In the final installment of the 2020 Advanced Stats Season Review, we’re going to look at the impact that “Hidden Factors” had on GT winning football games in 2020. When I solicited questions for this series last month, the vast majority of the questions I got covered these hidden factors of penalties, turnovers, special teams, and field position. Now, field position is a dependent variable that hinges largely on special teams and turnovers, but I got a question about it and wanted to look at it separately. Now, many GT fans may object that these things were not hidden but highly visible, but what I mean is that hidden factors are those elements of the game that don’t show up in some of the key metrics we use in evaluating offense and defense, like success rate, yards per play, and total offensive and defensive EPA (Expected Points Added per play). Let’s see what happened over the course of the season in each of these areas.
As the season wrapped up, the struggle with penalties became a resounding narrative, as the fanbase pointed to an uptick in penalties as evidence of lack of focus and also as a large contributor to losses to end the season. Above, you can see the cumulative impact of penalties as the season progressed. After the BC game, GT had gained almost 12 Expected Points, but the team posted a negative net EPA on penalties in each of the final four games of the season. The penalties in the Pittsburgh game got the most attention; GT did lose about 5 Expected Points on penalties over the course of the season’s final game, although on its own, correcting that margin would not have made up for the 14 point loss. Overall, penalties had a relatively small impact on a cumulative basis in 2020. GT lost about 5.4 Expected Points over the course of the season, which is equivalent to only 0.05 wins - not the devastating impact that some made it out to be.
If you thought that special teams had a devastating impact throughout the course of the season, you were correct. In the FSU game alone, GT lost about 12.5 Expected Points on Special Teams plays. As the season progressed and GT essentially stopped kicking field goals, the damage was less, but the trend in a negative direction continued. Over the course of 10 games, GT lost 39.6 Expected Points on Special Teams. That is a ghastly number, and it glaringly mocks us as the coaching staff talks about the priority they put on special teams. Losing 39.6 expected points is equivalent to 0.98 wins over the course of the season — with the Ray Guy award winner dropping bombs week after week! This is astoundingly bad. Other than the punt team, the damage happened across the board.
Once again, the narrative about the plague of turnovers in the 2020 season was correct. After opening the year against FSU and benefitting slightly from turnovers, things took a sudden and drastic shift downwards. Not surprisingly, the margins in the Syracuse and BC games were explained almost entirely by costly turnover plays. Louisville and Duke - not coincidentally the two most convincing wins of the year - helped alleviate some of the season long margin, but that wasn’t enough. Overall, GT lost 29.5 Expected Points over the course of the season, which is equivalent to about 0.71 wins. The good news is that after the Syracuse game, GT gained expected points on turnover plays for the rest of the season. Sims clearly improved his ball security over the second half of the season, which shines an encouraging light on what we might expect from him in 2021. The bad news is that the damage was still severe, losing almost one win’s worth of expected points on turnover plays over the course of the year.
Finally, we will take a quick look at average starting field position over the course of the year. Of course, field position is largely influenced by special teams and turnover plays, so these results are not independent from the other factors we have considered. Overall though, GT lost the field position game by about three yards per game, averaging a start on their own 29 yard line, as compared to an average opponent starting on its own 32 yard line. Over the course of the year, this difference amounts to only about 0.03 wins. This pales in comparison to the overall impact of turnovers and special teams that we considered above.
GT fans left 2020 feeling like a great deal of the struggles this season were to be blamed on these hidden factors. After crunching the numbers, there is a lot of evidence to back up those claim. Penalties, special teams, and turnovers cost Georgia Tech 1.74 wins in 2020. That is, with an average performance in those three areas, GT was a 5 win team this past season, and the fanbase is feeling a lot better about jumping up two wins while playing two fewer games than in 2019. Alas, the emphasis that the current staff has verbally placed on these areas did not yield on field results this past season.
For a coaching staff that preaches effort, focus, and the like, this is beyond unacceptable. It would be almost impossible for the overall impact of special teams to be as harmful in 2021 as it was in 2020, but the coaching staff needs to show something here, both in developing a kicker and in making choices about who to deploy on coverage, return, and blocking units. You cannot lose an entire win because of special teams. If the numbers next year look similar to this year, that’s a very bad sign for the long term prospects of this staff.
The good news: turnovers in particular are very likely to progress or regress - in GT’s case, progress- towards the mean from year to year. That is, over an extended period of time, we would expect the EPA impact of turnovers to settle around 0. Further, GT deployed a true freshman quarterback who clearly improved in ball security over the second half of the season and will enter his second full season of starting. We would expect significant improvements on limiting devastating offensive turnover plays. On the defensive side, GT’s continued struggle in havoc rate correlates with a lower number of turnovers forced. There’s reason to expect improvement there as well as the entire secondary returns and the talent level at the Edge positions grows.
Overall, this analysis made me feel worse about the 2020 performance, showing how close we were to something like a 5-5 season. It made me feel better about the prospects for 2021, as the special teams and turnover performances are almost certain to progress towards zero. That means GT could get almost a two win boost just by playing at the same quality on a per play basis on offense and defense. Things can’t go worse in 2021 in these areas, but will they look better?