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29 Nov 2012

The 2012 Varsity Numbers Awards

by Bill Connelly

With the regular season drawing to a close and Championship Week basically starting tonight with a de facto Big East title game (Louisville vs. Rutgers), it's time to do a little bit of reflecting. Let's hand out some awards for 2012 performances to date.

The "Seriously? That High?" Award (for the team ranked strangely, ridiculously high in S&P+) goes to ... Michigan State. I wrote about the 6-6, and sixth-ranked (in S&P+) Spartans at SB Nation this week:

6. Michigan State's win total in 2012. Also: Michigan State's current S&P+ ranking. How exactly does a 6-6 team rank ahead of 118 other FBS programs, including 13 with double-digit wins? With spectacular defense, first of all. The Spartans have dominated on that side of the ball for most of the year. But they have also pulled off this odd combination with a spectacular inability to turn yards and opportunities into points. The Spartans outgained Minnesota, 421 to 96, on Saturday, and they won the turnover battle to boot. On paper, this should have been about a 42-3 win. But they won by just a 26-10 margin thanks to both a super-costly turnover (returned for a touchdown) and the inability to finish drives. They advanced inside Minnesota's 40-yard line eight times, scored just two touchdowns, turned the ball over once, and settled for five field goals (they made one). Gee, if only they had some size they could effectively utilize when they get close to the goal line...

So basically, S&P+ looks at every (non-garbage time) play of the season, takes opponent into account, and judges you. In MIchigan State, it sees a team with a great defense and a decent offense, one that should be the class of the Big Ten with an 11-1 (or so) record. It sees incorrectly, in other words, though the Spartans have certainly come close, with five of six losses by four points or less.

One final word: The two most out-of-place teams in last year's S&P+ rankings were Notre Dame (8-5 and 10th) and Texas A&M (7-6 and 16th). Those two teams are 22-2 this season. Just saying.

Sixth is too high. Obviously. And we'll see if the Spartans remain that high when I make a few adjustments to S&P+ in the offseason. But it is easy to see why MSU could be ranked pretty highly despite the record, and with only about four senior starters, it is easy to see why the Spartans might rebound pretty strongly in 2013.

The Bill Synder Wizardry Award (for the team most underrated by S&P+) goes to ... Bill Snyder's Kansas State Wildcats. Of course. KSU has one-upped its 2011 feats by going 10-1 and could lock up a conference title with a home win over Texas on Saturday, but they continue to win despite a general lack of play-for-play prowess. The Wildcats take advantage of every opportunity and stand in the way of you doing the same, but they still rank just 25th in S&P+. And they actually managed to drop 10 spots, from 15th, in a bye week. Somehow they're probably okay with that, but ... it's getting pretty strange at this point. Maybe I really DID design a system of numbers with the sole purpose of screwing over KSU, as I was accused of doing last year.

The Boise State Award (for the mid-major most criminally underrated*) goes to ... Utah State. Kent State may be (somehow) one win from a potential BCS bowl bid, but Utah State is, to me, the class of this year's mid-majors. The Aggies lost by two points on the road to Wisconsin (No. 21 in S&P+) and by three points on the road to BYU (still No. 20 because of a solid defense). I can come pretty close to justifying their lofty S&P+ rankings this time around. Gary Andersen has quickly built a sturdy, mean team at USU. Now let's see if he's still coaching there a year from now.

*-Yes, Boise State was underrated during the Kellen Moore years. They were ranked high, but not nearly high enough.

The Hawaii 2007 Award (for the mid-major that might be about to get romped by a really good team) award, meanwhile, goes to ... Kent State. I really, really want the Golden Flashes to win the MAC Championship and slip into a BCS bid, simply because I love that it is an available reward for mid-majors. The playing field is quite obviously slanted against the smaller teams, and they don't really have much to play for overall. But wow, would it be neat if a program like Kent State, which hadn't finished with a winning record since 2001 and hadn't been to a bowl since 1972, could unearth a BCS bid. That is a wonderful underdog tale right there. Kent State has a good enough defense to perhaps prevent humiliation at the level of the 2008 Sugar Bowl (Georgia 41, Hawaii 10), but they would be a justifiably enormous underdog. But since bowls were originally created as rewards for jobs well done (and as economic boosters for certain communities) ... well, this would be quite the reward for head coach Darrell Hazell and his team. Now let's see if Hazell is still coaching there a year from now.

The Fatal Attraction Award (for the player by whom I am unnaturally, unhealthily seduced) goes to ... USC's Marqise Lee. We are all particularly seduced by players of a certain position, be it hard-hitting linebackers, strong-armed quarterbacks, dual-threat quarterbacks, et cetera. Over time, it has become clear to me that big-play receivers fill that role for me. And while I have no rooting interest in USC, I got excited any time Matt Barkley cocked his arm to throw deep this season because I (rather justifiably) assumed Marqise Lee was about to make a spectacular play downfield. And he usually did. Baylor's Terrance Williams is one of my favorites for the same reason. And Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief made a late run at the award. But it's still Lee for me, even though his team does still win the following award.

The Seven Years In Tibet Award (for the most disappointing supposed award candidate) goes to ... USC. I was hesitant to label the Trojans as a national title contender in the preseason, thinking instead that they were more of a top 10-caliber team, not top 2-3. I called them a bit overrated ... and I was still overrating them. I thought they might be a disappointing 9-3 or 10-2. I did not see 7-5 coming. The runner-up: Arkansas, for the exact same reason. I was cringing at the top 10 hype for the Hogs, but I still thought they were a top 20-25 team. They didn't even come close.

The Mizzou-West Virginia 2007 Award (for the national title matchup I really, really, really wanted to see but didn't) goes to ... Alabama-Oregon. Oregon head coach Chip Kelly might have his best team yet on his hands, but a shocking home loss to Stanford has evidently left his Ducks just on the outside of the national title race for the second straight year. I thought a matchup of the nation's most dominant defensive coach and its most interesting, effective offensive coach would have been wonderful. Of course, I doubt we'll be lacking for story lines with either a Notre Dame-Georgia or (especially) Notre Dame-Alabama title game.

The "This is the year ... no, THIS is the year ... that [Historical Or Recruiting Powerhouse] officially makes it back to the big time" Award (to the team most likely to be overrated to start next season) goes to ... Texas A&M. This isn't necessarily a perfect fit, since the Aggies have almost broken through this year, but unless they lay a bowl-game egg, it is all but certain that the Aggies will start next year in the top 5, maybe even the top 3. We have all been seduced by likely Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, and there is no question that A&M has been one of the best teams in the country over the last month or so, but the Aggies will quite possibly be replacing three incredible stalwarts on the offensive line (both tackles are juniors, but are also projected as first-round picks), not to mention end Damontre Moore (ditto) and senior leaders like receiver Ryan Swope and running back Christine Michael. By October 12 of next year, the Aggies will have played Alabama at home and traveled to both Arkansas and Ole Miss. I smell regression, at least to a slight, temporary degree.

The Paul Wulff Award (for the coach who has put an absolutely awful product on the field but probably deserved a third year on the job anyway) goes to ... Jon Embree. The Colorado coach, and the leader of what F/+ thinks is the worst team in the country, was let go after a 1-11 season. He was 4-21 in two years, and I honestly can't really put up much of a defense for him. Colorado was almost guaranteed to be pretty bad in 2013, too, even though quite a few of the Buffaloes' best players in 2012 were either really young or hurt. Wulff was given a third season after two dreadful years at Washington State, and was then actually given a fourth, too. This worked out pretty well for Wazzu for one simple reason: Mike Leach probably wouldn't have taken the job in 2009 or 2010. But Wazzu improved just enough in 2011 (4-8) to entire a bigger name. Wulff never had a chance to succeed, but in giving him another couple of years, Washington State at least assured that it might get a bigger name to replace him. In dumping Embree now, Colorado is looking around for someone to take over a truly awful team.

The Jim Tressel Award (for the best team with the most mediocre offense) goes to ... well, it SHOULD go to Michigan State (second in Def. F/+, 64th in Off. F/+). But according to the rules I'm making up on the spot, you cannot win two different Varsity Numbers awards. So instead, we're giving this award to South Carolina, which currently ranks 42nd in Off. F/+ and a healthy sixth in Def. F/+. The Gamecocks' front four is as good as any in the country, and the offense certainly had its moments, but between another season-ending injury to running back Marcus Lattimore and nagging injuries for quarterback Connor Shaw, Steve Spurrier's squad was incredibly up-and-down offensively. Thirty-five points and 392 yards versus Georgia? Good! Eleven points and 191 yards versus Florida? Bad. Twenty-seven points and 444 yards versus Clemson (with a backup quarterback)? Good. Twenty-four points (seven until the fourth quarter) and 293 yards versus Wofford? Bad.

The Art Briles Award (for the team most propped up by its offense and dragged down by its defense) goes to ... Arizona! Led by quarterback Matt Scott and running back Ka'Deem Carey (criminally overlooked for the Doak Walker Award finalists lists), the Wildcats fielded the No. 7 offense in the country according to Off. F/+. But Arizona ranks just 63rd in Def. F/+ and are heading to the postseason at just 7-5 as a result. Arizona scored at least 34 points and lost on three separate occasions in 2012. That is difficult to do.

The Bill Snyder Wizardry, Part II Award (for the team most loved by FEI and hated by S&P+) goes to ... Cincinnati! The Bearcats can move to 9-3 with a win at UConn on Saturday, but thanks to a pair of terribly lackluster early performances versus FCS teams (not to mention a loss to Toledo), they still rank a mediocre 70th in S&P+. FEI, on the other hand, ranks Cincy 18th. The differences come on both sides of the ball; on offense, Cincy ranks 75th in Off. S&P+ and 37th in OFEI; on defense: 65th in Def. S&P+ and fifth in DFEI. This is a team that clearly knows how to finish drives, even if the Bearcats are quite inefficient from play to play.

The "Fremeau Hates Reno" Award (for the team most loved by S&P+ and hated by FEI, like the 2009 Nevada Wolf Pack) goes to ... Arkansas. The Hogs have consistently failed to take full advantage of offensive opportunities in 2012, ranking 11th in Off. S&P+ (meaning they were quite strong, play-for-play) and 56th in OFEI (meaning they couldn't use these plays to actually put points on the board).

This Week at SB Nation

Today's UCLA-Stanford preview was driven entirely by charting data. We are going to once again try to get a college game charting project going next year. Hopefully it drums up a decent amount of interest.

Posted by: Bill Connelly on 29 Nov 2012

4 comments, Last at 30 Nov 2012, 5:59pm by DD


by Dales :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 6:18pm

"Gary Petersen has quickly built a sturdy, mean team at USU."

Gary Andersen, I believe.

by Bill Connelly :: Thu, 11/29/2012 - 8:20pm

Yep, combined Gary Andersen and Gary Patterson! Will fix.

by Podge (not verified) :: Fri, 11/30/2012 - 6:05am

Is there any other history (beyond this year) of last year's underrated teams successful the next year?

by DD (not verified) :: Fri, 11/30/2012 - 5:59pm

It probably would depend on what you use to define underrated.

Using the Notre Dame and Texas A&M examples, I looked at the archived S&P ratings on this site and selected the teams that finished in the top 10 with 5+ losses and in the top 20 with 6+ losses. I added in top 5 teams with 3+ losses as well. The S&P ranking is in brackets and the record the following year is after the dash.

Alabama 10-3 (3rd) - 12-1
South Carolina 9-5 (9th) - 11-2
Miami 7-6 (19th) - 6-6

Oklahoma 8-5 (9th) - 12-2
Tennessee 7-6 (18th) - 6-7

Florida 9-4 (4th) - 13-1
California 7-6 (16th) - 9-4

The underrated teams ranked in the top 10 all seemed to make big improvements the following year at least. The Texas A&M-type teams didn't seem to make the same jump.