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Inside the Numbers: USC vs. Colorado

A look at the upcoming game in Boulder, Colorado using S&P+ and FEI.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

For this weeks preview we lean upon many statistical insights including S&P+, which was created by Bill Connelly.  S&P+ is an advanced statistical measure, which combines success rate, explosiveness per play and opponent adjustments.  For an explanation of the terms used, see here, here, and here.

How S&P+ sees the game:

Overall When USC Has the Ball… When Colorado has the Ball…
Category USC Colorado USC Off Colorado Def USC Def Colorado Off
F/+ Rk 9 99
S&P+ 15 (243.7) 96 (186.1) 66 (97.9) 96 (94.4) 5 (145.8) 84 (91.6)
Play Efficiency 57 (104.7) 71 (98.2) 8 (129.7) 76 (95.8)
Std. Downs S&P+ 33 (111.7) 75 (98.0) 6 (135.9) 74 (98.9)
Pass Downs S&P+ 62 (100.6) 58 (103.4) 16 (124.7) 79 (93.5)
Rushing S&P+ 51 (107.3) 76 (97.4) 17 (121.8) 114 (81.8)
Passing S&P+ 38 (109.3) 60 (101.3) 6 (137.4) 43 (107.7)
Drive Efficiency 77 (91.1) 104 (90.6) 4 (162.0) 86 (87.5)
Difference in Net Points 49 (.04) 96 (.15) 44 (-.77) 106 (-1.04)

After the game against Stanford, the Trojans’ offense and defense moved up in the S&P+ rankings, just rewards for holding a great statistical team to a stalemate. The offense saw the greatest improvement, moving from #71 to #66. The defense is now ranked at #5. The Buffaloes, with first year coach Mike MacIntyre, are coming off of their first conference after defeating Cal last week 41-24.

When USC has the ball…

The USC offense compares favorably to the Colorado defense. The Trojans hold an advantage in a majority of the advanced stats categories. The biggest advantage for USC is on standard downs, passing S&P+, and DNP. The one area where Colorado has performed a little above average is on passing downs. Currently, the Buffaloes’ defense is ranked #58 in the country when defending second and third and longs.

When Colorado has the ball…

Based on the numbers, the USC defense should have no problem with the Colorado offense. In every statistical category, the Trojans hold an overwhelming advantage over the Buffaloes. Coach Pendergast’s defense is performing at a high level, especially on standard downs and against the pass.

It’s not all doom and gloom for CU. The one area on offense that could be considered Colorado’s ”strength” is the passing game. The Buffaloes rank #43 in the country in passing S&P+.

FEI is the Fremeau Efficiency Index, created by Brian Fremeau.  FEI is an advanced statistical measure for college football that tracks drive efficiency instead of per play success.  For an explanation of the terms used, see here, here, and here.

How FEI sees the game:

Overall When USC Has the Ball… When Colorado has the Ball…
Category USC Colorado USC Off Colorado Def USC Def Colorado Off
F/+ Rk 9 99
FEI Rk 10 (.226) 110 (-.195) 21 (.340) 95 (.292) 3 (-.734) 85 (.212)
Field Position 21 (.540) 118 (.446)
Raw OE/DE 78 (-.105) 105 (.377) 10 (-.495) 95 (-.331)
First Down rate 76 (.654) 96 (.726) 12 (.574) 96 (.622)
Available Yards Rate 80 (.429) 109 (.574) 12 (.345) 89 (.410)
Explosive Drives 46 (.146) 95 (.168) 42 (.101) 89 (.100)
Methodical Drives 116 (.077) 40 (.126) 51 (.140) 66 (.144)
Value Drives 67 (.373) 111 (.525) 10 (.267) 85 (.349)
Special Team rank 36 (1.008) 98 (-1.485)
Field Goal efficiency 91 (-.186) 41 (.322)
Punt Return efficiency 2 (.302) 75 (-.116)
Kickoff return efficiency 104 (-.261) 100 (-.253)
punt efficiency 100 (.032) 98 (.018)
kickoff efficiency 20 (-.272) 114 (.029)

According to FEI, the raw numbers for USC remained about the same but the overall rank of the offense went up to #21. As stated above, these statistical models reward an “okay” performance against great teams. FEI thinks even less of Colorado than S&P+, ranking them below teams like Connecticut and California at #110.

When USC has the ball…

Colorado’s defense is pretty poor across the board on a per drive basis. They rank above ninety in all categories except methodical drives, probably because it doesn’t take offenses ten plays to score against them.

When Colorado has the ball…

For the USC defense, it’s the same story for FEI as it was for S&P+. The USC defense holds ridiculous advantages over the Colorado offense in the majority of categories. The only area where its close is in methodical drives, an area where the Trojans’ defense has struggled, relative to other areas, all year.

Special Teams…

Colorado’s special teams unit is performing well below average. They have struggled all year in kickoff returns, punt returns, kickoff coverage and punt coverage. USC’s special teams unit continues to improve in raw numbers with the punt return and kickoff coverage units performing at a high level. On the other hand, the kickoff return, punt coverage, and field goal units continue to struggle (FEI doesn’t take into account the clutchness of a game-winning field goal).

What it all means…

USC shouldn’t have a problem moving the ball against the bad Buffaloes defense. After a tough game against Stanford, the Trojans’ offense line should find success establishing the power run game with Buck Allen. Once the run is established, look for Cody Kessler, with plenty of time and a clean pocket, to go deep to either Marquis Lee or Nelson Agholor off of play action pass. There may be a slow start to the game for the Trojans, but once they get going, the points will come in bunches. Also, when USC gets in the red zone, expect them to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals, which is something the offense has improved on since the beginning of the year.

The USC defense should also have no problem with the Colorado offense.  The Buffaloes will have trouble moving the ball on the ground all game and protecting their freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau when he drops back to pass.  Even though USC has only been decent at defending explosive plays, Colorado hasn’t been Oregon like in this area.

One interesting aspect to watch out for in this game is the “body-blow” factor.  This is the theory that Stanford is such a physical team; whomever you play after the Cardinal will have better than average success running the ball (maybe something to examine in the offseason).  Even if this is true, Colorado will not run for enough yards to make the game competitive.

Colorado doesn’t present much of a challenge on special teams. The last time USC’s punt return unit had this much of an advantage in raw numbers was against Cal. There is not going to be three punt return touchdowns but look for a big play or two to be made by Nelson Agholor (Of course, I say that every week so I’m bound to be right eventually).

I think that USC will have no problem covering the 22.5-point spread. After a slow start, the Trojans’ talent and physicality will eventually grind down the Buffalo defensive and offensive lines and make this game a blow-out by the start of the fourth quarter.