Are These Numbers Even Informative?
A common refrain in the article is noting where Texas A&M football ranks in a given statistic this season as a punctuator to show how poor things are when it comes to the defensive coaching under Durkin. Here is a sampling:
"“A&M comes in at No. 66 in total defense this season.” “A&M comes in at No. 100 in scoring defense this season.” “A&M comes in at No. 73, No. 63 and tied for No. 91 this season in turnovers gained, team sacks and plays of 20-plus yards allowed, respectively.”"
The very obvious problem here is that only two games have been played by the Aggies. There are other teams in their own division who have yet to face off against any power five squad. Arkansas, for example, has played Western Carolina and Kent State this season. I am not sure that there is much use in using ranked statistics at this point in the season, given the miniscule sample size and radical variety in opponent quality across the teams being ranked.
An equal and opposite problem is using a sample size that is way too big to be informative of anything at all. Consider that the article states the following:
"“Power Five teams have almost always scored 20-plus points against Durkin-coached defenses since 2016. In 50 of those opportunities, Durkin-coached defenses have averaged allowing 33.1 points per game. They have given up 20-plus points in 41 of those matchups (82%), 30-plus in 29 (58%), 40-plus in 16 (32%), 50-plus in eight (16%) and 60-plus in four (8%).”"
This is hyperbole, but imagine someone told you the average number of people who died in the state of South Carolina from 1700 until present. What does such a number tell you? Well, really nothing. Certainly nothing if you don’t have a baseline, or something to compare it to. But for the purposes of this example, let’s say you have an idea of roughly how many people die in the state year over year recently. This still tells you… pretty much nothing. So much has changed in that time period in so many ways that you can’t really draw a meaningful conclusion from that number.
College football is a tough sport to talk about statistically in a lot of ways because of sample size issues. Each team only gets an absolute maximum of 15 games, and 12 at the least each season. But every season, the makeup of a team is substantially different, meaning it’s hard to compare one year to another without controlling for factors like the number and quality of players lost to the draft or the portal. And that’s just if you’re examining only one team. Imagine trying to draw broad conclusions about the quality of a coach by using an average of a raw counting statistic across three different teams. Now imagine doing that when the coach in question didn’t even hold the same position at all three schools.
The article moves from discussing all defensive performances of all “Durkin-coached” teams since 2016 to discussing only his performances as a defensive coordinator against SEC West teams since he arrived at Ole Miss. At least this is more specific! Here’s what was written:
"“Since 2020, Durkin-coached defenses have averaged surrendering 31.9 points across 17 games against SEC West opponents. They have allowed 20-plus points in 14 of those matchups (82.4%), 30-plus in nine (52.9%), 40-plus in five (29.4%), 50-plus in three (17.6%) and 60-plus in one (5.9%).”"
Let’s try to contextualize. In conference games, only 18 FBS teams allowed an average of fewer than 20 points in 2020, and only 6 of those were power five teams. In 2021, that number was 15 teams, with only 9 of those being power five teams—and none playing in the SEC West. In 2022, that number was 19 teams, with 7 of those being power 5 teams—and none playing in the SEC West.
So over three years, only one SEC West team has allowed an average of fewer than 20 points in conference play. An average of 17.33 teams per year hit that mark in any conference, and only an average of 6 of those were power five teams in each year. Basically what I’m trying to show here is that you are much more likely to give up over 20 points in a given game against conference peers than not in modern college football.
What about the 30-point barrier? That seems like too large a number for Texas A&M football to yield to a conference opponent and expect a win.
Well, that obviously depends—but let’s again look a little closer! In 2021, Ole Miss gave up more than 30 points to three of six SEC West opponents. In 2022, Texas A&M surrendered more than 30 points on defense to one of six SEC West opponents (Mississippi State scored a pick-six and returned a field goal for a touchdown, so the defense only gave up 28 points. It’s also worth noting that the one SEC West team that exceeded 30 points against the Aggies did so with a score of… 31). So over the past two years, Durkin’s defenses have given up more than 30 points to SEC West opponents four out of twelve times, or 33%, meaning that the lions’ share of these occurrences were in 2020.
Let’s take this a little further before drawing to a conclusion.