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?
19 Oct 2010
by Bill Connelly
There can only be one greatest movie of all-time, and it is clearly Say Anything... (1989). Sure, you might vote for Citizen Kane or The Godfather, but Charles Foster Kane and Michael Corleone only wish they had the same level of wisdom and self-awareness as Lloyd Dobler. When Lloyd's guidance counselor harangues him about not having a career path, he gives the line I wish every Harris Poll voter would say to himself (or herself) before filling out ballots at the end of the weekend: "I mean, a lot of them think they have to know, right? But inside they don't really know, so ... I don't know. But I know that I don't know."
For the last couple of weeks, I have taken to Twitter to post updated S&P+ rankings (and, later in the week, F/+ rankings) as they are derived. When I posted this week's rankings (found below) on Sunday night, reaction was skeptical, to say the least. Ohio State is still No. 1? The top undefeated team is No. 4? The second-ranked undefeated team is Missouri? One person suggested I go back to the drawing board since these ratings don't pass the "eyeball test."
Who does pass the eyeball test this season? If we were able to create an alternate universe where there were no preseason preconceptions or historical assumptions about teams, who would we think is the best team in the country? Oregon, which dilly-dallied with Tennessee and Washington State and needed turnovers to beat Arizona State? Boise State, whose marquee wins came against teams that also lost to James Madison and Washington? Oklahoma, which won one-possession games against Utah State and Air Force? Alabama, which has a loss and sleep-walked through this weekend's Ole Miss game? Ohio State, which lost to Wisconsin and ... well, you get the idea. For all we know, Michigan State has been the best team in the country. The Spartans have as much of a claim to the top spot as about ten other teams do. Or maybe, God forbid, it's LSU. Every single theoretical top five team has at least a semi-serious flaw on its resume.
Seven weeks into the season, I have no idea. And I know that I don't know. There's a calm that comes with admitting it.
If the S&P+ ratings tell you anything right now, it's that nothing has even come close to being settled. The best teams have probably already lost games. While I have a few questions about this week's "+" rankings (for instance, how does South Carolina blow a big lead to Kentucky and rise one spot?), I also know that they have just as many questions yet to be answered as I do. And if they further the narrative that we don't know a thing as we head into Week 8, I am all right with that. Gray area may not make for gripping storylines, but gray area is what we've got. And I, for one, am enjoying the hell out if it.
Ohio State lost on Saturday, but most people seem to think that Buckeyes will be hovering around the top of the BCS standings at season's end. It does not appear that anybody is on record thinking the same thing about Nebraska.
Perhaps the most jarring sight of the weekend was watching Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez look like a passing-challenged freshman (which he is) at the hands of the Texas defense. Martinez made poor decisions, the Huskers' skill position players showed the same "catch the ball and hold onto it" inability that they showed in last year's eight-turnover debacle against Iowa State, and a Nebraska team that was apparently too psyched up to get revenge on Texas failed to come close to revenge.
Texas 20, Nebraska 13
|Close %||83.5%||STANDARD DOWNS|
|Field Position %||43.6%||40.0%||Success Rate||40.5%||41.5%|
|Close Success Rate||35.6%||29.8%||Success Rate||20.0%||12.5%|
|Close Success Rate||40.9%||27.3%||Turnover Pts||0||5.1|
|Close PPP||0.29||0.05||Turnover Pts Margin||+5.1||-5.1|
|Line Yards/carry||3.25||1.74||Q1 S&P||0.702||0.323|
|Close Success Rate||20.0%||35.7%|
|Close PPP||0.20||0.22||1st Down S&P||0.481||0.429|
|Close S&P||0.405||0.574||2nd Down S&P||0.593||0.300|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||0.0% / 0.0%||0.0% / 8.3%||3rd Down S&P||0.778||0.528|
|Projected Pt. Margin: Texas +14.4 | Actual Pt. Margin: Texas +7|
I didn't see this coming. I expected Texas to slow Martinez down considerably, but I expected something like a 13-7 Nebraska win. I had no inclination that Texas would be able to move the ball on offense. Nebraska is vulnerable on the ground, but Texas hadn't been able to run consistently and Nebraska's pass defense is ferocious. The matchups just didn't seem to work out for the Longhorns.
Clearly, Nebraska didn't know that the Longhorns would use Garrett Gilbert as their primary running threat through much of the first half. Gilbert caught the aggressive Huskers over-pursuing and ran for 57 yards as Texas built a 17-3 lead in the second quarter. Even if the Longhorns hadn't generated a yard after that (and they barely did), those 17 points would have held up with the way the Texas defense was playing -- and the way Nebraska receivers were dropping passes.
Added bonus: now you know what a defensive slugfest looks like when given the Varsity Numbers Box Score treatment. Field position percentages below 50 percent, leverage rates below 70 percent, S&P's either barely over 0.600 or much lower than that. Texas' first half spurt won what was really not an extraordinarily watchable game. Really, the most exciting aspects were Eric Hagg's improbable return of Justin Tucker's pooch kick (why Nebraska went for an onside kick after that, with three minutes remaining and two timeouts, I have no idea) and the morbidly enjoyable screenshots of distraught Nebraska fans in body paint or corn garb.
As always, if you are interested in seeing the projected scores for any games other than the ten listed below, either make the request in comments or on Twitter (to @FO_College).
Wisconsin 31, Ohio State 18
EqPts: Wisconsin 19.8, Ohio State 17.5
T/O Pts: Ohio State +1.8
Wisconsin > Ohio State +0.5
Ohio State maintained its top spot in the S&P+ rankings because they fought Wisconsin to a statistical draw. The main difference between the real and projected score came when David Gilreath returned the game's opening kickoff for a touchdown. Like Texas, Wisconsin got a lion's share of its points early, then held on for dear life as the lead was threatened. The Badgers deserve major props for responding with a touchdown drive in the fourth quarter when Ohio State had gotten to within 21-18. It felt like another late loss to the Buckeyes was inevitable, but Wisconsin made the plays.
Auburn 65, Arkansas 43
EqPts: Auburn 37.3, Arkansas 35.5
T/O Pts: Auburn +18.4
Auburn > Arkansas +20.2
This incredibly odd (and long) game saw the emergence of Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton as a likely leader in the Heisman race, a surge from backup Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson after Mallett got hurt, and a crazy, 28-0 run from Auburn to end the game. Auburn fans were likely relieved to see the Tigers put a game away before the final minute this time, eh? It went against their M.O., but it worked out just fine for them.
And yes, the first thing I did when Auburn hit 65 was start looking for a recent Auburn-Arkansas basketball game with fewer than 108 points. Alas, Arkansas' 65-57 win in 2007 was the closest I got.
Mississippi State 10, Florida 7
EqPts: Florida 15.5, Mississippi State 13.5
T/O Pts: Mississippi State +9.8
Mississippi State > Florida +7.8
Another result I did not see coming. You had to figure Mississippi State would stay competitive thanks to Dan Mullen's inside knowledge of Urban Meyer's program and tendencies, but I still didn't think the Bulldogs would hold the Gators to just a touchdown. Turnovers made the difference in this one. The Gators gained twice as much as they scored, but they gave away a lot too. With Tim Brewster gone in Minnesota and sanity (and winning) at least temporarily prevailing with Mark Richt at Georgia, Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio is now potentially the most popular "On the hot seat" name in college football.
Michigan State 26, Illinois 6
EqPts: Michigan State 19.1, Illinois 3.7
T/O Pts: Michigan State +17.9
Michigan State > Illinois +33.3
Taylor Martinez was not the only redshirt freshman quarterback who was forced far out of his comfort zone on Saturday. Now we know what happens if opponents force Nathan Scheelhaase to pass: bad things. Whether this was a speed bump or the beginning of the end for Illinois' momentum, we shall see.
Alabama 23, Ole Miss 10
EqPts: Alabama 19.9, Ole Miss 10.4
T/O Pts: Alabama +4.8
Alabama > Ole Miss +14.3
Ole Miss never stood a chance, and Alabama never bothered to throw a knockout punch. They just seemed content to run out the clock.
USC 48, California 14
EqPts: USC 41.7, California 13.8
T/O Pts: USC +5.1
USC > California +33.0
Last week, while listing California as a possible upset winner (whoops), I asked if California would be able to overcome what appears to be an epic mental block it had suffered in recent games against USC. The answer: not so much. The depressing loss, in which the Trojans took a 42-0 lead before halftime, answered a lot of questions about the Golden Bears, unfortunately. Were they possible sleepers with their high S&P+ ranking? No. Not at all.
Iowa 38, Michigan 28
EqPts: Iowa 29.6, Michigan 27.4
T/O Pts: Iowa +16.4
Iowa > Michigan +18.6
For a while earlier in the season, Iowa's offense outranked its defense. That is no longer the case, but Ricky "America: Love It Or Leave It" Stanzi was efficient enough to overcome the Denard Robinson-Tate Forcier combination (Robinson got hurt once again), and a big win in the turnovers column allowed Iowa to maintain some space.
Missouri 30, Texas A&M 9
EqPts: Missouri 28.9, Texas A&M 18.3
T/O Pts: none
Missouri > Texas A&M +10.6
Mizzou went on cruise control after going up 30-3 in the third quarter. A&M gained 209 yards in the first three quarters, then put up 170 in the fourth. This was a dominant Missouri performance against a team that had lost by a combined nine points to Oklahoma State and Arkansas (away from home). The defense racked up seven sacks, and Blaine Gabbert had the most consistent, assured game in his career as the Tigers' starting quarterback. Mizzou now faces a tough test this weekend against Oklahoma. Between Homecoming, Gameday, and Mizzou's recent history against the Sooners, maintaining emotions and composure might be the Tigers' tallest task.
Oklahoma State 34, Texas Tech 17
EqPts: Oklahoma State 32.7, Texas Tech 20.3
T/O Pts: Texas Tech +1.0
Oklahoma State > Texas Tech +11.4
The Cowboys cleared another hurdle with relative ease. Lubbock is never an easy place to play, but the 'Pokes put together more than enough offense. It is quite possible that the two best receivers in the country play in the state of Oklahoma (OSU's Justin Blackmon and Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles).
Miami 28, Duke 13
EqPts: Miami 25.2, Duke 8.6
T/O Pts: Miami +22.6
Miami > Duke +39.2
We'll take a closer look at the Hurricanes on Friday, but this dominant statistical performance prevented them from falling too far in the S&P+ rankings. However, it is a little alarming that Miami only won by 15 when the stats say the Hurricanes should have won by close to 40.
Full rankings here.
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Seven Weeks)|
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Seven Weeks)|
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Seven Weeks)|
Texas (25 spots, from 46th to 21st). Their dominance of a previously untouchable Nebraska offense bumped their Defensive S&P+ ranking from 27th to third.
Hawaii (22 spots, from 49th to 27th). Quietly, Hawaii has put together a nice resume. They gave USC a scare, beat Army in the longest road trip of all-time, led Colorado for a half (OK, so leading Colorado by only a half is not amazing), dominated Fresno State and Louisiana Tech, and knocked off a ranked Nevada team. With remaining games against UNLV, San Jose State, New Mexico State and Idaho, suddenly the Rainbow Warriors are looking at a potential double-digit win season.
Wisconsin (11 spots, from 27th to 16th). I said last week that Wisconsin had plenty of opportunity to improve its lot in life -- the team did just that with a win over the No. 1 Buckeyes.
Other Rises: Miami (Ohio) (111th to 90th), East Carolina (50th to 35th), Florida International (88th to 73rd), UAB (90th to 76th), Maryland (80th to 67th), Army (87th to 74th), Louisiana Tech (98th to 85th), Navy (77th to 65th), Wyoming (89th to 78th), Rice (110th to 99th), North Carolina (39th to 29th).
Houston (28 spots, from 52nd to 80th). Apparently there is a "You cannot lose to Rice and remain ranked 79th or higher" clause in the S&P+ rankings.
Indiana (17 spots, from 85th to 102nd). Apparently there is also a "You cannot almost lose to Arkansas State and remain ranked in the Top 100" clause. Minnesota, Indiana, and Kansas all now rank below Washington State among BCS conference teams.
California (17 spots, from eighth to 25th). California certainly wasn't the eighth-best team in the country. They might not be the 25th-best either. Course corrections happen eventually.
Other tumbles: Idaho (82nd to 104th), Tulane (93rd to 106th), Clemson (28th to 40th), UNLV (105th to 116th), Utah (24th to 34th).
I'm slipping on my "fan" hat for a moment to share my favorite moment of the weekend. It didn't even take place in a college football game. Early Sunday afternoon, Danario Alexander made a nice diving catch of a Sam Bradford pass in the St. Louis Rams' upset of the San Diego Chargers. It was such a rewarding experience for Missouri fans who watched him rehab from knee injury after knee injury.
Alexander was a key component for Missouri's offense late in the 2007 season -- he caught eight passes for 117 yards when the Tigers beat Kansas to move to No. 1 in the BCS standings on Thanksgiving weekend. When he tore up his knee against Oklahoma, the Mizzou offense (which was already missing Chase Coffman) slowed. After damaging his knee again while rehabbing, Alexander managed to return for the 2008 season, but he was never 100 percent healthy. In 2009, he finally got healthy and posted disgusting numbers -- 113 catches, 1,781 yards, 14 touchdowns (the last four games of the regular season: 49 catches, 820 yards, six touchdowns). He was as deserving of the Biletnikoff Award as anybody last season but came up short because he wasn't on the preseason watch list (those three words are obscenities in the Connelly household).
When Alexander injured his knee yet again while trying to impress pro scouts, it broke Mizzou fans' hearts. But he rehabbed yet again, signed with the Rams as an undrafted free agent, and caught four passes for 72 yards and the aforementioned touchdown yesterday in his NFL debut. (The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Bryan Burwell wrote a great column about him yesterday.) You have to search for a while to find a person more dedicated and deserving of success than Danario Alexander, and, to use a Bill Simmons-ism, it got a little dusty in the house when Alexander came up with the ball in the end zone. Players like that are why fans get so emotionally invested in college football despite the rash of bad player behavior.
18 comments, Last at 19 Oct 2010, 9:39pm by bigtencrazy