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Minnesota Football: More Advanced Statistics and Jerry Kill

The more one digs into the advanced statistics throughout Jerry Kill's FBS career, the more one begins to see familiar patterns which reflect the type of football he prefers and believes is the key to the success of his programs.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, the fair people of The Daily Gopher discussed the "Jerry Kill Effect" in a very general sense. While examining F/+ ratings and our divisional foes, we got a sense of the overall progress of the on-field product Jerry Kill is directly responsible for maintaining and leading. The graph was certainly symmetrical in its climb and inspiring in its trajectory. It was nice to be able to see the team's progress in a single quantified metric outside of wins and losses, which is often dependent upon strength of opponent and variable upon a given year's cross-over opponents and non-conference schedule. However, instead of examining just one metric that attempts to measure the overall rating of a team, today I would like to present another aspect Jerry Kill emphasizes and has provided yearly improvement on at the two FBS programs he has coached.

The marquee advanced metric of the day is Field Position Advantage (FPA).

FPA is a component of the Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) that quantifies the share of the value of total starting field position earned by each team against its opponents (per Football Outsiders). Before you come at me with vitriol about the seemingly "made-up" nature of this particular statistic, consider that the teams that ranked 1st, 2nd, and 5th in FPA during the 2014 season were Georgia, TCU, and Ohio State, respectively. Since those three teams combined to go 36-5 during the season and one of them was the National Champion, it would appear that there is an advantage to ranking highly in FPA during a season.

The eye-test would say that the Gophers have fared well in field position during the Jerry Kill tenure, especially the last two years of play when Jerry had established a foundation for the program. However, we all know how often the eye-test can mislead us, especially since we tend to don our maroon colored glasses when it comes to critiquing our own Gophers and Mr. Kill. This is why we have FPA. It examines only meaningful possessions and removes end-of-game/half scenarios, FCS match ups, and garbage time in blow outs. It is as pure of a measurement available for examining how well a team is doing when it comes to starting in an advantageous position and placing your opponent in as disadvantageous of a position as possible.

Considering Kill has always emphasized the importance of field position and how important it is in a run-first offensive scheme that often lacks explosive plays, one would be under the assumption that an increased FPA rank would lead to an increase in wins. The following graph would appear to confirm that assumption.

*Keep in mind the rankings have been inverted to make the graph more intuitive. The higher the point placement, the better the given team was in the field position battle compared to the other FBS schools for that given season.


Key Takeaways

  • I included a single "pre-JK" year for both Northern Illinois and Minnesota to show what Jerry Kill inherited. Unsurprisingly, both teams ranked in the lower 30th percentile for FPA in the years before Coach Kill took over the respective programs. Minnesota was an atrocious 110th in FPA in 2010. Thanks a lot Tim Brewster. You were the best at being the worst
  • Notice again how every year at both programs, the team has improved upon their ranking. The lines continue to move upward regardless of conference, roster composition, schedule, etc. Jerry Kill has somehow found a way to continue to optimize and squeeze every last bit of field position advantage out of his teams and also pushed them to improve year after year.
  • In his final year at Northern Illinois, the Huskies ranked 7th (!!!) in the nation in FPA. Since 2011, the other teams to have been ranked 7th in FPA were Auburn (7-5), Vanderbilt (8-4), Texas A&M (8-4), and Oregon (12-2). So that's 3 SEC teams with at least 7 wins and a national runner-up. It amazes me the things that advanced statistics reveal Jerry Kill accomplished while at Northern Illinois, a MAC school with a very difficult recruiting situation and literally no built-in advantages.
  • Since Kill has taken over at Minnesota, the Gophers went from 110th in the nation in the year preceding his arrival to 16th in 2014. If these kinds of things don't make you believe that "Brick by Brick" isn't just some lame metaphor but an actual well-executed and repeatable plan to improve a down-trodden football program then no amount of eye-tests, conventional statistics, or advanced statistics will make you believe in the man from Cheney, Kansas.

Closing Thoughts

I have given a lot of credit to Jerry Kill in this piece but there are a few other individuals who deserve equal or more praise. Jay Sawvel, whom we adore for turning under recruited diamonds in the rough into NFL draft picks, has been the special teams coach for Jerry Kill teams since 2001. He deserves a lion's share of the credit for the performance of the special teams. He has obviously taken Kill's philosophy at face value and given his players the coaching and guidance necessary to develop into a consistent, dominant unit. It is evident that the two men have a mutual trust that enables success for both parties. Another gentlemen who deserves praise and credit is Jay Nunez who is currently listed as Minnesota's Special Teams Quality Control assistant. He has been in this position the last three years and has obviously played a part in the upward trend of the team's field position advantage. I tip my hat to both Coach Sawvel and Mr. Nunez.

While I have emphasized special teams in the above analysis, it is also important to recognize the continued improvement and success of the defensive unit as well. The ability to create turnovers and avoid allowing long drives which pin the Gophers back in their own territory are also big contributors to the overall FPA of a team. The improvement on the defensive side of the ball must also be acknowledged when considering the upward trend of FPA. Thank you Mr. Tracy Claeys!

It isn't overly difficult to see that Coach Kill and his ever-important supporting cast have continued to improve in the field position aspect over the last four years at Minnesota. While I didn't get into correlation vs. causation and expand on any of the specifics of the advanced statistics (mostly because I'm not Matt H.), it isn't beyond even my simple mind to realize that Kill has made it a point to focus on the little things in his program-building efforts and this focus has manifested itself in an upward trend in both wins and the more complex numbers. While eventually the upward trends will reach their limits, it's always fascinating to see just how much Mr. Kill and Co. have improved the program not only by wins and losses, but by the numbers behind the scenes. This means that the Gophers' success isn't built on smoke and mirrors and a few lucky breaks but on sustainable success in the many facets of the game.