BYU Vs. Tulsa, Armed Forces Bowl 2011: Balance And Even Matchups

TULSA, OK - NOVEMBER 25: Quarterback G.J. Kinne #4 of the Tulsa Hurricanes scrambles in the first half against the Houston Cougars on November 25, 2011 at H.A. Chapman Stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Houston defeated Tulsa 48-16. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)

If you see BYU and Tulsa on the same field, you might immediately think the final score will be 63-60. But between BYU's beefy 3-4 and Tulsa's fast, active unit, the defenses might hold an advantage in this one. "Might" is the key word, of course -- Tulsa doesn't tend to play in defense-oriented bowl games.

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

BYU's first season as an independent, complete with seven home games (two against teams who went bowling in 2010), resulted in average home attendance about 1,100 lower than last season. The Cougars went it alone, barely beat Ole Miss, barely lost to Texas, got obliterated by Utah, then coasted through what was mostly a WAC schedule. I'm not sure what BYU fans' expectations actually were, but all things considered (especially an injury to former blue-chip quarterback Jake Heaps), aside from the embarrassing loss to Utah, things could have certainly been worse. BYU has a chance to win double-digit games for the fifth time in six seasons today in Dallas, but they will have to get past a sneaky Tulsa team to do so.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
BYU 9-3 NR 47 51 43 40
Tulsa 8-4 NR 40 45 39 31
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
BYU 30 44 49 102
Tulsa 24 28 82 70

Not only did Tulsa place an incredibly similar team on the field in 2011 -- in terms of offense, defense, special teams, pace, etc., the two teams' rankings were quite close -- but the Golden Hurricane endured the same type of season: early pain, followed by a nice run. Tulsa lost three of four to really good teams (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State) to start the season, then plowed through the Rices and Marshalls of the Conference USA slate. They got throttled by Houston to end the regular season, but considering they were breaking in a new head coach and lost their best play-maker to a felony embezzlement charge in late-August, this was a pretty good season at Skelly Stadium as well. If you like evenly-matched tossups, this is certainly a game you might want to watch.

When BYU Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
BYU Offense 51 51 61 47 59 60 45
Tulsa Defense 39 25 61 18 26 11 33
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
BYU Offense 58.1% 56 32.2% 32
Tulsa Defense 55.2% 28 25.0% 32
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

In four seasons under Todd Graham, Tulsa's defense had never ranked better than 75th in Def. F/+; in Bill Blankenship's first season, the Golden Hurricane fielded one of the country's better mid-major defenses. They were wonderfully efficient, particularly against the run, and they had no immediately obvious weaknesses. They improved by about 50 places in just about every single defensive category. They got lit up by elite offenses -- Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Boise State, Houston -- but most other defenses did, too. Opponents with less than elite offenses averaged just 17 points per game, and BYU certainly hasn't had an elite offense in 2011.

Both Tulsa's linebacking corps and secondary are fast and active, and they steer just about every play toward tackling machine Curnelius Arnick (116.5 tackles). Weakside linebacker Shawn Jackson and end Tyrunn Walker (combined: 20.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, 13 passes defended) are the major playmakers, but Tulsa also ranked 12th in the country in passes defended (interceptions and passes broken up). It was a team effort -- everybody from cornerbacks Milton Howell (10) and Lowell Rose (nine), to Walker (seven), to Bandit safety Dexter McCoil (10). Tulsa takes risks, and for the most part in 2011, it did not backfire. Will it against BYU?

Rarely does an offense get better when it replaces a blue-chipper in the backfield, but that is more or less what happened to BYU in 2011. The Cougars limped through much of the first month of the season, with Heaps completing just 54 percent of his passes for 5.2 yards per pass (with three touchdowns and five interceptions); Riley Nelson, who lost his starting job to Heaps the year before, came off the bench to lead a comeback win over Utah State, and aside from when he battled injuries in November, he was a notable upgrade. Nelson completed 61 percent of his passes at an explosive 9.1 yards per pass, and after averaging 21.3 Adj. Points per game in Heaps' first four starts, they averaged 32.7 over the final eight games. Nelson was a bit of a passing downs magician, establishing a strong connection with Cody Hoffman in particular (821 yards, 10.4 per target). The run game, led by J.J. Di Luigi (546 yards, minus-3.0 Adj. POE) and Michael Alisa (455 yards, plus-2.8 Adj. POE), was decent, but BYU clicks when their quarterback is dialed in, and Nelson looked pretty good through much of October and November ... good enough that Heaps announced his transfer at the end of the regular season.

When Tulsa Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Tulsa Offense 45 26 55 21 45 42 29
BYU Defense 43 33 51 39 47 25 65
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Tulsa Offense 62.6% 31 34.9% 36
BYU Defense 54.8% 43 29.6% 49
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

While a preliminary glance suggests Tulsa's defense could have an advantage over BYU's offense, the battle when Tulsa has the ball could not be more even. Tulsa attempts balance for the most part -- they attempt 40 rushes and 34 passes per game -- but BYU could derive an advantage simply by making them one-dimensional. Opponents very quickly caught on to the fact that you cannot run the ball very well against the Cougars' 3-4 defense. They ranked 22nd in Adj. Line Yards and 25th in Rushing S&P+, and five of seven members of the front seven are under-classmen. Sophomore Kyle Van Noy was the team's best overall playmaker -- 10 tackles for loss, five sacks, six passes defended, two forced fumbels, nine quarterback hurries -- but he got a lot of help from the hefty front three of Hebron Fanupo (330 pounds), Romney Fuga (320) and Eathyn Manumaleuna (295). The two-deep of the defensive line combined for just 12 tackles for loss, but they cleared the way for linebackers like Van Noy, Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga to eat up ball-carriers.

Tulsa will likely have to go to the air to succeed; BYU has a pair of very aggressive cornerbacks in Preston Hadley and Corby Eason, each of whom broke up 14 passes (and intercepted none, strangely enough), but they can be burned. Tulsa runs aggressive, downfield routes with the likes of Willie Carter (93 targets, 61 catches, 868 yards), Bryan Burnham (77 targets, 50 catches, 737 yards), Clay Sears (52 targets, 35 catches, 438 yards) and Jordan James (39 targets, 27 catches, 355 yards), and if quarterback G.J. Kinne succeeds in hitting some early targets, they could punish BYU's defense.

When Tulsa does attempt to run, they will do so with decent variety: Kinne rushed 102 times (474 yards, minus-4.9 Adj. POE), but backs Trey Watts, Ja'Terian Douglas and Alex Singleton combined for 339 carries (28 per game), 2,023 yards, and a plus-18.2 Adj. POE. Douglas, in particular, was a revelation; he is the definition of a home run threat, having averaged 8.2 yards per carry. It is difficult to figure out which unit will be able to derive an advantage here; each have distinct strengths.

The Verdict

Tulsa by 1.4.

For all intents and purposes, this game is a tossup. Tulsa doesn't make a habit of playing close bowl games -- the average margin in their last four bowls has been 32 points -- but which side might be more well-suited for a blowout is unclear. So much will depend on the early-going. Both offenses prefer balance and efficiency, so if one is made one-dimensional and, as a result, faces a few more passing downs, then they could be playing from behind all game.

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

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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