Denver: great team, or the greatest team? Would you be satisfied with "one of the ten greatest teams?" Plus: hard times in the NFC South, where defense goes to die.
15 Oct 2010
by Bill Connelly
In 1999, Lou Holtz's first season in Columbia, the Gamecocks went 0-11 and scored 87 total points. The very next year, they went 8-4 and whipped Ohio State in the Outback Bowl. Turner Gill better hope for some Holtzian second-year magic, as his first season is becoming an amazing one for all the wrong reasons. Kansas' 59-7 loss to Kansas State Thursday (the same Kansas State team that got run off the field by Nebraska on October 7) was the third "Worst Kansas loss ever" candidate from this season alone. The Jayhawks' 6-3 loss to North Dakota State in Gill's debut was really bad, and the 55-7 road loss to Baylor was worse. But this could very well be the worst of all. The Jayhawks have now been outscored 114-14 by two average-at-best Big 12 programs, and they could very well go 0-8 in conference despite the lack of either Oklahoma or Texas on the schedule.
We are quickly seeing the biggest problem with preseason Outsiders projections. We knew that coaching changes cause uncertainty, and we made an attempt back in August to figure out the general impact of coaching changes. But a lot of the teams on which we have whiffed most severely so far -- Tennessee (projection: 20th, current rank: 77th), Kansas (projection: 51st, rank: 102nd before the KSU game), Texas Tech (projection: 18th, rank: 52nd) -- brought in new coaches.
(Two other major misses, BYU and Penn State, have given true freshmen serious playing time at quarterback. But that's for an entirely different column.)
One team on the Surprisingly Good list also brought in some new coaching talent -- it just wasn't in the top spot.
A couple of weeks ago, I took the time to point out a couple of early outliers, teams who seemed to have overachieved statistically in the first few weeks of the season. Needless to say, Kentucky and Virginia have not panned out well as sleepers. Kentucky might be alright in a different conference, but Virginia has done nothing but tumble. They were 25th in the F/+ rankings just two weeks ago, now they rank 60th.
But now we're almost halfway through college football's regular season. Should we make something of the fact that Illinois ranks 21st in F/+ and 10th in S&P+? Do the Illini, who have been reasonably steady all season, have staying power? Their two losses are to F/+ Top 20 teams, both by respectable margins. They just destroyed Penn State in Happy Valley (even though the Nittany Lions clearly are not a great team this year, that is still impressive). They are 3-2 with three extremely winnable home games (Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota) standing between them and bowl eligibility. A season that was supposed to be Ron Zook's final go-round is beginning to show promise.
Is Illinois ... good?
Let's start answering that question by looking at where the S&P+ rankings stood at this point last season. Because of the strength of their early schedule, Tennessee stood at No. 3 with a 3-3 record. Arkansas, at 3-2, was fifth. Nevada and Fresno State, both 2-3, ranked 19th and 22nd. Tennessee went 4-3 the rest of the way and made the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Arkansas finished 8-5 and created strong buzz for 2010. Both Nevada and Fresno State won six of eight to end their seasons in bowls. Though none of them won out or played at a Top 10 level, they all ranked surprisingly high at midseason, and they all played reasonably well down the stretch. There is a precedent here.
Let's say for a moment that the Illini do continue playing well. Let's say they win the three easy home games, beat Fresno State at the end of the season and pull off a road win over Northwestern, Michigan, or (least likely) Michigan State. How will it happen?
Identity. Never underestimate the impact of committing 100 percent to a style and personality of ball. Illinois is exactly who they will be the rest of the season -- a team that runs constantly (76 percent of the time on standard downs and 45 percent on passing downs, eighth and 13th most in the country, respectively), both because they're good at it and because they are protecting their redshirt freshman quarterback, Nathan Scheelhaase, as much as possible. They alternate between pistol, shotgun and behind-center looks; they offer Scheelhaase on the option; they throw big, talented running backs (Mikel Leshoure is a very good back) at you; and they occasionally wing it to shifty receiver A.J. Jenkins in space. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has helped the Illini to establish a unique identity, and they have fully invested in it.
Timing. The Illini pick their spots well. They rarely throw, but when they do, it is effective. They rank first in the country in Passing PPP+, though that has a lot to do with the pass defenses they have faced. They will not finish the season that high, but their timing has been strong.
Tackling. They rank 10th in the country in Defensive PPP+, and despite playing two ranked teams (Ohio State and Missouri), they are allowing fewer than five yards per play. Led by an outstanding set of linebackers -- Martez Wilson, Nate Bussey and Ian Thomas have exceeded all expectations -- they are allowing just 3.7 yards per carry and a semi-respectable 6.1 yards per pass. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has installed a much higher level of discipline in this unit.
In the offseason, it was easy to see Ron Zook's moves -- hiring what seemed like an entirely new coaching staff -- as sure signs of desperation. It was the last-gasp effort to save his job, it seemed, and that rarely works. Five games into this new experiment, with both Petrino and Koenning are thriving, and it looks like it might have just worked.
So what happens if they lose to Michigan State and Indiana on their way to a 4-8 season? How will it happen if things quickly go sour, and I come to realize that I was severely jumping the gun here?
Running Game Could Falter. Looking at the raw play-by-play statistics, you see pretty quickly that their strong "+" rankings have been bolstered mostly by a strong schedule. Illinois ranks just 68nd in raw Rushing Success Rate and 80th in Rushing PPP. With connectivity still a problem this early in the season (and always), the schedule-adjusted numbers could still be telling an inaccurate tale, and if Illinois suddenly can't run, Scheelhaase could be exposed and forced to pass more. That probably will not end well.
No More Element of Surprise. When Illinois came out in a pistol-with-fullback formation against Missouri in the opening week of the season, the Tigers were caught off guard. There was no way to scout what Illinois was going to try to do. But at this point in the season, nobody is going to be surprised. As the "How to stop Scheelhaase" book becomes more and more clear, the second half of the season could kick-start a premature sophomore slump. Meanwhile, their defensive tendencies could be exposed the same way. It is really hard not only to improve, but also to sustain it. Maybe Zook, Petrino, and Koenning have pulled off the feat, but let's see how they do against Michigan State this weekend before jumping to conclusions.
Fascinated by Illinois' continued presence in the S&P+ rankings, I asked the Chicago Tribune's Shannon Ryan, who has been covering the Illini this season, to do an e-mail Q&A about the Illini.
Bill Connelly: It's still early, and the numbers are still fluctuating constantly, but Illinois currently has the 14th-best offense in the country according to our opponent-adjusted S&P+ measure. They are 21st rushing and 14th passing (it's a per-play measure, so it's not looking at the fact that Illinois passes fewer than 20 times per game). How convinced are you that they can keep up this level of performance for another seven games? (Disclaimer: at this point a couple of weeks ago, Virginia also ranked pretty high, but they were pretty clearly a statistical mirage.)
Shannon Ryan: Illinois has already played two of its three or four hardest games, facing Ohio State and Penn State with Michigan State and Michigan left on the schedule. Thanks to their schedule, the Illini don't face the Big Ten's top scoring defense (Iowa) or No. 4 team in total defense (Wisconsin). The Illini played well against the conference's top two pass defenses (Ohio State and Penn State) and No. 1 total defense (Ohio State).
Illinois is certainly a run-oriented offense with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's ability and star-in-the-making running back Mikel Leshoure. But Scheelhaase, a redshirt freshman, has shown progression in his passing and decision making from game to game. He's known for his maturity and for being studious in the film room, and it's showing. While the Illini aren't scoring a ton of points (other than the 33 they dropped on Penn State), it helps that they have a reliable kicker in Derek Dimke, who is 10 of 11 on field goals.
BC: Illinois' offense has improved in 2010 despite handing the reins to a redshirt freshman at quarterback (Nathan Scheelhaase). What do you feel has been the biggest cause for the improvement? Scheelhaase? The new offensive coaches?
SR: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has brought a dramatic change to Champaign. Players talk about his demand for perfection and more aggressive approach. Nathan Scheelhaase is more mature than most freshmen and drives himself to not repeat the same mistake twice. I think giving the ball more to Mikel Leshoure has been a significant part of the Illini's success as well.
BC: I was at the Missouri-Illinois game at the start of the season. I was struck by how few tackles the defense missed. They played disciplined football, and I loved the game Nate Bussey put together (he obviously had another very good one at Penn State). Illinois' defense currently ranks seventh in our Defensive S&P+ measure, third against the run. I'll ask the same question I did of the offense: Is this sustainable?
SR: The defense is the most surprising aspect of Illinois' early turnaround. They lost a significant amount of players from the secondary (Supo Sanni, injury; Walt Aikens, dismissed; Terry Hawthorne, injury), but it has not phased this group. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has stressed tackling, a sore spot last season for the Illini. Bussey has been a solid playmaker and the return of middle linebacker Martez Wilson from a neck injury cannot be overstated. After a few games, he returned to his aggressive form and is part of group of Illini defensive players who have 31 tackles for losses of 132 yards so far this season.
BC: I'm firmly of the belief that if some other Big Ten team (say, Michigan State) were putting together Illinois' current performance -- lose two tight games to undefeated teams, beat the best team in the MAC, kill Penn State in Happy Valley -- people might be taking them more seriously. But since this is Ron Zook and Illinois, they have a lot more to prove before people believe in them. Do you think this is an accurate assessment?
SR: I think that is true, but the skepticism may be warranted. After reaching the Rose Bowl after the 2007 season, expectations were high. For reasons that are tough to determine, the Illini failed miserably at matching those expectations. I think fans are just being cautious before getting too excited. A victory at No. 13 Michigan State would bring about well deserved credit.
BC: What do you think: Do they keep up the strong play at Michigan State this weekend?
SR: Obviously, Michigan State poses the biggest test on the schedule other than Ohio State. The Illini have high confidence after playing well against OSU and beating PSU, so they won't feel jittery heading into East Lansing. I think it's going to be a close game, but I think the Spartans offense (35.8 points) will be tough for the Illini to keep up with.
I had a week to prepare for Illinois' high presence in the rankings. Another team's ranking, however, caught me completely off guard. By simply letting the S&P+ kryptonite known as Washington State hang around for a half, Oregon fell 15 spots in the S&P+ rankings, even as they were vaulting to No. 1 in FEI. It was a perfect illustration of both the differing impact of strength of schedule on two different rating systems, and the hazards of drawing definitive conclusions about teams six weeks into the season, whether you are using numbers or eyeballs.
As I mentioned in the comments section in the early week Varsity Numbers, I think Oregon is one of the best teams in the country. They are frightening on offense and opportunistic on defense. They lost Jeremiah Masoli and, it seems, got better.
So what gives? What do the S&P+ ratings see that nobody else does?
What have they done that a few others couldn't? Two weeks ago, the Ducks absorbed a strong uppercut from Stanford (currently 11th in F/+) before applying a knockout blow of their own. Their 52-31 win over the Cardinal was easily their best outcome of the season. The problem is, most of their other outcomes have been rather ho-hum, at least as far as the ratings are concerned. They humiliated New Mexico (currently 119th out of 120 teams in the F/+ rankings) and Portland State (a "Tier 5" FCS team), and because of that, their ratings did not take much of a beating from playing such lowly teams. But they let Tennessee (current F/+ rank: 77th) hang around for three quarters in Knoxville before applying the knockout blow, and they let lowly Washington State (104th) hang around for two. The way the S&P+ opponent adjustment works, this hurt them quite a bit. Throw in a statistically unimpressive win over Arizona State, and you've got quite the mixed résumé. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if Utah had put this exact set of wins together, we would be touting them as a Top 10 or Top 15 team ... but not a Top 5 team.
If Oregon is a national title-caliber team, their remaining schedule gives them more than enough opportunities to prove it. They'll face UCLA (current F/+ rank: 44th), USC (24th), Washington (45th), California (17th), Arizona (ninth), and Oregon State (12th). In other words, their strength of schedule is about to skyrocket. If they finish 12-0, it is a virtual lock that they will finish, at the very least, in the Top 5 of both S&P+ and F/+.
Logjam. When you take a look at the F/+ rankings below, you will see that Oregon ranks 18th, behind four two-loss teams. You can use this as evidence that the whole S&P+ method (FEI is in the clear, since Oregon ranks first) is a bunch of hooey. Or you can do the following: look at the logjam.
Let's divide the F/+ Top 25 below according to range.
|Top F/+ Teams by Range|
|+30% or more
||+24% to +30%
||+18% to +24%
Even with the weak schedule, Oregon is potentially just a handful of good or bad plays away from sixth in the current F/+ rankings. There is a cluster of close teams ranked between sixth and 18th, and Oregon just happens to rate slightly below the others. In fact, Oregon is about as close to No. 5 Nebraska as No. 2 Alabama is to No. 1 Ohio State at the moment. After the top four, it starts to get quite messy. With a huge win over UCLA next weekend, the Ducks could be right where we all think they belong in the ratings.
But if Oregon falters, then S&P+ is going to start to get a really big head.
The last two weeks have uncovered a potential issue with the F/+ rankings: S&P+ has a much larger standard deviation than FEI, which has meant that teams at the top and bottom the S&P+ list seem to carry a little extra weight. When you see where Miami ranks this week, you'll see that this is still an issue. We might try to make a tweak with that in future weeks. Keep in mind that it's still early. (Remember, Tennessee was No. 3 in S&P+ a year ago. They clearly did not finish No. 3.)
|F/+ Top 25 (After Six Weeks)|
|1||Ohio State (6-0)||+36.1%||2||+1||311.6||1||.216||11|
|3||South Carolina (4-1)||+27.4%||12||+9||266.4||4||.261||3|
|4||Boise State (5-0)||+27.1%||5||+1||264.6||6||.264||2|
|F/+ Top 25 (After Six Weeks)|
|12||Oregon State (3-2)||+20.7%||25||+13||251.7||13||.199||13|
|13||Virginia Tech (4-2)||+20.6%||16||+3||248.9||15||.209||12|
|16||Michigan State (6-0)||+18.9%||26||+10||244.9||18||.194||14|
|19||Florida State (5-1)||+17.1%||24||+5||246.1||17||.154||19|
|F/+ Top 25 (After Six Weeks)|
|23||N.C. State (5-1)||+13.3%||38||+15||225.0||38||.180||15|
26. West Virginia (4-1), 27. Utah (5-0), 28. Oklahoma State (5-0), 29. Notre Dame (3-3), 30. Clemson (2-3), 31. North Carolina (3-2), 32. Michigan (5-1), 33. Wisconsin (5-1), 34. Nevada (6-0), 35. Mississippi State (4-2), 36. Arizona State (3-3), 37. Kentucky (3-3), 38. Pittsburgh (2-3), 39. Georgia (2-4), 40. Ole Miss (3-2), 41. Texas A&M (3-2), 42. Texas (3-2), 43. Central Florida (3-2), 44. UCLA (3-3), 45. Washington (2-3), 46. Vanderbilt (2-3), 47. Georgia Tech (4-2), 48. Kansas State (4-1), 49. Air Force (5-1), 50. Colorado (3-2).
Air Force (AP Rank: 23rd, F/+ Rank: 49th). I am beginning to notice a trend in looking at the F/+ vs AP differences. While mid-major teams seem to hit a glass ceiling in terms of how high they can be ranked -- hence Boise State's fall last week despite a 59-0 win -- they also seem to get a bit over-valued in terms of snagging low Top 25 votes. This makes sense, really. Voters want to give credit to teams for winning games, and programs like Air Force benefit from that. The Falcons looked great in challenging Oklahoma, but they gave up too many points to Colorado State (and didn't score enough against Navy). They certainly have a chance to prove their Top 25 bona fides against an angry San Diego State team this week, and against TCU the next.
Oregon (AP Rank: 2nd, F/+ Rank: 18th). Probably well-covered territory at this point.
Utah (AP Rank: 11th, F/+ Rank: 27th). I expected the Utes to rise more than two spots with their utter demolition of Iowa State in Ames last week.
Wisconsin (AP Rank: 18th, F/+ Rank: 33rd). It wouldn't be an "Over-Appreciated" list without a Wisconsin appearance. Like Air Force, though, the Badgers have ample opportunity to prove themselves -- Ohio State comes calling Saturday night.
Miami (AP Rank: 27th, F/+ Rank: sixth). As surprised as I was about Utah's lack of a rise, Miami's failure to drop in the rankings despite getting waxed by Florida State was potentially even more jarring. Oregon was this week's "What The ...?" team of the Week, but it's safe to say that Miami will be in the hot seat next week -- especially if they fail to sufficiently thump Duke this weekend.
Virginia Tech (AP 'Rank': 29th, F/+ Rank: 16th). Stop the presses! FO likes
Philadelphia Virginia Tech! While we have been a bit self-deprecating about the fact that the Hokies seem to rank highly in our system no matter what they do on the field ... you have to admit that they have looked pretty damn good in recent weeks. They get to feast on Wake Forest and Duke now, with Georgia Tech coming to Blacksburg on November 4. In other words, they will likely be 7-2 and 5-0 in ACC play when they head to Chapel Hill on November 13. Are you ready for the possibility of an ACC champion that lost to James Madison?
Oregon State (AP Rank: 24th, F/+ Rank: 12th). The Beavers benefit from a nice strength of schedule -- they have now played three F/+ Top Ten teams away from home (No. 4 Boise State, No. 8 TCU, and No. 9 Arizona) and have acquitted themselves quite well in the process. As with the last couple of seasons, Oregon State should be a player in the Pac-10 race ... if they can overcome the loss of receiver James Rodgers to injury, anyway.
Arizona (AP Rank: 17th, F/+ Rank: 8th). This is still a strong team despite the loss to Oregon State.
This week: Oregon.
Next week: Miami. You're on notice, Hurricanes.
Just for fun, here's what the BCS Top 10 would look like this week if it only took into account the AP Poll (60 percent) and F/+ rankings (40 percent). Consider it a thought experiment if nothing else.
1. Ohio State (6-0)
2. Boise State (5-0)
3. Nebraska (5-0)
4. Alabama (5-1)
5. TCU (6-0)
6. Auburn (6-0)
7. South Carolina (4-1)
8. Oregon (6-0)
9. Oklahoma (5-0)
10. LSU (6-0)
Louisville over Cincinnati. Spread: Louisville +3 | F/+ Projection: Louisville by 2.9. As strange as it may sound, this is a pretty big game in the Big East race. If Cincinnati can continue its recent momentum by putting up a big score on Louisville, it will be a statement that new coach Butch Jones has figured out his team and that they are ready to challenge for their third straight conference title. Meanwhile, Louisville has quietly played competitive football this year. Their two losses were to F/+ Top 40 teams Kentucky and Oregon State, both by just seven points. They looked far from inspiring in wins over Arkansas State and Eastern Kentucky, but the margin to which they beat lowly Memphis (56-0) was impressive. They boast an F/+ rank of 53rd, and while they probably are not conference contenders by any means (though in the Big East, you never know), a win over the Bearcats would get them rolling back toward bowl eligibility in their first year under Charlie Strong.
Missouri over Texas A&M. Spread: Missouri +3.5 | F/+ Projection: Missouri by 8.1. This is a really interesting game in terms of "strength vs. weakness" matchups. Missouri ranks ninth in the country in turnover margin, while A&M ranks 116th, thanks primarily to quarterback Jerrod Johnson's propensity for interceptions and fumbles. On the other hand, Mizzou quarterback Blaine Gabbert has struggled in previous attempts against a three-man front, and A&M has the speed in their offensive backfield to which Mizzou might be vulnerable. Really, this is as even a matchup as you could imagine. Whichever team exploits the other's weaknesses the most will come away victorious.
California over USC. Spread: California +2.5 | F/+ Projection: California by 5.5. This matchup pits a team ready start living up to its lofty F/+ rankings (I'm sure everybody on the Cal football team knows exactly where they rank in S&P+, ahem) against a team trying desperately to keep things together after back-to-back last-second losses. Can USC avoid the negative momentum? Can Cal overcome the mental block that seems to strike them against the Trojans (four of their last five games against USC have resulted in losses by at least 14 points ... albeit against USC teams quite different from this one)?
Oklahoma State over Texas Tech. Spread: OSU +3.5 | F/+ Projection: OSU by 6.5. As the line shows, it is difficult to pick Oklahoma State to win in Lubbock when they haven't done so since Bing Crosby's "Swinging on a Star" was a hit (1944). But this is one of the Cowboys' better opportunities to do so. The game might last five hours with all the quick passing, but to the extent that recent performance matters, OSU certainly holds the edge in this one ... as long as they don't wait until the third quarter to get rolling like they did last week against La.-Lafayette.
In honor of South Carolina's big win last weekend ...
"Goin' Down South," by R.L. Burnside
"South Bound Suarez," by Led Zeppelin
"Southern Cross," by Crosby, Stills & Nash
"Southside," by Common
"Southtown Girls," by The Hold Steady
"The Carolina," by Chatham County Line
"Carolina," by Phish
"Carolina In My Mind," by James Taylor
"Oh My Sweet Carolina," by Ryan Adams
"Carolina Moon," by Thelonious Monk
Any excuse to reference both R.L. Burnside and Thelonious Monk is a good one.
If you follow college football, it has been impossible to miss this week's release of Death to the BCS, an anti-status quo (to put it gently) publication by Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel, Josh Peter, and Jeff Passan. Early reviews (and there are plenty of them at the moment) point to exhaustive research and investigation, and I am all for it. I have not gotten a chance to read it yet (How do I get on the "Send him a free copy of anything related to college football" list?), but it has me curious.
I have never been a heavy-duty playoff proponent. I will not object if or when a playoff is instituted, but I don't significantly mind the "two-team playoff" structure that we have now. (For one thing, playoffs do not always crown the most "deserving" champion either. We want a playoff because of excitement as much as anything ... not that there is anything wrong with that.) Sometimes four or six teams deserve a legitimate shot at the national title, but at other times (2007, for instance), nobody really does. My imagination goes wild when thinking about a playoff (in fact, I've already drawn up the perfect one), but my eyes have always glazed over when I see somebody going on an anti-BCS diatribe. What I hope to see from Death to the BCS, when I get the chance to read it, is simply why "the BCS" is the enemy instead of the overall college football structure. To me, the BCS has long been an improvement over the previous system. We may disagree on which two teams should rank No. 1 and No. 2 at the end of the regular season (and to say the least, the rankings process itself could be improved drastically) ... but at least we actually get a No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup this way. It very rarely happened before the BCS (and its Bowl Alliance predecessor) came into play.
If you want to rage against college football's status quo and the people who ensure that it remains the status quo, then I'm all ears. But labeling the BCS itself as the enemy has always struck me as extremely misguided -- as if the higher-ups were almost ready to put a playoff together before the BCS folks stormed the gates and got their way. I look forward to giving Wetzel, Peter, and Passan a chance to change my mind on that.
38 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2010, 10:36am by Kevin from Philly