Tuesday, August 08, 2006
2006 PREVIEW: ANATOMY OF AN UNDERDOG
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The upcoming season is wdely considered a toss-up, a free-for-all in the absence of a dominant overseer a la the Miami, Oklahoma and Southern Cal teams we've lauded at various intervals over the past few seasons as the inevitable conquerers on a death march to the mythical championship. The first of the official do-not-disturb preseason polls does show a general consensus among the top teams, if no coherence regarding their precise order: Notre Dame, Texas, Southern Cal, Auburn, Oklahoma and especially Ohio State are the top six in some form or another in virtually every poll. West Virginia's also finding its way into the mix, usually as a "darkhorse" team - albeit a "surprise" everyone except SMQ seems to agree upon.
Recent history, though, is rife with party crashers at or near the top of year-end polls - the most recent examples being Auburn in 2004 and West Virginia and Penn State last year - teams usually construed as ascending "from nowhere," even if the folks paying attention had projected only slightly less success before the season. This is typical enough, of course, that when a forecaster's been doing this a while, the question becomes not if there's going to be an underdog making a startling run at the mythical title, but who, exactly, the dog's going to be. Preseason polls, as inexact a science as they come, seem to be wholly inadequate for the illogical, counterintuitive logic that would appear necessary for some moron to actually project, say, a Peyton Manning-less Tennessee running the table in 1998. So most people don't sweat it, and instead look at the pevious season and execute a couple flip flops that make sense to them. And at the end of almost every year: Who would have ever thought it, Verne? Nobody saw this one coming... Maybe a few wannabes look good entering the year - but never that good. If they do, everybody notices, creates an echo chamber that inflates said team's preseason stock and then watches the inevitable bust with total bafflement.
But even if we're not willing to pull the trigger on sticking a team that went 7-5 last year among the top couple spots, we can look at the record and see what those underdogs made good have had going for them as a group. Studying the traits of past poll-climbers and plumbing the guts of the early tallies this year, SMQ's found a few teams he thinks can pull the impossible trick of class-hopping the 10-15 spaces that separate them from the designated championship pack.
These dozen teams from the past decade provided the model:
1996 Arizona State: From 6-5 in 1995 to 11-1 PAC Ten champs; unranked in preseason
1997 Michigan: From 8-4 in 1996 to 12-0 co-Mythical National Champions; average preseason rank: 13
1998 Tennessee: Lost Peyton Manning after last, best shot ended with an SEC title but another humilitating loss to Florida and the wrong end of a bowl romp to Nebraska in 1997, then upset Florida, went 13-0 and won the Mythical Championship; average preseason rank: 9
1999 Virginia Tech: Lost quarterback from good 9-3 team in 1998 but rode Michael Vick to Big East title and undefeated regular season before Sugar Bowl loss to Florida State; average preseason rank: 11
2000 Oklahoma: Improved to 7-5 Independence Bowl losers in Bob Stoops' first season and to 13-0 Texas-crushing, average preseason rank: average preseason rank: 21
2000 Oregon State: Improved to 7-5 in 1999, then blew up to 11-1 in 2000 and crushed Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl; unranked in preaseason
2001 Maryland: From 3-8 to stunning 10-2 ACC champions in Ralph Friedgen's first season; unranked in preseason
2002 Ohio State: Struggled to 7-5 Jim Tressel's first season, rebounded to 12-0 with new quarterback and upset Miami for Mythical Championship in Fiesta Bowl; average preseason rank: 11
2003 LSU: Won SEC in 2001, then fell to 8-5; co-Mythical Champs after 12-1 season in 2003; average preseason rank: 14
2004 Auburn: Top five pick after 9-4 2002, crushed by USC in opener and finished 8-5; rebounded by running the table and being snubbed in favor of the same Trojans for 2003 MNC; average preseason rank: 10
2005 West Virginia: 2004 Big East favorite slipped out of rankings, then replaced the entire offensive backfield and roared back with league title and upsets of Louisville and Georgia en route to 11-1; unranked in preseason
2005 Penn State: 7-11 in two years prior to 11-1, league-championship, two-seconds-from-undefeated 2005; average preseason rank: 30
Out of that sample group, we can suss out a few Factors That Matter:
Whup-Ass Run Defense: This is le element crucial: eleven of the twelve teams above held opponents below 3 yards per carry for the season, and even the outlier, undersized but blazing 2004 Auburn, only allowed 3.3 per carry. This seems to be a crucial element for every big winner, but not an absolute requirement if you're merely decent and have gobs of offensive talent to make up the difference, a la USC and Texas last year, who allowed 3.8 and 3.7 yards a pop, respectively (and UCLA, which won 10 with the lowest-ranked run defense in the country). For a generally non-dominant, win-the-close-ones team on the rise, though, stuffing pretty much everybody is non-negotiable.
The Exceptions: None
Steady, upper-class quarterback: Notice this doesn't have to be 'experienced' quarterback, and certainly doesn't have to be 'stud,' as Arizona State's Jake Plummer would be the only player in question who could conceivably fit that category entering the fateful season. Josh Heupel and Michael Robinson parlayed big years in the right system into high Heisman finishes, but both came from relative obscurity, to which (perhaps dangerously assuming Robinson's bid to catch on as a wide receiver - heh, "catch on," get it? - in the NFL is a prelude to a brief journeyman bit) they quickly returned. Brian Griese and Jason Campbell became hot commodities for mere competence and gumption amidst absurd, or at least very good, surrounding talent after mediocre overall careers. And then there are the Tee Martins, Craig Krenzels and Matt Maucks, first-year starting juniors all (and don't forget Shaun Hill, a freshly-starting senior), who were just good enough in relative anonymity. Oregon State started Jonathan Smith - you don't remember him? Krenzel's success, especially, should demonstrate that a big-armed slinger isn't a necessity as long as your guy generally makes the right decisions, never gives the big game away, Manning-style, and understands he's not the star of the show.
The Exceptions: 1999 Virginia Tech (Michael Vick), 2005 West Virginia (Pat White)
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The hope of a nation
Relatively New Coach (Sub-factor: The Big Hire): Ten of our dogs had top guys who had been around less than five years, most of them having arrived in "big splash" fashion as either a previously successful head coach (Nick Saban, Dennis Erickson, Tommy Tuberville, Jim Tressel) or as a hot coordinator with years of well-recognized success as an assistant at at least one major program (Bob Stoops, Rich Rodriguez, Ralph Friedgen). Neither Georgia nor Louisville is represented here, but their 2002 and 2004 teams could conceivably be among this group, and Mark Richt and Bobby Petrino among the high-profile assistants turned BMOC. For Stoops, Erickson and Tressel, it only took two years to hit the magic number; Saban needed four and Tuberville five. Friedgen worked the most immediate miracle turnaround (though also the briefest). Lloyd Carr's mythical title came in Year Three following Gary Moeller's departure. So fresh blood is a good thing.
The Exceptions: 1998 Tennessee, 1999 Virginia Tech, 2005 Penn State
Upward Trend (Sub-factor: The Rebound): Correlated with the new coach factor is a general air of ascendency that's apparent even before the accelerated push to the top. Oklahoma went from 3-8 in 1998 to 7-5 in Bob Stoops' first season and 13-0 his second. LSU had suffered two consecutive, confounding losing years under Gerry DiNardo, and was claiming crystal balls as sacrosanct and inviolable four years after Nick Saban came on. Ohio State fired John Cooper, went 7-5 and made a January bowl in Tressel's first season, and won the MNC his second. Terry Bowden had run Auburn virtually into the ground after his great start there, and Tuberville resuscitated the program in a couple seasons. Oregon State had its first winning season in decades in 1999 (7-5), and then a field goal away from being undefeated in Dennis Erickson's second year. It's important to note the trend is general and not necessarily gradual, and the big year can come off a quasi-mulligan: LSU and Auburn, for example, entered 2003 and 2004, respectively, a year removed coming off disappointing efforts in what was originally scheduled as the "big breakthrough." LSU had won the SEC and the Sugar Bowl in 2001 and was on its way in '02 when Matt Mauck went down against Florida, then ended the season with a ridiculous loss to Arkansas that knocked the Tigers out of the SEC Championship and a bowl whippin' at the hands of Texas to finish 8-5. The next season, with lowered expectations? 13-1, Sugar Bowl/BCS champs. Similarly, Auburn was ranked in a lot of top fives heading into 2003, but got walloped at home by USC and then lost at Georgia Tech its first two games, and that was that. Sitting significantly lower entering 2004, essentially the same players blew up and ran the table. West Virginia, too, was the overwhelming favorite in the newly watered-down Big East going into 2004, and had (SMQ is guessing) its highest general preseason ranking in school history. So the Mountaineers went 8-5 and lost the league title in the finale to middling Pittsburgh. The following year, as an inexperienced team picked decidedly behind Louisville and Pitt in every estimation: league champs and a tie for the highest poll finish in school history.
The Exceptions: 1996 Arizona State, 1997 Michigan, 1998 Tennessee, 2001 Maryland, 2005 Penn State
Toughest Game(s) at Home: Toughest game meaning "best opponent," rather than "closest game," as these are (paradoxically?) not the same thing. Anyway, most of these teams had tough games at home and on the road, but all of them played host to at least one of the schedule's heavyweights, and usually the heaviest. Arizona State hosted and stunned defending two-time champs/corn-fed death squadron Nebraska in 1996; Michigan got Ohio State in Ann Arbor in 1997; Tennessee broke the slide against Florida in Knoxville; Virginia Tech hosted Miami in 1999; Oklahoma vaulted to No. 1 with a home win over Nebraska; Ohio State got Washington State and Michigan at home in 2002; LSU hosted Georgia and Auburn in 2003; Auburn, in turn, then hosted LSU and Georgia in 2004; and West Virginia (Louisville) and Penn State (Ohio State) each took down their biggest prizes on home turf last year. There are a lot of nice road wins among that crew, and a few home losses, too (LSU to Florida in 2003, West Virginia to Virginia Tech in '05) but in general, there's no place like home.
Exceptions: 2000 Oregon State (at Washington, a loss), 2001 Maryland (at Florida State, a loss)
The average preseason rank of the above teams that actually won or played for the mythical title (including undefeated and unloved Auburn) was 12.7; the other five major surprises (1997 Arizona State, 2000 Oregon State, 2001 Maryland, 2005 West Virginia, 2005 Penn State) were each unranked entering the season. Collectively, they were coming off an average of roughly 7-5/8-4 seasons the previous year.
So, based on all that, on to this year's contenders ("Average Rank" via the simple math from the good folks at Mark May Be Wrong):
Average Rank: 13
The Fates Are Smiling: Whup-Ass Run Defense; Relatively New Coach; Upward Trend
He's only a sophomore [a redshirt sophomore - ed. Ahhh...], but maybe maybe maybe the quarterback will be steady here. "Steady" quarterback, you say, on a team that flopped between the inaccurate and interception-prone and the socially violent last year? SMQ is giving them the benefit of the doubt because of a) the return of Nate Longshore, the starter entering 2005, who was a well-regarded recruit before being hurt early on (like Matt Mauck - only much earlier), and b) Jeff Tedford's consistent history of producing very good quarterbacking from whatever random "talent" happens to be around. Plus this offense has three running backs coming back who collectively averaged more than seven yards per carry last year, so the quarterback only has to be in the "good enough to not blow it" category.
As for the rest of the criteria, it's pretty solid: Cal allowed about a half-yard more per carry last year than its underrated '04 defense gave up, but that number was still just 3.3, and six front seven starters are back. The defensive line, with all-PAC Ten/running back-devouring tackle Brandon Mebane next to a returning 333-pounder (Matthew Malele), is ranked as the second-best nationally by Phil Steele and sixth by The Sporting News and as the best in the PAC Ten (for whatever that's worth) by Athlon, none of which takes into account the very good assortment of linebackers also returning to make the run D sufficiently whoop-ass (SMQ really likes the productive, veteran corners, Tim Mixon and Daymeion Hughes, too, but that's for another day). And would anyone deny the 'ascending' tag, given the team was 8-25 in three years prior to Tedford's arrival and 33-17 since? The '04 team, a ten-game winner that could have beaten SC in L.A., is the model, and quarterback is the only element keeping this group from everybody's top five. The talent exists to make the rebound.
Won't Happen Because: Toughest Game Is On the Road
Southern Cal is on the road, where Cal hasn't won since the Grover Cleveland Administration (the second one). Tennessee's a bitch of trip at the other end of the schedule, too, which forms a travel tandem greater than any of those model surprise teams had to overcome to make their run.
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You really don't want a part of Cal's defense
Average Rank: 12
The Fates Are Smiling: Steady Upper-class Quarterback; Relatively New Coach; Upward Trend; Toughest Game(s) at Home
Jedi knight Brian Brohm, assuming he's back from his ACL injury, might redefine "steady" by the end of this season. And Bobby Petrino's put a decent program that was starting to slip at the end of John L. Smith's reign of short temper onto another level. Like Cal, the thinking here should be that 2004 was the model and '05 - still very good at 9-3 and a New Year's Day bowl game - the aberration. Most encouraging: U of Hell gets Miami and West Virginia in Papa John's Stadium (Mmmmm-MMM! Those are some tasty touchdowns! But not as tasty as Papa John's!)
Won't Happen Because: Run defense is only OK
Last year's group was pretty stout, allowing right at 3.0 over the course of the season, but three starting D-linemen graduated - that includes Elvis Dumervil, whose amazing 20 sacks added 150 negative yards to that total, i.e. essentially negating the entire Cincinnati game by himself - and West Virginia and South Florida did a torch job on them to begin with (251 and 281, respectively). Of the new guys, Phil Steele, as usual, is most eloquent: PS#302, PS#397, PS#330. The linebackers, at least, were in the top 100.
Average Rank: 20
The Fates Are Smiling: Whup-ass Run Defense; Steady Upper-class Quarterback; Relatively New Coach; Upward Trend
Call the 5-6 in '04 a mulligan, and this situation looks a lot like Oklahoma in 2000 or Ohio State in 2002: new coach takes storied program to ho hum, not-as-impressive-as-it-sounds 8-4 record, then takes off for the moon with a veteran team in Year Two. The front seven - whose only new members are very large, highly-touted tackles with promisingly unpronounceable names - had one horrible four-game stretch last year but otherwise was all up in opponent backfields (a national-best 50 sacks and more than 10 tackles for loss per game) and wound up allowing just 3.2 a carry. Senior Zac Taylor can be Rich Gannon. Uh, maybe. But even if it was only a two-game winning streak to close the year, Bill Callahan had this thing going in the right direction at the end of last season.
Won't Happen Because: Toughest Game Is a Road Trip...er, Depending On Your Perspective
Nebraska does get Texas at home, but before that has to head out to Southern Cal for a visit that probably looked a lot more one-sided in the other direction when it was orginally scheduled around the turn of the decade.
Average Rank: 17
The Fates Are Smiling: Steady Upper-class Quarterback; Toughest Game(s) at Home
Drew Tate's is more than "steady": Drew Tate is the hole-in-one-draining man, reminiscent of Plummer in a lot of ways, and certainly capable of taking this offense a very long way with the proper tools and security. Ohio State comes a-calling to Iowa City in September, a revenge game for the not-even-that-close 31-6 smackdown OSU laid on the Hawkeyes last year.
Won't Happen Because: Whup-ass Run Defense...Without Those Linebackers?; How Relative Are We Talking With the 'New' Coach and Upward Trend?
Each of these categories could perceivably be put in the 'Smiling' category, making the Hawkeyes the perfect storm of experienced, slighted vengeance on the bounceback, but Kirk Ferentz has been here eight years now. Certainly Iowa is in an "upward trend" compared to his first year, 1-10 in 1999, but not compared to his fourth, the 10-2, co-league champions of 2002 (a team that could have served as a model surprise, now that SMQ thinks about it). That squad looks like the real breakthrough, peak team of the early Ferentz Era, whereas the subsequent versions have settled into a nice little niche among the top three/four annually in the Big Ten; the trend, in other words, seems to have flattened. As for the run defense, it ought to be good, and a unit that returns all four linemen and one linebacker from a surprisingly stout group that only allowed 3.2 per carry would generally be separated into the "whup-ass" category. That's tough to say, though, when more than 300 combined tackles graduated in the form of Chad Greenway and Abdul Hodge. That's not a career number - that's 300 tackles in just 2005. Replacements Mike Humpal and alien overlord Mike Klinkenborg are getting good reviews, but SMQ will only go so far as to call this run D "solid" or maybe even "tough."
Other teams considered: Florida State, South Carolina, Arkansas, Arizona State
So is SMQ willing to pull the trigger on Cal or Nebraska number one? Uh, well, suuuuurre. We'll get back to you on that one. But USC, at least, ought to be keeping their eyes open for both.
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Did you look for, or happen to notice, any correlation with the arrival/departure of assistant coaches?
run D: a strength, featuring future NFL guys Matt Roth and Jonathan Babineaux.
upper class QB: yes. Brad Banks who was new (1st yr starter) and old (5th yr, juco transfer).
New coach: yes. Ferentz was in 3rd yr.
Upward trend: yes.
2001: 7-5 (bowl win)
tough game at home: ehhh, kinda. Played instate rival Ia St at home, but made dumb plays and lost. hardest games (Mich and Penn St) were road wins.
Still the only team to go 14-0 in Div 1A History.
USC and Texas each defeated Michigan in a bowl game and, in the following season, went undefeated, had quarterbacks who either won or should have won the Heisman Trophy, and were declared the mythical National Champions.
This points toward Nebraska going undefeated, Zac Taylor being a Heisman finalist, and Bill Callahan being embraced by Cornhusker fans.