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Statistically Speaking: August 2010

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sun Belt Preview

The beginning of the regular season is upon us. Just 4 more days until kickoff. Today we preview our final conference, the Sun Belt. If you want more details on where these projections come from, take a look at the ACC Preview. Check back around Wednesday for the inaugural edition of the 2010 Fab Five where I tell you who to bet on in the upcoming week. Enjoy!

Sun Belt Projections



Arkansas State
Pwning Patsies
Over the past 2 seasons, the newly christened Red Wolves have been a disappointment in the Sun Belt, going 10-14 overall (7-8 versus the conference) after beginning the 2008 campaign with a win versus Texas A&M in College Station. However, the Red Wolves have given their fans reason to cheer very loudly in 2 games. Against the 2 non-IA teams they have faced (Texas Southern in 2008 and Mississippi Valley State in 2009), the Red Wolves have won by a combined score of 144-10. They absolutely destroyed the Tigers from Texas Southern, rolling up 83 points (that's 11 touchdowns and 2 field goals) in their 73-point win. They took things a little easier on the Delta Devils in 2009, content with merely shutting them out 61-0 (9 touchdowns and 2 missed extra points).


Florida Atlantic
Missing a Beat
Florida Atlantic begins the 2010 without the most decorated passer in the team's brief history. Rusty Smith departs after throwing for over 10,000 yards and leading the Owls to a pair of bowl wins in 2007 and 2008. How will the Owls perform without him? Lucky for us (and unlucky for Smith), we can gleam a little into how they may perform by looking at the final few games they played last season. Smith was lost for the season in the team's 4th league game against Middle Tennessee State. Jeff Van Camp replaced him and played the rest of the way. Van Camp returns for his senior campaign. So how did the Owls perform when Van Camp replaced Smith?Against league foes, the Owls offense declined by over 100 yards per game with Smith out of the lineup. That's a pretty significant decline. However, even if we just took the last 5 games and prorated that average to cover the whole season, Florida Atlantic would have still ranked 5th in the conference in offense, indicating an average performance. While the Owls will certainly miss Smith and his exploits, the offense is unlikely to crater and join the likes of Western Kentucky and Arkansas State at the bottom of the league.


Florida International
Protecting the Quarterback is Optional
The Panthers, who began play in 2002 and moved up to IA in 2005, have not been nearly as successful as their rivals at Florida Atlantic. The Panthers have yet to have a winning season (topping out at 5-6 in both 2002 and 2005) and suffered through a stretch from 2006-2008 where they went 1-26. Hey, no one said life is easy right? The Panthers have also been awful at protecting their quarterback. Since 2006, the Panthers are one of only two teams to allow their quarterback to be sacked at least 30 times in each season. The other is their Sun Belt brethren at Arkansas State.


Louisiana-Lafayette
The Vanishing Running Game
On the surface, 2009 seemed like another successful season for the Ragin' Cajuns. Louisiana-Lafayette won 6 games for the 4th time in 5 seasons, and had they won their season finale versus Troy, they likely would have played in their first ever bowl game. However, if you delve a little deeper in the numbers, it becomes clear that the Ragin' Cajuns had their poorest offensive season in recent memory.The Cajuns rushing attack, their bread and butter under coach Rickey Bustle, plummeted from one of the best in the nation to one of the worst. Their running game will require drastic improvement for them to once again be a contender in the Sun Belt.


Louisiana-Monroe
SEC Scare Tactics
The Warhawks finished the 2009 season with a bowl-eligible 6-6 record, marking the second time in 3 seasons they finished with 6 wins. Head coach Charlie Weatherbie's 7-year run as head coach will likely not be remembered by many folks outside of Monroe, Louisiana. However, considering the situation he stepped into, his charges performed admirably. Weatherbie was hired after spring practice in May of 2003, and as you may expect, suffered through a tough first season, going just 1-11 overall and 1-6 in the Sun Belt. Since that tough first season, things went much better. His teams compiled a 24-19 record in the Sun Belt, posting four winning conference records in 6 years and tying for the league title in 2005. Yet, perhaps the most impressive feat his team's accomplished was a stretch from 2006-2008 where they nearly upset 3 SEC teams on the road! In 2006, his charges visited Kentucky in late November as 20-point underdogs and lost by 2 (they even outgained the Wildcats by nearly 50 yards). The next season, the Warhawks visited Alabama and first-year head coach Nick Saban. The Warhawks took advantage of 4 Alabama turnovers and won 21-14. Finally, in 2008, his team visited the Arkansas Razorbacks in their second game of the season. Again, they faced a decorated coach in his first season at a new locale in Bobby Petrino. A late Razorback touchdown allowed them to escape with a 28-27 win. Though they only won one of the 3 games, Louisiana-Monroe acquitted themselves very well against some strong competition.


Middle Tennessee State
When You're Hot You're Hot
Last season, Middle Tennessee State became the first Sun Belt team to win 10 games, finishing the year with a sterling 10-3 record. However, despite their 10 wins, the Blue Raiders failed to win the Sun Belt thanks to a loss to eventual champion Troy. The loss to Troy, and their other two losses (to Clemson and Mississippi State), were not very competitive. The Blue Raiders lost those 3 games by an average of 22.7 points. In fact, if you look at the Blue Raiders splits by their offensive performance in their wins and losses, the results are amazing.The Blue Raiders averaged 4.5 offensive touchdowns in their wins, but failed to even average one per game in their losses. Part of this split may involve the schedule. Two of their three losses (Clemson and Troy) came to bowl teams, while the third came against a BCS-conference team (Mississippi State). Outside of the bowl game against Southern Miss, the Blue Raiders did not face another team that finished with a winning record.


North Texas
God Blessed Texas (By Putting Western Kentucky on the Schedule)
Since Todd Dodge arrived in Denton, Texas prior to the 2007 season, the Mean Green have been one of the worst teams in IA football. Their 3-year record is just 5-31, and even against the Sun Belt, they are only 2-20. However, there is one team North Texas has had unbridled success against--Western Kentucky. The Mean Green have faced the Hilltoppers thrice (once per season) and are 3-0 against them. Of course, that means they are just 2-31 in their other 33 games.


Troy
Never Scared
Troy has been the preeminent Sun Belt program over the past 4 seasons, winning or sharing every conference title since 2006 and posting a cumulative 26-3 record in the league. While the Trojans have been less successful outside the league, going just 7-15 against non-conference foes in that same span, they haven't dodged any of the big boys. Here's a list of the BCS-conference teams Troy has visited in the last 4 years.
@ Arkansas (twice)
@ Florida (twice)
@ Florida State
@ Georgia
@ Georgia Tech
@ LSU
@ Nebraska
@ Ohio State
@ Oklahoma State
While the Trojans are 0-11 in those games, they have fared much better ATS, managing a 6-5 record versus the spread.


Western Kentucky
Improvement Can be Measured in Micrometers
2009 marked the inaugural season of play in the Sun Belt conference for the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. To put it mildly, things could have gone better. The Hilltoppers went winless in Sun Belt play, and thanks to a non-conference schedule that included dates with bowl teams Tennessee, South Florida, and Navy (as well as a loss to IAA Central Arkansas), the Hilltoppers finished the entire season without a win. However, the defense did show some signs of improvement in the second half of the conference season. In their first 4 league games, the Hilltoppers allowed an average of 537 yards per game to their opponents. Over their last 4 conference games, the Hilltoppers allowed only 398 yards per game. Of course, when an improvement is this profound it may help to examine the schedule to see if it eased up any. Thankfully for you dear reader, I have done just that. The table below hearkens back to a concept I examined in the SEC preview--the concept of net yards. In that instance we examined the Auburn offense to see how well they performed versus the average or expected defensive performance of their opponent. In this instance we are looking at how well Western Kentucky's defense performed based on the average of their opponent's offense. Their opponent's offense in this case is conference games only.As you can see, this improvement was not an instance of the schedule easing up. The Hilltoppers did not have a single 'above average' performance in their first 4 league games. In their last 4 league games they have 3 'above-average' performances, and even their worst performance was better than any from their first 4 games. Western Kentucky will be breaking in a new coach this season (Willie Taggart replaces David Elson) and the road to respectability in IA is a long and arduous one, particularly in the Sun Belt, but barring some unforeseen circumstances, the Hilltoppers will have 8 of their top-10 tacklers back from a defense that improved as the season progressed. They certainly won't win the Sun Belt in 2010, but they should be much more competitive.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

MAC Preview

Only one week to go until the college football season starts and all our mortal pains are over (or something like that). Today's preview is the second to last one Statistically Speaking will have (another indication of how close we are to the beginning of the season). We'll examine the MAC, the Big 10's little brother. If you want a primer on how these numbers were derived, please read the ACC Preview. Check back in a few days for the last of the season previews, when we examine the Sun Belt.

MAC Projections



Akron
The Disappearing Akron Defense
In 2005, Akron surprised many college football fans (or at least MAC diehards) by winning their first, and thus far only conference title. Head coach JD Brookhart was in his second season and the Zips looked prime to compete in a MAC that was in flux following the departure of star quarterbacks like Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski in the surrounding seasons. Unfortunately, in the next 4 years, the Zips failed to produce a winning record in the league or overall and Brookhart was given his walking papers. He can lay the majority of the blame at the feet of a defense that has been in decline since their surprise championship in 2005.During their championship season, the Zips had the best defense in the MAC. They have seen that defense drop to the bottom third of the league in the last half decade. If new coach Rob Ianello has designs on reviving the Zips, he should start on that side of the ball.


Bowling Green
Fred-Ex
If you follow college football somewhat closely, you probably know who Freddie Barnes is. If you got off work early to watch the Humanitarian Bowl this season (like I did), you definitely know him (he hauled in 17 balls for 219 yards and 3 touchdowns in that game). Barnes set the NCAA record for receptions in a season with 155. Even more amazing is the fact that he caught more balls than 8 entire teams! The table below lists the bottom 10 teams (those ranked 111th-120th in the NCAA) in receptions last season, along with the numbers put up by Mr. Barnes.

Buffalo
Turn(er) Around
To say Turner Gill accomplished a great deal in his time at Buffalo is putting it mildly. In 2008, Gill led the Bulls to their best season since returning to IA football in 1999 with an 8-6 record and a MAC Championship. It's hard to put in perspective just how impressive that feat is, but I'll try. A pair of gentlemen coached the Bulls upon their return to IA prior to Gill, Craig Cirbus and Jim Hofher. Combined, these men coached the Bulls for 7 seasons. Their victory total? 10. Gill nearly matched their 7-year run in a single campaign!


Kent State
Run Tell That
Quick, who is Kent State's head coach? One Doug Martin coaches the Golden Flashes. Martin has been head coach at Kent State for 6 seasons, and while he may not be known nationally, he has done a pretty good job at a school with very little in the way of tradition. Martin has yet to have a winning season as coach, but he did guide the Flashes to bowl eligibility in 2006 (6-6 record). In addition, Martin is tied with one very prestigious former coach for the most seasons with at least 5 wins.

Miami (Ohio)
Turnovers Key Turnaround
Last season Miami of Ohio won just a single game despite actually outgaining their league opponents by about 35 yards per game. In 2008, they won also won just once against IA teams. The reason for their pathetic performance the past two seasons has been their proclivity to turn the football over. Only two teams in the entire country have turned the ball over more than the Redhawks have in that span.

Ohio
Return in the MAC
Ohio wide receiver LaVon Brazill had a fine season returning punts in 2009. He led the nation with 3 punt return touchdowns. He's coming back for his senior season in 2010. Is he poised for even bigger things? To find out, I looked at all punt returners who scored at least 3 touchdowns in any season since 2004 and returned to school the following year. That list includes 7 gentlemen in addition to Brazill. The table below lists each player's performance in the year they scored at least 3 touchdowns on punt returns, and their performance the following season.There are some pretty famous names on this list (Ginn, Hester, Jackson, and Arenas) along with 3 players from the Pacific Northwest who many casual fans may not be familiar with (Jones, Stroughter, and Wilson). Without exception, each player declined in both their punt return average and their number of touchdowns. In fact, no player scored more than a single touchdown via punt returns the following season. 5 of the 7 players also had fewer punt returns in the following season, indicating that their opponents likely altered their punting strategy somewhat, perhaps by kicking away from them. Brazill is unlikely to repeat his touchdown performance in 2010, not because of any deterioration of his skills, but because of regression's magnetic pull and Ohio's opponents' strategy.


Temple
Piercing the Line
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Temple's resurgence last season under Al Golden was the play of freshman running back Bernard Pierce. After amassing just 13 carries in the Owls first 2 games, Pierce conflagrated the MAC over the next 2 months. In the next 8 games in which he saw substantial playing time, Pierce averaged 155 yards on the ground and scored 15 rushing touchdowns while averaging 5.9 yards per rush. Not coincidentally, the Owls went 8-0 in those games. For the season, Pierce ran for 1361 yards (18th nationally) at an average of 5.77 per rush and scored 16 times on the ground. What can we realistically expect from Pierce as an encore? Between 2005 and 2008, only 3 freshman running backs finished in the top-20 nationally in rushing yards. The table below lists them, their performance as freshman, and their performance as sophomores.All 3 freshman again topped 1000 yards as sophomores and remained north of 5 yards per rush. However, Sutton and Hill saw significant declines in their number of carries (and in Sutton's case touchdowns) as sophomores. Sutton dealt with injuries in his sophomore campaign (and throughout the rest of his college career) and also had to deal with the loss of a record-setting senior quarterback (Brett Basanez) who matriculated after the 2005 season. Hill also dealt with injuries and the loss of an experienced senior quarterback after his freshman campaign. Fletcher was healthy as a sophomore and also returned his backfield mate, enabling him to eclipse his fantastic freshman performance. Injuries may be a concern for Pierce as well. He was injured after his first carry versus Kent State. He missed the rest of that game and the following game (the regular season finale) against Ohio. He also only carried the ball 12 times versus UCLA in the bowl. Pierce may also be hampered by the relative weakness at quarterback. Last year, Owl quarterbacks completed an atrocious 47.5% of their passes (ahead of only Georgia Tech and Army, a pair of option teams), and while improvement can be expected, it likely will not be spectacular. Still, history seems to indicate Pierce is not some one-year wonder. If he stays healthy, he should be again be one of, if not the preeminent running back in the MAC, especially with 4 returning starters on the line leading the way. It should also be noted that while Pierce was spectacular as a freshman, an amazing 3 freshmen finished with more yards than he did! Dion Lewis of Pitt finished 3rd nationally with 1799 rushing yards, Ryan Williams of Virginia Tech finished 5th with 1655, and LaMichael James of Oregon finished 7th with 1546. Barring injury (or in Williams' case a platoon and James' case off the field troubles), those 3 should be very effective in 2010 as well.


Ball State
Almost as Disciplined as a Service Academy
Prior to the 2009 season, Ball State had been on a decidedly upward trend. The Cardinals won 5 games in 2006, 7 in 2007, and 12 in 2008. They did this primarily on the arm of future NFL quarterback Nate Davis. However, another often overlooked area where the Cardinals excelled was in forcing their opponents to earn their first downs. Since 2006, only the Naval Academy has given their opponent fewer first downs via penalty.

Central Michigan
Return of the MAC
Central Michigan not only won 12 games in 2010, included among them an upset over the Big 10's Michigan State, they also became the first MAC team in 7 years to end the season ranked in the AP Poll. The Chippewas ended the year ranked number 23 in the AP Poll. The MAC had not had a team end the season ranked since Bowling Green (#23) and Miami (#10) ended the 2003 season in the final AP Poll.


Eastern Michigan
Fun with Attendance Data
To say the Ron English era at Eastern Michigan began rather inauspiciously is an understatement. The Eagles did not win a single game and scored only 24 offensive touchdowns in 12 games. Those are not good numbers, but perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the season was the lack of interest in the team. The table below lists the average home attendance for the 5 IA football schools in the state of Michigan.Now, I'm not expecting Eastern Michigan to be in the same stratosphere as a program like Michigan in terms of home attendance. However, comparable (at least in university and stadium size if not on-field success) MAC schools outdrew them by nearly 4 times as many people. The English era began with enthusiasm as over 14,000 folks showed up for their home opener against Army. However, after that game the Eagles averaged a measly 2,645 fans for their final 4 home games! To put their lowly attendance numbers into better perspective, consider that in their road game at Michigan, the Wolverines drew over 107,000 fans or more than quadruple the number of people who showed up for all of Eastern Michigan's home games combined! In addition, in their road game at Central Michigan, the Chippewas had over 26,000 fans in the stands. In their 5 home games, Eastern Michigan drew 25,080 total fans! This is not the first time the Eagles have suffered through attendance problems. They averaged under 10,000 fans per home game in both 2005 and 2007. However, with a new coach at least a little optimism, one would have thought 2009 would have seen at least marginally strong attendance numbers.


Northern Illinois
Go West Young Man
Northern Illinois last won the MAC West in 2005. Since 2005, they have still been consistent winners within the league, going 16-15 in conference play. That's even more impressive when you consider they managed only a 1-6 league mark in 2007. However, if the Huskies want to return to the MAC Championship Game in 2010, they must do a better job of winning games against their divisional foes.

Toledo
A Tale of Two Half-Decades
After the 2005 season, the Toledo Rockets could boast of a cumulative record of 57-19 in the new decade. They had won fewer than 9 games just once in the new millennium and owned a pair of league titles. Most rational folks would expect more of the same in the latter part of the decade. They would have been wrong.

Western Michigan
They Got it Covered
In the past 4 seasons, Western Michigan has been one of the most consistently strong teams at covering kickoffs. They have allowed just one kickoff return touchdown in that span, a heartbreaking last second return by Akron in 2007 (off a free kick following a safety) that you can watch below.

Outside of that fluky play, the Broncos have been spot on at limiting their opponents starting field position on kickoffs.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Independents Preview

Two weeks exactly (14 days) until the 2010 football season officially begins. Today's preview will be very short as we turn our focus to the three remaining independents in major college football. For a primer on these numbers, feel free to read the ACC Preview. Check back in a few days when we preview the MAC.

Independents Projections



Army
First in Service, Last in Football
1996 was a good year for the Cadets. It marked the last time Army finished the year with a winning record. It was also their last bowl appearance and the last time they defeated both Air Force and Navy in the same season. While Air Force and Navy have played in 7 bowls apiece (7 straight for Navy and 3 straight for Air Force) since then, Army had their best season in 2009 when they finished 5-7. This disparity has been reflected in the annual tilts with their service academy rivals.Since 1996, Army has beaten Air Force once (2005) and Navy twice (last in 2001). In addition, of their 23 losses versus the other two service academies since 1996, 17 have come by at least two touchdowns!


Navy
Lords of Discipline
So, let's say you're a service academy trying to compete in IA football against schools that have better athletes, bigger stadiums, and better infrastructure. Where do you start? Besides hiring a good coach (check) and employing an exotic offensive scheme (check), you could also cut down on your penalties. The Naval Academy has been the model of consistency when it comes to limiting their penalties over the past 6 seasons.The Midshipmen have yet to finish worst than 5th in the nation in fewest penalty yards per game since 2004. It's yet another reason why this undermanned program has gone to 7 straight bowl games.


Notre Dame
Wake Up the Uh-Ohs
As a college football fan there's no team I hate more than Notre Dame. With their own TV network, air of superiority, cushy schedule, and automatic BCS bid, I enjoy seeing them fail. Unfortunately, with new coach Brian Kelly, good times appear to be on the horizon. However, in the spirit of kicking them while they're down, what follows is a list of teams with a better record than Notre Dame since 2005 (Charlie Weis' first year in South Bend). For reference, the Irish have gone 35-27 (.565 win %) since 2005. It's not a complete list by any means, but more of a 'did you know?' list. Notre Dame haters, enjoy.

Monday, August 16, 2010

CUSA Preview

The home stretch is officially here. College football will be kicking off in only 17 days! To get you set for all the conference races, here now is the Conference USA Preview. If you want some background on what these projections are based on, here's the link to the ACC Preview that provides a little more explanation. Check back in a few days when we preview the Independents. That will be a short one, as there are only 3 left in all of major college football.


Conference USA Projections



East Carolina
Kings of Clutch
In the 5 years since Conference USA expanded to 12 teams, the Pirates from East Carolina have had quite a knack for winning the close ones.

Marshall
Half-a-Hundred
The Thundering Herd laid a couple of eggs in the 2009 season. In their second game, Virginia Tech destroyed them 52-10, and in their regular season finale, a UTEP team playing only for pride beat them 52-21. Marshall was one of just 14 teams to give up at least 50 points multiple times in 2009.The Herd kept even rarer company in that they were one of only 4 teams (Idaho, Fresno State, and Troy were the others) to give up at least 50 multiple times yet still post a winning record.


Memphis
Let's Kick It
On the whole, Memphis has been a pretty nondescript team the last two seasons. They went 6-7 in 2008, then 2-10 this past season. While they were average in 2008 and then bad in 2009, they weren't historically bad. There were no essays crowning them the worst team in football. They may not have even been the worst team in Conference USA (Rice certainly gave them a run for their money). They were just another bad team with dwindling attendance that made a coaching change. However, Memphis fans can point to one factor that made the team unique. Opposing kickers almost never missed field goals against the Tigers the past two seasons.Teams have very little control (if any) to make opposing kickers miss if they don't outright block the kick. Thus, most of this kicking misfortune can be chalked up to just that, bad luck. By some regression to the mean, opposing kickers should miss a few more field goals against the Tigers in 2010, and who knows, maybe that will mean an extra game or two in the win column.


Southern Miss
Missed It By that Much
If you didn't look closely, you might have thought Southern Miss was a pretty average team in 2009. They went 7-6, 5-3 versus Conference USA foes, and seemed to be the very definition of mediocrity. However, the Golden Eagles were amazing at one often overlooked aspect of football--kicking extra points. The Golden Eagles missed 10 extra point attempts in 2010, the most of any team since 2005.Obviously, missing extra points does not make you a bad team. In fact, it usually means you are pretty good, at least offensively. In order to miss a lot of extra points, you have to attempt a lot of extra points, which means you have to score a lot of touchdowns. Every team on this list averaged at least 30 points per game, and only New Mexico State finished with a losing record (combined record of 58-31). Heck, Texas even won the national title in 2005. So there you go, by recent standards, Southern Miss had a pretty incredible season in 2009.


UAB
Ummm.... Maybe We Should Have Kicked
UAB just missed out on a bowl game in 2009, finishing 5-7. They were led by do-it-all quarterback Joe Webb, who finished among the national leaders in passer rating (9th) and led all quarterbacks in rushing yards with 1424. However, one thing Webb could not help the Blazers do was convert on 4th down. UAB did not convert a single 4th down attempt in 2009. Obviously, this makes them easily the worst 4th down converting team since 2006.On the whole, defenses must have really buckled down in 2009, as 4 of the 6 worst conversion rates occurred this past season.


UCF
An Evening with Kevin Smith
UCF has been a contender from the moment they joined Conference USA in 2005. They have won the East division twice (2005 and 2007) and finished a strong second to East Carolina this past season. The Knights won the conference in 2007 on the broad shoulders of running back Kevin Smith. Smith racked up over 2500 yards on the ground and scored 29 rushing touchdowns, eclipsing 200 yards rushing in a single game 5 times. Smith left college early for the NFL Draft after the season, and the UCF offense has not been the same. The table below lists UCF's offensive and defensive SDPI numbers for each season since 2005, with rank within the conference (out of 12 teams) in parentheses. If you don't know what SDPI is, just have a stroll through the archives. I have written extensively about it, and it is the primary statistic the projection system is based around.UCF boasted pretty good offensive teams in their first 3 years in Conference USA. That was a good thing because it took their defense a few years to catch up. However, the defense has consistently been one of the best in the league the past 3 seasons, but with the loss of Smith and an inability to find an efficient quarterback, the offense has been the weak link of the team. If the offense can get just a little better, the Knights could make the Eastern half of Conference USA their stomping ground in 2010.


Houston
Screwy Splits
Houston had a very helter-skelter season in 2009. Against BCS-conference teams they went a combined 3-0. They won 2 of those games on the road, against Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. They also beat Texas Tech at home for good measure. However, against teams from the East Division of Conference USA (Southern Miss, Memphis, UCF, and East Carolina) and against a team from the Mountain West (Air Force) in their bowl game, the Cougars managed only a 2-3 record. How did this happen? Check the splits and the answer is easy to see.The yardage splits are almost identical versus both groups, but the big difference is turnovers. In their final 2 games (losses to East Carolina in the CUSA Championship Game and to Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl), the Cougars committed 10 turnovers (with quarterback Case Keenum throwing 9 of his 15 interceptions) and forced only 1 for a margin of -9. Turnovers truly are The Great Equalizer.


Rice
No D in Rice
The past decade was relatively successful for the Rice Owls. They played in 2 bowl games (and qualified for another in 2001). In 2008, they won their first bowl game since the 1953 Cotton Bowl. However, one thing Rice did not do well this past decade was play defense.


SMU
Ponies Jump High, But How do They Land?
2009 was a special year to say the least for SMU Mustangs. The Ponies won 8 games, including 6 within the league to tie Houston for the CUSA West title, and participated in the postseason for the first time since 1984. In a nice twist, SMU won the Hawaii Bowl against Nevada in the same place they won their last bowl game (1984 Aloha Bowl versus Notre Dame). All the more impressive, the Mustangs did all this despite not winning a conference game in 2008. Their 6-game conference win improvement is one of the highest in recent memory. But what happens in the year after such a big jump? To answer that question, we need to look at other teams that experienced similar upticks in their conference performance. The table below lists the 9 teams (along with SMU) that improved their conference record by at least 5 games since 2004. It also lists their conference record in the season after their 'Jump Year'.
Before we delve into the results, I want to do some housekeeping. If you didn't notice, UCF has an asterisk in the table. That's because their records occurred in different conferences. In their first year under former disgraced Notre Dame coach George O'Leary, the Knights failed to win a single game (in the conference or otherwise) in 2004. That season, they played in the MAC. In 2005, they joined Conference USA and won 7 of their 8 league games. They won the East division, but fell to Tulsa in the CUSA Championship Game. Alright so with that out of the way, what does the table tell us? It's not necessarily good news for SMU. While 5 of the 9 teams posted at least a .500 conference record the following season, only one team (Western Michigan in 2006) actually improved. Taking the average of the performances the following season, SMU can expect to lose about 2.3 conference wins in 2010. That would put them back around .500 in the league. Now, I'm not saying SMU is predestined to finish with fewer league wins in 2010, but the odds are against them improving upon their 2009 performance. Look no further than Ole Miss, the ubiquitous 2009 preseason darling after their out of nowhere rise in 2008. The Rebels were solid in 2009, particularly when compared against the debacle that was the Ed Orgeron era, but they still lost as many as they won in conference play.


Tulane
Stuck in the Dark Ages
Since Conference USA began its present incarnation in 2005, the Green Wave have had the worst record within the league by far. Their 8-32 conference record is 5 games worse than the record posted by UAB. A big reason for this is the fact that Tulane plays in one of the most offensive divisions in college football. The other 5 teams that make up the western half of Conference USA are usually pretty formidable throwing the football. The table below lists the passing touchdowns thrown by each team's top quarterback for each season since 2005.As you can see, Tulane is well below the other schools when it comes to 21st Century offenses. In the 5 seasons from 2005-2009, their top seasonal passers have combined to throw 57 touchdowns. Meanwhile, 3 quarterbacks within their own division have thrown at least 44 touchdown passes in a single season (Case Keenum with Houston in 2008 and 2009, Paul Smith with Tulsa in 2007, and David Johnson with Tulsa in2008).


Tulsa
Home Ain't What it Used to Be
In 2009, Tulsa suffered through their first losing season since 2004 (last season in the WAC before joining CUSA). A big culprit was the Golden Hurricanes inability to win at home against their conference foes. In their first 4 seasons in the league, Tulsa was 14-2 against league opponents (excluding their loss to East Carolina in the 2008 CUSA Championship Game). They outscored their home opponents by 20 points per game. Their 2 losses in that span came against Houston in 2005 by 7 points and Rice in 2006 by 3 points in overtime. In 2009, Tulsa lost to SMU and East Carolina by a combined 41 points. They did play eventual West champ Houston tough, losing by only a single point. However, their lone home win came against Memphis, a team that won only a single game against IA competition, by 3 points. Methinks Tulsa's 2009 campaign will prove to be an aberration and their 2010 season will be more in line with what they accomplished between 2005-2008.


UTEP
Nothing Lasts Forever, Even Cold November Rain
Historically speaking, the Mike Price era at UTEP has been pretty successful. The Miners are 34-38 in 6 seasons under Price and have a pair of bowl appearances to their credit. However, after going 16-8 in his first 2 seasons, the Miners have yet to post a record better than 5-7 in any of the previous 4 seasons. A primary culprit for this has been the complete inability to win games in the month of November.Their November struggles have been even more pronounced the last 4 seasons, as they have gone just 4-13 in November since 2006. There is some good news for the Miners though, as they do not have a bye week in 2010, and thus play only 3 November games.
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