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30 Nov 2010

Varsity Numbers: Making Upsets Count

by Bill Connelly

What a fun weekend it was to be a college football fan. It encapsulated the season as a whole, gave us a clear national title pecking order, likely locked up conflicted Heisman votes for Cameron Newton, and kindly allowed matters to play out over the course of two-and-a-half days. Like a good portion of the 2010 season, it was pretty fantastic.

Box Score of the Week

Despite all the entertainment, there were not many actual upsets over Thanksgiving weekend. Oklahoma-Oklahoma State was a virtual tossup, and Arkansas was actually favored against higher-ranked LSU. But favorites went down in unlikely fashion in the two biggest games. Boise State fell to Nevada, but we will get to that one later. We start with No. 2 Auburn's "upset" win over the favored Tide, one that featured the highest degree of difficulty imagineable.

Like many, I had family obligations during a good portion of the Iron Bowl, and as I checked first-quarter score updates, it was clear that I wasn't missing much. Alabama was putting a "We're still Alabama" hurting on Cam Newton and the Tigers. The only question appeared to be how bad it was going to get. The Tide ran 19 plays for 212 yards and three touchdowns in the first quarter, and their fourth drive ended with Mark Ingram fumbling in Auburn's red zone. At the time, it was impossible to fathom that Ingram's fumble might end up making the difference in the game. After all, who comes back from 21 down at Bryant-Denny Stadium?

Auburn, that's who. Alabama went up 24-0 with 8:01 remaining in the second quarter, and Auburn outscored the Tide 28-3 the rest of the way. In Tuscaloosa. It was a truly incredible feat, and the stats show that it was far from a fluke.

No. 2 Auburn 28, No. 11 Alabama 27

Auburn Alabama Auburn Alabama
Close % 100.0% STANDARD DOWNS
Field Position % 24.6% 47.9% Success Rate 45.5% 62.0%
Leverage % 72.1% 70.4% PPP 0.37 0.43
S&P 0.829 1.047
EqPts 23.3 23.2 PASSING DOWNS
Close Success Rate 39.3% 47.9% Success Rate 23.5% 14.3%
Close PPP 0.38 0.33 PPP 0.40 0.09
Close S&P 0.775 0.806 S&P 0.636 0.230
EqPts 7.6 6.3 Number 1 2
Close Success Rate 35.1% 52.0% Turnover Pts 4.9 12.0
Close PPP 0.21 0.25 Turnover Pts Margin +7.1 -7.1
Close S&P 0.557 0.771
Line Yards/carry 2.51 2.98 Q1 S&P 0.085 1.530
Q2 S&P 0.729 0.810
PASSING Q3 S&P 1.289 0.328
EqPts 15.6 16.9 Q4 S&P 0.637 0.423
Close Success Rate 45.8% 45.7%
Close PPP 0.65 0.37 1st Down S&P 0.570 1.157
Close S&P 1.110 0.824 2nd Down S&P 1.118 0.481
SD/PD Sack Rate 15.4%/18.2% 3.9% / 20.0% 3rd Down S&P 0.572 0.453
Projected Pt. Margin: Auburn +7.2 | Actual Pt. Margin: Auburn +1

Alabama's first-quarter S&P was exactly 18 times better than Auburn's, and they lost anyway.

Really, this game made something of a mockery of my Auburn-Alabama Insider column. I wrote that avoiding a huge Alabama first quarter was key for Auburn, and the Tigers didn't even remotely avoid it. I said that Alabama would be able to milk a big, early lead because of its slow pace. Not so. Meanwhile, red-zone defense was a supposed advantage for Alabama, and Auburn's red zone S&P was 1.315. And Alabama's great, third-ranked Passing Downs offense? Pitiful on passing downs. After almost falling victim to the three-knockdown rule, Auburn recovered and scored a 12th-round knockout of its own. It was a great win.

Now, here's to hoping we aren't soon considering this Auburn's greatest vacated win of the season. At this point, that is the one story that can drag this season down, and it's sitting out there on the horizon, waiting to unfold. I know TCU is giddy at the Rose Bowl bid awaiting them (and of all possible bowl games TCU-Wisconsin has me most giddy as well), but it would be, to say the least, irksome to later find out that they should have been playing for the national title.

Ten Notable Games

No. 1 Oregon 48, No. 21 Arizona 29

EqPts: Oregon 38.2, Arizona 29.3
T/O Pts: Arizona +1.6
Oregon > Arizona +7.3

There were an almost uncountable number of high-leverage, sudden-turnaround plays in this one. Oregon fumbled inside Arizona's 20 on the first drive, then Arizona scored on a drive that included a fourth-down conversion. After Oregon tied, Juron Criner pantsed his defender on the way to an 85-yard touchdown reception. Oregon converted a fourth down and scored, then Arizona threw an interception at the Oregon 10. Oregon committed a safety, then lost a fumble at the Arizona 8. And that was just in the first half. In the end, a track meet full of potentially game-turning plays is right up Oregon's alley, and, accordingly, the Ducks won going away. But they continue to play with fire, and with two games remaining, they could still get burned.

No. 19 Nevada 34, No. 4 Boise State 31

EqPts: Boise State 31.3, Nevada 31.2
T/O Pts: Boise State +3.9
Boise State > Nevada +4.0

This was my favorite game of the college football season. But I'll get into that in a little bit.

No. 12 Arkansas 31, No. 5 LSU 23

EqPts: Arkansas 26.7, LSU 18.4
T/O Pts: LSU +5.4
Arkansas > LSU +13.7

As was joked on Twitter, LSU must have been a bit off-kilter because Les Miles couldn't put a dip of grass into his mouth -- Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium has artificial turf. In the end, big plays doomed LSU, just like they did against Auburn, and just like they almost did against North Carolina three months ago. Second-quarter touchdown bombs of 85 and 80 yards (the latter coming on the final play of the half) allowed Arkansas to dictate how the second half would play out, and there was not enough Mad Hatter magic this time.

No. 7 Wisconsin 70, Northwestern 23

EqPts: Wisconsin 46.0, Northwestern 9.4
T/O Pts: Wisconsin +35.7
Wisconsin > Northwestern +72.3

I was not pleased with Bret Bielema when he was calling play-action bombs against Indiana a couple of weeks ago. But I cannot really fault him anymore, and for two reasons. First, even if he errs on the side of tacky, he has his Badgers playing amazingly good football right now,. If it takes a bit of attitude to accomplish that, then so be it. Second ... seriously, Northwestern committed seven turnovers and cost themselves approximately 36 points. The Badgers could have scored 90 if they wanted to, so I have to somewhat credit Bielema for not doing so.

No. 13 Oklahoma 47, No. 9 Oklahoma State 41

EqPts: Oklahoma 33.7, Oklahoma State 20.8
T/O Pts: Oklahoma State +3.7
Oklahoma > Oklahoma State +9.6

This was an incredibly boring game except for about four plays. But those four plays damn near made the game an instant classic. First, you had Broderick Brown's ridiculous tip to Shaun Lewis for an interception (defense was all that kept OSU in the game in the first half). Then, you had the back-to-back-to-back long touchdowns in the fourth quarter: Oklahoma's Cameron Kenney showing unexpected jets on an 86-yard reception, then Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert responding with an 89-yard kickoff return, and, most surprisingly, Oklahoma tight end James Hanna slipping behind the defense for a 76-yard, play-action dagger. In this one, the highlight reel far surpassed the game itself.

No. 15 Nebraska 45, Colorado 17

EqPts: Nebraska 31.8, Colorado 12.4
T/O Pts: Nebraska +12.8
Nebraska > Colorado +32.2

Nebraska running back Rex Burkhead had a rather comical line in this one. Running quite a bit of the wildcat formation, Burkhead rushed for 101 yards and a touchdown, caught a pass for zero yards, and threw two touchdown passes in two attempts. Nebraska officially clinched the North title, not that anyone in the Big 12 office was around to witness it. (Seriously? Threatening his daughter?)

No. 22 Florida State 31, Florida 7

EqPts: Florida State 24.1, Florida 7.3
T/O Pts: Florida State +19.2
Florida State > Florida +36.0

In all, Jimbo Fisher's first season as Florida State head coach has had some ups and downs, but making the conference title game (or better) and absolutely throttling your major in-state rivals (the Seminoles beat Miami by 28 on the road in early-October) are garnering goodwill from the fan base.

Maryland 38, No. 23 N.C. State 31

EqPts: Maryland 29.3, N.C. State 26.3
T/O Pts: Maryland +11.0
Maryland > N.C. State +14.0

Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen has gone from 2-10 and almost out the door to 8-4 and almost in the ACC title game. It was quite a turnaround for the Terrapins, both in 2010 and in this game. Maryland was down 14-0 and on the verge of getting blown out in the first quarter, but the Terrapins calmly responded by going on a 38-3 run of their own and withstood a late comeback. Poor N.C. State. The Wolfpack engineered a strong turnaround of their own in 2010, flipping from 5-7 to 8-4, and they had the ACC Atlantic title in their grasp. Alas.

Minnesota 27, No. 24 Iowa 24

EqPts: Minnesota 23.1, Iowa 11.4
T/O Pts: Minnesota +4.4
Minnesota > Iowa +16.1

Not only did Iowa further a late-season collapse with a loss to Minnesota, but the stats suggest it could have been much, much worse. Wow.

West Virginia 35, Pittsburgh 10

EqPts: West Virginia 29.5, Pittsburgh 12.9
T/O Pts: West Virginia +17.8
West Virginia > Pittsburgh +34.4

My timing couldn't have been better in complimenting West Virginia and its defense on Friday. The Mountaineers scored early in both halves, and that was all their defense needed. The Mountaineers still have yet to allow more 21 points in a game this season, and their ratings are beginning to reflect their dominance on that side of the ball. Part of me selfishly wants Connecticut to slip up this weekend, allowing West Virginia to sneak into a BCS bowl, just to see a hopefully healthy Noel Devine on a big stage one last time in his career.


Seeing the huge lead Boise State had built, it should not be a surprise to see that they held onto that lead despite the loss to Nevada. At this point in the season, it should be crystal clear that teams in the top couple of tiers are not going to move that much. Not even, sigh, Miami.

Once you get into the 230.0 range and lower, however, there are still heavy week-to-week changes.

Full rankings here.

S&P+ Rankings (After 13 Weeks)
1 Boise State 10-1 280.6 1 +0 143.1 2 145.6 1
2 Ohio State 11-1 260.9 3 +1 127.8 9 140.7 3
3 TCU 12-0 255.5 2 -1 120.5 19 142.4 2
4 Auburn 12-0 255.0 4 +0 154.8 1 107.6 43
5 Alabama 9-3 254.5 5 +0 134.2 5 127.7 10
6 South Carolina 9-3 249.2 6 +0 125.3 12 131.1 6
7 Stanford 11-1 243.3 8 +1 134.2 4 116.2 24
8 Arkansas 10-2 242.0 7 -1 133.5 6 115.5 25
9 Oklahoma 10-2 240.6 11 +2 121.0 18 126.4 11
10 Miami-FL 7-5 236.9 9 -1 114.1 29 129.6 7
S&P+ Rankings (After 13 Weeks)
11 Notre Dame 7-5 236.5 14 +3 110.0 35 133.3 5
12 Wisconsin 11-1 234.5 15 +3 124.4 15 116.8 23
13 Virginia Tech 10-2 234.4 12 -1 120.0 22 121.2 19
14 Oklahoma State 10-2 234.0 17 +3 129.7 7 111.1 36
15 Florida State 9-3 233.0 24 +9 127.4 11 112.3 33
16 Texas A&M 9-3 232.8 16 +0 110.6 33 128.9 9
17 Missouri 10-2 232.4 13 -4 120.1 21 119.0 20
18 West Virginia 8-3 230.5 32 +14 101.3 65 135.8 4
19 Nebraska 10-2 230.4 22 +3 114.0 30 123.0 16
20 Oregon 11-0 227.4 27 +7 119.5 24 114.4 27
S&P+ Rankings (After 13 Weeks)
21 Iowa 7-5 227.2 10 -11 109.0 39 124.7 14
22 Oregon State 5-6 227.2 18 -4 120.1 20 113.6 29
23 Pittsburgh 6-5 227.0 26 +3 128.5 8 105.0 46
24 LSU 10-2 226.7 25 +1 108.8 41 124.4 15
25 Michigan State 11-1 226.6 23 -2 119.7 23 113.4 30

Biggest S&P+ Movers of the Week


West Virginia (14 spots, from 32nd to 18th). As mentioned, few teams were more impressive than Bill Stewart's Mountaineers this weekend. A home win over hapless Rutgers would maintain their chance to win double-digit games this year. The Big East has been thoroughly mediocre, but despite a few slips, West Virginia has been far from embarrassing.

Nevada (12 spots, from 44th to 32nd). Sometimes when a team pulls an upset, its ranking stays steady while its victim tumbles. Sometimes it's the opposite. The S&P+ ratings suggest that Boise State still looked pretty good Friday night in Reno; Nevada just matched them blow for blow. The Broncos still held a slight statistical edge. The projected scores above suggest they should have won by four, but thanks to a kick that barely missed (if it missed at all), Nevada ended up knocking them off. The Wolf Pack looked great and justifiably moved up this week.

Maryland (11 spots, from 49th to 38th) and Florida State (nine spots, from 24th to 15th). Again, a great turnaround for The Fridge and a great first season for Jimbo Fisher.

Other Rises: BYU (62nd to 48th), Kent State (109th to 95th), Louisville (56th to 45th), Minnesota (82nd to 71st), Miami-Ohio (103rd to 93rd).


Vanderbilt (13 spots, from 77th to 90th). Robbie Caldwell announced that he would be stepping down as (interim) Vandy coach before Saturday's game against a Wake Forest team that has been pitiful this season. His team responded by laying down against the Demon Deacons.

Ole Miss (13 spots, from 47th to 60th). The Rebels did gain 326 yards against a solid Mississippi State defense, but allowing 498 yards to MSU's mediocre offense was unforgivable in the eyes of the S&P+.

Kansas State (11 spots, from 52nd to 63rd). Also unforgivable -- only beating North Texas by eight and having to rally from an early deficit to do so.

Iowa (11 spots, from 10th to 21st). Also unforgivable -- losing to Minnesota.

Other Tumbles: Hawaii (19th to 31st), Louisiana Tech (66th to 77th), Indiana (75th to 84th), Georgia (20th to 29th).

Favorite Moment of the Weekend

As I mentioned, I unfortunately missed most of Auburn-Alabama, but that's OK. The Boise State-Nevada game featured almost everything one can love about college football. You want upsets? How about Boise State losing its first conference game in three years?

Comebacks? Nevada was down 17-0 and 24-7.

Big plays? How about Boise State's Doug Martin ripping off lovely touchdowns of 51 and 79 yards (the latter a gorgeous catch-and-run on a swing pass), or maybe Nevada's Rishard Matthews ducking and twirling his way to the prettiest 44-yard reverse you will see? Or, of course, maybe you enjoyed Titus Young's incredible diving catch with two seconds left, a play that should have won Boise State the game.

Is drama your thing? How about four distinct momentum swings in the final five minutes of regulation?

Maybe you like the human element of the game? Then you might have been caught up in Boise State kicker Kyle Brotzman missing two chip-shot field goals by the narrowest of margins (you could still talk me into believing that he made the first one), and Nevada kicker Anthony Martinez booting the game-winner after having one blocked in the third quarter.

The best part of all for me was that I almost turned the television off and went to bed when Boise State blocked the field goal and maintained its 24-7 lead with just a quarter-and-a-half remaining. But I decided to stick it out and was rewarded with the ultimate college football experience. I hope you stayed up, too. The highlights just didn't do it justice.

Posted by: Bill Connelly on 30 Nov 2010

3 comments, Last at 30 Nov 2010, 11:54pm by Damien


by Kal :: Tue, 11/30/2010 - 11:59am

I think looking at this that the human component compared to this computer component is really factoring the 'bad' teams differently. I think that's true of FEI as well. Boise State has played one good game against a quality foe and has blown out other teams that aren't - and that gets rated very, very highly. They lose to a 40th ranked team and they barely falter. In most other systems I would suspect that the playing a 40th ranked team close would cause them much more of a drop, and playing great against scrubs wouldn't earn them nearly as many points.

Dunno. At this point the rankings of S&P+ just don't make sense to me empirically. Especially Notre Dame at 11th and Miami at 10. Neither team has played particularly well against strong foes, neither has a big win. I realize the difference in value between #4 and #20 is less than the difference between #1 and #4, but do Boise State, Ohio State and TCU seem to be the huge juggernauts of teams this season? Why wasn't TCU penalized more for their bare win against SDSU?

Oregon at 20 at least makes sense to me despite their winning ways in the S&P system. I don't agree with it and think that it's a flawed measure, but I understand it. I just don't get the rest of them. There's something that seems off, and the only thing that seems common is the ability to smash bad teams.

by Bill Connelly :: Tue, 11/30/2010 - 1:01pm

This has been a very confusing year for S&P+. Like I said last week, the overall correlations between S&P+ and winning are stronger than they've ever been -- obviously you don't want something perfectly correlated to win percentage, but there is obviously still some improvement I want to make -- but the outliers have been harder to explain than ever. I'll be spending a good portion of December and January tweaking things to find a better way, but ... yeah. The ratings have been simultaneously better and worse this season.

by Damien (not verified) :: Tue, 11/30/2010 - 11:54pm

I don't know if this helps at all, but I was looking at your data, and when I plotted them, I noticed that your defensive S&P+ ratings have a decent positive (right) skew. There are 50 offenses with an S&P+ below 100, but 61 defenses with a rating below 100. So Notre Dame and Miami and West Virginia get a huge boost for having decent defenses because most teams seem to have pretty bad defenses according to your ratings.

I don't know your system well enough to know what might be causing the skew. I looked at Notre Dame's record and their defense seems to have done well against the weaker teams on its schedule, slightly better than average against good offenses like Michigan, Stanford, and Pitt, and then a lot better than average against Utah. Whether that makes them a legitimately good defense, or if they just performed during the right games to boost their rating, I don't know.

Anyway, I'm sure you have a much better insight into what's happening than I do, but that's just what I saw from looking at the data a little. Hope it helps.