Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Better Know the Units: Special Teams

Welcome to another installment of "Better Know the Units." I'd like to depart from tradition, as I feel I should preface this entry with an apology for the list of rankings you're about to read. Those of you expecting an apology for my quality of writing can kindly lick me.

This list focuses on special teams play, a unit often overlooked and undervalued until the moment when a game's outcome pivots on its timely (or untimely) execution. It's football's "miscellaneous" category, encompassing punts, kickoffs, punt and kick returns, field goals, extra points and the attempts to block and otherwise defend those various plays.

Until now, my lists of previous units have involved calculating composite rankings while looking at how many starters a unit returns from the previous year. About two thirds of the way through my data collection for this entry, I realized that applying this method to special teams was what we'd call "problematic." Because the special teams umbrella covers so many different phases of play that are only loosely related to each other, it's much harder to draw definitive conclusions from a composite ranking of their average strengths. Teams that were excellent in one area of special teams play could be terrible in another, which more often than not skewed all of my composite rankings towards the middle and helped make the list you're about to read very crowded.

I looked at seven special teams categories to compile my (admittedly flawed) rankings: average yards per punt return, average yards per kick return, average yards per punt, percentage of kickoffs that were touchbacks, yards allowed per punt return, yards allowed per kick return and percentage of field goals made. My last disclaimer is that I didn't include long snappers or holders when I looked at how many special teams players return for a given team. We all appreciate what they do, but the fact is that they're not nearly as hard to replace as a good return specialist or place kicker is.

#12 Hawai'i 74th and 1 of 4 ~ It's a good thing the other two Warrior units were as good as they were, because their special teams play was severely lacking in 2010. Tormey-ocrity strikes again!

#10 TIE New Mexico (76th and 5 of 5) and Fresno State (75th and 4 of 4) ~ Once again, you'll find me giving the benefit of the doubt to the teams with more returning starters. For all the emphasis he's placed on special teams play in the past, it's pretty surprising to see a Pat Hill team ranked this low.

#9 Utah State 69th and 3 of 5 ~ Coach Gary Andersen was reportedly very concerned with all of his potential punters after their spring game in April, which could compound problems if their new quarterback struggles as well.

#8 New Mexico State 70th and 4 of 4 ~ The Aggies return a very good kick returner (17th in average yards per kick return), but could probably afford to find some replacements for punts (116th in yards per punt) and kickoffs (113th in touchback percentage).

#7 UNLV 60th and 3 of 5 ~ What is it about good kick returners landing on bad teams? Rogers at NMSU, Kerwynn Williams at Utah State and now Marcus Sullivan for UNLV.

#6 Idaho 62nd and 3 of 4 ~ The numbers for Trey Farquhar and Bobby Cowan might look impressive at first, but a lot of specialists could probably put up stats like theirs if half their games were played indoors.

#5 San Jose State 62nd and 4 of 4 ~ The best individual ranking of any team in any category for this list is the Spartans' kick return defense, which was 5th nationally last year.

#4 Boise State 54th and 2 of 5 ~ I've already fessed up to these rankings being flawed, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the one time I won't see Boise State ranked #1 in one of these lists! Truly I am a sad, strange little man.

#3 Texas Tech 53rd and 4 of 6 ~ What do you get for a series of rankings that ranged from mildly sub-par to very good? The #3 spot on this list. Joygasm.

#2 Louisiana Tech 46th and 3 of 5 ~ For further proof of how arbitrary some of these rankings are, look at how high the Bulldogs can find themselves ranked in spite of losing Philip Livas at punt and kick returner.

#1 Oregon 46th and 4 of 4 ~ Even with all of the problems I've already outlined with using this ranking system for special teams, I think there's at least partial validation to be found in who came out #1. The Ducks were the most consistent team across the board and boast a legitimate All-American in Cliff "No, I really am Batman" Harris.

For those of you readers who are more statistically inclined than I am, how would you have gone about ranking the special teams units of Nevada's opponents?

1 comment:

Patrick H said...

I think you did a great job. It might have helped a small amount to look at multi-year averages (but coaching changes, like Hawaii's would affect that) and also how well they defend the opponent's special teams (Fresno is known for blocking kicks for instance). But another great article.