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?
16 Nov 2010
by Bill Connelly
No. 1 Oregon tried to lose in Berkeley. No. 2 Auburn tried (for a while) to lose to a 5-5 Georgia squad. No. 3 TCU tried to lose to San Diego State. We came close to BCS Armageddon on Saturday, but in the end we only had near-upsets, a Notre Dame demolition of Utah, another (yawn) Northwestern upset of Iowa, and a whipping of Steve Spurrier's old team by Steve Spurrier's new team. Saturday could have been complete chaos, but instead it was just another enjoyable Saturday in what has been a fun season.
Subtitle: How Oregon Fell Behind Notre Dame in the S&P+ Rankings Just to Taunt Bill Connelly
You remember the series of "I am Jack's ..." quotes from Fight Club? "I am Jack's inflamed sense of rejection." ... "I am Jack's complete lack of surprise." ... "I am Jack's smirking revenge." ... "I am Jack's cold sweat." These quotes were ringing a bit too true as I watched Oregon play California Saturday night, knowing exactly what was going to happen. Oregon has become the ultimate play-by-play oddity in 2010, looking like a Top 30 team until the 50-plus play mark, when they turn into the best team in the country.
UCLA, Portland State, and New Mexico games aside, they have taunted me all season with their ability to play down to their level of competition just long enough to hurt their S&P+ rankings, then throw it in fifth gear and make their low S&P+ rankings look silly by the end of the game. Even though I tremendously enjoy watching the Ducks play each Saturday, I have found myself either rooting for them to win by 72 so they could move closer to the top of the S&P+, or to just go ahead and lose so I can stop thinking about them. No dice.
On Saturday, Oregon was outmuscled in the trenches and made just enough mistakes to hand California an upset win. Instead, the Bears missed a field goal to start the fourth quarter, and the Ducks killed the final 9:25 of the clock with a wonderful drive full of skin-of-their-teeth third-down conversions. They earned the win, to be sure, but against a team that had gotten mauled by Oregon State and barely sneaked by Washington State in the last two weeks. They also earned another drop in the rankings. The Ducks now rank below Illinois and Notre Dame. And Oregon State, who did just lose to Washington State.
I am Bill's credibility check.
No. 1 Oregon 15, California 13
|Close %||100.0%||STANDARD DOWNS|
|Field Position %||44.1%||20.3%||Success Rate||42.0%||30.6%|
|Close Success Rate||32.1%||30.5%||Success Rate||17.7%||30.4%|
|Close Success Rate||37.7%||40.0%||Turnover Pts||6.9||2.4|
|Close PPP||0.15||0.25||Turnover Pts Margin||-4.5||+4.5|
|Line Yards/carry||2.65||2.82||Q1 S&P||0.329||0.828|
|Close Success Rate||22.6%||20.7%|
|Close PPP||0.27||0.09||1st Down S&P||0.564||0.373|
|Close S&P||0.499||0.295||2nd Down S&P||0.272||0.636|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||14.3% / 0.0%||0.0% / 6.3%||3rd Down S&P||0.670||0.413|
|Projected Pt. Margin: Oregon +1.9 | Actual Pt. Margin: Oregon +2|
This was a wonderful performance by a Cal defense that has mostly held steady in 2010 despite offensive injuries and occasional overall ineptitude. The Golden Bears' defense rose from 29th to 10th this week in the Defensive S&P+ rankings after holding the Ducks to a 0.529 S&P on the ground and 0.499 S&P in the air. Oregon running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner had rushed for just 71 yards on 23 carries heading into the Ducks' gargantuan final drive, when they powered for 60 yards on 14 clock-eating rushes. California never allowed them to get truly hot -- their best quarter was the third, when they managed just a 0.691 S&P.
Unfortunately for the Golden Bears, the Cal offense couldn't respond with too many big plays on their end. After Shane Vereen's 31-yard run on Cal's second offensive play, they gained just 162 yards the rest of the way. Cal quarterback Brock Mansion averaged 2.5 yards per pass, and an offense that was far from spectacular with now-injured quarterback Kevin Riley continues to struggle without him. Thanks to a solid effort, Oregon's defense rose from 34th in Defensive S&P+ to 28th, but that did not entirely balance out the ratings hit their offense took.
I am Bill's statistical oddity.
So what am I going to do about Oregon's continued insistence on being the bane of S&P+'s existence? Nothing. At least, not yet. This is a play-by-play measure, and it isn't necessarily the formula's fault that Oregon has found a way to win that almost disregards half of the plays from a given game. If they move on to win the national title -- if they've truly figured out a way to "beat" the S&P+ formula -- then I will be tinkering with alternatives for most of the offseason. (Even then, however, any changes will be conservative. As Ken Pomeroy mentioned to me a while back, it is never smart to make huge changes because of a single team.)
But at the moment, the S&P+ rankings are at least semi-consistent. Oregon has only beaten one team ahead of them in the rankings (No. 10 Stanford), and their other wins have come against No. 28 (USC), No. 44 (UCLA), No. 45 (Arizona State), No. 47 (Washington), No. 48 (California), No. 70 (Tennessee), No. 90 (Washington State), No. 119 (New Mexico), and an FCS Tier 6 team (Portland State). That is two wins against Top 40 teams balanced by a series of good-not-great wins over decent teams. All season, I've just been saying "Let's see how this plays out." Now, as the season has mostly played out, my only response is ... let's see how this plays out.
I am Bill's deep, heavy sigh.
Whereas last week's projected scores were all over the place, most of this week's major games stayed close to the script.
No. 2 Auburn 49, Georgia 31
EqPts: Auburn 36.0, Georgia 24.3
T/O Pts: Georgia +2.2
Auburn > Georgia +13.9
Ignoring the Cam Newton-sized elephant in the room, Auburn pulled away from the Bulldogs in the second half of a feisty battle. Georgia has the (dis)honor of being the only sub-.500 team among the top 43 teams in S&P+, and Auburn winning was still a decent accomplishment. But with all that hangs over Auburn right now, we'll see how much this win means (or if it is a win) when the NCAA -- and FBI -- are through investigating the attempted dealings of Newton's father.
No. 3 TCU 40, San Diego State 35
EqPts: TCU 33.6, San Diego State 19.7
T/O Pts: San Diego State +2.2
TCU > San Diego State +11.8
This one was closer than it probably should have been, but kudos to San Diego State for putting up another strong fight against a bigger-name, home opponent. The Aztecs are now 7-3 with road losses to Missouri (via last-second miracle pass), BYU (via a horrid replay) and TCU. Brady Hoke is working wonders in southern California.
No. 6 Stanford 17, Arizona State 13
EqPts: Stanford 21.1, Arizona State 14.7
T/O Pts: Arizona State +1.6
Stanford > Arizona State +4.8
Four of Arizona State's six losses have come by a combined nine points to Wisconsin, Oregon State, USC, and Stanford. They have no quality wins and a host of quality losses, and it will be interesting to see just how hot Dennis Erickson's seat gets in the next month or so, especially if ASU doesn't go at least 1-1 against UCLA and Arizona.
No. 7 Wisconsin 83, Indiana 20
EqPts: Wisconsin 52.3, Indiana 15.7
T/O Pts: Wisconsin +12.8
Wisconsin > Indiana +48.3
This is already well-covered territory, but ... seriously, Bret Bielema? Going deep after you've already scored 69 points? I know, I know, backup quarterback, scrub receiver, etc. But a play-action bomb has one intention no matter who is in, and that was crass even by my own relatively low "running it up" standards.
No. 8 Nebraska 20, Kansas 3
EqPts: Nebraska 20.7, Kansas 2.5
T/O Pts: Kansas +6.4
Nebraska > Kansas +11.8
Nebraska is a bit lucky that they only fell four spots after this sleep-walking episode. The Huskers' offense can clearly rise to the occasion when they need to -- they scored 51 points against an Oklahoma State defense that ranks 34th in Defensive S&P+ and 31 against Missouri (26th). But they also scored a combined 37 points against South Dakota State and Kansas. We'll see if now-healthy Taylor Martinez, Roy Helu, and company can bring their A-game to College Station this weekend.
No. 10 Oklahoma State 33, Texas 16
EqPts: Oklahoma State 31.9, Texas 16.1
T/O Pts: Texas +0.1
Oklahoma State > Texas +15.7
Yes, Texas' offense is an incredible mess right now, but Oklahoma State rose in the S&P+ rankings this week by slicing and dicing a Texas defense that was ranked fifth in Defensive S&P+ (now eighth). They head to Lawrence this weekend and attempt to avoid a landmine while gearing up for one of the bigger Bedlam battles in years two weeks from now.
No. 12 Alabama 30, No. 19 Mississippi State 10
EqPts: Alabama 25.4, Mississippi State 11.7
T/O Pts: Mississippi State +1.8
Alabama > Mississippi State +11.9
Alabama did a majority of their damage in three plays -- a 45-yard pass from Greg McElroy to Marquis Maze, a 78-yard pass from McElroy to Mark Ingram, and a 56-yard reverse to Julio Jones -- but it was enough. Mississippi State is salty and stout, but their offense still is not to the point of being able to pull a road upset like this.
Northwestern 21, No. 13 Iowa 17
EqPts: Northwestern 22.2, Iowa 18.6
T/O Pts: Iowa +0.6
Northwestern > Iowa +3.0
Despite finishing with a better record each season, Iowa has managed to lose to Northwestern three consecutive seasons now. This is one of the things that makes college football so enjoyable. For all intents and purposes, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz owns Penn State's Joe Paterno ... and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald owns Ferentz.
Notre Dame 28, No. 14 Utah 3
EqPts: Notre Dame 16.9, Utah 11.3
T/O Pts: Notre Dame +8.6
Notre Dame > Utah +14.2
Due as much to strength of schedule as anything else, Notre Dame's defense ranked 13th in Defensive S&P+ heading into the Utah game, and they finally earned their keep with a dominant game against a Utah team that is suddenly reeling. Last week, I said that this game would be determined as much by the mental state of each team as any on-field talent or level of accomplishment. This appears to have been the case -- the Irish were far from explosive on offense, but they took advantage of just about every Utah mistake while the Utes crumbled.
No. 23 South Carolina 36, No. 22 Florida 14
EqPts: South Carolina 26.3, Florida 9.5
T/O Pts: South Carolina +11.0
South Carolina > Florida +27.8
This was an incredibly dominant performance by the Gamecocks. They are such a different team when Marcus Lattimore is healthy and running well. They are 5-1 when he averages 4.0 yards per carry and 3-2 when he either averages fewer than 4.0 per carry or doesn't play. Congrats to Steve Spurrier -- he almost seemed happier and more animated Saturday night than when he was winning the national title 14 years ago.
Full rankings here:
|S&P+ Top 25 (After 11 Weeks)|
|S&P+ Top 25 (After 11 Weeks)|
|S&P+ Top 25 (After 11 Weeks)|
How odd a year has it been for both college football and these rankings? Illinois loses to Minnesota and Oregon State loses to Washington State ... and neither team drops more than two spots. I have no explanation for this. As I said above, I will revisit the formulas this offseason. In the meantime, just enjoy the absurdity.
Florida International (14 spots, from 82nd to 68th). The Golden Panthers were competitive in three of four losses to BCS conference teams in September -- they lost by two touchdowns or less to Maryland, Texas A&M, and Rutgers before sliding a bit against Pittsburgh. Teams with brutal schedules either toughen up when the schedule gets easier, or they fall apart from wear and tear. FIU has done the former. They are now 4-1 and control their own destiny in the Sun Belt conference. Thanks to their shocking 52-35 win over Troy this weekend, they can now go 2-1 in their final three conference games -- against La.-Lafayette, Arkansas State and a disappointing Middle Tennessee squad -- and head to the New Orleans Bowl. What an accomplishment for FIU and coach Mario Cristobal. This program was pathetic not too long ago.
Notre Dame (10 spots, from 32nd to 22nd). They rose into the Top 25 powered by a dominant performance over Utah and a solid strength of schedule. They rose a couple of extra spots just so they could get ahead of Oregon and make me look silly.
Maryland (seven spots, from 64th to 57th). The Terps are a half-game behind Florida State in the ACC Atlantic race, and they play host to FSU and N.C. State to end the season. If they win out (a big if -- they probably won't be favored in either game), they will win the Atlantic and finish off a seven-game turnaround from last season. If they lose out ... Well, they have already improved by a jarring five games.
Washington State (seven spots, from 97th to 90th). You could see them getting more and more competitive as the season progressed. And even though Oregon State is not the same team without James Rodgers, their 31-14 win in Corvallis was still both impressive and heart-warming. Who knows if Paul Wulff can actually completely turn things around in Pullman, but after two desolate seasons, they have clearly improved in Wulff's third year.
Other Rises: San Diego State (72nd to 65th), Connecticut (76th to 70th), Navy (61st to 55th), Northern Illinois (67th to 61st), San Jose State (106th to 100th), Southern Miss (79th to 73rd).
Iowa State (10 spots, from 62nd to 72nd). Like Illinois to Minnesota and the Giants to the Cowboys, Iowa State fell victim to a bad team playing hard for an interim coach. The Cyclones got pushed around by Colorado in Boulder and now must beat Missouri in Ames to reach bowl eligibility. Paul Rhoads has shown a knack for big upsets -- he still has a way to go in the consistency department.
South Florida (nine spots, from 54th to 63rd). The Bulls actually won in Louisville to keep pace in the hilarious Big East race, but they fell regardless. Why? Because they were outgained significantly by the Cardinals (21.0 EqPts to 12.2) and won because of a slight turnover advantage and a 100-yard kickoff return.
Utah (seven spots, from 18th to 25th). The final two games for the reeling Utes: A trip to San Diego State and the final conference battle against a surging BYU squad. Two games is not really a "losing streak" by any means, but this could become a streak if they do not bounce back quickly.
Michigan (seven spots, from 31st to 38th). The Wolverines did the bare minimum in beating a Purdue team that had lost its three previous conference game by an average score of 42-8. This game was U-G-L-Y -- 10 turnovers (six lost fumbles), nine penalties, 13 punts.
Other Tumbles: Houston (66th to 81st), Wyoming (90th to 97th), Purdue (89th to 96th), Marshall (71st to 78th), Temple (69th to 75th).
The final play of the first half in the Texas A&M-Baylor game Saturday night was the rare Triple Holy S--- play. Already up 30-21, Baylor lined up for a 41-yard field goal, but it was blocked (Holy S--- No. 1, albeit a minor one). Cornerback Terrence Frederick recovered it and seemed to be hemmed in by Baylor players, then cut left and into the open field (Holy S--- No. 2). It looked like he was going to somehow score as the clock expired ... until Baylor holder Brody Trahan (great name) somehow caught up to him and pushed him out of bounds at the one-yard line (Holy S--- No. 3). Granted, instead of becoming a huge momentum play for the improved Bears, it just staved off the inevitable -- the Aggies outscored Baylor 21-0 in the second half and won going away. But still, in an entertaining evening of football, that was the high point.
12 comments, Last at 18 Nov 2010, 5:07pm by Bill Connelly