VN: Hits, Misses, and the Year Zero Effect
by Bill Connelly
With two weeks left in the 2014 regular season, we're basically just waiting to see how everything finishes up. We know who's good and who isn't, and the drive toward the postseason -- fights for bowl bids and division and conference titles, and of course the national title -- is dictating our discussion.
Meanwhile, however, I have a list in my head. By this point in the season, I end up with a set of teams I can't wait to talk about in my lengthy offseason FBS preview series. Either it's because they've improved or regressed quite a bit overall, or their offense/defense was significantly better/worse, or they improved late in the year, or a new coach had an effect I didn't expect. I want to figure out why those teams/offenses/defenses/coaches did what they did, but I don't have many opportunities because I'm writing so much about the Big Topics.
This year, the "I've got to dive into that" list includes teams like these:
- Stanford, which has taken "can't finish drives" to an extreme level this year and is 5-5 because of it.
- Purdue, which has improved from 114th to 68th in the F/+ rankings but couldn't quite close the deal against teams like Minnesota and Notre Dame and will fall short of bowl eligibility because of it.
- Air Force, which has surged from 122nd in Def. F/+ to an incredible 35th. WHAT?
- North Carolina, which confounds the projections each week by beating teams it shouldn't (48-43 over Georgia Tech, 45-20 over Duke) and playing incredibly awful football at other times (a 70-41 loss to ECU, a 47-20 loss to Miami).
- South Carolina, which somehow managed to fall from 16th in Def. F/+ to 121st. In one year.
Now, since I write a preview of every bowl game for SB Nation, I'll get a chance to dip my toe in on teams like Air Force, South Carolina, and (after last night's win over Duke) North Carolina. But there will be time constraints on that. The real diving will take place in the offseason.
Since the rankings aren't likely to change a ton between now and the end of the season, however, I thought it would be interesting to take a moment and look at which offenses, defenses, and overall teams have improved or regressed the most (thus far) from last season. Some have pretty obvious explanations; others, not so much.
- TCU (+79, from 94th to 15th in Off. F/+)
- Western Michigan (+74, from 118th to 44th)
- Colorado State (+57, from 76th to 19th)
- California (+55, from 88th to 33rd)
- UMass (+55, from 122nd to 67th)
- West Virginia (+53, from 92nd to 39th)
- North Carolina State (+51, from 100th to 49th)
- Purdue (+45, from 113th to 68th)
- Pittsburgh (+41, from 58th to 17th)
- Virginia (+39, from 108th to 69th)
TCU hired two new offensive coordinators and returned a vast amount of experience, UMass hired a new head coach, and there are quite a few teams with second-year head coaches on this list: WMU, California, North Carolina State, Purdue. Still, even with experience, Colorado State's surge is a surprise, and unfortunately for Pitt, the Panthers' own surge was met by an even stronger regression on defense.
- Fresno State (-80, from 27th to 107th)
- UTSA (-69, from 56th to 125th)
- Washington (-68, from 22nd to 90th)
- South Alabama (-67, from 57th to 124th)
- San Jose State (-67, from 29th to 96th)
- Ball State (-66, from 44th to 110th)
- Indiana (-63, from 16th to 79th)
- Vanderbilt (-62, from 55th to 117th)
- Oklahoma State (-57, from 26th to 83rd)
- Missouri (-57, from 17th to 74th)
Lots of personnel turnover here. Washington lost its starting backfield and changed coaches. Indiana lost its top 2013 receivers and is currently starting a true freshman quarterback because of injury. Vanderbilt lost its best receiver, had no quarterback to begin with, and changed coaches. Oklahoma State lost its starting backfield and its well-regarded offensive line coach, then lost its new starting quarterback in the second game of the year. And Missouri lost all three starting receivers (then suffered a couple of injuries early in the year), a 1,000-yard rusher, a starting quarterback, and a second-round draft choice at left tackle.
Basically, regression could have been expected of almost everybody here, though the magnitude was certainly not what we would have guessed. (And I have no explanation for UTSA, which returned nearly 50 seniors from a pretty good team and has completely collapsed offensively.)
- Air Force (+87, from 122nd to 35th)
- Miami (+73, from 91st to 18th)
- Temple (+66, from 116th to 50th)
- Louisiana Tech (+64, from 104th to 40th)
- Marshall (+62, from 78th to 16th)
- Arkansas (+60, from 94th to 34th)
- FIU (+52, from 114th to 62nd)
- Boston College (+46, from 92nd to 46th)
- San Jose State (+44, from 112th to 68th)
- Central Michigan (+44, from 115th to 71st)
Once again, there are a lot of teams with second-year coaches on this list: Temple, Louisiana Tech, Arkansas, FIU, BC, SJSU. But the interesting part to me is that the top three most improved defenses didn't replace coordinators this offseason. Louisiana Tech did (and it has made a big difference), but Air Force, Miami, and Temple did not.
- South Carolina (-105, from 16th to 121st)
- North Texas (-82, from 31st to 113th)
- Oklahoma State (-71, from sixth to 77th)
- Tulsa (-70, from 53rd to 123rd)
- Florida Atlantic (-59, from 44th to 103rd)
- Pitt (-50, from 37th to 87th)
- North Carolina (-49, from 49th to 98th)
- BYU (-48, from 15th to 63rd)
- USF (-45, from 56th to 101st)
- Fresno State (-44, from 70th to 114th)
North Texas and Oklahoma State both had to replace a boatload of experienced talent, so again, regression was expected; the magnitude was not. But man ... despite plenty of experience at linebacker and safety, South Carolina's defense has collapsed to a degree I wouldn't have thought possible.
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- Air Force (+69, from 113th to 44th in F/+)
- Western Michigan (+68, from 117th to 49th)
- Arkanas (+57, from 87th to 30th)
- California (+56, from 103rd to 47th)
- Louisiana Tech (+54, from 112th to 58th)
- West Virginia (+48, from 76th to 28th)
- Purdue (+46, from 114th to 68th)
- Memphis (+44, from 83rd to 39th)
- Virginia (+39, from 79th to 40th)
- TCU (+38, from 44th to sixth)
It probably isn't a coincidence that of the seven teams moving up at least 46 spots, five are in Year 2 of a new coach's regime. This lends a lot of credence to the Year Zero idea, all but ignoring a coach's first-year results in a new job.
WVU's Dana Holgorsen is not in Year 2, but he is in Year 2 of a regroup after losing a ton of talent following 2012. That doesn't explain Air Force, however; the Falcons experienced solid turnover on the field and nothing major in the coaching staff.
- North Texas (-69, from 51st to 120th)
- Oklahoma State (-67, from eighth to 75th)
- Fresno State (-63, from 49th to 112th)
- Bowling Green (-59, from 47th to 106th)
- Vanderbilt (-57, from 50th to 107th)
- Ball State (-43, from 57th to 100th)
- Washington (-43, from 18th to 61st)
- South Carolina (-42, from 10th to 52nd)
- SMU (-40, from 84th to 124th)
- UCF (-38, from 21st to 59th)
Oklahoma State was 128th on Phil Steele's Combined Experience Chart heading into 2014. I gave the Pokes the benefit of the doubt when it came to figuring out how to win games despite inexperience, but a quarterback injury and an abysmal offensive line did them in.
Meanwhile, North Texas and Fresno State were 96th and 98th, respectively, on Steele's list, Vanderbilt was 124th, Ball State was 111th, UCF was 91st, and SMU was 126th. I think I smell a correlation here, yes?
I guess perhaps the bigger surprises are the teams that are improving despite inexperience. Boston College was 127th on the list but sits at 6-4 with an upset of USC. Tennessee was 123rd and has caught fire late in the season after a quarterback change. Missouri was 122nd but controls its destiny in the SEC East because of a fierce defense (and, yes, because the East still isn't very good). LSU and Notre Dame were 119th and 120th, respectively, and have both performed at a top-25 level, albeit with some extreme ups and downs.
And yes, Alabama, the No. 1 team in the country, was 107th on the list. Recruit and coach well enough, and nothing else matters.
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Projecting the College Football Playoff with 3 Saturdays remaining
Updated SEC projections: Alabama has a 60% chance of winning the conference
Updated Big 12 projections: There's a 98% chance it's either Baylor or TCU
Updated Pac-12 projections: It's Oregon's to lose, but all eyes are on the South
Updated Big Ten projections: Ohio State has a 73% chance of winning the conference
Updated ACC projections: 'Noles have a 73% chance of winning the league