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Predicting success in college football is complicated. Teams have huge rosters relative to the other major pro sports, and at the Division 1 level, the sport is made up of 130 different teams in eleven different conferences. Transfers, frequent injuries, and dependence on young athletes with still-developing minds all work together to make keeping track of the field a logistical headache.

What if there were just five factors that you could use to analyze a team’s likelihood of success? That’s what this post is proposing – a simple way of analyzing a team to determine their true likelihood of winning using just five independent factors.

Each of the five factors involved in winning college football games can be easily tied to a specific stat or statistical average. That makes it easier to analyze a team’s potential for success, especially since all these stats are freely available to the public.

Why the 5 Factors Matter

You can tell everything you need to know about a college football team by looking at its overall explosiveness, its ability to control the turnover differential, its scoring consistency, its efficiency, and its ability to win the battle for field position.

These five factors matter so much because they get to the heart of what it means to play football. Obviously, teams need efficiency to avoid getting into passing downs and being forced to make longshot plays. You’ve got to score as often as you can when you’re in a good field position. You’ve got to control the battle for field position to give your opponents as difficult a time scoring as possible.

This isn’t to say that no other factor matters.

Weather can play a crucial role, particularly during Bowl Season when the temps start to drop in our northern latitudes. There’s also much to be said for the strength of a team’s schedule. But the five factors described below go further toward predicting a team’s real potential for success than any other.

Factor #1 – Winners Are More Explosive

We use the word “explosive” to refer to offenses that churn out big yards and big plays.

Teams who average more yards per play are far more likely to win. In fact, since the 2012 season, teams that win the per-play battle by even a single yard have about an 86% chance of winning the game outright. By the time you get to a two-yard differential, the win rate is more like 95%.

The statistic to watch here is Yards per Play, known as YPP. College teams average 74 plays per game. That’s why a differential of even 1 yard makes such a difference.

Further Info:

If I outpace my opponent by one yard per play over 74 plays, that’s a 74-yard disparity, plenty of room for a W.

The Yards per Play stat is a stand-in for a big play tracker. The team that’s better at creating an advantage in yards is usually also the team that’s better at creating those big plays that lead to solid college football wins.

Factor #2 – The Best Teams Dominate the Turnover Battle

The game of football is a game of possession – having it, losing it, and controlling it.

Turnovers take away possessions. That’s their main value. Frequently, turnovers lead to easier scoring for a team’s offense. They’re the most powerful single factor in college football success. Teams that dominate the turnover battle are generally the best in the sport.

The stat to watch here is Turnover Margin, the difference between the turnovers a team causes and the ones it suffers. Interestingly, going back to the 2012 season, teams with an even turnover ratio only win about 50% of the time. Teams gain about a 15% chance of winning for each positive mark in the turnover column. College football teams with a +5 or higher turnover margin won 100% of their games over the past decade.

Note:

Each turnover is worth about 5 points on the scoreboard. That’s from a combination of field position gained by the offense and a possession taken away from the opposing team.

Unfortunately for bettors, and for college football head coaches, turnovers are often a matter of good or bad luck. The world’s best QBs will still get picked from time to time, and the best running backs in college football will occasionally fumble the ball. If luck accounts for 1/3 of football victories, I’d bet that turnovers were the single biggest factor in those outcomes.

Factor #3 – College Football Champions Finish Drives

To get better at picking winners, you need to be good at reading which teams are good at taking advantage of scoring opportunities. In college football, scoring opportunities begin at around the 40-yard line.

Forget about the red zone. At the college level, there’s very little difference between so-called good red zone offenses and bad red zone offenses. You want to focus on team performance inside their opponents’ 40-yard line for a qualified read on a team’s ability to finish drives with points.

Tips:

You can check out a little-known but still publicly-available stat, Points per Trip Inside the 40, to get a sense of how a team stacks up when considering this factor.

Interestingly, not all points are created equal. Drives into scoring territory that end in field goals don’t provide much of a win cushion. Since 2012, teams that average 3-5 points per scoring drive were only winning slightly above .500. Averaging more than 5 points per scoring opportunity led to the most significant likelihood of winning – a little more than 68% of teams that averaged at least 5 points per scoring drive won the game outright.

Going back a decade, teams that have more scoring opportunities win about 65% of the time even when they have a similar or worse scoring average than their opponent. This is a sign of how crucial the ability to finish drives is at the college level.

Factor #4 – Winners Have a High Success Rate

Success Rate is a stat that measures efficiency, or a team’s ability to gain yards.

Success Rate is like the on-base percentage in baseball, describing a team’s ability to stay on their game and avoid passing down situations. Using the Success Rate statistic, you can determine if any individual play was successful, then zoom out for a sense of how successful a team’s overall strategy is.

In college football, plays are successful depending on the number of yards gained and the down in question. For example, a first-down play is only successful if it gains at least 50% of the yards needed for another first down.

Going back a decade, it’s clear that small increases in Success Rates lead to big changes in win likelihood.

Further Info:

Teams with a success rate of 0-5% won 59% of their games. Increase that rate by just five percent, and the winning percentage jumps to 76.2%. Teams with a Success Rate above 30% won very nearly 100% of the time.

What these numbers tell us is that a team that’s successful on 9 out of every 20 plays will almost always beat a team that’s successful on 8 out of every 20. That’s a significant factor in team success, and it’s usually my first statistical stop when I’m analyzing a team’s win potential.

Factor #5 – Field Position – A Critical Battle

The length of the field in front of an offense matters a huge amount, especially when you consider it against the length of the field in front of an opponents’ offense. We can use a stat known as ASFP (Average Starting Field Position) to track a team’s ability to win the critical field position battle.

The field position margin range has a big impact on the likelihood of team success.

Teams that maintain a field position margin of 20 yards or more win at a rate of almost 97%. At the other end of the spectrum, teams that average a neutral (or nearly-neutral) field position margin only win at a clip of about 54.1%.

When you’re handicapping an upcoming game or looking at the length and breadth of a given team’s chance over a season, keep in mind that the field position battle is important. Take field position stats with a grain of salt, though – too many factors influence field position to make it a valuable stat all on its own.

Conclusion

Sports betting is hard. The game is rigged against you, for the most part. Oddsmakers have almost all the advantages.

Betting more successfully on college football means identifying easy-to-track factors that give you deep insight into how a game is likely to play out. The five factors above are the ones I use consistently to help me make smart decisions on who to back and who to fade.