Every week around here, we take a look at what the national college football media has to say about Syracuse Orange football, and among the other noteworthy inclusions there is Bill Connelly’s S&P+ ratings update. This year, they haven’t necessarily been in love with SU’s performance — despite what looks like a much better team on the field.
So, what gives?
First off, the metrics aren’t biased. They actually work to avoid that sort of thing, and provide tempo-free stats adjusted for opponents, to also remove helpful/harmful factors for evaluating a team.
So while Syracuse’s tough schedule is a consideration here, and it’s tempo is nullified in some ways, it still may be difficult to wrap your head around why the Orange are seen as the 66th-best team in the country through eight weeks.
Well, there are lots of reasons for that...
Lack of offensive efficiency
As you’ve probably noticed in the weekly play-calling pieces right now, we’re not overly efficient on offense. It’s a lot of boom-or-bust play, drives at a time that don’t work out, and a significant number of plays that don’t pick up a lot of yardage. Given the high total play count, that can be harmful to what the computer sees from us.
A success rate of 38.3 percent ranks us 106th on offense (again, in terms of efficiency). We know this team can make big plays -- and it’s far better off when it does. But it doesn’t produce those home run-type gains with dependable enough frequency. That makes us look pretty rough on offense per the raw numbers. As does...
Syracuse’s lack of explosiveness
In the play-calling pieces, we look at explosive plays and the numbers aren’t too high. That’s reflected in the S&P+ as well, since SU ranks 82nd there.
Some of the offensive struggles are influenced by field position. The Orange regularly start from their own 25 or further back, especially with teams avoiding kicking to Sean Riley as much as possible. Add in the lack of punt returns too, and SU is regularly pinned back. Their average starting field position of the 28.1-yard line ranks 104th in the country.
Still, that doesn’t have anything to do with the team’s ability (or lack thereof) to execute once beyond the opponent’s 40-yard line.
The Orange haven’t been finishing drives for years, settling for field goals far too often, rather than punching it into the end zone. We saw that play out in Saturday’s loss to Miami, where SU kicked four field goals (and made them all). It’s also reflected in the wide disparity between red zone scoring success (88.89 percent) and red zone touchdown success (47.22 percent) for this team. The S&P+ shows 4.24 points per trip inside the opponent’s 40, which is 84th.
On the defensive side, things are significantly better, though the Orange aren’t generating turnovers this year. Syracuse’s offense is ranked 74th on offense, but 59th overall on defense -- hence how you get a mid-60s rating overall.
When you dive further into Bill’s numbers, you’ll also see the team’s struggles to run the ball on full display (103rd in rushing S&P+), a middling passing success rate (39 percent) and a complete inability to get things done on standard downs (43.5 percent success rate is 102nd in the country).
As you’d expect, first quarter numbers are reflective of a team that starts very slowly, while third quarter numbers indicate a top-30 squad. The defense actually starts pretty hot and cools down over the course of the game (though not to a startling degree). The third down dominance we’ve seen on the field is reflected as well, just not to the extreme the raw opponent third down conversion numbers indicate.
Still, on the positive side, S&P+ also tells us just how high this team’s ceiling is (or could be). Syracuse has performed to the 92nd percentile twice this year -- against Central Connecticut an Central Michigan -- and then no other game was above 50 percent. That goes for the miraculous Clemson win as well. The penalty-riddled Orange shot themselves in the foot repeatedly en route to a 48th-percentile performance. AND STILL WON THE GAME.
Look at some of the other wins and losses as well. Syracuse beat Pitt turning in a 33rd-percentile performance. They took LSU deep into the fourth quarter hitting the 30th. NC State was at 27 percent, and we were a missed interference call from potentially tying that one. The numbers say we were only in the 16th percentile this past Saturday, yet were once again very close to beating Miami.
It says we had a one-percent chance of winning, and the adjusted scoring margin was a near-22 point loss. And yet, we defied those numbers and still nearly pulled off the victory.
That doesn’t mean Bill’s numbers are wrong. It’s quite the opposite, actually. Syracuse has actually underperformed this season, and yet still sits at 4-4 with a real shot to make a bowl game. S&P+ knows this, and gives us a reasonable shot to win each of the four remaining contests. We currently have a 57.3-percent chance to make it to six wins.
The S&P+ doesn’t hate us. It just wishes Syracuse would reach its potential. That’s probably something we have in common with the analytics system. But for the first time in awhile, we have faith the Orange can actually hit that mark.