of the last decade were extremely sound in virtually every facet.

The three primary total defensive metrics (yards per attempt, yards per game, and points per game) all have ranking cutoff values of 10 or higher with nine teams meeting this standard. As a group, these championship defenses allowed an average of 277.9 YPG, 13.7 PPG and 4.3 YPP. This equates to extremely high average rankings of 7.4 (YPG), 5.1 (PPG) and 7.4 (YPP).

Additionally, eight teams ranked in the top 10 in all three of these statistical categories with only the 2002 Buckeyes and 2007 Tigers failing to meet this standard. And, as one reader so astutely indicated, the 2007 Tigers played in two triple-overtime games that likely inflated their numbers. Perhaps most impressive was the Nick Saban-led LSU defense which was tops in the country in YPP, YPG and PPG in 2003.

These units also excelled getting off the field, posting an average third down efficiency of 31.3 percent as seven teams allowed no better than a 33 percent conversion rate on third down.

The run defense was almost as impressive allowing an average of three YPA, 95.8 YPG, and only 8.6 rushing touchdowns per year—good for average rankings of 14.5, 13.7 and 12.3 respectively. Nine teams ranked in the top 25 in rush YPA, eight ranked 23rd or higher in rush YPG, and seven ranked 10th or better in rushing touchdowns.

The strong performance continued against the pass where nine teams ranked in the top 10 in pass efficiency and yards per attempt, posting an average of 94.6 in the former (average ranking of 6.2) and 5.5 in the latter (average ranking of seven). The remaining pass metric ranking cutoffs (YPC, YPG, touchdowns and completion percentage) are 34th or better, highlighted by stout pass scoring defenses. On average these BCS title defenses surrendered only 11.5 passing touchdowns per year, and no team allowed more than 19.

Similar to the offensive metrics, there were distinct ranking differences amongst the winners and losers as the winning defensive units averaged a ranking of almost 10 spots better in YPP, YPG and PPG, and almost 13 spots better in rushing touchdowns.

A Few Caveats and Noteworthy Items

Value and ranking data for some of the metrics were not readily available making it difficult to determine if they were crucial to success. Time of possession, overall and touchdown red zone efficiencies, and sacks and sacks allowed (along with their normalized counterparts) all had missing values and/or rankings for at least one of these teams.

However, even with limited data, there didn’t seem to be a clustering of teams at the upper or lower ends of the spectrum for these metrics. Intuitively, both red zone efficiency metrics are critical to a high level of team performance, but the limited data didn’t support this conclusion. The same can be said for the various sack categories. While there were a few teams that excelled protecting the passer and pressuring opposing quarterbacks, it was more exception than rule.

Only time of possession showed a somewhat clustered trend in that eight of the past nine (missing data for the 2000 Sooners) BCS national championship teams averaged better than 30 minutes of possession per game. Including 19 of the 20 BCS title game participants, nearly 80 percent fell into the same category. It is difficult to determine if this is due to the offensive or defensive prowess of these teams. Most were run-heavy units which can churn through possession, but the teams also excelled in third down efficiency on both sides of the ball. Either way, 30 minutes of possession is not in indicative of a ball-hogging team or in the top quarter of the country in any given year.

Some metrics were purposefully excluded from this analysis. Fumbles, interceptions and their normalized counterparts (rush attempts/fumble and pass attempts/interception) were not included as turnover margin effectively captures a team’s ability to protect the ball and generate turnovers. Whether these turnovers come in the form of fumbles or interceptions was deemed irrelevant for the purposes of this study, but in most cases the teams that ran the ball well did not fumble often and teams that threw the ball effectively did not throw many interceptions.

Yards per play and rush/pass yards per attempt have a similar relationship, but were included. While YPP is a composite of the other two, excluding yards per rush and pass attempt would not allow for the determination of which is more important—efficiency running or throwing the ball. A similar case can be made for PPG and rushing and passing touchdowns, as well as total, rushing and passing YPG. Since one of the goals of this study was to determine the relative importance of being able to run and/or throw the ball, as well as being able to defend against the run and/or pass, these were included.

Pass efficiency is also a composite metric of many other statistical categories (attempts, yards, completions, touchdowns and interceptions) but was included because it is a relatively good characterization of a team’s overall efficiency throwing the ball and defending against the pass. Despite certain flaws, it is the easiest way to compare two teams across multiple years.

As previously indicated, rush and pass attempts were included for the offense, but not for the defense. Offensively, identifying the run/pass preference provides insight into the philosophy (run-first vs. pass-heavy). But not much value is added by exploring how opposing offenses chose to attack these defenses on an average basis. Offenses that are pass-heavy throw the ball more and run-first teams attempt more rushes. In the end, the run/pass split of offenses playing against these 10 defensive units was very nearly 50/50.

Finally, special teams metrics were not included as part of this analysis but some are likely critical to championship success. Field position plays a huge role in scoring opportunity (the chance of scoring on a drive starting from your own 20-yard line, as opposed to your own 35, is significantly different), and kickers are often the highest scoring players on a team. So there is certainly merit in investigating these metrics, it just wasn’t part of this particular assessment.

Tying It All Together

As noted in the introduction, football hasn’t fundamentally changed. Teams successful at the highest level excel in fundamentals, protect the ball and generate turnovers, play all-around good defense, and run the ball well. There is certainly luck involved, particularly in a 14-plus game season, but the data shows that following this blueprint is the highest probability method for winning a title.

Intuitively, this makes sense.

Solid fundamentals lead to good blocking and tackling. Protecting the ball and generating turnovers maximizes the number of possessions, and, thus, the number of scoring opportunities. Playing good defense limits opponents’ scoring opportunities and makes it “easier” to win. And running the football is a relatively simple, low-risk offensive strategy that comes with several ancillary benefits.

Teams that are efficient and productive on the ground routinely perform well on third down and wield an efficient passing attack. The former is helped by good rushing gains on early downs that result in manageable distances on third down. The latter is a common byproduct of forcing opponents to respect the run, utilizing play-action, and maintaining favorable down and distance situations that enable an equal run/pass threat. A four yard rushing gain on 1st-and-10 is overwhelmingly preferred to an incomplete pass as the nearly equal threat of running and passing on 2nd-and-6 keeps an opposing defense off-balance while the likelihood of running the ball on 2nd-and-10 is much lower.

In fact, out of the last 10 champions the two most prolific rushing offenses—Texas in 2005 and Florida in 2008—were also the most efficient passing teams. So while wide-open, pass-heavy offenses may excite fans and fills stadiums, it isn’t the preferred modus operandi of title teams.

But, compared to the defensive performances, the offenses take a back seat. While a top 30 offense is the common denominator of the last 10 BCS champions, a top 10 unit is needed on the other side of the ball. None of the offensive metric ranking cutoffs are inside the top 10 (average of just over 27), but half of the defensive ranking cutoffs are (average ranking of 16.7). Moreover, the losers of the title games almost always fielded more prolific offenses but less stout defenses. It appears the age-old mantra “defense wins championships” is as true today as it has always has been.

Admittedly, some of the conclusions outlined here may be obvious—i.e. a team can’t turn the ball over frequently and expect to win a lot of games—but others certainly aren’t. It isn’t necessarily intuitive that protecting the passer and being able to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks isn’t a common element of modern championship teams, particularly given the number of prolific, spread passing offenses.

These results ultimately lead to a question: Can a team win a title without performing at the levels outlined above? Yes, without one or two. But for teams that do not align with the majority of the items in this blueprint, winning the BCS national championship is certainly not a high-probability proposition.

Up next, benchmarking Notre Dame to the blueprint, what has been missing and needs improvement, and how does new head coach Brian Kelly’s philosophy align with these shortfalls.


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