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?
05 Oct 2010
by Bill Connelly
Sometimes, a bye week can be a beautiful thing. For the first time this season, I did not have a game to attend in person. Instead, I spent almost the entire afternoon and evening flipping channels. In all, I saw portions of Miami-Clemson, Northwestern-Minnesota, Auburn-ULM, Navy-Air Force, Michigan-Indiana, Washington State-UCLA, Tennessee-LSU, Wisconsin-Michigan State, Texas-Oklahoma, Cornell-Bucknell, Arizona State-Oregon State, Colorado-Georgia, Texas Tech-Iowa State, Washington-USC, Florida-Alabama, Stanford-Oregon and Penn State-Iowa. It was nice developing impressions of teams based on more than just highlight packages. In all, it was a lovely Saturday, even though two SEC teams (covered at different points below) stressed me out.
Most games played out as their box scores would suggest. As we'll see, Wisconsin probably should have beaten Michigan State, and Ohio State was lucky to separate itself from Illinois, but outside of the Big Ten there were few truly odd results. So we're going to use the Box Score of the Week to talk about one of the nation's most confounding teams.
You could build a rather misleading highlight video from this game -- one with nice hits, nice gains, and one-handed catches -- that would suggest that Georgia won in Boulder going away. And for a while in the third quarter, it looked exactly like what was about to happen. But it didn't. Instead, Georgia made too many youthful mistakes and, with the game on the line, committed a fumble you simply cannot commit.
|Field Position %||59.3%||40.3%|
|Close Success Rate||47.5%||38.8%|
|Close Success Rate||50.0%||37.8%|
|Close Success Rate||44.8%||40.9%|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||0.0% / 16.7%||7.7% / 11.1%|
|Turnover Pts Margin||-6.0||+6.0|
|1st Down S&P||1.145||0.609|
|2nd Down S&P||0.561||0.708|
|3rd Down S&P||0.743||1.072|
|Projected Pt. Margin||+5.8|
|Actual Pt. Margin||+2|
Basically, there are two ways to play like a bad team. One way is to look bad all the time; the other way is to continuously show flashes of quality before making crippling mistakes. Georgia has certainly come about their 1-4 record the latter way. They are suffering far too many breakdowns to win, but they are putting together just enough good plays to think they should have won. In all, they are playing like a very young, talented team. But are they young enough to play this young?
Offense (12 listed, including both a third receiver and a fullback)
Redshirt Freshman: QB Aaron Murray
Sophomore: HB Washaun Ealey, WR Tavarres King, TE Orson Charles
Junior: WR A.J. Green, LG Cordy Glenn, C Ben Jones, RG Tanner Strickland
Senior: FB Fred Munzenmaier, WR Kris Durham, LT Clint Boling, RT Josh Davis
Redshirt Freshman: none
Sophomore: DE Abry Jones, ILB Christian Robinson, SS Bacarri Rambo
Junior: NT DeAngelo Tyson, OLB Justin Houston, CB Brandon Boykin, FS Jakar Hamilton
Senior: DE Demarcus Dobbs, OLB Darryl Gamble, ILB Akeem Dent, CB Vance Cuff
Of the 23 players listed above, 16 are juniors and seniors. But the offense is led by a redshirt freshman, and the defense, though improved, is likely still struggling with the system.
On offense, it is easy enough to figure out what is the problem. The Bulldogs rank just 57th in Rushing S&P+, and on top of that, they have shown the propensity for ill-timed fumbles. Down 14-6 to South Carolina, Aaron Murray found Kris Durham for 55 yards to set up a scoring opportunity; Washaun Ealey then fumbled inside the Gamecocks' 10-yard line. Against Mississippi State, in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated, Ealey caught a pass and fumbled at the Bulldogs' 1; Mississippi State recovered in their end zone. Then, against Colorado, it was Caleb King's turn. As Georgia was setting up for the game-winning field goal attempt with less than two minutes remaining, King fumbled on a soft hit, and Colorado recovered. Secure the ball, and the Bulldogs potentially would have won between one and three of these games.
Of course, if they were to have won one more game because of ball security, they would still be sitting at just 2-3. That's because the defense, while improving, has failed to force opponents to blow as many opportunities as they have.
It's time to take a look at what we're going to call Utilization Rate. If EqPts are supposed to simulate actual points, then taking a look at the ratio between the two could give us an idea for which offenses are taking advantage of their opportunities and which defenses are keeping points off the board even when they allow some sustained drives.
|Defensive Utilization Rate (EqPts-to-Actual-Pts Ratio)
Texas A&M, another team making the move to a 3-4 defense, is not allowing opponents to turn opportunities into points. As much as anything, this is about turnovers. The Aggies have forced eight fumbles and ten turnovers in four games; the Bulldogs have forced two fumbles and six turnovers in five. It is also about making key stops. A&M and Georgia have similar ranks in every main defensive S&P+ category (they rank 30th and 35th, respectively, against the run; 34th and 42nd against the pass; 19th and 22nd on standard downs; and 46th and 35th on passing downs). But Georgia ranks 89th in third-down conversions allowed, and Texas A&M ranks eighth. Last Friday, I said that Leverage Rate gives us what we think third down percentages do. In this case, that is not necessarily true. The Bulldogs have experience and athleticism at their disposal, but their timing stinks.
So what happens now? Can the offense stop getting in its own way in scoring opportunities? Can the defense stop freezing up on third downs? In theory, the answers are both yes. Fumbles are random, and as we have learned on the NFL side of the equation, sometimes third downs are the last thing to come around for an improving defense. At a high-stakes SEC job like Georgia, however, it is still unknown whether Mark Richt will get enough time to see his team turn the corner.
Firing a coach is the most dangerous thing you can do as a college football program. Almost all of the dominant programs from the past decade are just 50-50 when it comes to home-run hires. Oklahoma got Bob Stoops because John Blake was terrible. Florida got Urban Meyer because the Ron Zook Experiment was a failure. Alabama threw money at Nick Saban to fix the problems Mike Shula could not. Jim Tressel won the title John Cooper couldn't (though one would still have to call the Cooper era a success). The vultures are circling Richt, and if Georgia continues to lose this year, patience might not win out. Every losing coach can say that success is right around the corner, but for Georgia that seems true. If Aaron Murray matures, the backs stop fumbling when they sniff the end zone, and the defense continues to marinate in the new scheme, then things should turn around -- with Richt or with somebody else.
Once again, we take a look at other interesting games from the past week. If there is a game you want to see that isn't listed below, drop a line in comments or on Twitter.
No. 1 Alabama 31, No. 7 Florida 6
EqPts: Alabama 17.6, Florida 9.1
T/O Pts: Alabama +21.2
Alabama > Florida +29.7
After three weeks, Alabama was laps ahead of the field. Then the Tide stumbled a bit against Arkansas and ceded the top spot to the Buckeyes. Well, between Ohio State's iffy performance in Champaign, and Alabama's incredible dominance of a Florida team that is still strong, THE Ohio State University's stay atop the S&P+ rankings was short-lived.
At this stage, it is hard to imagine Alabama not playing for the BCS national title. Even if they slip up against South Carolina or Auburn (or, technically, anybody else), they will still probably win the SEC West and the SEC title game. They are the most well rounded team in the country, ranking first in both offense and defense.
No. 2 Ohio State 24, Illinois 13
EqPts: Ohio State 17.6, Illinois 11.7
T/O Pts: Illinois +5.2
Ohio State > Illinois +0.7
Sometimes coaches just have other coaches' number. In 2007, Ohio State's only regular season loss came at home to Ron Zook's Fighting Illini. In 2008, a 5-7 Illinois team hung tighter than expected before losing at home, 30-20. And now, with Zook fighting for his job, the Illini fought the Buckeyes to a statistical standstill.
Of course, as you will see below, as far as the S&P+ rankings are concerned, this game had more to do with Illinois playing well than Ohio State struggling. Terrelle Pryor had a long, lovely touchdown run, but that was about all the Buckeyes could manage against an Illinois defense that has tackled very well in the first third of the season.
No. 4 Oregon 52, No. 9 Stanford 31
EqPts: Oregon 41.5, Stanford 28.5
T/O Pts: Oregon +7.8
Oregon > Stanford +20.8
Ever see one of those great boxing matches, where Fighter A is almost knocked out by Fighter B in the second round before steadying himself, rallying, and winning by 10th-round TKO? The Ducks were certainly Fighter A in this scenario. Midway through the first half, Twitter was abuzz about how amazing Stanford looked. The Cardinal were ahead 21-3 after 15 minutes, and they were already getting penciled in as the No. 1 contender to Alabama's throne. And then Oregon outscored them 49-10 the rest of the way. Stanford looked like a very, very good football team, and Oregon just ran them off the field.
No. 8 Oklahoma 28, No. 21 Texas 20
EqPts: Oklahoma 24.8, Texas 20.7
T/O Pts: Oklahoma +3.1
Oklahoma > Texas +7.2
Texas announced this offseason that they were going to move more toward a pro-style, run-heavy offense. Then they realized they didn't really have the personnel. Against Oklahoma, they found themselves in the middle of a terrifying identity crisis. They ran well, but they didn't run enough. Garrett Gilbert looked great chucking the ball downfield, but he didn't do it much until the Longhorns were down 28-10. The tools are there for Texas, but Oklahoma was simply more mature in the end. They had DeMarco Murray, and when it came down to a pair of stupid fumbles in the last two minutes (Landry Jones' inexplicable slip during a pump fake and Aaron Williams' muff of a punt), the Sooners ended up on the right side of both of them.
No. 24 Michigan State 34, No. 11 Wisconsin 24
EqPts: Michigan State 25.9, Wisconsin 20.0
T/O Pts: Wisconsin +13.5
Wisconsin > Michigan State +7.6
Of the weekend's high-profile matchups, this one had one of the more backwards results. Michigan State's three turnovers and minus-three differential should have done them in, but a kick-return touchdown and a massive field-position advantage (Michigan State ran 56.8 percent of their plays in Wisconsin territory; the Badgers ran just 39.3 percent of theirs on Sparty's side of the field) won the game for the team in green.
No. 12 LSU 16, Tennessee 14
EqPts: LSU 19.0, Tennessee 14.4
T/O Pts: Tennessee +18.0
Tennessee > LSU +13.4
I'll touch on this one below. This game should have just been ruled a tie.
No. 16 Miami 30, Clemson 21
EqPts: Miami 23.7, Clemson 13.1
T/O Pts: Miami +18.2
Miami > Clemson +28.8
Jacory Harris had one of the oddest games you'll ever see. As he often does, Harris was flying by the seat of his pants, throwing two interceptions and approximately 17 other passes that could have been picked. He completed just 13 of 33 balls (a robust completion rate of 39.4) ... and he threw four touchdown passes in the first half on the way to a comfortable win on the road. As much as Harris couldn't stay out of his own way sometimes, Clemson's Kyle Parker ended up much worse. He completed just 14 of 33 passes with three interceptions and no touchdowns, and his fumble with two minutes left ended any chance Clemson had. Miami's defense lived up to its billing. It was a brutal game to watch (as evidenced by my late-first half "Thank god it's almost halftime, Miami-Clemson. You and I need some time apart" tweet).
No. 19 Michigan 42, Indiana 35
EqPts: Michigan 38.4, Indiana 35.0
T/O Pts: Indiana +1.0
Michigan > Indiana +2.4
This one was as fun to watch as Miami-Clemson was painful. Words cannot express how exciting it is watching Denard Robinson play. It is impossible to imagine him not winning the Heisman if he manages to stay upright for seven more games. Despite missing parts of two games to injury, he is still on pace for a 2,000-2,000 season. Michigan's defense will probably keep them from challenging for the Big Ten crown, but I'm not completely willing to write them off yet, just because of Robinson.
Virginia Tech 41, No. 23 N.C. State 30
EqPts: Virginia Tech 27.1, N.C. State 24.9
T/O Pts: Virginia Tech +7.9
Virginia Tech > N.C. State +10.2
Lack of Internet prevented me from seeing any of this on ESPN3.com. While it sure seemed that N.C. State was going to move to 5-0, Virginia Tech earned this win. The Hokies are now 3-2 somehow. Would it surprise anybody if they ran the table, if nothing else just to spite my counterpart Brian Fremeau?
Oklahoma State 38, Texas A&M 35
EqPts: Texas A&M 29.5, Oklahoma State 23.3
T/O Pts: Oklahoma State +7.3
Oklahoma State > Texas A&M +1.1
Though it was no more artistic than Miami-Clemson, this one at least had an exciting ending. I want to like Jerrod Johnson so much, but I would be petrified the entire game if he were the quarterback of my team. He was the cause of, and solution to, all of A&M's problems this night. Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon looks like the real deal, by the way. While many of FO's preseason projections are looking shaky right now (pay no mind to the Tennessee behind the curtain), the statistical faith in the Cowboys has come through. Knock on wood.
Once again, here were the best and worst performances of the week according to raw S&P.
Best Offensive S&P of the Week
1. Auburn (vs. La.-Monroe): 1.761
2. Boise State (vs. New Mexico State): 1.500
3. Michigan (vs. Indiana): 1.364
4. Hawaii (vs. Louisiana Tech): 1.254
5. Nevada (vs. UNLV): 1.233
After a series of heart-stopping games, Auburn took it easy on their fans this week. They were near-flawless against the overmatched visitors from Northern Louisiana.
Worst Offensive S&P of the Week
1. Virginia (vs. Florida State): 0.096
2. Marshall (vs. Southern Miss): 0.104
3. New Mexico State (vs. Boise State): 0.203
4. Colorado State (vs. TCU): 0.229
5. Louisiana Tech (vs. Hawaii): 0.293
Last Friday I wondered whether Virginia was a semi-legit team or a statistical mirage. I think we got our answer. The lesson here: Never disagree with ESPN's Bruce Feldman, who told me, point blank, that Virginia was probably no more than a four-win team on last week's SDA podcast.
Best Rushing S&P of the Week
1. Boise State (vs. New Mexico State): 1.783
2. Auburn (vs. La.-Monroe): 1.393
3. Nevada (vs. UNLV): 1.311
4. USC (vs. Washington ): 1.270
5. Florida State (vs. Virginia): 1.269
USC wasted an amazing rushing performance from Allen Bradford (21 carries, 223 yards) by once again allowing Jake Locker to execute them in the final minutes.
Worst Rushing S&P of the Week
1. Marshall (vs. Southern Miss): 0.232
2. La.-Monroe (vs. Auburn): 0.247
3. Boston College (vs. Notre Dame): 0.263
4. Bowling Green (vs. Buffalo): 0.286
5. Colorado State (vs. TCU): 0.298
In last week's ESPN piece on Notre Dame, I mentioned that the Fighting Irish defense might start to look improved when not taking on one of the top offenses in the country. Boston College is most certainly not one of the top offenses, and Notre Dame forced them to become one-dimensional Saturday night.
Best Passing S&P of the Week
1. Auburn (vs. La.-Monroe): 2.130
2. Michigan (vs. Indiana): 1.784
3. Utah State (vs. BYU): 1.649
4. Northern Illinois (vs. Akron): 1.425
5. Hawaii (vs. Louisiana Tech): 1.323
Denard Robinson rushed for 217 yards and put together the second-most complete passing performance of the week (albeit in just 16 attempts) as well. Granted, there are plenty of good defenses still on the schedule, but it is almost impossible to exaggerate his efforts so far.
Worst Passing S&P of the Week
1. Virginia (vs. Florida State): -0.030
2. Marshall (vs. Southern Miss): 0.040
3. New Mexico State (vs. Boise State): 0.050
4. Florida (vs. Alabama): 0.082
5. Colorado State (vs. TCU): 0.175
Why yes, that is Florida on this list, between New Mexico State and Colorado State.
Full rankings here:
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Five Weeks)|
|2||Ohio State (5-0)||289.9||1||-1||125.2||14||143.5||3|
|7||Boise State (4-0)||255.6||15||+8||118.0||27||122.4||7|
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Five Weeks)|
|11||South Carolina (3-1)||249.2||18||+7||128.6||8||117.1||11|
|17||Virginia Tech (3-2)||239.5||24||+7||113.8||34||111.9||21|
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Five Weeks)|
|23||Michigan State (5-0)||233.9||27||+4||111.8||36||121.3||8|
|25||Notre Dame (2-3)||233.6||28||+3||103.6||48||128.8||5|
Five weeks into the season, we are still seeing interesting moves from week to week.
Illinois (30 spots, from 46th to 16th). This week's statistical overachiever in orange is Illinois. Virginia may have been exposed, but Illinois took its place. If you believe both that Ohio State is the second-best team in the country (most have no problem with this) and Missouri is eighth (most would disagree with this, to put it kindly), then it would stand to reason that the Illini, respectable losses to both, wouldn't be far behind. With a visit to Penn State this weekend, Illinois' time in the sun could be short-lived, of course.
Oregon State (20 spots, from 48th to 28th). The 2-2 Beavers took care of business against Arizona State, but what might explain their jump as much as anything was Boise State's jump from 15th to eighth. OSU is now in the top 20 in both Offensive and Defensive Rushing S&P+. After taking on one of the more brutal non-conference slates in the country (at TCU, at Boise State), they could do some damage.
Iowa State (19 spots, from 83rd to 64th). The Cyclones' offense looked ridiculously good against the Tech defense. This weekend's home battle with Utah just became a lot more interesting.
Florida State (15 spots, from 44th to 29th). For the second straight week, the Seminoles' defense put together one of the country's best performances, not allowing either Wake Forest (last week) or Virginia (this week) the slightest bit of breath. If this is the type of effort we can expect to see at Miami on Saturday night, it could make for the most defensively explosive game of the season.
Other Rises: Utah State (98th to 77th), Buffalo (101st to 81st), Northern Illinois (84th to 70th), Louisville (91st to 80th), Hawaii (67th to 57th), Minnesota (97th to 87th), Wyoming (102nd to 92nd) and Ball State (117th to 107th).
Indiana (20 spots, from 77th to 97th). On a per-play basis, the Hoosiers were toasted worse by Denard Robinson than any other team, but I still wouldn't have expected this much of a fall. Call this a strength-of-schedule adjustment as much as anything -- former conquest Akron did the Hoosiers no favors by losing at home by five touchdowns to Northern Illinois.
Texas A&M (19 spots, from 23rd to 42nd). There isn't a "Your quarterback would turn the ball over 15 times in one game if he had the time" penalty in the ratings, but there might as well be.
Kentucky (15 spots, from 22nd to 37th), Virginia (15 spots, from 20th to 35th). Regression toward the mean is setting in for both of these teams. It was fun while it lasted, and I absolutely would have pounded my chest if either or both teams began to make surprising runs through their conferences ... but I think we knew this is how it would end.
Other Tumbles: Central Michigan (61st to 83rd), Maryland (70th to 84th), UCLA (seventh to 21st), Florida International (73rd to 86th), USC (14th to 27th), Ohio (86th to 98th), N.C. State (39th to 51st), Arizona State (33rd to 45th), Texas Tech (51st to 62nd), Wisconsin (19th to 30th), Louisiana Tech (95th to 105th) and Syracuse (78th to 88th).
I'm not sure "favorite" is quite the right word, but rare is the moment that can cause one of my good friends to call me ... and cause both of us to huff and stumble over words for a good five minutes. The end of LSU-Tennessee was one of those moments. I haven't considered myself a Les Miles supporter, but I have thought that his in-game oddities (to put it kindly) were secondary to the fact that LSU has built such a strong base of talent, and that the "down years" of 2008-09 were still better than what could have been expected from the Bayou Bengals until recently. LSU averaged seven wins per season in the 30 years before Miles took over (including Nick Saban's tenure), and they have averaged 10.2 under Miles. Stress aside, you could do worse.
That's a half-hearted defense, but a defense nonetheless.
But after Saturday's amazing clock mismanagement, I'm not sure I have a defense anymore. In Spencer Hall's great column about his experience at last weekend's LSU-WVU game, he said the following:
Trying to find my car in the dark, with Les Miles booming over car radios and glum silence greeting him, it became clear what we were dealing with here. Miles' methods had become ... unsound. In fact, there might not be a method at all, but in the jungle sometimes effort, repetition, and the right prey was enough for a while. LSU's was under the sway of their own Kurtz, and in their own version of Heart of Darkness it was stay with him or risk the danger of starting over completely.
LSU fans had made friends with their mortal terror: playing ugly football, and hoping the Colonel in charge of them all would stay just sane enough to see them through the year. Every football dictatorship is different, but LSU's state was all too clear: it had gone absurd and frightening at the same time, which is how you get the world's least content 4-0 fanbase listening to their own madman quietly in the dark. Something's coming up the river for the Colonel, and they know it. The rest is a matter of playing out the script.
After last weekend, we all know it is just a matter of time. I have a high sense of morbid curiosity, and part of me wants to see heads explode as LSU upsets Alabama for the SEC West or something ... but no. There's no way this story has a happy ending.
14 comments, Last at 06 Oct 2010, 1:19pm by witless chum