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?
14 Jan 2010
by Bill Connelly
In 1946, Oklahoma tried to revive a somewhat stagnant football program by hiring a big, brash, 32-year-old named Jim Tatum as their new head coach. Oklahoma improved from 5-5 to 8-3 in Tatum's first season in Norman, bringing a great staff and a tough, new style of play to the field (he learned the Split-T as an assistant coach for Don Faurot's Iowa Pre-Flight team during the war). Then he left. Potential power Maryland offered him the keys to the castle, and he left a vapor trail for the east coast. Luckily for Oklahoma, he left Bud Wilkinson behind.
Better example: In 1957, Faurot, the innovator who brought big-time football to Missouri for the first time, retired after a slow decline from Missouri's wonderful 1940s decade to their mediocre-at-best 1950s. After a long search for a worthy successor, Faurot (who was also the athletic director) zeroed in on his man: 32-year-old Frank Broyles. Broyles signed a strong recruiting class (including Mizzou's first two African-American signees), and his team showed moderate improvement on the field -- they went from 4-5-1 to 5-4-1. They actually had a chance to win the Big 7 heading into November before getting romped by, you guessed it, Oklahoma (they're just always getting in Missouri's way, aren't they?). The future seemed bright for the Tigers, and then Broyles jumped to a bigger lily pad, leaving for Fayetteville, where he built a national title program for Arkansas. A betrayed Faurot did manage to attract Arizona State coach Dan Devine to Columbia, where he would come within one game of a national title in 1960, ironically with a lot of Broyles' recruits.
No word on whether Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton will find a Wilkinson or a Devine, or whether Lane Kiffin's departure will result in more of a Steve Mariucci-for-Tom Holmoe trade, but Hamilton is certainly feeling the betrayal part of the equation right about now. No sport combines the tradition with the tacky quite like college football, where homecomings and fight songs and letter jackets combine with recruiting hat ceremonies and overeager boosters, where we can't have a playoff in part because of hundred-year old bowl games (a sentiment with which I one-third-heartedly agree), but where coaches can sign players up for 4-5 years at School A, then jump for School B at the drop of a hat, whether or not he's even yet succeeded at School A.
This is the sport I love, and despite one of the downright strangest coaching offseasons I can remember (and it is only mid-January!), I have no regrets for my choice. Lane Kiffin's departure for USC is only the most recent domino, though it is certainly the most potentially hilarious one. If nothing else, it will kick-start the prettiest rivalry in all of sports: Kiffin versus "Skippy" Neuheisel for the hearts and minds of southern California's youth.
(Oh, and a note for Kiffin: it's really quite hard to make Al Davis look sane, honest and prescient, but just because it is a challenge doesn't mean you should actually try to pull it off.)
Anyway, we've got the entire offseason to talk about the unknowns and intrigues of 2010. Let's wrap up 2009 first.
We might be looking at the start of quite the dynasty in Tuscaloosa.
First things first: It really is regretful that we didn't get the game we thought we would get last Thursday. Texas came out confident, shutting down the Tide on the first drive of the game, then handed a short field to Colt McCoy ... who proceeded to contract dead-arm upon taking his first hit of the game. The devastating fluke injury changed the entire narrative of the game, from "Two heavyweights throwing haymakers" to "Big, strong favorite tries to hold off charge from plucky underdog." True freshman quarterback Garrett Gilbert took over for McCoy, fell apart, put everything back together, then fell apart again. And despite the loss of the Longhorns' best player, we were given at least a reasonably entertaining, if severely anti-climactic, national title game.
|Field Position %||50.8%||34.3%|
|Close Success Rate||44.4%||27.7%|
|Close Success Rate||50.0%||31.6%|
|Close Success Rate||28.6%||25.0%|
|SD/PD Sack Rate
||37.5% / 22.2%||5.3% / 0.0%|
|Turnover Pts Margin
|1st Down S&P||0.663||0.325|
|2nd Down S&P||0.967||0.651|
|3rd Down S&P||0.355||0.473|
|Projected Pt. Margin
|Actual Pt. Margin
It ended up taking some late defensive heroics to seal the deal, but, for the most part, Alabama won this game in the most practical, methodical, and somewhat boring way possible. Once it was clear that Texas' offense was irreparably harmed by McCoy's injury (at least for 2.5 quarters), Alabama simply went about dominating the field-position battle, leveraging the Longhorns into passing down after passing down and running strong over a tiring Texas defense. A big defensive play on a downright strange Texas play-call -- Marcell Dareus' athletic shovel pass pick-6 -- gave the Tide an eventually insurmountable 24-6 lead at halftime.
Gilbert would get his bearings, and Alabama's amazingly conservative third-quarter offense almost let Texas back into the game. Still, when the title was on the line, Alabama made all the plays necessary to win the game, including three takeaways in Texas' final five plays and two short-yardage rushing touchdowns. They deserve all the credit in the world, but (and the 2009 season was really just one giant "BUT ...") it would have been nice to see the game we thought we would be seeing.
All of FO's final college football ratings are up.
The final end-of-year rankings we should look at are the F/+ rankings, the combined FEI/S&P+ rankings that I updated every few weeks in this column throughout the season. As always, the combination of the two systems tends to even out the quirks -- FEI's love of all things ACC, and the S&P+'s partial lean toward the Big 12 and a few seemingly unworthy mid-majors. There isn't too much to complain about below, other than the fact that TCU held onto its No. 3 spot despite their Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State.
|F/+ Top 25 (Final)|
|5||Virginia Tech (10-3)||+26.0%||256.0||4||.240||3|
|7||Ohio State (11-2)||+22.0%||246.5||9||.207||4|
|8||Penn State (11-2)||+21.5%||249.7||6||.181||12|
|9||Boise State (14-0)||+20.9%||247.6||8||.179||16|
|F/+ Top 25 (Final)|
|15||Georgia Tech (11-3)||+16.1%||218.9||29||.228||5|
|F/+ Top 25 (Final)|
|22||Texas Tech (9-4)||+13.1%||222.5||23||.150||18|
As always, there are some interesting quirks between the two ratings systems, and with the season over, Brian and I can start looking into what causes such quirks. Oklahoma, Tennessee, and BYU were to S&P+ what Georgia Tech and Stanford were to FEI -- rated higher than logic would dictate. How did this happen? Was it a case of differences in the determination of strength of schedule? Does a team's favorability in one system over another show a lack/surplus of bad luck or bend-don't-break wonder (defenses that give up tons of yards but force lots of field goals and turnovers are probably more favored in the points-related FEI numbers instead of the yards-and-EqPts related S&P+ numbers)? We will investigate.
Despite what basically constituted a slow week (or so) of only 34 games, the three-week spectacle that is bowl season produced some pretty strong moves, particularly if you were a service academy or major conference team underachieving against a mid-major.
Air Force (12 spots, from 38th to 26th). The Falcons' S&P+ numbers were boosted all season by strong defensive performances, and in holding Houston to 20 points and only 330 yards, they apparently saved their best performance for last. Despite subpar offensive production (AFA was 76th in Offensive S&P+), their defense finished the season ranked 13th in Defensive S&P+ and ended up on the cusp of the Top 25. They lose quite a few defensive stars heading into 2010, so it will be interesting to see how much of their success was due to players like Ben Garland and how much is due to the system in place.
Navy (12 spots, from 74th to 62nd). The ratings didn't know what to do with Navy this year, a team that almost beat Ohio State and did beat Notre Dame ... while losing to Hawaii and Temple. That gave the ratings something in common with Missouri, who also didn't know what to do with Navy. The Middies ran roughshod over defenders who apparently had not faced nearly enough cut blocks in their life to know how to fight them off.
Rutgers (Nine spots, from 87th to 78th). Rutgers was hampered all year by strength of schedule, having played not only two FCS teams, but two bad ones. They easily disposed of an overmatched Central Florida squad, and while their rating rose as a result, it still wasn't enough to offset earlier damage. A somewhat more respectable non-conference slate, which includes North Carolina, should help the Scarlet Knights in 2010, while a super-young core of offensive playmakers should help them on the field.
Florida State (Eight spots, from 40th to 32nd). Ranking ninth in Offensive S&P+ and 80th in Defensive S&P+, the Seminoles sent Bobby Bowden out a winner with what was actually some pretty stellar defensive play (at times, at least). It is hard to know what to do with the Seminoles for 2010. They return plenty of playmakers, but we have no idea what a new staff will do with them, and we have no idea what was holding back the clearly talented squads of recent years. We think we know, but it's sometimes too easy to blame something simply on bad coaching or poor management. We'll see.
Other rises: North Carolina (43rd to 37th), East Carolina (54th to 48th), Marshall (86th to 80th), California (65th to 60th).
Nevada (12 spots, from 30th to 42nd). The Wolf Pack found their way into the Top 30 thanks to the obscenely gaudy rushing numbers they put together over the last half of 2009 -- the S&P+ algorithm doesn't punish you for playing bad teams if you absolutely murder them -- but neither the offense nor the defense made the trip to Hawaii, and SMU knocked them back into a more realistic rank.
Missouri (7 spots, from 42nd to 49th). Bad news: Sean Weatherspoon and Danario Alexander went out as losers. Good news: the earliest Mizzou will possibly face another option attack like Navy's is if they end up playing Navy or Georgia Tech in another bowl some time soon. Or if Illinois fires Ron Zook in favor of Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo between now and next August. (Hey, anything is possible with the way this offseason has gone.)
Central Florida (7 spots, from 61st to 68th). A team fully-reliant on defensive play for its success, the Knights were run off the field by Rutgers' youngsters -- true freshman quarterback Tom Savage threw for 294 yards and two touchdowns, while fellow frosh Mohamed Sanu had 41 yards rushing, 97 yards receiving, and scored three touchdowns -- and saw their Defensive S&P+ rank fall from 27th to 38th.
Arkansas (6 spots, from 10th to 16th). Ryan Mallett, Case Keenum, Jacory Harris, Andy Dalton, Jeremiah Masoli, Blaine Gabbert, Josh Nesbitt, Nick Foles ... few of next year's top returning quarterbacks had bowls to remember. Mallett struggled through a windy Liberty Bowl, completing just 42 percent of his passes for 5.6 yards a pop. East Carolina's defense was decent coming in (they finished the season ranked 37th in Defensive Passing S&P+), but Mallett's struggles were still a bit jarring, and it dropped S&P+ crush Arkansas out of the Top 10.
Other falls: UCLA (66th to 71st), Ohio (76th to 81st), Michigan (47th to 52nd), Kentucky (53rd to 58th), Illinois (67th to 72nd), Georgia (36th to 41st), Buffalo (83rd to 88th).
To America, for watching the Fiesta Bowl. The one good thing about Boise State and TCU having to play each other -- instead of getting respective shots at a BCS conference team -- was that the Fiesta Bowl became almost a "Hey, don't these teams look like real, actually good teams who can play entertaining and real football?" showcase. It drew a respectable 8.2 rating, better than the 7.1 pulled by the Orange Bowl (Georgia Tech-Iowa). It still didn't draw the 10-plus that last year's Ohio State-Texas Fiesta Bowl managed, but it wasn't a 4.9 disaster or something, which is a step in the right direction. And it had a fun ending to boot.
Not a rant, so much as a plea: While we had plenty of great games and finishes this season (college football always does), if we were to list the top-five storylines from the 2009 season five years from now, none would be on-the-field developments (unless this was the dawn of Saban's Alabama dynasty, in which case the title game might make the list). The season was dominated by injuries, officials and taken-to-a-new-level coaching drama. While there was entertainment to be found within the drama, I want next season to be about the game itself. Only about two top-tier teams return a large mass of play makers (Alabama, Boise State), and seemingly every other team in the country will be breaking in new major contributors, breaking in a new head coach, or just looking to break into the big-time. The storylines -- new stars, new powers -- should be there for the taking, so here's to a great 2010.
While the game might not have been the knock-down, drag-out affair we were hoping for, there's no questioning that for a few moments, it looked like we were witnessing the biggest, most unexpected title game comeback of the BCS era. There have been plenty of examples of a backup NFL quarterback leading his team to glory (or at least a win or two), but this was potentially the first time Garrett Gilbert had taken meaningful snaps against an opponent's first-team defense since he left high school fewer than 12 months ago. With the sporting world's spotlight on him, he came within one drive of an 18-point comeback. It didn't happen, but there was a buzz in the moment that is hard to duplicate. Amid the frustration of most of the off-the-field drama, that little buzz is what keeps me coming back.
As the door officially closes on the 2009 season, I'm going to selfishly use this space to pummel you with my own musical tastes -- here are 10 of my favorite songs from 2009.
"Bull Black Nova" by Wilco
"Gonna See My Friend" by Pearl Jam
"It's All Good" by Bob Dylan
"Pieces" by Dinosaur Jr.
"Quiet Dog" by Mos Def
"Sunlight" by Harlem Shakes
"Watching the Planets" by Flaming Lips
"Why I Am" by Dave Matthews Band
"Working on a Dream" by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
"Zoomba" by Starlight Mints
(My wife requested space for her top five as well, so here they are: "She Wolf" by Shakira, "The Fixer" by Pearl Jam, "Uprising" by Muse, "Shake Me Like a Monkey" by Dave Matthews Band, and the entire Fantasies album by Metric. She also likes the new John Mayer album, but she hates that she likes the new John Mayer album, so she swore me to secrecy. Her mistake.)
And a bonus award to this distinctly non-2009 song. Here's an insanely great 2009 collaboration between The Roots and Paul Simon from (the only thing good about) Jimmy Fallon's show: Simon's "Late in the Evening." Every second of this is why The Roots are the greatest band in America right now.
I have been entering old data as fast as I can and have begun the process of analyzing which factors most strongly impact a team's performance from one season to another. Upon first glance, the strongest factors -- 3-year history, 5-year history -- are similar to what Fremeau has found in his own projections. One other strong factor that we haven't really analyzed before is the impact of recruiting. Using (for now) Rivals.com rankings, I found that 5-year recruiting average has almost as high a correlation to the following season's success (0.6) as 5-year performance history (0.7), and both factors have strong enough correlations to take into account.
Before analyzing other predictable factors (starters and lettermen returning/lost, turnover margins, things like that), not to mention some potentially unpredictable ones (All-Americans lost, coaching changes, others), the rankings below are based entirely off of recent on-field performance and recent recruiting success. With plenty of big-name recruits still uncommitted (and the entire Tennessee and USC recruiting classes suddenly very much in the air), the recruiting piece will change soon enough, and obviously coaching changes will play a role, but since everybody else is already taking a stab at 2010 Top 10s, I wanted to join in as well. Here is a list (alphabetical) of the current Top-10 teams based solely on the factors above.
Top 10: Alabama, Arkansas, Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, Florida, LSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma, TCU
11-20: Air Force, Auburn, Clemson, Florida State, Iowa, Miami, Oregon, Penn State, Texas, Virginia Tech
21-30: Arizona, Boston College, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee, USC
31-40: East Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State, Mississippi State, Nevada, Oklahoma State, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Wisconsin
And for fun, the bottom 10, which is as or more predictable than the Top 10: Eastern Michigan, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Toledo, Tulane, Washington State, Western Kentucky, Western Michigan
This may not have been the most exciting college football season in the world, but I'm really happy to have spent it here. Thanks for the feedback throughout the season, guys, and we'll see you in the offseason.
10 comments, Last at 20 Jan 2010, 5:06pm by Kevin from Philly