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Beyond the Box Score: Big East/Notre Dame Edition (Part One)

In the absence of an Opponent Week BTBS piece, instead you get more talk about other conferences!  It's been fun to notice how teams in different conferences start to resemble their conference mates after a while.  Pretty much every Big East team had a stout pass defense in '07 (aside from Louisville, who had the nation's worst), and seemingly every team had O-line inconsistencies as well.  Let's see how they stack up for '08.

And it just struck me that I should probably put Notre Dame somewhere, so they'll go at the end of Part Two tomorrow.

West Virginia (5-2)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Offensive Success Rates (particularly Q1)
  • 3rd Down Offense
  • 3rd Down Rushing Defense
  • Passing Downs Defense

Top Ranks

#1: Offensive Rushing EqPts+
#1: Defensive Rushing EqPts+
#1: Defensive Passing S&P+ (close games)
#1: Defensive 2nd Down Passing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#103: Defensive Q3 Rushing S&P+
#97: Defensive Q3 Line Yards+
#96: Defensive Q1 Line Yards+
#85: Offensive Q3 Passing S&P+

We've pretty well established that there's a "top tier" of 7 teams nationally--Georgia, LSU, Florida, OU, Missouri, USC, and Ohio State, in some order.  If there's one team that could crack into that tier, it's West Virginia.  It's easy to get the feeling that they blew their best chance at a national title last year--they're probably not going to be #1 in Offensive Rushing EqPts+ AND Defensive Rushing EqPts+ this year.  But with a schedule of 7 home games and 5 winnable road games (ECU, Colorado, UConn, Louisville, Pitt), WV and new (former interim) coach Bill Stewart will have a chance to make a run.  Lord knows they've got the speed for a run.

We'll start with what you know.  Pat White?  Noel Devine?  Good.  Really, really good.  Now that that's out of the way, what else does WV have?  How about 5 returning starters on the OL?  Does that sound like a good thing?  LT Ryan Stanchek was an All-American in '07, and he's joined by four other seniors (and a senior "block first" TE in Sam Morrone) up front.  Meanwhile, Devine will have some company in the backfield with returnees like Jock Sanders and newcomers like Terence Kerns and Zach Hulse.  Really, the main question mark is at WR, where Dorrell Jalloh is the only returnee that caught more than 12 passes in '07.

As good as WV was on offense last year, the numbers suggest the defense was almost as good.  In fact, in WV's two losses against USF and Pitt, the main breakdowns happened on the offensive end (hence the top two 'Game-Changing Stats' coming on offense).  Fortunately for the Mountaineers, their top two tacklers return; unfortunately, that's about it.  Nine of the next 11 tacklers on the list are gone.  They have to replace their two best D-linemen and all four starters in the secondary--bad news considering pass defense was a WV strength.  If WV fails to break into the aforementioned Top Tier, that would be why, and naturally that's been a primary focus in August practices.

Verdict: WV has a favorable schedule (they get Auburn, USF and Rutgers at home) and the most explosive backfield in the country.  But I can't shake a couple of thoughts: 1) Pat White got hurt twice last year (setting up both losses), and he's not going to take any less of a pounding in '08, and 2) the defense really did bail them out a bit at times, giving up 14 points or less 6 times in '07, and the pass defense in particular is going to take a hefty step backwards.  And for that matter, 3) their head coach has 1 career 1A win (and a 9-25 record overall after three failed years at VMI).  I can't help but think they're going to slip at some point(s), but they're still obviously the class of the Big East.

UConn (5-2)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Overall Defense (close games)
  • Passing Offense
  • Offensive Points Per Play (particularly on 2nd downs)
  • Q3 Defense

Top Ranks

#7: Offensive Q2 Line Yards+
#10: Defensive Q3 Passing S&P+
#14: Defensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#15: Defensive Q3 S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#125: Offensive 3rd Down Rushing S&P+
#120: Offensive Q1 Rushing S&P+
#117: Offensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#109: Offensive Q1 S&P+

For a good team, UConn certainly was a pretty bad team last year.  Good pass defense, mediocre everything else.  Regardless, they finished 5-2 in conference and made their second ever bowl game (a meh performance at the Meineke Car Care Bowl).  They return a solid amount of experience at just about every position, but are they really going to improve on last year's 9 wins?  Probably not.

We'll start with probably the best news--the O-line returns four starters.  That makes everybody's job easier, and juniors RB Andre Dixon and Donald Brown were the beneficiaries of a pretty solid front five last year (#33 in close-game Line Yards+).  They combined for 1649 rushing yards, 11 TDs and 4.9 ypc in '07, though UConn's overall rushing numbers weren't all that great--they were #65 in overall Rushing S&P+, suggesting the RBs should have made more of the opportunities their line gave them.  The biggest problem here was explosiveness--nobody on the offense had much of a PPP average, and UConn didn't have too many easy scores because of it.  There's some potential in Brad Kanuch (27 catches, 433 yards in '07), but he'll be asked to catch a lot more passes in '08, and that usually knocks the average down a bit.  Meanwhile, senior QB Tyler "Don't Call Me Jared" Lorenzen is steady but rather unspectacular overall...which also goes for the entire offense as a whole, I guess.

Defensively, though, UConn knew what it was doing.  They ranked in the top 30 in both Non-Passing Downs S&P+ (which suggests they forced quite a few passing downs) and Passing S&P+ (which suggests they did rather well in those passing downs).  They were rather underwhelming against the run--they should improve with the return of most of the two-deep on the front seven--but they were quite good at both pass coverage and pass rushing.  The pass rush remains intact (led by DEs Julius Williams and Cody Brown, who combined for 16 sacks), but the secondary has been a bit reshuffled after the loss of their star CB (Tyvon Branch) and the move of safety Dahna Deleston to LB.  In all, though, the defense should improve.

Verdict: So the good defense will improve, as will the mediocre offense.  This is certainly a good thing.  But between their 3-1 record in one-possession games in '07, and their +14 turnover margin (not to mention the two return men who accounted for four TDs last year), the luck is probably going to turn a bit.  The schedule does too, with trips to Louisville, North Carolina, Rutgers, and USF on the docket.  Overall, the team is in a more solid place than they were last year, but their record almost certainly won't reflect that.

Cincinnati (4-3)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Close Game Defense
  • Defensive Points Per Play
  • Q4 Offense
  • 1st Down Defense

Top Ranks

#1: Defensive 3rd Down Passing S&P+
#1: Defensive Q1 Line Yards+
#2: Offensive 2nd Down Passing S&P+
#3: Defensive Q1 Rushing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#119: Offensive Q3 Rushing S&P+
#117: Defensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#112: Defensive Q4 S&P+
#111: Defensive Redzone Passing S&P+

Raise your hand if you knew that Cincy won 10 games in 2007.  If you don't live in Big East country (and maybe even if you do), you probably had no idea.  But this was a pretty damn stout team last year, especially on the road--just ask Rutgers and South Florida.  They manhandled bowl teams like Oregon State and UConn, and their three losses were by a combined 16 points (they were 2-3 overall in one-possession games).  And honestly...they lost to Louisville at home and Pitt on the road--they really should have done even better overall.  The one red flag was their +16 turnover margin--that should come back down to earth in '08, but overall Cincy should be pretty damn stout once again in '08.  It would behoove Oklahoma not to overlook them on 10/6.

It all started with defense for Cincy in '07.  They were very good across the board--#7 in the nation in Close-Game Defensive S&P+, #9 in Defensive EqPts+, #11 in Close-Game Line Yards+.  In all, it appears that the LBs were decent, the DBs good and the DLs great.  That formula should more or less remain this year.  DT Terrill Byrd is a monster up front--he's great at both run stuffing and pass rushing.  Cincy's line will be in good shape as long as he's on it, though having to replace both DE starters is obviously a concern.  The LB corps returns two strong players in Ryan Manalac and Corey Smith, so it won't be too much of a problem.  The Bearcats are quite experienced in the secondary--they'll likely be starting three seniors and a junior--but they do have to replace stud FS Haruki Nakamura.  Lucky for them, they've got an All-American at CB in Mike Mickens.  They should be able to compensate for Nakamura's loss--INTs should still come in bunches--and overall this defense shouldn't drop at all as long as a DE steps up.

Offensively, it's all about the running game.  Their RBs weren't very good (#64 in Offensive Rushing S&P+), and their blocking was worse (#76 in Offensive Line Yards+).  The passing game was quite strong with big-play receivers Dominick Goodman, Marcus Barnett, and Marshwan Gilyard (the three combined for 2267 receiving yards and 24 TDs last year) all returning, but the running game is still a mystery.  They're starting from scratch at RB, but that might be okay, as none of last year's RBs were very good.  It appears that either Jacob Ramsey or John Goebel will win the job, and...well, they're probably going to be at least as good as last year's stable.  And replacing 2.5 starters on the OL might or might be a problem too--again, they weren't that great last year, so replacements probably won't be much worse.

QB is still a bit of a mystery (the ghost of Ben Mauk still looms), but there's a pretty healthy battle going on between Tony Pike and Dustin Grutza, with RSFr Chazz Anderson (yes, that's his name) and Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones still trying to poke their heads into the battle.

Verdict: If a solid RB emerges, this team won't have any glaring weaknesses.  There will be a new starting QB, but he's got some serious weapons at his disposal, and the defense has serious star power in Mickens and Byrd.  This team screams "sleeper pick to win the conference", though the schedule might disagree--trips to Morgantown, Hartford, and Louisville await (as does an early season trip to Norman), but the only likely loss is to WV.  If the Moutaineers slip up elsewhere on the schedule, Cincy could be waiting to sneak into a BCS bid.

South Florida (4-3)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Passing Downs Defense
  • Offensive Points Per Play
  • Non-Passing Downs Offense
  • Defensive Line Yards (close games)

Top Ranks

#2: Defensive 3rd Down S&P+
#7: Defensive Q3 S&P+
#7: Offensive 2nd Down Rushing S&P+
#8: Defensive Q3 Rushing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#112: Defensive Redzone Passing S&P+
#107: Offensive 1st Down Line Yards+
#103: Defensive Redzone S&P+
#99: Offensive Q4 Line Yards+

In all, I work with exactly 100 '+' categories like the ones listed in everybody's Top and Bottom Ranks.  Of those 100, South Florida ranked int he top 30 in 47 of them, the top 40 in 57 of them.  They were an all-around solid team, especially on defense--#9 in Close Game Line Yards+, #15 on Passing Downs, #19 on Non-Passing Downs.  They had a ferocious pass rush (thanks mostly to one guy in particular), a solid secondary, and decent LBs.  On offense, they had solid big-play potential (#19 in Rushing EqPts+, #21 in EqPts+) and were decent overall, but their struggles held them back at key times.  Their run-blocking was subpar (#79 in Line Yards+), and their passing game was inconsistent (#68 in Close-Game Passing S&P+).  They obviously weren't as good as the #2 ranking they held from 10/14 to 10/21 last year, and they weren't as bad as they looked in the Sun Bowl, but they need to be a bit more consistent on offense if they want to improve on last year's nine wins.

I can't decide if Matt Grothe is a good bad QB or a bad good QB.  He's capable of making the occasional 'wow' play, but I don't see him ever being consistent enough for USF to make a national title-style run or anything.  When he's not making 'wow' plays (80-yard TD run against Pitt), he's imploding in 'wow' fashion (4 INTs & 1 fumble vs Cincy).  One thing's for certain, though: his job will be relatively easy.  Hand to Mike Ford, hand to Mike Ford, hand to Mike Ford, throw to Carlton Mitchell.  These two sophomores look ready for the big-time.  Ford is a former 5-star Rivals recruit who went off in November once he'd adjusted to D1 ball.  He'll be running behind a line that returns four starters as well, including stud LT Marc Dile.  But lots of teams in the Big East have big weapons this year--it will come down to Grothe's leadership.  There's something to be said for QB'ing USF to its first ever #2 ranking, but he simply has to improve on his career 29-28 TD-INT ratio in '08.

On defense, it was all about the D-line for USF in '07.  And on the D-line, it was all about All-Worlder George Selvie.  The only thing more impressive than his 14.5 sacks was his 31.5 tackles for loss.  He commands double (or triple) teams, and USF should have enough other weapons on the line to make people pay for that.  LB is covered with Tyrone McKenzie and Brouce Mompremier.  Really, the only question marks on D are a) can USF capably replace a pair of stud CBs in Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams, and b) can Jarriett Buie (or any other DEs) truly make teams regret double (or triple) teaming Selvie.  There's potential and athleticism across the board here, but losing those two CBs will hurt.

Verdict: CBs aside, USF returns most of its 2007 star power, and as I mentioned above, this was quite a solid team.  USF's ceiling isn't as high as West Virginia's (or possibly Rutgers's or Cincy's), but like most Big East programs, Jim Leavitt's program is headed in the right direction.

Rutgers (3-4)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Q4 Rush Offense (particularly line yards)
  • Defensive Success Rates
  • Rush Defense (close games)
  • Non-Passing Downs Defense

Top Ranks

#1: Defensive Q2 Passing S&P+
#2: Defensive Passing S&P+, Defensive Passing S&P+ (close games)
#2: Defensive 2nd Down Passing S&P+
#2: Offensive 3rd Down Rushing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#111: Defensive Redzone Rushing S&P+
#103: Defensive 3rd Down Line Yards+
#97: Offensive Q4 Rushing S&P+
#93: Offensive Q4 Line Yards+

It could be very easy to overlook Rutgers this year.  No Ray Rice = major regression, right?  Not necessarily.  While Rutgers was certainly solid running the ball in 2007, it was far from their strength.  They were dominant in pass defense, Top 10 in overall defense, and, surprisingly, Top 10 in passing offense as well (#7 in Passing S&P+, #9 in Passing EqPts+).  Honestly, the running game wasn't even that much of a statistical strength--while they were #23 in Close-Game Line Yards+, they were only #49 in Rushing S&P+.  It's obviously not right to think of Ray Rice as a liability--after all, he did rush for 2000 yards in '08, and defenses likely overcompensated for Rice and left their CBs on islands against Scarlet Knight receivers.  But it does show that there's potentially Life After Rice, especially if an RB like Mason Robinson or back-from-injury Kordell Young can make opponents respect the running game again.

Honestly, I don't entirely know what to expect from this "Because defenses respected the run, Rutgers was able to pass" offense.  There look to be some serious weapons in the passing game.  Mike Teel is one of the better QBs in the conference overall, and Kenny Britt and Tiquan Underwood are absolute studs at WR.  The two combined for 127 catches, 2332 yards and 15 TDs in '07.  The passing game will click along wonderfully as long as there's a running game from which they can run play actions.  Kordell Young showed decent potential as Rice's backup in '06 before tearing up his knee in '07, and Mason Robinson thrived in the same role last year.  They won't be asked to run 30+ times a gain in '08, but if one of them can post something in the neighborhood of 20 carries, 100 yards at minimum--which will rely, as well, on their finding viable replacements for three OL starters--this offense will be pretty dangerous.

Defensively, we'll find out if Rutgers has the depth that I think they have.  The Knights lose a key contributor in each unit, but in all they look pretty deep.  We'll start in the secondary, which was the State University of New Jersey's #1 strength a year ago.  Three of four key contributors are back.  FS Courtney Greene is as good a safety as there is in the conference, and twins Jason and Devin McCourty are not Ronnie-and-Donnie-Amadi-style novelty CBs--they're actually really good.  They will have to break in a new starter at strong safety, but both Joe Lefeged and Glen Lee have plenty of experience, and there shouldn't be much dropoff.

As far as the front seven goes, it all depends on how well they replace All-American DT Eric Foster.  Pete Tverdov has a lot of potential there, but Foster's shoes will be tough to fill.  At LB, two of three starters return, and the new starter could end up being Ryan D'Imperio, a former blue-chip recruit who was held back by recovery from a broken leg last year.  If Tverdov and D'Imperio are ready for prime time, the Rutgers defense will be every bit as good as it was last year.

Verdict: Honestly, I really don't kow how Rutgers lost five games last year.  On paper, they were fantastic.  But as we know, games aren't played on paper (they're played in TV sets... © Kenny Mayne 1995).  If anything, the RU offense might have been hindered by predictability.  If the shackles come off in '08, Britt and Underwood should have big things in store for the passing game, and the defense probably won't miss a beat.  If Cincy's not the Big East sleeper pick, Rutgers is.