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?
13 Nov 2009
by Bill Connelly
A baseball stat nerd friend of mine is still giddy that I compared one of my Varsity Numbers concepts (disproportional success on Passing Downs as opposed to Standard Downs) to Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), so he challenged me to come up with the football equivalent of his other favorite baseball stat, FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching. I tossed around some possibilities before I figured out the quite obvious measure: Receiver Independent Passing Stats (RIP, or RIPS). This made us both very happy. Consider this Offseason Project No. 11,328.
For the second straight week, we take a look at USC's last game in the VN Box Score of the Week.
I mentioned last week that USC is "young enough that, for all we know, they could be right back at the top of the rankings next season, but the extent to which they recover in 2009 is far from certain." They further showed that Saturday, as they struggled mightily on offense in tentatively putting away a weak Arizona State squad. We are learning a couple of short-term lessons thanks to USC this season. First, youth kills -- even if it is extremely talented youth. Second, as has been discussed at Conquest Chronicles, one iffy recruiting class can sidetrack your progress down the line. I'm fully confident that the Trojans will go back to being the Trojans next season, but as Oklahoma learned in 2005 (and, thanks to injuries, again in 2009), nobody is immune to youth and/or unsuccessful recruiting. Not even USC.
Of course we're talking about USC as if they've had a terrible season. They're 7-2.
|Field Position %||29.1%||41.0%|
|Close Success Rate||32.7%||37.4%|
|Close Success Rate||46.9%||43.3%|
|Close Success Rate||13.0%||34.0%|
|SD/PD Sack Rate
||0.0% / 9.1%||10.7% / 0.0%|
|Turnover Pts Margin
|1st Down S&P||0.473||0.446|
|2nd Down S&P||0.915||0.738|
|3rd Down S&P||0.197||0.365|
|Projected Pt. Margin
|Actual Pt. Margin
Before we get too far down about USC, it is worth noting that the Trojans' defense was absolutely dominant Saturday. Arizona State just never really had a chance to get things going on offense. The Sun Devils found themselves in far too many passing downs, and even though they dwarfed USC in Field Position Percentage, 41 percent just isn't that good. USC was able to get pressure on ASU quarterbacks on standard downs, which is a good sign, and they held ASU to a pitiful 0.365 S&P on third downs. After getting trounced in every way possible by Oregon, the USC defense responded quite well, even considering ASU's offense is not too great.
That said, the offense laid an egg. Despite decent line yardage figures, halfbacks Joe McKnight and Allen Bradford managed a respectable 145 yards on 29 carries (5 yards per carry), but most of that yardage came on their own side of the field, where the yards are not worth as many EqPts. They were not able to help USC generate any long drives.
Here's the misconception: Taking opponent into account, USC's offense as a whole is not actually regressing. In fact, they've improved. Breaking their nine games into to rough halves -- their first four games as one half, their last five as the other -- their average individual game "+" scores have improved almost across the board. Their S&P+ has improved from 108.1 over the first four games to 115.1 over the next five. Their rushing output has stayed about the same (from 119.5 to 119.1), but their passing game has improved from 97.5 (slightly below average) to 110.0. They are catching flack for regressing, but really their opponents are just getting better. The 63.4 Passing S&P+ that they produced against Arizona State was very much the exception, not the rule. Young teams are far from consistent, and the Arizona State game showed that.
One area they have regressed, however, is on passing downs, where they have gone from a 121.3 average over the first four games, to a 109.6 over the last five.
Meanwhile, the defense is still the unit on the downward progression, despite the success against ASU. They averaged a whopping 151.9 S&P+ over the first four games and have averaged just 112.5 in the last five. Defensive Rushing S&P+ has fallen from 133.2 to 111.2 and Passing S&P+ from 187.7 to 116.4.
Weekly S&P+ ratings can be found on FO, so we will use this space once again to look at the F/+ ratings, the combination of FEI and S&P+ ratings found in the Football Outsiders Almanac.
|F/+ Top 25 (After 10 Weeks)|
|5||Virginia Tech (6-3)||+24.6%||265.7||5||0.212||10|
|8||Boise State (9-0)||+21.2%||250.9||13||0.214||9|
|10||Penn State (8-2)||+20.9%||260.9||8||0.161||17|
|F/+ Top 25 (After Ten Weeks)|
|13||Ohio State (8-2)||+19.9%||258.8||9||0.150||20|
|16||Georgia Tech (9-1)||+17.3%||232.4||22||0.225||8|
|F/+ Top 25 (After 10 Weeks)|
|24||Florida State (4-5)||+11.2%||220.5||38||0.161||17|
|25||Texas Tech (6-3)||+11.1%||224.3||30||0.141||22|
Breaking things down to the per-possession and per-play level, and adjusting for schedule, produces some interesting results, even this late in the year. While Oklahoma fans might be apoplectic about how terrible this season has gone, their team has not been very far from a great season, especially considering a crazy number of injuries (this week, both defensive end Auston English and tight end/lineman Brody Eldridge were added to the long "lost for the season" list). So the vitriol aimed at offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is, um, a bit misguided, to say the least. Then again, vitriol is usually misguided.
Back to just S&P+, it was apparently the week for Pac-10 teams to make a move. The two strongest movers, up or down, were Oregon State and Arizona State -- the numbers responded well to their respective performances against California and USC. Meanwhile, Stanford wasn't far behind with their domination of Oregon. That conference is producing one of the nation's more entertaining title races, so it shouldn't be a surprise that the numbers are all over the place.
Oregon State (22 spots, from 49th to 27th). There is no "Yeah, but their opponent almost saw their star running back die in the endzone, and they went into a predictable funk" adjustment to the numbers, so what the stats say is that OSU played a great game and limited a potentially potent offense to 14 points.
Arizona State (18 spots, from 92nd to 74th). As much as we analyzed USC above, the Trojans ratings really did not change much. ASU's, on the other hand, did. They probably were too low as the No. 92 team in the country, so we'll say that this was your run-of-the-mill market adjustment.
Stanford (15 spots, from 65th to 50th). You would have thought that their dominance of Oregon would have bumped them up further, but the Ducks' still-strong offensive production staved off a bit of Stanford's potential rise.
Florida State (13 spots, from 51st to 38th). The S&P+ ratings have liked Clemson for a while, so the fact that Florida State actually led the Tigers heading into the fourth quarter earned them a nice bump, even though the fourth quarter was all Clemson (CU outscored FSU 19-0 in the fourth en route to a 40-24 win).
Other notable rises: Hawaii (99th to 80th), UNLV (97th to 79th), Louisiana Tech (100th to 83rd), UAB (90th to 76th), Oklahoma State (36th to 25th).
Minnesota (15 spots, from 30th to 45th). Even though Illinois has played better recently, it should go without saying that losing to the Illini -- at home no less -- will not do wonders for your ratings.
Mississippi (14 spots, 25th to 39th). As has been mentioned before, a team's ratings will almost certainly fall simply by playing an FCS team like Northern Arizona. And when the team looks only decent doing so, its ratings will probably fall further.
N.C. State (14 spots, 79th to 93rd) and Maryland (13 spots, 78th to 91st). It is always enjoyable when two teams play each other and the result is so poor that both teams see their ratings fall. High comedy. The cold, emotionless numbers were evidently far from impressed with either team in N.C. State's 38-31 win.
Other notable falls: Arkansas State (85th to 104th), Utah State (69th to 85th), Temple (71st to 84th), Kentucky (40th to 53rd), Colorado State (43rd to 56th).
To Rutgers, for once again turning their season around after an early-season stink bomb. Last year, the Scarlet Knights began the season 1-5 before winning seven in a row to finish the season. This year, they were so thoroughly demolished by Cincinnati in Week 1 that everybody forgot about them. Now, with no spotlight whatsoever, they have won seven of eight, losing only by a touchdown to a ranked Pittsburgh squad. And they have gotten better by getting younger, handing the quarterback reins to star recruit Tom Savage and giving freshman receiver (and future stud) Mohamed Sanu a bigger role in the offense. Savage is not a high-percentage passer yet, but he is already strong on downfield routes. The physical Sanu is not only a solid receiver, but he is also being trusted to run a bit of the Wildcat (Wild ... Scarlet?). Those two, along with tiny, big-play threat Tim Brown and bruising back Joe Martinek, have combined to form one of the more unique offenses in the country.
Also, a small golf clap to fate for seeing three Tennessee players being arrested for armed robbery the same week that their head coach bragged about his team's complete lack of off-the-field troubles. I'm neither a Tennessee fan nor a Tennessee hater, but I can appreciate good comic timing.
The SEC makes roughly eleventy billion dollars per week on college football. Get the replay officials HDTVs. This is getting embarrassing. My parents have an HDTV.
Okay, they don't. But their friends do.
Another mini-rant, completely unrelated to college football: "chipotle" is pronounced "chi-POHT-ley." I looked it up. It's not "chi-POLL-tay." Tons of people pronounce it wrong, and honestly, that's fine. But now I've heard "chi-POLL-tay" in two separate commercials. No. Just because the common man pronounces it that way, doesn't mean people who should know better should go from saying it right to saying it wrong, as if they don't think people will know what they're talking about if they say "chi-POHT-ley." Say it right, random television commercials.
In honor of this damn lingering chest cold...
"Chest Fever" by The Band
"Cold Son" by Stephen Malkmus
"Cold World" by Genius/GZA
"Here Comes Sickness" by Mudhoney
"Love Sick" by Bob Dylan
"Sick Again" by Led Zeppelin
"Sick Muse" by Metric
"Sick, Sick, Sick" by Queens of the Stone Age
"Sickman" by Alice in Chains
"Sickos" by The Harlem Shakes
Can't ever complain about a reason to take Nyquil, of course, but it can go away anytime now.
Well, we were a 51-yard field goal away from going 2-2 this week, but Houston's last-second win over Tulsa dropped the Upset Watch to 1-3 after nailing Nebraska-Oklahoma, missing badly on Oklahoma State-Iowa State, and whiffing on Nevada-San Jose State by an embarrassing margin. For the season, Upset Watch stands at 11-13.
Purdue over Michigan State. Spread: Purdue +2.5 | S&P+ Projection: Purdue by 8.7
Purdue might not actually be that bad. They dug themselves quite a hole with four consecutive losses by a touchdown or less, but they have won three of four now and have a chance to claw back to 6-6 and a minor bowl bid if they can take out the Spartans at home and Indiana on the road. Plus ... do we ever really trust Michigan State as a favorite?
Tennessee over Ole Miss. Spread: Tennessee +4.5 | S&P+ Projection: Tennessee by 10.0
Auburn over Georgia. Spread: Auburn +4 | Projection: Auburn by 1.4
As expected, there is no "three young contributors were arrested for armed robbery two days before the game" adjustment to the numbers. At this point, Lane Kiffin's coaching stock will increase considerably in the eyes of many if he can rally this team to go into Oxford and win Orgeron Bowl I. Meanwhile, you've got to like the offensive-coordinator-vs.-defensive-coordinator matchup if you're an Auburn fan this weekend. Georgia is not nearly as bad as they're portrayed at the moment, but their defense clearly has some holes. Auburn has started to rebound from their mid-season slump, scoring 33 against Mississippi and 63 against (yawn) Furman.
Virginia over Boston College. Spread: Virginia +4.5 | S&P+ Projection: Virginia by 5.6
The numbers had a nice mid-season crush on Al Groh's Virginia Cavaliers, and it paid off when Upset Watch nailed Virginia's upset of North Carolina. But the crush wore off a while ago, and there is little to explain this pick other than the fact that Boston College is only decent, and the game is in Charlottesville. Quite the vote of confidence in this pick, huh?
It's quite possible that, in late December, Idaho could be playing in Boise, Temple could be playing in Detroit, and SMU could be playing in Honolulu. And they could not be more excited about this. Of all the defenses of the bowl system, this is the most powerful. We may not care to watch them all, we may not be able to name them all (okay, we definitely can't), and we might have a crush on the idea of a playoff, but college football is more rewarding to fans than any other sport (yeah, I said it), and bowls are the main reason why.
17 comments, Last at 16 Nov 2009, 4:51am by My man