-- DEFENDER STARGATE ALERT --
ANALYSIS WITH LITTLE WIT BELOW
There are one or two just about every single season. Media darlings, Cinderellas, dark horses, or whatever you'd like to call them routinely show up with much pomp, only to fade into the background in favor of the Ohio States, Floridas, and USCs of the college football universe.
You know them when you spot them. They are teams which are not a part of the traditional, convenient list of contenders who are hyped as somebody who can finally break the somewhat monotonous system promoted by the dynasties of college ball. These teams are, with little exception, generally a:
- member of a major conference who is
- not a perennial contender for said conference, but is
- coming off of a "breakthrough" season or an impressive bowl win and returns
- some form of nationally recognized star power.
When considering the 2009-10 version of our Rebels, all of the above apply. Unfortunately, there is another extremely common denominator which is not listed above: they rarely finish higher than where they start, poll-wise. Before you call me a heretic, think this through. Did Clemson win an ACC title last season? What about Mizzou or Kansas in the Big XII? Nope. We went back to playing "boring blackjack," with VA Tech and Oklahoma winning those conferences respectively.
Rarely does the hype work out. It sucks, but it's true.
Now, for a graphical representation of this:
You should probably be able to interpret this right away, right? You really don't need one of us to explain that we looked at rankings over the last few seasons before compiling the preseason top-15--as they can really only be considered contenders for, at the very least, their conferences--and juxtaposed them with the final AP top-15 to demonstrate that many of the preseason darlings (highlighted in blue) rarely become postseason darlings (yellow) and that, when they do actually break through that ceiling (red), there are a few loosely related criteria, do you? You surely gleaned that on your own.
Look at how often a non-traditional power arises in the preseason. Colorado in 2002, Pitt in 2003, Purdue in 2005, Arizona Sta... well, you can read it on your own. Now, see how few of the postseason darlings were also preseason picks. BC, Ole Miss, Iowa, Rutgers, Oregon, and a host of others have finished in the top-15 in the postseason while not having much to look forward to with regards to the preseason.
But take a look at the 2002 Washington State Cougars and the 2004 California Golden Bears. They, despite not being consistent top-15 type teams, actually finished their season in a higher position than when they started. What, in these cases, makes Washington State and Cal different? The simple answers are great quarterbacks, good (enough) defenses, and easy schedules.
How is such a conclusion reached? Let us demonstrate by whittling down the "pretenders" bit by bit and then, once we've hopefully demonstrated the importnace of the aforementioned criteria, reveal how Cal in 2004 and Wazzu in 2002 possessed the necessary Cinderella-story-gone-right characteristics.
First, a look the QBs of teams highlighted in blue and their numbers:
-Colorado in 2002 - Robert Hodge - 1,547 yards
-Pitt in 2003 - Rod Rutherford - 3,680 yards (1,672 of those to Larry Fitzgerald)
-Clemson in 2004 - Charlie Whitehurst - 2,007 yards
-Iowa in 2005 - Drew Tate - 2,800 yards
-Purdue in 2005 - Brandon Kirsch - 1,727 yards
-UCLA in 2007 - Ben Olson - 1,040 yards (Knee injury halfway through season) / Patrick Cowan - 692 yards
-Missouri in 2008 - Chase Daniel - 4,335 yards
-Clemson in 2008 - Cullen Harper - 2,600 yards
-Kansas in 2008 - Todd Reesing - 3,888 yards
-Arizona State in 2008 - Rudy Carpenter - 2,493 yards
I think it's fair to say that poor quarterback play can derail anybody's hopes, even those of traditional powerhouses. That really shouldn't warrant any explanation whatsoever.
Next, let's look at the teams which didn't perform as some had expected despite good quarterback play (italicized above). As stated previously, another setback for a flopping Cinderella can be poor defensive play. Observe:
-Pitt in 2003 - 79th ranked overall defense
-Iowa in 2005 - 68th ranked overall defense
-Kansas in 2008 -90th ranked overall defense; 4th worst pass defense amongst all bowl eligible teams
-Mizzou in 2008 -100th ranked overall defense; 2nd worst pass defense amongst all bowl eligible teams
Clemson in 2008, though, doesn't fit this trend, at least not superficially. Defensively, they ranked 18th nationally which was 5th best in the ACC. However, when looking at a game-by-game basis, their defense wasn't very good, nor their team well coached. The numbers look good because last season's Clemson was built around ball control, running, and a dink-and-dunk pass game. The clock kept running with hopes of keeping the other team off of the field.
Let's look at some numbers from their losses:
John Parker Wilson - 22/30 for 180 yards; Team: 50 rushes - 239 yards
Clemson: 14 carries for 0 yards
Chris Turner - 16/30 for 172 yards; Team: 30 rushes - 126 yards
Clemson: 41 carries for 221 yards
Wake Forest 12-7
Riley Skinner - 22/34 for 186 yards; Team: 46 rushes for 156 yards
Clemson: 23 carries for 21 yards
Georgia Tech 21-17
Joshua Nesbitt - 5/12 for 91 yards; Team: 52 rushes - 207 yards
Clemson: 24 carries for 51 yards
Florida State 41-27
Christian Ponder - 16/27 for 153 yards; Team: 36 rushes for 266 yards (a whopping 7.4 yards per attempt)
Clemson: 36 carries for 79 yards
Joe Ganz - 19/36 for 236 yards; Team: 35 rushes for 125 yards
Clemson: 26 carries for 4 yards
But more than that, outside of their matchup against Maryland (which appears to have just been a fluke game that was won with a Darius Heyward-Bay 76 yard run that set up a crucial touchdown) the running game was horribly ineffective in losses:
Alabama - 14 carries for 0 yards
Wake Forest - 23 carries for 21 yards
Georgia Tech - 24 carries for 51 yards
Florida State - 36 carries for 79 yards
Nebraska - 26 carries for 4 yards
That's 123 carries for 155 yards in losses for an average of 1.24 yards per carry. But of course, that number isn't adjusted to remove QB numbers (since sacks count in rushing totals in college--for some unknown reason). Let's make that adjustment:
Alabama - 11 carries for 28 yards
Wake Forest - 16 carries for 37 yards
Georgia Tech - 23 carries for 57 yards
Florida State - 33 carries for 115 yards
Nebraska - 20 carries for 46 yards
Still not good, even despite the adjustment to a real run metric. That's 103 carries for 283 yards at 2.74 yards per carry.
It appears that winning teams focused on stopping Tiger halfbacks James Davis and CJ Spiller, daring Cullen Harper to make the big throws. Harper couldn't deliver enough to make up for the stunted running game. Teams didn't score a ton of points against Clemson, but the Palmetto State Tigers didn't exactly score a ton of points on their end either. Their schedule--and Tommy Bowden--killed them. (Side note: Clemson, if coached by Ole Miss' staff, would have won 9 or 10 games last season. Sure, you can't exactly prove such a statement, but c'mon, you know it's true.)
Alright. You still with us here? Washington State and Cal, you haven't forgotten about them, right? What specifically did they have that our other trendy picks lacked? Let's go through the criteria.
2002 Washington State - Jason Gesser (who?), the 2002 Pac10 co-offensive player of the year alongside Carson Palmer. Gesser, while having little of a pro "career" to show for his gridiron feats, was 7th in the nation in pass efficiency, completing 58% of his passes for 3408 yards, 28TD, and 13INT.
2004 Cal - Aaron Rodgers, the current starting QB for the Green Bay Packers. In 2004, he completed 66% of his passes for 2566 yards, 24TD, and 8INT. He was named first team all Pac10. Furthermore, his good QB play was coupled with the nation's 6th best rushing attack which featured J.J. Arrington. That edition of the Golden Bears possessed the 5th best total offense in college ball.
2002 Washington State - Nationally, the 40th best overall defense in 2002 (which is on the favorable side of the border of "respectable"), 3rd best in the Pac10. Their rush D ranked 8th nationally while they were 40th nationally in pass efficiency defense. Furthermore, current New Orleans Saints CB Jason David had 7 interceptions for the Cougars which was the 2nd best individual total nationally.
2004 Cal - Nationally, the 24th overall defense, 3rd best in the Pac10. While their pass defense was not spectacular (88th nationally), their scoring D (8th nationally) and rush D (2nd nationally) were phenomenal.
2002 Washington State - They played every Pac10 team outside of Oregon State (The Pac 10 did not move to their current round-robin format until 2006) and played Ohio State along with a few traditional Pac 10 creampuffs--Nevada, Idaho, and Montana State--out of conference. They lost to Ohio State at Horseshoe, Washington by 3 points in overtime, and Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl with a banged up Gesser. They did defeat USC.
2004 Cal - They played every Pac10 team outside of Washington State and loaded up their non-con schedule with Air Force, New Mexico State, and Southern Miss. Their two losses came to USC by 6 and Texas Tech by 14 in the Holiday Bowl (perhaps that 88th ranked passing D had something to do with that).
Yes, this does spell some good news for our Rebels. We would still advise that you shear the wool and put the Kool-Aid down, but we have the qualities necessary to be a "breakthrough team." Barring significant injury, Jevan Snead will likely have 2,800+ passing yards and 25-30 touchdowns. Our run defense should once again be one of the nation's best (returning 8 starters from the 4th overall defense in sacks and rushing yards allowed) while our pass defense can really do nothing but improve. And our schedule is ridiculously (that is meant literally, as in "Ole Miss' schedule is worthy of ridicule") easy. When looking at numbers, it is hard to argue that this upcoming football season won't see a very good Ole Miss team.
While we're not making any predictions now, suffice it to say that the Ole Miss Rebels will not likely be "that team."
We here at the Cup want our Rebels to do well this season. Not only that, but we've also put ourselves out there as believing that we can. Just note that history, per the usual, is not on Ole Miss' side. Teams in our position do routinely fail. While there are some fun statistical precedents which point to good things,, we must be careful. We can crunch numbers all day; that doesn't change the fact that... well, you know.
*I know there may be inconsistencies in the system... Like having Notre Dame as a "Cinderella." We just wanted to demonstrate just how much the media loved Charlie Weis then.
Oh, and big ups to Juco for compiling a lot of the numbers and putting together some analysis on this.