I had one other number to fit into the Numbies column but I wasn't able to squeeze it in. So let's give this NERDstat its own article. Let's talk about Net Available Yards. First we'll talk about what the stat is (and why I like it so much), and then we'll talk about where we stand.
Football games can be won many different ways. The easiest way - gain a whole bunch of yards while stopping the other team from gaining a bunch of yards. When Penn State led Illinois 56-3 at halftime in 2005, it's because they could go up and down the field without resistance (and we could barely move the ball). Dominating the yards battle is the simplest way to win. You can't stop us and we can stop you. Every time that 8-1 high school team plays the 1-8 opponent, the games are won this way. Nothing else matters. Fumble 22 times it still won't matter.
On the other side, if it's a game where teams have the same number of first downs and the similar total yardage, the game is pretty much 100% going to be decided by The Other Things. Who won the turnover battle? Who got 7 at the end of their drives instead of 3?
If the Minnesota game was one of those equal yards games then Minnesota would have won even though turnovers were 3-1 in favor of Illinois. Minnesota got to the redzone twice and put up two touchdowns. Illinois got to the redzone five times and had four field goals and one touchdown. Just flip those two stats -- Minnesota gets two field goals on their two redzone tries and we get touchdowns on four of the five drives -- and Illinois wins that game 38-6 instead of 26-14.
I want to go over that one more time because it's important. We dominated Minnesota in total yards (472 to 180) yet the score was 26-14 simply because they were 100% on touchdowns in the redzone and we were 20%. This is what I mean by "football games can be won many different ways". Yards are the most reliable way, but you can overcome yards by doing The Other Things. So much of a game hinges on those "third and goal from the 8" plays. A 27-24 win can become a 24-23 loss just one that one second quarter play.
The best example of "yards can be overcome" I can ever remember was a Rams-Jaguars game I attended in 1996 (when I was a Rams season ticket holder). Some stats:
Total Yards: Jacksonville 538, St. Louis 204
Time Of Possession: Jacksonville 41:34, St. Louis 18:26
First downs: Jacksonville 36, St. Louis 8
Starting quarterbacks: Mark Brunell: 37-52, 421 yards; Pretty Tony Banks: 9-17, 129 yards
Final score: St. Louis 17, Jacksonville 14
I've never seen a game like it since. Thirty six first downs to EIGHT and the Rams won. Jacksonville did not punt the entire game and lost. How? Five interceptions.
And they weren't just regular old interceptions. The Rams picked off Brunell at the 8 (returned 92 yards for a touchdown), at the 12, at the goal line, at the 7, and at the 2. FIVE REDZONE INTERCEPTIONS, all between the 12 and the endzone. A game that, honestly was headed for Jacksonville 44, St. Louis 3 and the Rams ended up winning. It has to be the only game in the history of football with a 28 first down disparity where the team with single-digit first downs won the game.
Why am I telling you this? To talk about the extreme before talking about the baseline. When you lose the "move the ball up and down the field" battle by that much, you need, well, you need five interceptions between the 12 and the endzone to win. You can count on doing that about one out of every 400 football games, so yeah, it's better to win the yards battle.
Which brings us to the Available Yards stat. It's very simple. You got the ball at the 23. You had 77 yards in front of you. How many of those available yards did you gain? All 77? Or did you get 59 and then kick a field goal? Or maybe 6 yards and then punt?
It's the same for defense. You opponent takes over at the 44 and they only need 56 yards to score. Did you allow all 56 yards? Maybe hold them to 35 yards and a field goal attempt? Is it possible you only allowed four yards and they had to punt?
The stat doesn't look at anything else. It doesn't look at field goals vs. touchdowns in the redzone. It doesn't evaluate whether those drives ended in turnovers or punts or field goal attempts. It's just yards. The baseline of football.
And when you take the Net Available Yards (the difference between your Offensive Available Yards and Defensive Available Yards), you get very solid statistic that give you a really good idea who moves the ball. It's not weighted for opponents, so yes, there are small schools who can have a similar Net Available Yards to Alabama (even though Alabama would be favored by 34 if they played head-to-head), but by the end of the year, it's a very reliable. Here's what Brian Fremeau tweeted about it today to show how reliable it is:
National champions over the last 15 seasons had an average net available yards percentage advantage of +.26, and the last four averaged +.30.— Brian Fremeau (@bcfremeau) October 21, 2022
Through Week 7, Ohio State, Georgia, and Michigan are over the +.30 mark.
Data for all 131 FBS teams:https://t.co/iBRUKSlhKR pic.twitter.com/jNYc1Sb7J6
Makes sense, right? Sure, maybe there are some games won through turnovers and some games won through red zone efficiency (or whatever), but at the end of the season, the teams that are going to be battling it out in the playoff are the teams that move the ball and stop the ball. And, uh, we're pretty good at that. The current top-10 in Net Available Yards:
1. Ohio State .479 Net Available Yards
2. Georgia .411
3. Michigan .362
4. UCLA .290
5. James Madison .273
6. Alabama .272
7. Illinois .241
8. Minnesota .225
9. Ole Miss .222
10. Air Force .203
I'm so glad that James Madison is #5 and Alabama is #6 on this list. Without that, you might read this and say "Illinois is really about the 7th-best team in the country". With James Madison in front of Alabama, it helps you remember that schedule strength isn't considered here. If Alabama had played James Madison's schedule, they'd likely be higher than Ohio State and their .479 Net Available Yards.
And it's also helpful that Minnesota is eighth. We're halfway through the season now, so we're answering a lot of "chicken or egg" questions at this point, and Minnesota is a great example of "are they good, or did they just play absolutely no one?"
Let's go to the other end of this list and find Minnesota's opponents. In terms of Net Available Yards (NAY), Colorado is 130th out of 131 teams, New Mexico State is 114th, Michigan State is 90th, and Western Illinois is an 0-6 FCS team. I'm not kidding when I say that 2012 Illinois football (2-10 on the season) would have been 4-0 against that schedule.
And then Minnesota came crashing back down to earth against Purdue and Illinois. When two-thirds of your NAY stats come from playing the worst football teams in the country, yeah, you're going to be pretty high on a list like this. So even though we have half the data now, we still can't completely trust these numbers. I just want to make sure you're aware of that before I write the rest of this article.
WE ARE PLAYING SUSTAINABLE FOOTBALL. That's what has me so excited about this list. If you peruse Fremeau's Available Yards page, you'll see what you are expecting to see (we're 1st nationally in defensive available yards (our defense has only allowed 26.1% of the available yards to be gained), but also something you might not be expecting to see. Offensive Available Yards? 55th nationally (50.2% of available yards have been gained).
Let's compare that to the other 3-1 team in the Big Ten West (Purdue). When you think of Purdue you're thinking "great offense, decent defense", right? Would you believe that Purdue's offense is 48th? 52.2% of available yards have been gained. Illini offense? 50.2%. Purdue offense? 52.2%. My point? Through six games, we've more or less had the same offensive output as Purdue.
Your immediate thought after I say that: "well, what about the schedule?" Purdue played Syracuse and Penn State (both ranked). Hasn't Purdue had to face much tougher defenses in order to put up those (unexpectedly low) offensive stats? Let's check it out.
First off, we'll toss out the two FCS games (Purdue against Indiana State and Illinois against Chattanooga). In fact, I think Fremeau does the same. Here's where the other opponents come out on the Defensive Available Yards (meaning, how good were the defenses that each team faced?):
Penn State - 28
Syracuse - 27
Florida Atlantic - 84
Maryland - 63
Minnesota - 10
Nebraska - 100
Average defense faced: 52
Wyoming - 80
Indiana - 75
Virginia - 70
Wisconsin - 42
Iowa - 11
Minnesota - 10
Average defense faced: 48
Add into this that Indiana State's defense has given up 441 yards per game and Chattanooga's defense has given up 281 yards per game and yes, I'd say that so far, you can say the Illini offense is slightly better than the Boilermaker offense. What's that? You want me to say it again?
The Illini offense, so far, is slightly better than the "oh they have such a great offense" Purdue offense. And we have a top-5 defense nationally (top-2 in Defensive Available Yards and not 2nd).
The defenses left on the Illini schedule? Here you go:
Nebraska - 100th in Defensive Available Yards
Michigan State - 105
Purdue - 47
Michigan - 3
Northwestern - 72
Michigan will be the best defense we've faced (and we knew that). Nebraska and Michigan State will be the two worst defenses we face all year (possibly worse than even Chattanooga). Purdue's defense is basically Wisconsin. And Northwestern's defense is basically Virginia.
OK I need to stop because I'm starting to get too excited. I'll just close with this:
We lead the nation in interceptions. That had me worried that we're riding a wave of The Other Things which have led us to 18th in the polls. So I went looking for a stat that would tell me if we were playing fundamental football on both sides of the ball. Net Available Yards tells me that we are.
A better way to say that:
"Are we riding luck to a 6-1 record?"