Predicting the NFL's Future

Predicting the NFL’s Future

ISE’s Will Burton travels to Super Bowl 50 to talk with a national audience about his statistical model that predicts NFL plays with shocking accuracy

The 2014 Super Bowl ended on one of the most controversial plays in NFL history. Well, at least according to armchair quarterbacks around the world. You may recall the Seattle Seahawks marched down to New England’s one yard line with only seconds remaining. With one of the best power running backs in the game, Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks were sure to give him the ball and let him hammer his way into the end zone.

To almost everyone’s surprise, they threw the ball. The Patriots intercepted it and won the Super Bowl. One person not surprised was ISE’s senior Will Burton. How did Burton know? His model told him.

Burton, along with another NC State student Michael Dickey, developed a simulation model that predicts whether an NFL team will run or pass with surprising accuracy.

“We were interested in building something we could use during a game,” Burton explained. “We wanted to see if we could predict the next play.”

The model factors in many of the stats the average armchair QB might expect, like down and distance to go, time on the clock, point differential and turnovers. Burton believes those are the right mix of stats combined with historical data that has made his model so accurate. How accurate? It predicts run or pass correctly about 75 percent of the time. In some games last year, the model got it right over 90 percent of the time. “The model was built for general consumption,” Burton said. “If it was built for a specific team, I could get a lot more accurate.”

Burton’s model was impressive enough to get him an invitation to the 2015 Joint Statistical Meetings in Seattle last fall and then onto Media Row at Super Bowl 50 this February.

“We were looking for an analytical project last summer,” Will told the Adam and Joe Show. “We looked through all the possibilities and thought ‘Football: Pass or Run’ would be a cool thing.”

One of the exciting ideas Burton discussed was the possibility of using his algorithm to enhance TV’s coverage of games much like professional poker. “It would be a cool add-on,” Burton continued. “Imagine if they could tell viewers there was a 70 percent chance the next play was a run?”

Just before the Super Bowl this February, Burton’s model was featured in a Sports Illustrated article. He continued his media rounds during Super Bowl week which included several interviews with national sports outlets like CBS Sports Radio. He also made some new friends along the way like Betty Cantrell, the reigning Miss America.

So of course, everyone wanted a prediction for this year’s big game. “If the Panthers get the ball, they are going to start out with a run,” predicted Burton. “If the Broncos get the ball, they are going to start out with a pass.” The Broncos received the opening kick-off and they started out with … A PASS.

Watch Burton’s trip to the Super Bowl