Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
04 Dec 2009
by Bill Connelly
Since someone in the SDA comments asked about why we have, on multiple occasions, called the 2009 college football season rather disappointing, I should clarify why I have been viewing it as such. Quite simply, the whole year has just felt anti-climactic. Sure, there have been great games -- this is college football, and there will always be great games. But the season's early momentum was killed by injuries and a certain falcon punch, and seemingly big matchups didn't end up feeling that big. While we've had a host of up-and-comers trying to sneak into the national title hunt (TCU, Cincinnati, Boise State, Iowa, etc.), unless Nebraska pulls an upset Saturday, it looks like we'll get the national title matchup most predicted at the beginning of the season. Yes, this weekend and the bowl season could completely give the perceptions (mine, at least) of the season a complete makeover, but for now I've felt relatively unfulfilled. And, it's obviously all about what I think, right?
For this week's VN Box Score, we review one game and preview another, all at the same time.
Speaking of anti-climactic, potentially heightened interest for this game was taken out of the equation when first, Colorado announced that Dan Hawkins was being retained for another season, thereby taking the "Let's win one last game for Coach" motivation out of the picture, and second, Nebraska clinched the Big 12 North the preceding weekend with a win over Kansas State. Regardless, this has become an unpredictable rivalry over the years, and once again Colorado seemed to play above its head in a tight loss.
But what does this game tell us about Nebraska and their chances of upsetting Texas this weekend (thereby potentially sticking TCU in the national title game)?
|Field Position %||33.3%||40.7%|
|Close Success Rate||37.0%||38.9%|
|Close Success Rate||37.8%||40.7%|
|Close Success Rate||35.3%||37.8%|
|SD/PD Sack Rate
||9.1% / 33.3%||3.9% / 0.0%|
|Turnover Pts Margin
|1st Down S&P||0.541||0.654|
|2nd Down S&P||0.782||0.865|
|3rd Down S&P||0.450||0.600|
|Projected Pt. Margin
|Actual Pt. Margin
For one thing, this tells us that Nebraska's offense is not in much of a rhythm right now. They haven't been great all year (they rank a dismal 85th in Offensive S&P+). In terms of single-game S&P+ scores, they have only gone over a 90.0 (100.0 is deemed as distinctly average) once in conference play, a 105.2 against Kansas. The 87.3 S&P+ they managed against Colorado was actually their second-best output in conference play; their worst -- a near-tie between their performances against Texas Tech (65.0), Iowa State (65.2) and Oklahoma (65.4). To beat Texas, they will need to take some serious risks (and have those risks pay off) and derive some short fields in the field position battle.
What does this game tell us about Nebraska's defense? Not much. Colorado was utterly incapable of moving the ball early (not a surprise), but they did find a spark in the third quarter, mostly from a 58-yard pass to Markques Simas. Colorado also managed a 56-yard pass to Scotty McKnight, suggesting that Nebraska may be vulnerable to big plays in the passing game if the quarterback has time to make a throw. The Huskers' defensive line has been outstanding this year, thanks in part to a dominant tackle tandem of Ndamukong Suh and Jared Crick, but Colorado's offensive line stood up well to them. If Suh and Crick are held in check, this defense becomes pretty mediocre, pretty quickly.
In all, I expect a pretty strong performance from the Huskers' defense, I just don't see them capable of nearly enough offensive output unless, as mentioned earlier, they absolutely dominate the field position battle and/or produce some points on defense or in special teams. The S&P+ projections (Texas by 11.8) predict a Nebraska cover but a reasonably easy Longhorns win, and they project the same Florida-Texas title game they projected back in August.
Hey, speaking of Florida (we're nailing the segue this week), let's take a look at how the Gators match up with Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide in our de facto national semifinal game. What we'll do here is look at both the S&P+ ratings and subsequent ranks for both the Gators and Tide, matching offense versus defense. In both of these offense-versus-defense matchups, the defense has the clear advantage most of the time. What we'll spend most of time on is where each offense might be able to derive an advantage. Consider this an expansion of my Wednesday ESPN Insider piece.
|Florida Offense vs. Alabama Defense
|Category||UF Offense||UA Defense|
|Close S&P+ (Rk)||121.1 (16)||146.4 (3)|
|Close Success Rate+ (Rk)||121.3 (10)||134.2 (5)|
|Close PPP+ (Rk)||132.6 (22)||180.4 (2)|
|Rushing S&P+||138.2 (3)||138.4 (6)|
|Passing S&P+||111.8 (40)||163.2 (2)|
|Standard Downs S&P+||122.5 (14)||147.7 (1)|
|Passing Downs S&P+||139.3 (11)||160.3 (9)|
|Red Zone S&P+||107.2 (54)||211.4 (1)|
|Q1 S&P+||145.0 (2)||167.7 (4)|
|Q2 S&P+||129.8 (14)||166.1 (1)|
|Q3 S&P+||127.1 (17)||135.1 (11)|
|Q4 S&P+||116.0 (29)||151.0 (2)|
|1st Down S&P+||125.0 (16)||155.6 (2)|
|2nd Down S&P+||115.8 (39)||161.0 (3)|
|3rd Down S&P+||152.6 (5)||138.0 (10)|
|Adj. Line Yards||127.6 (1)||127.4 (3)|
|Adj. Sack Rate||57.1 (117)||138.1 (14)|
Standard Downs /
|64.2 (104) /
|127.0 (23) /
|*includes non-close downs|
Alabama's defense is second in the country in PPP+, which means they prevent big plays better than just about anybody (Who's in first place? See the table below). Meanwhile, Florida's offense ranks higher in efficiency (Success Rate+) than explosiveness (PPP+). If the Gators can stay efficient, run the ball well (in terms of rankings, they actually hold the advantage in both Rushing S&P+ and Adj. Line Yards), and stay out of passing situations, they can find some success against the Tide, at least until they get into the red zone. Once they get inside Alabama's 20, however, the going gets a lot slower. With no real tight passing attack (surprising considering how good tight end Aaron Hernandez is), the Gators appear to become one-dimensional in the red zone, and that's a problem because Alabama has the best red zone defense in the country.
The only Tide advantage bigger than red zone execution comes in the passing game, specifically in rushing the passer. Inexplicably, Florida ranks 117th in the country in Adjusted Sack Rate. Alabama's pass rush isn't the best in the country, but it is quite good, and if the Gators find themselves in a situation where they have to pass (second- or third-and-long, or facing a late deficit), they are in trouble. Between Tim Tebow's relatively slow release, the lack of a true standout receiver, and a merely average offensive line, Florida has got some serious problems here. Alabama's pass rush advantage is actually the single biggest advantage for either team, and that should not be underestimated.
So what about when Alabama has the ball?
|Alabama Offense vs Florida Defense|
|Category||UA Offense||UF Defense|
|Close S&P+ (Rk)||117.1 (21)||160.8 (1)|
|Close Success Rate+ (Rk)||111.1 (27)||138.4 (1)|
|Close PPP+ (Rk)||137.0 (16)||222.6 (1)|
|Rushing S&P+||109.9 (38)||153.4 (1)|
|Passing S&P+||137.4 (9)||173.0 (1)|
|Standard Downs S&P+||117.2 (24)||140.1 (4)|
|Passing Downs S&P+||121.7 (34)||194.0 (1)|
|Red Zone S&P+||111.0 (42)||185.5 (2)|
|Q1 S&P+||111.7 (53)||173.2 (3)|
|Q2 S&P+||134.7 (10)||143.1 (4)|
|Q3 S&P+||101.9 (71)||160.8 (4)|
|Q4 S&P+||138.3 (4)||141.8 (5)|
|1st Down S&P+||130.4 (6)||144.4 (3)|
|2nd Down S&P+||112.6 (45)||156.5 (5)|
|3rd Down S&P+||112.6 (45)||169.7 (3)|
|Adj. Line Yards||114.3 (21)||107.3 (35)|
|Adj. Sack Rate||147.1 (25)||177.3 (1)|
Standard Downs /
|141.7 (35) /
|190.9 (1) /
|*includes non-close downs|
This Florida defense has just been astoundingly good. People have looked down on Florida a bit this year because they have struggled more than expected on offense (they're only top 20 on offense, not top 5), but their defense has been good enough to carry them to the top of the S&P+ rankings. They hold the advantage in every category on this list except Q4 S&P+ (an unreliable indicator considering neither team has played a ton of games that were still close by the fourth quarter) and Adjusted Line Yards. Their Defensive PPP+ rating is 42 points ahead of second-place Alabama's, which is just staggering. Looking at the numbers in these terms, any big play Alabama can muster will be a victory. Julio Jones had a great game against Florida in last year's SEC title game, and if he breaks off another big play or two, that will be a major boon to Alabama's chances.
So where is Florida's advantage the smallest? On the line, Alabama really should be able to run-block pretty well, and their pass protection on passing downs should be up to snuff. They might be able to have some success on first downs, and their play improves as each half progresses. As a whole, though, they will probably run into some of the same problems Florida's offense will -- trouble on passing downs and the inability to make big plays to flip the field.
If there is one underrated aspect to Saturday's game, it could be this: touchdowns versus field goals. With both offenses looking like they are at a disadvantage in the red zone, the team that can simply stick the ball in the end zone and not settle for field goals will likely win. Really, that is always the case, but in a game that might not feature as many red zone opportunities as a typical game, touchdowns become even more important than normal.
Let's move on to the F/+ rankings. As a refresher, these rankings were included in the Football Outsiders Almanac; they are a direct cross between the S&P+ and FEI rankings. They are presented below in DVOA format (i.e. positive and negative percentages).
Once again, the F/+ does tend to negate some of the stranger occurrences in both ranking systems.
|F/+ Top 25 (After Eight Weeks)|
|6||Virginia Tech (9-3)||+30.9%||249.4||7||0.239||4|
|7||Penn State (10-2)||+30.3%||249.6||6||0.178||17|
|8||Ohio State (10-2)||+28.6%||241.8||10||0.211||8|
|F/+ Top 25 (After Eight Weeks)|
|15||Boise State (12-0)||+23.1%||244.7||9||0.188||14|
|18||Georgia Tech (10-2)||+20.8%||217.0||32||0.207||9|
|19||Texas Tech (8-4)||+20.5%||223.5||23||0.161||21|
|F/+ Top 25 (After Eight Weeks)|
|23||South Carolina (7-5)||+19.3%||233.1||15||0.085||39|
|25||Notre Dame (6-6)||+17.7%||211.9||39||0.120||28|
As mentioned before, one of the projects for the off-season is to investigate exactly how one ratings system can have a team like Georgia Tech in the top 1, and the other outside the top 30. Both systems seem to have their favorites (FEI loves Georgia Tech and Cincinnati; S&P+ loves Penn State and Oklahoma), and it will be interesting to figure out why.
Now let's go back to just the S&P+ rankings. As always, weekly S&P+ rankings can be found on FO in three forms:
Who were the week's biggest movers?
Arizona State (15 spots, from 88th to 73rd). The Sun Devils put together one of their best performances of the season last week against rival Arizona, and they were a muffed punt away from having a chance to win the game. That earned them some S&P+ clout, though they had fallen so far that the strong performance merely took them from "among the worst of the BCS teams" to just "bad."
Nevada (14 spots, from 42nd to 28th). Nevada saw its strength of schedule improve by playing Boise State, and their ratings made a nice move with their strong performance. Colin Kaepernick and Vai Taua have been just beastly during the last two months of the season, and while I don't think it is possible, I wish they would get a strong, BCS-conference opponent in their bowl game to see how far they have progressed since September losses to Notre Dame and Missouri.
Illinois (11 spots, from 85th to 74th). Another ratings bumped spurred by a respectable performance against a good team. The Illini fought hard and didn't completely embarrass themselves against Cincinnati, and their ratings improved because of it. While word has now come down about most of the under-fire coaches -- Dan Hawkins, Al Groh, Ralph Friedgen, Charlie Weis, etc. -- I guess we have to wait a few more days to see if Ron Zook gets an opportunity to clean up some of the mess he has made in Champaign, as somehow their regular season still has a natural geographic rivalry matchup versus Fresno State for Senior Day.
Auburn (7 spots, from 28th to 21st). I actually thought they had 'Bama beat for a while.
Other rises: Ohio (90th to 80th), Central Michigan (68th to 59th), Middle Tennessee (60th to 52nd), Memphis (104th to 96th).
Louisville (16 spots, from 77th to 93rd). It has been very well-documented here just how much the S&P+ ratings dislike Rutgers (that's what happens when your strength of schedule is as weak as theirs). Well, how did you think the numbers were going to respond to Louisville's blowout loss to the Scarlet Knights?
Washington (15 spots, from 66th to 81st). Sadly, this is what happens when you play Washington State. Wazzu's overall S&P+ of 126.7 is 20 points below the next-worse team, New Mexico State. Simply by standing on the same field as the Cougars, Washington's strength of schedule plummeted. And by taking a while to knock Wazzu out (it was only 13-0 at halftime and 20-0 after three quarters), U-Dub's ratings fell even further.
Mississippi (11 spots, from 23rd to 34th). Credit Mississippi State for playing wonderfully in the Egg Bowl, but the Rebels didn't look too hot.
Missouri (9 spots, from 36th to 45th). Yet another amazing performance by Danario Alexander was overshadowed by Todd Reesing's passing performance in his final collegiate game. Even though Mizzou took out the rival Jayhawks, Kansas' offensive performance, after a few weeks of stagnation, knocked Mizzou down a few pegs.
Other falls: Florida Atlantic (74th to 88th), North Texas (95th to 104th), Nebraska (17th to 25th).
If I did this for Jim Harbaugh against Pete Carroll, I have to do this for Carroll as well. Golf clap to Carroll for sticking it to USC's rivals. The Trojans held a 21-7 lead over UCLA with under a minute to play and were content simply to down the ball, until Bruins coach Rick Neuheisel called timeout to try to get the ball back. Annoyed, Carroll called for a deep bomb, and it worked. USC scored a late salt-in-wound touchdown and won 28-7, prompting a near-brawl after the game. Coach Carroll, if the rival coach can pretend like the game's not yet over, you can too.
Coach Carroll, that was also pretty tacky, especially when accompanied by the over-joyous celebration on the sideline. If I were a Bruin player, I'd have been ready to throw down as well.
(It's funny how your rubbing-it-in opinion is different depending on which side of the scoreboard you are on.)
And while we're ranting, I both work for and graduated from a school that has one of the best journalism schools in the country, and I understand that there's a time and place where anonymous, unnamed sources can be used correctly and effectively, but is there any way we can set up a system where you're not allowed to use unnamed sources until you've earned it? Or better yet, is there any way we can set up a black list where, if you use unnamed sources to report rumor as fact, and it turns out there are no facts involved whatsoever, you earn a permanent spot on the list, and your reporting is never taken seriously again? This crap is ruining both political and sports reporting, and it's got to stop if it's not going to be used correctly.
I am, of course, speaking of the rampant and ridiculous speculation involved with the Notre Dame job this week. Brian Kelly's on a plane to South Bend! No, Bob Stoops is! No, Notre Dame officials are actually on a flight to Norman! Scout.com's report of Bob Stoops agreeing to contract principles with Notre Dame despite boatloads of evidence to the contrary was potentially the most egregious of the journalistic violations this week. Their report spread like wildfire across the Internet even though there was no confirmation of any sort of agreement beyond "I know somebody who knows somebody who thought he heard ..."
When it turned out this reporting was false, they apparently quietly changed the article to a "list of possible candidates" sort. I realize that being able to say you broke a story is apparently more important than actually reporting facts, but again, I want a blacklist.
(And while we're at it, can we stop the "gotcha" crap? When Stoops says "I'm coaching at Oklahoma next year, and I can't be in two places at once," an acceptable response isn't to ask "Why didn't you just say no?" and report that he stopped short of an outright denial. He didn't. That was a denial. And besides, coaches will ALWAYS deny, deny, deny, whether or not something is actually going on, and there is no news here.)
Here's a reason -- everything about last night's Civil War battle between Oregon and Oregon State. The crowd, the passion, the momentum changes, the weather ... and the fact that all of those components are great in this battle even when it isn't the de facto Pac-10 championship game (and it never had been before last night).
In honor of Championship Saturday ... and for added degree of difficulty, this was thrown together without Beck's "Loser" or Queen's "We Are the Champions."
"Champion" by Kanye West
"Champion Requiem" by Mos Def
"Champion Sound" by J Dlla & Madlib
"The Champ" by Ghostface Killah
"I'm a Loser" by The Beatles
"Paths of Victory" by Bob Dylan
"Sweeter the Victory" by Gregory Isaacs
"Victorious" by The Mighty Underdogs
"Winners and Losers" by Social Distortion
"Win Some Lose Some" by Brother Ali
Apparently talk of winners, losers, and champions leads to a lot of hip hop. Who knew?
South Carolina over Clemson? Check. Mississippi State over Ole Miss? Absolutely. Arkansas over LSU? Almost. After another 2-2 week that was almost better, I'm still feeling pretty good about the Upset Watch picks this year.
Pittsburgh over Cincinnati. Spread: Pitt +2 | S&P+ Projection: Pitt by 3.6
West Virginia over Rutgers. Spread: W. Va. +1.5 | S&P+ Projection: W. Va. by 10.6
We know Brian Kelly is a really good coach. He will have to be beyond really good to lead Cincinnati to victory both in a hostile road environment and despite all of the "Will he go to Notre Dame?" speculation taking place this week. The Bearcats have had a wonderful season, but they finish the year with potentially their toughest test, and a loss would mean that the Big East conference title ends up in somebody else's hands. The numbers like Pitt despite the obvious lack of any sort of "will he/won't he" adjustment.
Meanwhile ... would anybody actually consider West Virginia over Rutgers an upset? Me neither.
Clemson over Georgia Tech. Spread: Clemson +1 | S&P+ Projection: Clemson by 5.2
The S&P+ ratings have liked Clemson for a while now, and a win over the favored Yellow Jackets would be a nice thank you for the numbers' support. Both of these teams lost to underdog SEC rivals last week, but none of that matters now. Both the Tigers and Jackets have a ton of athleticism, and this should be an infinitely more entertaining ACC title game than the last couple (no offense intended to fans of Virginia Tech and Boston College, but neither game was very exciting, even when they were close).
I don't talk a lot about the Heisman in this space, but I will say that I think Colt McCoy officially wrapped up this year's award with his 60-plus-yard sprint for touchdown against Texas A&M last week. That's an amazing thing to say considering we had him down for the count a couple of months ago after an iffy start to the season. Both he and Tim Tebow have played quite well down the stretch, but I think McCoy has the advantage. If I had a ballot (and I obviously do not), I think my current top 5 would look like this:
1. Colt McCoy
2. Toby Gerhart
3. Tim Tebow
4. Ndamukong Suh
5. Case Keenum
There really are about 10 relatively deserving candidates this year (I obviously thought hard about Mark Ingram, Kellen Moore, C.J. Spiller, Golden Tate, etc.), and while that is not at all what we expected at the beginning of the season (other contenders beyond McCoy, Tebow and Sam Bradford need not have applied), it has made for a unique race. Some years, there is an obvious winner, some years there are two or three that separate themselves from the pack, and some rare years Anthony Thompson almost wins. This year appears to be in the latter category.
3 comments, Last at 05 Dec 2009, 7:46pm by Eddo