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Sports

Schatz: The year of the Jaguar

For 18 weeks, the NFL has control over American living rooms. Out of 32 teams in the league, only one gets the coveted Lombardi Trophy each year. People bet millions of dollars on the outcome of a three-and-a-half-hour game. Throughout the span of 56 Super Bowls, 12 teams have yet to take home the crown. And out of those 12 teams, four have yet to make it to the game: the Browns, the Texans, the Lions and of course, the Jaguars.

This year, I am here to inform you all that it will be the year of the Jaguar, and I have three statistically proven reasons you should all agree with me.

Who doesn’t love an underdog story?

Seriously, if you don’t absolutely love an underdog story, I don’t know who you are. Do we seriously want the Patriots to win again? I love New England more than the next person. But their football team is simply not it.  There are only four teams that have never made it to the Super Bowl, and you already know the Jaguars are one of them. Ok, I know it’s tough to root for Trevor Lawrence. But can you seriously look me in the eye and tell me you would want Tom Brady to win over him?

Listen, I might not know much about football. But I know you’re wrong about that one. “Oh but Olivia, he’s the best of all time.” I do not care. Simply could not care less. He’s not the narrative we are looking for in this upcoming Super Bowl. You could maybe get me on board if he didn’t quit and then come back, and then quit and then come back. That’s a lame storyline and all of his fans know it. 

They are right on the cusp 

To be fair, I learned less than five minutes ago that not all teams make it to the playoffs. But after some more (very simple) research, I have determined that the Jaguars are right on the cusp of making it. And as my friend and assistant managing editor Mannion McGinley, who pays attention to football way more than me, puts it: “Especially for Jaguar standards, they have a chance.”

If you are sitting here reading this thinking, “There is absolutely no way they are making it,” I want you to look in your past as a Notre Dame fan and think about how many times you have wished for a long shot. Done thinking? Great, let’s get back to dreaming.

We are going into week four of NFL play, which gives the Jaguars plenty of time to beat their current odds. Yes, their first game of the season. But they won the last two! Can Notre Dame fans tell me we really cannot support this? And the Jaguars’ last two wins have been blowouts, beating the Colts 24-0 and the Chargers 38-10.

The Jaguars face the Eagles next, and while the odds are not in their favor, I believe the Jaguars still have a chance. Especially coming off of their last two wins. If the Jaguars can continue in this direction, I believe they can make the playoffs. And once they make the playoffs, I believe they can take it all the way. 

They have a sick mascot

How are you rooting for teams like the Patriots, the Texans and the Chargers when a team like the Jaguars exist? The alliteration in the name alone should be the reason you should want the Jaguars to go all the way this year and years following, as well.

For football fans, this might be a dumb reason to want them to win. But if they didn’t want us to rally behind the mascot, why provide it in the first place? When you think of Jacksonville, there is not too much that comes to mind. When you think of a Jaguar, you immediately think of a viscous but beautiful predator. Whoever thought to put the two together is simply genius.

Stats aside (which I have conveniently left out of this argument), the Jaguars are simply the best pick. They have the storyline and the mascot and are already doing better than they normally do. 

There are plenty of weeks left to switch teams. So, will you stay with that same old team you do every year? Or are you going to make the right choice and take a chance on the Jacksonville Jaguars?

Contact Olivia Schatz oschatz@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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Sports

Zwiller: What to watch for in NFL Week 2

With the conclusion of a crazy Broncos vs. Seahawks game on Monday Night, a wild Week 1 has concluded. As we head into Week 2, I wanted to take a moment to look back on Week 1 and talk about some of the oddities.

Wide Receiving Struggles: New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers

In the offseason, a few of the teams that I suspected to have lackluster pass catchers were the Patriots, the Colts and the Packers. Last weekend the Colts had 352 receiving yards, with Michael Pittman Jr. leading the way with 121 yards on 9 receptions and a touchdown.

So, the Colts move from problem to suspect. It was the Texans after all, I am not inclined to trust their defense. The Packers and Patriots, however, looked all the more suspicious.

The Packers had a total of 260 receiving yards which is fine. Until you realize that their leading pass catcher was running back AJ Dillon with just 46 yards. And yes, there was a dropped 75-yard touchdown pass that could have changed everything. But almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Granted, this might not be a long-term problem. Key Packers wide receiver Allen Lazard was out on Sunday with an ankle injury. Assuming he comes back the Packers could get right back into form and Minnesota is just this year’s New Orleans. I still think the Packers are going to end up missing Davante Adams, but only time will tell.

Unlike the Packers, the Patriots do not have an absence they can blame their lack of a passing game on. The Patriots had just 213 yards in their game against the Dolphins, and that might be a mark the Patriots hover around for the rest of the season. The offense lacks a dynamic weapon. And with quarterback Mac Jones entering his second year, I expect a bit of a slump for him and for the unit to struggle for the rest of the season.

Fumble Struggles: Baker Mayfield and Matt Ryan

One of the odder results (at least to me) was Indianapolis at Houston, a game in which Matt Ryan had a ridiculous four fumbles. While only one of them was a turnover, those fumbles did legitimately kill off some good drives for the Colts.

The first fumble was in the second quarter when Ryan fumbled on the Houston 30. It lost the Colts seven crucial yards. It caused Indy to punt. The second fumble came on the Houston 40 in the third quarter and the Texans were able to grab the ball. 

Next in the third quarter, Ryan fumbled on his own 20, recovered it himself and then the Colts punted. Ryan’s final fumble came in overtime. And while it did not kill the Indianapolis drive, it did lose them three yards, which proved critical as kicker Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 42-yard field goal.

Baker Mayfield had an equally horrible fumble performance, racking up four against his former team, the Browns. 

His first came in the first quarter on third down, and though the play resulted in a three-yard gain, the Panthers still punted. On Carolina’s next drive, Baker fumbled again, though was able to pass for three yards. In the third quarter on third and 12, Baker fumbled, though it was recovered by Carolina. Then in the fourth, Baker fumbled in the red zone. Once again, he was able to recover, and the Panthers would kick a field goal.

By and large, these fumbles were the product of a poor center-to-quarterback snap. And in both cases, most of the blame is on the quarterbacks. While I would expect both Ryan and Mayfield to get better as the season progresses and their problems with the snap to go down, it is something worth looking out for. 

Both games could have been dramatically different. If, say, Mayfield does not fumble inside of the redzone with 1:25 left in the Panthers-Browns game. Carolina missed a chance to score a touchdown which proved critical in a 24-23 loss. If it happens again, it could cost each team another win. 

Derrick Henry

Since his injury last season, I have been suggesting that the Titans bell cow running back would likely not look the same as he did before his injury. 

In his return to the team in 2022, when the Titans hosted the Bengals, Henry had 20 carries but only produced 62 yards, though he did have a touchdown. That game was a horribly inefficient game for Henry, who averaged just 3.1 yards per carry.

And while that can be explained away by rust following a large period of recovering from an injury, his showing against the Giants is a potentially alarming indicator. For the Titans offense to work, Henry needs to be averaging a lot more per carry — at the very least 4.5, but ideally closer to five per carry like he did in 2019 and 2020.

Interceptions

Another odd offensive outlier was interceptions, with Carson Wentz throwing a pair, Derek Carr tossing three, and Joe Burrow throwing an insane four interceptions. 

Burrow’s pick-six was a good play by Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. On the second one, Burrow was hit while he threw. The third was just an excellent interception by Pittsburgh star T.J. Watt. And the fourth felt like a 50-50 ball that the Steelers just came up with.

Carr’s first was an aggressive throw that was risky, and the Chargers’ defense made him pay for it. The second interception came early in the fourth quarter on a deep-down field throw into double coverage. I get why Carr threw it. The Chargers were ahead 24-13, and the Raiders needed points. But it certainly hurt. Hurting worse was Carr’s third pick, which came just a few minutes later as a low pass to Hunter Renfrow was intercepted. 

Wentz’s first interception was in the fourth quarter. A cornerback reading the play picked him off, perfectly jumping the out route. The second came the next Commanders drive, not two game minutes later, when linebacker Travon Walker picked him off as he pressured.

With some of these interceptions, they honestly feel like a fluke. I do not see Burrow having a four-interception game again this season. And I would be surprised if Carr had three again as well. Carr has never had more than 14 interceptions in a season. I think of him as a quarterback who is good about not turning the ball over. Wentz, meanwhile, is well Wentz. 

Like the fumbles from earlier, these turnovers took these teams out of the game. Or, in the case of the Commanders, put the Jags back in it. The Bengals had to work their way back into the game and could have won it because of how bad the Steelers are. And the Chargers game was put out of reach by those two late interceptions.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Tom at twziller@nd.edu

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Sports

Moller: Biggest moments from NFL week one

There were plenty of surprises and statement wins made in the first week of the NFL season. Although there is still a lot of football left to play, let’s take a look at some of the most notable happenings from the opening weekend of the NFL.

Vikings make a statement in Kevin O’Connell’s first game

The last two seasons have been full of disappointment for the Vikings, especially considering they have plenty of talent on its roster with Justin Jefferson, Dalvin Cook, Kirk Cousins and Adam Thielen. After firing their head coach and general manager, the Vikings looked like a completely different team in the start of the Kevin O’Connell era. The Vikings’ offense was fueled by Jefferson, who put up 184 yards and caught two touchdowns. Aside from Jefferson, Cousins did a fantastic job of remaining poised in the pocket. Running backs Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison proved to be a deadly 1-2 punch in the backfield with both backs averaging 4.5 yards per carry.

The best news of the day, though, came on the defensive side of the football, which was the Vikings’ demise last season. The Vikings’ front seven proved to be the difference with Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith getting constant pressure on Aaron Rodgers. If the defense can continue to play well, the Vikings should have a chance to push for a division title and playoff spot.

Bengals fail to execute

The Bengals did just about everything wrong on Sunday as Joe Burrow threw a stunning four interceptions in a 23-20 loss to the Steelers. Despite the interceptions, the Bengals were set up to lose the game on the leg of kicker Evan McPherson two times. After missing a PAT to secure the win, McPherson missed his second chance to win the game as well, shanking a 29 yard field goal in overtime. The fact that the Bengals were still in this game despite the turnovers is encouraging, but the lack of execution by the reigning AFC champs is concerning to say the least.

Bears show they are no slouch

I don’t think anyone gave the Bears much of a chance against the 49ers on Sunday, but the Bears made a statement, scoring 19 straight points to win 19-10. Justin Fields looked much improved for the Bears and, despite the rainy conditions, he threw for 121 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 28 yards. It’s hard to fathom the Bears finding much offensive success this season with the talent they have at receiver, but the Bears’ defense showed up on Sunday. They might have to win a lot of close, low-scoring games over the rest of the season if they want to make the playoffs.

Titans struggle mightily in loss to Giants

One of the most stunning score lines came from Nashville on Sunday, with the Titans losing to the Giants 21-20. Ryan Tannehill was definitely missing A.J. Brown as he struggled to get into a rhythm with his receiving corps. Derrick Henry finished the game with 82 yards, averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, and. just last season, he failed to change the game. In fact, Henry’s longest run on the day was just 18 yards. Like the Bengals, the Titans failed to execute late as well, giving up a Giants’ touchdown and two-point conversion with just over a minute remaining, as well as missing a game winning 47-yard field goal.

Texans surprise Colts

Many expected the Colts to have a really good team this year with Matt Ryan under center. Ryan was anything but perfect for the Colts on Sunday, though, as he finished 32 out of 50 for 352 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The good news for the Colts is that Jonathan Taylor looked fantastic, rushing for 161 yards and a touchdown. Michael Pittman Jr., who finished with 121 receiving yards and a touchdown, also looks primed for a breakout season. Despite these breakout performances, the Colts failed to make a field goal in overtime and they tied with a much less talented Texans team. The talent is there for the Colts, but a season-opening tie against the Texans is not ideal.

Buccaneers thrash Cowboys

The Bucs beat the Cowboys by 16, but it could have easily been by 30. The Cowboys struggled mightily to move the ball with any authority throughout the game. To make matters worse for Dallas, Dak Prescott is now expected to miss six to eight weeks to receive surgery on his thumb. The Cowboys will likely need to trade for a quarterback if they are going to save their season, as they have an important stretch of games against the Bengals, Giants, Commanders, Rams and Eagles in the next five weeks.

The Bucs, on the other hand, looked like a Super Bowl contender on Sunday night. Despite settling for four field goals, they managed to move the ball all night, and the defense looked fantastic. Tom Brady still looked like Tom Brady, and Julio Jones looks like a great offseason addition so far. After week one, the Bucs appear to be the favorite to win the NFC.

Bills dominate Rams

The Bills dominated the Rams handily on Thursday night, winning by a score of 31-20. Josh Allen looked sensational with 297 yards passing, 56 yards on the ground and four total touchdowns. Allen looks to have a lethal 1-2 punch in receivers Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis, and this looks like a team that can finally win a Super Bowl. The defending champion Rams will look to shake off a disappointing week one loss against the Falcons in week two.

The Chiefs’ offense rolls without Tyreek Hill

The stunning departure of Tyreek Hill this offseason raised some questions about how the Chiefs’ offense would perform. And, they didn’t miss a beat on Sunday, putting up 44 points against the Cardinals for an easy victory. Patrick Mahomes was sensational, completing 30 out of 39 passes for 360 yards and five touchdowns. Even without Hill, Mahomes still has plenty of options to throw to. Travis Kelce is, of course, Mahomes’ top choice, but Juju Smith-Schuster and Marquez Valdes-Scantling should prove to be great options for Mahomes as well. After week one, it looks like the Chiefs and Bills might be set for a showdown in the AFC Championship.

Broncos make stunning decision late, fall to Seahawks

The Broncos had a fourth down and five from the Seahawks’ 46-yard line, and rather than putting the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands, they opted to kick a 64-yard field goal. Brandon McManus sent the field goal wide left, and the Seahawks held on to win. Considering Russell Wilson’s pedigree, it’s an interesting play call to say the least, and there will be plenty of questions raised among the Broncos’ coaching staff going forward. Nevertheless, it’s a great win for the Geno Smith-led Seahawks, who will look to prove the doubters wrong.

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News

International students react to football culture, team’s defeat

First-year Gabrielle Benitez enjoys her first home game in the student section in Notre Dame Stadium / Courtesy of Gabrielle Benitez.

First-year graduate student Henry Kamugisha, originally from Uganda, was walking home after studying at the library late Friday night and was surprised to be intercepted by the Notre Dame band performing pre-football game festivities.

“I thought I had seen enough. More is attached to this football?” he said. “Then Saturday morning I woke up, getting out of my house, the whole environment had changed and I saw people everywhere.”

Kamugisha said he had never watched football before the game against Ohio State and was not immediately impressed.

“I didn’t understand anything because I was like, okay, is this relevant? It’s not relevant,” he explained.

While American students at Notre Dame often arrive on campus prepared for the intense culture of supporting the football team, international students like Kamugisha often have had no exposure to the atmosphere of college football in America.

Junior Yeowon Cho, originally from South Korea and an exchange student from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, found herself confused about football’s rules.

“I’m actually going to this session called ‘Football 101’ [on Thursday night],” Cho said. 

The session, sponsored by the International Student and Scholar Affairs (ISSA) team, invites “international students and friends” to learn about the essentials of American football and Notre Dame traditions, according to the ISSA website.

Testing expectations

First-year Ph.D. student Salvatore Riolo said he understood the rules of football before leaving Italy to study at Notre Dame due to a personal interest in the American way of life.

“I’m pretty obsessed with American culture, so even when I was in Italy, I used to watch the Super Bowl every year. So that’s why I know the rules to this kind of thing, and I was looking forward to the games,” Riolo explained.

Despite understanding football’s influence on American culture, Riolo said he was still surprised to see the size of the crowds on campus for the game against Marshall.

“I didn’t expect the amount of tourists around the campus,” he said. “People from outside and all the tailgates around, which is something very American.”

Sophomore Pedro Bolsonaro said he also knew the rules of football because he was a fan of the NFL while living in Brazil before coming to Notre Dame last year. Despite this, he said he hadn’t started following college football. 

“Last year I thought the NFL was more exciting for the better players, but throughout the year, I built that connection with the university and that kind of translated to how I see football now,” Bolsonaro said.

Cho enjoyed the home game against Marshall, despite its disappointing result.

“It was really energetic, I liked it,” Cho said. “But I had heard from my friend that they were like 99% sure that they were going to win against Marshall. I wasn’t that angry, but then it was sad to see people actually being so sad.”

Riolo said he was greatly disappointed in Notre Dame who, despite being ranked eighth in the AP college football rankings, lost to unranked Marshall.

“I thought I was going to see a very good performance. I didn’t know much about college football but I knew that Notre Dame has a very long and victorious history,” Riolo said. “I was kind of disappointed because the game wasn’t that good. The interceptions – that wasn’t what I was expecting.”

Kamugisha, having just begun learning about the sport, said he was sad to watch his new team’s defeat. “We haven’t recovered from it. I know we shall get over that, but yeah, it wasn’t good,” he said.

First-year Gabrielle Benitez, an international student originally from the Philippines who also had never watched football before coming to Notre Dame, said she felt similar.

“I don’t know why, but coming into this school, I had the notion that we’re like, undefeated and stuff,” she said. “But clearly, that wasn’t the case.”

Despite this, Kamugisha and Benitez spoke highly of the experience and sense of inclusion as new Notre Dame football fans.

“It was nice to be a part of that community that treasures the football team so much,” Benitez said.

Kamugisha said he felt supported by fellow Notre Dame fans as he watched his new favorite team and took part in gameday traditions.

“I think everyone here is supportive,” Kamugisha said. “They make you actually get taken up to love this game and to feel like, ‘yes, I belong here.’”

Contact Liam at lprice3@nd.edu

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Sports

Zwiller: ZeLO NFL picks look to nail Super Bowl champ again

A little over a year ago, I penned a Sports Authority titled “Zwiller: Rams to be Super Bowl contenders this Year.”  

While I have never really liked the title “Sports Authority” (I have about as much authority over sports as a lucky quarter), my Rams article is my favorite article I have ever written here at the Observer. 

For one, it was just a fun piece to write; I love sports, but the NFL is unquestionably my favorite. Writing a season predictions column means that the NFL is back, and after months of speculation, we will have actual results to analyze and debate. 

That and the article aged like a fine wine; it’s always fun to be correct.

So, with the hope that I can keep my Super Bowl picking streak alive for another year, here goes my prediction, based on my ZeLO model, for the 2022 season.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills: 12.01-4.99

Miami Dolphins: 10.43-6.57

New England Patriots: 9.23-7.78

New York Jets: 6.68-10.32

According to the model, the Bills are projected to be the best team in the AFC East, with nearly a 70% chance of taking the crown. While the Patriots are likely to be a solid team with a good defense, the lack of an actual offensive weapon will be their downfall. Meanwhile, the Dolphins have two lethal wide receivers in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, which finally propel them into the playoffs. The Jets take a meaningful step forward but still post a losing record on the season. 

AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals: 9.41-7.59

Baltimore Ravens: 9.29-7.71

Cleveland Browns: 7.9-9.1

Pittsburgh Steelers: 6.83-9.17

I have been a doubter since the Bengals began their legendary playoff run. I thought they would lose to the Titans, the Chiefs, then to the Rams and this year, they would regress. 

The model feels differently, as the Bengals currently are neck and neck with the Baltimore Ravens for the division. As for the Browns, they have an unremarkable season primarily due to the (well-earned) 11-game suspension of Deshaun Watson (though they will have a good defense). And speaking of good defenses, the Steelers should continue to have an elite unit, just not an offense that can make the most of it. 

AFC South

Indianapolis Colts: 8.8-8.2

Tennessee Titans: 8.28-8.72

Jacksonville Jaguars: 7.57-9.43

Houston Texans: 6.5-10.5

Since the Colts acquired Matt Ryan, they have been my favorite to win the division. Ryan will have a great o-line and run game and a solid defensive unit. ZeLO is not as optimistic, though; like the Patriots, the Colts’ lack of an elite wide receiver will prevent them from running away with the division. Meanwhile, Derrick Henry returns and produces incredible volume, but on low efficiency, just 4.2 yards per attempt, his worse mark since 2017. Both the Jags and Texas take significant steps forward, with Trevor Lawrence performing much better under Doug Pederson.

AFC West

Los Angeles Chargers: 11.40-5.6

Kansas City Chiefs: 9.53-7.47

Denver Broncos: 9.46-7.54

Las Vegas Raiders: 8.98-7.02

It certainly feels weird not to have the Chiefs here (and I am sure I will regret it). But the Chargers are a loaded team, boasting a better defense than KC and, yes, a better offense. Mahomes is currently the second in the model’s MVP chase, but Herbert has the better supporting cast. The Broncos certainly got an upgrade with Russell Wilson, and it could bring them into the playoffs as a wildcard, but it will not be enough to get them over KC. Vegas has a good first year under Josh McDaniels but falls short of the playoffs. 

NFC East

Dallas Cowboys: 11.52-5.48

Washington Commanders: 10.06-6.94

Philadelphia Eagles: 9.11-7.89

New York Giants: 5.73-11.26

My rule of thumb for both the Cowboys’ defense and the Commanders’ defense is to estimate that both will be a little worse than the model thinks. The Cowboys because the volume of turnovers produced last year is not sustainable, and the Commanders because the unit was questionable last year. As for the Eagles, I know they were a playoff team last year, but they went 0-6 against teams that also made the playoffs and just beat up on weaker teams. Meanwhile, the Giants continue the noble New York tradition of tanking.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers: 10.57-6.43

Minnesota Vikings: 10.2-6.8

Detroit Lions: 7.21-8.79

Chicago Bears: 6.69-10.31

This division will be incredibly close this year, thanks to the departure of Davante Adams. The Packers lack a true #1 wide receiver, and ZeLO thinks they will miss Adams this year. Meanwhile, the Vikings have an overwhelming amount of offensive talent; it’s up to head coach Kevin O’Connell to turn it into touchdowns. Dan Campbell continues the rebuild in Detroit, and the Bears finish fourth.

NFC South

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 11.62-5.38

New Orleans Saints: 9.72-7.28

Carolina Panthers: 7.61-9.39

Atlanta Falcons: 5.05-11.95

Unsurprisingly with Brady back in Tampa Bay, the Bucs are a force to be reconned with and firm favorites to win the NFC South. I have some questions about the sheer volume Brady expected to produce, but ZeLO has the 44-year-old as its most valuable player. Jameis Winston leads the Saints to a winning record and a wildcard spot. Baker helps to turn the Panthers into a 7-win team, and the Falcons begin to figure out what their rebuild will look like.

NFC West

Los Angeles Rams: 9.89-7.11

San Francisco 49ers: 9.86-7.14

Arizona Cardinals: 9.49-7.41

Seattle Seahawks: 7.03-9.97

The Super Bowl champs will take a bit of a win-loss record step back here but still find a way to win the division, albeit narrowly. Assuming Lance is as good as his projections indicate, the 49ers will be an absolute force, both on the ground and defensively. The Cardinals, meanwhile, will have to navigate their first six games without DeAndre Hopkins, so repeating last year’s 7-0 start seems unlikely.

The Playoffs

The Bills and Buccaneers take the first-round bye as the 1-seeds in their respective conferences. The other AFC division winners are the Chargers, Bengals and Colts. The wildcard teams are Miami Dolphins, Kansas City and Baltimore. In the NFC, the other division winners are Dallas, Green Bay and Los Angeles. The wildcard teams are Minnesota, New Orleans and the 49ers.

The Chargers handle the Ravens, while the Bengals survive the Chiefs, and the Dolphins upset the Colts on the road. The Bills host the Chiefs, finally overcoming their most significant roadblock, while the Chargers have an electric showdown with the Bengals, emerging victorious. 

The Bills edge past the Chargers to make it to the Super Bowl. 

In the NFC, Dallas actually wins at home against the 49ers, Green Bay beat the Saints, and the Rams continue their title run by barely defeating the Vikings. The Bucs host the Rams, with the Brady Bunch ending the champs title run while the Packers fall to Dallas. Tampa rematches with the Cowboys, and the Buccaneers make it to the Super Bowl for a second time under Brady. 

The ending is different this time, with Josh Allen hoisting Lombardi in State Farm Stadium. 

Contact Tom Zwiller at tzwiller@hcc-nd.edu.

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Sports

I built a college football model. Here’s how it works

Credit: Tom Zwiller

For those of you who have read The Observer for the past few years, there is a good chance you have run into my NFL model, which is predicated on the idea that instead of simply measuring wins and losses to rate teams, we can observe what statistics tell us down to a micro level.

At the end of the spring semester, I was asked by our Sports Editor to try and create a version of ZeLO for college football. Eager to try my hand at a college football model, I quickly got to work until I realized it was impossible for two reasons. 

Firstly, trying to manage the rosters of 130-plus college teams is a task I’m not crazy enough to try, and people who have watched me run the NFL model already think I’m crazy (depending on the week, it can take me over ten hours to update ZeLO). 

For another, there isn’t the same level of data readily available. For my money, Pro Football Reference is the best stats website and the easiest to integrate into Excel. But as immaculate as PFR is, there are just some stats missing in the NCAA. The best example I can think of is passes targeted. The NFL has both receptions and targets, but college football lacks targets. 

So, between the lack of data and the sheer size of the project, I decided to move to a team-based model. With that decision made, the pieces began to fall into place. I grabbed each team per game stats, both for and against, ran them through a modified ZeLO formula and created a net metric.

The first thing that jumped out to me was that teams who had been good recently but had a down year last year were low (think Penn State) and teams that had been poor the year before but were good last year (Baylor) were projected to be too strong. This made me want to go back to years prior, run more data and create a weighted average based on recency (for example, the most recent year is weighted at 50% and the last year is 5%). I now felt a lot more comfortable knowing that a team who might have had an outlier year in one way or the other would still get credit for it, but at the same time, it wouldn’t be the only factor.

The next phase was adding a strength of schedule component. I created a scale based on the average schedule, and if a team had a more demanding schedule, their ZeLO for that year was multiplied by a decimal greater than one. If it was easier, it got multiplied by a decimal less than.

There was also the matter of roster turnover that needed to be addressed. With the NFL model, I manually address this by moving players as I follow free agency. But with a team model, I have to make more general assumptions about which players are leaving when players graduate or are drafted. So a good team last year, like Georgia, who lost over half of their returning production, will not return with as elite a defensive unit. 

Conversely, the matter of recruiting needs to be considered, as well. According to 247 Sports, over the past four years, Georgia has been a top-5 recruiting school, ranking first (2020) and second (2019) during that span. Suddenly, that reduction of their defense seems like an overcorrection. 

My solution was simple: I took247 247Sports’ average recruiting grade and multiplied it by .36 (the 36% was found here) and added the returning production metric and the new recruiting metric. 

So Georgia, who had a 73% offensive and 44% defensive returning percent, now has a return plus  recruit score of 1.06 on offense (a slight improvement) and a .775 on defense (a relatively large regression). These two numbers should account for returning production and the new class of players joining the team.

The last thing I wanted to incorporate into the model was a home field adjustment. Two components were critical to me. The first was the team’s home win-loss record, and the second was their average home attendance (adjusted for capacity to help protect smaller schools). I used a five-year average for both stats and calculated Z-Scores (a metric that shows numerically how close something is to the mean) for both stats. 

I took these two numbers and added them to a base of 10. So, if a team has a poor win-loss record, they will have a negative Z-Score (because they are below the mean), which would lower their home adjustment from 10. The same is true if they have below-average attendance. But the worst that could happen is a team drops to plus-four — still an advantage, but minimal.

I honestly have no idea how this project is going to go. When I first built my NFL model, I got to test it by myself first. I spent a week or two just tracking results and seeing if the player values made sense and didn’t jump around too much. It worked out well and I felt good about publishing it.

This college model is completely different; you and I are going to find out how good it is at the same time.

I built it and all the decisions made were intentional and well-thought-out. It back tested incredibly well last year — on average, the model was about a game and a half off of the actual finish. By the model, Georgia won the title and Alabama finished second, mirroring the results of the actual season. Always a good sign.

So, I hope you follow along and enjoy watching the season unfold as we track ZeLO against both real results and the ESPN FPI predictions.

Tom Zwiller

Contact Tom at tzwiller@hcc-nd.edu