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?
27 Sep 2013
by Bill Connelly
The F/+ rankings serve many useful purposes. Being able to distill the work Brian Fremeau and I attempt to do into one number (or, I guess, I small set of numbers) is beneficial, and I've found that F/+ is more accurately predictive and properly evaluative than either S&P+ or FEI by themselves. That is, of course, what you hope to see when coming up with a combined ranking like this.
From a pure self-interest standpoint, however, one of my favorite traits of the F/+ rankings is how they protect us from ourselves early in the season. When you're using preseason projections (which still play a role in both my numbers and Brian's), and when you're trying to wring anything useful out of a small set of data, you're going to end up with some peculiar teams in peculiar places. But for most outliers, one set of numbers balances out the other. Florida, USC, and Michigan State rank strangely high in S&P+ because of their unusually great defensive performances (unusual this year because almost nobody else is playing defense), and despite their poor offenses; but their No. 3, No. 6, and No. 8 S&P+ rankings, respectively, are balanced out a bit by ranking 20th, 36th, and 39th in FEI. Meanwhile, FEI ranks Missouri sixth, Miami 10th, and Georgia Tech 14th; but S&P+ is there to smooth things out a bit (Mizzou is 32nd, Miami 22nd, and Georgia Tech 33rd).
So while the F/+ rankings still differ from the polls, in some cases drastically, the combined number is mostly sensible to the naked eye.
That said ... what are we to make of Arizona?
FEI and S&P+ basically agree on seven teams near the top of the rankings -- Oregon, Florida State, Alabama, Stanford, Louisville, Oklahoma, and Arizona are all ranked in the top 13 in both sets of numbers. But while six of those teams seem pretty understandable (the first five listed are all among the AP top 8, and Oklahoma is 14th), Rich Rodriguez's Wildcats stand out as a strange outlier. They received just eight points in the latest AP poll (good for 32nd, behind Northern Illinois) and 33 in the USA Today coaches poll (29th), but FEI has them ninth and S&P+ has them 11th? What gives?
Arizona's 2013 audition has been mostly behind closed doors thus far. The Wildcats' 35-0 and 38-13 wins over Northern Arizona and UTSA, respectively, were on the Pac-12 Network, and their 58-13 romp of UNLV was on the CBS Sports Network. These games haven't exactly been national spectacles, either because of exposure or opponent. The scores are reasonably impressive, but what can we learn from the box scores?
Against UNLV, the Wildcats' average starting field position was their 44-yard line; UNLV's was the 25. Against UTSA, it was 35 for Arizona, 23 for the Roadrunners. As I discuss in my book Study Hall, the hidden yardage value in field position is enormous. Not only did Arizona out gain UNLV by 196 yards and UTSA by by 43, but they derived 400 yards' worth of extra advantages in those two games based simply on where they and their opponents began their drives. UNLV and UTSA combined to begin one drive beyond their own 40-yard line. It's hard to score consistently when you're always facing a 60-, 70-, or 80-yard field.
As long as it's not based solely on turnovers, a field position advantage is typically rather sustainable overall. Thus far, punter Drew Riggleman has yet to allow a return in nine punts, with three fair catches, five punts downed inside the 20, and just one touchback. Arizona's offense is consistently generating at least a first down or two, and Riggleman is preventing opposing punt returners from getting any opportunities. Meanwhile, 14 of Jake Smith's 24 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks, and eight opponent returns have averaged just 19.0 yards. These stats probably aren't maintainable to this degree, but they're a sign of a strong special teams unit overall.
Arizona's defense ranked just 68th in Def. F/+ last season, and while the Wildcats haven't played any great offenses yet, early signs have been encouraging. They still don't have a pass rush (sacks in non-garbage time: 1), and that will eventually cost them, but the run defense has been stellar, and at the very least UTSA has shown solid potential on the ground. In terms of raw, unadjusted advanced stats, Arizona currently ranks eighth in Success Rate, ninth in Points Per Play, sixth in Rushing S&P, 18th in Passing S&P, sixth on standard downs and 24th on passing downs. In terms of raw drive efficiency, Arizona ranks first so far.
Again, this will change when Arizona begins playing real offenses (and in the Pac-12, there are plenty of "real" offenses, beginning with Washington's power-and-counter-attacks unit on Saturday). It bears mentioning that in opponent-adjusted overall Def. S&P+, Arizona currently ranks 15th, but the Wildcats probably aren't going to rank in the Def. F/+ top 10 at the end of the season. Still, they were a top-40 team last year with a defense that was mediocre at best. If the second season in Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 produces even a decent-to-good defense, Arizona's ceiling gets pretty high, pretty quickly, because we know a Rodriguez offense is almost always going to be good.
As a sophomore in 2012, Ka'Deem Carey came out of nowhere to rush for 1,929 yards (6.4 per carry) with 23 touchdowns; he also caught 36 passes for 313 yards. He was both durable (26.5 intended touches -- rushes and targets -- per game) and explosive. He averaged 7.1 highlight yards per opportunity ("opportunities" here are defined as the number of times your line got you at least five yards downfield), and he got a lot of opportunities.
Thus far, the opportunities are rolling in. Almost 60 percent of Carey's carries in 2013 (25 of 43) have resulted in highlight opportunities, so it's almost disappointing that he's 'only' averaging 7.0 yards per carry overall (4.3 highlight yards per opp.). Still, one has to figure the yards will start to pile up at some point, perhaps not at last year's level, but still at a pretty fast clip. And between Carey, all-or-nothing backup Daniel Jenkins (lower efficiency, higher explosiveness) and a pretty mobile quarterback in B.J. Denker (36 non-sack carries, 240 yards, 6.2 highlight yards per opportunity), the Arizona running game should remain strong for most of the year. The Wildcats are currently fifth in raw Rushing S&P, and that will probably drop with tougher competition, but it shouldn't drop too far.
It's okay if you're not buying Arizona as a top-10 team right now. I'm not either. The primary takeaway from the high early rankings is that the Wildcats might be better than we thought. And in a Pac-12 South division that features more potential than proven production -- UCLA has looked fantastic, while USC, Arizona State, and Utah are loaded with both clear strengths and weaknesses -- there's a chance the Wildcats could win quite a few games.
That said, there are some question marks. For one thing, a pass rush that was pretty awful last year doesn't appear to have gotten any better. Arizona's secondary was both young and put upon last year, and while it held its own, it was asked to do too much. That appears to be the case again this season. SPUR safety Tra'Mayne Bondurant (16.5 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, one sack, three interceptions, three passes broken up) is once again stockpiling the disruptive stats, but he and this experienced unit will once again have to do a lot.
Meanwhile, the passing game on the other side of the ball is an even larger concern. We knew it would be following the departures of quarterback Matt Scott and receiver Dan Buckner and an ACL injury to star receiver Austin Hill. But while junior slot receiver Garic Wharton has done well in limited opportunities (10 targets, seven catches, 109 yards), quarterback B.J. Denker has completed just 24 of 48 passes for 217 yards to players not named Wharton. Wharton is the only receiver to have caught even a 20-yard pass, and if there's no explosiveness against NAU, UNLV, or UTSA, it's hard to imagine that suddenly showing up against Pac-12 defenses.
So yes, this is perhaps a bit of a mirage. Arizona's strengths -- field position, rushing, run defense -- will at some point become hindered by its weaknesses as the schedule toughens up; and the schedule indeed toughens up: Only three of Arizona's nine conference battles are against teams currently ranked worse than 35th in F/+. But with strong ground games and good legs in special teams, Arizona has a potentially strong proclivity for winning the field position battle, and if you win field position, you tend to win games, too. And the good news is that, beginning Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m. EDT on FOX (when Arizona and Washington kick off) and in the weeks that follow, the Wildcats will begin to prove themselves, one way or another, pretty quickly. We don't have to wonder for long.
The Pac-12 is pretty loaded this year, isn't it?
And while we're at it, are you checking Football Study Hall regularly? Lots of good content from people other than me.
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