Florida State Vs. Notre Dame, Champs Sports Bowl 2011: Can Eight-Win Teams Be Elite?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - NOVEMBER 12: EJ Manuel #3 of the Florida State Seminoles passes during a game against against the Miami Hurricanes at Doak Campbell Stadium on November 12, 2011 in Tallahassee, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

The most casual fans probably think that Florida State and Notre Dame are still annual top-10 teams, and this year the stats actually agree. Why didn't the wins follow? Also, from SI.com: Champs Sports Bowl FAQ.

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

It's funny how things work out. Each year, we can count on certain historical powers to be overrated and overestimated by the talking heads of the college football world. Nebraska, Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame ... at least a couple of them are going to be given the benefit of the doubt, then called disappointments when they inevitably don't live up to unrealistic expectations.

At first glance, it is easy to nominate tonight's Champs Sports Bowl participants, Florida State and Notre Dame, for this year's overrated powers. The Seminoles began the season ranked sixth in the country, Notre Dame 16th. Both went 8-4, and both finished all but unranked, with FSU able to hold on to the 25th spot. Only ... from a statistical standpoint, they produced at almost exactly the level most expected. For one reason or another (injuries, turnovers, bad luck, bad calls, etc.), the wins simply did not follow. FSU went 1-3 in one-possession games, and Notre Dame began the season by handing over an incredible amount of turnovers in losses to South Florida and Michigan. The wins were there for the taking, but neither team took them.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Florida State 8-4 25 8 34 8 1
Notre Dame 8-4 NR 13 22 17 42
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Florida State 112 6 40 18
Notre Dame 64 40 101 30

Both of these teams tended to play best against lesser teams, which would suggest this may not necessarily be the most well-played game in the world. That said, the potential here is high -- of the units above (offense, defense, special teams), only Notre Dame's special teams rank worse than 34th -- and with the added bonus of comfortable, familiar helmets on display.

When Florida State Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Florida State Offense 34 50 52 56 49 57 48
Notre Dame Defense 17 12 18 12 14 3 28
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Florida State Offense 55.6% 33 33.8% 41
Notre Dame Defense 59.4% 14 39.0% 24
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Florida State appeared to enter the 2011 season with a fully-loaded offense. The entire receiving corps from last year would help E.J. Manuel ease into the role of full-time starter, the top three rushers returned, and 112 career starts returned on the offensive line. But receiver Taiwan Easterling decided to pursue professional baseball. And receiver Willie Haulstead was lost for the season with concussion issues. And star freshman receiver Rashad Greene missed four games. At running back, Chris Thompson was lost for the season after five games, Ty Jones was incredibly ineffective, and now their leader, Jermaine Thomas, is ineligible for the bowl because of grades. What was supposed to be a deep, experienced, athletic FSU offense was instead just athletic.

Of course, while injuries can ding you in the present tense, they often help in the future tense. The 'Noles could be all sorts of impressive, especially at receiver, in the future, and they still have plenty of interesting weapons at their disposal. Freshman running back Devonta Freeman (531 yards, plus-10.2 Adj. POE) looks like a keeper, and fellow freshman James Wilder, Jr. (150 yards, minus-0.5 Adj. POE) has shown potential. Receivers Rodney Smith (527 yards, 9.9 per target), Greene (497, 10.8), Bert Reed (385, 9.0), Kenny Shaw (354, 8.4) and Christian Green (447, 10.6) were all targeted between 42 and 53 times for the season, offering unintended balance. FSU keeps things mostly conservative, passing frequently on standard downs to keep defenses on their heels, then running a decent amount on passing downs.

The 'Noles will have their work cut out for them against a stout Notre Dame defense. The Irish suffered some untimely breakdowns (the fourth quarter against Michigan, for instance), but for the season as a whole, this was a strong unit. Despite only decent line play, the Irish were fantastic against the run, which suggests that the linebackers are stout. (The eyeballs agree with that one.) Manti Te'o (85.0 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss) and Darius Fleming (38.5 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss) fly all over the field, and safety Harrison Smith (66.5 tackles, two tackles for loss, 10 passes broken up) plays the "safety valve" role of the position quite well. Opponents attacked the Irish the same as Florida State will -- pass on standard downs, run on passing downs. If the Irish know what is coming, they will crush it.

When Notre Dame Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Notre Dame Offense 22 18 22 14 24 10 34
Florida State Defense 8 6 13 11 10 9 18
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Notre Dame Offense 52.8% 16 28.8% 18
Florida State Defense 60.1% 11 28.5% 18
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

I am in no way a Notre Dame fan, but I'll say this to start: Notre Dame had the most frustrating offense in the country in 2011. One moment, Tommy Rees is throwing accurately and efficiently, receiver Michael Floyd is looking the part of a pro-caliber, No. 1 receiver, Tyler Eifert is playing like the best tight end in the country, back Cierre Wood is grinding out seven-yard gains and 230-pound Jonas Gray is ripping off 79-yard touchdown runs and looking like the fastest player on the field. The next moment, Rees is throwing ridiculous interceptions, Wood is fumbling left and right, and Floyd is invisible. Only six BCS conference teams lost more turnovers than Notre Dame, and while some of that was luck (they lost 57 percent of their fumbles), a lot of that was simply poor discipline and poor timing.

When focused, this is a unit that can do everything, but Rees (2,708 yards, 66-percent completion rate, 6.8 yards per pass attempt, inc. sacks, 19 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) has pressed at times, and it's not a good look for him; meanwhile, Floyd was physical and reliable (70-percent catch rate), but his lack of explosiveness (11.6 yards per catch) and/or Rees' inability to consistently find players open downfield (only one player averaged over 12 yards per catch: Eifert) meant fewer big plays and easy scores. That occasional lack of explosiveness could hurt them against a well-rounded, ridiculously fast Seminoles defense.

Only nine teams managed more tackles for loss than Florida State's 91 -- the line, led by ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner (combined: 21 tackles for loss, 13 sacks), was phenomenal, ranking 12th in Adj. Line Yards and third in Adj. Sack Rate -- but the Seminoles' ability to prevent big plays was perhaps as or more impressive. Linebackers Nigel Bradham, Christian Jones and Vince Williams were No. 1, 2 and 4 in tackles for the 'Noles; not much got by them, and if you tried to throw over them, the secondary was good enough to avoid too much damage. This is an incredibly well-rounded unit, ranking in the Top 20 in every category listed above.

The Verdict

Florida State by 3.1.

These teams are rather evenly matched, with solid offenses and excellent defenses; the difference could come down to who makes fewer mistakes (advantage: FSU) and who gets the most out of their special teams unit (advantage: FSU). The 'Noles lead the nation in net punting and are good in every other aspect of special teams, and a healthy dose of Field Position Advantage (they're good in that category too) should lead them to a win. Then again, stats would have suggested more than eight wins this season, so ... we'll see.

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

MACtion: This is a look at how closely teams are associated with big-play football (like those high-scoring, mid-week MAC games). Teams that rank high on the MACtion scale play games with a ton of both big plays (gained and allowed) and passing downs. For more, go here.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

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