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Mizzou’s turnaround: Better play? Easier schedule?

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Or would you have sworn that it might have been both?

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Missouri
Barry Odom and Drew Lock have both done exceptional jobs in the past five weeks. The quality of their opposition hasn’t hurt, either.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday, I did a bad thing.

I got mad offline, which then led to getting mad online, which then led to tweeting something that made people get mad at me.

Well, I didn’t get mad, exactly. Just a little frustrated.

Watching SEC Network telecasts over the past two weeks, there seems to be a narrative emerging around The Speech.

Namely, it’s this: Missouri was bad. Barry Odom made a lectern-pounding speech after the Auburn loss. Then Missouri was fixed.

This ignores the fact that the Tigers lost their next two games after that speech. And that the teams they’ve been beating during this five-game win streak have been uniformly terrible. So, really, this miraculous turnaround job looks more and more like a notable improvement in Missouri’s on-field performance aided by an easy schedule down the back half of the season.

So I tweeted this:

And this:

And this:

And Missouri’s official recruiting Twitter account told me to chill out.

It’s not Odom or the team’s fault that this “speech, then turnaround” narrative is taking hold. Odom, in fact, has repeatedly downplayed the impact of “The Speech.”

It’s that dang, dirty media.

This isn’t the first time a speech has been given credit for turning around a season. Tim Tebow’s “promise” speech from 2008 is on a dang stone tablet. (And Florida even had to beat four ranked teams in the 10 straight wins that followed that speech. Not zero bowl teams...like Missouri...)

Odom and his staff did a fantastic job keeping the team together and making sure rock bottom didn’t get further and further down. This is true. Just as they did a poor job getting the team ready to start the season, leading to uncharacteristically bad losses against South Carolina and Purdue.

But, had the team played at an even keel all season, the second half was always going to be easier than the first. Of the Tigers’ final six opponents, Vanderbilt is in the best shape as a program.

I’m going to say that again, with overdramatic period placement for emphasis.

Of the Tigers’ final six opponents,, Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt. VANDERBILT. Is in the best shape. As a program.

So how much credit does the team deserve during this five- (probably soon to be six-)game win streak and how much credit goes to a garbage schedule?

That’s what we’re here to talk about.

I took the first five Power-5 opponents (since the nons don’t really matter this year...no, I never thought losing to Idaho and/or Connecticut was ever a remotely distinct possibility) Missouri lost to and the past three Power-5 ones the Tigers have beaten and saw how they all fared offensively and defensively against other Power-5 teams they’ve played this year. Then I looked at how Missouri’s numbers against those teams matched up with those teams’ numbers against all the other Power-5 teams they played.

In a nutshell, Missouri has been playing better...and their opponents have been much worse. Shocking, right?

Let’s go into the numbers a little bit. After each category, we’ll try to come to an accord of how much worse the more recent opponents are than the first five opponents, along with how much better Missouri has been.

Overall Record

This is the most stark measure.

Missouri’s first five Power-5 opponents have a .590 win percentage against Power-5 teams not named Missouri this season. The Tigers’ past three Power-5 opponents have a .227 win percentage.

All five of those first five (with a Purdue win over Indiana this week) can go to a bowl game. None of the past three can make a bowl. Let’s throw Idaho and Connecticut in there, too. They can’t, either.

The three Power-5 teams Missouri beat are 61 percent worse than the five the Tigers lost to, purely from a record standpoint.

But that’s not the whole story, is it? Let’s get at the whole story.

  • Opponents: 61 percent worse
  • Missouri: 100 percent better (well, actually undefined percent better, since we’re dividing by zero, but let’s bend the rules here)

Scoring

The back stretch is giving up 57 percent more points per game against Power-5 competition this year and scoring 31 percent fewer than the front stretch.

The Tigers are scoring 42 percent more points per game against the past three teams than other Power-5 teams have averaged and giving up 12 percent fewer points per game.

  • Opponents: 44 percent worse, on average, than the first five opponents
  • Missouri: 102 percent better, on average, than it was vs. the first five opponents

Rushing

These most recent teams rush for 32 percent fewer yards per game, 20 percent fewer yards per rush and 36 percent fewer touchdown per game than the first five. They give up 73 percent more rush yards per game, 43 percent more yards per rush and 139 percent more touchdowns per game.

Missouri is averaging 16 percent more yards per game against the past three opponents than the norm, 12 percent more yards per rush and 29 percent FEWER touchdowns per game. The Tigers are letting up 20 percent fewer rush yards than other teams, 22 percent fewer yards per rush and 72 percent fewer touchdowns per game.

  • Opponents: 42 percent worse
  • Missouri: 66 percent better

Passing

New teams: 5 percent worse in yards per game, 10 percent worse in yards per pass, 13 percent worse in passer rating than the old teams. Also giving up 15 percent FEWER yards per game, 14 percent more yards per pass and 7 percent worse passer rating.

Missouri is averaging 26 percent more pass yards per game against the past three teams than the norm, 19 percent more yards per pass and a 27-percent better passer rating. It is giving up 31 percent MORE pass yards per game, 1 percent more yards per pass and a 5-percent worse passer rating.

  • Opponents: 6 percent worse
  • Missouri: 19 percent better

Total Offense

New teams: 18 percent worse in yards per game than the old teams, 12 percent worse in yards per play. Also, 20 percent worse in yards per game allowed and 21 percent worse in yards per play.

Missouri is averaging 21 more yards per game and 16 percent more yards per play than the norm against these three teams, giving up 11 percent fewer yards per game and 3 percent fewer yards per play.

  • Opponents: 18 percent worse
  • Missouri: 30 percent better

Turnovers

New teams turn the ball over 27 percent more frequently than the old teams and get turnovers 18 percent less frequently.

Missouri gets turnovers against these teams 41 percent more frequently then the norm and gives the ball up 92 percent less frequently.

  • Opponents: 18 percent worse
  • Missouri: 210 percent better

(This is a big one...if you couldn’t tell)

Negative Plays

New teams give up both sacks and tackles for loss 15 percent more frequently than the old teams and get sacks 15 percent less frequently and tackles for loss 20 percent less frequently.

Missouri gets sacks 43 percent less frequently than the norm against these teams and gets tackles for loss 18 percent more frequently. The Tigers give up sacks 400 percent less frequently and tackles for loss 213 less frequently (danggggggggggg).

  • Opponents: 16 percent worse
  • Missouri: 67 percent better

3rd-Down Conversions

New teams: 17 percent worse at converting, 11 percent worse at giving up conversions.

Missouri: 26 percent better than the norm at converting, 4 percent WORSE at giving up conversions.

  • Opponents: 14 percent worse
  • Missouri: 42 percent better

Averages

  • Opponents: 27 percent worse
  • Missouri: 80 percent better

——-

So, in a very rudimentary fashion, Missouri’s “turnaround” is 75 percent performance, 25 percent schedule. Schedule strength is not a plurality, surely, but also definitely not something you can just discount when you tell the story of the 2017 season.

Here’s one question I’ve gotten: What would Missouri’s record be like if it had been playing this way all season?

We can take how the Tigers have performed against the norm in the past three games, apply it to the team’s norms from the first five games and see what we come up with.

We get 30.1 points per game against 24.6 points against. Wins against South Carolina, Purdue and Kentucky, losses to Auburn and Georgia.

So, 4-2 instead of 1-5. Sound good?

Well, hold up now. Let’s look at how many of these past three games Missouri would have won had it performed as far below the norm as it did in the first five games.

We get wins against Tennessee and Vanderbilt, a loss to Florida. This, to me, is a compelling argument for schedule having a hand in the turnaround.

Play the first five games like you played the last three, you get three games changed. Play the last three like you played the first five, only one changes.

Play like you have the past three games all season, you’re 9-2 right now. Play like you did the first five games all season, you’re 5-6 right now.

Not that different from the 6-5 you actually are.

Now, as an added bonus, let’s project Missouri for the entire season based on how it has fared against the norm on offense and defense all year.

We get to 5-6, with the wins coming against Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Again, not so different from the 6-5 we find ourselves in right now.

You see? Everything evens out in the end, approximately.

So maybe it was improved Missouri play. And an advantageously easy schedule.

And there’s nothing at all to be done about that.


If you want to disappear down the same rabbit hole I did for the past two days, here are the spreadsheets.

“Offense” and “Defense” refer to Missouri’s opponents in the first two sheets. They refer to Missouri in the final three.

A short glossary

PPT -- plays per turnover
PPPS — pass plays per sack (pass attempts plus sacks, divided by sacks)
PPTFL — plays per tackle for loss