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Rock M Nation founder blogs about college football statistics

Bill Connelly uses math for game predictions

August 18, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST

When the alarm sounds at 4:25 a.m., Bill Connelly starts his workday, but he’s not wearing a suit and tie. Instead, he works in his pajamas and says there’s a 67 percent chance he’s wearing his Mizzou shorts.

Bill's blogs by the numbers

1988 The year The Hidden Game of Football came out, which inspired football nerds everywhere

130,000 The number of views per month on Rock M Nation, which is steadily growing

1 The number of hours it takes Connelly to write a standard blog post

30 The number of hours each week Connelly spends blogging

52 The size, in inches, of Connelly’s flat-screen TV

2011 The year Connelly created Football Study Hall

5:30 The time he starts his evening blogging

17 The size, in inches, of Connelly’s MacBook Pro

22 The number of players moving on the field during each play in a game of football

11 The number of home and away games Connelly attended in 1999 when Mizzou had an abysmal record of four wins and seven losses

67 The percent chance Connelly is wearing his Mizzou shorts while blogging in the morning

140,000 The number of individual plays per season Connelly collected from 2005 to 2010 for his play-by-play analysis

2008 The year Connelly joined the blogging ranks of Football Outsiders, a blog that’s associated with ESPN Insider

4:25 The time Connelly wakes up each morning

100-200 The number of daily audience members that read Connelly’s first blog, Mizzou Sanity

32 Connelly's age

25,000 The approximate number of words per week on his blogs this summer

10-2 Bill’s best-case prediction for MU’s record this season, if the Tigers beat Arizona State

7-5 Bill’s worst-case prediction for MU’s record this season, if the team loses to ASU

250,000 The rough number of words Connelly has written as a blogger and columnist this summer


--David Cawthon

In the family room, Connelly, 32, sits with his 17-inch Macbook Pro on his lap, his neck pillow tucked behind his head and a cup of homebrewed Dunkin’ Donuts or Bean Central coffee close by. That might be the most severe addiction he has next to football, he says. As the caffeine begins to fire up his synapses, his fingers scatter across the keys as he constructs team profiles, graphs and rankings with numbers and words. Excel is his paintbrush and Microsoft Access his canvas.

In an hour or so, maybe longer, he completes his post before heading to his day job at the MU Medical School, where he is a business tech analyst. Although Connelly makes some money from blogging, he says it’s not enough to support his family.

“During the work day, I’m formulating in the back of my head how the intro is going to go for the next team on the list,” he says. That’s almost a necessity with the amount of content he produces weekly. Connelly, who created Rock M Nation and Football Study Hall and is a columnist for Football Outsiders, has written about 25,000 words per week and more than 250,000 words so far this summer. These numbers could put some novelists to shame.

When the MU alumnus returns home at 5:30 p.m., he eats and starts his next post before he heads to bed.

Although his full-time job pays the bills, blogging about football is his passion — a 30-hours-per-week passion that requires daily devotion. The self-proclaimed football nerd says he has had a penchant for numbers and sports ever since he was a child. Connelly was born in Columbia, but he grew up in Weatherford, Okla., a state where football resembles a religion more than a sport. That’s where he discovered his love for college football and the sport’s traditions, long before his love for stats.

Although he says he wasn’t big, strong or fast enough to cut it on the gridiron, he did play basketball in junior high and tennis in high school. He earned straight A’s in his math classes, worked on his high school newspaper and was named valedictorian when he graduated. “The anti-nerd inside me tries not to say that out loud,” he says.

Connelly began as a journalism major at MU but switched to communication. During that time, he wasn’t always hitting the books. On the weekends, he traveled to college football towns such as Lubbock, Texas; Norman, Okla.; Clemson, S.C.; and even Muncie, Ind., during the late ’90s and early 2000s. He even loyally attended all 11 Mizzou games in 1999 when the team had an abysmal record of four wins and seven losses, distant road games with thousands of miles included.

Seth Rosner, one of his longtime friends and a Rock M Nation contributor, met Connelly through Tigerboard.com, a forum for Mizzou sports fans, while the two of them were undergraduates at MU. Rosner traveled across the country to see Mizzou games with Connelly as the two cemented their friendship.

“Bill’s relationship with stats and football is because Bill wouldn’t have a relationship with football any other way because he’s too small to play it,” Rosner jokes. “Bill describes himself as a stat nerd who doesn’t love baseball.” Rosner says baseball has traditionally had a statistical focus, whereas other sports, such as football, basketball and hockey, are still lacking in that regard.

Rosner, who is known as the “The Beef” on Rock M Nation, says that a lot of Connelly’s stats are over his head, but Connelly writes in a way that readers on any level can understand.

Two years after Connelly graduated, he received his MBA in management from MU, which helped him refine the firm grasp he already had with numbers. “There’s no question about that now,” he says. “I’m coming to grips with the fact I am a math nerd.”

Although Connelly is a blogger, he is also an innovator in the world of sports statistics that has traditionally favored baseball and lauded greats like baseball statistics mastermind Bill James.

For decades, America’s favorite pastime had been the perennial favorite for die-hard sports statisticians, but the people following the pigskin finally wrote their own bible, 1988’s The Hidden Game of Football, which inspired football nerds everywhere, Connelly included.

Unlike baseball, which is a sport that often makes for easy calculations by pitting a batter against pitcher or base runner against catcher, football is much more intricate because plays can be influenced by any number of factors; some aspects of the game are extremely complex with 22 players moving on the field during each play.

Connelly found that college football was not being assessed for its numbers, at least not with the depth that he thought it deserved. “I was lucky,” Connelly says. “When I looked for college stats on the Internet one day, none existed. So I jumped in and tried to fill a void.”

After being Tigerboard mainstays, Connelly and Rosner created Mizzou Sanity in 2007, which received about 100-200 views per day. Bill soon noticed that SB Nation’s network of blogs, fan‑powered sites that cover teams in depth, needed a Mizzou edition, so he applied for the position. Other Big 12 schools such as Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas had their own sites, and Connelly says he couldn’t let the Jayhawks one-up his Tigers.

Ross Taylor, a 22-year-old Mizzou grad who now works as a media services assistant for the Washington Redskins, also applied. Instead of duking it out, the two teamed up in October 2007 to co-found Rock M Nation, which now enjoys between 100,000 and 130,000 views per month and has been steadily growing. Connelly says it is his “baby.” Because of his recent job with the Redskins, Taylor is stepping down.

“People scoff at the notion of Internet friends,” Taylor says. “I can say unequivocally that Bill and several other people I’ve met through other websites have become my close friends.”

In September 2008, Connelly became a columnist for Football Outsiders, a blog that is affiliated with ESPN Insider, the holy grail for sports statisticians. In March 2011, he created Football Study Hall, where he flexes his statistical muscles across all teams in college football “because some nerds don’t love baseball,” as the site’s description says.

Taylor has stepped down from his co-manager position on Rock M Nation, but he says Connelly’s work is prolific as well as innovative. Connelly has formulated his own measures, some borrowed from stat greats like Brian Fremeau of ESPN and Football Outsiders, and applied them and other completely original measures to explain the inner workings of his favorite sport. Connelly uses a concept called “opponent adjustments” to determine the top teams in the nation, despite their AP or Coaches Poll rankings.

He knew the 2007 Hawaii team was abysmal. He had the 2010 Boise State team rated over Auburn last year. The 2010 Alabama team was in the top five, even with three losses. When he assessed the 1959 Mississippi team, he discovered they were the best team of all time, even with their one loss that season.

Connelly concocted a formula called S&P+, a combination of success rate and points per play, which compares a specific team to an “average” program derived from his massive library of data. The formula concerns the actual output of the team versus the expected output.

During his four and a half years of football blogging, Connelly has been taking his critical analysis past the cookie-cutter stats that flash across the bottom of the TV screen during games. Sometimes, when he’s at home with his eyes glued to his 52-inch flat screen, he can’t help but shake his head when an announcer makes a cliché claim Connelly knows isn’t true, such as the all-too-common reference to a quarterback’s fourth quarter clutch play that saved the game.

Connelly says it’s the first half that determines the victor, a topic he wrote about in one of his favorite columns that addresses his four truths that debunk common football myths.

Although some of his methods might seem similar to something out of a college statistics textbook, he explains each of his terms online for his ever-growing audience of readers. Because this sort of statistics measuring is so new, there’s room for invention, and Connelly is constantly tinkering, exploring and filling in the voids in college football history and stats knowledge.

Other football bloggers are taking note of Connelly’s work. Chris Brown of Smartfootball.com is the yin to Connelly’s yang. Connelly has concocted his own stat cocktail, but Brown, a 29-year-old Purdue alumnus and New York City resident, writes his posts from the perspective of a coach. His niche is strategy and its inner-workings, and he applies game theory and decision theory to football strategy. Brown, who has been at it since the ’90s, says Connelly is the only person he’s ever considered working with, and the two have talked about forming a site together.

Brown, who calls himself one of Connelly’s daily admirers, knows what Connelly does takes dedication and hours of work. Not to mention, Connelly’s forte is rare in the college football blogging world.

“In order to write what he’s writing about, it takes time,” Brown says. “It’s not the blogger cliché of a guy in his mother’s basement rolling out of bed and blogging what he thinks about politics off the top of his head. Bill has to spend an inordinate amount of time with the data.”

With help, Connelly has collected about 140,000 individual college football plays per season from 2005 to 2010 for his play-by-play analysis.

Connelly has other admirers, too. Coaches and well known ESPN statisticians have used his stats and even chatted with him over the phone. Connelly’s posts have been mentioned by Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel and ESPN’s Bruce Feldman, who Connelly says is the “nicest guy in the world.” Even the Texas Longhorns’ defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, linked to one of Connelly’s blog posts on ESPN Insider.

For this die-hard football blogger, there’s no lavish home office or man cave, and there’s no offseason. His workspace is a living room, scattered with stuffed toys for a pampered pooch named Laney, a rescue dog who has a few beds, one of which is a Mizzou Tigers blanket on the end of the couch. Two cats round out the family pets.

Connelly has been married to his wife, Jamie, for six years. Jamie and Bill grew up in Oklahoma, and they met in the MBA program at MU. Since that time, she has seen his blogging take off, so she doesn’t mind when the dishes pile up or when Bill gets tunnel vision during a post because she says it could become his main source of income one day.

“I know it’s really time consuming, but he’s going in a direction that maybe he’ll have a career that he will really like one day,” she says.

But Rock M Nation and Football Study Hall won’t be Bill’s only babies for long because he and his wife are expecting a baby girl on Sept. 8. Mizzou regalia dots the walls of the incoming infant’s room, and Jamie says they even have her outfit ready for the first tailgate of the season.

“(Blogging) does eat up the activities I could be doing with the wife or the pets,” Bill says. “Introduce a baby into the mix this fall, and something’s got to give.”

Rosner speculates that Bill will have plenty to juggle. “He’s only going to be able to feed the kid with one hand and type with the other so much before one of the hands is going to get tired,” he says, laughing.

Despite the long hours, early mornings and incessant posting, Connelly says he hasn’t exhausted his patience. It took baseball statistician Bill James nearly a decade for recognition. With the expediency and accessibility of the Internet, perhaps Bill’s recognition is coming in time. Football just has to catch up.

“I like exploring exactly why I do love this and why I haven’t burned out yet,” he says. “I ask myself: ‘Why do I like this game?’ I’m discovering that answer every day.”

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