News & Analysis

An Introduction to College Football Wins Above Average

Last week, PFF’s own Dr. Eric Eager unveiled PFF War, a metric to provide context around how valuable an individual player's performance was over a given timeframe. The methodology, as outlined in the article, attempts to:

  • Determine how good a given player was during a period of time (generally a season) using PFF grades;
  • Map a player’s production to a “wins” value for his team using the relative importance of each facet of play;
  • Simulate a team’s expected performance with a player of interest and with an average FBS player participating identically in his place;
  • Take the difference in expected wins (i.e., Wins Above Average).

Using PFF’s unique blend of player grades and play-level participation data, we can provide a similar metric to the one derived for NFL for our college-level data.

The main distinction between the two is that we assume the replacement level in college football is an average FBS player. In other words, an average FBS player has a per-play grade of zero, which is adjusted for the strength of the opponent. In the NFL, a team of replacement-level players is expected to finish with a 3-13 NFL record, whereas in College, we don’t have a basis for replacement-level player wins and only judge solely on the expectation for how well an average FBS player would perform in the given situation. Instead of WAR, we outline a slightly different metric: WAA or Wins Above Average. 

Like the NFL WAR version, we can utilize this metric to highlight important aspects that are specific to college football. Please note, PFF only has college football data dating back to 2014, so these numbers only span the PFF College era (2014-2019).  

POSITIONAL VALUE

Everyone understands the value of quality quarterback play, especially in the NFL. Comparing college to the NFL, though, quarterbacks are actually slightly more valuable compared to other positions, with their value over twice as much as the next closest position in college. The other interesting tidbit hidden within College WAA is that cornerback is the second-most valuable position and exceeds the wide receiver position, unlike in the NFL. The position value rankings are quarterbacks, cornerbacks, wide receivers then defensive linemen. 

Figure: WAR for offensive and defensive skill position players. Minimum 250-snap threshold.

Figure: WAR for offensive and defensive linemen. Minimum 250-snap threshold.

BEST PLAYERS

Over the course of the PFF era, we have had several quality performances from quarterbacks, but no player was more valuable to his team than Marcus Mariota when he was the signal-caller for the Oregon Ducks.

Season Player Team Games WAA
2014 Marcus Mariota Oregon 15 2.360
2018 Kyler Murray Oklahoma 14 2.331
2017 Baker Mayfield Oklahoma 14 2.324
2019 Joe Burrow LSU 13 2.156
2015 Matt Johnson Bowling Green 14 2.067
2016 Baker Mayfield Oklahoma 13 1.970
2016 Deshaun Watson Clemson 15 1.811
2015 Jared Goff California 13 1.745
2015 Baker Mayfield Oklahoma 13 1.698
2015 Nick Mullens Southern Miss 14 1.635

HEISMAN TROPHY WINNERS

Most seasons, the respective voters were correct in giving the Heisman Trophy to the most valuable player in college football. Only two years during the PFF era did it appear like there was an argument for a different player than the one who was selected for the Heisman.

Season Player Team Games WAA
2014 Marcus Mariota Oregon 15 2.360
2015 Derrick Henry Alabama 15 0.351
2016 Lamar Jackson Louisville 13 1.029
2017 Baker Mayfield Oklahoma 14 2.324
2018 Kyler Murray Oklahoma 14 2.331
2019 Joe Burrow LSU 13 2.156

HEISMAN TROPHY SNUBS

Heisman Trophy voters have hit the nail on the head over the past three seasons, but two snubs stick out during the PFF era.

In 2015, Derrick Henry finished 136th in our WAA metric. It was a down year for brilliant individual performances from players on dominant teams, but three players deserved the award more, based solely on our metric. 

Season Player Team WAA
2015 Matt Johnson Bowling Green 2.067
2015 Jared Goff California 1.745
2015 Baker Mayfield Oklahoma 1.698

The 2016 season was much less of a miss by the committee, with Lamar Jackson finishing seventh according to our metric. He beat out a talented group of quarterbacks in what was a stacked field of Heisman candidates. 

Season Player Team WAA
2016 Baker Mayfield Oklahoma 1.970
2016 Deshaun Watson Clemson 1.811
2016 Mason Rudolph Oklahoma State 1.482
2016 Mike White Western Kentucky 1.385
2016 Patrick Mahomes Texas Tech 1.152
2016 Mitchell Trubisky UNC 1.092
2016 Lamar Jackson Louisville 1.029

BEST NON-QUARTERBACKS

It is no surprise that quarterbacks dominate the list of most valuable contributors. When removing quarterback play, we get an interesting list of offensive skill position players who dominated touches in college and quality defensive backs who had a big impact on the opposing passing game. As a true freshman, Derek Stingley Jr. was our most valuable non-quarterback in 2019, and he was followed closely by SMU wide receiver James Proche.

 

Season Player Team WAA
2016 Kareem Hunt Toledo 0.999
2015 Christian McCaffrey Stanford 0.994
2014 Ezekiel Elliott Ohio State 0.939
2017 Josh Jackson Iowa 0.932
2014 Amari Cooper Alabama 0.856
2019 Derek Stingley Jr. LSU 0.850
2017 Mike Hughes UCF 0.848
2014 James Conner Pittsburgh 0.844
2018 Quinnen Williams Alabama 0.840
2017 Devin Singletary Florida Atlantic 0.823
2014 Will Parks Arizona 0.784
2018 Byron Murphy Washington 0.753
2016 Adoree' Jackson USC 0.748
2014 Vernon Hargreaves III Florida 0.748
2018 Andy Isabella Umass 0.743
2016 Mike Williams Clemson 0.742
2016 Dede Westbrook Oklahoma 0.741
2019 James Proche SMU 0.726

BEST COLLEGE TEAMS

Last year’s national championship game featured two teams that were not only the class of the 2018 season but teams that also still sit atop our metric for best overall teams during the PFF College era. Alabama squads are scattered throughout this list, as are two teams in our current college football playoff, but the latter outfits could very well continue to move up this list over the course of their remaining two games. 

Team Season Total WAA
Alabama 2018 7.600
Clemson 2018 6.938
Alabama 2016 6.667
Oklahoma 2017 6.606
Ohio State 2019 6.288
LSU 2019 6.208
Alabama 2015 5.806
Clemson 2016 5.571
Ohio State 2017 5.547
Washington 2016 5.365

BEST TEAMS THAT DIDN’T GET INTO THE CFP

For the most part, assigning value at a team level has been something the playoff committee has handled well. Only a few situations stick out as far as teams that should have gotten into the College Football Playoff but didn't.

Team Season Total WAA
Ohio State 2017 5.547
Georgia 2018 4.651
Washington 2018 4.310
Wisconsin 2017 4.182
Michigan 2016 3.995

 

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