By David Stratton | Analyzing college football games is at once challenging and intriguing, given the myriad of statistics and trends thrown at you by so-called handicappers.
Perhaps the least useful of them all is a teamís point-spread record, commonly called its "ATS" mark (against the spread).
Trends based on ATS numbers are determined after the fact, and really offer little in predicting what will happen in the future.
For instance, check the ATS records from year to year for most teams and youíll find they vary dramatically.
Even so-called "100 percent" trends should be viewed with caution, because they imply a strong possibility of the trend continuing, when in reality the outcome of a 100 percent trend is more often than not a 50-50 proposition.
The key stats in determining an outcome are the hard-core numbers that a team acquires over a long period. Coupled with evaluating a teamís perceived strengths, weaknesses and improvements (if any), they can be relied upon in predicting how a team will perform.
Most "old school" handicappers believe the ability to run the football is key to a teamís success, and indeed the top rushing teams are generally successful.
For instance, last year the top 30 rushing teams in Division 1A compiled a collective 237-151 won-loss record, a 61 percent winning mark.
But in that group there were actually six teams with a losing record.
What about the premier passing teams? Actually, it gets worse. The top 30 passing teams in the nation had a combined 214-264 won-loss record, for a dismal 44.7 percent mark.
You would expect the ability to score would be tantamount to winning games, and indeed it is. The top 30 scoring teams amassed a healthy 261-130 record for a 66.8 percent winning mark.
Nonetheless, there were four teams in that group that had losing records.
Is there any other stat that can top the ability to score? Only one: third down efficiency.
The top 30 teams that were the most proficient in converting third downs compiled an overall won-loss record of 268-123, or a 68.5 percent winning clip.
In that group, only one team, Toledo, had a losing record (5-7), the result of a defense ranked 101st out of 120 Division 1A teams.
The comparable stat on defense is nearly as impressive. The top 30 teams in stopping opponents on third down were 260-128, a 67 percent winning margin.
When you couple those last two stats, you come up with the elite teams in the country. Of the eight teams that appeared on both lists, six had 11-win seasons, while two won 12 games, including national champion LSU.
So when you want to evaluate a match-up, start with a teamís third-down efficiency, both on offense and on defense. The ATS numbers will follow accordingly.