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USA TODAY
Paul Myerberg, @PaulMyerberg, USA TODAY Sports

Every play in a college football game, whether on offense or defense, is charted in detail and crunched to its essence to reveal basic truths: what one team did wrong and one team did right at its most fundamental level.

The evolution of the game has yielded subtle differences to this approach.

As a graduate assistant in the late 1990s, Pat Fitzgerald estimates he evaluated fewer than 15 data points on a given play. Now Northwestern's head coach, he says his staff looks at upwards of 40 chartable factors, particularly on defense.

The increase in play-to-play information has yielded depths of statistics, formulas and metrics previously unseen in college football. It's an analytical methodology similar to sabermetrics, a form of measurement that has altered the way baseball teams gauge and predict success.

Using advanced analytics that move beyond tendencies -- what a specific opponent might do on a specific down, for instance -- has become more accepted among college coaches, a group long willing to adopt even the most outside-the-box approach in search of the slightest advantage.

But several coaches told USA TODAY Sports that the use of analytics, while clearly on the rise, remains in its infancy among college football's major conferences.

"We've toe-dipped in that world," Stanford coach David Shaw said. "There's a lot of things teams do in the NFL, there's a lot of things that are available. We're looking at some of that, but there's nothing we've truly adopted yet. But I know we're going in that direction just to see.

"My old boss Jon Gruden used to say, 'If I can find one thing that helps me get one first down, I'm going to use it.'"

One of the issues is the sense of being overwhelmed by reams of data, inundated by potentially helpful information yet feeling unable to correctly process what's valuable and what's extraneous.

"You can go a thousand different directions," Washington coach Chris Petersen said. "I want to make sure that we can weed through all this stuff and tell what we need to know. It can be paralysis by analysis; we are looking at it, but tell me what I need to know. There's so much out there that it will be interesting to see where it's going."

However, if boiled down and focused on a primary task, an analytical approach can pay on-field dividends.

California, for example, studied numbers to help strategize early-drive play calls: Sonny Dykes, the Golden Bears second-year coach, said his program's research altered his offensive approach.

"Data has shown how detrimental a negative play is to a drive," Dykes said. "If you give up a sack or a loss of yardage, whether it's a penalty or a tackle for loss, just the impact that has on drives.

"It may change your play-calling a bit. You may not be as aggressive early. The focus is on just gaining positive yardage and getting the ball started down the field. Let's not take a lot of risks early in drives."

Dykes also uses analytics in player development and recruiting, where it helps California project which prospects could lend an immediate boost to the program and which ones might need time to grow in the system.

"We try to look at every possible trend and get every possible edge that we can," Dykes said.

Fitzgerald said Northwestern will outsource some of its information-gathering, then turn the results inward. The Wildcats "self-scout," he said, using data to best advance their current roster.

Whether internal or external, and even if only in its early stages of widespread use across college football, analytical metrics might stand as the next wave in coaching.

For those coaches already willing to lean on the results, the use of analytics has helped simplify and streamline elements that are complex.

"It's a complicated game, but you can break it down to make it simple," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Really, it's about having players in the right spot and calling the right plays.

"Calling the right plays goes down to the coaches. And what helps us call the right plays? It's studying our opponents and studying the numbers and going from there."

Contributing: Daniel Uthman

 

August 25, 2014

 

 
 

 

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