Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Second Half Bears and Bulls

With each college football team having played at least 6 games at this point, I thought it would be a good idea to take a stab at determining which teams will sizzle and which teams will fizzle in the second half. We'll begin by examining a few teams that are likely to see their record falter as the leaves turn.

Record: 6-1 (2-1 Big 10)
After 7 games, the Golden Gophers are already bowl-eligible, a feat few deemed possible, especially this early in the season. The 1-11 debacle (and winless Big 10 campaign) of 2007 has been quickly forgotten. But, let's not go heralding the Gophers as this year's Illinois just yet. Minnesota's 4 wins outside the league were over Northern Illinois (a solid 4-3 MAC school), Bowling Green (a not-so solid 3-4 MAC school), Montana State (IAA), and Florida Atlantic (a 2-5 Sun Belt school). In Big 10 play, the Gophers knocked off Indiana (only one win versus a IA foe) and Illinois (4-3) and lost to Ohio State (7-1). However, in those 3 Big 10 games, the Gophers are only averaging 304 yards per game, while allowing an average of 419 yards per game. The biggest difference between this season and last is that the Gophers have forced 20 turnovers in just 7 games after forcing only 14 all of last season. Turnovers are a significant determinant of wins and losses in football games, but they are also very random events. If Minnesota's turnover capabilities dip, their record should follow suit.

Record: 5-2 (3-2 SEC)
Vanderbilt's ranking in total offense is ..drum roll... 119th in Division IA. Only UCF has been worse moving the ball. Vanderbilt's defense is a very respectable 45th, but with the struggles the offense has gone through--after netting 360 yards in the opener against Miami (Ohio), the unit has averaged 231 yards per game--Vandy will still struggle to get to bowl eligibility. Vandy's remaining schedule includes an improved Duke team, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wake Forest. And speaking of...

Wake Forest
Record: 4-2 (2-1 ACC)
In 3 ACC games, Wake Forest has scored exactly 1 touchdown. In the Deacons first 2 games (against Baylor and Ole Miss), they scored 71 points and averaged 362 yards. In their next 4 games (Florida State, Navy, Clemson, and Maryland), the Deacons have scored 41 points and averaged 288 yards per game. One is an accident. Two is a trend. Three is a problem. So what is four? A debacle. Last season Wake averaged 340 yards per game. Nothing spectacular. This season, that average has dropped to 312. However, in 2007, the Deacons also scored 10 defensive or special teams touchdowns. This season they have scored zero. Thus that small drop in yardage has led to a huge drop in points (from 27.8 per game to 18.7). Wake Forest is not an ACC title contender and will be fortunate to eke out 7 regular season wins.

And now, who is ready to turn the corner? What improved team is hiding behind a pitiful won/loss record?

Record: 1-7 (0-5 Conference USA)
Well, its guaranteed SMU will go yet another season without a bowl bid, but if you look closely, you can see some minor improvement. In their first 5 games, the June Jones run-n-shoot was averaging only 313 yards per game. If we remove the win over Texas State (IAA), that number drops to 283 per game. In their last 3 games, the Pony Express is averaging 419 yards per game. The main reason is the improved play of freshman quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. In the first 5 games, Mitchell completed 54.9% of his passes, averaged 6.7 yards per pass, and threw 14 touchdowns versus 12 interceptions. Once again if we remove the Texas State game, those numbers drop to 52.7%, 6 yards per pass, and 9 touchdowns versus 12 interceptions. In the last 3 games, Mitchell has completed 64.7% of his passes, averaged 8.7 yards per pass, and thrown 9 touchdowns versus 6 interceptions. The past 2 weeks, the Mustangs have come close to breaking through for their first win over a IA opponent, losing by 6 against both Tulsa and Houston. While Jones' offense has finally clicked, the defense has remained putrid, allowing over 1100 yards the past 2 weeks. Still, with 4 games left to play, there is ample opportunity for the Mustangs to win 2 or 3 games against Navy, Memphis, UTEP, and Southern Miss.

Record: 5-3 (2-2 Big 10)
After 3 straight losses following a 3-0 start, the Hawkeyes looked like an afterthought in the Big 10 race. However, it should be noted each loss came by 5 points or fewer and the Hawkeyes actually outgained all 3 teams. The Hawkeyes stumbled because they were -5 in turnover margin over that span. Incredibly, they lost 7 fumbles in those 3 games (while gaining only one) and for the season have recovered only 38% of total fumbles (average is 50%). Look for that trend to reverse somewhat over the final 3rd of the season. In addition, the Hawkeyes also boast the nation's 3rd leading rusher in junior back Shonn Greene. Greene is averaging 144 yards per game and over 6.5 yards per rush. Many folks think Penn State's last big hurdle is this week in Columbus, but they should be very wary of the November 8th clash in Iowa City.

Record: 2-5 (1-2 MAC)
The Bobcats have truly been road warriors in 2008. 5 of their first 7 games (and soon to be 5 of 8 after tonight) have been on the road. The Bobcats lost by a single point at Wyoming, led Ohio State in the second half, lost by 3 to Central Michigan, and lost by 8 to Northwestern. They have outgained their opponents on the year and have the profile of a team with a 4-3 record. If they can survive what should be a defensive slugfest at Temple tonight, they would have no losses within the division with 3 of their final 4 regular season games at home.

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