Varsity Numbers: Loving College Football

Varsity Numbers: Loving College Football
Varsity Numbers: Loving College Football
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Bill Connelly

I used to run a "Reasons to Love College Football" blurb each week. After doing that for a year, however, it became difficult not to recycle ideas. Really, there are only a handful of reasons to love college football; it's just that they reinforce themselves on a weekly basis. Passion, pageantry, drama, alma maters, traditions, conference races, century-old rivalries. The ideas may not be creative or new, but they are no less enjoyable.

All of the reasons I love college football were reinforced this weekend. For the third-straight week, a No. 1 team went down, this time at Homecoming of the school which claims to have invented Homecoming. A five-star redemption story (Cam Newton) solidified his lead in the Heisman race. The national title race continued with a host of upstarts who have either never before played for the title (Oregon, Boise State, TCU, Missouri, and Utah), or haven't in a very long time (Auburn and Michigan State). Meanwhile, traditional powers (Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU, Nebraska, and Florida State) still wait in the wings, ready to pounce. I often wrote about how frustrating last season was: Injuries, poor officiating, and coaching scandals derailed the season. After an offseason marred by agent scandals, arrests, and more coaching issues, fans were deserving of a season like this -- now they are getting it.

And we aren't even to November yet. The top 17 teams in the BCS standings have either zero losses or one loss. Nothing has been decided yet. You might think you know what's going to happen, but you probably don't. It's going to be great.

Box Score of the Week

In terms of rankings, the biggest matchup of the week took place in eastern Alabama, where Auburn knocked off LSU with an insane rushing performance. But two upstarts had as much or more to prove than Auburn did. Michigan State had to survive a landmine-laden trip to Evanston to knock off Northwestern and stay undefeated, while Missouri had to prove itself by knocking off the BCS No. 1 team and getting a 12-year-old monkey off its back. The Spartans survived, and after staying close with special teams and turnovers, Missouri thrived late, pulling away from the flawed Oklahoma Sooners and giving Gary Pinkel his first win over Bob Stoops.

Mizzou 36, Oklahoma 27

Mizzou Oklahoma Mizzou Oklahoma
Close % 100.0% STANDARD DOWNS
Field Position % 53.1% 48.0% Success Rate 57.9% 58.2%
Leverage % 70.4% 73.3% PPP 0.39 0.33
S&P 0.967 0.912
EqPts 27.1 21.2 PASSING DOWNS
Close Success Rate 50.6% 49.3% Success Rate 33.3% 25.0%
Close PPP 0.33 0.28 PPP 0.21 0.15
Close S&P 0.841 0.777 S&P 0.540 0.405
EqPts 11.4 6.1 Number 2 3
Close Success Rate 51.3% 54.2% Turnover Pts 8.8 18.1
Close PPP 0.29 0.25 Turnover Pts Margin +9.3 -9.3
Close S&P 0.806 0.796
Line Yards/carry 2.40 3.13 Q1 S&P 0.763 0.942
Q2 S&P 0.899 0.848
PASSING Q3 S&P 0.538 0.784
EqPts 15.7 15.1 Q4 S&P 1.089 0.255
Close Success Rate 50.0% 47.1%
Close PPP 0.37 0.30 1st Down S&P 0.809 0.583
Close S&P 0.873 0.767 2nd Down S&P 1.025 1.109
SD/PD Sack Rate 0.0% / 0.0% 0.0% / 5.9% 3rd Down S&P 0.591 0.572
Projected Pt. Margin: Mizzou +15.2 | Actual Pt. Margin: Mizzou +9

Missouri held slight advantages in a multitude of categories, but this game was decided by categories in which Oklahoma had previously dominated the Tigers.

Rushing. This category was basically a draw, but compared to past Missouri-Oklahoma games, a draw was a victory for Mizzou. Chase Daniel's Missouri offenses were never able even to pretend to establish a running game against Oklahoma and its mighty defensive line, and it always caught up to them in the end. This year, however, Oklahoma's line is a bit dicey in the middle (tackle Adrien Taylor is doing his best despite offseason injuries that prevent him from even walking without a large limp), and Missouri likely has the best offensive line they've ever had under Gary Pinkel. With their four-headed running back of De'Vion Moore, Henry Josey, Kendial Lawrence and (occasionally) Marcus Murphy, the Tigers can run this year, even against Oklahoma. The running game will be even more important for the Tigers against Nebraska's stout secondary this coming week.

Passing Downs. Missouri's biggest Achilles heel earlier this year on offense, passing downs allowed the Tigers to distinguish themselves a bit. On key scoring drives, Blaine Gabbert was finding Jerrell Jackson on second- and third-and-long. Jackson was tremendous all night. Meanwhile, Mizzou's defensive front was much more able to get in Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones' face and disrupt Oklahoma's offense.

Fourth Quarter. For whatever reason, Oklahoma has been a shadow of itself in the fourth quarter this season. Before the Sooners trip to Columbia, they had been able to put together big enough leads heading into the final 15 minutes that it didn't matter. This was not the case on Saturday. The Sooners led 21-20 then imploded due to iffy decisions and disruptive Missouri play. While Blaine Gabbert went 8-for-9 for 95 yards and led three scoring drives, Jones went 0-for-7 with an interception. Total fourth-quarter yardage: Missouri 192, Oklahoma 29.

After one of their biggest home wins in decades, Missouri's coming game is even bigger. They are a game up on Nebraska and can potentially win the final Big 12 North race even without a win in Lincoln if they win out and the Huskers lose again. However, if they find a way to get it done Saturday afternoon, they will be strong favorites in each of their final four regular season games (at Texas Tech, Kansas State, at Iowa State, vs. Kansas in Kansas City) and might get an opportunity to exorcise their 2007 demons with another shot at Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game.

(That is, if Oklahoma can fend off Baylor and Oklahoma State anyway. My money's on the Sooners, but it's been a crazy season.)

Ten Notable Games

Two of the country's most enjoyable offenses (Oregon, Auburn) came up big, and turnovers determined a large number of key matchups this weekend.

No. 2 Oregon 60, UCLA 13

EqPts: Oregon 44.3, UCLA 12.5
T/O Pts: Oregon +9.7
Oregon > UCLA +40.5

As we will see below, I did tweak the S&P+ formulas a bit, and it (and this game) helped Oregon in the rankings. But for any number of reasons, they are still lacking when it comes to the S&P+. It is getting frustrating, honestly.

To an extent, however, it makes sense that a play-by-play measure won't be as impressed by the Ducks as others might. Oregon's per-play advantages aren't as lofty as one would think -- it's just that the Ducks play at a pace that allows them to maximize their per-play advantage with more snaps. Only eight teams (Texas A&M, Oklahoma, N.C. State, Texas Tech, Tulsa, Troy, and Southern Miss) have run more plays per game than Oregon, and none of those teams run the ball nearly as much as the Ducks. This creates a bit of a cushion for Oregon, but strength of schedule and less-than-elite performances against three iffy teams (No. 47 Arizona State, No. 67 Tennessee, and No. 89 Washington State) are still holding Oregon back. Again, though, they still have four games remaining against teams ranked in the S&P+ Top 25. The formulas will come around if the Ducks keep winning. At least, I hope they will.

No. 4 Auburn 24, No. 6 LSU 17

EqPts: Auburn 27.2, LSU 14.3
T/O Pts: Auburn +1.5
Auburn > LSU +14.4

Against North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, West Virginia, and McNeese State, LSU allowed a total of 21.3 EqPts on the ground. They allowed 23.9 against Auburn. With these offenses, it's hard not to get a little excited about the prospects of an Auburn-Oregon national title game, though clearly I just jinxed any chance of that happening.

No. 5 TCU 38, Air Force 7

EqPts: TCU 35.5, Air Force 11.3
T/O Pts: Air Force +4.1
TCU > Air Force +20.1

It was your typical, competitive TCU win in the end. It's close early, and it seems like they're vulnerable, and suddenly they're up 31. Nevermind the defense ... the Horned Frogs have just gashed teams on the ground at times this year (which is good, since quarterback Andy Dalton has been up-and-down).

No. 7 Michigan State 35, Northwestern 27

EqPts: Michigan State 29.7, Northwestern 23.2
T/O Pts: Michigan State +3.6
Michigan State > Northwestern +10.1

I use far too many boxing analogies in my writing (I need to mix it up a bit more), but Michigan State pretty clearly survived a fourth-round knockdown to win this one by unanimous decision. The Spartans fell behind 17-0 but clawed their way back into it and didn't give Northwestern any hope of tying the game on their final couple of drives.

No. 12 Stanford 38, Washington State 28

EqPts: Stanford 30.4, Washington State 22.1
T/O Pts: Stanford +9.6
Stanford > Washington State +17.9

Washington State probably isn't big on moral victories right now, but it has been more than a month now since they lost a game by more than three touchdowns, and in their 20-point loss to Oregon, it was almost even at halftime. They are more fiery than they were in coach Paul Wulff's first two seasons, and it sounds like that might buy him a fourth year.

No. 13 Wisconsin 31, No. 15 Iowa 30

EqPts: Iowa 25.7, Wisconsin 23.9
T/O Pts: Iowa +4.7
Iowa > Wisconsin +6.5

Clock management made the difference in this one. If Iowa had been able to stop the clock one more time, they'd have had a chance to pull off a potential 33-31 win. Instead, they wasted their final timeout a play too early and couldn't get out of bounds on their final shot. Wisconsin was both lucky and good in this one, becoming the first team not named Northwestern to win at Kinnick Stadium since 2007.

No. 16 Nebraska 51, No. 14 Oklahoma State

EqPts: Nebraska 34.5, Oklahoma State 33.4
T/O Pts: Oklahoma State +1.3
Oklahoma State > Nebraska +0.2

Reaction to Nebraska's win has been mixed. Yes, quarterback Taylor Martinez and receiver Niles Paul got their bearings back after a disappointing performance against Texas, but their once-stalwart pass defense was shredded in the process. They have been vulnerable to the run all season, so it will be interesting to see how they do against a balanced Missouri offense this Saturday. With those two teams, any score between 10-7 and 49-45 is within the realm of possibility.

Iowa State 28, No. 19 Texas 21

EqPts: Iowa State 22.5, Texas 21.9
T/O Pts: Iowa State +14.6
Iowa State > Texas +15.2

So this is what we're going to get from Paul Rhoads at Iowa State, huh? His teams will win between about five and eight games a year, but once each fall, his team rides an obscene turnover margin to a shocking road upset. Texas played with sore shoulders after patting themselves on the back all week, but credit goes to Iowa State here. The Cyclones had been outscored, 120-27, the previous two weeks against Utah and Oklahoma, and they bounced back with a tremendous effort.

Syracuse 19, No. 20 West Virginia 14

EqPts: Syracuse 14.4, West Virginia 12.9
T/O Pts: Syracuse +17.9
Syracuse > West Virginia +19.4

Georgia 44, Kentucky 31

EqPts: Georgia 24.3, Kentucky 22.2
T/O Pts: Georgia +21.0
Georgia > Kentucky +23.1

Both of these games had startling conference race implications and wide turnover margins. Georgia has won three in a row to move to 4-4 overall, and the Bulldogs are one more South Carolina slip away from potentially assuming the driver's seat in the odd SEC East. Meanwhile, Syracuse bounced back from a semi-humiliating blowout loss to Pittsburgh with a jarring upset in Morgantown. Six of the Big East's eight teams are within one game of the conference lead, and only one team is winless in conference play. There is a possibility that Pittsburgh runs away with the conference title, but there is also a possibility that an out-of-left-field team like Syracuse or Louisville could throw a scare into the regular contenders. It probably won't happen, but as with Baylor in the Big 12 South, it has been just an odd enough year that one can consider it possible.


Full rankings here.

For the first time in two years, I tweaked the S&P+ formulas this week. These rankings look only at plays that took place while the game was close, and I redefined "close" as follows:

  • First Quarter: Within 28 points or fewer (was previously 24)
  • Second Quarter: Within 24 points or fewer (was previously 21)
  • Third Quarter: Within 21 points or fewer (was previously 16)
  • Fourth Quarter: Within 16 points or fewer (unchanged)

This change brings more plays into the fold when it comes to ranking teams below. It is a minor change, but as we will see below, it did have an impact on a few teams.

S&P+ Top 25 (After Eight Weeks)
1 Ohio State 7-1 258.2 1 +0 127.5 9 129.1 2
2 Boise State 6-0 256.9 4 +2 133.9 2 114.3 17
3 South Carolina 5-2 251.9 3 +0 131.5 3 122.6 6
4 Auburn 8-0 248.9 8 +4 145.1 1 104.7 42
5 Missouri 7-0 247.4 5 +0 130.9 5 115.8 14
6 Alabama 7-1 246.6 2 -4 131.4 4 112.9 21
7 TCU 8-0 243.1 7 +0 112.5 29 123.8 5
8 Iowa 5-2 239.8 15 +7 113.8 27 124.8 4
9 Miami-FL 5-2 239.0 6 -3 113.6 28 128.4 3
10 Nebraska 6-1 238.9 10 +0 114.9 26 120.2 8
S&P+ Top 25 (After Eight Weeks)
11 Virginia Tech 6-2 238.2 14 +3 120.8 17 115.8 13
12 Oklahoma 6-1 233.9 11 -1 122.5 13 113.2 19
13 Oklahoma State 6-1 233.7 31 +18 129.2 7 103.5 47
14 Stanford 6-1 232.2 13 -1 117.5 22 113.1 20
15 USC 5-2 232.1 22 +7 124.1 12 107.4 36
16 Georgia 4-4 231.8 32 +16 116.9 23 114.9 15
17 Michigan State 8-0 231.8 9 -8 118.3 20 111.5 23
18 Pittsburgh 4-3 231.5 24 +6 129.0 8 104.4 43
19 California 4-3 230.7 25 +6 110.5 33 122.5 7
20 Wisconsin 7-1 230.6 16 -4 122.3 14 105.9 39
S&P+ Top 25 (After Eight Weeks)
21 Arkansas 5-2 230.3 28 +7 120.7 18 111.1 26
22 Oregon State 3-3 229.8 17 -5 124.2 11 114.8 16
23 Arizona 6-1 229.8 12 -11 109.7 35 116.9 12
24 Florida State 6-1 228.7 19 -5 114.9 25 110.3 28
25 Utah 7-0 227.2 34 +9 108.6 37 106.3 38

Biggest S&P+ Movers of the Week

Teams below moved around as much because of the change in the formula as anything they did this past weekend. The ones that moved the most probably enjoyed a combination of the two factors.

Notable Rises

Oklahoma State (18 spots, from 31st to 13th). Consider this more of a market correction than anything else, though the Cowboys offense did rise to seventh following Justin Blackmon's decimation of the Blackshirts in a losing effort.

Syracuse (18 spots, from 84th to 66th). The Orange played beautifully against an athletic West Virginia team, and they probably benefited a bit from the "market correction" as well. Regardless, Syracuse is one win away from bowl eligibility with home games against Louisville, Connecticut, and Boston College remaining. Doug Marrone's second season has been a rousing success.

Georgia (16 spots, from 32nd to 16th). They handled their business on the road against a solid Kentucky team, they're hot ... and they're probably not the 16th-best team in the country. But they've undoubtedly improved by leaps and bounds.

Oregon (9 spots, from 38th to 29th). The Ducks remain a statistical oddity, but they're moving in the right direction now.

Other Rises: UAB (76th to 57th), Houston (80th to 64th), Nevada (53rd to 40th), Northern Illinois (77th to 65th), Army (74th to 63rd), Louisville (81st to 70th), Louisiana Tech (85th to 74th), Baylor (51st to 41st), Indiana (102nd to 92nd), Eastern Michigan (108th to 98th).

Notable Tumbles

Texas (32 spots, from 21st to 53rd). Because you are apparently not allowed to lose to Iowa State at home and remain in the Top 50.

By the way, Texas now ranks 100th in Offensive S&P+. One-hundredth! Texas!

Boston College (19 spots, from 56th to 75th). The Eagles followed up on a spry performance against Florida State with a limp effort against Maryland. Football Outsiders compliments B.C. for its incredible consistency. This was probably an overdue down year. I see how it is.

West Virginia (16 spots, from 33rd to 49th). My impression of West Virginia is still of a dangerous, athletic team with as high a ceiling as anybody in the Big East. They probably need to go about proving that perception a bit more than they have in 2010.

LSU (16 spots, from 20th to 36th). They didn't look great against Auburn, but Les Miles' voodoo kept things close. Obviously losing by seven on the road to a top five team does not portend a huge drop in the rankings, so I am going to assume there is a bit of market correction involved here too.

Other Tumbles: Wyoming (78th to 101st), Toledo (63rd to 86th), Marshall (61st to 80th), Fresno State (66th to 84th), Rutgers (75th to 91st), Connecticut (69th to 83rd), Buffalo (91st to 103rd), Virginia (59th to 71st), San Diego State (50th to 61st), Arizona (12th to 23rd).

Favorite Moment of the Weekend

You mean other than the alma mater getting a three-day commercial on ESPN and having potentially its best Homecoming weekend ever?


3 comments, Last at 27 Oct 2010, 3:10am

1 Re: Varsity Numbers: Loving College Football

"They are a game up on Nebraska and can potentially win the final Big 12 North race even without a win in Lincoln if they win out and the Huskers lose again."

The Huskers don't even have to lose again. If NU beats MU and both go undefeated in the rest of conference play, they will be Big 12 North co-champions. NU would go to the B12 Championship game, but there is no tiebreaker for the division championship. Both would get a B12 North championship trophy.

This confused a lot of people in 2001 also.

2 Re: Varsity Numbers: Loving College Football

Poor Wisconsin - beats Ohio State and Iowa in consecutive weeks, yet still ranks 19 and 12 spots behind them, respectively. I understand the reasoning of course (struggling against San Jose State and Arizona State), just pointing it out.