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Syracuse Football advanced stats preview vs Louisville Cardinals

Welcome to a new series where you’re going to be mad at a calculator.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Duke James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

We consume sports in an era of technological availability and expertise that has lead to stat consumption becoming so commonplace, we sometimes forget that the way certain people process the sport are pushing the rest of the industry.

This season, I’m going to attempt to bridge the gap between “guy who consumes college football via graphs,” and “fan who knows how to read a box score,” for the Syracuse Orange fans. If you’re not a big numbers person, this probably won’t be for you. For everyone else, let’s start with something simple: Week 1 projections by SP+, EPA via CFBGraphs, and The Athletic’s XSPREAD.

What I love about this example is just how similar everyone’s projections are because the uniformity of the data set. Models like these mix in a variety of data points to arrive at conclusions, but as of Week 1, everyone is using a full set containing last year’s data mixed with their own versions of projections based on development or roster changes.

In general, the Vegas line that shifts between 4 and 4.5 in favor of Louisville aligns with these three models. SP+ projects a 5 point gap (61% probability), CFBGraphs a 5.89 point gap, (66% probability) and XSPREAD 4.5 point gap. This kind of consistency isn’t unusual with robust data sets, so let’s dig into why smart money likes Louisville to win this game.

SP+ used to have all of it’s team data available publicly pre-ESPN, so we won’t be able to dive too deep for answer with that metric, but it will point us in a decent direction. SP+ gives the Cards a 33.3 metric on offense and a 24.0 metric on defense, compared to the Orange’s 26.1 on offense and 24.4 on defense. We see here that while Syracuse and Louisville match up pretty evenly when the Orange have the ball, the Cards have a much greater advantage with Malik Cunningham and their offense.

CFBGraphs’ detailed breakdown does a great job explaining where the mismatch lies in favor for the Cards. We’re going to talk about success rate, which in summation, is the percentage of times in which a type of play improved your side of the ball’s situation according to EPA. EPA is a contextual measurement that assigns points to yards, so a successful offensive play adds points to your score, an unsuccessful offensive play negates points from your score. (The reverse is true for defense, naturally.)

In the overall offense vs defense matchup, Louisville’s Passing EPA (0.187) and Rushing EPA (0.101) are both considered top 35 in the country, while Syracuse’s defensive numbers for passing (0.080) and rushing (0.053) are considered mid-tier. Louisville is pretty good at being effective on offense, and Syracuse’s defense is more designed to limit big plays than to limit effectiveness.

If there’s room for positivity (and why the spread is probably relatively close considering how big a beatdown last year’s game was) it’s in looking at key metrics that fit the expected narrative and simulations of the game; The Orange’s rushing EPA (0.187) was the 7th best in the country compared to the Cards’ 90th best defense (0.084). Additionally, Louisville’s offensive rushing success rate was mediocre (39.1%) while Syracuse’s was 42.1%, good for 41st best. There is still a mismatch in how the Cards’ passing attack (42.7% Success Rate) matches up with the Orange secondary (32.7% success rate), but in a scenario where Louisville gets limited possessions due to a slow rushing attack, that difference is less likely to exploited for a blowout.

In summation, Louisville and Syracuse aren’t that far apart overall, but the Cardinals have a great opportunity to take advantage of the Orange’s struggles defending the passing attack. That said, it appears most systems assume the Orange will continue to run Sean Tucker consistently enough that Cards’ passing attack doesn’t get too many opportunities to take advantage and ice the game early, keeping this within a touchdown.