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Statistically Speaking

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Even the Losers: Wyoming

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. For our eighth installment, we'll stay in the Mountain West and examine the Wyoming Cowboys.

Wyoming

2013 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Mountain West)

Summary: The first four games of the 2013 season played out about as well as any practical Wyoming fan could have hoped. The Cowboys opened the season losing by a mere field goal at Nebraska. Their previous five run-ins with BCS conference foes under Dave Christensen had all resulted in grisly defeats, with each coming by at least 20 points. Shaking off the tight loss, the Cowboys returned home and shredded Idaho and Northern Colorado (IAA) by 32 and 28 points respectively. They then opened Mountain West play on the road against Air Force, a team they were just 1-6 against since 2005. They scored 56 points against the Falcons, the high-water mark under Christensen at the time, and won by 33. A third of the way through the season, the Cowboys seemed at worse to be a bowl team, and at best a contender in the conference for the first time since the days of Joe Tiller. The exuberance surrounding the team would last exactly one week. In their fifth game, the Cowboys traveled to San Marcos to face Texas State, a team in just its second year of IA football. In a sign of defensive deficiencies to come, the Cowboys allowed 42 points to the Bobcats and dropped to 3-2. They beat New Mexico in a high-scoring affair the following week, and then things got ugly. Over their final six games, the Cowboys allowed more 50 points than three times (two other times they allowed 48), scored ten points or fewer three times, and won just once more. The win came in overtime, at home, against a Hawaii team that won just once all season. The Cowboys canned Christensen and hired a IAA wunderkind in Craig Bohl. Alright, maybe he isn't a wunderkind, but he has been quite successful.

What Did the Cowboys Do Well?
Score...sometimes. The 2013 Cowboys were the highest scoring team of the Dave Christensen era. His charges averaged 31.3 points per game, about four and a half more than they averaged in 2012. However, outside of the Hawaii game, the Cowboys struggled on that side of the ball in the season's final month. In their other three November contests, they scored ten against Fresno State, seven against Boise State, and seven against Utah State. Over the first two months of the season, the Cowboys had been averaging a robust 36.5 points per game.

What Didn't the Cowboys Do Well?
Stop the pass. The Wyoming defense ranked eighth in yards per play allowed in the Mountain West. With twelve teams in the conference, that is not a terrible rating. However, when it came to stopping opposing quarterbacks, Wyoming was among the worst in the nation. For starters, they allowed 32 touchdown passes on the season. Only two teams, Colorado State (33) and Idaho (40) allowed more, and Colorado State played an extra game. In terms of yards per pass, the Cowboys ranked 101st, allowing 7.9 yards per throw. In terms of quarterback rating, a flawed, but useful statistic, the Cowboys ranked 115th. The pass defense was particularly atrocious in the final eight games, over which the Cowboys allowed 27 touchdown passes and a nearly unheard of 8.8 yards per pass.

The Cowboys Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Wyoming's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Wyoming played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Cowboys averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Cowboys allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.

Despite the vast difference in their overall record, the 2010 and 2011 Cowboys were basically the same team on a yards per play basis. They were a little worse than average in comparison to their Mountain West brethren in both seasons (remember the league had nine and eight teams in both seasons, not the twelve it currently counts as members). How did they achieve such divergent results? The 2010 team was 0-3 in one-score conference games, while the 2011 team was 3-0. In addition, while the 2010 team was hardly unlucky in regards to turnovers (an in-conference margin of +2), the 2011 team was +10 in just seven games. Despite the winning record, the Cowboys were a good bet to decline in 2012 thanks to their performance in one-score games and their resplendent turnover margin. Sure enough, their record fell, but perhaps more troubling, the underlying performance also cratered. Their yards per play margin befitted a team that was probably worse than the 3-5 mark they achieved. Judging by how far they fell on a play by play basis in 2012, 2013 could certainly be deemed a success. The Cowboys improved on both sides of the ball, including quite substantially on offense. Despite the late-season struggles, an argument could be made to give Christensen another year. Still, with a coach like Bohl on the market, it's hard to blame Wyoming for the decision they made.

The 2014 Schedule:
The Cowboys four non-conference opponents in 2014 feature a little bit of everything. There is the requisite IAA school (Montana), a fellow mid-major (Florida Atlantic), and a pair of potential Rose Bowl teams (Oregon and Michigan State). The games against the Ducks and Spartans both come on the road, and even if they were in Laramie, a win would be a major upset. Montana is a strong IAA team, but the Cowboys should win. Florida Atlantic may hold the key to bowl eligibility for the Cowboys. The Owls surged late in 2013, winning their final four games to improve to 6-6, despite some coaching upheaval. The game is at home, so a win would not be a massive shock across the college football landscape. In league play, the Cowboys host Air Force, Boise State, San Jose State, and Utah State. Three of those squads were bowl eligible last season (all save Air Force). On the road, the Cowboys play Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii, and New Mexico. Colorado State and Fresno State were bowl participants last season, while Hawaii and New Mexico won just four total games between them. In order to attain bowl eligibility, the Cowboys will need to win at least four and potentially five (depending on the outcome of the Florida Atlantic game) league contests. Accomplishing this likely requires the Cowboys to split their four road non-conference games. Hawaii and New Mexico appear to be the most likely candidates for road wins, but as stated (so eloquently I might add) in the Nevada preview, shifting the venue of a few of these games would be beneficial to Wyoming's bowl chances. 

Reason For Optimism:
Craig Bohl. The most visible, and perhaps the most important person on any football team is the head coach. Bohl comes fresh from North Dakota State where he led the Bison to three consecutive IAA national championships. Perhaps more impressive than the three consecutive titles, was that Bohl did this while shepherding the Bison up from Division II. During his eleven years in Fargo, the Bison suffered just a single losing season and won more than three quarters of their games.

Final Prognosis:
A winning season and bowl game are certainly not a given, but Craig Bohl has the potential to be a slam dunk hire at Wyoming. Bohl has a great track record at IAA, and the bigger question could end up being, how long will he stay at Wyoming? Still, everything is not rosy headed into his first season. The defense was a major issue, particularly down the stretch in 2013, and his star signal caller decided to turn pro with a year of eligibility remaining. The non-conference schedule virtually guarantees two losses, but I think the Cowboys will at least manage a 6-6 mark in 2014 with bigger things to come down the road.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Even the Losers: Nevada

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. In our seventh installment, we return to the mid-majors and examine the prospects of the Nevada Wolfpack.

Nevada

2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5 Mountain West)

Summary: New head coach Brian Polian had some huge shoes to fill when he took the reigns of the Wolfpack program from hall of fame coach, and 'Pistol' purveyor Chris Ault. All Ault had done was take the Wolfpack to eight consecutive bowls since beginning his second stint as head coach in 2004. The Polian era got off to a rough start as the Wolfpack traveled to UCLA and lost by 38. They returned home and administered a beating of their own against IAA UC-Davis. The next week, they traveled across the country to take on eventual national champion Florida State, and the results were rather grisly. Returning home to lick their wounds, the Wolfpack opened Mountain West play with consecutive wins over Hawaii and Air Force and seemed poised to play in their ninth consecutive bowl despite the non-conference struggles. The Wolfpack lost their next two games, at San Diego State and Boise State to fall to 2-2 in the league before returning home to face in-state foe UNLV. The Wolfpack had beaten the Rebels eight consecutive times by an average of 20 points. That streak would come to an end in a 27-22 Wolfpack loss. The Wolfpack then lost their next two games against eventual league champion Fresno State and bowl winner Colorado State. The Wolfpack did break a five game conference losing streak in their penultimate contest against San Jose State and played BYU tough in their finale. However, the end result was a 4-8 mark and their first losing season since 2004.

What Did the Wolfpack Do Well?
Play well at home. The Wolfpack went 3-1 in Mountain West play at home, including beating a six-win San Jose State team by three touchdowns. They did lose at home to UNLV, but the game was close, and they also gave a solid BYU squad a run for their money in their only other home loss. Suffice it to say, there were not a great deal of positives in 2013.

What Didn't the Wolfpacks Do Well?
Run the ball, at least as compared to their recent historical trends. From 2007 through 2012, the final six seasons of the Chris Ault era, Nevada never finished lower than twelfth in rushing yards per game. They finished in the top ten in rushing yards per game five times. Proving their runs were as nearly as efficient as they were voluminous, they also never finished worse than 19th in yards per rush. They also finished in the top ten thrice in yards per rush. Without the virtuoso Ault calling the plays, the Wolfpack dipped to 49th in rushing yards and 87th in yards per rush. Their rushing average of 3.90 marked the first time it dipped under four since 2002.

The Wolfpack Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Nevada's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Nevada played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Wolfpack averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Wolfpack allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.

Nevada enjoyed their best season in school history (at least as a IA program) in 2010 with the help of a certain senior quarterback you may have heard of. Perhaps surprisingly, Kaepernick and tight end Virgil Green were the only offensive players drafted from that team. The Wolfpack ended that 2010 season with just a single loss and a number eleven ranking in the AP Poll. Sans Kaepernick, and as expected, the Wolfpack declined the following season, but still returned to the postseason on the strength of their offense. The Wolfpack left the smoldering wreckage of the WAC following the 2011 season and began life in the Mountain West. The Wolfpack found life a little more difficult in their new conference, but sent their coach off into the sunset with another postseason bid. The offense remained one of the best in the league, but the defense continued a disturbing trend of diminishing returns. Without Ault calling the shots, the offense failed to pull its weight in 2013. The defense was unable to pick up the slack, continuing its downward trend and resigning the Wolfpack to a losing season. 

The 2014 Schedule:
If the Wolfpack are to return to the postseason in 2014, they will have to perform well in Mountain West play because there do not appear to be a great deal of wins available in the non-conference schedule. Nevada opens play against IAA Southern Utah, but the level of competition ratchets up soon after with a home date against Mike Leach and the Washington State Cougars. The Cougars have been a pretty sorry program for the last decade or so, but appear to be back on the upswing under Leach. The Wolfpack then travel to Tucson to stage a rematch of the 2012 New Mexico Bowl, a thrilling Arizona comeback that also happened to be Ault's last game as head coach. Their final non-conference game comes midway through the season when they travel to Provo to take on BYU. The Wolfpack are likely to be underdogs in each of their final three non-conference games, so even salvaging a split in non-conference play would be an accomplishment. In Mountain West action, the Wolfpack have the unenviable task of hosting four bowl participants from last season: Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, and San Diego State. While the Wolfpack should win at least one, and perhaps more of those games, hosting some of the weaker conference members would be preferable in terms of qualifying for a bowl. Their road conference games include trips to Air Force, Hawaii, San Jose State, and UNLV. Air Force suffered a losing season last year, but had played in six consecutive bowl games prior to last season's implosion. Hawaii did not win a single Mountain West game last year, but was better than their record indicated (five of their eight league losses came by a touchdown or less) and playing on the islands is never easy. San Jose State and UNLV both finished bowl eligible last season, with UNLV actually playing in the postseason.

Reason for Optimism:
The offense can improve. Nevada will enter the 2014 campaign with a senior quarterback, Cody Fajardo under center. No one will confuse Fajardo with his predecessor, but he has thrown for over 7000 yards and rushed for more than 2400 in his career. Fajardo does lose his number one target, Brandon Wimberly, but a pair of senior receivers, Richy Turner and Aaron Bradley return. The Wolfpack had a solid track record of offensive success prior to 2013, so a return to the upper reaches of the Mountain West on that side of the ball would not be unheard of.

Final Prognosis:
Sometimes we assign simple and specious answers to complex questions. Why did Nevada's offense decline in 2013? Obviously because the newbie coach was not able to fell the legendary shoe's of his predecessor. What about the loss of three starting offensive linemen from the 2012 team? What about a tougher schedule (all eight teams that beat Nevada went to bowl games)? And what about total randomness? Personally, I think the loss of Ault played a role, but a confluence of multiple events including the three mentioned earlier, also conspired to sink the Wolfpack. So with better luck, a more experienced line, and more seasoning under Polian, are the Wolfpack due for a rebound? Possibly, if not for the schedule. The non-conference slate is daunting by mid-major standards, with the just one near certain victory. In conference play, the Wolfpack have the misfortune of playing the teams likely to be near the top of the Mountain West at home and the mediocre to bad teams on the road. A little more variety in their home and road schedule would be more conducive to a bowl bid. Consider the following thought experiment. Let's say Nevada ends up as about the 80th best college football team in 2014 (not too far fetched since they were rated 84th by the SRS method in 2013). Now let's pretend they host a team rated about 40th (Fresno State perhaps) and travel to face a team rated 95th (what about Hawaii?). The Wolfpack will certainly stand a chance of beating Fresno at home, but the Bulldogs are a stronger team. In addition, while Nevada is a better team than Hawaii, the difference is not large, and this game is on the road. Now let's reverse the venues. Nevada would continue to be an underdog versus Fresno State (albeit more prohibitively), but they also stand a much better chance of beating Hawaii at home. In the second scenario, they have better odds of earning a split. I'll leave the math to better minds (and bigger nerds). This is how Nevada's 2014 schedule will play out, but on a much larger scale. If the venues for some of their conference games were reversed, a bowl game would be more likely. As it stands, I think Nevada will improve, but it will not be reflected in their final record. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Even the Losers: Indiana

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. For our seventh installment, we head to the midwest and examine the prospects of the Indiana Hoosiers.

Indiana

2013 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)

Summary: The third season of the Kevin Wilson regime began rather auspiciously as the Hoosiers laid the lumber to IAA Indiana State in their opener, winning 73-35. Considering the Hoosiers beat their IAA opponents in Wilson's first two seasons by just 17 and seven points, this seemed to indicate a potential postseason bid was in their future. Their bowl prospects were significantly dashed the following week when they lost at home to Navy. The Hoosiers rebounded from that disappointment to decimate eventual MAC champion, Bowling Green, by 32 points. In their final non-conference game, they fell at home to eventual SEC runner-up, Missouri. With their two non-league losses, the Hoosiers needed to split their Big 10 games to qualify for a bowl. In their conference opener, and fifth consecutive home game, they throttled Penn State 44-24, for their first win over the Nittany Lions in school history. The following week, they put up the most points Michigan State would allow all season (28), but lost by two touchdowns. They gave up 63 points the following week to Michigan and lost by 16. They then lost at home to Minnesota to drop to 3-5 with their bowl dreams squarely on life support. Thankfully, the Illini came to town the next week and Indiana hung 52 on them to notch their fourth victory. The Hoosiers then traveled to Madison and and lost 51-3 to the Badgers, continuing a disturbing trend. In their last four games against Wisconsin, Indiana has been outscored 255 to 44. The Hoosiers clinched their 18th losing season in 19 years the following week when they fell at Ohio State. The Hoosiers were able to get to five wins for just the fifth time since 1994 when they trounced Purdue in their season finale. Though they missed out on the postseason, the Hoosiers did improve their win total for the second consecutive season under Wilson.

What Did the Hoosiers Do Well?
Move the ball. Indiana ranked third in the Big 10 in yards per play in the conference, averaging a robust 6.29 yards per snap (behind Ohio State and Wisconsin). The Hoosiers also turned those yards into points, averaging 38.4 points per game, their highest scoring average in school history and the second consecutive season they have eclipsed the 30 point per game average.

What Didn't the Hoosiers Do Well?
Play defense. Despite averaging nearly 40 points per game, the Hoosiers did not qualify for a bowl primarily because they allowed just as many. The defense permitted opponents to average 7.35 yards per snap in Big 10 play, meaning every team they faced suddenly became Ohio State. The Hoosiers have now finished dead last in yards per play allowed in four consecutive seasons. Perhaps their worst performance came in the trip to Madison. In that game, the Badgers rushed 50 times for an almost inconceivable 554 yards, averaging more than eleven yards per carry.

The Hoosiers Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Indiana's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Indiana played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Hoosiers averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Hoosiers allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.

The Bill Lynch era ended in 2010 with the Hoosiers winning just a single conference game for the third consecutive season. Not only was the defense horrendous, but the offense was also the second worst in the conference. The Hoosiers did end the season on a high note, beating Purdue in overtime to end a twelve game conference losing streak. Kevin Wilson was hired away from Oklahoma and given the unenviable task of righting the Hoosier program. His first season in charge was not one to remember. The Hoosiers lost non-conference games to Ball State and North Texas and went winless in the Big 10. Things would improve in 2012. The Hoosiers once again lost to Ball State, but they also won multiple conference games for the first time since 2007. The defense remained atrocious, but the offense moved to the middle of the pack among Big 10 teams. A bowl bid certainly seemed within reach when the 2013 season began. However, their non-conference loss to Navy and the rise of Missouri meant the Hoosiers would gave to win four Big 10 games to earn a postseason bid. Despite finishing with a losing record for the fifth consecutive season, Indiana once again saw their offense improve. If the defense can make even modest gains going forward. Indiana fans can make plans for a bowl trip in late December.

The 2014 Schedule:
The Hoosiers did themselves no favors in their non-conference scheduling last season, tackling an SEC team (Missouri), the MAC champion (Bowling Green), and a solid mid-major (Navy). Their 1-2 record in those games cost them a bowl bid. The 2014 non-conference schedule features three quarters of the same teams as last year, albeit with some location changes. The Hoosiers once again open the year at home against IAA Indiana State. Following what should be an easy win, the Hoosiers again play Bowling Green and Missouri, but must now take their show on the road. Bowling Green, despite the loss of Dave Clawson, appears to have hired a capable replacement in Dino Babers. A win here by the Hoosiers is certainly not assured. The Hoosiers figure to be solid underdogs the following week when they head to Columbia, Missouri. The Tigers won in Bloomington last season to break an eight game winless streak against the Hoosiers (granted they had not played since 1992). A win here by Indiana would not seem impossible, but rather unlikely. Indiana's final non-conference game is at home against North Texas. In Wilson's first season, Indiana lost at North Texas in a game where the Mean Green jumped out to a huge lead and hung on at the end. North Texas was a quality team in Conference USA last season, but should not be able to handle the Hoosiers in Bloomington. At worst, Indiana should expect a split in their non-conference games. A 3-1 record is certainly a possibility, while a 4-0 mark appears to be little more than a pipe dream. This means the Hoosiers will need to get to three and perhaps four Big 10 wins to qualify for a bowl game. The conference schedule includes home games against Big 10 noob Maryland, Michigan State, Penn State, and Purdue. Beating the Rose Bowl champion Spartans would be a tall order, but the games against Maryland, Penn State, and Purdue are certainly winnable. Their Big 10 road slate includes trips to Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, and Rutgers. Thankfully for the Hoosiers, the Wisconsin Badgers are off the schedule. Three cheers for realignment! Michigan and Ohio State are likely losses and the Hoosiers will likely be a solid underdog at Iowa as well. That leaves Rutgers as the likeliest of road scalps for the Hoosiers. Presumably an afterthought national game appearing on ESPNU or the Big 10 Network in mid-November, the contest will have a profound impact on whether Indiana qualifies for a bowl game.

Reasons for Optimism:
The offense can be legitimately scary. The Indiana offense has improved each season under Kevin Wilson. Both quarterbacks from last season, Nate Sudfeld and Tre Roberson, return as does top receiver Cody Latimer. Last season, Latimer became the first Hooiser receiver to gain more than 1000 yards since James Hardy in 2007. Last season's leading rusher, Tevin Coleman also returns. Coleman and the departed Stephen Houston combined for over 1700 yards on the ground while averaging over seven yards per rush. If Coleman stays healthy in 2014, he should become the first Indiana back to go over 1000 yards rushing in a season since Levron Williams in 2001. The Hoosiers should remain in the top third of the Big 10 in terms of offensive prowess. Will this be enough to earn them a postseason trip?

Final Prognosis:
What do we know about Indiana in 2014? The offense will be good and the defense will be bad. The question is, how good and how bad? The best case scenario is slight improvement on both sides of the ball keeping the offense near the top of the conference and making the defense merely bad instead of historically inept. However, while the offense should remain above average, improvement is not guaranteed and some slight regression could occur. On the other hand, while statistically it seems the defense has to improve, that unit has a distinguished track record of incompetence. It's not inconceivable for them to remain at the very bottom of the Big 10. With those caveats, Indiana does appear to be on the upswing. and they are probably due to catch some breaks (they are just 2-11 in one score games under Wilson). Even though the non-conference schedule has a pair of tough road games, I think the Hoosiers will get to seven regular season wins and grab that elusive postseason invite.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Even the Losers: Louisiana Tech

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. Our sixth team profiled is the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.

Louisiana Tech

2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5 Conference USA)

Summary: After going a combined 17-8 in 2011 and 2012, the Bulldogs lost their head coach as Sonny Dykes took his spread attach west to the University of California. In his stead, the Bulldogs chose a proven mid-major commodity who had just been fired by South Florida, Skip Holtz. The younger Holtz would have to replace some key pieces on offense, but a reasonable fan likely still expected the Bulldogs to at least compete for bowl eligibility, and the most delusional supporters likely figured the Bulldogs to be in the mix for the Conference USA title. The year began rather inauspiciously, with a 40-14 shellacking at the hands of NC State, a team that would go on to finish 0-8 in the ACC. The Bulldogs returned home and beat Lamar from IAA and on a short week, hosted in-state foe Tulane (in just their second ever meeting) in their first conference game as a member of Conference USA. The Bulldogs were held to 15 points and dropped to 1-2. The next week they traveled to Kansas and lost to a Jayhawk team that had not beaten a IA team since 2011. The next week, the Bulldogs lost to Army before ending their three-game skid the following week at UTEP. After a week off, the Bulldogs lost at home to North Texas, then won two in a row against the dregs of Conference USA (Florida International and Southern Miss). With just a touch of momentum built up, the Bulldogs responded by losing each of their final three games by at least ten points to Rice, Tulsa, and Texas-San Antonio to finish 4-8 and equal their losses from the previous two seasons combined.

What Did the Bulldogs Do Well?
Beat the dregs of the conference. While the Bulldogs didn't win every game they were favored in, losing to both Tulane and in the non-conference against Army as a betting favorite, the Bulldogs three conference wins came against UTEP, Florida International, and Southern Miss. Those three teams combined for a 4-32 overall record with two of the wins coming in pillow fights among themselves (UTEP over Florida International and Florida International over Southern Miss). 

What Didn't the Bulldogs Do Well?
Have explosive receivers. The bad news for Louisiana Tech is that their top quartet of receivers from 2013 will be gone when the 2014 season begins. The good news is those four gentlemen, led by Sterling Griffin, combined for just 1252 yards on 124 catches with just four touchdowns. 16 individual receivers had more yards in 2013. Two receivers had more catches. More than 100 receivers had more touchdown receptions. Every receiver in the top-100 in yards per catch averaged at least five yards more per reception than the piddling 10.1 this quartet averaged collectively. Some new blood, and experience at the quarterback position will not hurt in 2014.


The Bulldogs Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Louisiana Tech's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Louisiana Tech played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Bulldogs averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Bulldogs allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.

Sonny Dykes took over for Derek Dooley in 2010 after Vince's son and Bill's nephew left for Ol' Rocky Top. The 2010 team was not especially strong, but managed a 4-4 mark in the WAC. With the WAC weakened by the departure of Boise State in 2011, the Bulldogs rose to the occasion and won the conference title on the strength of a fantastic defense and played in just their third bowl game in the last two decades. Perhaps ironically, while Dykes came to Ruston as an offensive guru, his first two teams were middling on that side of the ball. His 2012 team on the other hand, lit up the scoreboard, averaging over 51 points per game. The Bulldogs came into 2012, and an even weaker WAC, as the preseason favorite. They began the season with a 9-1 record, including road wins at Illinois and Virginia, with their lone loss up to that point coming to eventual Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Their defense, an issue all season, let them down in the final two games, allowing 100 combined points to Utah State and San Jose State as the Bulldogs missed out on consecutive league titles. Still, with a 9-3 mark, a bowl game was seemingly assured. However, the Bulldogs either turned down or waited too long to accept an invitation (depending on your point of view) to the Independence Bowl (held in their home state) and were not invited to any other postseason contest. Sonny Dykes took the head coaching job at Cal, senior quarterback Colby Cameron matriculated, and Louisiana Tech had a player selected in the NFL Draft for the first time since 2010. Actually, with receiver Quinton Patton and offensive lineman Jordan Mills being taken, the Bulldogs had a pair of players selected. Skip Holtz took the reigns and as expected with all the attrition, the offense declined significantly. However, it pays to mention the defense improved by nearly as much as the offense declined.

The 2014 Schedule:
For Louisiana Tech, the non-conference schedule is far from easy. The Bulldogs have assured themselves at least two losses as they travel to Oklahoma and national runner-up Auburn. A third non-conference game comes on the road at Louisiana-Lafayette, a nascent Sun Belt power under Mark Hudspeth that has played in three consecutive bowl games. Once upon a time, the Cajuns and Bulldogs were annual foes, playing thirteen consecutive seasons from 1988 through 2000. These two have not met since 2004, and the Bulldogs have won six straight in the series, but times are a lot different than they were a decade ago. The team from Lafayette will likely be favored in this one. Their other non-conference game is a likely win against IAA Northwestern State. That means the Bulldogs will need to win at least four and more likely five conference games to attain bowl eligibility. In conference play, the Bulldogs will host Rice, Texas-San Antonio, UTEP, and Western Kentucky. Rice won ten games and the conference title last season, but must replace their starting quarterback and running back. Texas-San Antonio went 7-5 in just their second season of IA football last season. UTEP won two games last season and has not finished with a winning record since 2005. Western Kentucky appears to be on the upswing as a IA program, off their third consecutive winning campaign after an initial struggle transitioning to big time football. On the road in conference play, the Bulldogs travel to North Texas, Old Dominion, Southern Miss, and UAB. North Texas nearly won the division last season, but that was their first winning season in nearly a decade. Old Dominion is transitioning to IA and went 8-4 last season, but against IA teams, they were just 1-4 with the lone win coming against Idaho. Southern Miss has won just once in their past 24 games. UAB has not had a winning season since 2004, and their coach of two seasons decided he would rather be the offensive coordinator at Louisville. With some improvement on both sides of the ball, its not hard to envision Louisiana Tech winning the requisite five conference games needed to attain bowl eligibility. 

Reasons for Optimism:
Kenneth Dixon. When the Bulldogs were a scoring machine in 2012, freshman Kenneth Dixon tallied nearly 1200 yards on the ground and finished tops nationally with 27 rushing touchdowns. Despite missing the final two games of the 2013 season with a knee injury, Dixon actually averaged slightly more yards per rush (6.07) despite not quite getting to 1000 yards (finished with 917). Of course, as Louisiana Tech did not find themselves around the goalline quite as much, Dixon finished with just four rushing touchdowns. Provided he stays healthy, you can pencil Dixon in for another 1000 yards rushing.

Final Prognosis:
Conference USA is not the SEC. So despite a non-conference schedule that will do them no favors (last season's non-conference slate consisting of Army, Kansas, Lamar, and NC State was much easier) in terms of qualifying for a bowl, getting to five league wins is not out of the question. Neither the offense nor defense were particularly strong in 2013, with both ranking ninth in the league in yards per play. However, in a 16-team league, it does not take a math major to realize that is middle of the pack. If the passing game can improve at all, the Bulldogs appear to have a reliable ground game behind Kenneth Dixon, and could move into the top-third of the conference on offense. Similarly, its not hard to picture the defense seeing modest improvement. Couple that potential with a road schedule that features two of the weaker teams in the conference (Southern Miss and UAB) and a team new to IA football (Old Dominion) and a bowl game seems quite possible. I see the Bulldogs finishing with either five, six, or seven regular season wins depending on how their luck shakes out. Six wins will get them to bowl eligibility, but the Bulldogs will need seven to guarantee a bowl bid.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Even the Losers: Wake Forest

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. The fifth team we profile, is near and dear to my heart, my alma mater, Wake Forest.

Wake Forest

2013 Record: 4-8 (2-6 ACC)

Summary: After a disappointing offensive showing in 2012, the Demon Deacons revamped their offense in 2013 to include more option, harkening back to Jim Grobe's first few seasons in Winston-Salem. The season began with an expected 31-7 win against an outclassed Presbyterian team. Eight days later, the Deacons dove into conference play on a Friday night against Boston College, committed a turnover on the second offensive play, and managed under 250 yards of offense in a two touchdown loss. Returning home the following weekend, the Deacons faced Louisiana-Monroe, the mid-major upset kings from the previous season. The defense could not get off the field, allowing the Warhawks to run 104 plays in a two point loss. The Deacons righted the ship the following week against Army and then headed to Clemson where they were embarrassed 56-7; their worst loss to the Tigers since they hung 82 on a hapless Deacon squad in 1981. Credit the Deacons for not being demoralized, as they returned home to win consecutive games against NC State (their sixth straight over the Wolfpack at home) and Maryland. With a 4-3 mark, a bowl game at least seemed within the realm of possibility to even the most pessimistic Deacon fan. The next week, Wake jumped out to a 14-3 lead against undefeated Miami. The Hurricanes eventually won the game on a Duke Johnson touchdown run in the final minute. At 4-4, the Deacons headed north to face new conference foe Syracuse. Receiver Michael Campanaro was injured early in the contest and the Deacons were shut out for the third time in their last 19 games. Returning home to the friendly confines of BB&T field did not help matters against eventual national champion Florida State as the Deacons were crushed 59-3. Losers of three straight, they now needed to win out against fellow nerds Duke and Vanderbilt to have any shot at bowl eligibility. Wake jumped out to a 14-0 lead against the Blue Devils but lost by a touchdown as Duke was putting the finishing touches on a dream season. With nothing to play for but pride (and also revenge, yes definitely revenge), the Deacons traveled to Nashville in the season finale to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores. The Deacons led in the fourth quarter, but a field goal in the final minute gave Vanderbilt the win and consigned the Deacons to a fifth consecutive losing season.

What Did the Demon Deacons Do Well?
Play defense. By the yards per play metric that we will examine later in this post, Wake Forest ranked fifth in the ACC. In a 14-team league, that is well above average. By other defensive statistics, they were also quite solid, ranking 31st nationally in yards allowed per game (366) and 38th nationally in points allowed per game (24). Senior defensive linemen Nikita Whitlock and Zach Thompson combined for 14 sacks and 30 tackles for loss, allowing the defense to keep the Deacons in games despite their woeful offense. Speaking of...

What Didn't the Demon Deacons Do Well?
Run, pass, or do anything very competently offensively. Excluding sacks, Wake Forest averaged just 3.63 yards per rush. If we do some Arthur Andersen style accounting and compare that number to every other college football team using the official NCAA statistics which do include yards lost due to sacks, the Deacons would have ranked 101st in yards per rush. Compare the Deacons on an even playing field, and their yards per rush including sacks ranked 119th nationally (2.96 per attempt) ahead of only six teams in IA football. The passing numbers are not any better. Wake Forest quarterbacks, led by Tanner Price, averaged just 5.7 yards per throw (118th nationally). In conference play, the Deacons ranked last in yards per play, accumulating a putrid 3.99 yards per snap.

The Demon Deacons Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists Wake Forest's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference Wake Forest played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Demon Deacons averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Demon Deacons allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
After qualifying for three bowl games in a four-season span, including an unthinkable conference title in 2006, Wake Forest cratered in 2010, as the core of those teams departed. Perhaps not surprisingly, no Deacon was drafted in 2011, the first time since 2004 that no Wake Forest player was selected. After that one season blip, the Deacons returned to their salty, irritating selves. Statistically, they were not a great team, ranking eighth in the ACC in both yards per play and Adjusted Pythagorean Record in 2011, but they were competitive and the bounces went their way (at least in conference play), where they won four of five one-score games. Ironically, the one close conference game they lost cost them a spot in the ACC Championship Game. Perhaps if the Deacons had scheduled like other BCS-conference teams that season (playing as many Sun Belt and MAC schools as they could fit on the schedule), they could have ended the year in the rankings. Alas, in three of their four non-conference games, they took on BCS-conference teams (Notre Dame, Syracuse, and Vanderbilt), losing all three and with a loss to Mississippi State in the Music City Bowl, endured another losing season. Four players from that season, including wide receiver Chris Givens, who left a year early, were selected in the draft. Without Givens to stretch the field in 2012, the offense sank, and offset marginal improvement by the defense. Needing a win in one of their final three games to attain bowl eligibility, the Deacons lost those final three contests by a combined 103 points and finished 5-7. The shift to a more option-based attach did not work in 2013, as the offense sunk even further while the defense held steady and the Jim Grobe era ended with a whimper as the Deacons fell to 4-8. When accessing Grobe's legacy in Winston-Salem, the cynic might point out the Deacons suffered five consecutive losing seasons at the end of his tenure. However, despite the struggles, Wake did play in a bowl game in one of those seasons, and twice missed out on bowl eligibility by just a single game. In his 13 seasons at the helm, the Deacons suffered only one awful season (2010). Under his predecessor Jim Caldwell, who actually was the head coach in a Super Bowl, the Deacons were awful five times in only eight seasons.

The 2014 Schedule:
The good news for Wake Forest fans is the Deacons do not play any BCS-conference teams in the non-conference portion of their schedule. The bad news is they are still unlikely to roll through it undefeated. Wake Forest begins the year with a road trip to Monroe, Louisiana to face a team that beat them in Winston-Salem last season. By no means is this game an assured loss, but it is likely close to a toss-up at best. The Deacons follow that up with an almost certain win against Gardner-Webb from IAA before heading west again to face one of the country's stronger mid-major teams, Utah State. The Aggies lost five games last season, but many statistical ratings, including those used by Jeff Sagarin, had them in the 40. A win here by the Deacons would be an upset indeed. The Deacons conclude their non-conference slate by hosting Army. While Wake has played and beaten Army three times in the past seven season, with each win coming by double-digits, an academy than runs the triple-option is not to be taken lightly. Realistically, the best Wake fans can hope for is a 3-1 non-conference record, and 2-2 would not be altogether surprising. Once conference play begins, Wake must travel to Florida State, Louisville, NC State, and Duke. Despite beating the Seminoles as recently as 2011, recent returns seem to indicate it will be quite sometime before Wake knocks off the Seminoles again. All things considered, as far as bowl hopes go, this game may as well be on the road, as the Deacons are unlikely to win in any venue. Despite the loss of Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville should once again be a quality team, so the Deacons appear unlikely to win the rematch of the 2006 Orange Bowl. While NC State was very bad last season, the Deacons have won in Raleigh just twice in my lifetime. After losing twelve straight games in the series, Duke has taken the last two against the Deacons and the tide may have turned in the in-state rivalry. A 1-3 road conference mark is probably the best case scenario for Wake Forest fans, which means the Deacons will have to earn their bowl trip at home. The Deacons play Clemson, Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Syracuse in their home conference games. Clemson has not lost to Wake Forest since 2008 and won their past two trips to Winston-Salem by 20 and 29 points respectively. The Tigers must replace several playmakers on offense, but a Wake win here would be quite a surprise. Virginia Tech has beaten the Deacons in their four clashes as conference foes (with three of the games coming in Winston-Salem). Each one save the first (in 2004) has come by double-digits. A win over the Hokies, even at home would likewise be a stunning result. That leaves Boston College and Syracuse as the most likely Wake Forest home conference wins. While the Deacons lost to both teams last season, neither team is on the level of Clemson or Virginia Tech, so a sweep of those two games is perfectly conceivable.

Reasons for Optimism:
Dave Clawson. While it is indeed a sad day that Jim Grobe is no longer the head football coach at Wake Forest, perhaps some new blood was needed. While hiring a new coach is always a crapshoot, Wake did about as well as they possibly could, aside from exhuming and reanimating the corpse of Peahead Walker, in hiring Grobe's replacement. Clawson has (rebuilding and winning) head coaching experience at the IAA level (Fordham and Richmond, which also happen to be private schools) and the mid-major level of IA (Bowling Green). Perhaps more importantly, he was not a sexy flavor of the month coach who spent just a one season or two as a mid-major head coach before being handed the keys to a BCS-conference program, nor was he a mid-major coach who harvested the fruits of his predecessor's toil. Clawson stayed at Bowling Green for five seasons, even enduring horrendous regression is his second season before steadying the program and leading the Falcons to their first conference title since 1992. Don't expect miracles in his first season, but the Deacons appear to be in competent hands.

Final Prognosis:
The Deacons were quite good on defense last season. Unfortunately, two of the biggest reasons for that success, Nikita Whitlock and Zach Thompson will be gone, and perhaps plying their trade in the NFL. Defensive back, and potential future pro, Merrill Noel will return for his senior campaign giving the Deacons some help in the secondary. Still, its hard to see the defense improving on last season's numbers. Meanwhile, the offense despite the loss of leading receiver, Michael Campanaro, who may also find himself on a pro roster, and quarterback Tanner Price, the offense has nowhere to go, but up.Checking the schedule, if the Deacons do manage a 3-1 mark in non-conference play, that would mean they would need to scrounge up three ACC wins to get to bowl eligibility. Sweeping home games against Boston College and Syracuse would then be paramount. Assuming home losses to Clemson and Virginia Tech, the Deacons would need to steal a road win against either Florida State, Louisville, NC State, or Duke. I think all those things are a little too much to ask. Pencil Wake in for a 5-7 mark, but continued optimism as fans look toward the 2015 season.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Even the Losers: West Virginia

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. The fourth team we profile is West Virginia.

West Virginia

2013 Record: 4-8 (2-7 Big 12)

Summary: West Virginia began the year rather inauspiciously, narrowly edging IAA William and Mary by a touchdown in the season opener. The competition ratcheted up rather quickly, as the Mountaineers traveled to Norman to challenge Oklahoma in the season's second game. The Mountaineers acquitted themselves rather well as a large underdog, losing by just nine. They followed that up with an expected blowout of IA neophyte Georgia State. Then in their final non-conference game, the Mountaineers were shut out by Maryland 38-0. That marked their first loss to the Terrapins since the 2003 season, when the Terps beat them twice. In their next game, once again facing a team from the state of Oklahoma, the Mountaineers were huge underdogs against the Cowboys from Stillwater. In a result that ranks as one of the season's biggest upsets, West Virginia knocked off Oklahoma State. Standing 3-2 after five games, the Mountaineers appeared at worst to be headed to a twelfth consecutive bowl game. That optimism was destroyed in short order. Baylor shredded their defense for 73 points in the next game, followed by Texas Tech and Kansas State combining for 72 points of their own. Off a three game skid, the Mountaineers pulled another huge upset, winning at TCU. After an overtime home loss to Texas, Kansas and Iowa State were the final two teams remaining on the schedule. A win in both would not guarantee a bowl, but would make West Virginia bowl eligible. First up was a trip to Kansas to face a Jayhawk team reeling from 27 consecutive conference losses. West Virginia allowed Kansas to score 31 unanswered points, and gave the Jayhawks their first Big 12 win since 2010 and their fist double-digit conference win since 2008! Wanting their fans to be even more depressed around the holidays, the Mountaineers proceeded to blow a 24-point lead in the season finale against Iowa State, consigning them to their first losing season since 2001. If you had told Mountaineer fans before the season started that they would beat both Oklahoma State and TCU, many would have probably assumed they were in for a special season. Of course, you probably would have said that with a maniacal laugh (you big jerk), so they would know something was afoot.

What Did the Mountaineers Do Well?
This is a tough one as West Virginia was either mediocre or bad on both sides of the ball in 2013. They did rank thirteenth in punting average with Nick O'Toole averaging over 44 yards per kick. Of course, O'Toole had plenty of practice, as the Mountaineers punted 6.1 times per game after punting just 4.3 and 3.5 times per game in Dana Holgorsen's first two seasons.

What Didn't the Mountaineers Do Well?
The Mountaineers did not do a lot well in 2013, so there a lot of areas to choose from. How about, protect the football? West Virginia committed 32 turnovers in 2013. Only five teams (Texas Tech, Hawaii, Tulsa, Washington State, and Southern Miss) committed more. The Mountaineers committed at least one turnover in each game, and in a third of their games committed at least four. On the bight side, when they did not commit at least four turnovers, they had a 4-4 record.

The Mountaineers Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists West Virginia's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference West Virginia played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Mountaineers averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Mountaineers allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
Did you forget how dominant the 2010 West Virginia defense was? Under the late Bill Stewart, the Mountaineers defense featured seven players that would be drafted over the next two years including first round pick Bruce Irvin. Current coach Dana Holgorsen was hired to be the offensive coordinator and coach in waiting for the 2011 season, but wound up getting the big job one season early after Stewart resigned. His debut was superb. The offensive guru led the Mountaineers to the best offense in the Big East, and perhaps more importantly, the conference championship. In the Orange Bowl, the Mountaineers obliterated Clemson and set up expectations for an even better encore in the Big 12. The Mountaineers reeled off five consecutive victories to begin the 2012 campaign, and rose as to number five in the AP Poll. However, even during the hot start, the defense was an obvious liability, giving up 63 and 45 points in wins, yes I wrote wins, over Baylor and Texas. The offense, led by future high draft picks Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey managed to hold serve early, but could not compensate for the defensive ineptitude as the season wore on. The Mountaineers lost five of their last seven regular season games, allowing over 43 points per game to their Big 12 conference mates! Then, in a bowl clash with former conference rival Syracuse, the Mountaineers completed their collapse with a 24-point loss in New York City. Smith, Austin, and Bailey were all drafted in the fist three rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft, and the Mountaineers struggled to replace them. Unfortunately, the defense remained one of the worst in the Big 12, and the Mountaineers endured the indignity of a losing season. 

The 2014 Schedule:
The Mountaineers have an unenviable first game as they take on Alabama in the Georgia Dome. Following that almost assured loss, the Mountaineers should have a chance to lick their wounds as they host IAA Towson the following week. The Tigers are certainly a formidable foe, beating Connecticut in their opener last season and playing for the IAA Championship just six weeks ago. However, West Virginia can reasonably expect to win that game. What follows, is perhaps the most important game of the season for West Virginia, a rematch with Maryland in College Park. If they can beat the Terrapins, they will need just four conference wins to attain bowl eligibility. Lose here, and a bowl game may be out of reach. In league play, the Mountaineers do benefit from five home games. For the most part however, they should be very challenging with Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and TCU all coming to Morgantown. Its not unthinkable for the Mountaineers to be favored in only one of those games (Kansas). Meanwhile, their four road trips come against Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas Tech. Again, the Mountaineers may well be favored in only one of those games (Iowa State) and depending on how the season turns out (the Iowa State game is once again the finale), they could be underdogs in all four.

Reasons for Optimism:
Holgorsen's reputation as an offensive guru. In stints at Texas Tech, Houston, and Oklahoma State (from 2007 through 2010) as an offensive coordinator before coming to Morgantown, Holgorsen's teams all averaged at least 40 points per game each season. In his first two seasons at Morgantown, his teams averaged 37.6 and 39.5 points per game respectively. The Mountaineers lost three great offensive skill position players from the 2012 team. We'll give Holgorsen a mulligan. In 2013, no quarterback emerged as a star. Obviously, Holgorsen must shoulder a great deal of that blame since he determines who to recruit and then who to play. However, based on his track record, its clear he can coax points out of an offense. Barring some unforeseen defensive reinforcements, the offense will once again be forced to carry West Virginia on their sojourn through the Big 12. Remember, despite their lack of explosiveness, the Mountaineers still ranked sixth in the Big 12 in yards per play. With improved quarterback play, it wouldn't be a shock to see them move a little closer towards the top of the conference in that department.

Final Prognosis:
Playing nine conference games, especially in a ten team league is commendable and results in a true league champion. However, it is not a recipe for getting a middling team to bowl eligibility. The Big 12 is deep, and outside of Kansas, their are no gimmes on the conference schedule. With Alabama on the schedule, the best a West Virginia fan can hope for is a 2-1 mark in non-conference action. With that in mind, I think the Mountaineers will beat Kansas at home, and pull off one home upset from the quartet of Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and TCU. I also think they win one of their road conference games, though it may not be against Iowa State. Add it all up, and the Mountaineers will top out at five wins in 2014, and have Dana Holgorsen squarely on the hot seat as the offseason arrives.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Even the Losers: South Florida

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. Our third team we feature is South Florida.

South Florida

2013 Record: 2-10 (2-6 American)

Summary: Under new head coach Willie Taggart, the Bulls began the season rather inauspiciously, losing to IA McNeese State, by 32 points. They followed that up with an expected road loss at Michigan State before coming home and losing by 18 points to 'little brother' Florida Atlantic. In their final non-conference game, Miami beat them by four touchdowns. Just when it looked like the Bulls would struggle to win any games in the American Athletic Conference, the Bulls found less conventional ways to score. They returned a block field goal and a fumble against Cincinnati and held on for a six point win. They returned another fumble for a score the following week against Connecticut in a three point win. After their first two league games, the Bulls stood 2-0 with zero offensive touchdowns. They Bulls proceeded to lose their final six league contests with each coming by at least ten points save for an inexplicable close loss to eventual league champ and Fiesta Bowl winner UCF.

What Did the Bulls Do Well?
The Bulls were actually quite competent on defense in 2013. Though they allowed over 28 points per game (tied for 74th nationally), this was primarily due to the fact that the offense continually put the defense in unenviable positions with their general ineptitude. Opposing defenses also scored eight touchdowns on returns (five interception and three fumble) against the woeful offense. As a point of reference, the offense managed just eleven touchdowns of their own all season. In terms of yards allowed per game, the Bulls ranked 21st nationally, permitting an average of 351 per contest. I don't think they were quite that good, but they did rank a respectable fifth in the American in both yards allowed per play and touchdowns allowed.

What Didn't the Bulls Do Well?
It has been said many times, in many ways, but I'll say it again, the Bulls were terrible at all facets of offense. The Bulls scored just eleven offensive touchdowns in twelve games (with three coming in the first game against McNeese State). That means they managed just offensive eight touchdowns in their last eleven games. The eleven offensive touchdowns they managed is the lowest by any IA team since at least 2006. The Bulls accrued just 154 first downs in 2013, the lowest in the nation. If you ever want to see a clinic on how not to play offensive football, look no further than the 2013 Bulls.

The Bulls Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists South Florida's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference South Florida played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Bulls averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Bulls allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
In 2010, South Florida, reeling from the player abuse scandal under former coach Jim Leavitt, hired an established mid-major coach, Skip Holtz, to lead their program. After a 3-3 start, the Bulls won five of their final seven games, including a bowl upset over Clemson and appeared to be headed for if not great, at least good things under the younger Holtz. The Bulls did lose three players from that team in the 2011 NFL Draft, but opened the 2011 season 4-0. Included in the early season highlights, was a win at Notre Dame Stadium. However, after the 4-0 start, the fates conspired against the Bulls. They won just once the rest of the season, with five of the losses coming by six points or fewer, and four coming by exactly three points. Despite improved statistical numbers, the Bulls caught no breaks and finished with their first losing season since 2004 and just the second in the school's short history. All indicators pointed toward 2012 being a bounce-back year, but the Bulls regressed again losing nine of their final ten games after a 2-0 start. Skip Holtz was canned and Willie Taggart was brought in to lead the Bulls back to respectability. Unfortunately for Taggart, quarterback B.J. Daniels, who played for what seemed like three presidential cycles, exhausted his eligibility, and no competent quarterbacks emerged. The offense endured one of the worst seasons in recent memory, and well, here we stand with South Florida coming off three consecutive losing seasons and sporting a 6-26 mark since opening 2011 4-0.  

The 2014 Schedule:
While we do not yet know the eight opponents South Florida will face from the American, we do know the identity of their four non-conference foes. South Florida opens the season at home against Western Carolina. While the Bulls did lose in grisly fashion to McNeese State last season, Western Carolina is a bad IAA team, finishing 2-10 last year and not winning more than three games in any season since 2005. A win here is all but assured. The Bulls also host Maryland and NC State in non-conference action. Maryland qualified for a bowl game last season, but is hardly an elite program. Meanwhile, NC State went winless in the ACC last year. The Bulls should be competitive in both contests and a sweep would not be out of the question. Their final non-conference game is a trip to Madison to face the Badgers of Wisconsin. This one will be infinitely more difficult to win. Realistically, South Florida fans should expect nothing worse than a split of their non-conference games, and a 3-1 mark should not raise many eyebrows. With at least two wins banked, the Bulls would just need to break even in the American to qualify for a bowl, a task that is not impossible considering the American is more like Conference USA's big brother.

Reasons for Optimism:
Willie Taggart and regression (progression) to the mean. There is no denying South Florida has a long way to go, particularly on offense, to return to the postseason. However, Taggart has already engineered one gigantic turnaround in his career.
In his first season at Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers were IA neophytes with a very bad offense. The Hilltoppers ranked last in the Sun Belt in yards per play (though they were a more respectable sixth in touchdowns). In Taggart's second season, the Hilltoppers moved all the way up to third in the Sun Belt in yards per play and second in touchdowns. The team went 7-1 in the league and were bowl eligible for the first time (though they were snubbed in the postseason). Last season South Florida was historically bad on offense, at least in regards to scoring touchdowns. They struggled to move the ball, but realistically could have been expected to score three or four more touchdowns in 2013. Like historically great performances, historically poor performances are hard to repeat. Thankfully, for teams like South Florida, regression pulls both ways. Even with minimal offensive improvement, the Bulls can expect to score between twice and three times as many touchdowns in 2014.

Final Prognosis:
Believe it or not, the pieces are in place for a return to the postseason for South Florida. The Bulls experienced a lot of growing pains in Willie Taggart's fist season, but he has far more resources at his disposal than at his previous stop at Western Kentucky. The offense simply cannot be as bad as it was last season, opposing defenses cannot score as many times off of returns, and the conference itself gets a little bit weaker. I wouldn't place a large sum of money on South Florida winning the American in 2014, but a return to respectability seems likely.
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