As it nears the halfway point of the Ivy League season, the Yale football team has many reasons for excitement. Despite last week’s heartbreaking loss in the final seconds at Dartmouth, Team 145 has arguably been the best team in head coach Tony Reno’s tenure.
Quarterback Kurt Rawlings ’20 has proved that last year’s success was no fluke with his performances over the first four games of the year while running backs Zane Dudek ’21 and Deshawn Salter ’18 have proved an effective and dynamic duo in the Bulldog backfield. While some students may only pay attention to Yale football in the days leading up to “The Game,” Team 145 has greater aspirations for this season than simply beating Harvard come late November.
Based on the strength of last season’s team, the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group football model gave the Bulldogs just a 0.6 percent chance to win the Ancient Eight crown this year. The Elis’ early-season successes have boosted those odds significantly, giving them a 28 percent chance to win a share of the Ivy League championship. Only Dartmouth (67 percent) has a better chance of winning the league.
According to the YUSAG model, Yale is the best team in the Ancient Eight, valued 4.1 points higher than the average Football Championship Subdivision team, ahead of Princeton (3.6), Harvard (1.4) and Dartmouth (0.9). Past score differentials comprise an important part of how these coefficients are calculated, so it comes as no surprise that our model gives Yale the greatest team strength. Excepting the close loss to the Big Green, Yale has cruised to blowout wins in its other three games. Meanwhile, despite retaining an undefeated mark, Dartmouth has squeaked out wins in several close games, including three that were decided in the final seconds or overtime.
Even holding the inside track, Dartmouth is no lock to win the league title. There appears to be more parity in the Ancient Eight in the new campaign than existed over the last several seasons: Defending co-champions Penn and Princeton have already lost once in the conference, as has perennial title favorite Harvard while longtime cellar dwellars Columbia remain undefeated. Five teams currently possess at least a 15 percent chance of winning an Ancient Eight title while the Big Green are expected to finish less than a win better than Yale, the predicted second-place team. Given that Dartmouth has a roughly 75 percent chance of losing at least one league game the rest of the season, there will be several teams lurking should they fall.
So the question remains: Why has Yale been able to outperform its preseason expectations through the first four games of the season? Earlier this year, I wrote that the ability to establish an elite running game and stop opponents’ running backs was far more predictive of a team’s success than its ability to dominate the passing game. Led by Dudek, Salter and Rawlings on the occasional read option, the Bulldogs have averaged 244.3 rushing yards per game. That number marks the most of any Ivy League team other than the 2014 Yale squad led by former NFL running back Tyler Varga ’15. On the other side of the ball, the defense has allowed only 99.0 rushing YPG, giving Team 145 the best Bulldog rush defense in the Tony Reno era, and the eighth best of any Ivy team since 2012. The combination of an electric rushing attack and a stout defense has proved devastatingly effective for Yale so far this season.
While last week at Dartmouth undoubtedly left a bitter taste in the mouth of any Yale football fan, the numbers say Yale will be just fine. And remember — the numbers never lie!
Luke Benz | firstname.lastname@example.org . Luke Benz is the President of the Yale Undergraduate Sports Analytics Group.