Varsity Numbers: Everything Old Is New Again
by Bill Connelly
We begin with a happy announcement. On September 19, I will begin work as College Sports Editor and Sports Analytics Director for SB Nation. Among other things, I will be providing a couple of weekly columns and daily college football analysis, and I couldn't be more excited. I will be continuing to write my Friday Varsity Numbers column, although I'll be leaving Seventh Day Adventure to Robert Weintraub and Brian Fremeau. I'll also continue to contribute each year to the college section of Football Outsiders Almanac.
I began writing at Football Outsiders three years ago, and I cannot thank Aaron Schatz enough for bringing me aboard. FO has been a farm system of sorts for writing talent, and it is humbling to be a part of it in someway. Thank you to Aaron, Brian, and everybody else for their willing collaboration, and thank you to Varsity Numbers readers for the feedback and, at times, needed criticism. Whatever advancement I have achieved, it wouldn't have been possible without Aaron and the FO community.
For years I have been complaining about all the things I wanted to do if I had the time and opportunity; now I've got it. Let's see what happens.
Flash Back 68 Years...
On October 9, 1943, Michigan hosted Notre Dame at Michigan Stadium for the first time. The No. 2 Wolverines whipped the other eight opponents on their schedule by a combined 290-38 that season, but the No. 1 Irish were unstoppable, winning 35-12 and rolling to the national title. It's been five years since Michigan ranked No. 2 and 18 years since Notre Dame topped the polls, but even though there is a huge amount of momentum on the line, there is a bit of history too: it will be the first football game at Michigan Stadium played under lights. Kudos to the University of Michigan for lasting 23 years longer than Wrigley Field in that regard.
History aside, however, this is an enormous game for each program. Both were projected to do quite well in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 -- Notre Dame was ranked 19th and projected to go 9-3, Michigan 25th and 9-3, with a potential spot in the inaugural Big Ten title game -- and both got off to interesting, if different, starts. Michigan looked alright in coasting to an easy, 24-point win over Western Michigan, but they only outgained the Broncos by nine yards in the process. Two return touchdowns by Brandon Herron (one on a fumble, one on an interception) gave the Wolverines some margin for error that they may not have on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame doubled up South Florida in terms of yardage, held B.J. Daniels and the Bulls' passing game to 3.8 yards per attempt (including sacks) and posted over 500 yards against a solid Big East defense ... and lost, 23-20, because of five turnovers and 33.7 Turnover Points (as defined here). Michigan played alright and built confidence; Notre Dame, meanwhile, played quite well for the most part but lost. The Irish can overcome a loss on Saturday and still put together a nice season -- from Michigan State to USC, their remaining games almost all come against teams that are solid but beatable -- but the "Ha, Notre Dame is an overrated failure again" sentiment could become quite a distraction with an 0-2 start.
Denard Robinson destroyed the Irish 12 months ago, but ever since then, the Irish have fielded a wonderful defense, especially on standard downs. Saturday night will represent both a nice test of where the Irish have come defensively and a nice test of where Michigan's defense may be going. The Wolverines were dreadful on that side of the ball, and they could make a statement against a balanced, competent Notre Dame offense.
Flash Back 33 Years...
On January 1, 1979, Alabama took the national title from Penn State in New Orleans with a 14-7 Sugar Bowl win. The game came down to more than four plays, but the Tide's fourth-quarter, goal line stand was one of the most famous series of downs in college football's history. Barry Krauss slammed into running back Mike Guman on fourth down, ending the Nittany Lions' final opportunity to tie, or win, the game. It is a loss that still haunts many associated with the Penn State program, and though they have played, and beaten, the Tide many times since then (the teams played a series throughout the 1980s and reestablished it last year), they will be forever chasing history, trying to get that yard back.
While there is no way to get a do-over of that Sugar Bowl chance, PSU could certainly settle for an upset win over one of the country's best teams. The Crimson Tide are brutal and deep, but there is a path to success for We Are Penn State. A pair of green Alabama quarterbacks threw four interceptions last week, and Penn State intercepted two in their blowout of Indiana State. If the Nittany Lions can win the turnover battle and establish Silas Redd and the running game, they could keep things close and give themselves a fighting chance despite passing game struggles of their own. Including sacks, starting quarterback Rob Bolden averaged just 1.5 yards per pass attempt last week, which is truly dreadful. Matt McGloin might still be the short-term answer at quarterback, but at the very least, Redd looks fantastic.
Flash Back 21 Years...
Division I-A football could be transformed by quicky divorces and hastily arranged marriages. The day after Arkansas raised the possibility that it may not be a member of the Southwest Conference much longer, that conference's executive committee met to map out contingency plans—foremost among them a merger with the Big Eight. Of course, by the time that union could be arranged, Colorado might have bolted to the Pac-10. The Pac-10 -- or Packed Tent, as it may come to be known -- has been rumored to be interested in at least three teams besides Colorado (chart).
What's next, an alliance of Atlantic powers from Miami to Boston? Well, as a matter of fact, there is an Eastern Seaboard League (ESL) under discussion that would include Boston College, the ever-present Miami and eight other independents if -- a big if -- it sees the light of day.
That's from an article Sports Illustrated's Austin Murphy wrote about conference realignment on July 9, 1990, and it is fascinating. Colorado to the Pac-10? Eastern Seaboard League? Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers to the Big Ten? Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC? A football league for the Big East conference? Texas, Texas A&M and Arkansas to the SEC? It is an enthralling mix of things that would happen sometime over the next two decades and things unimaginable today. And it is a nice reminder that with all the drama we have encountered these past 21 months or so, a) we really aren't covering untrodden territory and b) things move so much slower than we think it will in the moment. This time around, Baylor is making sure of that.
So we are very much in the "mostly projections" portion of the rankings, but as we unveil the Week Two F/+ rankings here, we can see a few interesting shifts. Full S&P+ rankings here, and full F/+ rankings here. Offensive and defensive unit rankings will emerge with more data.
|F/+ Rk||Team||Record||F/+||S&P+||S&P+ Rk||FEI||FEI Rk|
|F/+ Rk||Team||Record||F/+||S&P+||S&P+ Rk||FEI||FEI Rk|
In the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011, Wisconsin was projected 22nd overall, but one flawless (while close) victory over UNLV later, they are firmly in the Top Ten, as are the Buckeyes from Ohio State. With no clean way to adjust for opponent at this stage in the game, these teams' ratings could fall in coming weeks simply because of how bad UNLV and Akron may turn out to be.
On the flipside, TCU fell from 11th to the bottom of the Top 25. Oregon, Oklahoma State and Missouri all fell slightly as well.
"What The...?" Team of the Week
It has to be Auburn, right? The Tigers needed onsides kick luck and a furious rally to avoid losing to Utah State to start the season, but because projections still make up the vast majority of the projections, they remain in the top ten. For now.
Wisconsin (12 spots, from 22nd to 10th). Again, it may turn out that UNLV is so bad that everybody produces gaudy numbers against them. But while the game was "close" (i.e. within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 in the second, 21 in the third or 16 in the fourth), Wisconsin produced a 1.672 S&P and allowed a 0.628. The defense still may have some question marks, but Russell Wilson and the Badgers offense were nearly flawless.
Georgia Tech (11 spots, from 50th to 39th). Almost as impressive: the 1.662 S&P Paul Johnson's Yellow Jackets produced against (admittedly) Western Carolina and the 0.265 S&P they allowed. Everybody plays cupcakes, but few feast on them like Tech did the poor Catamounts.
Utah State (10 spots, from 108th to 98th). If you almost defeat the defending national champions on the road, you are probably going to rise in the rankings, even if said champs are overrated.
South Florida (nine spots, from 47th to 38th). As mentioned above, USF was significantly outgained and relied almost entirely on turnovers and fumbles luck to secure the win in South Bend. Still, they were impressive enough to see a bump.
TCU (14 spots, from 11th to 25th). In replacing so many difference-makers, one has to figure TCU's defense will be better in a couple of months than it was last Friday night, when Baylor moved the ball mostly at will against the usually stalwart Horned Frogs.
Kentucky (10 spots, from 43rd to 53rd). It is difficult to imagine a less inspiring Week One win than UK's 14-3 "defeat" of Western Kentucky. The Wildcats couldn't generate even 200 yards against a team that has been, in recent years, an FBS cellar dweller.
Colorado (10 spots, from 70th to 80th). The Buffs did a decent job against Hawaii's modified run-and-shoot, but they generated just a 0.588 S&P on offense in their 34-17 loss.
Boston College (nine spots, from 41st to 50th). A low success rate doomed the Eagles at home against Northwestern last week. They generated a handful of big plays, but they couldn't sustain drives and fell.
Auburn over Mississippi State. Spread: Auburn +6.5 | Projection: Auburn by 19.3. It is odd talking about how the defending champions may pull an upset at home against a team that went 9-4 last year, but this is the world in which we live. Of course F/+ predictions are going to heavily favor the Top 10 Tigers, but we'll see if they can sustain the momentum from their final two minutes against Utah State.
Cincinnati over Tennessee. Spread: Cincinnati +6 | Projection: Cincinnati by 0.6. Nobody decimates lower-tier schools like Cincinnati, and their 72-10 trashing of Austin Peay was enough to bump them up a hair. I'm not sure they have what it takes to win at Rocky Top, but with a young, somewhat schizophrenic Volunteers team, anything is possible.
Connecticut over Vanderbilt. Spread: UConn +2 | Projection: UConn by 9.5. The Huskies may have made an uninspiring hire in pulling head coach Paul Pasqualoni back to the Big East, but they looked good against their cupcake of choice last week, and their recent history suggests a higher level of play than James Franklin's Commodores.
Georgia over South Carolina. Spread: South Carolina -3 | Projection: South Carolina by 0.4. Mark Richt's Bulldogs have their backs against the wall, and they better hope they can find some of the offensive magic that East Carolina displayed in the first half against Carolina last week.
BYU over Texas. Spread: Texas -7 | Projection: Texas by 2.4. BYU probably isn't going to score many points against Manny Diaz's Longhorns defense, but there really isn't a guarantee that Texas is going to score much either.
Favorite Moment of Last Weekend
In his limited opportunities in front of a national audience, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III has shown potential, but results have been mixed. At least, they had been until Friday night's masterpiece. Watching someone so athletic, likable and polished at the quarterback position is just special, and my favorite moment of the weekend was basically a tie between every play he was on the field. He completed 21 of 27 passes for 359 yards and five touchdowns, and with the game on the line and Baylor having just blown a 24-point fourth-quarter lead, he caught a key third-and-10 pass from star receiver Kendall Wright. He did everything Baylor needed to win this game, and it was enthralling.
Last week featured two games of clear national significance: Boise State vs Georgia and LSU vs Oregon. This week is a bit more subtle. It's more about bounce-back attempts (Notre Dame's against Michigan, TCU's against Air Force, Georgia's against South Carolina), landmine avoidance (Alabama versus Penn State, Virginia Tech versus East Carolina) and "What have you got?" moments (Texas versus BYU). No single game gets top billing, but plenty could entertain.
7 comments, Last at 11 Sep 2011, 9:54pm
#1 by mvhuber // Sep 09, 2011 - 2:59pm
I recently read the Vox piece about your devotion to football analytics outside your "regular job" and home life. Ton of credit to you. I think you're following a path many readers would like to go down. Best of luck to you. As always, great stuff.
#2 by zlionsfan // Sep 09, 2011 - 3:34pm
Good luck to the SB Nation side of you; hard to believe you've only been here threeve years ...
+1 for the notion that conference realignment is much older than a lot of people realize, but I wouldn't give Baylor too much credit just yet. For one thing, there are few obstacles in college football that money can't overcome, and we are talking about Texas (the state, mind you) and the SEC. Football and money are longtime dance partners there.
For another, it'll only take a couple of moves to start an avalanche, and at that point, pebbles like Baylor will no longer get to vote. (I'm assuming they've already determined their best hope is to be swept up by C-USA, so it doesn't matter how much "trouble" they stir up for the AQ conferences.) The pressure could be positive (here's $X million from three major schools wishing to move, now withdraw your lawsuit and go away) or negative (withdraw the lawsuit or you will never be on our schedule ever again).
#3 by Aaron Brooks' … (not verified) // Sep 09, 2011 - 4:46pm
"But while the game was "close" (i.e. within 28 points in the first quarter, 24 in the second, 21 in the third or 16 in the fourth)"
By that definition, aren't all games "close"? They all start 0-0, don't they?
#4 by Bill Connelly // Sep 09, 2011 - 5:56pm
Yes, every game has "close" plays. But the plays stop counting when the game falls out of "close" range.
#5 by Nathan // Sep 10, 2011 - 10:37am
Love those Penn State uniforms. Maybe my favorite unis in football.
#6 by Marko // Sep 10, 2011 - 6:42pm
I clearly remember reading that Sports Illustrated article years ago predicting the formation of 3 or 4 superconferences. I have thought about how prophetic it was several times over the last few years as we appear headed toward a Pac-16 and an SEC with 14 or 16 teams.
#7 by Jeff Fogle // Sep 11, 2011 - 9:54pm
Congrats BC, well deserved!