Numbers game: Analytics spreading through college football

The game still nags at Tulane coach Willie Fritz. The big upset that got away. 

Fritz was head coach at Georgia Southern when the Eagles took a 20-10 lead in the fourth quarter of their 2014 opener against North Carolina State. The Wolfpack rallied to win 24-23 after Fritz made a fourth-down decision — a gut call he is still kicking himself about. 

Fritz is no longer interested in following his gut. 

"That may be the hot dog I had before the game," Fritz said. "I want facts and numbers." 

College football has been slower to become immersed in the type of statistical analysis and data-based decision-making that has revolutionized sports such as baseball and basketball. But it is happening: An increasing number of college football programs are using analytics to decide everything from when to go on fourth down to what prospect to offer a scholarship. 

"We want to make the subjective objective," Fritz said. 

When it comes to in-game strategy, a six-year-old company named Championship Analytics, Inc., is quickly making a mark. CAI has gone from three schools subscribing to its service in 2014 to 53 this year, including 38 FBS teams. 

Using a patented system of statistical analysis, CAI provides its clients each week with a game book, a three-ring binder stuffed with pages of color-coded charts and a by-the-numbers breakdown of the matchup. Taking strengths and weaknesses of each team into account, the game book lays out possible scenarios and gives strategic recommendations based on which option provides the best odds of winning. 

Rob Ash was one of CAI's first clients when he was coach at Montana State. He now works for the company as director of coaching development, a role that is part salesman and part spokesman. Ash said CAI was a game-changer for him in two areas: When to go on fourth down instead of kicking and how to manage the clock and timeouts at the end of games. 

Coaches often talk about having to think several plays ahead. The game book helps them do that with clarity, Ash said. 

Here's how: 

Team X starts a drive, first-and-10 from its own 25 with 5:30 left in the third quarter, down by 7 points. The game book projects ahead to fourth down from that point and recommends what is best depending on the yardage needed. 

"If you know that fourth-and-2 or -3 is going to be a go-situation you know on first down you only need to get seven yards on three plays instead of 10. So you can structure your play calling accordingly," Ash said. 

And because the opponent changes every week, the percentages do as well. A scenario that produced a kick recommendation one week because the opponent was a strong, high-scoring team that plays up-tempo could chasnge the next week when possessions are at a premium against a low-scoring underdog. 

After the game has been played, CAI provides its clients an analysis of decisions made all over college football that weekend that shows when coaches were on the right or wrong side of the percentages. 

Ash pitched Fritz after the 2014 season, using that North Carolina State game as an example. In that game, Fritz's Georgia Southern team was up 20-17 and facing fourth-and-a short 2 with 3:38 left in the fourth quarter from N.C. State's 14. Just getting a first down would have made it difficult for N.C. State to get the ball back. And another touchdown would have pretty much locked up the victory. The field goal, though, made N.C. State need a touchdown to take the lead. Fritz decided to kick — and N.C. State responded with a touchdown. 

Ash showed Fritz that CAI's numbers recommended a clear go-situation. Fritz signed up. The game book also highlights situations that can be categorized as coach's discretion. Basically, 50-50 calls. Fritz is now dedicated to playing the percentages. 

"Fifty-one is still better than 49," Fritz said. 

CAI was founded by a Northwestern graduate, Michael McRoberts, in 2011. Another company that uses analytics to examine recruiting was developed under Northwestern's roof over the last four years by an undergraduate who interned in the athletic department. 

Zcruit compiles data about high school prospects such as family background, where they live, how and when they have come into contact with recruiters and what schools are recruiting them. From that Zcruit creates a profile that projects, based on results from previous recruits, what is the likelihood the school can sign the prospect. 

"When it comes to recruiting and coaches being on the road, we have a finite number of coaches and a finite number of hours and days that you're allowed to be out there recruit. So how do we maximize those hours and days?" Northwestern director of football operations Cody Cejada said. "(Using Zcruit) really was just the opportunity to improve the efficiency of what we were doing." 

Coach Pat Fitzgerald's Northwestern is also among 22 schools that are in Power Five conferences that have purchased a subscription to CAI's services. Baylor, Utah and Arkansas, where Ash worked as offensive analyst for Bret Bielema last year, are also subscribers. 

At Temple, new coach Geoff Collins embraces a "Moneyball" approach and subscribes to CAI. He also has hired former Temple offensive lineman Pat Boyle to be a strategic specialist in charge of enhancing the analytics department. Boyle's goal is to find ways to incorporate an analytical approach into every part of the program. The weight room. The locker room. The recruiting trail. The sideline on game day. 

"Right now this role is kind of catch-all in the building," Boyle said. "We've done some stuff in the past that's been very elementary. Coach Collins is doing the same thing, trying to figure out what we can use it for." 

Cejada said he could see schools following Temple's lead and creating a staff position that is fully dedicated to analytics. Though he doubts college football programs will be able to afford the type of in-house development and research of analytics that professional sports teams are doing. It makes financial sense to take advantage of what companies such as CAI, Zcruit and Pro Football Focus, which grades player performance using film-study akin to what coaches do, have to offer. 

"Having this information doesn't necessarily give you a competitive advantage," Cejada said. "The way you use this information and analytics is what's really going to help separate you from everyone else."

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