April 12, 2008

Coaching by the numbers: Terry's title traits

With spring practice winding down at most schools, coaches are trying to get as much accomplished as they can in their remaining days on the field. There are only so many things you can work on within such a short time frame, and sometimes you worry that you are not going to get enough of the right things covered.

How do you know what you should be spending the most time on, and what goals you should be trying to achieve?

Do you spend most of your time in individual drill work, teaching the proper fundamentals of blocking and tackling? Or do you do more team work and establish a better running game or pass defense? Do you take the time to work on kickoff coverage or do you save that for the Fall?

I had a sign on my desk when I was a head coach that said, "Is what I'm doing right now helping me win football games?" It served as a reminder of what I needed to consider when prioritizing the monstrous to-do lists on my desk each day. That is the same mentality a coach has to have in spring practice.

Most would agree that success comes from hard work and preparation, but the difficulty lies in deciding exactly what we should be prioritizing. If I spend all of my time working on stopping the run, but my third-down pass defense is atrocious, I'm never going to be very good at getting the other team's offense off of the field.

Over the years, I have developed a chart that helps give me some insight into the aspects of the game I need to be good at to have a great football team. I call it Terry's Top 10 Analysis. Basically, it is a chart of last year's final top 10 teams and all of the various factors and statistics that I believe (sometimes mistakenly) are important in building a championship team. I want to see what exactly it is that the 10 best teams in college football are doing to be so successful. It is amazing how these statistics change from year to year as offensive and defensive trends develop. I've always said that the first person to put in the wishbone offense won the national championship, and the last guy to take it out got fired.

The key is taking a critical look at your own team and seeing how your guys stack up compared to the top 10 teams. This should at least give you a reference point when deciding what you must do to get better.

It just might blow your mind when you look at some of the categories we have always assumed were critical to winning football games. After some study, you realize that it just isn't the case.

Back in November, I did a late-season top 10 statistical analysis of the teams in position to play for the national championship. But it is in the offseason when there is time to scrutinize and work on things that these charts become most valuable.

I have been utilizing this type of top 10 statistical chart for many years. I consider it still to be one of the most important evaluation tools a coach can use. For those of you who want to take a more in-depth look at the top 10, I have attached my comprehensive chart (PDF) that goes into much greater detail. You can even plug in your own team at the No. 11 spot, and see how they match up against 2007's Top 10.

Here's an abbreviated version…

As a general rule, if seven out of 10 of the teams (70 percent) are statistically in the top 25 in any one category, then I consider that strong evidence it is a critically important area of the game to be good at to compete at a top-10 level.

• Rushing Defense remains the single most important statistic in college football. Of the top 10 teams last year, all 10 were in the top 25 in stopping the run and half of those were in the top 10 in run defense. It is the only category on the chart where all 10 teams showed up in the top 25. This statistic is so compelling it should weigh in on every defensive consideration a coaching staff makes from personnel to scheme to the actual game plan. The bottom line is that championship football begins with being able to stop the run.

• The next two most important categories on the chart are Scoring Defense (9 of 10 in top 25) and Total Defense (8 of 10). I believe the only reason that pass defense is not equally as high is that teams that are getting beat usually have to pass the ball more.

• Conversely, it is not nearly as important to be dominant in the offensive running game. Only two of the top 10 teams in the country are in the top 25 in rushing offense and only one of those is in the top 10. Only West Virginia and LSU ran the ball for more than 200 yards a game. But before you write off the importance of the running game, it needs to be noted that the top eight teams are all solid running teams with rushing stats that are well above the national average. If you want to contend for the national championship, you don't have to be great at running the football, but you'd better be pretty dadgum good.

• The rule of thumb in all areas of offensive football is being "good but not necessarily great." Balance between running and throwing looks to be much more important than dominance in either, as only two of the top 10 teams – West Virginia and Boston College – would be considered one-dimensional offensive football teams.

• Turnover margin is also very important to winning football games. Seven of the top 10 teams ended up in the top 25. And again, to show you how important great defense is, the best teams are much better at creating turnovers than they are at preventing turnovers. Interestingly, Ohio State, which is known for great fundamental football, is the only team in the top 10 that has a very poor turnover margin.

• If you think that excessive penalties are the road to ruin – then get ready for another shock. The top three teams in the country – LSU, Georgia and USC – are ranked 117th, 85th, and 111th respectively in fewest penalties per game. Ouch! On further study, I bet most of these penalties would be on the defensive side of the ball and would be associated with what I call "aggression penalties." Great teams generally play defense with reckless abandon.

Finally, we must acknowledge the incredible job the coaches and players did last season at the University of Kansas. Out of 119 teams and 119 coaching staffs, each trying to execute the same fundamentals of the game, Kansas finished in the top 10 in 10 of these 15 categories. No other team in the top 10 even comes close. They were No. 8 in total offense, No. 2 in scoring offense, No. 8 in rushing defense, No. 9 in pass efficiency defense, No. 4 in scoring defense, No. 9 in turnovers lost, No. 4 in turnovers gained, No. 1 in turnover margin, No. 3 in fewest penalties and No. 3 in third-down percentage defense.

I love offensive football as much as the next guy, heck I called plays for 15 years. But statistically it is very clear that great defense and winning the turnover battle make a great football team.

The stats don't lie.

Just check out the chart.

Terry Bowden is Yahoo! Sports' college football analyst. For more information about Terry, visit his official web site.

Send Terry a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.


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