Clemson and the factors in winning college football

Clemson's Dabo Swinney communicates with players during the fourth quarter at the Discover Orange Bowl in Sun Life Stadium Miami, Florida.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson's Dabo Swinney communicates with players during the fourth quarter at the Discover Orange Bowl in Sun Life Stadium Miami, Florida.

In basketball, there’s the concept of the “four factors to winning,” which Tuesday night’s Clemson loss to SMU demonstrated quite well actually.

The Mustangs edged the Tigers in three of the four – some by wide margins: offensive rebounding percentage (44.8-29), free throw rate (38.8-26) and effective field goal percentage (51-48) – only turning it over at a worse rate (22-23.7).

Football is a little harder game to wrangle statistically, but most every coach has their set of stats they point to (outside of scoring margin).

For Dabo Swinney, it’s the “plan to win,” which includes turnover margin, more explosive plays, winning special teams and being the least penalized team.

Over his five-plus seasons at the helm, Clemson is 33-3 with the edge on turnovers. Last season, they lost the turnover margin just twice, albeit in spectacular fashion in losses to FSU and South Carolina (minus-9 in TO margin).

In the regular season, the Tigers were the least penalized team in seven of the 12 games with almost 10 less yards per, but then in a headscratcher in Miami they were minus-84 in penalty yard margin with nine more flags than the Buckeyes.

On special teams, Football Outsiders ranked Clemson 78th nationally as a unit – good for next-to-last in the ACC.

Back to the “factors,” Bill Connelly, who works with Football Outsiders, has been working on five factors for winning in college football. The overall concepts are easy enough, though the advanced stats to measure them take some explaining.

They are, in corresponding percentage of importance: Explosiveness (35 percent), efficiency (25), field position (15), finishing drives (15) and turnovers (10).

Explosiveness is measured in yards per play and a couple of equivalent points per play measures.

Even a half-yard margin in yards per play between teams meant a 72 winning percentage for the better side last season. A full yard led to an 86.2 win percentage.

Clemson bested their opponent in yards per play in all but two games: Georgia (-1.65) and Florida State (-3.95). They were part of the unlucky 13.8 percent to lose with a yard-plus margin (2.1) against South Carolina – undoubtedly skewed by the six turnovers.

The Tigers were 23rd nationally in both yards per play offensively (6.38) and defensively (5.03).

Efficiency is measured by success rate and third down conversions.

Success rate isn’t terribly complicated: it’s gaining 50 percent of the needed yards on first down, 70 percent on second and 100 percent on third or fourth down. If there’s a 5-10 percent margin between opponents in the stat, the better side won 76 percent of the time last season.

Clemson ranked 14th nationally in success rate last year – top-10 on standard downs, 23rd on passing downs and 31st on running downs.

The Tigers were No. 35 nationally in third down conversions (44.7), third in the ACC (FSU No. 2; Georgia Tech No. 4).

Field position is pretty explanatory, but the FO and Football Study Hall guys use average starting field position and field position advantage here.

Last season, teams with an average starting field position of 6-10 yards better than their opponent won 78 percent of the time.

Clemson was middle-of-the-road on field position advantage, in 49th.

Finishing drives is all about what you do in the opponent’s territory. While red zone (20 and in) is the NCAA-supported measure, the five factors uses that and also points per trip inside the 40. If your team averages 5.5 to 7 points per trip inside the 40, there’s a 73 win percentage and an average scoring margin of 15.1 points. Average just around a field goal and it’s just 50.4 percent.

Score even only one more point per trip than your opponent and it’s a 75 win percentage.

The idea behind success here lies in a spot quite comfortable for Clemson: lots of possessions. Having more opportunities and a better scoring average yields an understandable 98.4 win percentage – having the more opportunities and even the same or worse scoring average, it’s a 64.8 win percentage.

Last season Clemson was No. 24 in red zone touchdown percentage (68.3), behind regular opponents/conference mates Georgia Tech (81.6), Florida State (79.5), South Carolina (71.2) and Duke (69). Two years ago Clemson was 13th nationally (72.9).

Turnovers are the one you’ll hear about most from Swinney and any other coach with a mic to his face. It’s also the one they can control the least. Luck is a factor here more than any other aspect of the game. When it’s on your side, you’re in pretty good shape.

Plus-two in turnover margin, teams won 79 percent of the time last season.

Clemson finished 29th in turnover margin, which really doesn’t tell the whole story.

The Tigers were plus two in six of their wins and only lost the turnover margin in the two losses – by a wide margin, minus-three (FSU) and minus-six (USC).

They were plus-two in road wins over N.C. State, Syracuse and Virginia – and also the Orange Bowl against Ohio State.

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Categories Clemson Florida State
Off. yards per play 6.38 (23rd) 7.67 (1st)
Def. yards per play 5.03 (23rd) 4.09 (2nd)
Success rate 49.2 (14th) 54.5 (2nd)
Eq. Points per play .64 (11th) .78 (1st)
Field position adv. 49th 2nd
Red zone TD% 68.3 (24th) 79.5 (3rd)
TO margin 0.46 (29th) 1.21 (3rd)

Florida State through the five factors

Comparing the factors for the national champion Florida State Seminoles…

Florida State

Explosiveness (35%)

Current Ways to Measure:

• Yards per play – 1st (7.67)

* Points Per Play adjusted… Points per play – 1st (.78); Offense S&P+ - 1st (148.4).

Efficiency (25%)

Current Ways to Measure:

* Success Rate – 2nd (54.5)

* Third-down conversions – 3rd (52.23).

Field Position (15%)

Current Ways to Measure:

* Average starting field position – 20th

* Field position advantage – 2nd

Finishing Drives (15%)

Current Ways to Measure:

* Points per Trip inside the 40 (not available)

* Red zone scoring – 1st (97.26/3rd in TD%, 79.5).

* Red zone S&P+ (not available)

Turnovers (10%)

Current Ways to Measure:

* Turnover margin – 3rd (1.21).

* Adj. Turnover margin (not available)

* Turnovers luck (not available)

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