I think Gary Danielson is one of the best color guys in the business. His opinions on other aspects of college football, though, often don’t click with me. That being said, I found this exchange he had with Bill Connelly at the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to be a fun read I thought I’d share:
Gary Danielson: To me, stats tell the story of what has happened, not what will happen. I find it interesting, but I just don’t use it a lot. I played for the Lions, and I thought we had a chance to win every game. I didn’t want to find out that we didn’t.
It’s hard to put in highbrow stats into a game. It’s not like the NFL game — it’s a lot different. So many players, such different talent levels. The stats I use are most closely associated with the credible stats that Cris Collinsworth gets in the NFL.
Let me ask you this: If a team, according to stats, gets inside the 20-yard line four times, and they don’t score any touchdowns, is that a good thing?
We actually chatted about this for a few minutes. His point was that creating scoring opportunities is a very positive thing (and potentially a sign that you’ll be creating more), but blowing opportunities is tough. Teams quite often lose because of blown chances (see: Iron Bowl 2013), but teams that generate opportunities are likely to keep generating opportunities. The bottom line: stat folks are often seen as searching for concrete, black-and-white conclusions. Yes, you should absolutely go for it on fourth down here. Yes, this is good, and this is bad. Et cetera. That’s the common perception. But really, it’s the exact opposite. Most stat lovers revel in the gray area, the total lack of concrete answers.
Both get some good points in. A guy like Bill isn’t arrogant enough to suggest stats paint a black and white world, but there are people out there – shoot, there are commenters here – who will try to insist otherwise. On the other hand, sometimes there’s more to learn about the sport in Bill’s gray area than Danielson seems ready to admit.
The real issue is that college football is a much harder sport to illuminate with statistical analysis than most others. But that doesn’t mean the search doesn’t have its rewards.