"Last team with the ball wins" is a cliche, but sometimes cliches are the best way to get across the central narrative of an important game. If you like great quarterback play, you have to watch the NFC Championship Game.
11 Dec 2009
by Bill Connelly
I knew the Tebow Hate had gone to a new level when my wife giddily became a fan of "Tim Tebow Crying" on Facebook. This is an interesting world in which we live.
We are going with two VN Box Scores this week, and you can probably guess which two they are. That's right, the two games that served as national semifinals last week -- Alabama-Florida and Nebraska-Texas (in which Nebraska served as a surrogate for Cincinnati/TCU).
Last weekend's SEC title game was the ultimate example of when we say "If these two teams played ten times ..." To me, there was not a lot of difference in terms of athleticism or talent, but Alabama had an absolutely fantastic game plan, and they out-executed Florida. If they were to play again this weekend, the same game plan wouldn't work, and Florida might strike back. But this is college football, not baseball. It's a one-shot deal, and Nick Saban absolutely coached laps around Urban Meyer.
(Speaking of which ... why, oh why, did Urban Meyer give up on the run so quickly?)
Saban really has done an outstanding job this year, taking a team mixed with recognizable veterans and insanely talented, precocious youth and making them a fast and mean team capable of beating you with both offense (as they did Saturday) and defense (as they did most of the year). People are assuming Alabama will win the national title after they played their best game of the year and Texas laid an absolute stink bomb, but, again, we worship a sport reliant on one-shot deals. It only takes one game for Texas to steal the Tide's thunder.
|Field Position %||49.3%||34.7%|
|Close Success Rate||57.1%||38.2%|
|Close Success Rate||59.5%||53.9%|
|Close Success Rate||52.6%||28.6%|
|SD/PD Sack Rate
||0.0% / 20.0%||0.0% / 0.0%|
|Turnover Pts Margin
|1st Down S&P||1.228||0.862|
|2nd Down S&P||0.569||0.762|
|3rd Down S&P||1.089||0.564|
|Projected Pt. Margin
|Actual Pt. Margin
While Florida's offensive numbers were average at best, this game was clearly decided by Alabama's suddenly unstoppable offense. When considering that the only teams to give up more EqPts to Alabama than Florida were Florida International, North Texas and Chattanooga, it is beyond fair to assume that Saban and crew were saving up quite a few tricks for the biggest game on the schedule, probably even before it officially became a game on the schedule. Of course, leaving things in the bag of tricks can backfire when you almost lose to Auburn and Tennessee along the way, but all's well that ends well.
Looking at the per-quarter breakdown, it's easy to tell when this game was won. After a tough first quarter, Florida fought back to within 19-13 at halftime. At this point, games can turn in two different ways. When Team A reaches halftime thinking, "We're lucky to be this close," either Team B puts things away easily in the second half, or Team A takes advantage of its second life and wins via second half surge. Alabama-Florida was certainly the former scenario. Florida ran eight plays for 21 yards in the third quarter, while Alabama went on an epic, game-clinching third-quarter drive to put the game away.
On a side note, one day I will discover the mystery of second down. In so many games, you see teams with great first and/or third down success, but minimal success on second down (or, vice versa). Is it the same sort of "leaving things in the bag of tricks" phenomenon, where you are saving the plays you definitely think will work until third downs, when you absolutely need them?
I think Texas is an outstanding football team, but when the replay officials were reviewing whether there was either one or zero seconds left in the Big 12 title game, I was very strongly hoping the referee would put down the headphones and announce, "After further review, neither of these teams deserves to win this game. It's a tie. Everybody go home." Surely I was not the only one.
|Field Position %||41.8%||37.8%|
|Close Success Rate||20.0%||28.4%|
|Close Success Rate||23.5%||31.0%|
|Close Success Rate||14.3%||26.7%|
|SD/PD Sack Rate
||0.0% / 7.1%||22.7% / 17.4%|
|Turnover Pts Margin
|1st Down S&P||0.332||0.416|
|2nd Down S&P||0.198||0.377|
|3rd Down S&P||0.111||0.259|
|Projected Pt. Margin
|Actual Pt. Margin
Take heed, Nebraska fans. Your team was not alone in passing for a negative EqPt total this season. In all, it happened to FBS offenses 24 times this season, and NU's horrendous -1.4 point total was not even in the top, er, bottom five.
Worst Ten FCS Passing Games of the Season, 2009
1. UTEP (vs Texas), -4.7
2. Ball State (vs Eastern Michigan), -2.8
3. Illinois (vs Ohio State), -2.0
4. Washington State (vs Oregon), -1.7
5. New Mexico State (vs Louisiana Tech), -1.6
6. Nebraska (vs Texas), -1.4
7. Boston College (vs North Carolina), -1.0
8. Boston College (vs Clemson), -0.8
9. Tulane (vs UCF), -0.7
10. Air Force (vs Wyoming), -0.6
Meanwhile, Texas has faced two of the country's top four defenses in terms of Defensive S&P+, second-ranked Oklahoma and fourth-ranked Nebraska. Their combined output? A whopping 29 points, 471 yards (311 passing yards, 55 percent completion rate, 4.1 yards per pass, one touchdown pass and four interceptions from Heisman Finalist Colt McCoy), six turnovers, and two wins saved by a dominant Texas defense. The good news: Texas did indeed win these games, and their seventh-ranked defense rose to the occasion each time. The bad news: Alabama's defense is ranked first in the country, ahead of both Oklahoma's and Nebraska's. We will get into how Alabama's defense differs from that of Nebraska and Oklahoma later; for now, Texas is indeed resting most of its title hopes on "Hey, we just have to better than them once."
The last five seasons have set a really high standard for the level of performance required to win the Heisman Trophy. Matt Leinart (2004), Tim Tebow (2007) and Sam Bradford (2008) have set a really high bar for quarterbacks, while the current standard for running backs is Reggie Bush (2005).
As we prepare for tomorrow night's Heisman ceremony, it appears that three players are in a tight race to become the 2009 winner: Alabama's Mark Ingram, Stanford's Toby Gerhart, and Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh.
So here's my honest question: do either Mark Ingram or Toby Gerhart reach the "transcendent player" bar set by Bush, much less Leinart or 2007 Tebow? More importantly, do they reach the bar of two players who didn't win the Heisman, Adrian Peterson and Vince Young?
By all means, Ingram has been great this year, coming off of a solid-not-spectacular freshman season to carry the offense to a national title game. His 182 combined rushing and receiving yards in the SEC Championship were outstanding, as were his 174 combined yards against LSU and 269 yards against South Carolina. He really is a good back who deserves All-America status and an distinction of a Heisman finalist.
Meanwhile, Gerhart has been staggeringly consistent, rushing for at least 110 yards in ten of 12 games this season. More impressively, he improved in November. After averaging more than five yards per carry just twice in the first eight games, his last four games have seen averages of 5.9, 6.1, 6.8 and 7.1. Again, he is very much deserving of All-America status and a trip to New York despite the fact that he has only been truly great for about half of the season.
But here's the deal. If we are trying to set the bar as high as humanly possible, there is only one possible winner of this year's Heisman, and if you watched even a single Nebraska game this season, you know who that is. For the second straight year, Ndamukong Suh led Nebraska's defense in tackles. He finished seventh in the country in total tackles for loss. That would be good for a linebacker and very good for a defensive end. He is a defensive tackle.
On a ridiculously rainy Thursday night in Columbia, Suh almost single-handedly won the Big 12 North for Nebraska against Missouri by intercepting a pass, forcing a fumble, registering a sack (one that injured Blaine Gabbert's ankle and severely limited offense for the rest of the night) and drawing at least three drive-killing holding penalties in a 27-12 Nebraska win that made the difference in the North race.
And on a Saturday night when Texas expected to waltz into the title game as double-digit favorites, Suh almost single-handedly won it for Nebraska. Against one of the better offensive lines he faced all season, Suh made 10 solo tackles, seven for loss, with 4.5 sacks and two more quarterback hurries. It was the most dominant individual defensive performance of the season.
(In fact, if he had come up with one fewer hurry -- if he hadn't pressured Colt McCoy into throwing the ball away earlier than he appeared to intend on the game's second-to-last play, allowing the ball to eventually hit the ground with a second left -- Nebraska would have won.)
Unfortunately, I doubt Suh has much of a chance of finishing higher than third in the Heisman vote, even though just about every pundit acknowledges that he is the best player in college football. He put together a good linebacker's stats from the tackle position, but Nebraska's offense probably cost him some serious voter momentum by pulling a disappearing act in losses to Texas Tech and Iowa State. If Nebraska had won those games and ranked in the top 10 heading into the Big 12 title game, he may have had enough juice to get it done
Or not. He's a defensive tackle, and as we've all learned from the Heisman process, aside from the rarest circumstances, you apparently cannot be the best player in the country unless you are a quarterback or running back. So instead, he will likely finish third behind two rock-solid-but-not-world-beating running backs. Suh is the best playmaker I have ever seen from the defensive tackle position, and it is a shame that he will likely fall short of what would be a transcendent moment for the Heisman Trophy.
This is neither here nor there, but considering Football Outsiders takes a look at recovered fumbles, accounting for disproportionately high or low totals, when gauging a pro team's true performance, I thought it would be interesting to do the same at the college level. Below are 2009's best and worst teams in terms of fumble recoveries. I bet the team in the 120th slot will surprise you.
|Top Ten, Fumble Recovery Percentage|
Vanderbilt finished 2-10 despite recovering the country's highest percentage of fumbles. In other words, it could have been even worse. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech's Orange Bowl season could have turned out much differently if they had recovered closer to 50 percent of the fumbles in their games.
|Bottom Ten, Fumble Recovery Percentage|
Florida, Iowa and, to a lesser extent, Clemson and West Virginia, all had solid seasons despite horrible luck in the recoveries department, and despite the departure of some pretty big stars. All four might have a softer-than-expected landing next season if their luck turns around.
As always, you can find the latest iteration of the S&P+ rankings updated weekly on Football Outsiders.
We will cover the ups and downs of the regular season's final weekend in a moment. First, here is the final regular season edition of the F/+ rankings, the combination of FEI and S&P+.
|F/+ Top 25 (After Regular Season)|
|5||Virginia Tech (9-3)||+24.5%||250.1||7||0.240||5|
|7||Penn State (10-2)||+21.9%||251.4||5||0.181||16|
|8||Ohio State (10-2)||+21.3%||244.0||9||0.207||9|
|F/+ Top 25 (After Regular Season)|
|12||Boise State (13-0)||+18.5%||238.2||11||0.179||18|
|16||Georgia Tech (11-2)||+15.9%||218.1||29||0.228||7|
|F/+ Top 25 (After Regular Season)|
|22||Texas Tech (8-4)||+13.3%||223.1||24||0.150||21|
Both sets of rankings kept Florida in the top two, which is not really surprising considering their only loss was to the top-ranked team. Meanwhile, it is probably worth mentioning that TCU (third) finished ahead of both Texas (fourth) and Cincinnati (10th). It really is a shame that they had this breakthrough year with two undefeated teams in the title game.
We still had some decent movers this week despite a low number of games.
East Carolina (9 spots, from 63rd to 54th). The numbers have not been high on East Carolina all season, but Skip Holtz's Pirates looked very good in upsetting Houston for their second straight Conference USA title, and the ratings reflect that.
Washington (8 spots, from 81st to 73rd). I did not get one second of the Washington-California game where I live, so I don't know if the surprising 42-10 Huskies win was due more to Washington playing well or California laying another egg, but the ratings seem to suggest it was a little of both.
Rutgers (7 spots, from 94th to 87th). If you can explain this one, let me know.
Illinois (7 spots, from 74th to 67th). The Illini all but beat (and I mean, all but beat) a Fresno State team ranked 19 spots ahead of them last week, so they got a boost despite the ridiculous, heart-breaking loss.
California (18 spots, from 47th to 65th). Washington went up eight spots and California fell 18. Guess that means the strange result was two parts Cal, one part Washington.
Fresno State (7 spots, from 55th to 62nd). See above.
UNLV (6 spots, from 78th to 84th). See Rutgers.
Florida State (5 spots, from 35th to 40th). A Bobby Bowden retirement bump?
To ESPN, for updating and re-running this outstanding Mark Herzlich video during last night's otherwise iffy college football awards show. I feel like Tom Rinaldi's job at ESPN is to try to make people like me cry, week in and week out. Usually it fails miserably because I'm stubborn, but this story really got to me, as did the cut to a teary-eyed Herzlich and his family after the video ended.
Since our elected representatives have the time in their busy schedule to legislate a football playoff to happen, I'd like to start another movement for Congress to adopt -- outlawing the re-writing of Christmas songs for commercial purposes. There are millions of them right now, but if I see the singing Best Buy gift advice commercials (you know them if you've seen them) one more time, I am going to commit a crime. Or just boycott Best Buy. And it is only December 11.
The end-of-season trip to Hawaii. It is like a rite of passage for BCS conference teams, mostly from the Midwest. In the last 20 years, the following teams have ended their regular season with a trip to Honolulu to play the Angry Rainbows: Alabama (twice), California, Cincinnati, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri, Northwestern, Notre Dame (twice), Oklahoma State, Oregon State (twice), Pittsburgh, Washington, Washington State, and Wisconsin (four times!). Really, it is a win-win scenario. You get an extra regular season game for making the trip, you get an excuse to go to Hawaii as the weather is starting to turn awfully nippy, and you'll often even win the game. Early-December trips to Hawaii are to college football what Thanksgiving Day games are to the NFL, only you'll actually occasionally get a fun game to watch!
Another list with a theme that is beyond predictable.
"All I Need is a Holiday" by Fighting Gravity
"Happy Holidays, Pt. 1" by Ohio Players
"Holiday" by Weezer
"Holiday in Cambodia" by Dead Kennedys
"Holiday in New York" by The Ike Reilly Assassination
"Holiday in Spain" by Counting Crows
"Holidays in the Sun" by Sex Pistols
"The Holiday Song" by Pixies
"One Big Holiday" by My Morning Jacket
"Waiting" by D.W. Holiday
All three of last week's upset picks were rather entertaining, tight games. Unfortunately, only one resulted in an actual upset, so the regular season ends with a 1-2 week.
Army over Navy. S&P+ Projection: Navy by 21 | Spread: Navy -14
This in no way shapes up as an upset, but it is the only game on the docket. It does bear mentioning, however, that Army is one upset away from its first bowl bid since the 1996 Independence Bowl, a 32-29 loss to Auburn. If Army wins, they get an automatic bid to the EagleBank Bowl in Washington, D.C., a bid that UCLA will take if Navy wins. Yes, UCLA is officially fighting with Army for the final bowl bid. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that hasn't happened before.
I should probably close with a quick comment about Notre Dame's new head coach, Brian Kelly. I like this hire a lot. While rumors about Bob Stoops and Urban Meyer never really got off the ground (that's the problem with unfounded rumors -- eventually they run into the problem of not actually being based on facts), Kelly seemed to be Notre Dame's No. 1 target from the beginning. I asked a couple of weeks ago whether firing Charlie Weis was actually worth it, and unless they landed a big-time guy, I think it would have made just as much sense to keep Weis around for one more season. But Kelly is not only a good coach, he also doesn't take long to win games with another coach's players. He took over a 3-9 Central Michigan squad in 2004 and, after a 4-7 debut, led the Chippewas to their first winning record of the decade in 2005, then a conference title in 2006. He jumped to Cincinnati in 2007, and improved an 8-5 squad by two wins (10-3) his first year, then another win (11-3, Big East champions) in 2008. He lost almost his entire defense ... and went 12-0 in 2009. He appears to be the real deal, and between Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and his national title tenure at Grand Valley State, he also appears to have laid some major Midwestern roots. I've never been much of a Notre Dame fan, and I am already dreading having to listen to Lou Holtz once again predict them to go 11-1 next August (it's an annual tradition, followed by the annual point-and-laugh re-watching of the segment on YouTube in November), but there is no questioning that this is a pretty good hire.
20 comments, Last at 17 Dec 2009, 10:41pm by Bill Connelly