Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Numbers Inside the Missionary Advantage

Despite the fact that it seems to come up about every other week in the national media, the notion that BYU has players on its football team that are somewhat older than typical college athletes is not a new story. Many of their players do leave school and football behind (among other things) to spend two years at their own expense in an assigned region of the world providing service and sharing a message of faith and hope.

Both Pros and Cons
Some see this as an advantage—players return older, more physically mature, more mentally mature, and with increased discipline and focus. Others see it as a disadvantage—players return out of shape and rusty having not played football or worked out regularly for two years, players may lose their aggressive edge, and managing personnel and recruiting when losing 40+ players after every season can be a scholarship allocation and depth chart nightmare. It is often also pointed out that if it were such an advantage, then other schools would encourage their LDS athletes to serve missions (the opposite is usually true, as they are generally discouraged from serving). There is merit to the arguments on both sides, and the debate over whether having former missionaries on the team is an advantage or disadvantage will inevitably continue.

Apples and Oranges
What is nearly always missing in the debate, however, is the magnitude of the age difference, or advantage, in question. It is not uncommon for even respected national sports writers to compare an occasional 25 or 26 year old player on BYU’s roster to an 18 year old true freshman on the opposing team. Obviously that is a mismatch. But the underlying question is whether that is an advantage due to the missionary program or not. Given that a mission is a maximum of two years, such comparisons are clearly inaccurate, as other factors (such as late enrollment, redshirt, or injury exceptions) available to any athlete must have led that player to be older. The maximum age advantage then could only be two years—which would be the case if every BYU football player were a returned missionary, and no players on the other team were. But this is not the case—not all BYU players are, and there are some on other teams that have served missions as well. So, with the BYU missionary data courtesy of Carey Hoki, in the BYU Football Media Relations Office, we will take a look at the actual age difference of BYU players versus each of the teams BYU plays this season.

A few assumptions used and how they impact the analysis:
  1. Assume that all players having served a mission are two years older than they would otherwise be. Conservative—although two years is the expected duration, we know that some missionaries return home for various reasons prior to two years.
  2. No players on other teams have served missions. Conservative—there are a number of return missionaries on other teams, most notably Utah and Utah State.
  3. Redshirt years will not be considered, since that is an option available to all players at all schools and unrelated to missionary service. Although it is possible that BYU redshirts more of its players than others, since they are often not in game shape upon returning from two years off, any age difference due to redshirting cannot be attributed to missionary service. Neutral.
  4. Average assumed age of all non-missionary players (for BYU and opponents) is 18.5 (Fr), 19.5 (So), 20.5 (Jr), 21.5 (Sr). Any other age differences are due to other factors. Neutral.
  5. No other player delays are considered (such as military service, peace corp, delayed entrance, etc.). Conservative—there are other players in other programs that also delay their athletic careers to participate in something else for a time, extending their eligibility.
  6. Class mix impacts the average age of a team and varies from program to program. We assume that the average collective class mix of the teams that BYU plays (a roughly 10% sample) is typical of all college football teams. Neutral.
  7. Some teams may lose more than the average number of players to the NFL early, reducing the number of seniors on the team. This will not be considered in this analysis. Neutral.
  8. Fall camp rosters have been used for each team. There have obviously been changes due to injury and attrition since these were released, but it is assumed that such circumstances affect each team equally. Air Force has been excluded because it does not include freshmen on it preseason roster. Neutral.
  9. This looks at the entire roster, not just the starters or two deep. Neutral to slightly aggressive. This assumes that the percentage of starters that have been on missions is the same as the roster as a whole, which is close, but not exact. It looks like 13-14 players will start that have been on missions (59% compared to overall average of 56%).
The Relevant Difference
Based on the typical class mix, and given the assumptions above, the average age of a college football player is 19.71 years. Without considering missions, and given BYU’s current class mix, the average age of BYU’s players would also be 19.71 years. Of the 106 players on BYU’s roster in fall camp, 59 of them spent time as a missionary (55.7%). When considering the additional two years in age for those players, BYU’s average age is 20.82 years. The difference then, and only relevant number to the missionary debate is 1.11 years. Whenever comparisons are made or debates are had, as a team, BYU is only an average of 1.11 years older than a player of similar class on the other team.

                                            Fr          So          Jr         Sr      Total
Average Age (US)                18.5      19.5       20.5      21.5
Class Mix (US)                    37.6%    22.1%    21.7%    18.5%
Weighted Ave Age (US)                                                          19.71

BYU Players by Class            37          30         19           20         106
Class Mix (BYU)                  34.9%    28.3%    17.9%     18.9%
BYU Ave Age w/o Mission  18.5        19.5      20.5        21.5      19.71

BYU Former Missionaries     13          19         11           16          59
Percent of BYU Class          35.1%    63.3%   57.9%     80.0%       55.7%
BYU Ave Age w/ Mission    19.2       20.8       21.7       23.1      20.82
Actual Age Difference (yrs)  0.70     1.27       1.16       1.60        1.11

Against the Schedule

Here is how the age of BYU players stacks up against each of the opponents this season. The only difference here, being the class mix—some teams are heavy on upperclassmen and others have a disproportionate number of freshmen. BYU’s players range from being 0.97 years older than UNLV (52% juniors and seniors) to being 1.27 years older than Colorado State (45% freshmen).

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