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.
02 Nov 2010
by Bill Connelly
Saturday afternoon, Missouri and Nebraska kicked off for the 104th time. They have played every year since 1923, when they were Missouri Valley conference rivals with the likes of Washington (Missouri) University and Grinnell College. Things played out like they often have in this series, with Nebraska seizing an early lead in front of the sea of red and coasting to a two-touchdown lead. The winner of this battle has won the last four Big 12 North titles, and Nebraska now controls its own destiny for making that five straight. Of course, this year was different. This was the final time the Tigers and Huskers will play as Big 12 Conference rivals. The Huskers are off to the Big Ten next year.
Meanwhile, a few hundred miles south, Colorado and Oklahoma were exchanging goodbyes as well. The Buffaloes were the only team that could even pretend to challenge the Sooners for Big 7 conference supremacy for a few years in the 1950s (they never actually won, but they put up a better fight than most), and the two teams played a series of entertaining battles in the 1970s and early 1990s. They are finished as well.
The consequences of this summer's Expansion-a-palooza are coming to the forefront, and the farewell tours for both Colorado and Nebraska have reached the halfway point. Next up, the Buffs will head to Lawrence for the final time, while Nebraska will travel east to Ames (presumably hoping to avoid another eight-turnover tragicomedy). One time zone to the left, TCU (No. 3 in the latest BCS standings) and Utah (No. 5) will face off in Salt Lake City in what is quite possible the biggest mid-major battle ever. Next season, Utah is off to a major conference, and it might not be long until TCU follows suit.
For college football, this is seismic change. A couple of decades ago, Arkansas left behind some bitter rivalries for the greener (as in, money) pastures of the SEC, but this doesn't happen often. The question, of course, is ... Does this even matter? Will the world stop spinning if Nebraska and Iowa State don't play every fall? Of course not. Iowa State now trades the Huskers for annual battles with Texas A&M (natural geographic rivals, if there ever were such a thing) and Missouri will now use Oklahoma and/or Texas for their annual "Where are we as a program?" yardstick test. Meanwhile, instead of going out of their way to tell people that Missouri and Colorado aren't up to being their rivals, Nebraska fans can do the same to Wisconsin and Iowa. The college football world goes round just the same.
But these past few weeks have shown us the repercussions of conference realignment, even if in a much smaller dose than we expected. Change is fine, but for a sport as layered in history as college football, change is still a somewhat scary thing.
As summer turned to autumn, the Big 12 braced for a strong dose of "this will take some getting used to" change with Colorado and Nebraska heading for the exits. Nobody, however, was prepared for the "stock up on canned goods and bottled water" change that exists in the following sentence: Halfway through Big 12 play, Baylor leads the Big 12 South. Sure, they are tied with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the loss column. And sure, they still have to play both the Cowboys (in Stillwater) and Sooners (in Waco). But still ... Baylor is not only bowl eligible, but they are in contention for the final South title, and they just headed down to Austin and knocked off the reeling (if that is a strong enough word) Texas Longhorns.
Baylor 30, Texas 22
|Close %||100.0%||STANDARD DOWNS|
|Field Position %||40.3%||57.1%||Success Rate||46.3%||44.0%|
|Close Success Rate||37.1%||42.9%||Success Rate||19.1%||40.7%|
|Close Success Rate||34.3%||44.4%||Turnover Pts||9.0||10.0|
|Close PPP||0.25||0.33||Turnover Pts Margin||+1.0||-1.0|
|Line Yards/carry||1.02||3.27||Q1 S&P||0.669||0.550|
|Close Success Rate||40.7%||41.5%|
|Close PPP||0.48||0.20||1st Down S&P||0.805||0.659|
|Close S&P||0.888||0.615||2nd Down S&P||0.166||0.635|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||15.4% / 7.1%||0.0% / 5.3%||3rd Down S&P||1.209||0.858|
|Projected Pt. Margin: Baylor +2.8 | Actual Pt. Margin: Baylor +8
Turnovers and EqPts suggested a Baylor win, but the Bears held a safer margin thanks to a couple of key developments:
1. A Texas offense that had been retooled for rushing and power in the offseason couldn't move the ball in the Baylor red zone. The Longhorns ran 15 plays inside the Baylor 25, and two were deemed successful (a 13 percent success rate). They were 1-for-8 on the ground and 1-for-7 in the air. Their red zone S&P: 0.456 (Baylor's: 0.722). Justin Tucker had to kick five field goals. Despite solid line yardage and dominance in the field position battle, Texas couldn't move the ball when it counted and lost because of it.
2. Baylor barely did anything on passing downs, but when they did, they really did. Baylor threw 14 times on passing downs, and only three resulted in successes. Those three: a 59-yard touchdown pass from Robert Griffin III to Terrance Williams, and passes of 11 yards (on third-and-10) and 30 (on third-and-9) to Kendall Wright on the drive that put Baylor up 30-19. The Bears picked their spots extremely well, and now they are 4-1 in conference.
Can Baylor keep this up? The Bears rank 44th in S&P+, thanks to the fact that their defense ranks 113th in Defensive S&P+. Their red zone defense saved them against Texas, but they have toed the line a little too closely in the "bend, don't break" department. The way the schedule sets up, Baylor and Oklahoma State play in something resembling a Big 12 South elimination game this weekend in Stillwater. The winner will possibly get an opportunity to win the conference outright when they host Oklahoma later in the month (the Sooners have a tough home stretch: at Texas A&M, Texas Tech, at Baylor, at Oklahoma State). The loser will have to hope for a crazy logjam at 6-2. Regardless, this is not exactly the race we expected to get as the Big 12 South is decided for the final time. Seriously, Baylor is atop their division. I am a big fan of Robert "Hot Tub" Griffin north of Waco, but I never even slightly envisioned this scenario. In this crazy, unstable year in college football, the fact that a Baylor-Syracuse Fiesta Bowl matchup is still at least a sliver of a possibility in November just might take the cake. Sic 'em, Bears.
No. 1 Auburn 51, Ole Miss 31
EqPts: Auburn 35.9, Ole Miss 25.0
T/O Pts: Ole Miss +0.6
Auburn > Ole Miss +10.3
No. 2 Oregon 53, No. 24 USC 32
EqPts: Oregon 39.3, USC 21.9
T/O Pts: Oregon +2.2
Oregon > USC +19.6
Both No. 1 teams -- Auburn (BCS) and Oregon (AP) -- comfortably survived what could have been dicey road challenges. Ole Miss scored in the first 30 seconds on Auburn; the Rebs and Tigers were tied 14-14 after one quarter. Meanwhile, USC surged ahead of Oregon, 32-29, early in the third quarter. In the end, however, but challengers succumbed to extreme offensive pressure, and the streak of No. 1 teams losing ended at three weeks. Oregon's win reflected better -- it was by a stronger statistical margin, and against a better team to boot -- but it's pretty clear at this point that if both teams win out, they will meet in Arizona for all the marbles.
No. 3 Boise State 49, Louisiana Tech 20
EqPts: Boise State 34.7, Louisiana Tech 24.5
T/O Pts: Louisiana Tech +1.6
Boise State > Louisiana Tech +8.6
Boise State's performance was far from impressive, and the statistics suggest this game should have been much closer, but it wasn't tight enough to prevent the Broncos from assuming the No. 1 spot in this week's S&P+ rankings. Ohio State messed around for a while before pulling away from Minnesota, and apparently that is a more egregious sin than doing the same with Louisiana Tech.
No. 18 Iowa 37, No. 5 Michigan State 6
EqPts: Iowa 25.0, Michigan State 8.8
T/O Pts: Iowa +14.5
Iowa > Michigan State +30.7
The undefeated Spartans met their demise in every possible way at the hands of the Hawkeyes. The Spartans produced all of 1.2 EqPts on the ground, and they were almost tripled in Close S&P, 1.273 to 0.457. Iowa never gave Sparty even a glimmer of hope.
No. 14 Nebraska 31, No. 6 Missouri 17
EqPts: Nebraska 30.0, Missouri 19.0
T/O Pts: Nebraska +3.6
Missouri's defeat at the hands of Nebraska was similar to Michigan State's, only the Tigers did manage to bounce back a bit from a rough start. Nebraska, however, has one of the best standard downs offenses and passing downs defenses in college football. In other words, they are not a team to which you would want to spot a 24-0 lead before beginning to play (First-Quarter S&P: Nebraska 2.161, Missouri 0.210). Nebraska now controls its Big 12 North destiny.
N.C. State 28, No. 16 Florida State 24
EqPts: N.C. State 22.8, Florida State 21.0
T/O Pts: N.C. State +0.2
N.C. State > Florida State +1.6
The cruelest finish of the weekend was also one of the tightest games, both in the box score and on the field. The Wolfpack won when Christian Ponder attempted a play-action pass inside the N.C. State 10 with time running out. After the play-fake, the Florida State running back grazed Ponder's hand, and the ball slipped out. N.C. State recovered the ball and won. Although the ACC might appear to be lacking in quality, there is at least a good division race to watch -- N.C. State, Florida State and Maryland each have one loss in the Atlantic Division. (Virginia Tech leads the Coastal by a game and a half with four to play.)
Virginia 24, No. 22 Miami 19
EqPts: Virginia 20.4, Miami 20.1
T/O Pts: Virginia +16.8
Virginia > Miami +17.1
Miami was threatening to lay an egg even before Jacory Harris was knocked senseless, but the most amazing part of this game was the fact that Miami was almost able to pull it out despite complete statistical domination.
No. 20 South Carolina 38, Tennessee 24
EqPts: South Carolina 28.0, Tennessee 22.2
T/O Pts: South Carolina +7.2
South Carolina > Tennessee +13.0
As Oregon learned earlier, you cannot let Tennessee hang around, even in Knoxville, if you want to maintain a perch near the top of the S&P+ rankings. The Gamecocks fell six spots despite what was still a relatively easy win over the once-proud Volunteers.
Florida 34, Georgia 31
EqPts: Florida 28.6, Georgia 22.3
T/O Pts: Florida > Georgia +23.5
Florida > Georgia +29.8
Georgia lived dangerously all game long in the Game Formerly Known As The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Will Hill picked off Aaron Murray in overtime to close Georgia's possession, and Chas Henry punched in an easy 37-yard field goal for the win, turnovers finally did in the Bulldogs. Georgia now falls back below .500 at 4-5 and must beat Idaho State and either Auburn or (more likely) Georgia Tech to become bowl eligible. Mark Richt will still likely (and justifiably) survive this season with his job intact, but Georgia is 0-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less this season. They have not done themselves, or Richt, any favors.
Tulsa 28, Notre Dame 27
EqPts: Notre Dame 25.9, Tulsa 15.2
T/O Pts: Tulsa +4.7
Notre Dame > Tulsa +5.4
So the statistics say that Notre Dame should have won. That's, um, some consolation, right? But with the week that the Notre Dame family had, simply being on the field and allowing for a distraction from their mourning was a bit of consolation in and of itself, I guess -- if only a brief (and insufficient) one.
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Nine Weeks)|
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Nine Weeks)|
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Nine Weeks)|
Duke (17 spots, from 81st to 64th). The Blue Devils showed their first signs of life in a while by knocking off Navy (who, as a result, fell 13 spots).
Boston College (16 spots, from 75th to 59th). We at Football Outsiders love program consistency, and the Eagles had that in droves heading into this season. They lost five of seven to start 2010, and they still are a bit of a bowl long shot at this point, but they have certainly improved in recent weeks.
Oregon (11 spots, from 29th to 18th). My theory was that, even though Oregon was ranked criminally low this late in the season, their schedule strength would begin to help them out. By eventually plowing through USC (last week's No. 15 team in the S&P+ rankings), the Ducks began to improve their stock quite a bit. If they dominate a Jake Locker-less Washington team this weekend and finish the season by taking care of business against Arizona and Oregon State, they still have a very good chance of finishing high in the rankings.
Texas (11 spots, from 53rd to 42nd). Situational failures, like those suffered by Texas on Saturday, are not heavily punished by the S&P+ formulas. Therefore Texas managed to improve their rankings while losing at home to Baylor, primarily because they held a Top 15 offense mostly in check and moved the ball a little bit. Again, this is a small consolation.
Other Rises: Air Force (55th to 40th), Penn State (60th to 48th), Oregon State (22nd to 11th), Florida Atlantic (99th to 88th), Central Florida (42nd to 32nd), Tennessee (67th to 58th), Virginia (71st to 62nd).
North Carolina (16 spots, from 37th to 53rd). William & Mary is a good FCS team, but flirtation with defeat against a top-tier FCS team is not a good way to maintain a Top 50 ranking in such a parity-heavy season. Just ask Virginia Tech. Oh, wait.
California (15 spots, from 19th to 34th). The 4-4 Golden Bears have now won games by 28, 33, 45 and 49, and lost games by 21, 28 and 34. The only close game they have played all season was their 10-9 loss to Arizona. This is a long way of saying I don't understand this team.
Colorado (15 spots, from 39th to 54th). They never had a chance in Norman, and the ratings punished them for the loss more than they rewarded Oklahoma for the win.
Georgia (10 spots, from 16th to 26th). They might have taken Florida to overtime, but statistically, it shouldn't have been close.
Other Tumbles: Army (63rd to 84th), San Diego State (61st to 74th), Navy (58th to 71st), Florida International (69th to 81st), Troy (59th to 70th), Southern Miss (50th to 60th), Kentucky (34th to 43rd), USC (15th to 24th).
I spent a good portion of my weekend driving to and from Lincoln for the aforementioned Missouri-Nebraska game, so I didn't see a lot of football on television. I did hear quite a bit on the radio on the drive home, however, and my morbid sense of humor got the better of me. I just cannot tell you how demoralized the Minnesota radio crew sounded as the Golden Gophers were falling apart in the third quarter against Ohio State. All the necessary comic elements were in place -- long pauses, audible sighs, random subject changes. It was a far more enjoyable listen than it had any right to be, even as I was feeling sorry for the crew the whole time.
14 comments, Last at 04 Nov 2010, 12:03pm by Bill Connelly