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

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(Sorry, had to go old school on this one)

Pittsburgh (3-4)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Overall Offense (close games)
  • Pass Offense (particularly in Q4)
  • Pass Defense (particularly in close games)
  • Offensive Line Yards

Top Ranks

#1: Defensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#4: Defensive Q3 Passing S&P+
#6: Defensive Passing Downs S&P+
#6: Defensive Q4 S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#124: Offensive 3rd Down Rushing S&P+
#122: Offensive 3rd Down S&P+
#119: Offensive Non-Passing Downs Passing S&P+
#118: Offensive 1st Down Passing S&P+

Man oh MAN are people jumping on the Pitt bandwagon.  Holy smokes.  Rarely does one win vault a 5-7 program in a decent-but-not-great conference into people's preseason Top 25 polls, but Pitt's 13-9 nut-punch to West Virginia was quite the attention getter.  In all, Pittsburgh went 3-4 in one-possession games--meaning they could have ended up anywhere between 2-10 and 9-3, so if nothing else they're experienced in tight situations.  But in a conference with at least four rock solid teams (WV, Cincy, Rutgers, USF), Pitt might still find it hard to keep up when they've still got a few clearly-defined weaknesses.

There's no question that the Panthers were a rock-solid defensive team last year.  They were #6 in Passing Downs and #28 in Non-Passing Downs.  They were #33 against the pass in close games, and they were #36 in Line Yards+.  There's a bit of turnover here, but things look pretty good.  They lose both DEs, but Freshman All-American Greg Romeus waits in the wings.  And they're super-deep at DT--not only do both starters return, but so does 2006 starter Gus Mustakas, who was injured early in '07.

The D-line's main job is to filter the ball-carrier to Scott McKillop.  McKillop only had a handful of tackles for loss (9)...but he also had 2.5 times more tackles than anybody else on the team (151, #1 in NCAA).  He and the other LBs--Adam Gunn & Shane Murray--are not gigantic play-makers in the "behind the line of scrimmage" sense, but they do their job very well.  And with the front seven doing its job, the secondary won't have a ton of pressure on it, and it should be able to cope with the loss of two starters.  As a whole, the defense only gave up 297 yards per game in 2007, and while maybe that isn't replicable, they'll certainly give up less than 350 yards again, which is good enough if the offense is worth anything.

And the offense will be worth something if two players return from injury and do relatively well.  First is QB Bill Stull, who was 14-for-20 for 177 yards and 1 TD in 2+ quarters of the 2007 season opener before he tore a ligament in his thumb and was shelved for the season.  His backups--Pat Bostick and Kevan Smith--were, shall we say, less than stellar.  True, they combined to complete 60% of their passes...but that 9-17 TD-INT ratio was pretty putrid.  It's Stull's job to lose, and he should be a solid upgrade.  The second key injury recoveree is WR Derek Kinder.  Kinder is less important than Stull, but this WR corps simply isn't very dangerous, and Kinder's 2006 numbers (847 yards, 14.9 yards per catch) would be a welcome upgrade as well.  

The passing game has nowhere to go but up, but you know that LeSean McCoy will be solid in the running game.  Now..I'm not amazingly impressed with McCoy--he's not a major breakaway threat, he just moves the chains.  Pitt's rushing offense was not great (#98 in close games), and the O-line has to replace 3 starters.  McCoy will serve as a nice play-action decoy, but I'm not convinced that the sophomore stud will carry the Panthers toward a Big East title run.

Verdict: Pittsburgh gets West Virginia and Rutgers at home, and they should by all means be improved enough to make a bowl game in Dave Wannstedt's fourth season.  But they'll have to show me they're better than Rutgers, USF, Cincy, and (of course) West Virginia before I believe it.  They have a lot of ground to make up.

Louisville (3-4)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Offensive Line Yards & close-game rushing
  • Defensive Passing Success Rates
  • Offensive Passing Down Success
  • Q1 Offense

Top Ranks

#2: Offensive 1st Downs S&P+
#2: Offensive Passing Downs Passing S&P+
#2: Offensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#3: Offensive Redzone S&P+, Offensive 2nd Down Passing S&P+, Defensive 3rd Down Line Yards+

Bottom Ranks

#125: Defensive Redzone Passing S&P+
#125: Defensive Q1 Passing S&P+
#123: Defensive Passing S&P+ (close games)
#119: Defensive Non-Passing Downs Passing S&P+

Hi, remember us?  We're the 2007 Preseason Top 10 Louisville Cardinals.  We had one of the best offenses in the country, but we gave up 30+ points seven times.  Our defense was so bad that we actually managed to hurt the draft stock of Brian Brohm...and he plays on offense!

In a conference full of strong pass defenses, Louisville's was a Grade-A disaster.  While the offense ranked in the Top 20 in 20 '+' categories, they ranked #80 or worse in 25 defensive categories, almost all of them passing related (their run defense actually ranked a thoroughly decent #40!).  The return of FS Latarrius Thomas from injury, not to mention the return of lots of guys with starting experience, means that the Cards' D won't be as bad in '08, but...well, there's a long way to go, no?  And that road gets even longer when you notice that Louisville will have 3 new starters at LB.

The offense, on the other hand, will still be rather proficient.  Hunter Cantwell's been waiting for his chance to shine at QB for a couple years now (he was solid as Brian Brohm's backup in '06), and he'll be pushed by Matt "Phil's Other Son" Simms (or not).  Big Brock Bolen (6'0, 238) steps into the RB limelight and should do just fine--that system seems to do just fine with big backs.  The main question mark (other than having to replace 2.5 starters on the OL) comes with the fact that they lose their top four receivers from '07.  You have to figure Louisville's been able to attract WRs to play in this system, and guys like RSFr Josh Chichester and sophomore Doug Beaumont were rather highly-touted, but there's always a concern when a bunch of guys are playing go-to roles to which they're unaccustomed.

Verdict: With Brohm and WRs Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia, last year was supposed to be a big year for Louisville to make some noise, but injury and incompetence led to a defensive disaster.  The defense won't be any worse in '08, but they might not be demonstrably better either.  Meanwhile, the lack of any sort of proven receivers is a huge concern.  Hunter Cantwell is good, and Louisville will certainly move the ball...but they'll need to move it a lot.  Again.


Syracuse (1-6)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Close-game Offense
  • 3rd Down Offense
  • Pass Offense
  • 3rd Down Defense

Top Ranks

#20: Defensive Q1 Line Yards+
#26: Defensive 1st Down Line Yards+
#36: Defensive Non-Passing Downs Line Yards+
#40: Defensive Q4 S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#125: Defensive Non-Passing Downs Passing S&P+
#124: Offensive 3rd Downs S&P+
#123: Offensive Line Yards+ (close games)
#123: Offensive Redzone Rushing S&P+, Offensive 3rd Down Passing S&P+

A decade ago, Donovan McNabb's Syracuse Orange(men) owned this place. They didn't have a losing season from 1987 to 2001!  Meanwhile, in the last three years, The 'Cuse has won a combined...seven games.  The last time they beat a team that finished with a winning record was November 27, 2004.  TWO THOUSAND FOUR.  The 2007 version played seven teams that finished with winning records...and lost all seven by an average of 27.3 points.  The closest they came were 21-point losses to Illinois and Cincinnati.  They lost to Washington by 30.  AT HOME.  To say this is head coach Greg Robinson's last shot is baffling, simply because I have no idea how he's getting another shot.

But let's look at positives here.  Syracuse's defensive line really wasn't half bad.

And now for the negatives.

Okay, that wasn't fair.  Let me elaborate on the D-line for a second.  DT Arthur Jones is a big-time play-maker (he had 17.5 tackles for loss in '07...next highest on the team: 6).  The problem is, he's going to be surrounded by new blood, as one full-time starter and two part-time starters graduated.  DE Brandon Gilbeaux isn't bad, though, and this still represents the strongest unit on the team.

Also: QB Andrew Robinson isn't half-bad.  And WR Mike Williams gives him a pretty solid target.  And the LB corps should improve.

NOW for the negatives: everything else.  There is no RB of any proven quality.  The wretched O-line is actually less experienced this year.  And while there's decent experience in the secondary...well...how much improvement do you really expect in one offseason?

Verdict: I like underdog stories, and I always liked Syracuse growing up.  But I just don't know how to spin this season positively at all.  If there's somehow some improvement here, the schedule's manageable with home games against Akron, Northeastern, Louisville, and UConn and a winnable road trip to Northwestern.  But...well...I just don't see how they manage "some improvement".


Notre Dame (3-9)

Game-Changing Stats

  • Q3 Offense
  • Rushing Offense
  • Offensive Points Per Play
  • Overall Defense

Top Ranks

#12: Defensive Q4 Passing S&P+
#14: Defensive Passing Downs Passing S&P+
#16: Defensive Q4 S&P+
#21: Defensive Q2 Passing S&P+, Offensive Redzone Rushing S&P+

Bottom Ranks

#126: Offensive Q1 S&P+
#126: Offensive 1st Down Passing S&P+, Offensive 2nd Down Passing S&P+
#126: Offensive Q3 Passing S&P+
#125: Offensive Passing S&P+ (close games) - and 3 other offensive categories

You know how bad Louisville's defense was last year.  Notre Dame's offense was twice that bad.  In my 50 offensive '+' categories, Notre Dame was #100 or worse in thirty-three of them.  They were quite legitimately the worst D1 offense in the country last year.  Not the worst BCS program offense--the worst offense, period.  Yes, they were extremely (extremely) young.  And yes, there are former blue-chip recruits across the board.  But...they were worse than the generic 1-AA teams in most categories.  They were horrendous.  Improvement is almost guaranteed in '08, but as I just asked with 'Cuse...how much can you expect one unit to improve in one offseason?

For Jimmy Clausen to manage a 7-6 TD-INT ratio and complete 56% of his passes behind such a bad offensive line shows that he really should end up a pretty damn good QB when all is said and done.  Four starters return on the line, so his protection should be a little better.  The only (other) problem is that there is nothing even resembling a go-to WR on the roster.  Junior Robby Parris gained a respectable 361 receiving yards (12.4 per catch), but...those are decent numbers for a #3 receiver.  Parris was the #1 WR.  Somebody must emerge as a big-play threat, and while it's possible one may emerge...I don't have a clue who it will be.  Meanwhile, there is some potential at RB, but again...somebody needs to seize the reins.  James Aldridge is a former 5-star recruit, but his 3.8 yards per carry leave something to be desired.  Robert Hughes, a 5'11, 238-pound bowling ball, thrived in the last two games against Duke and Stanford, but that's a pretty small sample size.  Charlie "The God of Offense" Weis needs to press some right buttons here...assuming one exists.

IF the O-line can block somebody, and IF a RB is found, and IF a go-to WR is found, the defense should be decent enough to get them to 6-6 (and that's an automatic Fiesta Bowl bid for Notre Dame, right?  I kid).  Hiring Jon Tenuta as DC was a nice move--his 3-4 defenses at Georgia Tech didn't necessarily have All-American talent, but they attacked well and confused the crap out of opponents, and his style should fit well here.  He's got lots of decent LBs to choose from, especially Maurice Crum, so the 3-4 should work relatively well.  I'm not totally sure about the D-line, but the secondary, led by FS David Bruton and a solid stable of CBs, should do well.

In other words, I don't know that ND's defense will be as good or better than last year's unit--there's not a lot of proven star-power.  But I'm guessing Jon Tenuta + good LBs + talent in secondary = good.

Verdict:  So if the offense is better in a "can't be any worse" way...and the defense is good...then something of a turnaround is possible.  One problem: they only lost one game by less than 13 points.  I mean, how much do you think the offense is really going to improve?  Lucky for them, the schedule is more manageable...and there's at least some potential for 6 or 7 wins thanks to that.

BALANCE OF POWER

  1. West Virginia
  2. Rutgers
  3. Cincinnati
  4. South Florida
  5. Pittsburgh
  6. UConn
  7. Louisville
  8. Syracuse

SCHEDULE

West Virginia

Likely Wins (8): Villanova, @ East Carolina, Marshall, Syracuse, @ UConn, @ Louisville, USF

Likely Losses: none

Tossups (4): @ Colorado, Rutgers, Auburn, @ Pittsburgh

Prediction: Beat CU and Auburn, get revenge on Pittsburgh...and lose to Rutgers.  I think they'll randomly slip up against somebody, and Rutgers is as good a candidate as anybody.  They only outgained RU by about 60 yards last year, but a +4 turnover margin led to an easy WV win.  So there you go.  Unlike with USC, when I said I thought they'd slip up, but I didn't know to whom, I'm picking the "to whom" with WV.  11-1 (6-1).

Rutgers

Likely Wins (7): Fresno State, @ Navy, Morgan State, UConn, Syracuse, Army, Louisville

Likely Losses: none

Tossups (5): North Carolina, @ West Virginia, @ Cincinnati, @ Pittsburgh, @ USF

Prediction: Really?  They play at all four of the Big East's other good teams?  Good god.  Okay, beat UNC and (gulp) WV, lose to Cincy and Pitt, beat USF.  10-2 (5-2).

Cincinnati

Likely Wins (6): Eastern Kentucky, Miami-OH, @ Akron, @ Marshall, Syracuse, @ Hawaii

Likely Losses (2): @ Oklahoma, @ West Virginia

Tossups (5): Rutgers, @ UConn, USF, @ Louisville, Pittsburgh

Prediction: Beat Rutgers, beat UConn, beat USF, lose to Louisville, beat Pitt.  10-3 (5-2).

South Florida

Likely Wins (4): UT-Martin, @ Florida International, Syracuse, UConn

Likely Losses (1): @ West Virginia

Tossups (7): @ Central Florida, Kansas, @ NC State, Pittsburgh, @ Louisville, @ Cincinnati, Rutgers

Prediction: No idea what to do with this team.  Beat UCF, lose to KU, get upset by NC State, beat Pitt, beat Louisville, lose to Cincy, lose to Rutgers.  6-6 (4-3).  I call them a strong team, then I almost pick them to miss a bowl.  I dislike my Big East picks already.

Pittsburgh

Likely Wins (5): Bowling Green, Buffalo, @ Syracuse, @ Navy, Louisville

Likely Losses: none

Tossups (7): Iowa, @ USF, Rutgers, @ Notre Dame, @ Cincinnati, @ UConn, West Virginia

Prediction: Beat Iowa, lose to USF, beat Rutgers, lose to ND and Cincy, beat UConn, almost upset WV again.  8-4 (4-3).

UConn

Likely Wins (3): Hofstra, @ Temple, Baylor

Likely Losses (4): @ UNC, @ Rutgers, West Virginia, @ South Florida

Tossups (5): Virginia, @ Louisville, Cincinnati, @ Syracuse, Pittsburgh

Prediction: Beat Virginia, lose to Louisville, lose to Cincy and Pitt, beat Syracuse.  5-7 (1-6).

Louisville

Likely Wins (2): Tennessee Tech, Middle Tennessee

Likely Losses (3): @ Pittsburgh, West Virginia, @ Rutgers

Tossups (7): Kentucky, Kansas State, UConn, @ Memphis, South Florida, @ Syracuse, Cincinnati

Prediction: Okay, beat Kentucky, lose to K-State, beat UConn and Memphis, lose to USF, beat Syracuse, upset Cincy.  7-5 (3-4).

Syracuse

Likely Wins (1): Northeastern

Likely Losses (8): @ Northwestern, Penn State, Pittsburgh, @ West Virginia, @ USF, @ Rutgers, @ Notre Dame, @ Cincinnati

Tossups (3): Akron, Louisville, UConn

Prediction: I'll be nice and say they beat Akron.  But that's it.  2-10 (0-7).

Notre Dame

Likely Wins (4): San Diego State, Purdue, Stanford, Navy, Syracuse

Likely Losses (1): @ USC

Tossups (7): Michigan, @ Michigan State, @ North Carolina, @ Washington, Pittsburgh, @ Boston College

Prediction: Lose to Michigan, lose to Mich State, lose to UNC, lose to Washington (really? I picked that?), beat Pittsburgh, beat BC.  6-6.  I could certainly see them winning 3-4 of these tossups, but hey...6-6 is still bowl eligible.

STANDINGS (sigh)

West Virginia (6-1)
Cincinnati (5-2)
Rutgers (5-2)
Pittsburgh (4-3)
South Florida (4-3)
Louisville (3-4)
UConn (1-6)
Syracuse (0-7)

Notre Dame (6-6)

BOWLS

Fiesta Bowl: West Virginia (11-1)
Gator Bowl: Rutgers (10-2)
Meineke Car Care Bowl: Cincinnati (10-3)
Papajohns.com Bowl: Pittsburgh (8-4)

International Bowl: Louisville (7-5)
St. Petersburg Bowl: South Florida (6-6)

Other Bowl-Eligible Teams:
Notre Dame (6-6)