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.
07 Dec 2010
by Bill Connelly
So now it's all set; the final weekend of college football's regular season (sans Army-Navy) is in the books. There was craziness to be found if you were looking for it this weekend -- Arizona State blocked two extra-point attempts to beat Arizona, Pittsburgh wore all white uniforms in a snow storm and looked like floating helmets, Connecticut almost threw a devastating pick-6, then drilled a 52-yard field goal to clinch a BCS bowl bid. But there were no game-changers. Auburn and Oregon took care of business as expected and moved on to the national title game, and favorites Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, and Central Florida won their conference title games (only the MAC title game was an upset).
In the previous seven seasons, only seven different teams had played for the BCS national title -- Alabama, Florida, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Texas, and USC. In the BCS' 12-year history, only 12 teams had fought for all the marbles. This season, two newcomers duke it out. Granted, they both have suffered BCS near-misses in the past (Oregon was barely topped by Nebraska for a spot in 2001, while undefeated Auburn was a step behind Oklahoma and USC in 2004), but for the half-glacier, half-oligarchy that is college football, this is unprecedented parity. That Auburn and Oregon could quite possibly put on a tremendously entertaining show is just a bonus.
How did they cross their final minefield and reach the title game? Let's break out the double box score treatment today.
With bowl season set and ready to unfold in a 24-day period starting in 11 days, it has become clear that the 2010 season will end up having been defined (hopefully for better, possibly for worse) by one man: Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton. It seemed he was capable of single-handedly defeating a very good defensive team in South Carolina all by his lonesome. Instead, his supporting cast put together one of its best efforts of the season as well, and the result was an absolute massacre.
Auburn 56, South Carolina 17
|Auburn||S. Caro.||Auburn||S. Caro.|
|Close %||70.1%||STANDARD DOWNS|
|Field Position %||47.9%||38.1%||Success Rate||46.0%||50.0%|
|Close Success Rate||46.9%||46.7%||Success Rate||61.9%||36.8%|
|Close Success Rate||39.1%||50.0%||Turnover Pts||4.5||12.8|
|Close PPP||0.29||0.27||Turnover Pts Margin||+8.3||-8.3|
|Line Yards/carry||2.48||3.77||Q1 S&P||1.365||0.907|
|Close Success Rate||53.9%||44.8%|
|Close PPP||0.90||0.33||1st Down S&P||0.558||0.808|
|Close S&P||1.435||0.781||2nd Down S&P||1.537||0.688|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||0.0% / 0.0%||15.0% / 0.0%||3rd Down S&P||1.584||0.682|
|Projected Pt. Margin: Auburn +32.1 | Actual Pt. Margin: Auburn +29|
You have to feel for South Carolina head ball coach Steve Spurrier and his defensive staff. Auburn's lowly first-down S&P and mediocre Leverage rate suggests that the game plan they put together to stop the mighty Auburn offense was strong. Unfortunately, when the game plan broke down and Auburn leaned on Cam Newton to make a play, he did so almost every time.
Your Passing Downs S&P is not supposed to be better than your Standard Downs S&P, not unless your quarterback's name is Colt McCoy, anyway. But Auburn's offense was almost twice as good on passing downs as standard downs. Newton was the reason. His ability to avoid the pass rush, dish out punishment on the ground, and throw a beautiful deep ball is just an unfair combination.
Passing Down No. 1 (second-and-9, Auburn 24): Newton to Darvin Adams for 62 yards.
Passing Down No. 2 (second-and-8, S.C. 12): Newton to Onterio McCalebb for 12 yards and a touchdown.
Passing Down No. 3 (second-and-9, Auburn 41): Newton to Adams for 11 yards.
Passing Down No. 5 (third-and-12, Auburn 50): Newton rush for 20 yards.
Passing Down No. 7 (third-and-10, S.C. 30): Newton to Adams for 13 yards.
Passing Down No. 8 (third-and-6, Auburn 46): Newton to Adams for 54 yards.
It is staggering to think of the line Adams might have had without a couple of costly drops as Auburn's offense began to stagnate in the second quarter. Even with the drops, his 217 receiving yards were an SEC championship game record. But Newton's ability to buy time by avoiding the rush or, depending on the play, scare the defense into not rushing at all, gave him all the time he needed to find open man after open man. It is almost cliche at this point to drop superlatives regarding his passing ability and the fact that it is leaps and bounds ahead of recent dual-threat quarterbacks -- Tim Tebow, Michael Vick, Vince Young, etc. -- but it is leaps and bounds ahead of everybody. He has tortured defenses all year, and he will win the Heisman in a walk because of it.
Unlike Lee Corso's mascot head, Oregon left Corvallis unscathed and unthreatened on Saturday. Sure, Oregon State hung around as long as possible (and judging by the projected score, much longer than they should have), but the outcome was never in doubt. Darron Thomas, LaMichael James and company will head to Arizona for the title game, no matter how much S&P+ dislikes them!
Oregon 37, Oregon State 20
|Close %||82.8%||STANDARD DOWNS|
|Field Position %||52.1%||56.9%||Success Rate||44.4%||42.9%|
|Close Success Rate||44.4%||36.8%||Success Rate||42.1%||34.8%|
|Close Success Rate||43.9%||41.7%||Turnover Pts||10.0||22.6|
|Close PPP||0.45||0.22||Turnover Pts Margin||+12.6||-12.6|
|Line Yards/carry||3.77||3.15||Q1 S&P||0.940||0.574|
|Close Success Rate||45.5%||33.3%|
|Close PPP||0.47||0.15||1st Down S&P||0.827||0.815|
|Close S&P||0.924||0.487||2nd Down S&P||0.915||0.281|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||0.0% / 0.0%||11.5% / 0.0%||3rd Down S&P||0.865||0.738|
|Projected Pt. Margin: Oregon +31.7 | Actual Pt. Margin: Oregon +17|
In the beginning, only Oregon stood in Oregon's way. The Ducks lost a fumble in Oregon State territory on their first possession, then after three straight scoring drives, they missed a chip-shot field goal to end the first half.
Still, they led 16-7 thanks to a combination of their own defense's ability to prevent big plays and Oregon State's inability to generate consistent offense. (Oregon State has had this problem since receiver James Rodgers was injured.) Oregon still averaged over three points per possession in their first-half drives, but the Ducks' miscues could have opened up the door for the underdog Beavers, but they just couldn't get it done. Their final 17 plays of the first half generated just 55 yards against an Oregon defense that simply had too much speed.
In five weeks, we will see if Oregon's speed and startling precision can match Auburn's size and athleticism, but it was more than enough to take care of all competition on the West Coast this season. As we see below, Oregon's schedule strength decimated its per-play ratings (they ranked eighth in raw S&P margin, 20th in opponent-adjusted S&P+), and you will probably see both S&P+ and FEI (and therefore F/+) picking Auburn to take the title. But the momentum the Ducks can generate once they get rolling truly is a sight to behold, and it will give them more than just a fighting chance. Auburn's defense has a solid amount of star power, particularly on the line (tackle Nick Fairley is devastating), but you can move the ball on them. If anything, the biggest question I have for Oregon is how much the infinite layoff will affect their amazing timing.
But we have plenty of time to analyze this one. Let's take a quick spin through the rest of the week in college football.
There were quite a few complete oddities this week -- close games that should have been blowouts, statistical upsets, etc. It appears that when you get to rivalry weeks and championship games, the script gets thrown out the window.
Big 12 Championship -- No. 9 Oklahoma 23, No. 13 Nebraska 20
EqPts: Oklahoma 24.4, Nebraska 11.5
T/O Pts: Oklahoma +17.5
Oklahoma > Nebraska +30.4
Only phenomenal kicker Alex Henery and timely Nebraska defense kept the Huskers in this game, it seemed. Oklahoma outgained Nebraska, 454-293, and forced four turnovers and what seemed like 16 other fumbles. Nebraska did a much better job of taking advantage of their opportunities, but Oklahoma had infinitely more opportunities.
ACC Championship -- No. 15 Virginia Tech 44, No. 21 Florida State 33
EqPts: Virginia Tech 31.7, Florida State 23.2
T/O Pts: Virginia Tech +13.6
Virginia Tech > Florida State +22.1
Credit Florida State for showing resiliency despite swimming against the tide for four full quarters. FSU quarterback E.J. Manual threw a pick-6 midway through the first quarter, and Virginia Tech outpaced the Seminoles by 100 yards, but the game never quite became the blowout it seemed it was becoming. The Seminoles scored with seven seconds remaining, creating a somewhat misleading final scoring margin, but still, this game ended up much closer than the statistics would indicate.
Conference USA Championship -- Central Florida 17, SMU 7
EqPts: Central Florida 17.7, SMU 13.3
T/O Pts: Central Florida +9.8
Central Florida > SMU +14.2
You just cannot move the ball comfortably against George O'Leary's Central Florida defense. The Knights rank just 47th according to Defensive S&P+, thanks to a predictably iffy schedule and a three-game slump in which they allowed 99 points to East Carolina, Houston, and Southern Miss. But they rebounded down the stretch, allowing just 38 points in their final three games and frustrating SMU quarterback Kyle Padron into making a series of questionable plays late in the game as the Mustangs were desperately attempting a comeback. Against maddening coverage, Padron was sacked five times while trying to buy time for somebody to come open.
MAC Championship -- Miami (Ohio) 26, No. 25 Northern Illinois 21
EqPts: Miami (Ohio) 29.3, Northern Illinois 21.2
T/O Pts: Miami (Ohio) +6.0
Miami (Ohio) > Northern Illinois +14.1
Perhaps the biggest upset of the weekend unfolded like an easy Miami win. Three lengthy Northern Illinois touchdown passes of 27, 39, and 69 yards distracted from the fact that Miami's defense played wonderfully against NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish. Miami receiver Armand Robinson was an absolute stud, catching 14 passes for 176 yards and the game-winning touchdown.
Arizona State 30, No. 23 Arizona 29
EqPts: Arizona 26.5, Arizona State 20.6
T/O Pts: Arizona State +3.7
Arizona > Arizona State +2.2
Arizona was projected to win by two, and they had two late-game PATs blocked. Sounds about right, eh?
No. 24 West Virginia 35, Rutgers 14
EqPts: West Virginia 31.3, Rutgers 11.6
T/O Pts: Rutgers +9.3
West Virginia > Rutgers +27.0
The S&P+ rankings say that the Mountaineers were easily the top team in the Big East for the season, but a two-game mini-slump in which they score a combined 27 points in losses to Syracuse and Connecticut (the UConn loss coming in overtime, no less) cost them the conference title. All three of Mountaineers' losses came by six points or fewer, and they are a bit underrated at this point. But being underrated doesn't deliver you a BCS bid.
Fresno State 25, Illinois 23
EqPts: Illinois 25.2, Fresno State 22.9
T/O Pts: Illinois +4.2
Illinois > Fresno State +6.5
Illinois' rankings slipped after this game, but not by a lot. Part of the reason for this is that, from a statistical standpoint, they "won" Friday night's game in Fresno. They fell behind, 16-0, in the first quarter and couldn't quite recover. Still, from both the standpoints of bowl eligibility and overall quality of play, the Illini improved considerably in 2010, and Ron Zook deserves credit for making the necessary adjustments to his program. The "hire a bunch of new assistants" approach doesn't work often, but it appears to have worked for The Zooker.
Connecticut 19, South Florida 16
EqPts: South Florida 13.9, Connecticut 8.8
T/O Pts: Connecticut +7.2
Connecticut > South Florida +2.1
Connecticut ranks 67th in S&P+ and 44th in FEI, making the Huskies the worst BCS bowl participant in the history of the BCS, but that doesn't make their story any less appealing. The Huskies were shut out, 26-0, at Louisville on October 23, and at 3-4 were not even guaranteed bowl eligibility. But they finished the season on a five-game winning streak that included three wins of a field goal or less. Opponents of the bowl and BCS system have now adopted the "How can this system allow UConn in a BCS bowl?" battle cry, but I say good for them. Winning your conference does still mean something, even if you are winning the worst BCS-eligible conference.
Pittsburgh 28, Cincinnati 10
EqPts: Pittsburgh 25.8, Cincinnati 9.2
T/O Pts: Pittsburgh +8.8
Pittsburgh > Cincinnati +26.4
Cincinnati has had a poor enough season that Pittsburgh's easy win over the Bearcats in the snow actually dropped the Panthers a spot in the rankings. They have had an interesting season, taking on a tough-enough schedule and thriving when nobody was looking. They finish in the S&P+ Top 25, but their 2-3 non-conference record and blowout losses to Miami and West Virginia hurt their perceptions considerably. So did a sophomore slump for star running back Dion Lewis (956 yards, 4.9 yards per carry).
USC 28, UCLA 14
EqPts: USC 25.5, UCLA 17.6
T/O Pts: USC +10.2
USC > UCLA +18.1
The Trojans stemmed a two-game losing streak (in college football, two of 12 games does indeed qualify as a "streak") with a comfortable rivalry win in what was basically their bowl game. They finish at 8-5 in their first season under postseason ban.
As mentioned, this week we are adding Raw S&P Margin to the below S&P+ Top 25 table to see which teams benefited from or were punished by their strength-of-schedule adjustments. Boise State's S&P Margin was so stark that it kept the Broncos at No. 1 despite the average schedule. Others were not so lucky.
Full rankings here.
|S&P+ Top 25 (Through 14 Weeks)|
|S&P+ Top 25 (Through 14 Weeks)|
|S&P+ Top 25 (Through 14 Weeks)|
There wasn't a large slate of games this week, but there were still a few interesting movers.
Utah State (13 spots, from 107th to 94th). The Aggies were within a touchdown of Boise State after one quarter, and that was apparently enough to bump them up amid a mess of similar, lowly ranked teams.
Central Florida (eight spots, from 50th to 42nd). The UCF defense really did look great against June Jones' run-and-shoot on Saturday.
Arizona (six spots, from 36th to 30th). A statistical "win" of sorts against a decent Arizona State team was enough to bump Arizona up a bit. Nobody will benefit more from a few weeks off than Arizona, which is still a decent team despite the recent losing streak. Teams return to room temperature over the bowl break -- hot teams cool off, cold teams warm back up -- and Arizona will get the opportunity to paint the season a different color when they take on Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.
Miami (Ohio) (six spots, from 93rd to 87th). Brian Fremeau and I had a quick e-mail exchange this weekend, wondering if Miami was the worst conference champion in the history of FO's rankings. That's backhanded enough that it doesn't even qualify as a backhanded compliment, but ... conference champs!
Washington (10 spots, from 41st to 51st). Washington State may have improved enough in 2010 to earn coach Paul Wulff a fourth season in Pullman, but the Cougars are still basically ratings kryptonite. Washington barely got past its rivals in the Apple Cup, and the team tumbled accordingly.
Hawaii (five spots, from 31st to 36th). UNLV: also ratings kryptonite. Hawaii let the Runnin' Rebels hang around for a quarter, and they were punished.
Idaho (five spots, from 91st to 96th). Allow San Jose State to take you to overtime, and you are going to tumble. It is what it is.
Illinois (five spots, from 28th to 33rd). As mentioned, the Illini didn't fall a lot, but they did fall.
We'll count down the top three, actually.
3. It didn't happen until Monday, technically, but we will still count it: I love that Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson got the Indiana head coaching job. Wilson's tenure in Norman is the most telling example of how fans will blame offensive coordinators for almost everything. A good portion of Oklahoma fans have never liked Wilson much, despite all the records that Oklahoma broke in his time. When offenses succeed, it is because of the players (and to be sure, Sam Bradford was fantastic). When they struggle -- when it turns out that Landry Jones is not going to be Sam Bradford -- it is the coordinator's fault. Some offensive coordinators earn their ire; to be sure, Texas' Greg Davis probably needed to leave, and lord knows Steve Addazio's reputation has been shot in Florida. But Wilson was the perfect example of fans turning on really good coordinators, and I'm happy that he's getting a shot at a head coaching job, even if it is a relatively dead-end opportunity in Bloomington.
2. I'm not going to lie: I unleashed a fist pump when I flipped on Cincinnati-Pittsburgh and saw snow on the ground. Snow football, ice hockey and Yvonne Strahovski are the reasons HDTV was created.
1. I have to say that Cammy Cam Juice was both my favorite and least favorite moment of the weekend. It was 30 percent hilarious and 70 percent terrifying. I accidentally woke my wife up from a nap by yelling, "Oh, Tracy, no. Don't do it, Tracy!"
4 comments, Last at 07 Dec 2010, 2:25pm by Bill Connelly