Win the turnover battle and win the game.

It’s an adage in football that is so true – and a staple in coachspeak – yet perhaps it’s too simplistic because football isn’t exactly a simple sport.

Turnover margin has proven to be an excellent barometer for determining wins and losses, but many other statistics reflect the success of a team.

While teams are continuing their offseason preparation for the 2024 college football season, we’re taking a look at successful traits of some of last year’s best FCS teams.

To do so, we’ve analyzed the top-10 teams in the final 2023 Stats Perform FCS Top 25 Poll – No. 1-ranked national champion South Dakota State followed by national runner-up Montana (2), North Dakota State (3), South Dakota (4), UAlbany (5), Villanova (6), Furman (7), Idaho (8), Montana State (9) and Delaware (10) – to see what they had in common.

We’ve looked at 44 statistical categories on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball to see how many times the 10 teams (out of 128 overall) finished inside the top 25 (the top 20%) of the NCAA’s FCS statistical rankings.

To emphasize the original point, five of the 10 teams finished in the top 25 of turnover margin – a good percentage, but not necessarily incredible. Villanova and Idaho even had negative turnover margins despite being among the best FCS teams.

So, yes, there were many other ways for each top-10 team to post its successful season.

fcs-football-2023-season-leaders

Out of the 89 statistics, including turnover margin – viewed separately due to it being a mix of offense and defense – at least five of the 10 teams had a top-25 finish 37 times.

Some of the statistical category results were products of teams having more games via deep playoff runs. The top eight teams in the final Top 25 poll advanced to at least the FCS football quarterfinals, while Montana State and Delaware lost in the round of 16 to a semifinalist (North Dakota State) and a finalist (Montana), respectively.

Offense

Statistics in which at least five of the top-10 teams in the final 2023 Stats Perform FCS Top 25 Poll finished inside the top 25 nationally:

9 Teams – Rushes, First Downs

8 Teams – Rushing Touchdowns, Scrimmage Yards, Scrimmage Touchdowns, Total Touchdowns, Points

7 Teams – Rushing Yards, Offensive Touches, Total Return Touchdowns, Third-Down Conversions

6 Teams – Passing Yards, Passing Yards Per Attempt (see the chart for the importance), Quarterback Rating, Passing TD Percentage, Scrimmage Yards Per Touch, Scrimmage Yards Per Game, Third Down Attempts, Third Down Conversion Percentage, Points Per Game

5 Teams – TD Pass-to-Interception Ratio, Rushing Long, Rushing Yards Per Game, Time of Possession

Defense

Statistics in which at least five of the top-10 teams in the final 2023 Stats Perform FCS Top 25 Poll finished inside the top 25 nationally:

8 Teams – Interceptions Gained (see the chart for the importance), Scrimmage Yards Per Game

7 Teams – Points Per Game, Sacks

6 Teams – Sack Yards, Third-Down Conversion Percentage, Turnovers Gained, Rushing Yards Per Game

5 Teams – Passing Yards Per Game, Passing TD Percentage, Rushing Touchdowns, Yards Per Touch

Summary

Quite simply, defense still wins championships – yes, adages are usually correct – certainly indicative with how opposing teams struggled to move the ball (eight times in the top 25 of scrimmage yards allowed per game) and score (seven in top 25 of points allowed per game) against the top-10 teams.

Offensively, converting third downs and keeping the offense on the field stand out with six top-25 finishes. South Dakota State, which tied for the second-best record in an FCS season, ranked No. 1 on third downs at 53.5% and went on to win a second consecutive national title. As a comparison, Georgia also won its second consecutive national title while leading the FBS in third down conversion percentage.

Out of the 37 statistics in common between the top-10 best FCS teams, SDSU had a national top-25 ranking in all but two of them. North Dakota State was right behind with 34 top-25 finishes, and Montana was third with 27.

(For more, here are the FCS’ returning national individual statistical leaders)


Josiah Sukumaran of Stats Perform’s U.S. Data Insights provided research for this story.

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