MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Associated Press college football writer Ralph Russo recently posted a fascinating piece about the analytics craze that is becoming so prevalent in sports today.
Anyone who has watched the movie Money Ball certainly has an awareness of the proliferation of analytics in professional baseball that has since introduced so many head-spinning stats that the data is becoming somewhat overwhelming to the average sports fan.
In many instances, it is bordering on the absurd.
Well now, according to Russo, statistical analysis is making its way into college football with a number of different data services available for grid programs to utilize.
This is not to be confused with the internal analyst positions that most programs are creating to break down and evaluate what is happening during the course of the season.
Russo’s article focused on six-year-old Championship Analytics, Inc., which now has 53 subscribers, including 38 FBS teams. One of those FBS clients is Baylor from the Big 12.
However, there are many other competing services out there, says West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.
“There is Sports Source Analytics, Championship Analytics, Coaches by the Numbers … all sorts of things,” he said earlier this week. “Really, the conversation that it comes down to in our organization is you have to have all of these analysts and offensive and defensive GAs and they are kind of doing similar work.”
True, but while the internal analysts are breaking down opposing teams or discovering hidden tendencies in their own teams, some of these outside analytical companies tout their services by offering raw, unbiased data that could be useful in certain situations.
For instance, they can offer statistical probabilities for success in certain in-game situations with strategic advice based on the numbers, or, by plotting out length-of-the-field drives, suggestions on specific plays can be made along the way.
In the old days, coaches might have stayed up late on a Friday night before a Saturday game doing this on a grease board or by grabbing a bar of soap and diagramming drives on the mirror in the bathroom. Now, the information is all there in a three-ring binder with color-coded charts and graphics.
Sometimes the extra data can be extremely valuable, particularly for smaller programs without the resources some of the larger schools possess.
“I used it at Texas A&M,” Spavital said. “I also had one of them at Cal and it’s pretty beneficial in terms of they can produce numbers and stats in an organized format relatively quickly. If you are looking at your self-scout, they will look through everything and you will see, ‘Wow, I have a crazy tendency on third and one’ so there is a lot of merit to it.”
Because most of the information is coming from computer-generated programs and not directly from someone with a football background, per se, the data presented doesn’t always account for the human element, which, obviously, will always be extremely important in sports.
That’s why a lot of coaches will look at some of it, but usually not all of it.
“You probably read about 50 pages out of the 400 they send you,” Spavital said. “It’s really good stuff, though. What it is great for is the availability of it. If you are four, five, six, seven games into the season it’s like, ‘Let me look at all my third-and-one calls in the fourth quarter’ or something like that.
“You can flip right to that page instead of sending a GA or an analyst to research it and have him find them all. It just cuts out a lot of time.”
Spavital said the primary role of the staff analyst is to break down the schedule and give the coaching staff all of the necessary information they need on each opponent.
That process begins during the summer and continues throughout the season to account for injuries, personnel changes or any modifications in style of play. Spavital said he wants a preliminary breakdown of each opponent during the summertime so he can have a general idea of what each opponent is doing.
Then, during preseason camp, he can work on some of the things he knows his unit is going to face during the course of the season.
“For instance, I go up against (defensive coordinator Tony Gibson) every single day - which I’m probably not going to play one defense that is similar to that,” Spavital explained. “We’re going to face more four-down teams and quarters teams so you really look through all of that stuff and that’s what I have them do. I have to get ahead on the opponents.
“I look at it throughout the course of the summer and then you get into fall camp and you’re like, ‘Alright, I need to focus more on cover-two beaters or these four-down fronts and start repping that a little bit more.’ It’s all about contingency planning,” Spavital added.
And while the extra information is very useful, it will never replace gut instincts when it comes to making a crucial third-down call late in the game.
“You’ve got to have a feel,” Spavital admitted. “Sometimes you can look a guy in the eye and tell he may not be wanting the ball or tell that he’s feeling it. You still have to have your natural intuition over just looking at the stats.”
That’s particularly important when things aren’t working according to plan.
“I learned that from Dana (Holgorsen),” Spavital said. “Sometimes you’ve got to go with your gut on what you believe and what you believe is right.”
For instance, if a team is ahead by a touchdown and they have the ball and the defense is playing well, it’s best to try and milk the clock and flip the field to put the defense in a better position if there is a possession change.
Other times, if the defense is struggling, Spavital may have to take more risks because he knows he has to score a lot of points to win the game.
Analytics may or may not be able to help with those game-specific situations as they materialize.
“I do pay attention to what the defense is doing during games,” he said. “There were times when I was at Texas A&M when the offense wasn’t moving the ball well at all but the defense was holding them so we were milking the clock, and there were times when the defense wasn’t holding them much and we had to go score as much as possible. You kind of play off each other.”
Percentages can also play a big role in decision making, to a degree, but it also depends on the personnel. For example, having an explosive playmaker or a great player may allow a coach to take more risks than usual.
“Sometimes you might have a Kevin White or a Tavon Austin where that might be a low-percentage throw, but it’s Tavon Austin,” Spavital explained. “You’ve kind of got to balance the odds that way.”
In other words, use common sense.
The good coaches have it; the not-so good coaches don’t always have it, sometimes because they get bogged down by trying to process too much information or by asking their players to do things they can’t do.
Because of that, analytics will never replace the human intuition that comes with observing and evaluating your players on a daily basis.
“I don’t delve too far into it. I look at it, but you can’t overanalyze it because at the end of the day you’ve got to do what is best for your players and what they’re comfortable doing,” Spavital concluded.