College football's analytics revolution is just beginning

Nebraska -- which recently hired a full-time Sports Analytics Director -- is one program using data to impact their on-field product. AP Photo/Nati Harnik

While the "Moneyball Revolution" has swept through nearly every professional sports franchise, it might appear on the surface that sports analytics has yet to make a major dent in college athletics.

From an outsider's perspective regarding sports analytics, professional baseball is the The Godfather and college football is The Kid.

But maybe college teams are not as far behind the professional leagues as it might first appear. In 2015, Nebraska hired a full-time sports analytics director to help inform decisions and identify trends. Other schools have full-fledged sports analytics clubs on campus or rely on outside consultants for data analysis.

"College coaches today are rooted in data more than ever before," noted one Power 5 representative. "If you look at the growing size of staffs, the coaches want to be powered with the best information to get them to the answer they want."

Despite staff size, there's still a perception that most athletic departments are light-years behind the professional leagues when it comes to data analysis and sports analytics. With big-time college programs bringing in nearly $100 million in revenue, could that really be the case?

In order to understand the sports analytics landscape across college campuses, ESPN's Sports Analytics Team sent out a brief survey to every Power 5 athletic department. The questions were simple: Who (if anyone) is doing sports analytics for your school? What types of analytics are you doing? And how much does your coach use analytics to run his program?

Twenty-one of the 65 Power 5 programs responded, and four Power 5 conferences had at least four teams answer the questionnaire. Admittedly, the sample is biased, as teams that use analytics are more likely to answer, but even in that context, the results were eye-opening. Here's what we learned:

More teams say they use analytics than expected

Of the 21 respondents, 11 have at least one student or staffer doing analytics research for the football program, including five that have hired a full-time analytics employee or outside consultant. Six more teams have students breaking down film to find tendencies, which might not be considered analytics in the typical sense but provides coaches with data to make educated decisions.

Analytics research can provide coaches with data on a diverse variety of topics such as opponent tendencies, health and nutrition, in-game strategy and more. Clearly not every FBS program has the ability to gather or analyze this data, but for the top-tier programs, the resources available can rival those of NFL teams.

"The blue-chip programs that have staff rosters overflowing with personnel are probably approaching the analytics workload of the pro teams," one respondent said. "But there are 128 FBS teams, and the vast majority of them are trying to figure out how to pay for meals and travel or the hire of an extra recruiting assistant or athletic trainer, especially as budget cuts continue to affect the public colleges and universities."

Though 17 of 21 respondents answered that they are doing some sort of analytics, we would be naïve to conclude

that percentage represents the entire FBS or even all Power 5 programs. Still, there is clearly a push among these schools to gather, analyze and visualize data as coaches try to gain an edge.

Teams rely on data in a variety of areas

Before delving into what teams are doing, it's necessary to define what falls under the sports analytics umbrella. Sports analytics is a broad term, but for the purpose of this discussion, let's keep it simple and define it as the use of data to inform decisions or gain a competitive advantage. Here are just a few areas in which data is providing teams with an edge:

  • In-game decisions: The most obvious use of data to gain an advantage is analyzing trends and tendencies to inform in-game strategy. That can mean charting data for scouting reports or more complex data analysis on the success rates of certain personnel, formations or play calls. This type of analysis has been around for years (and often isn't considered analytics), but the majority of teams polled use some sort of self-scouting or advanced methods to break down tendencies. Most teams' scouting remains internal, but a number of schools work with an outside partner who provides them with resources to take their scouting to the next level.

    For example, more than a dozen major college football programs are working with Pro Football Focus, which now charts and grades college players on every play of every FBS game. Outside resources such as PFF also break down personnel groupings, play tendencies, blitz rates and more.

    The next step on this front will be the addition of player tracking technology (captured with chips in the shoulder pads) for every FBS team, which will produce immense amount of data to supplement scouting.

    Additionally, many coaches use data to make optimal decisions on game day. A growing number of coaches now hold a standard two-point conversion or fourth-down chart on the sidelines, which are rooted in advanced analytical analysis. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, who has a binder that tells him when and where to go for it on fourth down, is one example of a coach who has bought into in-game analytics.

  • Health and nutrition: Another aspect of data analysis that most programs have adopted is tracking the health and nutrition of players. Again, monitoring what a player eats isn't groundbreaking, but the majority of Power 5 schools now have a sports nutritionist on staff.

    Those nutritionists know the science; eating the right foods at the optimal times helps promote better performance. They provide personalized meal plans for their athletes based on their specific needs and positions and closely regulate feeding throughout the season. Oregon, under Chip Kelly, was one of the first teams to adopt this philosophy, but these nutrition programs rooted in data have certainly caught on.

    Even smaller schools that can't afford full-time nutritionists have bought into this trend by tracking players' consumption with apps such as MyFitnessPal and working with strength and conditioning coaches to improve performance with the proper diet.

  • Sleep tracking: Along the same lines, many colleges have started to monitor the sleep cycles of their athletes. Northwestern was one of the first teams to track quantity and quality of sleep, and that tracking has caught on around the FBS with 75 percent of teams polled saying they monitor the sleep cycles of their players. Tennessee is one team that has gone public with its sleep monitoring, working with an outside company to improve its on-field performance through better sleep habits (read here). That can mean everything from high-tech monitoring of heart rate, respiration and movement during sleep to simply enforcing earlier bed times and mid-afternoon naps.

  • Recruiting: Every school at every level looks at players' basic measurements coming out of high school. That's not analytics. But a number of teams surveyed took recruiting data a step further.

    For example, one team noted that it looked back at the past decade of recruits and pulled data on where they came from, how they performed in high school (athletically and academically) and their success/failure in college. With that data, this school identified trends (through statistical modeling) that they are using to target future recruits.

    Of all topics in the survey, however, recruiting appears to be the biggest opportunity for growth. Recruiting is an inexact science, but the team that uses data to find hidden gems will have a leg up on the rest of the country.

  • Player exertion: Most teams surveyed (15 of 21) are also monitoring players' exertion at practice. Though it's not clear to what degree those teams monitor effort, there is a growing subset of teams taking this type of tracking to the next level.

    "We do player tracking that is mostly done from a health perspective," said one full-time analytics staffer at a major program. "Coaches get that data and monitor the player loads, and we dive deeper in the analytics department to do more predictive injury risks."

    These GPS tracking devices, such as the ones produced by Catapult, are becoming more popular with athletic programs, with Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher among the first believers in the immense amount of data they produce. The devices worn in practice and games not only monitor a player's speed and exertion, but, as noted above, if used correctly they can help to prevent injury. This data is particularly useful for training staffs and strength and conditioning coaches, who can tailor their programs to each player's needs.

    One respondent estimated that 40 to 50 schools are using some sort of GPS technology, and a number of schools have hired performance analysts, whose main jobs are to handle all aspects of the data and communicate trends to the training and coaching staff.

    As the technology is advancing, however, the amount of data is growing and more analysts are needed. The teams that can keep up with the data produced by these tools will likely have an inherent advantage going forward. Along those same lines, as teams spend more on data and analysis, the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" in major college football will only widen.

Coaches are generally responsive to analytics

It's again important to acknowledge the sample of respondents likely skewed in favor of analytics users, but it appears that many coaches have bought into the "analytics revolution."

Eleven of the 21 respondents rated their coaches as fairly heavy users (rating of four out of five) of analytics and data. Five more gave their coaches a rating of three out of five, rating them as average users. Only two of the 21 who responded said their coaches never use analytics.

We would be ignorant to conclude there are not still coaches who rely almost exclusively on the eye test and intuition, but even the most old-school coaches likely want data available to inform their decisions.

As Penn State coach James Franklin said as a panelist at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in 2015, "Coaches in general are inquisitive, curious people and they are always looking to find an advantage. Even ones that are a little resistant to using it have strength coaches or training staff that are interested in using it."

The key is that analytics is not a replacement for coaching; it is simply one more tool coaches can use to make decisions. Coaches are coaches for a reason, but the best coaches will recognize that the additional information on scouting, health and nutrition, sleep, exertion and more will only help them do their jobs better.

Based on the results of this survey, it appears a large number of coaches have already recognized the value of data and analytics and implemented those tools into their programs.

With 128 FBS teams trying to gain an edge, this field will only grow, but it certainly appears college teams are not as far behind the pros as previously perceived.