Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
30 Oct 2009
by Bill Connelly
Fitting for Halloween, this week's big matchups all come out after dark. We've got undercard matchups like Cincinnati-Syracuse (we've got the feeling this one will be close for no apparent reason) and Ole Miss-Auburn at noon, and The Event Formerly Known as the World's Largest Cocktail Party in mid-afternoon, but it's all just a lead-up to the week's biggest games, Oklahoma State-Texas (projection: Texas by 5.9) and USC-Oregon (projection below).
But as always, before we dive into this week, let's take one more look at last week.
For the most part, we will try to bounce around from conference to conference for the VN Box Score of the Week, or at least from division to division. But in following up Colorado's weird victory over Kansas last week, we had no choice but to take a look at Iowa State's downright insane 9-7 win over Nebraska, for very obvious reasons.
Nebraska: eight turnovers, seven points ... and a two-point loss.
|Field Position %||16.4%||46.2%|
|Close Success Rate||28.4%||41.5%|
|Close Success Rate||29.8%||44.4%|
|Close Success Rate||25.0%||39.5%|
|SD/PD Sack Rate
||0.0% / 9.1%||0.0% / 6.3%|
|Turnover Pts Margin
|1st Down S&P||0.542||0.548|
|2nd Down S&P||0.340||0.488|
|3rd Down S&P||0.357||0.541|
|Projected Pt. Margin
|Actual Pt. Margin
This game was strange in too many ways to fathom. Nebraska turned the ball over four times inside Iowa State's five and were outgained overall in terms of EqPts, and their projected margin of defeat was almost 40 points. And they lost by two. If they had managed just seven turnovers and a Turnover Points Margin in the low-30s, they very well might have won the game. Through three quarters, Nebraska had managed 327 yards, and the only thing preventing them from blowing the Cyclones out were their five turnovers. But when it was time to suck it up and make a play in the fourth quarter, Nebraska imploded. Their last four drives produced this:
Rushing: 3 carries, -4 yards
Passing (including sacks): 3-for-10, 33 yards, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble, six consecutive incompletions/interceptions to end the game
Unlike the Virginia Tech loss (a last-second loss on the road to a good team) and the Texas Tech loss (a bit of a hangover loss in which Tech got every conceivable lucky bounce), this one might sting Nebraska for a while. Fans often say "We handed them the game," and usually it is an exaggeration. This time, Nebraska almost literally handed Iowa State the game.
Because of this and Kansas' loss to Colorado, the idea of upper (Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri) and lower (Kansas State, Iowa State, Colorado) tiers in the Big 12 North has been blown out of the water. However, in both of the North's big upsets, turnovers played huge roles. Kansas handed Colorado 14 points on turnovers recovered or returned inside KU's 5; meanwhile, Nebraska took at least 14-21 points off of their own scoreboard with their turnovers deep in ISU territory. It took a lot for these two teams to lose these games, but lose them they did, and they have both given up control of the division, at least for a small while. The odds are still in favor of one of those three teams winning the North, but odds haven't meant a whole lot so far.
Tada! The moment we've waited for is finally here. Up-to-date S&P+ rankings can now be found on Football Outsiders each week. You can see the ratings for all 120 FBS teams as well as offensive and defensive ratings, with splits for rushing vs. passing and Standard Downs vs. Passing Downs.
When you click on that link, you will see that, indeed, two teams with losing records are in the Top 10. It is no coincidence that those are also the two teams who have played both Alabama and Florida. Their ratings will fall in the next month, simply by virtue of Tennessee playing Memphis, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky, and Arkansas playing Eastern Michigan, Troy, and Mississippi State; however, this does point to an interesting conundrum in terms of week-to-week calculations for S&P+.
As I mentioned last week, I have been relatively pleased with the final calculations for the past two years. However, the schedule strength adjustments do seem to cause rather interesting headaches in the middle of a season. You see plenty of teams ranked here simply because of the teams they have played, and thanks to the trickle-down effect -- Alabama and Florida are the top two teams, Arkansas and Tennessee have played both of them, and others have played Arkansas and Tennessee -- you have seven SEC teams in the S&P+ Top 25 and ten in the Top 35 (South Carolina is #29, Georgia #32, and Kentucky #35). Plenty of people would see nothing wrong with that -- it is, after all, the top conference this year; however, some of the rankings are still a bit extreme and should fall over the next month.
Before complaining too much about the rankings of Tennessee and Arkansas, however, ask yourself this: what record would the teams around Tennessee and Arkansas be if they played the same schedule? Certainly UT's home losses to UCLA and Auburn were questionable, but they did also kill Georgia and hang tough against Florida and (especially) Alabama. Would Miami or TCU have done the same? Maybe, maybe not. Meanwhile, Arkansas' losses have come at Alabama, at Florida (by just three points), at Mississippi and at home against Georgia. Maybe Oklahoma or Miami would be 4-3 with that schedule instead of 3-4, but probably no better.
Speaking of Oklahoma, yes, they are ranked fourth despite three losses. They have gotten there in much the same way as Arkansas and Tennessee -- with a road loss to S&P+ No. 6 Miami (by one point) and neutral-field losses to No. 9 Texas (by three points) and No. 19 BYU (by one point). They too are probably ranked a bit too high, but only a bit.
After a relatively tame week of rises and falls, we had three teams make nice surges this week.
Mississippi State (26 spots, 102nd to 76th). Granted, the only offense they generated was through pick sixes, but the Bulldogs defense played its best game of the year (not surprising, since their head coach used to be Tim Tebow's offensive coordinator), and they moved up a lovely 26 spots thanks to both performance and strength-of-schedule adjustment.
Air Force (24 spots, from 91st to 67th). Play-by-play numbers do not seem to care much for grind-it-out running teams like Air Force and Georgia Tech (which we will get to below). The Falcons were ranked in the nation's bottom quartile until last week's respectable showing against Utah. They have now lost by a total of just ten points to TCU and Utah.
Iowa State (20 spots, from 83rd to 63rd). Nebraska's ranking did not suffer too much due to the loss to Iowa State (turnovers are taken into account in the ratings, but not too much, at least not yet)
Pittsburgh (13 spots, from 74th to 61st) and West Virginia (13 spots, from 64th to 51st). The S&P+ is clearly unimpressed with the Big East overall and has been slow to come around on both of these one-loss teams. But after Pittsburgh demolished South Florida and West Virginia knocked off S&P+ darling Connecticut, the rankings responded a bit. They are probably both ranked too low, but we will see what happens when these two teams and Cincinnati start beating each other up.
Other notable rises: Ole Miss (36th to 24th), Texas A&M (54th to 42nd), Bowling Green (82nd to 70th), UTEP (89th to 77th).
Washington State (15 spots, from 99th to 114th). The Cougars have been outscored 155-43 over the last four weeks, and any sign of slight improvement from the season's early games has begun to subside. There is at least a little bit of hope for the future in the form of freshman quarterback Jeff Tuel, but not in 2009.
Texas Tech (11 spots, from 41st to 52nd). Figure out Texas Tech and Texas A&M, we dare you. The transitive property suffered an epic breakdown this week, as A&M (who lost to Kansas State by 48) easily handled Tech (who beat Kansas State by 52) in Lubbock.
Georgia (10 spots, from 22nd to 32nd). The Bulldogs handled Vanderbilt easily, but it appears their ranking suffered just for playing the Commodores in the first place.
N.C. State (9 spots, from 78th to 87th). The Wolfpack got a week off after giving up 101 points combined to Boston College and Duke the previous two weeks, but their ranking fell as they apparently allowed 450 yards and 40 points to Bye.
Other notable falls: Ohio (84th to 101st), Akron (85th to 102nd), Northern Illinois (52nd to 65th), Toledo (70th to 82nd), UL-Monroe (65th to 75th), Southern Miss (62nd to 72nd).
Featured inside this year's Football Outsiders Almanac was a combination FEI and S&P+ rankings called F/+. Now that S&P+ is updated weekly on the site, it might be a good idea to get this one going too. Here are updated F/+ ratings after eight weeks.
|F/+ Top 25 (After Eight Weeks)|
|F/+ Rk||Team||Record||FEI Rk||S&P+ Rk||Off F/+
|F/+ Rk||Team||Record||FEI Rk||S&P+ Rk||Off F/+
|F/+ Rk||Team||Record||FEI Rk||S&P+ Rk||Off F/+
One major offseason project will be to take a look at some of the most notable disagreements between FEI and S&P+ (Georgia Tech, Arkansas, Arizona, and BYU, for instance) and drill into how there can be such a large difference between ratings based on possession data and play-by-play data.
For now, you've got an interesting set of ratings that combines each system's strengths and weaknesses. The case made above for how teams ranked around Tennessee and Arkansas would have similar records given their schedule? It's even easier to make that case when the teams are ranked 19th and 20th instead of fifth and seventh. Do you really see Wisconsin or Oregon State going better than 3-4 or 4-3 with Tennessee's or Arkansas' schedule?
Words cannot express the moving scene that preceded last week's West Virginia-Connecticut game. All of Bill Stewart's strengths as a human being were on display in his lengthy hug of Randy Edsall before the game, and the West Virginia crowd reacted to Connecticut's emergence from the tunnel in exactly the way one would hope that every fanbase in the country would react. In Morgantown on Saturday afternoon, you saw exactly why football is both a) only a game, and b) something that can be used to bring people together.
Meanwhile, a somewhat belated golf clap for Oregon, who has demonstrably turned their seasons around after the worst possible start. Seriously, the only way Oregon's season could have been any worse after one game was if LeGarrette Blount actually did make it into the stands after the game, and if the entire defensive line contracted polio. One week into his head coaching career, people were already wondering if Chip Kelly had lost his team and was doomed. One week! And now he's looking like the favorite for Pac-10 Coach of the Year.
(Of course, we should maybe hold off on the applause until after the USC game.)
A whopping three mini-rants this week!
1. Why Neuter the Computer Rankings?
A lot of people were shocked that Iowa got such a boost from the computer portion of the BCS formula, and while others have already gone into detail about why they were ranked so high, it brings to mind a rant I am almost always more than willing to make: if you are going to use computer rankings as part of your formula, let the computer rankings do what they do. When the BCS higher-ups (whoever those nameless people actually are) took scoring margin out of the equation, they completely and totally neutered their effectiveness. Not every computer rankings system takes scoring margin into account, but those that do (for instance, Jeff Sagarin's system) had to create a slightly different rankings system that removed margin from the equation.
This is insane for a number of obvious reasons. First of all, scoring margin matters. If you want to put a cap on a given game's point differential -- say, for instance, that any victory of over 24 points counts as a 24-point victory, whether it was 24 points or 66 points -- then that's fine. Oklahoma high schools have been doing that for years. One could envision a scenario where a highly-ranked team beating an opponent by only 21 points would keep their starters in for one more drive to try to get to a full, 24-point victory; but that is still a more acceptable scenario than running up a score to 50, or even 60-70 points. But Iowa is getting credit for simply beating Arkansas State and Northern Iowa, while not at all getting penalized for only beating them by a total of four points. Again, scoring margin, how badly Team A actually beat Team B -- tell a piece of the story that the BCS ratings refuse to tell. Would Iowa be as highly-ranked if their 8.9-point victory margin was taken into account? Of course not. Everything in this world is a shade of grey, and limiting the discussion to black-and-white wins and losses is simply not a great idea.
Second of all, there are hundreds of ways to create a computer rankings system (including, ahem, those you find at Football Outsiders). If you don't want Jeff Sagarin using point differential, then don't use Jeff Sagarin's system. Use only systems that use nothing but wins and losses if that's what you so choose. But don't neuter the ones you have. You chose them because, in theory, they were the best. Use them in the way they were intended, or use others that fit your qualifications.
(Note: I like Sagarin's system quite a bit, so do not in any way construe this as anti-Sagarin. I'm just making a point.)
2. Why have award watch lists and semifinalists anymore?
There was a decent amount of justifiable outrage this week when the semifinalists for the Davey O'Brien award were announced, and Florida State's Christian Ponder, among others, did not make the cut, while less stat-friendly quarterbacks like Iowa's Ricky Stanzi did. The Ponder supporters have an excellent case, but here's the deal: this is 2009. Potential voters can keep up with all 120 FBS quarterbacks pretty easily and effectively nowadays. Why in the world do we still need semifinalists? Would anybody complain if they just skipped this step (and the preseason watch list, which is an even more incredibly insane concept) and announced finalists later? Would anybody think their guy didn't get enough exposure because he didn't make the semifinals?
3. Why not have cameras directly on the goal lines at all times?
In all of the hubbub over the latest controversial call in the SEC, Dustin Doe's iffy pick six in which he may or may not have fumbled before crossing the plain of the goal line, one very important point wasn't made: if we had cameras permanently eying said goal line plain, we would know for sure when fumbles happened or if teams scored. They end up in the right place in goal-to-go situations, but not in unexpected plays like Doe's interception.
Signs, rocks, horns, gators, light switches, and all the other college touch traditions.
Also: "There are no Brett Favres in college."
And Mike Leach.
In honor of the officials and refs at the heart of seemingly every storyline this past month:
Angry People, Barenaked Ladies
Blind, Company Flow
Blinded by You, The Starlight Mints
Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker), The Who
I Got Stripes, Johnny Cash
Imagination Blind, Dinosaur Jr.
The Official, J Dilla and Madlib
Whistles in the Wind, Flogging Molly
You Turn the Screws, Cake
Your Cheatin' Heart, Hank Williams
Pulled off an 0-fer last week in the Upset Watch, which was probably as much regression to mean as anything. In four weeks of Upset Watch, we're now sitting at 7-9 straight-up, which still isn't bad, but it looks disappointing after the 6-2 start.
Auburn over Ole Miss. Spread: Auburn +3.5 | Projection: Auburn by 8.1
Recent members of the Auburn bandwagon are jumping off so fast that they are skinning their knees on the fall, but without a momentum factor, Auburn still looks to match up pretty well against an Ole Miss team that has only recently begun to look like a solid squad. How much does momentum matter? Consider that another off-season research project, but for now all we know is that Texas A&M beat Texas Tech handily last week despite the teams' momentum suggesting an easy win for Tech. That's a sample size of one game, of course, but do not overlook the Tigers simply because they have struggled. Momentum turns quickly.
Colorado State over Air Force. Spread: CSU +3.5 | Projection: CSU by 11.9
Speaking of momentum, CSU has looked positively dreadful in recent weeks, losing five in a row by mostly increasing margins. A 2-point loss to Idaho led to a respectable 7-point loss to Utah. Then came a 44-6 debacle against TCU and, the biggest kicker of all, a 42-28 home loss to San Diego State. Now CSU faces an Air Force team that has seemingly improved through losing. The Falcons have lost three of four, but the losses were to Navy, No. 10 TCU and No. 18 Utah, and all by less than a touchdown. The numbers like CSU in this one ... for some reason.
Minnesota over Michigan State. Spread: Gophers +3.5 | Projection: Gophers by 10
Two more desperate teams meet Saturday night in Minneapolis. (Really? A night game in late-October? In MInnesota's new outdoor stadium? Needless to say, the weather doesn't look promising.) These projections, of course, do not take into account the loss for the season of star Minnesota receiver Eric Decker to a sprained foot, but even with an injury adjustment, they would still be projected to win. At 4-4 with three home games remaining (including two against Illinois and South Dakota State), a bowl still looks likely for the Golden Gophers, but after back-to-back blowout losses to ranked teams (Penn State, Ohio State), they need to build some positive momentum. Meanwhile, Michigan State looked to have turned their season around with about a minute left in last week's Iowa game. After a 1-3 start, they had won three straight conference games to move to 4-3 and had taken a late lead on Iowa. Then Iowa scored on the last play of the game, keeping their BCS title hopes alive and sending the Spartans reeling.
Oregon over USC. Spread: Oregon +3.5 | Projection: Oregon by 11.7
The rankings for this matchup are almost the direct opposite of what you would expect. Currently the S&P+ rankings have Oregon at 39th on offense but 9th on defense. Meanwhile, USC is a staggering 55th on defense but 17th on offense. Oregon's season seemed on the verge of completely falling apart after just one game, but the Ducks have slowly turned things around, and a win on Saturday would give them very good odds of ending USC's Pac-10 conference title streak.
We have been tinkering with Varsity Numbers for the past few weeks, looking for an enjoyable format that highlights both stats and love of college football. Is there anything in particular that you would like to see beyond or instead of other Varsity Numbers features? This has turned into a pretty long column, but it is enjoyable to write, and it needs to be enjoyable to read as well. Feel free to share in the comments or my e-mail using the FO contact form.
17 comments, Last at 02 Nov 2009, 3:31pm by Pat (filler)