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.
12 Oct 2010
by Bill Connelly
Heading out from the bowels of Faurot Field late Saturday night, I got a text message from a good friend of mine that simply said, "I f---ing love Les Miles." I immediately called to find out what the hell the Mad Hatter did this time. Miles' latest magic act resulted in another win for LSU -- his win percentage in games decided by a touchdown or less is approaching .750. It also resulted in great attempted story-telling from my friend (he kept remembering other insane details and having to start over) and this great passage from Bruce Feldman:
How do you anticipate what Miles -- or this other-worldly power that is now driving him in a stunning way -- is going to come up with? [Urban] Meyer must have been thinking, "Oh, crap, I'm stuck in a Les Miles Moment. This is not good. This can't be good."
Pitted against Miles in moments like this must take on a surreal tone at this point. It's like realizing The Mush from "A Bronx Tale" is on your sidelines as the clock ticks down.
Between the No. 1 team losing in Week 6 and Miles seeming to benefit from any chaos surrounding him, it's beginning to look more and more like 2007. Fans of such teams as Illinois and Missouri (both of whom had memorable 2007 campaigns, to say the least) likely welcome such comparisons; fans of Alabama are probably less pleased. Regardless, it's time to buckle up, because the top dog has been taken down a few notches, the No. 1 team in next week's BCS standings might very well be from the WAC, and we've got what is likely another mess of upsets on the horizon.
Alabama lost its first regular season game since Thanksgiving of (you guessed it) 2007. We basically have to give them the Box Score treatment, don't we?
As Steve Spurrier said in his giddy post-game interview with Chris Fowler and the Gameday crew after Saturday's big win, it's one thing to knock off the No. 1 team; it's another to straight up beat them. People had almost forgotten that it was possible for Alabama to lose at this point, and the Gamecocks beat them by two touchdowns. Great win for Spurrier and the South Carolina program.
|Field Position %||56.3%||35.1%|
|Close Success Rate||45.3%||49.1%|
|Close Success Rate||45.5%||44.4%|
|Close Success Rate||45.2%||57.1%|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||15.4% / 18.8%||10.0% / 0.0%|
|Turnover Pts Margin||-0.5||+0.5|
|1st Down S&P||0.754||1.029|
|2nd Down S&P||0.857||0.843|
|3rd Down S&P||0.681||0.766|
|Projected Pt. Margin||+5|
|Actual Pt. Margin||+14|
So what is the recipe for defeating Alabama? Play really well. Explode in the first quarter. Pester Greg McElroy all game. Have a ridiculous receiver like Alshon Jeffery on your side. Easy, right?
Truth Nos. 1 and 2 ("The old adage of 'You can't win a game in the first quarter/half, but you can lose it,' rings true" and "Big plays win games") played a gigantic factor in South Carolina's win. (Truths No. 3 and 4, not so much.) After the Tide opened the game with a field goal, South Carolina unleashed drives of 63, 62 and 43 yards to go up 21-3. Despite a few iffy moments (Stephen Garcia tossed a badly snapped ball out of the back of the end zone for a safety even though he probably still had time to make a play), the Gamecocks' lead was never less than seven, and with the game on the line, it was the Tide making the mistakes.
The early lead significantly affected both teams' play-calling. Heading into Saturday's game, South Carolina ran 65 percent of the time on standard downs (32nd in the country) and 31 percent of the time on passing downs (79th). They have focused on the run as much as possible (and with Marcus Lattimore, why wouldn't you?), but in passing situations, Spurrier has, for better or worse, attempted to trust quarterback Stephen Garcia to make a play. Against Alabama, the Gamecocks ran more frequently than normal on standard downs (77%), likely because wanted to work the clock whenever possible. But at the same time, they ran just 21 percent of the time over the course of 14 passing downs. Instead of playing it safe with the lead, Spurrier took chances. Four of Alshon Jeffery's seven catches came on passing downs, and three gained first downs on second- and third-and-long situations. Despite the love-hate relationship Spurrier has had with the enigmatic Garcia, he put his faith in his quarterback to make plays. Garcia did that, with a huge assist from Jeffery.
Meanwhile, the early deficit significantly altered Alabama's gameplan. This team typically runs 63 percent of the time on standard downs and 37 percent on passing downs; they will run whenever they can get away with it. Instead, they ran just 43 percent of the time on standard downs and 11 percent on passing downs. Playing catch-up hinders even offenses which are typically good at passing and making big plays. The extra passing allowed South Carolina to come at McElroy all night long, and even when Alabama did run, they didn't get very far. South Carolina allowed a reasonably high level of rushing efficiency (45 percent), and they allowed Alabama to run a high rate of plays on the Gamecocks' side of the 50, but they allowed few big plays, particularly on the ground. In the end they made Alabama run enough plays that eventually the Tide made uncharacteristic mistakes.
As much as anything else, this is evidenced by each team's S&P in the red zone. South Carolina 1.784, Alabama 0.542. They punched Alabama in the mouth early and kept punching all game long. As we will see below, their performance earned them a Top Five S&P+ ranking.
No. 3 Oregon 43, Washington State 23
EqPts: Oregon 30.9, Washington State 19.2
T/O Pts: Washington State +2.4
Oregon > Washington State +9.3
Washington State is poison to a team's S&P+ ranking. If you mess around for even a little bit, your ranking is going to plummet. Wazzu's Nico Grasu booted a 50-yard field goal to cut Oregon's lead to 22-17 late in the first half, and I began to wonder aloud about a Varsity Numbers anti-jinx. Yes, the Ducks eventually pulled away, but it took them a while (how much of it had to do with a funk caused by Kenjon Barner's frightening injury, we don't know), and it cost their already low S&P+ ranking to fall double digits.
No. 7 Nebraska 48, Kansas State 13
EqPts: Nebraska 39.9, Kansas State 15.9
T/O Pts: Nebraska +3.2
Nebraska > Kansas State +27.2
Taylor Martinez's play-fake defies physics. I am still trying to figure out how he is able to keep the ball in the running back's belly so long before pulling it back and running untouched into the secondary. It's the damnedest thing. Of course, sometimes physics fights back -- Nebraska has fumbled 18 times in five games, and that will bite them at a very inopportune time if it continues. It's high risk, high reward for Nebraska and the zone read.
No. 8 Auburn 37, Kentucky 34
EqPts: Auburn 32.7, Kentucky 23.8
T/O Pts: Auburn +0.6
Auburn > Kentucky +9.5
Auburn should have had this one in hand, but the Tigers allowed Kentucky to stick around for quite a while. But after the Wildcats tied the game with 7:31 left, the Tigers pulled off potentially the drive of the weekend. It took up 18 plays, 86 yards, and every remaining second in the game. Wes Byrum's field goal gave the Cardiac Tigers another tight win. They need to start sending out anxiety medication as part of the Auburn Alumni Association benefits.
No. 12 LSU 33, No. 14 Florida 29
EqPts: LSU 24.9, Florida 15.0
T/O Pts: LSU +1.9
LSU > Florida +11.8
A special teams touchdown allowed the seemingly outmanned Gators to stay close in this one, but the Les Miles Magic took over late. The S&P+ rankings are slow to warm on the undefeated Bayou Bengals (they currently rank behind four two-loss teams -- Miami, California, Illinois and Oregon State), but the numbers will come around if they keep winning ... no matter how they keep winning.
No. 23 Florida State 45, No. 13 Miami 17
EqPts: Florida State 32.8, Miami 18.5
T/O Pts: Florida State +7.8
Florida State > Miami +21.1
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend is that the surging Seminoles didn't rise more than 12 spots in the S&P+ rankings, especially considering where Miami was ranked. Hopefully the new batch of FEI rankings will give them their due, as they have been playing ridiculously good defense ever since they got home from Norman after Week 2.
No. 17 Michigan State 34, No. 18 Michigan 17
EqPts: Little Brother 34.3, Big Brother 18.8
T/O Pts: Little Brother +13.6
Michigan State > Michigan +29.1
So much for the shootout we all expected. Only one offense brought its "A" game in Ann Arbor, and it wasn't the one led by the guy with the untied laces. Michigan State is now 6-0 for the first time since 1999, and the Spartans face the most surprisingly big game of the weekend -- a showdown against S&P+ darlings Illinois.
No. 16 Stanford 37, USC 35
EqPts: USC 33.5, Stanford 29.3
T/O Pts: USC +9.4
USC > Stanford +13.6
The award for Most Undeserving Win of the Week goes to Jim Harbaugh's Cardinal, who used some last-minute magic to get it done against USC even though the numbers didn't suggest that was much of a possibility. The performance actually bumped USC's ranking up two spots, but that doesn't mean much when accompanied by an "L."
Illinois 33, Penn State 13
EqPts: Illinois 24.2, Penn State 12.3
T/O Pts: Illinois +7.2
Illinois + 19.2
I'll have more on Illinois this Friday. The way Virginia flamed out the moment they tasted solid S&P+ rankings, I very much expected the same of Illinois. Instead, the surprising Illini (who have losses to only S&P+ No. 1 Ohio State and No. 11 Missouri, both by respectable margins) showed what commitment to your offensive identity can do. Illinois is playing reasonably mistake-free ball right now, and they are putting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in position to succeed. It is impressive, if surprising.
(Meanwhile, Penn State may miss a bowl for the first time since 2004.)
Notre Dame 23, Pittsburgh 17
EqPts: Notre Dame 18.8, Pittsburgh 18.8
T/O Pts: Notre Dame +9.3
Notre Dame > Pittsburgh +9.3
With Notre Dame getting back to .500, Pittsburgh now assumes the "Best Team With Losing Record" throne. Turnovers did in the Panthers, as the two offenses produced virtually identical output.
Georgia 41, Tennessee 14
EqPts: Georgia 30.8, Tennessee 16.3
T/O Pts: Georgia +12.1
Georgia > Tennessee +26.6
This one was predictable. Georgia was angry and embarrassed following its loss at Colorado; Tennessee was just down after getting Miles'd in Baton Rouge. Early turnovers went Georgia's way, and they coasted.
Best Offensive S&P of the Week
1. Cincinnati (vs. Miami-OH): 2.191
2. TCU (vs. Wyoming): 1.828
3. Louisville (vs. Memphis): 1.827
4. West Virginia (vs. UNLV): 1.678
5. Boise State (vs. Toledo): 1.473
Cincinnati led 45-3 at halftime. By the way, the Big East is an amazing mess right now. Only two teams have lost fewer than twice, and one of those two is Syracuse. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh (at 2-3) is still talented, and Cincinnati (also at 2-3) has now played its best two games of the season back-to-back. Unless West Virginia runs away with the title, there is a solid chance that the Big East champion is 7-5 this season.
Worst Offensive S&P of the Week
1. Ball State (vs. Western Michigan): -0.187
2. Indiana (vs. Ohio State): 0.088
3. UAB (vs. Central Florida): 0.242
4. UNLV (vs. West Virginia): 0.329
5. UCLA (vs. California): 0.348
Bonus: 6. South Florida (vs. Syracuse): 0.373
Syracuse has the No. 98 defense in the country according to S&P+, and they shut South Florida down to an embarrassing degree.
Best Rushing S&P of the Week
1. Cincinnati (vs. Miami-OH): 1.892
2. West Virginia (vs. UNLV): 1.849
3. Boise State (vs. Toledo): 1.498
4. Louisville (vs. Memphis): 1.431
5. Nebraska (vs. Kansas State): 1.348
Four teams ran the ball better than Nebraska this week? Probably not, but realize that S&P only takes into account plays that took place when the game was deemed "close." Nebraska put the Kansas State game out of reach fast enough that a lot of its big runs came with a scoring margin far from close. Poor Bill Snyder's team simply has no speed.
Worst Rushing S&P of the Week
1. Indiana (vs. Ohio State): -0.007
2. Ball State (vs. Western Michigan): -0.004
3. Tennessee (vs. Georgia): 0.206
4. UCLA (vs. California): 0.236
5. UAB (vs. Central Florida): 0.267
In consecutive games, UCLA has killed Houston, killed Texas, flirted with doom against Washington State, and gotten mauled by California. You figure them out, because I give up. UCLA is a precautionary tale for anybody thinking about jumping on the Illinois bandwagon. Two weeks does not equate to a full season of strong play.
(Wait, nobody is actually considering jumping on the Illini bandwagon? Only me? Forget I said anything.)
Best Passing S&P of the Week
1. Air Force (vs. Colorado State): 2.934
2. Cincinnati (vs. Miami-OH): 2.789
3. TCU (vs. Wyoming): 2.554
4. Louisville (vs. Memphis): 2.223
5. Utah (vs. Iowa State): 1.544
It warrants mentioning that the two top teams on this list threw four and five passes, respectively, when the game was considered "close." Meanwhile, it also warrants mentioning just how much of a whooping Utah put on Iowa State on Saturday. I was curious how they would stand up to an odd trip and a salty Cyclones team. They passed the test.
Worst Passing S&P of the Week
1. Ball State (vs. Western Michigan): -0.370
2. Indiana (vs. Ohio State): 0.135
3. Akron (vs. Kent State): 0.224
4. UAB (vs. Central Florida): 0.226
5. UNLV (vs. West Virginia): 0.228
Bonus: 6. Purdue (vs. Northwestern): 0.247
Purdue was 2-2 and fresh off of a loss to Toledo and uninspiring wins over Ball State and Western Illinois. They took on undefeated Northwestern and won, getting outgained by 110 yards, splitting the turnover battle, and going 6-for-18 passing for 47 yards. Yes, they rushed for 232 yards (they got 132 from Rob Henry), but ... some games make no sense.
Full rankings here:
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Six Weeks)|
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Six Weeks)|
|S&P+ Top 25 (After Six Weeks)|
Syracuse (18 spots, from 88th to 70th). The Orange are still a few steps away from respectability, but they're also only two wins away from bowl eligibility after their surprising 13-9 win at South Florida.
Colorado (17 spots, from 58th to 41st). Colorado gets shut out, 26-0, and moves up? How? Two reasons: 1) Their strength of schedule got a strong bump from California whipping UCLA, Hawaii thumping Fresno State (in Fresno) and Georgia killing Tennessee; and 2) Penalties don't play a huge role in the S&P+ rankings (season-wide, they do not have any correlation to win percentage), and penalties murdered them in Columbia on Saturday. They committed several unforced penalties (delays of game, illegal formations, false starts) in Missouri territory, but the play-by-play stats don't see that.
Oregon State (15 spots, from 28th to 13th). They racked up a great win against a tough, S&P+ friendly Arizona team on Saturday, though it came with a cost: receiver James Rodgers was lost for the season with a knee injury after an awkward tackle.
West Virginia (13 spots, from 39th to 26th). Further proof that you can move up in the rankings despite iffy competition if you completely dominate.
Other Rises: N.C. State (51st to 38th), Rutgers (85th to 72nd), Florida State (29th to 17th), Indiana (97th to 85th), UL-Lafayette (113th to 101st), East Carolina (61st to 50th), Arkansas State (115th to 104th).
Penn State (20 spots, from 34th to 54th). A true freshman quarterback, a shaky offensive line, and a multitude of defensive injuries are making this a forgettable season in Happy Valley.
South Florida (19 spots, from 54th to 73rd). B.J. Daniels is such a frustrating quarterback. Twice a game, he'll make a play that knocks your socks off; it will distract you from the other 60-plus plays that are anything but impressive.
Virginia (18 spots, from 35th to 53rd). September's S&P+ darlings are not responding well to their tiny taste of success ... nor where they supposed to.
Florida (16 spots, from fifth to 21st). It's interesting watching how the rankings change following certain games. Sometimes, neither team's ranking changes at all. Sometimes the winner rises dramatically while the loser remains stable. Sometimes it's the direct opposite. LSU rose five spots after beating Florida in The Swamp, but the S&P+ ratings suggest Florida's poor play was more of a cause of defeat than LSU's quality play.
Other Tumbles: Middle Tennessee (78th to 97th), Utah State (77th to 96th), Miami (Ohio) (93rd to 111th), Tennessee (55th to 71st), Oregon (15th to 30th), Houston (40th to 52nd), UCLA (21st to 33rd).
Not to turn Outsiders into "All Miles, All the Time" territory, but ... my favorite moment of the weekend just has to be Les Miles' response to Holly Rowe's question about his "Mad Hatter" nickname. His "I understand it's the hat I wear, but there's nothing mad underneath it" response was equal parts embarrassed, proud, happy, and angry. It summed up everything that is both likable and befuddling about the man who is currently the most popular coach in America, whether LSU fans like it or not.
27 comments, Last at 15 Oct 2010, 12:16pm by southpaw2