Colorado Football: Beyond the Box Score 2007

It was a strange, strange year for Colorado in '07.  On its face--a lackluster offense and sporadically strong defense leading a team to a 6-7 season--seems anything but strange...predictable, even.  But with upsets of Oklahoma and Texas Tech bunched around a loss to Iowa State and a pummeling by Kansas State...plus a close call against woeful Colorado State and an attempted 2005 Missouri 'disappearing act' impersonation in the Independence Bowl (except they sucked a little too long and didn't come back quite enough)...this was not your typical .500(ish) season.  And the numbers pretty much show you the same thing.

Initial Stat Onslaught

EqPts Scores by Game

9/1: Colorado State 30.1, Colorado 14.4 (actual score: 28-31)
9/8: Arizona State 25.2, Colorado 6.4 (33-14)
9/15: Colorado 8.7, Florida State 8.2 (6-16)
9/22: Colorado 46.2, Miami-OH 2.7 (42-0)
9/29: Colorado 21.0, Oklahoma 8.2 (27-24)
10/6: Baylor 23.8, Colorado 21.1 (23-43)
10/13: Kansas State 25.9, Colorado 14.1 (47-20)
10/20: Colorado 18.9, Kansas 14.8 (14-19)
10/27: Texas Tech 25.9, Colorado 24.3 (26-31)
11/3: Missouri 47.6, Colorado -1.6 (55-10)
11/10: Colorado 23.3, Iowa State 21.9 (28-31)
11/23: Colorado 46.6, Nebraska 43.9 (65-51)
12/30: Colorado 26.4, Alabama 16.6 (24-30)

A crazy year for the Buffs.  They won three games they should have lost (Colorado State, Baylor, Texas Tech), and they lost four games they should have won (Florida State, Kansas, Iowa State, Alabama).  Of course, this is what happens when you play six games that are decided by a TD or less.  Close games are determined as much by special teams, turnovers, and luck as anything else.

The '+' Numbers...

Offense

EqPts+: 91.86 (#76 in the country)
Rushing EqPts+: 96.59 (#67)
Passing EqPts+: 91.64 (#66)

S&P+: 89.40 (#87)
Rushing S&P+: 84.74 (#91)
Passing S&P+: 92.29 (#76)

S&P+ (close): 94.84 (#74)
Rushing S&P+ (close): 69.58 (#115)
Passing S&P+ (close): 107.22 (#47)

Q1 S&P+: 93.07 (#77)
Q2 S&P+: 95.92 (#71)
Q3 S&P+: 95.67 (#74)
Q4 S&P+: 78.76 (#108)

1st Down S&P+: 92.88 (#85)
2nd Down S&P+: 89.60 (#85)
3rd Down S&P+: 69.65 (#100)

Passing Downs S&P+: 96.84 (#63)
Non-Passing Downs S&P+:89.71 (#97)

Line Yards+: 86.88 (#112)
Line Yards+ (close): 82.47 (#115)

Rather confusing numbers here.  In close games, Colorado was actually a decent passing team and an absolutely wretched rushing team.  EqPts-wise, though, they were entirely average in both rushing and passing.  I think the story this tells is that Colorado scored when they were set up well by their defense/special teams. 

In all, though, the other story this tells is that Colorado's offense was really not very good at all.  And that's backed up somewhat by this quiz question: name another returning CU offensive player besides Cody Nolte-Hawkins.  You probably can't do it.  If you can, it's probably WR Josh Smith that you name...and you only know him because his cousin is Darrell Scott.  There will be all sorts of playing time available to redshirt freshmen and incoming recruits...to say the least.

Defense

EqPts+: 97.73 (#71)
Rushing EqPts+: 79.92 (#84)
Passing EqPts+: 118.82 (#35)

S&P+: 96.09 (#72)
Rushing S&P+: 83.14 (#88)
Passing S&P+: 96.09 (#72)

S&P+ (close): 104.94 (#57)
Rushing S&P+ (close): 111.27 (#42)
Passing S&P+ (close): 100.86 (#63)

Q1 S&P+: 124.34 (#20)
Q2 S&P+: 105.74 (#43)
Q3 S&P+: 89.82 (#82)
Q4 S&P+: 122.52 (#14)

1st Down S&P+: 95.69 (#67)
2nd Down S&P+: 115.71 (#29)
3rd Down S&P+: 117.01 (#29)

Passing Downs S&P+: 114.50 (#37)
Non-Passing Downs S&P+: 101.02 (#56)

Line Yards+: 97.75 (#60)
Line Yards+ (close): 106.00 (#41)

So CU returns most of its leading tacklers outside of Jordan Dizon.  In a bit, we'll take a look at who made the big plays for CU when CU was actually making big plays, but...I think what these numbers are telling us is that...well, CU didn't really make many big plays.  They were good in the first quarter (Mizzou can attest to that)...they were good on 2nd and 3rd downs...but a team with patience (i.e. a team that didn't crumble if at first they didn't succeed in Q1, and a team that took the yards given to them on first down) could more or less move the ball at will against the Buffs.

This team reached 6 wins and a bowl, mostly by a) performing pretty well when the game was close (but when the wheels fell off, they really fell off), and b) taking advantage of the opportunities they got.  Over a 60-minute span, though, this was a mediocre squad.  Lucky for Dan Hawkins, he appears to be recruiting well.

Win Correlations (WinCorr)

New measure!  Woohoo!  What are Win Correlations?  They are the correlations between a given statistic and a team's % of points scored in any given game.  What does that measure?  It shows you the categories that were most closely tied to a given team's success.  It's like a footprint for each team, in other words.  I just came up with it, so Colorado gets to be the guinea pig.

Colorado's Top WinCorr's (any categories that were > 0.800)

  1. Offensive Close-game Passing S&P+ (Correlation: 0.875)
  2. Offensive Close-game Passing S&P (0.864)
  3. Offensive Close-game Passing PPP (0.860)
  4. Defensive Passing Success Rate, Pressure Situations (0.854)
  5. Defensive Success Rate, Pressure Situations (0.843)
  6. Offensive Line Yards on Non-Passing Downs (0.837)
  7. Offensive EqPts gained in Non-Passing Downs (0.829)
  8. Total Offensive EqPts gained (0.821)
  9. Offensive EqPts+ (0.819)
  10. Defensive Rushing Success Rate, Pressure Situations (0.817)
  11. Offensive Rushing S&P, Pressure Situations (0.806)

There's some repetition in there obviously, and it builds a very distinct narrative.

  • When Colorado was able to move the ball through the air, they probably won (especially when they were able to rip off a couple big plays).
  • The Buffs found themselves in quite a few 'pressure' (i.e. 4th quarter, score within two possessions) situations, and when the defense stepped up, they won.
  • Offensive 'Pressure' numbers weren't as important, but to the extent that they were, it was all about moving the ball on the ground and staying out of passing situations.
  • Actually, that went for the whole game.  Staying out of uncomfortable situations was key for the Buffs--if they were able to move the ball well in Non-Passing Downs and stay out of Passing Down situations, they stood a chance.  But with a shaky freshman QB behind center, Passing Downs were murder.

See how fun that was?  Let's use those bullets as the basis for the next section:

2008 Question Marks

Will Colorado Be Able to Pass the Ball?

SMQB recently looked at the track records of QBs who started as freshmen and what their freshman year could tell us about how the rest of their career would pan out.  The basic gist was this:

The working hypothesis, rather than the conventional wisdom of steady improvement, is that most quarterbacks are who they are from the beginning: initially good passers tend to decline or level off after a strong start, mediocre players tend to stay mediocre, and bad debuts are followed with some improvement, but generally level off.

What does that mean for Cody Hawkins?  Probably nothing too good.  Hawkins was a 3-star, 5'11 QB coming out high school, and as we've covered, his numbers certainly weren't bad as a redshirt freshman, but there's nothing on his resume that suggests a massive surge forward in progressing seasons.  Obviously the main reason for hope is that, if you can surround him with better talent, his numbers will improve, and it's hard to seemingly have less talent around him than he did in his debut season.  Josh Smith did indeed show a bit of potential at times last year, Scotty McKnight and Patrick Williams are serviceable (it's just that you're in trouble if they're your top guys), and the Buffs seem excited about RSFr Markques Simas (well...Phil Steele does, at least).

While that receiving corps may improve somewhat, the biggest thing that will help Hawkins improve in his sophomore season is...the guy next to him in the backfield.

Will Colorado be able to run the ball when it counts?

The answer to this one comes down to one name: Darrell Scott.  Assuming he's ready for the opening bell, the All-World true freshman from California will be given every opportunity to carry the Colorado offense.  If he doesn't do it, I doubt anybody else on that roster can.  So let's focus on him.

What can be legitimately expected from Scott in '08?  To answer that question, we're going to look at how last year's 5-star freshman RBs fared.  They were...

Now...Tyler redshirted, so we'll scratch him and just look at the other four.

Joe McKnight: 94 carries, 540 yards (5.7/carry), 3 TDs / 23 receptions, 203 yards, 1 TD / 19 punt returns, 8.4 avg.  McKnight's freshman campaign developed like that of many others stud freshmen: he started off a bit hit-or-miss, and got better throughout the season.  In the first four games of the season, McKnight averaged 4.5 touches and 21.8 yards per game.  The next four, those averages were 13.3 touches, 70 yards per game.  His final four games, it was 11.5 touches, 94 yards per game.  It helped McKnight that he wasn't the only threat--plenty of other horses were ready to take some carries.  For Scott, I'll be shocked if he ever touches the ball less than 11 times in a game.

Noel Devine: 73 carries, 627 yards (8.6/carry), 6 TDs / 7 receptions, 90 yards.  Devine got the opportunity to thrive in a situation not afforded to Darrell Scott: not only was he backing up a stud RB in Steve Slaton, but he also was taking handoffs from Pat White, of whom defenses had to be quite wary.  Needless to say, if Cody Hawkins wants to keep the ball instead of handing to Scott, I think defenses would be fine with that.  Devine is also the outlier here because he was asked to carry the smallest load of any of these freshmen.  If Scott only touches the ball 80 times this season, that must mean he was hurt before conference season.

Graig Cooper: 125 carries, 682 yards (5.5/carry), 4 TDs / 13 receptions, 129 yards, 1 TD.  Cooper's '07 season was all over the map.  An easy 12 carry, 116 yard effort in his debut against Marshall was followed by just 74 yards in 29 carries against OU (excuseable) and Florida International (not).  He tore it up against Texas A&M and Duke (24 touches, 210 yards, 3 TDs in the two games) and was steady the following three games (averaging 13.3 touches, 88.3 yards per game).  His workload increased against NC State, as he went for 18 carries and just 60 yards...and then he broke down.  He sprained his right knee against Virginia and only had four total carries in the final two games of the year.  In all, though, he showed decent potential in going for 800+ rushing/receiving yards.

Mike Ford: 138 carries, 645 yards (4.7/carry), 12 TDs / 2 receptions, 12 yards, 1 TD.  Ford was having a rather lackluster freshman campaign until USF's 11/10 trip to Syracuse.  To that point, he had managed just 64 carries and 300 yards while backing up former walk-on Benjamin Williams.  But in his final three regular season games against 'Cuse, Louisville, and Pitt, Ford exploded for 337 yards on 68 carries.  USF not only ended a 3-game losing streak by unshackling Ford, but they managed to win three in a row to close the regular season.

Averaging the efforts of these four (including Devine), here's roughly what we can expect from Scott this season:

NONCONFERENCE: 45.1% success rate / 0.38 PPP / 0.827 S&P
CONFERENCE: 41.9% / 0.33 PPP / 0.751 S&P
BOWL (assuming they make one): 36.8% / 0.56 PPP / 0.933 S&P

Over a 13-game season, this would result in the following averages: 42.5% success rate / 0.36 PPP / 0.789 S&P

Is that good?  Bad?  Well...Texas' Jamaal Charles put up a 0.958 S&P last season, so it's not amazing.  But over the course of 20 touches/game, that's still going to be pretty productive.

Let's put it this way: last year, CU's three main RBs--Charles, Lockridge, Sumler--went for a line of 40.8% / 0.31 PPP / 0.717 S&P.  Scott's line would represent a 10% improvement over that...and 10% less pressure on Cody Nolte-Hawkins to make plays.

Anybody who watched Scott's highlight reel knows how good this guy is.  But it takes the rarest of rare freshmen--ahem, Adrian Peterson--to make such a gigantic impact in his debut season...especially on a team with few weapons (and a relatively weak O-Line) around him.  Maybe Scott really is that special...but most likely he's going to put up average to above-average numbers in 2008 before possibly busting out in 2009.

How will the Defense respond to pressure situations?

Let's look at this unit by unit.

Defensive Line

The Colorado DL had, basically, 3 1/2 playmakers--DT George Hypolite (28.5 'successful' plays in 2007), DT Brandon Nicolas (28.0), DE Alonzo Barrett (25.0), and DE Maurice Lucas (18.5...the 'half').  All but Barrett return.  In all, 72.1% of the DL's "successes" return for 2008.

Linebackers

Jordan Dizon accounted for almost one-half of the LBs' 'successful' plays all by himself, so obviously his graduation is a loss.  Dizon (70.5), Paul Duren (4.0), and RJ Brown (4.0) depart while Jeff Smart (34.0) and Brad Jones (27.0) return.  In all, 43.7% of the LBs' "successes" return for 2008.

Secondary

The secondary split its big plays among five players--Cha'pelle Brown (13.0), Daniel Dykes (13.0), Benjamin Burney (10.5), Tyrone Wheatley (10.0), and Ryan Walters (8.0).  All but Wheatley (and Lionel Harris (5.0)) return.  Wheatley did lead the team with 5 INTs, but in all, 76.6% of the secondary's "successes" return for 2008.

Basically, the D's success will hinge on the LBs.  Most of a decent DL (#41 in close game LY+) returns, and most of a mediocre secondary returns, but the Buffs leaned on Dizon, who made twice as many successful plays as anybody else on the depth chart.  Replacing his 5-6 successful plays a game will be tremondously important for CU, and it's not a given that that will happen.  It looks at the moment that it's junior Marcus Burton's job to try.

Oh yeah, and how will their Special Teams be?

It's hard to underestimate how much CU has been able to lean on Special Teams through the years.  From Ben Kelly returning what seemed like three kickoffs for TD each game in the late-'90s to Mason Crosby being in FG range anywhere on the CU campus, Special Teams has given CU a lot of easy points.  Last year, however, Colorado ranked #88 in the country in my Special Teams rankings (heh...I love being able to say "my _____ rankings".  Punter Matt DiLallo returns, and otherwise the unit receives a total overhaul.  That may not be a bad thing, of course. One thing that will be interesting here is how they use Scott.  He's obviously their biggest homerun threat in the return game, but...you can only ask a freshman to do so much before he breaks down.

SUMMARY

Bottom line: CU's defense will probably be about the same in 2008, and their offense will be at least marginally better...but probably not so much better that they can think about making a New Years Day Bowl run or anything.  Honestly, with this year's schedule CU should really just feel glad to make a bowl and continue upon last year's progress.  The home slate includes West Virginia and Texas, while they have to travel to Florida State (technically Jacksonville), Kansas, Missouri, Texas A&M, and Nebraska.  Right now the schedule contains three likely wins (Colorado State, E'ern Washington, Iowa State), five likely losses (WV, @FlaSt, Texas, @KU, @MU), and four tossups (KSU, @ATM, OSU, @NU).  To make it to 8-4, they'd have to win all four tossups AND spring an upset.

Dan Hawkins is building a decent program here, but I think we won't find out how high this program's ceiling is until the 2009 season.  If they can tread water and make a repeat visit to Shreveport (or maybe Houston or Arizona...maybe El Paso) this December, they'll have to feel they did pretty well.

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