A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
23 Sep 2011
by Bill Connelly
For each of the last two rounds of conference realignment drama (and probably most of the rounds in the future, too), the Big 12 has been constantly under threat from all sides. Soon, a quarter of its members will have left in favor of the Big Ten (Nebraska), Pac-12 (Colorado) and SEC (Texas A&M). Until this week, up to four more members (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M) were linked to a second round of potential Pac-12 expansion, and a fifth (Missouri) has been linked to the SEC. In recent weeks, virtually every program has spent a portion of its time in touch with other conferences. With revenue inequality and historical bickering still around, the Big 12 is just about as dysfunctional as any conference has ever been. Last night, which entailed a round of press conferences following the resignation of commissioner Dan Beebe, did not assuage much of the uncertainty in the air.
This is a shame, because it is distracting from the fact that the Big 12 is as deep now as it has ever been.
Only Kansas has lagged behind in terms of production and quality, and even the Jayhawks have an improved rushing offense around which to build. The conference's new, everybody-plays-everybody slate includes home run matchup after home run matchup, and it begins this weekend with OSU facing off against Texas A&M in College Station and Missouri heading to Norman to face Oklahoma. Plus, there is a potential statement game for the conference as an underdog Kansas State squad visits Miami. But instead of on-field quality, we will continue to discuss the conference's general instability, right up until the Big 12 either finally dissolves or significantly raises exit fees.
This week marked my first as a full-time employee at SB Nation, and I wanted to share some of the pieces I've written. I am writing a morning column in addition to some running features like The Numerical and a weekly Heisman check-in.
This week, I began to very slowly work opponent adjustments into the S&P+ formulas. Thanks to that, quite a few teams made moves that might not otherwise make a lot of sense. Expect a few more of those over the coming weeks, as both raw data and preseason projections continue to get phased out in favor of more telling, opponent-adjusted "+" numbers.
Nebraska. The 3-0 Huskers currently rank ninth in the AP poll, but they have shown some significant defensive cracks. They allowed 67 combined points to Fresno State and Washington; FSU's Robbie Rouse rushed for 169 yards, then UW's Chris Polk went for 130. It isn't difficult to figure out why the Huskers have fallen to 37th in F/+: Fresno State managed just 21 points versus California and 27 versus North Dakota, and while FSU quarterback Derek Carr was sacked a combined seven times versus those two teams, Nebraska couldn't even bring him down even once. Meanwhile, after averaging less than 2.5 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) against Eastern Washington to start the season, Washington quarterback Keith Price managed to average 6.9 per attempt versus Nebraska. The case grows a little stronger once we account for the fact that the Nebraska passing game has not yet improved over last season. For all his running prowess, quarterback Taylor Martinez has completed just 48 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and two interceptions, and the Nebraska offense currently ranks just 59th in Off. S&P+.
The Huskers will probably move to 4-0 with a win at Wyoming tomorrow, but they could be in for a rude introduction to Big Ten play next week in Madison if they don't start to get their act together. They are habitually given the benefit of the doubt by pollsters, but in eight days they will have to begin to actually earn their poll status.
Iowa State (16 spots, from 90th to 74th). Neither Iowa (35th in F/+) nor Connecticut (46th) are world-beaters, but few teams can claim two wins more impressive than the Cyclones at this point, and the slight opponent adjustments in the numbers helped their cause quite a bit. The numbers still don't think too highly of them, but their status is stronger than it was a couple of weeks ago.
Vanderbilt (13 spots, from 82nd to 69th). Vandy probably doesn't have anywhere near the offensive prowess it would take for them to win at South Carolina this weekend, but the 3-0 'Dores certainly looked great in pummeling Ole Miss last weekend.
Duke (13 spots, from 93rd to 80th). Yes, Duke still lost to Richmond to start the season; and no, they are probably not threats to reach bowl eligibility. But with a road win at a sinking Boston College squad, the Blue Devils showed some offensive life.
Texas A&M (10 spots, from 23rd to 13th). I cannot completely understand the Aggies' jump -- they've looked perfectly fine this season against SMU and Idaho, but neither of those teams should have resulted in strong opponent adjustments. We'll say that the Aggies are rising in part because of the fact that their negative preseason projections are carrying a bit less weight with each passing week.
Others: Troy (75th to 52nd), Western Michigan (79th to 58th), Ohio (73rd to 59th), Army (112th to 99th), Toledo (67th to 57th).
Ole Miss (23 spots, from 53rd to 76th). Wow, did they look atrocious versus Vanderbilt.
UCLA (17 spots, from 74th to 91st). Wow, did they look atrocious early versus Texas.
Washington State (15 spots, from 77th to 92nd). Opponent adjustments knocked Wazzu around a bit. The Cougars looked great in wins over UNLV and Idaho State, but they were still wins over UNLV and Idaho State, and the Cougars missed an opportunity by falling apart late in a loss to San Diego State.
Kentucky (14 spots, 50th to 64th). Aside from a couple of plays versus Central Michigan, the Wildcats' offense has been completely and totally lifeless thus far. Their defense hasn't been much better.
Florida State over Clemson (Spread: FSU +2 | F/+ Projection: FSU by 3.4). The numbers aren't factoring in the expected absence of injured Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel, but honestly, that might not have a huge impact in this game. The Seminoles have looked great on defense thus far, and if they can slow down a Clemson attack that looked wonderful last week, they will have a very good chance to take out the Tigers.
California over Washington (Spread: Cal +1 | F/+ Projection: Cal by 1.0). I'm still undecided about the 3-0 Golden Bears, but if their defense comes through, they should give Washington a serious challenge.
USC over Arizona State (Spread: USC +2.5 | F/+ Projection: USC by 0.3). Arizona State is still Arizona State -- talented, athletic and unstable -- but they have perhaps shown a bit more upside than the Trojans this year. USC benefits from preseason projections and a strong performance versus Syracuse, but they have struggled to put opponents away, and now they play on the road for the first time this season.
Central Florida over BYU (Spread: UCF +2.5 | F/+ Projection: UCF by 0.4). I'm really interested in this game. UCF's defense should be able to give a charitable (i.e. they commit a lot of turnovers) BYU offense fits, but I'm not sure the Knights' offense can do much to BYU in Provo. Whatever the over/under is in this one, think about taking the under.
When watching Clemson play, you quickly come to realize that your emotions are a bit on edge. The Tigers have been as good as anybody in teasing their fanbase (and college football fans) with tidbits of unbelievable play, followed by silly errors and collapses. I watch them with a combination of excitement and fear not unlike what I assume I will have watching my daughter play softball (or tennis, or piano, or whatever) in the future. You're thrilled at times and terrified by what might be about to happen. They went ahead of Auburn, 38-24, early in the fourth quarter, but as Auburn began to drive down the field it was easy to assume the worst. Auburn had won ten straight games decided by a possession or less, and it almost felt like a given that they would score to cut the lead to 38-31, and Clemson would begin to tighten up.
Nope. Instead, Coty Sensabaugh picked off a Barrett Trotter pass at the Clemson 5, and the Tigers proceeded to eat up the final 9:34 of the game with an 18-play, 73-yard drive. I'm not a Clemson fan by any means, but it was a bit exhilarating watching them learn how to close a game. After spotting the defending national champions a 14-0 lead, they dominated. Now they host an even tougher opponent, Florida State, this weekend.
5 comments, Last at 05 Oct 2011, 11:16am by KateJ