Analyzing 50 Years of Gopher Football Efficiency Metrics

The 2019 Gopher Football season was historic in many ways. Minnesota won 10 regular season games for the first time since 1905 and capped the year with a 31-24 Outback Bowl victory over No. 12 Auburn.

The Gophers also won seven conference matchups for the first time in program history. Last season, Minnesota shattered several records that spanned more than half a century. After exploring the analytics even closer, fans can gain an even deeper appreciation for what the program accomplished in 2019.

First, I want to start by looking at the Gophers’ S&P+ ratings since 1970. This metric essentially measures overall team efficiency. The rating system was designed by Bill Connelly and takes into account the “Five Factors of College Football”: efficiency (success rates), explosiveness, field position, finishing drives and turnovers.

The S&P+ rating tells fans how their team compares to an “average” college football team. For example, if a program has a rating of 14.0, it means they are considered to be 14 points better than an average team.

College Football Data has compiled 50 years of S&P+ data for Minnesota’s program. The trends illustrate how historic last season was. The 2019 Gopher Football program accumulated a 19.4 S&P+ rating, which is the highest mark in their 50-year dataset. By sliding and hovering though the interactive graph, you will notice the next closest performance occurred in 1999 (16.8).

(Note: hover over the graph to see each value and year)

The graph also displays the peaks and valleys of Minnesota’s program over the past 50 years. The 1985 season was the peak of Lou Holtz’s brief two-year stint in Minnesota. Glen Mason also had two very efficient seasons in 1999 and 2005. At the height of the Jerry Kill/Tracy Claeys era, the program’s highest S&P+ rating was 12.6. 

After these peak seasons, coaching changes were made or success wasn’t sustained. Recently, Gopher Football has been searching for long-term stability at all levels of the program. When Mark Coyle hired P.J. Fleck in Jan. 2017, he wanted to find a coach who could provide this sustainability. 

In just three years, Fleck and his staff have elevated the Gophers program to new heights. Minnesota football more than tripled its S&P+ output from 2018 to 2019 (6.3 to 19.4). Fleck has already shattered many of the Gophers’ past efficiency records. 

Offensive Metrics: 

The rating surge was sparked by an incredibly efficient offense. Quarterback Tanner Morgan and his group of weapons orchestrated one of the most explosive offenses in the country. The blend of intermediate run-pass options (RPOs) and deep play-action shots to Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, made Minnesota’s offense very difficult to defend. 

After analyzing 50 years of data, the Gophers’ 2019 offense (39.8) produced the third-best offensive output. Glen Mason’s 2003 (42.1) and 2005 (40.7) offenses ranked slightly higher.

The Gophers’ balanced and multi-dimensional offensive attack posed challenges for every opponent. As the season progressed, a young offensive line continually improved and physically dominated Auburn’s stout defensive front. The entire unit gained valuable continuity that will carry over into 2020. This year, 82 percent of Minnesota’s offensive production is returning, which ranks 13th in the country, according to ESPN’s data.

The 2020 offense will feature a top quarterback, one of the nation’s most dynamic receivers and an offensive line filled with depth. There is a real possibility Minnesota’s program could exceed the efficiency metrics it produced in 2019.

Defensive Metrics: 

Last year, the Gophers’ top defensive performances were fueled by tremendous play in the secondary. Tight coverage was at the center of Minnesota’s best overall outputs. A future post will dive deeper into this topic. 

As a whole, the 2019 Gophers ranked fourth in defensive S&P+ rating since 1970. Teams are striving for low numbers within this metric. The 1977 defense is the most efficient unit in program history (14.4). This top defense was led by defensive lineman Steve Midboe, the team’s Most Valuable Player.

Minnesota’s 2016 defense comes in at No. 2 with a 17.5 rating. After that, the 1985 (19.5) and 2019 (19.6) defenses round out the top four.

Next year, the Gophers defense must develop and elevate young players into prominent roles. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr., linebacker Kamal Martin, edge rusher Carter Coughlin, defensive tackle Sam Renner and nickel cornerback Chris Williamson all departed for the NFL. Entering 2020, just 33 percent of Minnesota’s defensive production is returning, which ranks 125th nationally, according to ESPN. 

Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi and his staff have been preparing for this transition. Many young athletes were improving behind the scenes. Not to mention, several players gained valuable in-game experience last year. Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, safety Tyler Nubin and pass rusher Boye Mafe are going to be important contributors in 2020. 

Due to the modified offseason schedule, there is no doubt summer/fall practices will be critical to prepare young defensive players for the season.

Article data courtesy of College Football Data. 

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