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Statistically Speaking

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

So You Want to Get Fired?

In the last post, I looked at how coaches performed as underdogs and favorites, not Against the Spread (ATS), but in terms of actually winning or losing on the field. Feel free to read that post as a primer to this one. At the end of that post, I promised an additional post on the ‘portability’ of this ‘skill’. Instead I want to focus on a few other coaches in great detail. We’ll save the portability aspect for the next post.

How to Get Fired

In the previous post, I shared with you the bottom ten coaches in terms of wins below expectation according to the spread. Five of the coaches on the list were fired, forced to resign, or gently nudged out the door. Four others enter the 2015 season either under intense or moderate scrutiny based on their recent job performance. Thus, I theorize that coaches who vastly underperform according to the number of games they would have been expected to win based on the spread who are also lacking in the conference or national title department will be good candidates to be fired. To test this, I again calculated the most underperforming coaches in the ten-year period from 2005 through 2014 who also lacked either a conference or national title. If a coach tied for a conference title, I only gave him the benefit of the doubt if his team garnered the conference's automatic BCS bid. Those gentlemen are listed below.
Not to pat myself too hard on the back, this method is pretty accurate in determining who will be fired. Of the 13 coaches on this list, all save Kirk Ferentz (and his voodoo magic) and Kevin Sumlin have been fired (Ferentz did tie for the Big 10 title in 2002 and 2004 but did not lead Iowa to a championship from 2005-2014). I already gave brief overviews of Tedford, Zook, Ferentz, and Shannon in the last post, so I’ll move on to the other nine coaches.

Initially I was not a fan of Pelini’s firing by the Cornhuskers, but viewed in this light it is hard to argue with. In seven seasons, Pelini only sprung four outright upsets, and lost twelve times as a favorite. Despite winning at least eight games in the regular season during each year of his tenure, his firing was probably justified. Watson Brown (Mack’s brother, it runs in the family) coached UAB for just two seasons in this study, and lost nine times as a betting favorite. His 2005 team, led by quarterback Darrel Hackney was an underdog in an early season game to Tennessee and in two conference games, but was favored in each of their other contests…and finished only 5-6. Houston Nutt got Arkansas to the SEC Championship game in 2006 and engineered a huge turnaround in his first season at Ole Miss, but lost nine times in four seasons as a favorite in Oxford. Kevin Sumlin lead Houston to a pair of Conference USA Championship Game appearances in his four seasons at the school, but lost both times as a large favorite. Gregg Brandon took over for Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, and while he did lead the Falcons to a division title in his first season, he could not replicate that initial success. He was fired after six seasons despite a 44-30 record because according to the oddsmakers he should have won about 50 games. In just three and a half seasons, at a school not known for elite football teams (since the 1960s), Tim Brewster managed to lose nine times as a favorite. Lane Kiffin was famously fired on the tarmac after an embarrassing defeat at the hands of Arizona State. At least the Trojans were not favored in that game. Noted maniac John L. Smith lost nine times as a favorite in just three seasons. If we examine more of his career, I can only assume his resume would be even more egregious. Dave Wannstedt did return the Pitt program to respectability, but he was never able to win a conference title in the watered down Big East. Judging by the small margin by which Pitt lost the 2008, 2009, and 2010 races, his inability to close out games in which he was favored exacerbated his demise.

Before we go, I’ll discuss a few other coaches who did not make the list.

Bill Blankenship won Conference USA at Tulsa in just his second season, but lost six times over the next two years as a betting favorite and was let go.

Urban Meyer won just a single regular season game as a betting underdog at Florida (and lost ten times as a favorite). At Ohio State, he already has three times as many underdog wins, not counting the College Football Playoff.

Nick Saban has lost ten times as a betting favorite at Alabama. He has just four underdog wins, primarily because has only been an underdog once since the beginning of the 2009 season.

Rich Brooks pulled off ten underdog wins as Kentucky’s coach from 2005-2009 against just four defeats as a favorite.

That’s all for now. In the next post, I promise, we’ll cover portability.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Winning More or Less Than You Should

I have made no secret on this blog of my affinity for Bill Snyder. I always enjoy watching his Kansas State teams and his second tenure has included two of the more surprising elite seasons in college football history. The statement has been made by numerous pundits and fans alike that he ‘does more with less’. That’s a nice platitude, but what does it mean? One way to measure doing more with less would be to compare recruiting rankings with wins and objective power rankings to see which coach has done the most with the least talent. Alas, that has been done before. Plus, just because athletes are lightly regarded does not mean they can’t play football. Perhaps coaches like Snyder have a keen eye for unpolished talent or ‘diamonds in the rough’. In the interest of doing something original, I decided to look at another way a coach might get the most out of the talent at their disposal, and like most of the posts on this blog, it involves the point spread.

The point spread is often a pretty good indicator of which team is ‘better’. For starters, it takes a great deal of information into account (game site including weather and homefield advantage, perceived talent level of the two teams, injuries, etc.) and is subject to market forces. It the ‘smart’ money thinks the point spread is ‘off’, the number will be adjusted either up or down in order to minimize the bookmaker or casinos potential loss. With that in mind I decided to look at all regular season games since 2005 (ten years), determine which team was the favorite, and in the case of a point spread ‘upset’ award each coach either an ‘Underdog Win’ or a ‘Favorite Loss’. Is this method a perfect gauge of how good a coach is? Of course not. Here are a few strengths and weaknesses.

The main strength of this method is that it adjusts for new information. While a team might be undervalued in the preseason, a few upset wins will mean the oddsmakers and general public will start to view them as a strong team. Take for example Kansas in 2007. The Jayhawks came out of nowhere to win eleven regular season games, play in the Orange Bowl, and finish ranked in the top ten. Mark Mangino deserves a great deal of credit for such an accomplishment at a non-traditional power. Before the season started, anyone proclaiming Kansas to win eleven games would likely be thought a fool and exiled to Patmos. However, once the season began, Kansas proved to be better than expected and their schedule was not nearly as daunting as one would expect from a major conference team. Consequently, Kansas was only an underdog twice in the regular season. Kansas won one of those games, so they only finished one game better than their implied record based on the point spread.

One problem with this method is that it treats each game the same in terms of win probability. A coach that is a field goal underdog is given the same reward as a coach that is a touchdown underdog. A better system would assign portions of wins based on the point spread. I am very lazy, but if you would like to do that, have at it. Another issue with this system is that it underrates coaches at traditional powers. Nick Saban has not been an underdog at Alabama since 2009. Saban is unlikely to rank very high on this list since he is rarely an underdog. Similarly, coaches that toil at non-traditional powers might be overrated here. Since they are often underdogs, they will have more opportunities to pull off upsets. Perhaps a better method would be ‘Underdog Win Percentage’ or ‘Favorite Loss Percentage’. Once again, I am lazy. Feel free to do this research on your own.

With those disclaimers out of the way, let’s look at the top ten coaches in terms of biggest net difference between underdog wins and favorite losses.
The leader in this category is likely a surprise. I suspect most college football fans could not pick David Bailiff out of a lineup. However, he has accomplished quite a bit at Rice, a non-traditional power. In fact, non-traditional power is putting it nicely. Rice was very bad for a long time, but in his eight seasons at the school, Bailiff has guided the Owls to four bowl games, two ten-win seasons, and a conference title. My main man Bill Snyder comes in second place tied with former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen. I always thought Friedgen was underrated and the Terps were wrong to let him go. This of course, does not confirm that empirically, but it does confirm it in my biased opinion. In addition, Friedgen’s three best years are not even included in this examination. From 2001-2003, Friedgen led the Terps to an ACC title and a trifecta of ten-win seasons. David Cutcliffe, the architect of the Duke renaissance ranks fourth. He is tied with Rick Neuheisel, perhaps the most surprising entrant on this list. Neuheisel never lost a game he was favored in during his time at UCLA, but he was obviously not favored in enough to hold onto his job. Pat Fitzgerald has kept Northwestern in bowl contention for nearly a decade and Tom O’Brien did just enough to make the natives restless at two different schools. Randy Edsall did most of his heavy upset lifting at UConn, where he led the Huskies to the Big East title in 2010. Jim Grobe is probably the most successful head coach my alma mater has ever seen (unless you want to make an argument for Peahead Walker). Pete Lembo won consistently at Ball State for four years, and I am as surprised as anyone that he has not moved up to a Power 5 job. Finally, Paul Rhoades has pulled off some of the biggest upsets of the last decade, and that is part of the reason he remains employed despite just one winning campaign during his six-year tenure in Ames.

Now we come to the other side of the coin. For every underdog that wins, there is a favorite that loses. These coaches have been among the most prolific losers as favorites.
‘Big Game’ Bob tops the list. I am by no means insinuating that Bob is a bad coach, but with the Sooners failing to meet expectations over the last few seasons (they have not won an outright Big 12 title since 2010), you can see why rumors were circulating about his impending departure from Norman this offseason. Be thankful for what you have Sooner fans. Need I remind you of the Gomer Jones or John Blake eras? I was shocked by Jeff Tedford’s appearance on this list. He brought the Cal Bears to great heights during his tenure, but as you can tell from the high number of losses as a favorite, he probably should have won a few more times. Next up is Ron Zook. Keep in mind this does not include his ill-fated tenure at Florida when he succeeded Steve Spurrier for three seasons from 2002-2004. No, The Great Zooker lost 20 times as a favorite at Illinois! in seven seasons. Like Bob Stoops, Frank Beamer is another long-tenured coach without a league title in the last half-decade who is also feeling a little heat from the fans. Kirk Ferentz has been at Iowa seemingly since it became a state in 1846. While he has often been the subject of NFL rumors, Ferentz continues to coach the Hawkeyes to both bowl games and inexplicable losses. Mark Richt is perhaps one of the best coaches to have never won a national title, but his last SEC championship was in 2005 and like Stoops and Beamer, his seat is becoming a little warmer. Bobby Bowden was forced out retired following the 2009 season, so his 17 losses as a favorite took place over just five seasons. Mack Brown, like Bob Stoops, oversaw a program rich in resources and found his team the favorite the majority of the time the Longhorns took the field. Larry Fedora has been an underachiever at two places. He did guide Southern Miss to the 2011 Conference USA title, and while that is one of the better teams in school history; they did manage to lose twice as double-digit favorites. Randy Shannon was shown the door at Miami after just four seasons, and with 13 losses as a favorite, it is not hard to see why.

That is all the damage I can do in this post. Check back in a week or so when I examine if this ‘Upset Ability’ is portable and explore in detail some other coaches who didn't quite make the Best or Worst Of lists.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Rating the New Coaches: UNLV

Fifteen FBS schools will have new head coaches when the 2015 season begins. This semi-regular piece will analyze the teams and the coaches they have hired in order to offer a prediction regarding the schools’ prospects for 2015 and beyond. Our fourth stop takes us to Sin City and the Rebels of UNLV.

UNLV is not an easy place to win football games. Since 1990, UNLV has employed five head football coaches. Those five gentlemen, including one who won a previous mythical national championship at Southern Cal and one who produced an absurd winning percentage at FCS Montana prior to arriving on The Strip, produced a cumulative record of 89-205. For those new to college football, winning less than a third of your games is not typically the hallmark of a successful program. Their last three coaches have included an eventual College Football Hall of Fame inductee who won five Pac-10 titles and posted a 104-35-4 mark in two separate stints at Southern Cal, the offensive coordinator of a BCS buster, and what appeared to be an up-and-coming coach from the FCS level. Now the Rebels have gone where (almost) no team has gone before and hired a coach straight out of Compton high school. Will this risky move succeed or are the Rebels doomed to be back at the craps table looking for a new coach in five years?

Tony Sanchez has accomplished nearly everything at the high school level. Coaching at Bishop Gorman High School (in Nevada), he won a state title in each of his six seasons. Noticing his great success, and in need of a head football coach, UNLV hired him to lead their program in December.

It is not unprecedented for successful high school coaches to transition to successful coaches at the FBS level. Art Briles and Gus Malzahn spring to mind as two former high school coaches who have enjoyed great success at the FBS level as well. However, both Briles and Malzahn began their FBS careers as assistants. Based on my research, the only coach in the last decade to jump straight from the high school ranks to an FBS coaching position prior to Tony Sanchez was Todd Dodge. Like Sanchez, Dodge was an uber-successful high school coach. Dodge coached Southlake Carroll High School in Texas to three consecutive state titles in the 5A classification before heading to North Texas prior to the 2007 season. The Mean Green had fallen on hard times, winning just five games in the two years preceding Dodge’s arrival, but they had experienced success in the not too distant past, winning four consecutive Sun Belt titles from 2001-2004 in the first four years of the conference. Dodge’s arrival did not produce a renaissance. In three and half years, his teams won just six of 43 games and finished with a 3-23 Sun Belt record.

So the track record for high school coaches moving directly from Friday Night Lights to the top spot of an FBS program is both short and uninspiring. A sample size of one doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what to expect. In the absence of a good sample, let’s take a look at how UNLV performed the past four seasons under head coach Bobby Hauck relative to their conference brethren in terms of record, Yards per Play (YPP), Yards per Play Allowed (YPA), Net Yards per Play (YPP Net), Offensive Touchdowns (OTD), Touchdowns Allowed or Defensive Touchdowns (DTD), and Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR). The number in parentheses is UNLV’s ranking within the Mountain West.
The Rebels were below average in terms of Yards per Play for each season examined. In fact, based on Yards per Play, their ‘breakthrough’ campaign in 2013 was roughly equivalent to their 2012 season when they won just a fourth of their conference games. The Rebels were more efficient (or perhaps luckier) with their yards in 2013, ranking a respectable fifth in APR. That efficiency (or luck) deserted them (Las Vegas is in a desert, get it?) in 2014 and the Rebels were back to their losing ways. Despite their bowl appearance in 2013, the Rebels have not put an above-average mid-major team on the field in quite some time.

How will Tony Sanchez do at UNLV? Your guess is as good as mine. He has not been on a college football staff since 1996 when he was a student assistant at New Mexico State. UNLV is obviously taking a big risk in hiring a high school coach to lead their program. However, a team like UNLV needs to take risks. If Sanchez fails, so what? He will be in lockstep with pretty much every other coach the Rebels have had. Instead of hiring a retread (see Turner, Ron) or a hot young coordinator (see McElwain, Jim), the Rebels took a chance on a local high school coach with a great track record (in high school of course). If nothing else, UNLV will likely give Sanchez plenty of time to succeed. Mike Sanford won two games each of his first three seasons and was allowed to stay for five years. Bobby Hauck did about the same, winning two games during each of his first three seasons without being fired. In fact, he was not even let go after the disappointing 2014 campaign as he submitted his own resignation. What college team could be more conducive to taking a big risk than one housed in Las Vegas? Sanchez may not succeed, but if nothing else, the Rebels have tried something different. 

Grade: B

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Rating the New Coaches: Buffalo

Fifteen FBS schools will have new head coaches when the 2015 season begins. This semi-regular piece will analyze the teams and the coaches they have hired in order to offer a prediction regarding the schools’ prospects for 2015 and beyond. Our third stop takes us to the frigid northeast and the Buffalo Bulls.

Buffalo won the MAC in 2008 under the guidance of Turner Gill. However, the Bulls were far from the best team in the MAC, so a decade long run at the top of the conference should not have been expected. After some anticipated regression in 2009 (though a 5-7 record at Buffalo should still be considered successful), Gill departed for Kansas and the Bulls hired Jeff Quinn as his replacement. Quinn had never been a head coach before save for two previous stints as interim head coach for bowl games at Central Michigan in 2006 and Cincinnati in 2009 (both times following the departure of Brian Kelly). Quinn was fired midway through his fifth season after a 3-4 start, and he finishes his Buffalo career with a middling 20-36 record. However, one could make the argument that he was relieved of his duties a bit prematurely. The table below lists Buffalo’s record, Yards per Play, Yards per Play Allowed, Yards per Play Net, Offensive Touchdowns (OTD), Touchdowns Allowed or Defensive Touchdowns (DTD), and Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR). Keep in mind these numbers include conference games only and the ranking in parentheses is their standing against the rest of the MAC.
As you can see, Buffalo steadily improved after bottoming out in Quinn’s first season as coach before becoming a MAC contender in his fourth season. After that breakthrough, some regression for year five should have been expected with the defense losing a top-ten draft choice in Khalil Mack. Sure enough, while the offense remained potent, the defense declined and the Bulls sputtered to a 3-4 MAC record (their game with Kent State was canceled due to hazardous weather). The Bulls fired Quinn after a 1-2 start in MAC play, and under his replacement, they split their remaining four games. So yes, the Bulls probably rushed in pulling the trigger on letting Quinn go (let’s not forget this team was 30-99 in the eleven seasons preceding Quinn's arrival since returning to FBS in 1999). However, despite their haste the Bulls may have actually traded up as they were able to nab Lance Leipold as his successor.

Who is Lance Leipold? Growing up with The Simpsons, when I hear the name Leipold, this is what I think of.
Alas, Lance is not that Leipold. This Leipold has been the head coach at Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater for eight seasons where he has compiled a ridiculous 109-6 record and won six DIII national titles. You might say Leipold had accomplished all he could at the DIII level. Now the Buffalo Bulls may have found a market inefficiency and hired themselves a great coach for the foreseeable future. Naw, who are we kidding? If Leipold has even a modicum of success at Buffalo, he will be snatched up by a Power 5 school in no time. What about the other point though? Are successful coaches from the lower divisions of college football (not intended to be a derogatory term) an undervalued resource? If they are, they may not be for much longer. From 2000-2012, seventeen FBS schools hired coaches away from lower-division programs (NAIA, Division III, Division II, or FCS); an average of roughly one and a half per year. These coaches achieved varying degrees of success and notoriety (from Jim Tressel to Mick Dennehy to Jim Harbaugh to Paul Wulff). This does not include successful lower-division coaches who took coordinator positions before moving up to FBS (like Hugh Freeze and Mark Hudspeth. In the past three offseasons nine such coaches have been hired by FBS programs, including six prior to the 2014 season.

How do these coaches who move up from the lower divisions perform once they get to the big stage of FBS? To answer that question, I ran a regression analysis using the seventeen coaches hired from 2000-2012. I used 2012 as the cutoff because that means each coach spent at least three seasons at his FBS school. The dependent variable in the regression analysis was the coach’s winning percentage at his FBS school. A few housekeeping notes on winning percentage: First, I used winning percentage because it was simple and easy to calculate. A better measure would probably be winning percentage above or below recent historical precedent. I am very lazy, so feel free to follow up using that. Second, I only included the first FBS stop the coach made. For example, Jerry Kill was hired as the coach of Northern Illinois prior to the 2008 season. He coached the Huskies for three seasons before taking the Minnesota job. His Minnesota career has nothing to do with whether he was a successful hire for Northern Illinois. The dependent variables I used to predict winning percentage were tenure as a lower-division coach (in years), winning percentage at the lower-division, and games above/below .500 at the lower-division. For tenure, I used consecutive years as a head coach at lower divisions even if it was at different schools. Thus Jerry Kill’s experience at Saginaw Valley State (DII), Emporia State (DII), and Southern Illinois (FCS) count as fourteen years even though he never spent more than seven years at any one school. I figured a coach with a longer tenure would be a better bet than one with a shorter tenure. I used winning percentage because duh, that is the object of the game. I used games above or below .500 as sort of a more advanced version of winning percentage to give more credit to coaches who produce good winning percentages over a longer time period. The complete list of the seventeen coaches included in this study can be found at the end of this post.

Here is the correlation for Experience and FBS winning percentage.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the correlation is positive. In the aggregate, the longer a coach spends at the lower-division, the more successful they will be as an FBS head coach. The R Squared value of .2866 is on the low side, but all things being equal, a coach who spends a decade in the lower-divisions would be preferable to one who spent just a season or two there (I’m looking at you Mike London).

Here is the correlation for Lower Division winning percentage and FBS winning percentage.
Again, the relationship is positive. It would of course be preferable for a lower-division coach to have a great winning percentage. The R Squared is lower than that for Experience, but there is probably a little selection bias at work here. Lower-division coaches who are not successful do not get FBS jobs. They get pink slips.

Finally, here is the correlation for Lower Division Games Above .500 and FBS winning percentage.
Once again, the relationship is positive and the R Squared value is the highest of the three variables examined. Intuitively this makes sense. Games Above .500 is a combination of the other two variables, Experience and Winning Percentage. Games Above .500 can help us weed out some of the randomness. This is not a perfect analogy, and it involves a different sport, but consider Andy Enfield. He was the head coach of Florida Gulf Coast, a school that took the nation by storm almost exactly two years ago. Dunk City became the first 15 seed to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament. After their run, Enfield became the coach of Southern California, a huge step up from Florida Gulf Coast. However, Enfield had only two seasons of head coaching experience under his belt and a middling 21-15 record in the Atlantic Sun. Since being hire by the Trojans, his charges have won a grand total of five conference games in nearly two seasons. Without only a short track record prior to being named the head coach at Southern Cal, it’s likely the powers that be in LA were Fooled by Randomness. Andy Enfield just happened to be standing around when some good sh*t happened. We should all be so lucky.

So back to Leipold. How does he measure up based on the three variables? Well, he spent eight years at Wisconsin Whitewater which is a solid run and makes him about average experience wise when compared to the lower-division hires examined in the study. His winning percentage of nearly 95% is tops by a healthy margin (Paul Johnson won 86% of his games in five seasons at Georgia Southern) and his games above .500 is twenty more than Brian Kelly accumulated in 13 seasons at Grand Valley State. If you are hiring a lower-division coach to lead your program, they don’t come much better than Lance Leipold. Add in the fact that Buffalo was probably a little better than their record indicated last year, and it’s easy to foresee a return to the postseason for the Bulls. As always, nothing guaranteed, but Buffalo appears to have made a great hire, even if he is likely at worst to double his number of career losses by the time he leaves upstate New York.

Grade: A

Coaches in Study (Alphabetical Order):
David Bailiff
Todd Berry
Terry Bowden
Mick Dennehy
Rich Ellerson
Jim Harbaugh
Bobby Hauck
Bobby Johnson
Paul Johnson
Brian Kelly
Jerry Kill
Pete Lembo
Mike London
Hal Mumme
Steve Roberts
Jim Tressel
Paul Wulff

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Rating the New Coaches: Florida

Fifteen FBS schools will have new head coaches when the 2015 season begins. This semi-regular piece will analyze the teams and the coaches they have hired in order to offer a prediction regarding the schools’ prospects for 2015 and beyond. Our second stop takes us to Gainesville.

Three bowl appearances in four seasons, including a bid to the Sugar Bowl following the 2012 campaign were not enough to keep Will Muschamp employed at the University of Florida. You would be hard pressed to blame the powers that be for giving Muschamp the axe. Under his predecessor, Urban Meyer, the Gators were perennial contenders and winners of two national championships. In fact, outside of the outlier 2012 season when the Gators went 7-1 in SEC play, Florida was just 10-14 against league opponents under Muschamp. That kind of mediocrity might fly at Kentucky and get a statue erected in your honor at Vanderbilt, but Florida fans are used to the finer things in life (excluding leg wear of course). To replace Muschamp (a defensive-minded coach), the Gators have tabbed Jim McElwain, a former quarterback at Eastern Washington, offensive coordinator at Alabama, and head coach at Colorado State to be their new leader. How did McElwain perform at his previous head coaching stop in Fort Collins?

The Colorado State Rams were a mid-major force in the 1990’s under Sonny Lubick. The Rams finished in the top-20 of the final polls three times between 1994 and 2000. However, as the new millennium began, the Rams fortunes declined. After finishing 10-4 in 2002, the Rams went just 24-36 over Lubick’s final five seasons and finished with a winning record only once in that span. Lubick was replaced by Steve Fairchild, a Colorado State alum, who was also an assistant under Lubick in the glory days of the program. Fairchild’s tenure began with promise as the Rams went 7-6 and won the New Mexico Bowl in 2008. However it was all downhill from there as the Rams finished with identical 3-9 marks over the next three seasons and won just three of their final 23 conference games. Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain was hired to return the Rams to prominence, but early on the tide was against him. The Rams began McElwain’s first season 1-6 before rebounding to win three of their final five games and finish 4-8. The Rams improved to 8-6 in his second season, including an epic bowl win over Washington State, and were 10-2 in the 2014 regular season before he was snatched up by the Gators. So, after starting 1-6, the Rams won 21 of the final 31 games they played under McElwain. They also entered the top-25 (albeit briefly) for the first time since 2003 and beat a pair of Power Five programs (Colorado and Boston College) in 2014.

So we know how McElwain’s Rams performed by basic wins and losses, but how did they perform in relation to their conference brethren in other areas? The table below lists Colorado State’s performance under McElwain in terms of Yards per Play (YPP), Yards per Play Allowed (YPA), Net Yards per Play (Net), Offensive Touchdown (OTD), Touchdowns Allowed or Defensive Touchdowns (DTD), and Adjusted Pythagorean Record (APR). Keep in mind these numbers include conference games only and the ranking in parentheses is their standing against the rest of the Mountain West.
In McElwain’s first season, their poor record (3-5 in Mountain West play) belied their ability to move the ball more effectively than their opponent. The Rams actually possessed a positive yards per play differential (though this had more to do with their defense). Unfortunately, they were not able to turn that yardage advantage into points as their opponents scored ten more touchdowns than the Rams in 2012. In 2013, McElwain got the offense back on track and the Rams surged, scoring more than two additional touchdowns per game. The offense again improved in 2014 and the defense held steady giving the Rams the second best yards per play differential in the Mountain West in 2014. Oh, and the Rams did all that with just two players drafted in 2014 (Weston Richburg, an offensive lineman in the second round and Crockett Gilmore, a tight end in the third round) and just one projected to be drafted in the first two days this spring.

So what does that mean for Florida in 2015 and beyond? Well, Florida's issue under Muschamp was scoring points. The defense was either above-average or elite as compared to the rest of the SEC in Muschamp’s tenure. Hiring a proven mid-major coach with an offensive background was a logical progression. Of course, Muschamp was a defensive guy, so the possibility exists that the offense will improve just as the defense collapses and leave the Gators in the same position they are currently in four years from now.

So now that we know a little about McElwain, what do we know about BCS or Power 5 programs that hire successful mid-major coaches? I have examined all the successful mid-major coaches hired by BCS (now Power 5 programs) since 2008. I have made a few arbitrary decisions about which coaches we should exclude because it is too early to tell how they might end up. Feel free to disagree if you want. Here are the coaches we are excluding and why in no particular order.

Bobby Petrino, Louisville, 2014 – Second tenure at Louisville. Bowl game and top-25 finish in first season back. How long will he stay? Only his real estate agent knows for sure?

Dave Doeren, NC State, 2013 –Winless in conference play in first season, bowl win in second.

Dave Clawson, Wake Forest, 2014 – Blew things up. Terrible offense and only one conference win, but did beat the team that beat the eventual nation champions.

Al Golden, Miami, 2011 – Been in south Florida for four seasons, but the Hurricanes have had a dark cloud hanging over the program in the form of Nevin Shapiro and possible NCAA sanctions. If you want to rate him as mediocre or a failure, I won’t argue too hard.

Larry Fedora, North Carolina, 2012 – Similar situation as Golden with a scandal dangling over the program like the Sword of Damocles.

Todd Graham, Pitt, 2011 – Did not have quite the longevity of other legendary Pennsylvania coaches like Joe Paterno, Chuck Noll, or Bill Cowher.

Tim Beckman, Illinois, 2012 – Will be entering his fourth season. Just 4-20 in Big 10 play, but did guide the Illini to a bowl in 2014.

Darrell Hazell, Purdue, 2013 – Early returns are not great, but the Boilermakers did improve in his second season.

Gary Andersen, Wisconsin, 2013 – Stayed just two seasons. One Big 10 division title.

Sonny Dykes, Cal, 2013 – Winless in conference play his first season and one win away from a bowl game in his second.

Chris Petersen, Washington, 2014 – Not easy leaving the Boise bubble. Lost six games in 2014. Did not lose his sixth at Boise State until his sixth season.

Mike MacIntyre, Colorado, 2013 – Just 1-17 through two seasons of Pac-12 play.

Butch Jones, Cincinnati, 2010 – One could argue he stayed long enough to evaluate his tenure. Two bowl games and one top-25 finish in three seasons before leaving for the riches of the SEC.

Willie Taggart, South Florida, 2013 – South Florida was technically a BCS program when he arrived. Improved in his second season, but still an also-ran in the American Athletic Conference.

So with that out of the way, here are the successful mid-major coaches we will include in our analysis (sorted chronologically).

Paul Johnson, Georgia Tech, 2008 – Johnson turned the Navy program around and brought the triple-option to the big leagues. In his seven season in Atlanta, the Yellow Jackets have gone 37-19 in ACC play, won three division crowns, an ACC title, and finished ranked three times. Good hire.

Art Briles, Baylor, 2008 – The former high school coach had turned around the fortunes of the Houston Cougars before he was given the unenviable task of attempting to turn the Baylor program around. With a boost from Robert Griffin, Briles got the Bears to 10 wins in 2011, and it looked like the team might have peaked. Little did we know, the best was yet to come. The Bears have played in five consecutive bowl games and have won 22 games over the past two seasons. Great hire. Briles has also written a book I recommend you check out if you are into that kind of elitist stuff like reading. Beating Goliath is the title.

Turner Gill, Kansas, 2010 – Gill turned the woebegone Buffalo Bulls around, winning the MAC championship in 2008 (on the strength of some unsustainable turnover luck). However, his tenure at Kansas was as short as it was abysmal. The Jayhawks won just five of the 24 games they played under Gill. He probably should have been given at least another year, but since he wasn’t you have to rate the hire as poor.

Skip Holtz, South Florida, 2010 – Fresh off two consecutive Conference USA titles at East Carolina, Skip Holtz was hired by the Bulls to replace the only coach they had ever known, Jim Leavitt. His first squad finished 8-5 and his second began the year 4-0 before losing seven of their final eight games. His next team again finished with a losing record and he was canned. The 2011 and 2012 teams are anomalies under Holtz as they posted a wretched 3-8 mark in close games. In his other 13 seasons, his teams have gone 40-30 in one-score games. Thus, his 2011 and 2012 teams were probably not as bad as they appeared. We’ll say bad hire, but Holtz probably should have been given another season.

Brady Hoke, Michigan, 2011 – His tenure as Michigan head man began in such a promising manner. His first team won the Sugar Bowl and finished in the top-15. His second team went 6-2 in the Big 10 and only lost to very good teams (Alabama, Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and South Carolina combined for a 58-8 record). His third team began the season 5-0, but lost six of their final eight games to put Hoke squarely on the hot seat entering his fourth season. His final team posted a 3-5 Big 10 record and finished 5-7 overall. The offense was impotent over his final two seasons and greatly contributed to his firing. Mediocre hire.

Jerry Kill, Minnesota, 2011 – After leading Northern Illinois back to the MAC mountaintop, Kill assumed the head coaching position at Minnesota. After a ho-hum first year, Kill and the Gophers qualified for a bowl in 2012 thanks to a soft non-conference schedule. Then the team continued to improve in both 2013 and 2014. Now they just need to win a bowl game. Good hire.

Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss, 2012 – After one season at Arkansas State (unbeaten in Sun Belt play), Freeze headed to the Grove where he was an assistant under Ed Orgeron. His time there is chronicled in Meat Market, another book I would recommend. The Rebels have improved in each of his three seasons, and despite the fact that 2014 ended on a sour note, Ole Miss appears to be in good hands. Good hire.

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M, 2012 – After nearly leading Houston to a BCS bowl in 2011, Sumlin stayed in-state, but moved up in class. His tenure at Texas A&M has coincided with the Aggies shift to the SEC. The Aggies have won three bowl games and finished ranked twice in three seasons under Sumlin. Oh, and some guy won the Heisman Trophy. We’ll call this a good hire, but mention in passing that the Aggies win total has declined each season since their breakout in 2012. Perhaps Sumlin set the bar too high?

Gus Malzahn, Auburn, 2013 – Yes, he has only been at Auburn two seasons (after a one-year stint at Arkansas State), but Malzahn led the Tigers to an SEC crown in his first season as well as a berth in the BCS National Championship Game. The Tigers declined in his second season, but still finished ranked in the final poll. Good hire, and perhaps a slam dunk.

By my estimation, of the nine hires included in this unscientific study, six were either good or great (Johnson, Briles, Kill, Freeze, Sumlin, and Malzahn), one was average (Hoke), and two were bad (Gill and Holtz). I will once again remark that Gill and Holtz were not given ample time to fix their struggling programs, and that in regards to Skip Holtz, he was probably more unlucky than bad. Now, some might argue that I have cherry-picked who to include here, and I have to a certain extent. However, I just don’t think we can yet judge relatively new hires like Golden and Fedora because of the off the field messes they stepped into and others like MacIntyre because he took over such a bad program. In other instances, like Beckman and Hazell, I feel those programs are at a crossroads like Bone Thugs N Harmony, and shouldn’t be judged just yet. If you want to lump those two in with the bad hires, be my guest.

Based on the data I examined, employing a proven mid-major coach appears to be one of the safer crapshoots in hiring a coach. Think of it as a roulette wheel with 22 black spaces (and you are betting on black) instead of 18. If you hire a successful mid-major coach, you will probably at worst get to one bowl game in his tenure. Of course, Florida has more ambitious aspirations that getting to a bowl game. Were I a betting man, I would bet against Florida winning a national title under McElwain, but that has more to do with the fact that it is damn hard to win a national title (pretty sure they only award one per season) than anything to do with McElwain specifically. McElwain revived a dormant program in a short time and appears to have the offensive bona fides to get the Gators back near the top of the SEC. He’s not the slam dunk hire Urban Meyer was a decade ago, but there is a lot to like.

Grade: A-

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Rating the New Coaches: Pitt

For the curious, no this blog is not dead. The offseason is upon us, so it is time to look forward to 2015.

Sixteen FBS schools will have new head coaches when the 2015 season begins. This semi-regular piece will analyze the teams and the coaches they have hired in order to offer a prediction regarding the schools’ prospects for 2015 and beyond. We’ll begin in western Pennsylvania.

In many ways, the Panthers bowl game on the second day of 2015 was a microcosm not just of the 2014 season, but of their recent past as well. Since upsetting West Virginia in their final game of 2007, the Panthers have played in seven consecutive bowls, the second longest streak in school history. However, despite some impressive wins in that stretch, the Panthers have never been able to break through. They opened 2008 with a loss to Bowling Green of the MAC and closed it by losing a snoozer to Oregon State. They nearly won the Big East in 2009, but a missed extra point cost them a chance at overtime against Cincinnati. They lost to West Virginia with a chance at the Big East title in 2010. They gave Dave Wannstedt and his mustache the boot following the 2010 campaign and hired an up and coming mid-major coach in Mike Haywood. Things didn't exactly work out. They then tabbed Todd Graham (a realtor’s best friend) to be their head coach and while he lasted longer than Haywood, his longevity at the school was not quite the Bowden/Paterno persuasion. Next, they chose Paul Chryst to be their savior, and while he lasted three seasons, the Panthers never finished better than 7-6. The Chryst era opened rather inauspiciously with a loss to IAA Youngstown State and ended with a road upset against Miami that enabled the Panthers to qualify for a bowl. Before the bowl collapse, Chryst bolted for Wisconsin (after Gary Andersen left for Oregon State and Mike Riley left for Nebraska). Now the Panthers have selected Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi to lead them.

Pat Narduzzi has been a defensive coordinator for Mark Dantonio since 2004. I have calculated Yards Per Play and APR numbers back to 2005, so nearly his entire record as a defensive coordinator is included in these numbers. The following table lists the Yards Per Play Allowed (YPPA) and Defensive Touchdowns Allowed (DTD) by Narduzzi’s defenses in conference play since 2005.
Since Narduzzi coordinated these defenses during this time period, this seems like a suitable method to rate his coordinating prowess. Personally, I think YPPA is superior to DTD because occasionally offense and special teams can put a defense in a precarious position, if drives start in their own territory thanks to turnovers or bad coverage units. I assume dear readers that you are able to think for yourself, so I have included them both.

As you can see, even a highly regarded defensive whiz like Narduzzi has a few blemishes on his record. The 2005 season at Cincinnati (his and Dantonio’s second in the Queen City) and his first two seasons at Michigan State produced bad defenses. Out of the ten year sample, I think we can safely say Narduzzi coordinated bad defenses three times (2005, 2007, and 2008), mediocre defenses once (2009), good defenses four times (2006, 2010, 2011, and 2014), and great defenses twice (2012 and 2013).

It stands to reason that in years where Narduzzi had the services of future professionals, his defenses performed much better. To determine if this is true, I looked at how many players from each defense were selected in the following year’s NFL draft. The table below lists the number of draft picks each defense produced and where they were drafted. For example, the 2007 Michigan State defense had one player selected in the 2008 draft. Obviously, this is not a perfect method because a defense may not have a player get drafted immediately afterward because they are an underclassman. Still, it gives us a good idea as to what kind of talent Narduzzi has been working with. Since the 2015 draft has not occurred yet, I used a time machine, the latest draft projections from CBS Sportsline.
As you can see, from 2005 through 2008, only a pair of players were drafted from Narduzzi defenses with neither being what one would classify as an elite-level talent. It should be noted that two players, Haruki Nakamura and Deangelo Smith, from his Cincinnati defenses were drafted after he and Dantonio departed. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are among the worst defenses Narduzzi coordinated. Over the past five seasons, Narduzzi has coached nine players who have either been drafted or are set to be drafted this spring (not including Shilique Calhoun who has elected to stay in school). His defenses have been either good or outstanding in that time frame. When Narduzzi has talent on defense, he has produced fantastic results. Obviously, he is not perfect, but when he is given great talent, he doesn't bury that talent in the ground.

So what does that mean for Pitt in 2015 and beyond? Well, Narduzzi will not be coordinating the defense himself. Even though he may not be calling the defense looks and plays, part of being a good defensive coach is training players to line up, read their keys, and use their instincts. With the relative talent level on the Panthers one would be hard pressed to believe they would finish in the bottom third of the ACC on defense next season with someone of Narduzzi’s caliber even tangentially involved.

So now that we know a little about Narduzzi, what do we know about programs that hire former defensive coordinators? This may come as a surprise, but Narduzzi is in somewhat rare company moving from a defensive coordinator to a head coach at a BCS/Power Five school. Since 2008, it has only happened ten times. However, only eight of those instances bared any similarity to this one. A pair of schools had to hastily promote their defensive coordinators in 2011 (Ohio State and North Carolina) after their head coaches were let go for one reason or another. For that reason, I have omitted Luke Fickell and Everett Withers from this analysis. We’ll tackle the other eight chronologically.

Bo Pelini, Nebraska, 2008 – Fresh off coordinating the defense for the national champion LSU Tigers, Nebraska hired Pelini to lead a program that had suffered two losing seasons in the past four years. Pelini led the Cornhuskers to seven consecutive bowl appearances and three conference title game appearances. He was fired because the school couldn’t reach the elite status they last attained a decade and a half prior (and some off the field stuff). All things considered, he was a pretty good hire.

Frank Spaziani, Boston College, 2009 – After Boston College foolishly fired Jeff Jagodzinski for interviewing for an open NFL job, the Eagles handed the reigns to their longtime defensive coordinator. The Eagles qualified for bowl games in Spaziani’s first two years, but their record declined during each of his four seasons, bottoming out at 2-10 in 2012. Bad hire.

Paul Rhoads, Iowa State, 2009 – In what ended up being a swap of sorts, Iowa State head coach Gene Chizik went to Auburn, and Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads took Chizik’s place in Ames. Thanks to Cam Newton and some dirty money, Chizik now has a national title (think about all the illustrious coaches that do not). Rhoads has led the Cyclones to some monumental upsets and three bowl appearances in six seasons. However, after going 5-19 the past two seasons, he is squarely on the hot seat heading into 2014. Decent hire.

Charlie Strong, Louisville, 2010 – The Florida defensive coordinator took over for Steve Kragthorpe at Louisville and after a pair of 7-6 seasons to open his tenure, won 23 of his final 26 games at the school, including the Sugar Bowl following the 2012 season. Slam dunk hire.

Will Muschamp, Florida, 2011 – Following the departure of demigod Urban Meyer, the Gators tabbed the Texas coach in waiting Will Muschamp to be their guy. Outside of a banner 2012 season where the Gators rode a stout defense to a one-loss regular season, the Gators were never close to their elite pedigree. Not as bad as Ron Zook, but a bad hire.

Mark Stoops, Kentucky, 2013 – After leading the Florida State defense for three seasons, the third Stoops brother to be in charge of a major college football program headed west to the SEC East and Lexington, Kentucky. The Wildcats did not win a conference games in Stoops’ first season as coach, but improved to five wins in his second season. Too soon to say, but early returns are solid.

Scott Shafer, Syracuse 2013 – After head coach Doug Marrone led the Orange to a pair of bowl bids over four seasons (quality work considering his predecessor), he stayed in upstate New York, but moved to the pros. The Orange promoted Scott Shafer, their defensive coordinator under Marrone, to be their head coach. Shafer’s first season ended with a middling 7-6 mark and his follow-up campaign resulted in a dreadful 3-9 record. He is squarely on the hot seat entering his third season. Too soon to render a final judgment, but returns are not promising.

Derek Mason, Vanderbilt, 2014 – After the most successful run in school history since the Eisenhower administration, James Franklin finally cashed in his chips and headed north to Happy Valley. To replace him, the Commodores looked west to another institution with great academic integrity, Stanford. Mason was on the Stanford staff for four seasons and four BCS bowl games, the last two in the role of defensive coordinator. However, his first season in Nashville was a disaster. The Commodores went winless in the SEC and managed just three wins overall. One season is never enough time to properly judge a coaching hire, but it appears as if Mason is in over his head.

Of the eight defensive coordinators who became head coaches at BCS/Power Five programs since 2008, three have been fired (although one could argue Pelini’s struggles away from the sidelines were more of a factor in his demise), three more could be fired in 2014 (Rhoads, Shafer, and Mason), one has parlayed his success into a bigger job, and one has a tough task in front of him in the nation’s strongest conference. Each job and the expectations that come with it must be evaluated individually, but moving from defensive coordinator to head coach has not been a slam dunk proposition.

Selecting coaches is a crapshoot (for the most part). You never know which FCS or mid-major coach will struggle at the next level. You never know which coordinator will be unable to recruit enough top-shelf talent or talent that fits his particular scheme. You never know what others schools in the conference will make slightly better coaching hires the same year (or the previous year or the next year). Conference wins are a zero-sum game after all. Hell, if you’re Pitt, you never know which coach might commit a felony or leave after one season. That being said, the Panthers have hired a defensive-minded coach with a good track record. Narduzzi didn’t produce great defenses at an old-money program like Alabama or Ohio State. He did it at a nouveau riche school that was actually not even the best program in its own state when he arrived. His hiring may not work out, but the Panthers have certainly given themselves a shot to break out of the six or seven win rut.

Grade: B+

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Bowl Season

Well, the regular season didn't necessarily go as we hoped. But, like Fresno State, we were awarded a postseason invitation despite a losing record. I will use my handicapping skills to give you the seven best bowl bets I see on the board. Let's enjoy the last fortnight or so of football as the offseason is long and arduous.

Famous Idaho Potato Bowl
Western Michigan -1 Air Force
On the first Saturday of bowl season, we are treated to a quintet of games on ESPN and ABC. In the penultimate game, a pair of teams that improved dramatically face off in Boise, Idaho. Western Michigan and Air Force combined to go 3-21 in 2013. Under first year head coach PJ Fleck, the Broncos endured a typical 'Year Zero', losing all their games save one as they transitioned to a new administration. Meanwhile, after six consecutive bowl appearances under Troy Calhoun, the Falcons won just two games, their fewest in a season since 1980. Coming into this game, the Broncos and Falcons have a combined 17-7 mark, a full 14-game improvement. Despite finishing behind both Northern Illinois and Toledo in the MAC West, the Broncos may have been the best team in the conference. Statistically, they averaged the most yards per play in the conference, and their yards per play differential was also tops among MAC teams. Alas, the Broncos lost on the field to both the Huskies and Rockets and will have to be content with their first bowl win in school history to cap the season. The Falcons played in a tougher conference, but were quite fortunate to finish with nine wins. In conference play, they were outgained by nearly three quarters of a yard per play. The Falcons used their home field to their advantage, finishing 6-0 at home, including wins over league heavyweights Boise State and Colorado State. Away from the friendly confines of Falcon Stadium, Air Force went just 3-3, with the wins courtesy of Army, Georgia State, and UNLV. That triumvirate was a combined 7-30 in 2014. In this battle of improved teams, take the Broncos to win and cover this small number. Before we leave this game, here is a bit of bonus trivia for both teams. Did you know Bill Parcells once coached the Air Force Academy? His 1978 squad went just 3-8. In other coaching minutia, Jack Harbaugh coached Western Michigan. Yes, the father of Super Bowl winning coach John Harbaugh and super a-hole Jim Harbaugh was the Broncos fearless leader for five seasons beginning in 1982.

Miami Beach Bowl
Memphis -1 BYU
Before quarterback Taysom Hill went down with an injury in early October, some, in particular one genius blogger, fancied BYU a darkhorse contender for the college football playoff. Alas, the Cougars suffered a four-game losing streak upon losing Hill, but quietly rebounded to win their final four games. Despite owning eight victories, including three over teams from Power Five conferences, the Cougars only defeated a pair of teams (Houston and Texas) that are playing in bowl games. Meanwhile, all four of their losses came to bowl participants (all from the Group of Five). While the Cougars are playing in their tenth consecutive bowl game under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, the Memphis Tigers are playing in their first since 2008. The end of the Tommy West era, the entirety of the Larry Porter era, and the first two years of the Justin Fuente era produced just twelve victories, so the 9-3 campaign is certainly cause for a celebration. In fact, in the latest edition of the AP Poll, the Tigers are 29th, so a victory here could have them sitting in the final poll for the first time in school history. The Tigers are no fluke either, ranking second in the American Conference in terms of yards per play differential. They also acquitted themselves reasonably well outside the conference, playing a tight game at UCLA and giving Ole Miss a decent game despite losing by three touchdowns. Memphis is the better team and with a spread under a field goal, should be able to cover this small number.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Penn State +2.5 Boston College
These former northeast rivals on the Independent circuit will be playing for just the third time since 1992, and the first time in ten years. And they will be doing it in New York City! Boston College enters the game with seven wins and will look to end the season with eight for the first time since 2009. The Eagles were once a bowl winning machine under Tom O'Brien, emerging victorious in eight consecutive bowl games from 2000-2007. Alas, their winning ways have eluded them of late as they have suffered four consecutive postseason setbacks, with last year's debacle against Arizona the most recent. The Eagles were imminently average in the ACC in 2014, ranking eighth in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed. Their primary strength was the running of quarterback Tyler Murphy who was the only non-triple option quarterback to rush for more than 1000 yards in 2014. Murphy and the Eagles will take on a Penn State team that was average in terms of their final record, but extreme in how they got there. The Nittany Lions ranked dead last in the Big 10 in yards per play, averaging a pathetic 3.72 yards per snap. However, the Nittany Lions also boasted a robust defense, ranking first in the conference in yards per play allowed. The Nittany Lions were particularly adept against the run as no team averaged four yards per carry against them in 2014. Look for the Nittany Lions to win a tight low-scoring affair in one of our nation's finest cities.

Texas Bowl
Texas +6 Arkansas
There really is no better time than bowl season to renew old acquaintances. These former Southwest Conference rivals, who once played every season from 1932 to 1991 will be getting together for the first time since 2008 and just the fifth time since Arkansas left for the SEC before the 1992 season. While Bret Bielema and Charlie Strong may not yet have the cache of Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles, their teams are better than their combined 12-12 records would indicate. While Arkansas managed just a pair of SEC wins, and are just 2-14 in the league under Bielema, the Hogs beat Ole Miss and LSU by a combined 47 points. In addition, four of their six conference losses were by a touchdown or less, and all six of their losses came to bowl bound teams. Outside the SEC, the Hogs dominated. The Hogs crushed eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois, beat a an improved UAB team by four touchdowns, and throttled another former Southwest Conference rival (Texas Tech) by three touchdowns on the road. So why are they not the play here? For starters, a solid Texas team is catching nearly a touchdown. After a dismal 2-4 start that included wins against North Texas and Kansas, the Longhorns won four of their final six games. Like the Razorbacks, each team to defeat Texas will be playing in the postseason, so the schedule is partially responsible for the .500 record. Plus, and this factoid may shock you, Texas boated the best per play defense in the Big 12. The Longhorns held the dynamic Baylor offense under five yards per play. They also held the other powerful offenses in the Big 12, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and TCU, under their season averages. Methinks this will be a low-scoring game that hearkens back to the old days of the Southwest Conference with a lot of running plays, and a game that is not decided until the final minutes.

Music City Bowl
Notre Dame +7 LSU
If you want to go by the always ephemeral 'momentum', neither team stands a very good chance of winning this game. The Irish began the year 6-0 before losing in controversial fashion to Florida State. They came out flat in their next gane, but still managed a double-digit win over Navy. Then the wheels came off. The Irish dropped a tough road game in the desert against Arizona State, were upset by Northwestern and Louisville in successive weekends at home, and capped their four-game losing streak with a blowout by the Trojans in Los Angeles. In their first five games, all wins, the Irish allowed an average of 12 points per game and 4.72 yards per play. Over their final seven games (2-5 record), the Irish allowed an average of 41.6 points per game and 5.88 yards per play. Granted, the competition improved, but allowing over 40 points per game over a half season's worth of games is not something one would expect from Notre Dame. The good news for the Irish is that LSU has struggled mightily moving the football, particularly late in the season. Before they 'exploded' (relatively speaking) against Texas A&M in the season finale the Tigers averaged just 4.43 yards per play over a six-game SEC stretch. Three of those games came against the strong defenses of Alabama, Florida, and Ole Miss, but Arkansas, Auburn, and Kentucky were also included in that set of games. Suffice it to say, Cam Cameron didn't exactly earn his money this season. LSU will probably win this game, as they nearly always defeat non-conference foes under Miles, but I think they pull this one out the Les Miles way.

Fiesta Bowl
Boise State +3 Arizona
The Boise State program did not implode upon the exit of Chris Petersen. After a somewhat down year in 2013 that saw the Broncos lose five games for the first time since 1998, Petersen followed the coaching carousel to Washington. In his stead, the Broncos tabbed Bryan Harsin from Arkansas State (the new cradle of coaches). Harsin led the Broncos to their first outright Mountain West title since joining the conference in 2011. These Broncos are likely a little different than the teams you are used to watching. After ranking either first or second in terms of yards per play allowed among their conference brethren for each season from 2005 through 2013, the Broncos fell all the way to fourth in 2014 (gasp), but more than made up for it by fielding an outstanding offensive attack (second in the Mountain West to Colorado State in terms of yards per play). Running back Jay Ajayi enters the bowl with nearly 1700 rushing yards on the season and 25 touchdowns. Boise will seek their third Fiesta Bowl victory (Penn State holds the record with six Fiesta Bowl wins) against the Arizona Wildcats. The Wildcats will be making their first major bowl appearance since 1993, when they last played in the Fiesta Bowl. The Wildcats won seven of their nine regular season Pac-12 games, but were not very proficient at any one area. They ranked eighth in the conference in yards per play and sixth in yards per play allowed. The Wildcats did fare quite well in more random aspects of play, finishing with a +9 turnover margin in Pac-12 play and winning six of their seven one score games. This was a phenomenal season for Arizona, and it is a shame they ran into an elite Oregon team in the Pac-12 Championship Game, denying the program their first outright conference title since they won the Border Conference in 1941. Arizona is a little over-valued here and Boise should enter this game reasonably motivated to knock off a major conference team. Look for the Broncos to pull off an outright upset here.

Citrus Bowl
Minnesota +6 Missouri
For the second consecutive year, SEC newcomer Missouri won their division. And then were summarily trounced in the SEC Championship Game. There is no shame in losing to Alabama, but the Missouri Tigers are now 0-4 in conference title games under Gary Pinkel as they seek their first conference title since they shared the Big 8 with Nebraska in 1969. Missouri was led by their defense in 2014, ranking first in the SEC in yards per play allowed. That number is likely a function of their easier eastern division schedule, but the defense was legitimately nasty. The offense on the other hand, was a slowly decomposing husk. After averaging 6.1 yards per play in their four non-conference games, the Tigers struggled mightily moving the ball in the SEC, averaging under five yards per play. That figure ranked ahead of winless (in the conference) Vanderbilt, and no one else. The Tigers will be challenged by a Minnesota team playing in their third consecutive bowl under Jerry Kill. The Gophers somehow lost to Illinois (much like the Tigers somehow lost to Indiana), but otherwise performed admirably in 2014, beating Iowa, Michigan, and Nebraska, and losing to Ohio State, TCU, and Wisconsin. Minnesota does not do a anything particularly well, but against an offense as limited as Missouri's, they should be able to keep the margin in this game to a less than a touchdown.
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