Varsity Numbers
For students majoring in breakdown of college football play-by-play

Varsity Numbers: Storyline Clarity

Varsity Numbers: Storyline Clarity
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bill Connelly

Ah, October. The month where college football goes from good to great. There are some negative sentiments below regarding the NCAA, officiating, etc., but make no mistake: October is still a great month to be a college football fan, with crazy finishes, passionate rivalries, and strange weather coming into play. This is also the month when the storylines of the season crystallize. At least one top 5 team lose this weekend (No. 1 Florida and No. 4 LSU face off tomorrow night), and the pictures in the SEC West, Pac-10, and Big East will start to become more clear (with Nebraska's win over Missouri last night, the story of the 2009 Big 12 North has already become more focused). So let's take one more look at last week, then dive into potential developments and upsets for the weekend.

Box Score of the Week

Strangely enough, there were not that many statistical oddities last week. A vast majority of winning teams won on the VN box score as well. That's supposed to happen, but it is rarely such a clean sheet for so many games in a given week. Even the Purdue-Northwestern game, which sounds like it was crazy to watch (it is hard to turn the ball over six times, and it is even harder to do so and still have a chance to win at the end), played out as expected on paper -- Purdue outgained Northwestern by two EqPts and lost the turnover battle by 20. The only oddity there was that Purdue had a goal-to-go situation in the last minute to win the game (somewhat predictably, they failed).

So for this week's VN Box Score of the Week (which sounds like a segment in need of a sponsor), we go with a game that was not statistically odd in terms of projected score, just in the outcome itself.

Michigan State 26, Michigan 20

Kudos to Michigan State for completely shutting down Michigan's running game, completely blowing the game in "Same old Michigan State" style, then bouncing back and winning anyway. Since 2004, Michigan State is a staggering 6-20 in games decided by a touchdown or less, but this one turned out well for them, and now they've won two in a row versus Michigan since 1966-67, years 2 and 3 B.B.S. (Before Bo Schembechler).

Think about that for a second. In tossup games decided by a touchdown or less, games in which most teams should be, in theory, somewhere around .500, Michigan State is fourteen games below .500. There are harder things in life than being a Michigan State football fan, but not many. And that comes from a Missouri fan.



Close % 100.0%
Field Position % 43.3% 56.4%
Leverage % 61.7% 59.0%
EqPts 15.7 26.6
Close Success Rate 35.0% 41.0%
Close PPP 0.26 0.34
Close S&P 0.612 0.751
EqPts 2.7 16.5
Close Success Rate 24.0% 42.6%
Close PPP 0.11 0.35
Close S&P 0.347 0.776
Line Yards/carry
1.46 2.23
EqPts 13.0 10.1
Close Success Rate 42.9% 38.7%
Close PPP 0.37 0.33
Close S&P 0.801 0.713
SD/PD Sack Rate
11.1% / 5.9% 9.1% / 5.0%
Success Rate 40.5% 39.1%
PPP 0.26 0.16
S&P 0.664 0.554
Success Rate 26.1% 43.8%
PPP 0.27 0.60
S&P 0.528 1.035
Number 2 3
Turnover Pts 13.4 14.5
Turnover Pts Margin
+1.1 -1.1
Q1 S&P -0.018 0.849
Q2 S&P 0.543 0.663
Q3 S&P 0.288 0.899
Q4 S&P 0.995 0.467
1st Down S&P 0.525 0.461
2nd Down S&P 0.385 0.948
3rd Down S&P 1.063 0.906
Projected Pt. Margin
-9.8 +9.8
Actual Pt. Margin
-6 +6
  • The Spartans won the field position battle with two punts inside the 20 and two forced turnovers. They gave Michigan long fields and took away the run. That will always be a pretty good recipe for beating a Rich Rodriguez team -- or any team for that matter.
  • This game was won by the Michigan State defensive line. They harassed Michigan quarterbacks all game and held them to a puny line yardage total.
  • Both teams were severely hampered by poor first down efforts. That suggests that the defensive game plans for both teams were much better than the offensive game plans (since on first downs you are almost guaranteed to be able to execute the plays you have set aside to use).
  • There was at least one fluky aspect to State's win: you are not going to be able to count on a Passing Downs S&P almost twice as high as your Standard Downs S&P, and you probably are not going to win much with such a low Standard Downs S&P.

Michigan State has played four-straight one-possession games, and four of their remaining seven games (at Illinois, Iowa, at Minnesota, at Purdue) are projected within 4.5 points. Some good luck in those games, and the 2-3 Spartans could still make something of the season. Of course, if they live up to their recent win percentage in those games, then they are destined for a 5-7 season.

Biggest Movers of the Week

We are still early enough in the season that there are pretty significant moves from week to week.

Strongest Rises

UTEP (33 spots, from 108 to 75). This is what happens when you decimate a Houston team that had beaten Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in the last two weeks.

Kentucky (32 spots, from 64 to 32). Kentucky is benefiting significantly from having played both Florida and Alabama. Their strength-of-schedule adjustment will continue to prop them up in the coming weeks, as they now have to travel to South Carolina and Auburn in back-to-back weeks. If they can survive this horrific stretch, the top-heavy schedule certainly opens up a bit over the last month, with home games against Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State, Eastern Kentucky, and Tennessee and a winnable trip to Vanderbilt.

Nevada (31 spots, from 55 to 24). There is a very good chance that Nevada goes on a major run over the season's final two months. They are moving the ball very well (they hung 773 yards on UNLV last week, which will always help your "+" rankings, no matter the opponent), and there is only one unwinnable game left on the schedule, a trip to Boise State.

Michigan State (18 spots, from 54 to 36. Best win of the season for Sparty results in a ratings boost.

Other rises of note: Miami, of Florida, (15 to 2), Virginia Tech (23 to 14), Auburn (19 to 13), and Arkansas (16 to 11).

Largest Drops

Cincinnati (25 spots, from 25 to 50). After some early statement wins over Rutgers and Oregon State, the Bearcats have quietly looked very mediocre in wins over Fresno State and Miami (Ohio). This is a rather disproportional drop, and they should pretty quickly regain their high standing if they continue to win. But while they looked like they might run away with the Big East title a couple of weeks ago, it is starting to look like we may still have an interesting race on our hands.

Utah (22 spots, from 30 to 52). Apparently they didn't look very good in their victory over Bye Week?

Hawaii (21 spots, from 70 to 91). Louisiana Tech has looked pretty iffy this year, and Hawaii looked three steps beyond terrible in Ruston last week. Of course, making a 4,200-mile mid-week trip for a conference game might make even Florida look pretty terrible.

(Which brings up a mini-rant not strong enough for the "Random Mini-Rant" section below: Why in the world are Hawaii and Louisiana Tech in the same conference?)

Baylor (21 spots, from 69 to 90). It is understandable why Baylor looked bad against Kent State -- they had to start a freshman third-stringer at quarterback -- but numbers are not sympathetic.

Connecticut (19 spots, from 28th to 47th). Thank you, strength of schedule adjustment. UConn has played North Carolina and Baylor, both of whom looked statistically awful last week, and the Huskies' ranking suffered because of it.

Other drops of note: Ole Miss (31 to 44), Texas Tech (33 to 48), TCU (12 to 22), USC (2 to 9).

Random Golf Clap

This week's golf clap goes to Pittsburgh, who, despite a loss at N.C. State, has positioned itself pretty well to make a run for the Big East title. With Cincinnati trailing off a bit, the Panthers potentially top the other list of challengers; although South Florida and West Virginia, if they stop turning over the ball, may have something to say about that. After a sluggish first half, Pittsburgh dominated Louisville last week, putting together an easy 35-10 win. Four of Pittsburgh's next five games are at home (with a winnable trip to Rutgers sandwiched in), and they could easily be 8-1 when Notre Dame comes to town on Nov. 14. Kudos to the Wannstache and his Panthers.

Random Mini-Rant

Not that the NCAA actually cares about its own perception problem, but ... really, NCAA? Must you go out of your way to prove Jerry Tarkanian and his "The NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, it will probably slap another two years of probation on Cleveland State" line correct again and again? Dez Bryant lies about a visit to Deion Sanders' house, finds out his visit probably wasn't illegal, owns up to it, and gets suspended for the season anyway? Every time the NCAA selectively over-punishes a team or player while ignoring violations at bigger schools*, they further their own shoddy reputation. But again, if they actually cared, they'd have changed their ways decades ago. That Tarkanian quote was from 1989, after all.

*Since the Reggie Bush case was brought up: it's not clear how many violations (if, technically, any) came about from Bush's time at USC. What matters is, over three years later, the NCAA still hasn't taken the time to find out. With schools outside of the top tier, it's punish first, ask questions later. With top tier schools, it's ask questions later ... the end.

A second mini-rant goes to Houston, who had passed the two most significant tests on their schedule and had a very good chance to go undefeated ... and responded by laying a hefty egg against UTEP. UTEP obviously played well, but that is not a very good football team, and Houston blew it.

Random Reasons to Love College Football

Since the NCAA is sometimes very successful in killing a college athletics fan's love of college athletics, here are a couple of reasons to overcome differences and love college football anyway:

The Paul Bunyon Ax.

The Kibbie Dome.

Random 10

In honor of last night's brutally wet Missouri-Nebraska game:

1. "And It Rained All Night" by Thom Yorke
2. "Days of Rain" by Bob Mould
3. "Dry the Rain" by The Beta Band
4. "Feels Like Rain" by Buddy Guy
5. "Fool in the Rain" by Led Zeppelin
6. "Go Ahead in the Rain" by A Tribe Called Quest
7. "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" by Bob Dylan
8. "Lost in the Rain" by Fighting Gravity
9. "Rain Dance" by The Guess Who
And of course...
10. "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" by Credence Clearwater Revival

Upset Watch

We named four potential upsets last week: Boston College over Florida State, Virginia over UNC, Washington over Notre Dame, and Idaho over Colorado State. Three happened, and the fourth (Wash-ND) went to overtime. We should probably just retire this segment right here instead of proceeding and ruining the near-perfect record.

Arkansas over Auburn. S&P+ Projection: Arkansas by 4.9 | Spread: Arkansas +2

The preseason projections were quite high on Arkansas, and while the Razorbacks are still questionable on defense (which could be a problem against Auburn), they showed some significant offensive explosiveness in last week's dominating win over Texas A&M (especially considering that they took the first 10 minutes off). In Gus Malzahn's first return trip to Fayetteville since his tense departure from Houston Nutt's staff after the 2006 season, the scoreboard operator might have a busy day.

Washington over Arizona. S&P+ Projection: Washington by 6.1 | Spread: Washington +3
Oregon State over Stanford
. S&P+ Projection: OSU by 15.3 | Spread: OSU +2
Washington State over Arizona State
. S&P+ Projection: Wazzu by 2.4 | Spread: Wazzu +20.5

Vegas and the S&P+ rankings very much disagree with what to make of the Pac-10 at the moment, and especially what to make of Oregon State and Arizona State. The Beavers are still getting the benefit of the doubt from preseason projections, but that will take a hit if they lose to a Stanford team whose results are exceeding their statistics so far. The most interesting of these picks has to be the Wazzu-Arizona State game. At the moment, ASU is projected to go 0-9 in the Pac-10, which is interesting for a team that only lost at Georgia by three points. This weekend will go a long way toward making sense of the Pac-10 -- these three games should straighten out the bottom half of the conference -- and Oregon's trip to UCLA further proving, one way or the other, what kind of team Oregon actually has this year.

Closing Thoughts

Not to pile on the mini-rant topic above, but ... let's pile on the mini-rant topic above. This offseason, the NCAA decided they would address something that was obviously damaging fans' enjoyment of the game: holding penalties. Apparently too few holds were called, so they made it a point to referees to call more.

This penalty is already the mushiest call an official can make -- you can call a hold on almost every play, so differentiating between what is called and what isn't was already almost impossible. But they are indeed calling more, as illuminated by a Missouri-Nebraska game that featured four Missouri drives crippled by holding penalties that led to a second-and-20 situation or worse. Yes, this is a bitter Missouri fan speaking right now, but penalties are on the rise everywhere this year. More than 45 teams averaged at least seven penalties per game in August and September this year, up from 39 in 2008, 44 in 2007, and 33 in 2008. At least anecdotal terms, a lot of the increase is due to holding penalties, roughness penalties that basically amount to "You hit that guy too hard," and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties like the ones found in last weekend's Georgia-LSU game. (We'll go ahead and add to the offseason to-do list a look at what kind of penalties are called more or less in a given season.) Again, this is a bitter subject because of my own personal rooting interests in last night's game (for what it is worth, there was at least one terrible call that went against Nebraska as well last night), but it appears that officials are becoming more involved in college football games, not less, and that is rarely a good thing for the watchability of the games.


12 comments, Last at 10 Oct 2009, 4:39pm

1 Re: Varsity Numbers: Storyline Clarity

(Which brings up a mini-rant not strong enough for the "Random Mini-Rant" section below: Why in the world are Hawaii and Louisiana Tech in the same conference?)

Because way back when, LA Tech thought the super-sized WAC was more presitigous than than conferences in the area at the time that they could plausibly join. When the MWC (consisting of the former super-sized-WAC teams who were smart enough to get out of the same conference as Hawaii) split off, LA Tech and Hawaii were both left in the WAC.

Still, it would make a ton of sense for UTEP and LA Tech to swap conferences.

3 Re: Varsity Numbers: Storyline Clarity

But they are indeed calling more, as illuminated by a Missouri-Nebraska game that featured four Missouri drives crippled by holding penalties that led to a second-and-20 situation or worse.

Well, Nebraska has perhaps the best D-Line in the country, so what do you expect? There were games last year where the opposing O-line was all but tackling the Nebraska defenders and no holds at all were called, so I am happy that the NCAA has seen fit to redress the absurdity.

9 Re: Varsity Numbers: Storyline Clarity

But what makes Hold A a penalty but not Hold B? That's my issue. Watch the line for two plays, and you'll see somebody getting hooked or held. If you're not calling them all (and that would make for some seriously unwatchable football if you did), then how do you determine what to call and what not to call? And if they're calling only the really blatant ones, what were they calling last year (before they were asked to crack down on holds), only the really really blatant ones? There are so many shades of gray that refs are asked to interpret today...whether that was a hold or a really bad hold...whether that was a hard hit or a too-hard hit...and it's more than even a good crew can manage without a couple of really shaky calls per game...

10 Re: Varsity Numbers: Storyline Clarity

I believe most refs, regarding line holding calls, use the same reasoning baseball scoring uses to determine ER: what "would have" happened if the act in question had not taken place.

If the hold prevents a defender from making a play on the ballcarrier or QB, that he otherwise would have a reasonable chance to make, it's called. If it's a hold away from the ball, it doesn't get called unless it's downright assualt. It all depends on where to ball is.

Except in the defensive backfield, where every hold is called with great enthusiasm no matter where the ball is. This has always perplexed me. Perhaps it is a function of the back judges simply not having as much to...well, judge, as the line judges and ump...and therefore being too critical?

12 Re: Varsity Numbers: Storyline Clarity

I don't watch line play all that closely, and have never played a down of organized football in my life, so I may be totally wrong about this, but it seems to me that it ought to be possible to define holding in such a way that it's clear what's allowed and what's not, and in such a way that the old maxim that "there's holding on every play" is not accurate. Discrepenancies between what the rules say and how the game is actually called are not a Good Thing.

4 Re: Varsity Numbers: Storyline Clarity

I can think of one thing worse than being a Missouri or MSU fan. Being an Illini fan. 1 step forward, two steps back. How many teams have gone to two BCS Bowls and have had multiple winless conference seasons?

McGee over Juice?? I have my doubts since McGee is a TO machine.

11 Re: Varsity Numbers: Storyline Clarity

I was really surprised over the Juice benching. Yeah last week's excruciating debacle had little offense to speak of, but it still didn't seem like the answer, especially since it sounds like McGee really stunk it up this morning.

Ugh, at least there's hockey.

5 Re: Varsity Numbers: Storyline Clarity

Thanks for the thoughts on the MSU / UM game. I absolutely agree the defensive line deserves kudos. Really, a big part of the reason UM came back with the two late touchdowns is MSU reverted to the dreaded "prevent" defense on those last two possessions, rushing only 3 men. So instead of rushing four and getting pressure on the QB (something they'd had consistent success with the entire game) they got minimal pressure, which then exposed MSU's truly awful secondary (although they did play their best all season).

One other note as someone who attended the game. I'd estimate the crowd was overall at least 15% UM fans. Even 5% of the undergrad section was UM fans (which I found pretty sad that so many undergrads would sell their tickets for the UM game). In the grad student section (which are actually quite good seats) I had one UM fan on my left and five in front of me. Even though UM had at minimum twice as many fans as CMU three weeks earlier, they weren't nearly as loud (even when they made their dramatic comeback) as the CMU fans.

7 Within the week!

...I think. The goal is to set it up for weekly website updates like FEI, but figuring out what information to post from week to week was a bit puzzling...think we've just about figured it out.