Confused? Catch up with the BTBS Primer. And if you just don't like or care about numbers, skip them -- I always attempt to explain what they might be telling us afterward.
As with last week, I am not going to reinvent the wheel when it comes to these previews. I wrote quite a bit over the summer, and I'm going to do the Green thing and recycle as much as I possibly can.
Let's get started!
The 2009 season was one of youth, injury, and more youth for the Redhawks. With an extraordinarily young roster in Coach Mike Haywood's first season, Miami really never had a chance. They were outscored 127-13 by their three Top 50 opponents and did not fare much better against everybody else.
Really, I'm not sure any further analysis is needed. If the young players who took so many lumps last season begin to grow, then 2009 will rather quickly be a distant memory; sometimes transitions to a new coach cause temporary brutality, followed by recovery. If the talent just isn't there and won't be any time soon, then 2010 will not be much better.
So far, 2010 has absolutely been better for the Former Redskins. They threw a scare into Florida (well, they stepped aside while Florida threw a scare into themselves, but it still counts as a scare), and they doubled up on last year's win total with a 28-21 win over Eastern Michigan and a 31-10 win over a jarringly disintegrating Colorado State squad. They are still not a team that should beat Mizzou (let's go ahead and play better than last week, however, just to be sure), but they have absolutely taken steps forward in Haywood's second season.
How have they won the games they've won? Turnovers and stinginess, basically. They picked off three Eastern Michigan passes on the way to a +2 turnover differential in that game, then upped the ante with a +4 differential against Colorado State. They have yet to gain more than 345 yards in a single game, but they are allowing just 280.0 yards per game so far. Obviously some of that has to do with the quality of their victims (EMU and CSU are both in the S&P+ Bottom 10 right now), and some has to do with the 55 (!) yards Florida lost via fumbles, but regardless, this is a competent-if-nonexplosive team, and the fewer mistakes that Missouri makes, the better.
It's probably too early to be using the schedule-adjusted "+" numbers, but we're going to do it anyway, taking with it all the full-disclaimer grains of salt. Rankings are more suggestive than declarative right now, but let's see what we can learn about Miami from them.
Standard Downs S&P+: 101st
Redzone S&P+: 19th
Q1 S&P+: 116th
1st Down S&P+ 107th
Rushing S&P+: 111th
Standard Downs+: 108th
Adj. Line Yards: 120th
Passing S&P+: 86th
Standard Downs+: 60th
Adj. Sack Rate: 68th
As with Illinois, you can say one positive thing about Miami's offense: they were decent (comparatively speaking) in the red zone. Unfortunately, they sure didn't see the red zone much. The fact that their success rates ranked higher than their points per play suggests that while the play-calling may have been decent, the athleticism was non-existent. Solid quarterback play from freshman Zac Dysert bailed Miami out on passing downs at times, but there just weren't enough weapons for defenses to take this offense too seriously.
One-fourth into the 2010 season, not much has changed with the Miami offense. They are still strong in the red zone (though a penalty-aided failure in the red zone gave Florida the opening they needed to finally open things up three weeks ago), and they are still mostly weak at everything else. Running has been a particular problem. Like San Diego State, they get better as the game progresses, but that doesn't matter if they fail too much early on.
Zac Dysert was the only three-star signee for Miami in the 2008, and as Miami's version of a 'star recruit', he acquitted himself reasonably well in his first season. Starting as a redshirt freshman with little experience or talent around him, Dysert averaged over 200 yards passing per game, completing over 60% of his passes. He had problems with sacks and interceptions, but in that situation, that had to be expected. Though his top two targets are seniors, meaning he'll be needing to find new go-to guys next year, Dysert is in a position to improve each of the next three seasons if he stays healthy and Haywood can find some receivers to stick out there with him.
All in all ... almost nothing has changed from last season. Dysert is averaging 195 yards per game, completing 65% of his passes, and getting sacked three times per game. In what is a rather conservative passing attack -- 11 players have caught at least one pass this year, and only three are averaging over ten yards per completion -- Dysert is running the show relatively well. Put it this way: Miami has plenty of offensive problems, and quarterback is likely the least of their worries.
The good news is, Thomas Merriweather has seemingly been around forever and has all the experience you would want from a starting running back. The bad news is, Merriweather has never been very good. In 285 carries over three seasons, Merriweather has racked up just 881 yards (3.1 per carry). A three-star signee out of Hazelwood East, Merriweather looks the part, but in three years, his career long carry is just 24 yards. If one of the two decent sophomore backs (Roman Lawson, Danny Green) takes a decent step forward this year, it wouldn't at all be surprising to see him snag Merriweather's starting job.
The running game is still far from a strength, but with Merriweather and true freshman Tracy Woods splitting carries, things have ticked up at least a bit. Woods and Merriweather have combined to rush for 247 yards on 54 carries (4.6 per carry), though not surprisingly, most of that came against weak defenses. Merriweather went for 105 and three touchdowns against Eastern Michigan, while Woods pitched in 85 yards against Colorado State after Merriweather was benched because of blurry vision. Miami's rushing offense is still one of the weaker Mizzou will see this year, and there doesn't appear to be anything resembling a Ronnie Hillman-style burner (meaning, even if a runner gets shot-put assistance from his offensive lineman, he'll likely still get caught from behind), but this is still a much more competent unit than a year ago. Now, if only they could get better blocking.
Wide Receivers / Tight Ends
Compared to the running back situation, the situation at wide receiver has to be considered a relative strength. They have two returnees who racked up over 500 receiving yards last year, and though Miami played mostly a possession game with the pass, Armand Robinson still managed to average 11.8 yards per catch. Added to the mix this year will be DeMarco Paine, another Hazelwood East product who originally signed with Iowa out of high school. Dysert certainly has options of all sizes in this unit -- Rogers and Paine are smaller, waterbug types, while Andy Cruse and Chris Givens are pretty big guys. The tight ends do not to appear even remotely threatening in the passing game.
Armand Robinson has built on a promising 2009 season with a strong start to 2010. He has 22 catches for 283 yards and two touchdowns. Keep that rate up for the entire season, and you're looking at ~90 catches and ~1100 yards. He has gotten very little help, however. Only two other receivers -- Jamal Rogers and Andy Cruse -- have caught more than five balls in the first three games. Paine is being eased into the offense slowly, with just five catches for 42 yards thus far.
If you subscribe to the theory that any experience is good experience, then Miami has a decent offensive line. They return all five starters from last year, three of whom are seniors. Of course, they are returnees from what was a rather weak line last season, but the good news is that things probably won't be any worse. Any time you're in a situation where you are forced to start this many freshman (as Miami was in 2009), you are going to struggle. But as Dysert gets more experienced and the running backs improve (if the running backs improve), then the line will likely start to show growth too.
So far, there is little improvement to be found from the Miami offensive line. They have allowed nine sacks, and they rank dead last in Adj. Line Yards, meaning any success the running backs have found has been of their own making. If Aldon Smith had to miss a game, this appears to be a pretty good choice.
Standard Downs S&P+: 37th
Redzone S&P+: 46th
Q1 S&P+: 82nd
1st Down S&P+ 19th
Rushing S&P+: 28th
Standard Downs+: 28th
Adj. Line Yards: 5th
Passing S&P+: 65th
Standard Downs+: 70th
Adj. Sack Rate: 36th
Comparatively speaking, Miami's defense was the strength of the team last year. They couldn't stop the run to save their lives, but the pass defense was downright decent (better than Mizzou's, anyway), and they were rock solid on third downs/passing downs. If Mizzou is unfocused on first downs, that could result in trouble. Not too much trouble, but a bit of annoyance, anyway.
Once again, defense is, comparatively speaking, a strength for the RedHawks. Though Florida's fumbles work into these numbers, they have still done quite well for themselves so far. They have allowed just 212, 322, and 306 total yards this season and have allowed just 166 rushing yards all year. They are vulnerable to the big play, particularly in the passing game, so it will be interesting to see how Mizzou attacks them. Do they go long again in the hopes of exploiting weaknesses, risking more near-misses and lost confidence, or do they aim for efficiency and play into Miami's strengths?
As we dive into the defensive line and linebacker rankings, I should mention something: D-line rankings are contingent on Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rates. If you blitz really, really well, it will reflect well on your DL rankings more than your LB rankings; until I have a better way to involve individual player stats into my unit rankings (right now that's not a great option), that's just the way it goes. So even though Miami's D-line ranked 6th in the MAC and their LBs ranked 10th, I would think about flipping those. This team's success was based around their ability to get to the quarterback and make plays in the backfield. As we see with the individual stats, it was a linebacker (Jerrell Wedge) making most of the big plays. Meanwhile, again, they couldn't stop the run to save their lives.
That said, Miami's line was extremely young last year, starting two freshmen and a sophomore. Now, it's two sophomores and a junior, with likely either another sophomore or junior filling in the new slot at defensive tackle. They most likely had to blitz to do damage on passing downs, but it will be interesting to see what this good-sized line (especially at end) can do with more experience.
Again, with assistance from Florida fumbles, Miami's line yardage thus far has been outstanding. Sophomore tackle Austin Brown has been the star of the show, racking up 11.5 tackles and 4.0 tackles for loss (along with a forced fumble, fumble recovery, pass break-up, and 1.5 sacks). Brown and a couple of strong linebackers give the RedHawks a very solid defensive core. Miami's major weakness here is that their starting linemen weigh only an average of 260 pounds, due mostly to wonderfully-named freshman tackle Mwanza Wamulumba, who weighs all of 246. The ends both weigh a hair over 250 (not bad), and Brown weighs 285. We will see how well they hold up over the course of four quarters.
Successful mid-major teams find the players that are a little too short, big, small, or slow but have tremendous instincts and solid ability. It seems like Boise State always has some 6-foot-0 defensive tackle, recruited by no major programs, doing damage in the middle. For Miami, meanwhile, it's all about Jerrell Wedge. He's shorter than your average cornerback, but he was by far the best player on the Miami defense last season. Obviously he's not a threat to go pro early, so the Redhawks will have him for two more seasons. When you add up the returning players' 2009 tackles for loss, you'll see that Wedge had 18.5, and the rest of the front seven returnees combined had 23.5. He is their star.
Evan Harris' freshman play was also encouraging, and when combined with Wedge, a couple other returning sophomores, and UConn transfer C.J. Marck, there are the makings of a very strong (for a MAC team, anyway) linebacking corps over the next few years. We'll see what they're able to do against a solid major conference offense, but if Miami succeeds in the MAC this year, chances are the quarterback and the linebackers are the reasons why.
The linebacking corps is, without a doubt, the strength of the Miami defense. Jerrell Wedge (14.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL) and Evan Harris (13.5 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT) have achieved at as high a level as was expected, but the return of injury-prone junior Ryan Kennedy (17.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL) has bolstered the unit even further. If there is an area where Mizzou needs to worry, it's that Miami really is good at keeping opponents' success rates low and leveraging them into passing downs. If Blaine Gabbert and the receivers are a bit off again, constant passing downs will lead to quite a few preempted drives. This is clearly a team that tackles well and makes its share of plays. Mizzou obviously has the athleticism advantage, but this appears to be a defense that is not going to do them any favors, especially in the front seven.
As with Mizzou, the secondary is by far the most experienced unit on the team, even though they're looking at only starting two seniors. Anthony Kokal, approximately the 19th Kokal to play for Miami in the last decade, had a very solid year as Miami's safety valve, while other safeties like Jordan Gafford and Justin Bowers were able to make some plays as well (a combined 6.5 tackles for loss and 3 forced fumbles is a nice total for a pair of safeties -- Jasper Simmons and Jarrell Harrison combined for 5.5 and 2.
Because the linebackers have been so solid, the secondary hasn't had to make as many plays this season. That's a good thing, as they've had a few breakdowns. A majority (156) of Florida's yardage came on four plays -- two runs and two passes. Two of Eastern Michigan's three touchdowns came on plays of 40 yards or more. Even Colorado State had two plays of at least 36 yards (a third was called back because of a penalty). Most of the big plays have come through the air. Like I said above, I am very curious how Mizzou goes about attacking this defense.
Worst special teams unit in the country last year. No returns threat, poor punting and coverage, and a kicker with a strong leg (he did boom a 55-yarder) and absolutely no consistency or accuracy whatsoever. And it's hard to see any of that changing this year. Obviously if Mizzou's problems on kickoff coverage continue, that will open up a door for Miami to succeed at a higher level there than they are used to, but ... yeah, this is a poor unit. If Mizzou loses the special teams battle, they had a really poor game.
Things have at least gotten better for the Miami special teams unit. Their return games are still rather nondescript, but the punting hasn't been too bad, and Trevor Cook is 5-for-5 so far on field goals.
If Miami can leverage Mizzou into some passing situations, it does appear that they might be able to blitz well enough to possibly get into Blaine Gabbert's head a little bit. But ... and I realize Mizzou isn't the world's greatest running team when I say this ... if their run defense doesn't improve, Mizzou might almost never see a passing down. When we think about what worked for Mizzou at the end of last year -- Derrick Washington averaged six yards per carry over the last four games, and Mizzou went to the sideline passes early and often, with quite a bit of success -- that is pretty much the exact recipe it will take to torch Miami for 45+ points.
If Mike Haywood is able to recruit well (for a MAC school), then he should pretty quickly be able to mix experience with improving talent, and Miami's MAC lot in life could improve over the next couple of years. But despite the jinxing power of my saying this, they are not ready to beat a team like Missouri and probably won't be for a while. Haywood has to rebuild this once proud program from scratch, and while his team got a lot of worthy experience last season, it probably won't pay off just yet.
Miami is still not a great team, but it does appear that they have taken strong steps forward in Year No. 2 under Haywood. The biggest improvement has come in the run defense, and the closer the ball is to the line of scrimmage, the better this D has played. I do not expect the Miami offense to have the explosiveness necessary to score in the 20's against Mizzou, and that alone is cause for overall optimism. But I'm very interested in both how the Mizzou offense gameplans and executes. Do they go downfield often again? If so, does it work this time? How much do they run the ball?
After the near-disaster of San Diego State last week, I think we'd all prefer a nice, complete wipeout of an overmatched opponent; that may happen, but Mizzou is going to have to execute much better than they did last week. Otherwise, they should still win comfortably, but in the 14-21 point range that would give most Mizzou fans a bit of further discomfort.