Oregon Vs. Arizona State: Minus LaMichael James, Are 2011 Ducks Still Better?

Is Oregon a better team in 2011 than they were during their 2010 run to the BCS title game? And how much might the absence of LaMichael James hurt them versus a formidable Arizona State team?

At this point last year, Oregon was beginning to become my nemesis. No matter what they did, no matter how good they looked, their Football Outsiders ratings lagged. Was it because the effects of one of their primary weapons -- pace -- was not really accounted for in a per-play measure? Were they a victim of the marginalization of garbage time numbers (they had the tendency to slowly pull away from lesser opponents, then score about nine touchdowns once the game was out of the reach of close-game stats)? Was their schedule just that weak?

Oregon ended up coming within three points of winning the national title last year despite iffy opponent-adjusted stats. This year, their advanced stats are ... better?

Is Oregon Better In 2011?

As should be obvious, coming up with strong assumptions about a team after only four or five games is very difficult. Most teams have played only one or two real opponents, and most have mixed in a cupcake or two along the way. Full-season schedules are incredibly disparate from team to team, and half-season schedules are even worse. You have to count on opponent adjustments that don't really have their intended effect until all games have been played. No matter how the game may have played out, the fact that Oregon played LSU in September has likely had as much of a positive impact on Oregon's advanced stats as playing Portland State and New Mexico had a negative impact last year.

But did one game have this much of an impact? Last year, after six weeks...

  • ...Oregon ranked 18th in Overall F/+. This year: eighth.
  • ...Oregon ranked 19th in Off. S&P+, 38th in Def. S&P+. This year: third and 13th, respectively.
  • ...Oregon ranked 22nd in Off. Rushing S&P+. This year: third.
  • ...Oregon ranked 43rd in Off. Standard Downs S&P+. This year: first.
  • ...Oregon ranked 66th in Q1 Off. S&P+, 24th in Q2. This year: fourth and third, respectively.
  • ...Oregon ranked 71st in Def. Success Rate+. This year: 13th.

Oregon is finding fifth gear much faster so far this year, and they are playing extremely efficient defense, and it is making an impact on the Ducks' overall ratings. Of course, better statistics don't matter all that much -- with their loss to LSU, they will need quite a bit of help in getting back to the national title game this year -- but the differences between last year and this year are quite striking. But this is an important detail considering their opponent this weekend. Arizona State traded blows with Oregon for most of the game but made some crippling mistakes (turnovers on top of turnovers) in a 42-31 loss. The Sun Devils have improved quite a bit in 2011 -- they currently rank 23rd in overall F/+ after ranking 36th last year -- and could give Oregon a game in Autzen Stadium. It should be heartening to Ducks fans to know that their team has also improved.

Of course, they won't be quite as good if their Heisman finalist can't suit up.

How Much Might Oregon Miss LaMichael James?

At Football Outsiders, one of the many tools at our disposal is something called Highlight Yards. The concept is simple: we use "Line Yards" to evaluate the effectiveness an offensive line has on a given run play. Based on Outsiders' research, the definition for Line Yards is as follows:

Statistic which attempts to, even to a small extent, separate the ability of a running back from the ability of the offensive line. Adjusted Line Yards begin as a measure of average rushing yards per play by running backs only, adjusted in the following way:

  • 0-4 yards: 100% strength
  • 5-10 yards: 50% strength
  • 11+ yards: not included
  • runs for a loss: 120% strength

In theory, if you apply these yards to the line itself, then the remaining yards can be applied to the player actually running with the ball. Highlight Yards are those leftovers. Highlight Yards = Yards - Line Yards. And LaMichael James racks up more Highlight Yards than just about anybody else in the country.

2011 Highlight Yards Per Carry (min. 30 carries)
1. Orwin Smith, Georgia Tech (9.21)
2. Henry Josey, Missouri (5.93)
3. Jeff Demps, Florida (5.53)
4. LaMichael James, Oregon (5.36)
5. Troy Pollard, Illinois (5.27)
6. Michael Smith, Utah State (5.18)
7. Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt (5.05)
8. Asher Clark, Air Force (5.01)
9. Eddie Lacy, Alabama (4.70)
10. Bryant Moniz, Hawaii (4.66)

James has posted a strong average despite carrying the ball almost twice as much as anybody else on the list (he has 95 carries; the second-most on the list: Josey's 55). And of high-volume rushers (i.e. those with more than 75 carries this year), his per-carry average is by far the best in the country. No. 2: Miami's Lamar Miller, at just 3.75 Highlight Yards per carry. Despite a struggle in the opener versus LSU, he is posting amazing numbers in 2011. And it appears he will probably miss the Arizona State game with a dislocated elbow. There has been no official word, but he has missed practice this week, and ... come on. He dislocated his elbow eight days ago. He should sit for at least one game, right?

What impact could James' absence have on the Ducks' running game? Let's start with Highlight Yardage. James' primary replacements -- Kenjon Barner (3.29 Highlight Yards Per Carry), De'Anthony Thomas (3.50) and Tra Carson (2.05) -- produce nowhere near the same per-carry impact. In filling James' 19 carries per game, Oregon can expect somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 60 fewer rushing yards. That could mean a couple of different things. First, it could result in a few more passing downs through which quarterback Darron Thomas will have to navigate. This is a problem considering the strengths of Arizona State's defense: the Sun Devils rank 40th in terms of Standard Downs S&P+ but 15th on passing downs. ASU wants to attack, and they are much more capable of doing so on passing downs.

This could also mean the need for more sustained drives. James is perhaps the country's most proven home run hitter from the running back position, and a one-play, 68-yard touchdown drive with James might have to become more of a seven- or eight-play drive.

Oregon has the No. 3 offense in the country in terms of Off. S&P+. Unless Cam Newton is your quarterback, one player does not a great offense make. James absence will damage the Ducks' explosiveness, but with what is once again one of the more underrated defenses in the country backing them up, Oregon will quite likely score enough points to take away the win tomorrow night.

For more on this game, visit Oregon blog Addicted To Quack and Arizona State blog House of Sparky.

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