Countdown to Kickoff: 10 days (!!!!!!!)
This time last year, Georgia Tech fans were looking forward to a season where the Yellow Jackets were pinned as a team on the rise. The 2014 season had ended in impressive fashion, with wins over rivals Clemson and Georgia, a thrilling game against undefeated Florida State that ended in a loss, and a statement win in the Orange Bowl against Mississippi State. A lot of offensive skill talent graduated, but the Tech faithful largely brushed that aside. Justin Thomas was back and in Paul Johnson’s offense the running backs are largely plug and play. Or so we thought.
Fast-forward to today. The 2015 season was an unmitigated disaster for Georgia Tech and one of the biggest disappointments was the play of the backfield. Though they did not get much help from the offensive line, the A- and B-backs struggled to find holes, get to the edge, and block, allowing opposing defenses to stop many plays before the could fully develop. It’s easy to look back now and see that the lack of experience in the backfield should have raised some red flags, but hindsight is 20/20. Should there have been cause for concern heading into the 2015 season? Is there a relationship between backfield experience and wins?
To start this investigation, here is the two-deep at the the four backfield positions (QB, BB, and both ABs) for each season of the Paul Johnson era. The backups were a bit tricky and would sometimes shift throughout a season, but I tried to assign them based on games played and touches.
|2008||1st||Joshua Nesbitt||SO||Jonathan Dwyer||SO||Roddy Jones||R-FR||Lucas Cox||R-SO|
|2nd||Jaybo Shaw||FR||Quincy Kelly||R-SO||Greg Smith||R-JR||Embry Peeples||FR|
|2009||1st||Joshua Nesbitt||JR||Jonathan Dwyer||JR||Anthony Allen||R-JR||Roddy Jones||R-SO|
|2nd||Jaybo Shaw||SO||Preston Lyons||R-SO||Embry Peeples||SO||Marcus Wright||SO|
|2010||1st||Joshua Nesbitt||SR||Anthony Allen||R-SR||Roddy Jones||R-JR||Orwin Smith||SO|
|2nd||Tevin Washington||R-SO||Preston Lyons||R-JR||Embry Peeples||JR||Lucas Cox||R-SR|
|2011||1st||Tevin Washington||R-JR||David Sims||R-SO||Roddy Jones||R-SR||Orwin Smith||JR|
|2nd||Synjyn Days||R-FR||Preston Lyons||R-SR||Embry Peeples||SR||Tony Zenon||R-FR|
|2012||1st||Tevin Washington||R-SR||David Sims||R-JR||Orwin Smith||SR||Robert Godhigh||R-JR|
|2nd||Vad Lee||R-FR||Zach Laskey||SO||B.J. Bostic||R-SO||Tony Zenon||R-SO|
|2013||1st||Vad Lee||R-SO||David Sims||R-SR||Robert Godhigh||R-SR||Synjyn Days||R-JR|
|2nd||Justin Thomas||R-FR||Zach Laskey||JR||Deon Hill||R-JR||B.J. Bostic||R-JR|
|2014||1st||Justin Thomas||R-SO||Synjyn Days||R-SR||Charles Perkins||R-SR||Tony Zenon||R-SR|
|2nd||Tim Byerly||R-JR||Zach Laskey||SR||B.J. Bostic||R-SR||Deon Hill||R-SR|
|2015||1st||Justin Thomas||R-JR||Patrick Skov||SR||Clinton Lynch||R-FR||Isiah Willis||R-JR|
|2nd||Matthew Jordan||R-FR||Marcus Marshall||FR||Broderick Snoddy||R-SR||TaQuon Marshall||FR|
|2016||1st||Justin Thomas||R-SR||Marcus Marshall||SO||Clinton Lynch||R-SO||Isiah Willis||R-SR|
|2nd||Matthew Jordan||R-SO||Dedrick Mills||FR||Qua Searcy||R-SO||Lynn Griffin||R-SR|
To help summarize that table, here are the class standings of each player on the two-deep. In the last column, I summed up the number of years each player had been in college, including the year in question. For example, a true freshman gets counted as 1 year of experience, while a redshirt-junior would count as 4 years of experience (1 redshirt year, plus 3 years).
This rough metric is suitable for my purposes here, but does have two major blindspots that actually combine to make the 2015 backfield look more experienced then it actually was. First, transfers are given credit for years spent playing college football in systems that are drastically different then Coach Johnson’s flexbone. Graduate transfer BB Patrick Skov is listed as a senior, counting as 4 years of experience despite only having 1 year in Johnson’s offense. Second, injuries and missed time are not well accounted for. In 2015, several players projected to play in the preseason were hurt in camp and missed the whole year. In addition, redshirt-senior Broderick Snoddy missed several games and was limited in more, but is still listed on the two deep. This was also an issue in 2010, as I will cover below.
Finally, here is a graph showing both total years of experience in the backfield and winning percentage over the Paul Johnson era:
What does all that mean?
The first thing that jumped out to me when I started looking at the relationship between backfield experience and winning percentage in the Paul Johnson era was the 2008 and 2009 seasons. Despite having the two youngest backfields, they are two of the three most successful years the Yellow Jackets have had under Coach Johnson. This seems to dispute the claim that an inexperienced backfield leads to seasons like 2015, however there are differences between the inexperience of 2008-2009 and the inexperience of 2015. The biggest reason for the success of the 2008 and 2009 backfields at a relatively young age is the transcendent talent in that backfield. The two biggest contributors to the success of those backfields, QB Joshua Nesbitt and BB Jonathan Dwyer, were both members of the vaunted 2007 recruiting class, which is pretty easily the best class either Coach Gailey or Coach Johnson has brought to The Flats to date. Beyond Nesbitt and Dwyer, Johnson turned to players that he recruited earlier then he normally would as they were brought in specifically to run his scheme. In 2008, three true freshman backs saw significant playing time: QB Jaybo Shaw, AB Embry Peeples, and AB Marcus Wright. The only other year in which Coach Johnson gave significant time to multiple true freshmen backs was 2015 (BB Marcus Marshall, AB TaQuon Marshall, AB Mikell Lands-Davis).
The second anomaly in this data is the 2010 season. The data shows the backfield was more experienced then in 2009 or 2011, yet the winning percentage was lower. What the experience data does not take into account is the season-ending injury to senior QB Joshua Nesbitt halfway through the ninth game of the season. At that point in the season, the Yellow Jackets were 5-3 and in a very competitive game against Virginia Tech. Though backup Tevin Washington performed admirably against the Hokies, he went 1-3 in the team’s last 3 games, often looking like the inexperienced QB he was. Obviously we can’t say what would have happened if Nesbitt hadn’t broken his arm, but chances are the winning percentage would have been better, if not quite as good as 2009.
While I am not ignoring the first three years of the Johnson era, I want to focus on the last five years, from 2011 onward. Focusing on these seasons, a clear relationship between backfield experience and winning percentage emerges. Year-to-year, when the experience level of the backfield increased, the winning percentage increased. When the backfield experience decreased, the winning percentage decreased as well. I don’t think the relationship is strong enough to relate an experience level directly to a winning percentage (for example, I don’t think that we can say that 25 years of backfield experience equates to 6 wins or such) but I do think there is enough to predict a general year-to-year trend.
So will 2016 be better?
Taking a step back from the analytics, another offseason of training and reps in the offense for talented youngsters like Marcus Marshall, Clinton Lynch, Qua Searcy, and Lynn Griffin should put them in a better position to make the correct reads and miss fewer blocks while also being stronger and more explosive with the ball. Combine that with the rudimentary analytic detailed above and yes, 2016 will be better than 2015. The overall backfield experience level in the predicted 2016 two-deep has increased from 2015. Though this data can’t tell us how much better 2016 will be, there is enough of a trend that I feel comfortable stating that a more experienced backfield means the Yellow Jacket faithful should expect better results this fall.