Varsity Numbers: Surprise!
by Bill Connelly
We are approximately two-thirds of the way through the 2011 college football regular season, and when the final gun sounds on Saturday night's LSU-Alabama tilt, we will enter the home stretch knowing who our prohibitive national title favorite is. As we gear up for the stretch run, I figured now would be a pretty good time to look at some things that have surprised me so far in 2011. As much as I enjoy getting things right, I enjoy being incredibly incorrect as well, and it happens plenty over the course of a season. We all knew LSU and Alabama would be good, and their dominant play has defined the season thus far, but here are a few observations to briefly take the spotlight off of the Game of the Century of the Year.
Penn State's defense is back. Their offense may be half-dreadful, but the defense has been stout across the board. The Nittany Lions rank fifth in Def. F/+, fourth against the run and pass, second on standard downs and ninth on passing downs. They have playmakers across the board. Seven players have registered at least four tackles for loss (led by all-world tackle Devon Still's 15.5), six have pulled down at least two sacks, ten have at least one interception, and six have forced fumbles. Great tackles make a good defense outstanding, and that's what they've got in Still this year.
UCLA's offense is pretty good. In what is probably Rick Neuheisel's final season coaching his alma mater, the offense has actually put together respectable numbers despite ongoing iffiness at the quarterback position. (Between injuries and ineffectiveness, it feels like quarterback at UCLA has been constantly in flux since Cade McNown left.) The Bruins are running the ball relatively well with Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman, and Nelson Rosario has been a solid No. 1 receiver. They fall apart on passing downs and rank just 50th overall in Off. F/+, but a) that is quite a bit better than I expected, and b) the defense has been the bigger issue this year, ranking just 101st in Def. F/+.
Vanderbilt can run the ball. Zac Stacy is the proverbial "best back you haven't heard of yet." He has rushed for 707 yards and a plus-15.8 POE (16th in the country), leading the Commodores to a ninth-place spot in terms of Rushing S&P+. Granted, VU cannot pass to save their lives (114th in Passing S&P+), but you've got to start somewhere, and in the junior Stacy, coach James Franklin has someone around whom to build for at least one more year.
Miami's offense has been quite a bit better than expected. Granted, they had a setback against Georgia Tech (262 yards in 64 plays), but despite a leisurely pace (they are currently the second-slowest team in the country), the Hurricanes have gained at least 335 yards in six of eight games, averaged well over five yards per play in seven and are passing the ball quite well (ninth in Passing S&P+). Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin have made for a lovely one-two punch at receiver, combining for 1,022 receiving yards and a per-target average of 12.3 yards. Of course...
...Miami's defense is terrible. While a slow pace has distracted people from giving the offense too many kudos, it is also distracting from the fact that the defense is allowing 5.7 yards per play. They looked great in a 24-6 win over Ohio State (a team that was completely listless in September) and solid against Georgia Tech, but they allowed 499 yards to Maryland (6.4 per play), 470 yards to Virginia (7.5 ... Virginia!), 482 to Virginia Tech (7.7), 429 to North Carolina (5.4) and, perhaps worst of all, 422 to Bethune-Cookman (5.0). They rank 98th in Def. F/+, and they have earned it.
California's offense is not good. Keenan Allen is one of the best No. 1 targets in the country, averaging a healthy 9.6 yards per target while seeing 35 percent of quarterback Zach Maynard's passes. The problem is ... everybody else. Marvin Jones (47 percent catch rate) has been disappointing, Maynard's accuracy is sporadic at best, and the Golden Bears can't run the ball to save their lives (97th in Rushing S&P+). This wasn't a very good unit last year either, but with Allen and Jones returning, I expected improvement this year.
TCU's defense has taken a legitimate step backwards. They have stabilized in recent weeks, but they are still shaky against the pass (fifth in Rushing S&P+, 77th in Passing S&P+), and wow, was it off-putting seeing them get torched in September. They allowed 564 yards to Baylor (414 passing), 416 to Air Force (167 passing ... which is like 300 for other schools) and 461 to SMU, plus they were gouged early by offenses like UL-Monroe and Portland State. My standards for the Frogs are high, and they are well below-standard.
Illinois can't run the ball. With a defense even better than I expected (ninth in Def. F/+, sixth in Rushing S&P+), Illinois raced out to a 6-0 start, but they've lost three in a row (despite allowing just 48 combined points) because they are a run-first team that can't actually run the ball. They rank 80th in Rushing S&P+ and 73rd on standard downs, actually bailing themselves out a bit on passing downs because of Drag Route King A.J. Jenkins. Primary running back Jason Ford is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry, and too much pressure is being put on quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase's (and Jenkins') shoulders.
This Week on SB Nation
Second Impressions: Teams Who Aren't Who We Thought They Were
The Numerical, Week 9: 12 Quarterbacks Equal One Case Keenum
West Virginia Sues The Big East: Conference Realignment, Extreme Lawyering Edition
2011 Bowl Projections: Stellar Matchups And A Bama-Stanford Title Tilt
All Your Points Are Belong To Us: The Remaining Games With Big Scoring Potential
2011 Heisman Trophy Watch: Crowning Andrew Luck And The Power Of Bad Defense
LSU Vs. Alabama: What Happens After No. 1 And No. 2 Meet?
Week Ten F/+ Picks
Morning Tailgate Mailbag: The Hype Machine And The Matt Grothe Division
LSU Vs. Alabama: How To Score On The Tide (Or At Least Try)
"What The...?" Team of the Week
Auburn. Usually I use this space to explain an oddity in the F/+ rankings; this time, it's a poll oddity. Auburn ranks 25th in the polls and 22nd in the BCS rankings at 6-3, but according to F/+, they are not even among the top 25 teams with at least three losses. They are 26th, in fact, just behind a Utah State team that probably would have taken them out on a neutral field or in Logan. I actually respect the job Gene Chizik has done this year, continuing to engineer wins despite massive turnover, youth and uncertainty at quarterback. He's done a great job. But that doesn't mean his is a top 25 team.
Nebraska (22 spots, from 34th to 12th). It is a bit late in the season for 20-spot moves, but when you dominate a previously solid offense to the extent that Nebraska did last Saturday -- they took out Michigan State, 24-3 -- that's what happens. The Huskers moved from 37th to 11th in FEI and from 26th to 19th in S&P+. Just think how high they might be if they could pass.
Missouri (15 spots, from 43rd to 28th). As a Mizzou fan, I was mourning the fact that the Tigers were simply a top 40-45 team this season and picked a bad year to face a schedule laden with top 25 teams (they lost to F/+ No. 4 Oklahoma State at home and No. 5 Oklahoma, No. 15 Arizona State and No. 39 Kansas State on the road). Then they went and pulled out a comeback win in overtime over No. 14 Texas A&M in College Station. Their reward: two more top 40 teams (at No. 40 Baylor tomorrow, then No. 32 Texas at home).
Louisville (11 spots, from 61st to 50th). The numbers cannot figure out what to do with the Cardinals at this point, and I cannot blame them. UL lost to Florida International and Marshall in the first month of the season but have rallied to 4-4 with two nice home wins. First, they crept by Rutgers (16-14), then last week, they shut down a Syracuse team (27-10) that had destroyed conference favorite West Virginia a week earlier.
Virginia (11 spots, from 54th to 43rd). If the Cavaliers can figure out how to win one of the next two games (at No. 76 Maryland, then at home versus No. 71 Duke), they will be bowl eligible for the first time since 2007, a lovely accomplishment for second-year coach Mike London. The 28-21 win over (admittedly bipolar) Miami last week was both a nice, national statement and their third win in four games.
Others: Tulsa (56th to 42nd), Miami (Ohio) (102nd to 89th), Northwestern (69th to 59th), UL-Lafayette (90th to 80th), Wyoming (109th to 99th).
Texas Tech (19 spots, from 42nd to 61st). I'd just like for this to be in print: Texas Tech handed Oklahoma their first conference home loss since 2001 one Saturday, then gave Iowa State their biggest road win since 2001 (41-7) the next. I realize we are dealing with 19-22-year-olds, and that week-to-week fluctuation happens. I get it. But how in the world does that happen?
Baylor (13 spots, from 27th to 40th). The shine is coming off of Robert Griffin III and the Bears. They are still on pace for a second consecutive bowl (now is a good time to remind you that we are still talking about Baylor here), but the team that averaged 51 points per game in non-conference play is averaging just 34 in the Big 12 -- which isn't good considering how they are allowing: 44 points per game. Their offense is still explosive, but the Bears are trending quickly in the wrong direction.
Arkansas (13 spots, from 17th to 30th). As a whole, F/+ and the AP poll agree a decent amount -- each of the AP's top seven teams are among the F/+ top eight. However, AP No. 8 Arkansas is quickly drifting in the wrong direction, even though their win-loss record is disguising that. The last two weeks, they have beaten No. 86 Ole Miss and No. 58 Vanderbilt by a combined eight points. They trailed Ole Miss 17-0 about 25 minutes into their contest before rallying, and they trailed 21-7 about 29 minutes into the Vandy game. Three straight home games (versus South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi State) could allow them to right the ship a bit (and technically, they still have a chance at the SEC West), but they have not played well in a few weeks.
Maryland (12 spots, 64th to 76th). Yes, it was in inclement weather, but how -- how -- do you lose to Boston College by 11 points at home? A team that looked promising in the first couple of weeks (they beat Miami, then barely fell to a solid West Virginia team) has lost itself, and last Saturday was the nadir. We think.
Others: SMU (36th to 51st), Syracuse (46th to 57th), Miami (22nd to 33rd), Buffalo (89th to 100th), Western Michigan (60th to 70th), Navy (75th to 85th), Middle Tennessee (94th to 104th).
Syracuse over Connecticut (Spread: UConn -1.5 | F/+ Projection: Syracuse by 3.1). We have no idea what to expect from Syracuse, but at this point UConn is pretty reliably bad. Randy Edsall left UConn for Maryland, and both programs, at least temporarily, have gotten worse.
South Carolina over Arkansas (Spread: Arkansas -5.5 | F/+ Projection: S. Carolina by 1.3). Despite a complete lack of offense, South Carolina's dominant defense has made them a hot team. Arkansas, meanwhile, is trending in the wrong direction. The Gamecocks' division title hopes lie in winning this one. It won't be pretty, but it should be close.
Pittsburgh over Cincinnati (Spread: Cincy -2.5 | F/+ Projection: Cincy by 1.3). Speaking of momentum ... the F/+ projections only like Pitt in this one because momentum isn't taken into account. In terms of the weighted average both here and in last week's Varsity Numbers, Cincy is on their way up, Pitt on their way down.
Kentucky over Ole Miss (Spread: Ole Miss -1.5 | F/+ Projection: Ole Miss by 1.5). If there were justice, neither team would get a win in this one.
Favorite Moment of Last Weekend
As a Mizzou fan, my answer is obvious. As a national writer, I'm going with the fourth quarter (and beyond) of Stanford-USC. You had shock (Andrew Luck's pick six), drama (Stanford rebounded to force overtime), tension (two overtimes, four touchdowns), and a bit of cruelty (the game ended with USC's Curtis McNeal losing a fumble in the third overtime after playing brilliantly all game). That was some great college football.