Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?
14 Oct 2011
by Bill Connelly
This week's F/+ rankings can be found both below and at the F/+ main page. Most of the top 10 takes shape as one would expect: the top three are Alabama, Oklahoma and LSU, which, in some order, are everybody's top three. Other undefeateds like Boise State, Wisconsin, Stanford, Oklahoma State, and Georgia Tech fill out the top 10. Oregon at No. 8 is less than surprising. (Well, it's surprising if you remember last year's Oregon issues, but otherwise, it is not particularly jarring.)
But then you see Notre Dame at No. 6, and your natural reaction is ... what? (Or, in blogger parlance, "whut?")
At 4-2, Notre Dame is the only two-loss team among the F/+ top 11 and is barely making a dent in the human polls, which have been known to perhaps prop them up a time or two in the past. Now it is the computers' turn to throw some love Notre Dame's way. Per a comment I received at Football Study Hall, I thought I would spend some time figuring out what the Irish are doing so right.
The S&P+ measure does not give serious weight to turnovers overall -- it doesn't judge them as good plays, obviously, but it also doesn't treat them as disasters. They are seen as glitches, nothing more, nothing less. When you think about Notre Dame's season to date, you can see how this approach would help them significantly. In a three-point loss to South Florida, Notre Dame lost five turnovers worth 33.7 Equivalent Points (as defined here). The next week, they lost five more turnovers worth 21.6 Equivalent Points and lost by four. For S&P+'s purposes, they gave away eight touchdowns' worth of points in two games and lost by a combined seven points. Michigan and South Florida, by the way, are quite good: they currently rank 11th and 31st, respectively, in F/+. Thinking of these ten plays as mere glitches, instead of the catastrophic messes they turned out to be, leaves you with a completely different impression of the Irish. Suddenly, they are a team that outplayed No. 11 Michigan, No. 18 Michigan State (they won 31-13, while still facing a few turnover issues), No. 31 South Florida and No. 35 Pittsburgh (they once again suffered a turnover inside Pitt's five-yard line, and it kept a 15-12 win much closer than it probably should have been) and played flawless offense versus No. 91 Purdue and No. 94 Air Force.
The magnitude of turnovers is not in any way predictive of future success; that Notre Dame committed an incredible 10 turnovers in their two losses meant something, but the fact that those 10 were more costly than the average turnover -- so many of them happened deep in their opponent's territory -- did not. The fact that they almost beat two good teams despite those turnovers was also significant. Quarterback Tommy Rees figuring out how not to throw passes to the other team in the red zone in recent weeks has made Notre Dame one of the best, most well-rounded, teams in the country.
It also bears mentioning that Notre Dame ranks 13th in FEI in part because it is a drive-based measure that is going to more fully weight the impact and result of turnovers.
This is a damn good, well-rounded team. They rank sixth in overall Def. S&P+ -- third against the run, 15th (and rising) against the pass -- and 10th in Off. S&P+. The defense suffers some glitches on passing downs (they rank just 32nd in that category), and despite the presence of all-world receiver Michael Floyd, their passing offense is just good, not great (21st). Taken as a whole though, there is not a significant weakness on either side of the ball, and despite a schedule that includes USC (October 22), a tricky trip to Wake Forest (November 5) and a Thanksgiving trip to Stanford (November 26), they are a legitimate threat to win out. Or at the least, finish 9-3. Amazingly, they are a threat to do this despite being, at present time, completely ignored by pollsters. We currently live in a world where Notre Dame is underrated. Who'd have thunk it?
Lesson learned this week: the only thing people love more than talking about Mike Leach is talking about Mike Leach becoming their school's coach.
I think Notre Dame about covers it. Georgia's about a week away from "What the..." status themselves.
Southern Miss (18 spots, from 57th to 39th). The Golden Eagles were the favorite of many to win Conference USA (or at least make the conference title game), but they started slowly in 2011. They committed eight turnovers in their first two games, creeping by Louisiana Tech and losing to Marshall. Since then, they have begun to look like the favorite many thought they would be. They have gained 1,238 yards and scored 111 points in the last two games, and their 63-35 win over Navy last weekend was quite a statement.
Maryland (17 spots, from 72nd to 55th). The numbers have no idea what to do with the Terps. They looked good against Miami and West Virginia then looked awful against Temple and Towson, and their F/+ rating had already experienced a roller coaster ride before their narrow road loss to a Top 10 Georgia Tech team. They jumped again this week, but they'll probably lose 63-0 to Florida State this weekend and tumble again.
Houston (14 spots, from 51st to 37th). Like Southern Miss, Houston was a preseason darling in Conference USA. Their defense, however, has made things difficult on them. Three times this year, they have scored 35 points or more and won by only single digits. They allowed 538 yards and 42 points versus UTEP on September 29, but the defense made a huge, and completely unexpected, statement in allowing just 284 yards and three points to East Carolina last weekend in a 56-3 win.
Purdue (13 spots, from 104th to 91st). Purdue isn't good, but they aren't so bad that Minnesota can hang with them at home (as last week's F/+ projections thought). Their 45-17 win over the Gophers was a nice assertion of who is truly the Big Ten's worst team.
Others: Utah State (61st to 47th), UL-Lafayette (93rd to 79th), UCLA (69th to 58th), Virginia (79th to 68th), Georgia (27th to 17th), Temple (37th to 27th), Tulsa (54th to 44th).
East Carolina (24 spots, from 68th to 92nd). Needless to say, when you cannot move the ball against a defense (Houston) that had, to that point, been a total sieve, your ratings are going to plummet. At 1-4, ECU is on shaky ground, and an (unlikely) loss to Memphis this weekend might put second-year head coach Ruffin McNeill on an early hot seat.
Minnesota (12 spots, from 113th to 115th). Here are the five worst F/+ finishes for BCS conference programs: 2009 Washington State (-29.3%, 120th), 2008 Washington State (-27.6%, 118th), 2005 Duke (-21.7%, 114th), 2008 Washington (-21.5%, 117th), 2010 Kansas (-21.0%, 113th). Minnesota is currently at minus-19.8 percent and ranked 115th. And that's with preseason projections still playing a slight role. Without that to prop them up, the Gophers' final ratings might be all sorts of ugly.
USC (12 spots, from 41st to 53rd). On their bye week, the Trojans were dinged by the continued filtering out of preseason projections, but they were also hurt by the fact that almost every opponent they've played thus far (Minnesota, Utah, Syracuse, Arizona) looked awful to some degree. Last night's 30-9 win over California should help them bounce back a bit.
Iowa (12 spots, from 30th to 42nd). Iowa had also been propped up a bit by preseason projections, and their 13-3 loss to Penn State didn't help matters. It's not that they only scored three points versus an excellent Penn State defense; allowing a whole 13 points (and nearly 400 yards) to an oft-mediocre offense is probably more egregious.
Others: Navy (42nd to 76th), Ball State (91st to 104th), Wyoming (96th to 108th), Pittsburgh (24th to 35th), San Diego State (59th to 69th), Utah (47th to 57th), Missouri (33rd to 43rd).
Michigan over Michigan State (Spread: Michigan +1.5 | F/+ Projection: Michigan +4.1). The Outsiders projections have been friendly to Michigan all year, and the Wolverines can take a huge step forward in their pursuit of a division title if they are able to take down a Michigan State team that has played some ferocious defense in 2011.
Central Florida over SMU (Spread: UCF +3 | F/+ Projection: UCF +2.6). UCF took SMU down twice last year, but the Mustangs are encountering fewer self-inflicted since making the switch from Kyle Padron to J.J. McDermott at quarterback. UCF's defense will need to be at its best to win in Dallas.
BYU over Oregon State (Spread: BYU +2 | F/+ Projection: BYU +4.5). This line surprised me a bit, but that's probably just because I continue to think BYU is better than they have shown this year. Oregon State has actually begun to show a pulse, so I might be completely off-base on this one.
Kansas State over Texas Tech (Spread: Kansas State +3 | F/+ Projection: Kansas State +0.8). This line surprised me too. I understand skepticism over Kansas State -- they have perfected the art of riding to victories on opponents' mistakes, and they are less than amazing on a play-by-play basis -- but I expected a bit more skepticism of a Texas Tech team that has struggled to put together a full game's worth of solid play.
Finding out Tajh Boyd was probably going to be okay. In a week full of tough injuries (Ohio State's Braxton Miller went down, and the Buckeyes blew a big lead against Nebraska; Oregon's LaMichael James dislocated his elbow against California; Michigan's Denard Robinson got dinged up; Florida fell to their third-string quarterback; et cetera), the Clemson quarterback's could have been the worst after he got wishboned in the second half of the Tigers' win over Boston College. It looked awful, and it could have derailed what could be a special, unexpected season for CU, but it ended up only being a strained hip. Boyd is expected to play versus Maryland this weekend.
12 comments, Last at 18 Oct 2011, 7:54pm by erniecohen