Georgia Tech Vs. Utah, Hyundai Sun Bowl 2011: Moving The Goalposts

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 8: Stephen Hill of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets carries the ball against the Maryland Terrapins at Bobby Dodd Stadium on October 8, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Utah nearly won the weak Pac-12 South solely because of a stellar defense, a unit that will be exposed to the Flexbone for the first time all season. If they can slow down Tevin Washington and the Tech run game, they will have a chance, but the Utes' offense is likely incapable of winning a shootout.

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

First impression: did Georgia Tech have a good season this year? And what about Utah?

These two teams entered this season with varying expectations. Utah was predicted by some (okay, me) to seriously challenge for the Pac-12 South, while Georgia Tech was just hoping to bounce back from a disappointing, often ugly 2010 season. Then, in the first month of the season, Tech looked so explosive that I was writing "Is Georgia Tech for real?" columns, and Utah hung tough with USC and destroyed BYU. Expectations changed drastically, and then both teams fell apart to a degree. Georgia Tech's deep balls stopped connecting, and Utah lost their quarterback and started conference play 0-4. And then things flipped again -- Tech whipped Clemson, while Utah won four games in a row to briefly seize control of their division. And then ... crushing losses to chief rivals (Georgia Tech to Georgia, Utah to new division rival Colorado). In the end, both teams had endured exciting, disappointing, and reasonably acceptable seasons. Considering we are dealing with a sample size of just 12 games, the goal posts for both of these teams moved quite a bit in 2011.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Georgia Tech 8-4 NR 42 21 59 94
Utah 7-5 NR 55 100 10 37
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Georgia Tech 47 39 27 92
Utah 117 102 88 17

For the season, Tech exceeded their expectations by a bit, and Utah underachieved. Utah's defense was Pac-12 ready, however, and should provide an interesting matchup with the Tech offense. Tech is favored because Utah's offense has been mostly dreadful, but if Utah can slow down the Tech flexbone, they will obviously give themselves a chance.

When Georgia Tech Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Georgia Tech Offense 21 14 10 22 14 8 31
Utah Defense 10 16 19 22 12 16 19
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Georgia Tech Offense 87.4% 21 60.0% 17
Utah Defense 49.9% 16 34.3% 22
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Here's what I wrote back in late-September:

Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech career has spanned 44 games at this point. They have completed at least three passes of 30-plus yards in a game six times (three times this season), and they've won all six of those games. They have completed at least two passes of 30+ yards with at least a 46-percent completion percentage ten times (including all four of this year's games), and they've won all 10 of those games. Tech doesn't have to pass much to succeed -- in fact, in Johnson's tenure they are just 2-4 when passing more than 16 times in a game (since passing that much usually means they're losing) -- but they do need to show just enough proficiency to peel defenders away from the line of scrimmage. And with the generally precise execution in the run game, lord knows they will have some pretty open throws to make at times. The problem in 2010 was that either Josh Nesbitt couldn't make the throws or Stephen Hill and Orwin Smith couldn't catch them. This year is a different story.

A month into the season, Stephen Hill had caught 14 of 18 passes thrown his way (a 78 percent catch rate) and gained 462 receiving yards (25.7 per target). Tech's success in throwing the deep ball was staggering, better than it ever was during Demaryius Thomas' stay in Atlanta. But Hill and company regressed, either to the mean or to better defenses. For the rest of the season, Hill caught just 12 of 34 passes (35 percent) for 323 yards (9.5 per target). Orwin Smith's influence on the offense was minimized as well. They made the early difference between the typical Georgia Tech offense and the amazing September version, but it was not a pace they could sustain. As the year progressed, one saw a lot more of quarterback Tevin Washington's legs and a lot more of big B-Back David Sims. The offense still moved, but not nearly as swiftly.

There is no particular recipe for success when it comes to stopping a good flexbone attack, but with Utah's general strengths, one has to figure they'll have a chance to slow down the Jackets. Utah was 16th in the country in Rushing S&P+, with a couple of interesting playmakers at the defensive tackle position. Star Lotulelei and Joe Kruger (combined: 14 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) were two of six Utes to rack up at least five tackles for loss in the regular season, and if there is one thing we know can shake up a flexbone (or any other offense, really), it is big defensive linemen caving in the inside of the line and forcing the quarterback to make early decisions. If Lotulelei, Kruger and backup Tevita Finau have big games, Utah is in good shape. Meanwhile, Utah has quite a few playmakers in the secondary -- free safety Eric Rowe (a true freshman) and corners Conroy Black and Ryan Lacy, to name three -- and could feast on Washington's passes if Tech is leveraged into passing downs.

When Utah Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Utah Offense 100 107 110 113 109 109 103
Georgia Tech Defense 59 59 58 53 78 94 43
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Utah Offense 65.3% 102 35.0% 113
Georgia Tech Defense 62.9% 92 31.1% 72
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Utah will probably be forced to make quite a few plays on defense (and win big on special teams, which isn't necessarily too difficult against Georgia Tech) because it is difficult to imagine them keeping up in a shootout. It is odd to say that about an offense that featured a 1,400-yard rusher (John White IV), but it's true. White torched a good BYU run defense for 174 yards in 22 carries, but against the other two defenses he faced that ranked in the Top 45 of Def. Rushing S&P+ (USC, California), he averaged just 2.7 yards per carry. He averaged a decent 4.8 yards per carry against teams ranked in the 60s, and he actually got shut down by two awful run defenses (2.6 per carry versus Washington and Colorado).

Utah is a run-first attack, but if your defense has some life, "run first" will quickly turn into second- and third-and-long. And that is not a situation in which quarterback Jon Hays has tended to succeed. Hays took over for injured former blue-chipper Jordan Wynn in the fourth game of the year and completed just 57 percent of his passes for 6.9 yards per pass and was sacked 24 times (a sack rate of 11 percent). Hays managed a passer rating above 130 just three times in nine starts, and those three were against Washington (74th in Passing S&P+), Arizona (71st) and Colorado (89th).

So if Utah struggles against defenses with life, the next question is simple: does Georgia Tech's defense have life? Yes and no. They are strong where Utah is weak and weak where Utah seems strong. Their 3-4 line can be pushed around against a good running attack (99th in Adj. Line Yards), but if they leverage you into passing downs, they can pressure the hell out of you (27th in Adj. Sack Rate). Twenty different Yellow Jackets recorded a tackle for loss, led by linebackers Jeremiah Attaochu and Julian Burnett (combined: 18 tackles for loss, seven sacks). Utah's inexperienced offensive line ranked 107th or worse in both line categories, so it is unclear whether they will be able to take advantage of Tech's deficiencies.

The Verdict

Georgia Tech by 3.7.

The Ramblin' Wreck gets the nod because it is impossible to trust Utah's offense. But if John White IV is finding room to run early, and Tech isn't immediately gashing the Utes with the option, then perceptions of this game could change pretty quickly. Georgia Tech was quite schizophrenic this season, and Utah saved their best efforts for their best opponents. Tech should rightfully be favored (current line: -2.5), but you should also be rightfully worried about trusting them too much. This may have been a semi-successful season for Georgia Tech (depending on which set of expectations you use), but they showed just enough cracks to make this one interesting.

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

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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