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Statistically Speaking

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.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XV

Alas, we have posted yet another subpar week, and with just one week to go in the regular season, it appears we will not finish the year with a winning record. Still, we have had a good time, and hopefully have not lost you too much money. Home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 3-4
Overall: 47-51

Central Florida +7 East Carolina
The race for the crown in the American conference is yet to be decided. Memphis is in the clubhouse with a 7-1 mark and has clinched at least a share of the title. However, with one loss apiece, Central Florida and Cincinnati are still alive for a share of the title as well. If you are like me, and are pulling for sheer zaniness this weekend, Central Florida, Cincinnati, or Memphis could potentially grab one of the New Year's Six bowl games should Boise State lose in the Mountain West Championship Game. Yes, it is a long shot, but crazier things have happened. As for capping this game, were I a betting man, I would wager a significant amount on Central Florida. The Knights have one of the best mid-major defenses, and since losing to Connecticut on November 1st, have allowed just two offensive touchdowns in three games. East Carolina won't be held without an offensive score, but this spread should be closer to a pick 'em.

Arizona +14.5 Oregon @ Santa Clara
For the first time in the brief history of the Pac-12, the title game will be held at a neutral site instead of at the home of the team with the better conference record. A win by the Wildcats would not only give them their first outright Pac-10/12 title since joining the conference in 1978, it would also give them three wins over the Ducks in the past two seasons. For Oregon, a win certainly vaults them into the inaugural College Football Playoff, and would also give them their first conference title since 2011. It is unfair that some teams have to wait so long between championships. Arizona will keep this one close, but the Ducks will prevail sans a cover.

Marshall -12 Louisiana Tech
Despite their home loss to Western Kentucky last week, Marshall still has an incredible (unadjusted) profile. They outgained Conference USA opponents by over three yards per play (7.88 to 4.86)! Unfortunately, their dream season was shredded on a two-point conversion. Still, the Thundering Herd have a great deal to play for. A win here would give them their first conference championship since 2002. Plus, a solid performance by quarterback Rakeem Cato could land him an invite to New York for the Heisman ceremony. The Thundering Herd will be opposed by an improved Louisiana Tech team. The Bulldogs finished just 4-8 in Skip Holtz's first season in charge, but improved to 8-4 this season behind the best defense in Conference USA. Holtz has won a pair of Conference USA Championship Games, both times as an underdog, but I think the Herd will be too much here, particularly at home.

Iowa State +33.5 TCU
With the release of the latest college football rankings, TCU appears to be just a win away from locking up a playoff spot. Now all they have to do is get by an Iowa State team that has not won a conference game since the end of last season. Iowa State has played TCU tough in their two contests as Big 12 members, with the Cyclones upsetting the Horned Frogs in Fort Worth two years ago, and losing a close contest in Ames last season. This one won't be as competitive, but the Cyclones should hold the margin of defeat under 30.

Missouri +14.5 Alabama @ Atlanta
The newbies from the Big 12 have now won twice as many SEC East titles in three seasons as Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt have combined to win in 23 seasons. The Tigers will be looking to exorcise a few demons from last year's title game when Auburn shredded their previously stout defense with nearly 700 yards of offense, including 545 on the ground. The Tigers enter this game once again boasting a stout defense, in fact the best in the SEC by yards per play. To be fair, the Tigers play in the SEC East, so some adjustment for strength of schedule is necessary, but the defense is still the strength of the team. This is especially true when considering quarterback Maty Mauk completed less than half his passes in five of eight SEC games. Alabama is clearly the better team, but as a double-digit favorite away from home, the Tide are 0-3 ATS this season. I think Missouri loves company, and keeps this one within two touchdowns.

Georgia Tech +4 Florida State @ Charlotte
I feel a little nervous jumping on that Georgia Tech bandwagon after their upset over Georgia last week. Everyone has been waiting patiently for Florida State to lose all season, and yet the Seminoles are unbeaten (and disrespected) as Championship Weekend approaches. If noting else, this game should be entertaining with two of the best offense in the ACC going head to head. The last time these two teams met was a classic (although no one was there to see it). Take the Jackets to win a tight one and open the door for either Ohio State or Baylor to sneak into the playoff picture.

Fresno State +21 Boise State
At the beginning of November, things looked bleak for the Fresno State Bulldogs. Fresh off a Mountain West title, the Bulldogs stood just 3-6 and were a loss away from missing a bowl for the first time under Tim DeRuyter. Then the Bulldogs reeled off three straight wins and thanks to their earlier win over San Diego State actually won the West division of the Mountain West. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, it looks like they will enter bowl season with a losing record like Georgia Tech did in 2012. A win here would be a major upset, but a cover would not be unprecedented.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Magnificent Seven: Week XIV

Well, it appears we cannot stand prosperity. After consecutive winning weeks got us back to .500, a 2-5 week makes a winning season unlikely. Still, we press on. Home teams in BOLD.

Last Week: 2-5
Overall: 44-47

Texas +6.5 TCU
The Big 12 seems built for controversy regarding head-to-head versus body of work. In 2008, a three-way tie in the south among Oklahoma, Texas, and Texas Tech had to be broken by the BCS rankings. Now, sans divisions, it appears we are headed toward more controversy regarding the inaugural College Football Playoff. Baylor beat TCU head-to-head on the field in Waco, but TCU has a tougher schedule, and arguably a superior body of work. Before we get ahead of ourselves, remember that potential controversies often have a way of working themselves out. That could certainly be the case on Thanksgiving night as TCU heads to Austin to take on the Longhorns. This is not a typical TCU team. The Horned Frogs have the best offense (in terms of yards per play) in the Big 12, and rank just sixth on defense. Meanwhile, Texas has the league's top-ranked defense and has shut down high-powered offenses like UCLA, Baylor, and Oklahoma already this season. Since joining the Big 12, TCU is just 1-6 ATS as a road favorite. Look for that trend to continue here as Texas keeps this one very close.

Rutgers +8.5 Maryland
The maiden voyage for both Rutgers and Maryland in the Big 10 has been marginally successful for both. Both have attained bowl eligibility, although most of Rutger's work was done in the non-conference. Rutgers did beat a down traditional power in Michigan, so there is something to be said for that. Maryland has already won four conference games and will be looking to post their first winning conference record since 2010 when Ralph Friedgen waddled the sideline. In a nice twist, Friedgen is now the offensive coordinator at...Rutgers of course. This spread is probably a field goal or so too high thanks to Maryland's upset win at Michigan last week. Rutgers has been pretty good as a road underdog under Kyle Flood, posting an 8-4 ATS mark with five outright upsets. Take the Knights to keep this one within a touchdown.

Penn State +13.5 Michigan State
As I mentioned earlier that this is not your typical TCU team, this is also not your typical Michigan State team. Most iterations of Sparty under Mark Dantonio are defense-oriented teams. This year's version ranks an above-average fifth in the Big 10 in yards per play allowed, but the offense has been the real strength of the team. Along with Ohio State and Wisconsin, the Spartans are the only Big 10 team averaging more than six yards per snap in league play. Penn State would kill for that kind of offensive firepower. Unfortunately, the Nittany Lions are dead last in the Big 10 in yards per play. The offensive line has been especially porous, allowing 39 sacks thus far on the year (122nd nationally). The Penn State defense has been nearly as robust as the offense has been putrid. The Nittany Lions lead the Big 10 in yards per play allowed, and against the dominant Ohio State offense in Happy Valley, held the Buckeyes to 17 points in regulation. Penn State probably lacks the offensive firepower to win here, but this spread is way too high.

BYU +4.5 Cal
For BYU, the 2014 season began with such promise. The Cougars opened the year by winning their first four games, rose to number 18 in the AP Poll, and had designs on an undefeated season. Alas, quarterback Taysom Hill was injured, and the defense had a few awful games. The Cougars lost four in a row at midseason, but have rebounded against a softer schedule to win their past three and clinch a ninth consecutive winning season under Bronco Mendenhall. While BYU goes for their eighth win of the season, Cal will be seeking their sixth and their first bowl bid since 2011. The Bears have significantly improved from their 1-11 campaign last season, but have lost five of their past six games after a 4-1 start. Cal has not covered as a home favorite since 2011! Granted, they have only been favored four times at home since then, but still, the Bears are far from a dominant home team. Take BYU to cover here and potentially keep the Bears home for the holidays.

Louisiana-Monroe +14.5 Georgia Southern
With a win here, Georgia Southern could attain the dubious distinction of being both the outright Sun Belt champion and not playing in the postseason. Since the Eagles are in their first season as a IA member, they are technically classified as a 'transitional' team and would need a waiver to play in a bowl. Unless some teams self-impose bowl bans in the last two weeks of the season, a scenario where the Eagles play in a bowl game us unlikely. Alas, they could take solace in becoming the first Sun Belt team to finish unbeaten in conference play since Arkansas State in 2011. Under first year coach Willie Fritz, the Eagles have gashed Sun Belt opponents and are averaging nearly seven yards per play against their conference brethren. I think the Eagles will get the win here, but Louisiana-Monroe is a healthy 10-5 ATS as a road underdog against teams from the Group of Five conferences since 2010. Take the Warhawks to keep this one within two touchdowns.

UTEP -4 Middle Tennessee State
Well, we whiffed on UTEP last week, but the one facet we should have considered regarding that game was the location. UTEP was on the road at Rice. Now they return home to try and solidify a bowl bid and clinch their first winning season since 2005. The Miners are unbeaten ATS at home this season, and are 4-0 ATS as a home favorite. Meanwhile, Middle Tennessee State is 1-4 straight up on the road and in their last road game fell to feeble Florida International. UTEP has a great deal to play for and in El Paso should win this game by at least a touchdown.

Utah State +9 Boise State
If you want to discuss perseverance, Utah State has it in spades. The Aggies are down to their fourth string quarterback thanks to a spate of injuries. However, like Kurt Warner before him, freshman Kent Myers has risen to the occasion and arguably played better than the man (or in this case men) he was replacing. The Aggies are a few closes losses (to Arkansas State and Colorado State) away from being in position to grab the big-time bowl berth that goes to the highest ranked member from the Group of Five. Ironically, one of the teams that beat Utah State will be pulling hard for the Aggies as the Rams from Colorado State need another Boise loss (in conjunction with their own win over Air Force) to gain entry to the Mountain West Championship Game. Boise State is just 7-15 ATS as a home favorite since joining the Mountain West in 2011. This game should be very close, and an upset by the Aggies would not shock me.
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