Are the best defenses against play action the best against regular passes too? How much impact does play action really have in an NFL game, and does it correlate from year to year?
14 Jan 2011
by Bill Connelly
When Auburn's Wes Byrum booted the title-winning field goal through the University of Phoenix uprights Monday night -- a little closer to the posts than some Auburn fans' hearts would have preferred -- one of the more interesting college football seasons I can remember came to an end. The 2010 season brought to the table everything one could like about college football -- just look through the recent Varsity Numbers archives to see how much fun I was having in October and November -- and everything one could dislike.
The Cam Newton investigation managed to hang a bit of a black cloud in the final month of the season, with the NCAA's eventual decision feeling both rushed and unsatisfying. The Ohio State suspension decision (key Ohio State players are suspended for a good chunk of next season ... but go ahead and play the bowl game, guys) was both creative and, yes, unsatisfying. But in the name of positivity, we won't focus on that. Instead, we look back on a bowl season that was enjoyable if you knew where to look, and we tie a big bow around the 2010 season.
A game filled with mistakes, shoddy sod, and an odd, polarizing, all-but-title-clinching run, still managed to provide a healthy amount of excitement. A sloppy, nervous start gave way to big plays, goal-line stands, a dramatic game-tying drive, and a game-winning field goal.
We spent most of the first half wondering just how badly TCU might have beaten either one of these two teams, but by the end, the title ambiance took over. Congrats to Auburn for doing what it took to lock away a national title. Newton and the 2010 Tigers get to place their crystal football next to ... whatever hardware the 1957 Tigers and their dominant defense took home with their national title. Here's to hoping they don't have to relinquish the title in a few years. I want this one to end up legitimate, just for college football's sake, not to mention the sake of my two Auburn friends.
No. 1 Auburn 22, No. 2 Oregon 19
|Close %||100.0%||STANDARD DOWNS|
|Field Position %||41.7%||53.4%||Success Rate||57.8%||38.0%|
|Close Success Rate||52.4%||38.4%||Success Rate||35.0%||39.1%|
|Close Success Rate||54.2%||26.7%||Turnover Pts||8.3||8.9|
|Close PPP||0.20||0.11||Turnover Pts Margin||+0.6||-0.6|
|Line Yards/carry||3.49||1.91||Q1 S&P||0.231||0.634|
|Close Success Rate||50.0%||46.5%|
|Close PPP||0.44||0.45||1st Down S&P||0.950||0.725|
|Close S&P||0.942||0.914||2nd Down S&P||0.699||0.631|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||0.0% / 15.4%||3.9% / 5.9%||3rd Down S&P||0.798||0.574|
|Projected Pt. Margin: Auburn +3.3 | Actual Pt. Margin: Auburn +3
Throughout the final three quarters, it felt like Auburn was in control, and it was but a matter of time before they broke the game wide open. This is reflected most clearly in both leverage rate and success rate. Auburn was consistently staying in standard downs and moving the ball effectively, while Oregon needed big plays to bail them out of what were far too many passing downs.
The Ducks were dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage, but in times of need, they came up big through the air. Darron Thomas found Jeff Maehl for 81 yards to set up the Ducks' first touchdown, then found Lavasier Tuinei for 43 yards to set up what appeared to be the game-tying, third-quarter touchdown. Auburn freshman Demetruce McNeal made the tackle of his life, however, tripping Tuinei up at the three to set up Auburn's goal-line stand. Then, with a pick from the umpire, Thomas and D.J. Davis hooked up for 29 yards on fourth-and-5 to set up Oregon's game-tying touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Oregon's major problem: The 70 plays not mentioned above recorded only 296 yards, and they gained more on passing downs than standard downs. That is not a recipe for success.
What Auburn lacked in explosiveness, they made up for in efficiency. Their rushing success rate more than doubled Oregon's, and while the Ducks had the really big plays, the Tigers more effectively stayed on schedule. Field position wrecked their chances of sticking in the dagger -- their average starting field position in the second half was their own 21, and they would typically move the ball a decent amount then stall before stretching the lead to double digits.
This was not the festival of offensive fireworks that we imagined, of course. Both teams moved the ball, but they would usually trip before reaching the goal line. My colleague Rob already heaped a sufficient amount of praise on Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley and the havoc he wreaked, so I do not need to go too much further into it here. But in the end, Oregon's inability to move the ball on the ground resulted in them needing one too many magic tricks to win the game.
Rose Bowl: No. 3 TCU 21, No. 5 Wisconsin 19
EqPts: Wisconsin 21.5, TCU 20.7
T/O Pts: none
Wisconsin > TCU +0.8
While the national title game may have been occasionally marred by turnovers and players slipping on the iffy turf, the Rose Bowl was a clean, enjoyable, nip-and-tuck game. It was also one of the quickest games I've seen in a long time. In the end, both teams did just enough to claim victory, but Tank Carder's deflection of Scott Tolzien's two-point pass attempt gave the edge the Horned Frogs. The S&P+ rankings have loved TCU for a couple years, and I wonder what they might have been able to do against Auburn. Alas, they appear perfectly thrilled with a second-place finish.
Allstate Sugar Bowl: No. 6 Ohio State 31, No. 8 Arkansas 26
EqPts: Ohio State 28.4, Arkansas 22.2
T/O Pts: Ohio State +5.0
Ohio State > Arkansas +11.2
Ohio State was on the right side of the turnovers on January 4, and it gave them the edge. We can debate whether Terrelle Pryor and the other soon-to-be suspended Buckeyes should have been playing in this game (it is much easier to make the case that they shouldn't have), but they did play, and it was an exciting game. Ohio State outgained Arkansas and maintained a comfortable lead until the fourth quarter, but two plays made the difference. Terrelle Pryor fumbled near the Arkansas goal line in the first quarter, and receiver Dane Sanzenbacher recovered in the end zone after two Arkansas players ran into each other, giving the Buckeyes a touchdown instead of a six-point turnover. Then, with the game in the balance after a blocked punt (Don't fall on the ball!!), Solomon Thomas picked off Ryan Mallett after Mallett failed to properly read a zone blitz.
Discover Orange Bowl: No. 4 Stanford 40, No. 13 Virginia Tech 12
EqPts: Stanford 36.0, Virginia Tech 13.2
T/O Pts: Virginia Tech +2.9
Stanford > Virginia Tech +20.1
Virginia Tech played a very Virginia Tech-esque first half, stealing points wherever it could, with a safety and an incredible touchdown pass from Tyrod Taylor to David Wilson, and this was a 13-12 game at halftime. But apparently the Hokies had punched themselves out. Stanford scored four unanswered touchdowns in the second half, and though the stats project a closer game, Jim Harbaugh's final game on the Stanford sideline was one of domination.
Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: No. 7 Oklahoma 48, Connecticut 20
EqPts: Oklahoma 31.5, UConn 14.2
T/O Pts: Oklahoma +2.6
Oklahoma > UConn +19.9
UConn won the Big East despite an offense ranked in the sixties in Offensive F/+ and a defense ranked in the forties in Defensive F/+. They did so by creating opportunities from special teams and turnovers, and doing exactly that allowed them to make it a game for a while in the Fiesta Bowl. They returned an interception for a touchdown in the second quarter, then returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the third. But they couldn't get closer than 14 points, and eventually Oklahoma pulled away. The Sooners scored off of two pick-sixes of their own. While their running game never really got going, they shredded UConn with the pass -- Ryan Broyles and Cameron Kenney combined for 20 catches and 324 yards. With Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis returning for their senior seasons next year, Oklahoma is emerging as the favorite of everybody's Too Early 2011 Top 25 lists.
Capital One Bowl: No. 16 Alabama 49, No. 9 Michigan State 7
EqPts: Alabama 41.2, Michigan State 9.6
T/O Pts: Alabama +4.9
Alabama > Michigan State +36.5
Our FO metrics never stopped liking Alabama (in terms of F/+ rankings, they finished with a loss at home to the No. 1 team and road losses to No. 11 and No. 13) and, at the same time, didn't show a lot of respect to Michigan State (though 11-1, they ranked just 24th heading into the bowls). But we still didn't see this level of domination coming.
AT&T Cotton Bowl: No. 11 LSU 41, No. 17 Texas A&M 24
EqPts: LSU 31.1, Texas A&M 17.3
T/O Pts: LSU +14.9
LSU > Texas A&M +28.7
For the second time in three seasons, LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson looked great in a bowl game. At his best, he is not a tremendously high-percentage passer, but his three career bowls have produced solid results -- 57-percent completion rate, 7.4 yards per pass, five touchdowns, two interceptions -- and have effectively teased Jefferson's potential. He will enter his senior season in 2011 with a new offensive coordinator and plenty of talent around him. Then again, the surrounding talent has never been an issue in Baton Rouge.
Maaco Bowl Las Vegas: No. 10 Boise State 26, No. 19 Utah 3
EqPts: Boise State 26.2, Utah 5.7
T/O Pts: Utah +4.4
Boise State > Utah +16.2
Boise State finishes with the highest-ranked defense in the country, according to Defensive S&P+. Their second-half fade against Nevada was the only chink in their armor in 2010, and they will return a ton of experience and talent next year. The offense loses its big-play receivers, but quarterback Kellen Moore and the Broncos will still win plenty of games behind the defense and outstanding running back Doug Martin. Martin is a power runner who rarely gets caught in the open field, and he's fun to watch.
Chick-Fil-A Bowl: No. 23 Florida State 26, No. 20 South Carolina 17
EqPts: Florida State 18.9, South Carolina 14.5
T/O Pts: Florida State +19.7
Florida State > South Carolina +24.1
Congratulations, Florida State! This bowl win (which the stats thought should have resulted in much larger than a nine-point margin) all but solidified your status, along with Texas A&M, as Next Year's Nebraska, the team every analyst picks as their "dark horse" title contender ... making you no longer a dark horse. Nebraska took the honors in 2010, Ole Miss and Oklahoma State in 2009, and Clemson and Texas Tech in 2008. Almost every one of those teams failed to live up to expectations, of course, but Florida State should be well-stocked with both experience and improved recruiting. Between the 'Noles and Texas A&M, Florida State will likely find itself on much more solid footing in 2011, and with a much less difficult conference schedule (though they do have to deal with both Oklahoma and Florida in non-conference play).
Progressive Gator Bowl: No. 21 Mississippi State 52, Michigan 14
EqPts: Mississippi State 38.8, Michigan 18.7
T/O Pts: Mississippi State +2.9
Mississippi State > Michigan +23.0
There's a chance that Florida State and Texas A&M will have to share the "dark horse" spotlight with the SEC West's latest up-and-comer. Mississippi State got Rich Rodriguez fired and established themselves with some serious momentum for 2011, especially when Dan Mullen remained the coach despite overtures from other schools.
Insight Bowl: Iowa 27, No. 12 Missouri 24
EqPts: Missouri 25.1, Iowa 22.8
T/O Pts: Iowa +7.7
Iowa > Missouri +5.4
Blaine Gabbert's final game in a Missouri uniform was going swimmingly until he suffered perhaps the biggest brain lapse of his college career. With Missouri ready to take a two-possession lead, Gabbert was flushed from the pocket and attempted to lob a pass to a receiver instead of throwing the ball out of bounds. The receiver, Wes Kemp, was assuming Gabbert would run and was blocking for him, and the pass itself did not have enough lob. Micah Hyde picked it off and returned it for the game-winning touchdown. It was the one glitch in a game that saw Gabbert make every throw an NFL scout would have wanted to see. In the end, the game was decided by the magnitude of turnovers. Missouri forced two semi-costly Iowa turnovers, while Iowa picked off one pass in their own end zone, and returned the other to Missouri's end zone.
During the season, I unveiled the S&P+ rankings in Tuesday's Varsity Numbers, then the F/+ rankings on Friday. We'll skip a step here and just say that you can find the final S&P+ rankings here:
As expected, Boise State maintained its first-place S&P+ standings with its dominant-after-the-first-quarter performance against a solid, if faded, Utah team. Meanwhile, Oregon's performance against Auburn boosted its Defensive S&P+ ranking enough to get them up to No. 16.
And here's where the F/+ rankings find their value. If you look at the S&P+ rankings, you quickly begin to question No. 11 Notre Dame, No. 15 Miami and No. 16 Oregon, especially. On the FEI side, both N.C. State and West Virginia seem a bit high. F/+ balances out the outliers and produces what is, for me at least, a satisfying set of rankings.
Was Oregon better than the ninth-best team in the country? Probably. But Monday night's performance, fair or not, took some of the sheen off of the Ducks' offense, which was the basis of their high rankings. If I had a vote, I'd have placed them in the Top 5, but ninth does not seem out of the realm of possibility. Meanwhile, Nevada is the only one-loss team to finish outside the Top 10, which was to be expected considering they began bowl season ranked 29th and beat No. 49 Boston College by just a touchdown.
There were not too many big movers because a) the sample size is pretty large now, and b) the F/+ rankings were pretty dialed in heading into bowl season. We may not have pounded our chests about this enough, but F/+ picks went 22-12-1 (64.3%) against the spread in bowl games. There were some misses, obviously, but the bowl season suggests that the biggest problem F/+ faces in terms of week-to-week picks is the value of momentum, injuries, suspensions, and other in-season developments. Force everybody to take three weeks off and cool off or warm back up, and the F/+ did reasonably well in terms of evaluation/prediction.
That, or the bowl performance was a total fluke. I'm open to either possibility.
Washington (14 spots, from 65th to 51st). Here's where we get into trouble making evaluations about bowl performances. The general consensus following the Holiday Bowl was that Nebraska had no interest in being there and laid a giant egg. To a certain extent, I'm sure that was true. But in evaluating each team's performance versus what was to be expected, Washington's own performance in this game was probably underrated. The Huskers fell four spots, which suggests that at least a small egg was laid, but the Huskies rose considerably after shutting down a still-decent Nebraska offense.
BYU (10 spots, from 63rd to 53rd). The Cougars were expected to handle UTEP, the bowl season's lowest-ranked team, easily. But they didn't necessarily have to do it that easily. BYU looked outstanding. Freshman quarterback Jake Heaps will enter 2011 with a ton of hype, and considering his September-to-December development (and his recruiting pedigree), it probably will not be unwarranted.
Mississippi State (five spots, from 31st to 26th). Granted, finishing 26th places you fifth in the SEC West, but this was still an outstanding showing, in a January 1 showcase, for Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs. They will go about their business hoping that Auburn and Arkansas both take tumbles next season after losing their quarterbacks.
Notre Dame (five spots, from 22nd to 17th). The Notre Dame defense became sneaky good in the last half of the season, while the offense improved as well. I'm curious where the Irish end up in the preseason polls. If the way they closed 2010 is any indication, they might actually have earned what are typically irrationally high preseason votes.
Other Rises: Troy (80th to 69th), San Diego State (53rd to 45th), Tulsa (67th to 60th), Central Florida (42nd to 37th).
Baylor (eight spots, from 54th to 62nd). Baylor fans will still look back at the 2010 season with fondness, but wow, did they take a tumble. The night of October 30, the Bears were 7-2 and coming off of their first win in Austin in ages. Then, in their last four games, they were outscored a Baylor-esque 188-96 and limped to a 7-6 finish. The defense must improve significantly in 2011 if the Bears want to move from simply salty to week-in-week-out dangerous.
Michigan (six spots, from 36th to 42nd). I really do think the Brady Hoke hire was decent. We tend to overreact to coaching hires -- Can't miss! Terrible! -- but the more I look into coaching changes, the more I realize how completely unpredictable they are. All we know is that Hoke led Ball State to an undefeated season -- yes, it took him a little while to do so, but the "He has a career losing record!!' cries are both unfair and disingenuous -- and needed just one year to bring moribund San Diego State to nine wins and bowl success. We don't know that he will succeed in Ann Arbor, but he has passed the tests he has taken as a college head coach.
Michigan State (six spots, from 24th to 30th). It's a shame that the half-pathetic performance the Spartans offered against Alabama will cast a pall on what was otherwise an exciting, successful season for the Spartans. They probably weren't "11 wins" good, but they were good, and they will likely be good again in 2011.
Miami (five spots, from 14th to 19th). Some teams find just the magic formula for statistical success, and Miami certainly qualifies. Anybody who watched the first half of the Sun Bowl would struggle to consider the Hurricanes a Top 50 team, much less Top 20, but every system has its outliers. This does suggest that Al Golden might have an opportunity for quick success at The U, however. There is at least enough talent in place to impress Brian's computer and mine. So they've got that going for them, which is nice.
Other Tumbles: East Carolina (58th to 67th), Ohio (85th to 91st), Fresno State (68th to 73rd).
"Bye," by J Dilla
"Bye Bye Baby," by Social Distortion
"Bye Bye Love," by The Everly Brothers
"Everytime We Say Goodbye," by John Coltrane
"Go and Say Goodbye," by Buffalo Springfield
"Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," by Charles Mingus
"Hello, Goodbye," by The Beatles
"Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye," by Leonard Cohen
"Long Slow Goodbye," by Queens of the Stone Age
"Never Say Goodbye," by Bob Dylan
I had no real emotional attachment to the Texas Bowl matchup between Illinois and Baylor. In fact, to the extent that I did have a rooting interest, it was in favor of Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. But watching Ron Zook's surprised, thrilled, and slightly psychotic reaction to the Gatorade bath he received after Illinois' blowout win was totally worth the price of admission. Each bowl season, coaches like Zook (whose tenure was left for dead a few months ago before "Hire a bunch of new assistants" Hail Mary actually worked for once), players like Washington's Jake Locker, and programs like Troy get to end the season as winners, which makes college football an entirely unique experience. For a couple of minutes, Zook probably felt like he had won the national title. All the NCAA investigations and Death to the BCS!! chants make little moments like that all the more rewarding and enjoyable to watch.
25 comments, Last at 15 Jan 2011, 10:41pm by zlionsfan