After three NFL seasons of kicking off from the 35-yard line, what has been the impact on touchbacks, returns, field position, scoring and injuries? Also, is this rule responsible for a record number of big comebacks?
07 Jan 2009
by Bill Connelly
Thanks for coming, Utah. You made a great case for yourself. Congrats, Texas, on winning 12 games and your coach's own first-place vote. You looked great, USC, you really did. You came oh, so close. But step aside, everybody, because no matter where your own personal feelings and preferences lie, your national champion will be the winner of Thursday night's Melee in Miami, featuring two Heisman winners, two of the fastest teams in the country, and most importantly, the two highest-ranked teams in the BCS standings.
Yes, a playoff is probably needed, and yes, this would be a perfect year to experiment with such a thing, being that so many different teams have looked so good at such random times. But it's not going to happen. The two teams who have looked the most consistently good over the last two months are going to fight it out in Florida -- honestly, nobody could have responded any better to disappointing losses better than the Sooners and Gators did -- and it's probably going to be a darn good game.
And what better way to prepare for such a game than by inundating yourself in Varsity Numbers stats for the last time of the 2008 season?
Most of the numbers below are explained in either the Football Outsiders glossary or previous VN columns.
|Field Position %||57.3%||42.7%||60.4%||39.6%|
Looking at differentials, these teams are almost even. In Close-Game S&P, Oklahoma is +0.434; Florida is +0.444. Both teams are near identical in Leverage Rate Differential (forcing teams into passing downs and staying out of them yourself), though OU has a slight advantage (+7.1 percent to +5.7 percent). Both teams have blown out their opponents at almost the same rate. In fact, both teams have exactly the same overall offensive S&P (though OU's Close-Game S&P has been a few steps better).
In fact, you really cannot discern an advantage for either team from these initial stats, at least not without revealing some built in pro-SEC or pro-Big 12 biases.
|Total Turnover Points||63.01||181.54||40.40||159.82|
|T/O Points Margin Per Game||+9.12||+9.19|
Oklahoma has fumbled 13 times on offense and recovered 11 of those fumbles -- needless to say, that's highly disproportionate. Overall, though, they have only recovered 26 of 48 fumbles on the season. Florida has recovered 20 of a combined 35 fumbles. Both have gotten slightly fortuitous bounces on loose balls, but the big story in this realm has been the ridiculously small number of interceptions they have both thrown. In 476 attempts, Oklahoma has thrown only seven picks (1.5 percent); Sam Bradford has thrown six picks in 442 attempts (1.4 percent). Meanwhile, Florida has thrown just three interceptions this year in 299 passes (1.0 percent). Tim Tebow is responsible for just two of those in 268 attempts (0.7 percent). Neither of these quarterbacks make mistakes with the ball, and neither team lays the ball down with any regularity. Florida is a little looser with the ball, but they make up for that by forcing more (and more valuable) takeaways. In other words, turnovers could be absolutely huge in this game. Neither team has a talent advantage significant enough to overcome a hefty turnover points margin, and whoever wins this battle -- as is usually the case -- likely wins the game.
Here's where the detail gets a little more intricate, and the likely flow of the game reveals itself.
|Non-Passing Downs and Passing Downs|
Is a given team run-first or pass-first? One of the best ways to tell is looking at teams' run rates on non-passing downs. Looking at opponents' run rates reveal how teams most like to attack the given team's defense. In this case, both Florida and Oklahoma are very much run-first teams. That might surprise some -- particularly those who have taken a gander at Sam Bradford's passing numbers -- but it's true. With a running game that grinds more than it explodes, Oklahoma demands that you defend the run. And then when you do, Jermaine Gresham is suddenly (and repeatedly) wide-open.
Against Florida, teams tend to try to keep it on the ground. Whether that is because they want to exploit a weakness or simply try to run the clock and keep the ball out of Florida's hands, you decide.
The other thing to note about the non-passing downs stats is that while both teams hold opponents to low success rates, OU is much more susceptible to a big play. This is likely due to a few main causes:
1) OU was struggling to find a competent middle linebacker for a good portion of the season after Ryan Reynolds got hurt (they replaced him at times with uber-safety Nic Harris, meaning you had a guy with no MLB experience at MLB, plus you no longer had Nic Harris in the secondary),
2) OU played Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Missouri, big-play offenses all, and
3) Florida's PPP in non-passing downs was just about the best among BCS teams, trailing only USC (0.19), Penn State (0.23), and Alabama (0.23).
Meanwhile, regarding passing downs, if you are looking for one main reason why Sam Bradford won the Heisman, check out OU's numbers in this category -- they were almost as dangerous in passing downs as in non-passing downs. Earlier in the season, I mentioned that disproportionately high success on passing downs could be a foreboding sign of things to come. If I'm an OU fan, I'd be a little concerned that five weeks off could have done some damage to the ridiculous rhythm in which OU found itself by the end of the season. They were absolutely automatic on third downs, whether third-and-3 or third-and-10, and if Florida slows them down in this regard, they could be well on their way to their second national title in three years.
Not a lot to report here. Both the Florida offense and Oklahoma defense are best on first downs (suggesting an interesting Immovable Object v. Irresistible Force matchup there) while the Florida defense and Oklahoma offense were best on third downs (ditto).
This game could be decided by who wins the first quarter. Among BCS-conference teams, Oklahoma has the No. 1 first-quarter offense. They completely blitz their opponents during the "scripted playbook" portion of the game, then rely on a defense's exhaustion to open things up later on. The thing is, Florida is No. 3 among BCS schools.
And on defense, OU is No. 1 among BCS schools in the first quarter, and Florida is No. 2. Something's really gotta give.
|In the Red Zone|
Yet again, these two teams are near the top here. OU has the No. 1 red zone offense in the (BCS-level) country, while Florida is No. 3, between Texas and Missouri. Defensively, however, Florida has an edge. They are solid at red zone defense (No. 9 among BCS schools), but OU is rather mediocre.
Both teams like to establish the run. Which team is more likely to succeed?
|Success Rate||PPP||S&P||Line Yards/carry||2ndPPP||3rdPPP||Conference Rank|
|Oklahoma Rush Offense||48.8%||0.40||0.889||3.29||0.42||0.21||6|
|Florida Rush Defense||42.1%||0.23||0.649||2.89||0.22||-0.02||6|
As mentioned earlier, OU does not have an explosive running game. Their goal within their hurry-up offense is to use the run as a body blow, wearing the opponent down and making them more susceptible to the pass. In this regard, they really might not miss DeMarco Murray too much. Here are OU's close-game rushing statistics:
Murray is steady and established, while Madu is clearly new to the big stage (though he did perform well against Mizzou, who among all their defensive problems, had a very solid run defense). But if he can provide any sort of outside running threat to go with the underrated Brown's hard-charging runs between the tackles, OU's rushing offense should still have the desired effect.
|Success Rate||PPP||S&P||Line Yards/carry||2ndPPP||3rdPPP||Conference Rank|
|Florida Rush Offense||54.3%||0.49||1.029||3.47||0.51||0.29||1|
|Oklahoma Rush Defense||39.8%||0.28||0.675||2.60||0.29||0.04||3|
Both teams run a lot, obviously, but they could not be more different in how they choose to do it. While Sam Bradford had 8.4 percent of his team's close-game carries, Tim Tebow had 39.6 percent of his team's. He didn't get quite as much wear-and-tear on his legs this year -- freshman Jeffery Demps, junior Percy Harvin, and redshirt freshman Chris Rainey all put together valuable carries -- but he is still the workhorse.
And hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? Here's a look at Florida's main close-game rushers:
It is pretty clear what kind of weapon Percy Harvin can be when he's healthy. He is more important to the Gator attack than DeMarco Murray is to Oklahoma's, but he is going to play -- Murray is not.
Demps and Rainey are serviceable running backs, and as mentioned earlier, they can take some of the pounding away from Tebow, but what clearly works best is Tebow between the tackles and Harvin on the motion, sweeps and end-arounds.
Meanwhile, OU's rush defense took a hit with the loss of Ryan Reynolds, but they have stabilized in that department in recent weeks. Never underestimate how much the loss of Reynolds impacted OU in the loss to Texas. Before he got hurt, Texas' running game was nonexistent. After the injury, Chris Ogbonnaya was able to take advantage of Reynolds' consistently out-of-place replacement, and Texas was unstoppable in the second half.
|Success Rate||PPP||S&P||Sack Rate||2ndPPP||3rdPPP||Conference Rank|
|Oklahoma Pass Offense||55.7%||0.68||1.240||2.3%||0.71||0.55||1|
|Florida Pass Defense||33.0%||0.26||0.594||7.2%||0.09||-0.06||2|
Really, Florida's pass defense numbers are just outstanding. Only one-third of their opponent's passes result in successful plays, and even when they do they still don't really go anywhere. Florida attacks and tackles extraordinarily well. They will obviously be tested by OU's diverse, talented corps of receivers.
Honestly, the most important person Florida needs to stop could be Juaquin Iglesias. Iglesias is shifty and quick, and it's almost impossible to get a hand on him in the open field. Florida can possibly have success by keeping the Sooners in front of them and tackling well, but Iglesias (1.42 3rdPPP) is the biggest yards-after-catch threat the Sooners have. Ryan Broyles (1.01 3rdPPP) is a similar threat, but he is not quite as good or experienced.
|Success Rate||PPP||S&P||Sack Rate||2ndPPP||3rdPPP||Conference Rank|
|Florida Pass Offense||47.0%||0.62||1.091||5.1%||0.52||0.32||1|
|Oklahoma Pass Defense||37.0%||0.35||0.720||7.5%||0.22||0.01||2|
The key to Florida's passing success may be staying out of obvious passing situations as much as possible. When Oklahoma's defensive ends can pin their ears back and attack, they are as successful as any unit in the country. But if they are off-balance, they can be beaten. Therefore, the most important of Tim Tebow's receivers (other than Percy Harvin, anyway) could be senior wide-out Louis Murphy (81.5 percent success rate on receptions) and sophomore tight end Aaron Hernandez (70.8 percent).
In last month's "Conference Breakdowns" column, I mentioned a way to estimate a team's projected conference record:
In theory, if you know how many EqPts per game Team A averages rushing and passing, and if you know how far Team B usually holds opponents above or below their season averages, then you can come up with a figure that represents Team A's likely output against Team B, and vice versa. Throw in a home-field adjustment, and you can project likely results and therefore a team's likely record based on their (conference) season averages.
In other words, if every team played at its average level in every game (which will obviously never happen), you can project what their record likely would have been. Differences between actual and projected records could be explained by far too many variables to count -- special teams breakdowns, good or bad luck, good or bad coaching, or maybe the simple fact that some teams get much better or worse as the season progresses.
I was referencing this in regard to conference-only numbers. But in the continued absence of overall, national "+" numbers (still about two weeks away from completion), we'll do this: We'll hypothesize that the Big 12 and SEC are exactly equal in every way and look at what OU's and UF's conference-play numbers would suggest about the outcome.
The conference-play-only-and-the-two-conferences-are-equal projection is Florida 35, Oklahoma 30. Florida was slightly more dominant in the SEC than OU was in the Big 12. That's probably as good a place to start as any.
Honestly, this game likely boils down to the following factors:
A lot of folks seem to be leaning toward Florida in this one. Florida has the "SEC SPEED!!!!," Oklahoma has lost three consecutive BCS bowls, et cetera. Oklahoma, however, is just as battle-tested as Florida, and they likely have the speed to match Florida's. This should be an impressive display of athletic, precise offenses, but it does appear that Florida has the slightest of edges here. If they played 100 times, Florida might win 53 and Oklahoma 47, but in a one-game battle, give it to the Gators. Taking into account Florida's special teams advantage, and my own belief that the Big 12 was slightly better, top to bottom, than the SEC this year, we'll go with Florida 38, Oklahoma 34.
by Brian Fremeau
Bill's exhaustive Varsity Numbers breakdown covers just about every offensive and defensive split category except field position. In actuality, the offenses and defenses performed similarly from nearly every starting field position over the course of the season, but a few areas of the field may hold the key to the game.
Some of the data from these special field position situations can be explained by opponent strengths and weaknesses -- the Big 12 was better offensively and the SEC was better defensively as a conference this year. But evenly matched games like the BCS championship often hinge on turnovers and special teams play that create such situations, and neither team can afford to be significanly disadvantaged by field position. It probably won't be featured in a highlight reel, but if either team can pin the opponent deep and follow it up with a short-field touchdown, those seven points may be all it takes to take command. Florida, led by their speed on defense and special teams, is the more likely candidate to do so. FEI Forecast: Florida 35, Oklahoma 30.
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("Fred Edelstein Lock of the Week" record in parentheses)
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47 comments, Last at 09 Jan 2009, 4:38pm by notanOUfan