Cincinnati Vs. Vanderbilt, Liberty Bowl 2011: High Memphis Watchability

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 29: Zac Stacy #2 of the Vanderbilt Commodores breaks away from the Arkansas Razorbacks defense for a touchdown during play at Vanderbilt Stadium on October 29, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee. Arkansas won 31-28. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

If Zach Collaros is healthy, and the Vanderbilt of the second half of the season makes an appearance, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl is likely to be the most watchable, enjoyable game of the day.

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

Before bowls began, I named Cincinnati-Vanderbilt the most watchable of all bowls, at least for the fans of wild, MACtion-like play. Needless to say, games like Toledo-Air Force and Baylor-Washington set the bar pretty high in that regard, and in general, a good percentage of this year's bowls have been highly enjoyable. But you might want to watch Cincinnati-Vanderbilt, just in case, especially now that Cincinnati's Zach Collaros might be back in the fold. Two teams that are most likely legitimately excited to be in this bowl, with two (relatively) nearby fanbases, a good location, and offenses that can make big plays? Yes, please.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Cincinnati 9-3 NR 25 26 49 28
Vanderbilt 6-6 NR 49 54 36 58
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Cincinnati 69 58 26 43
Vanderbilt 100 55 1 67

On paper, Cincinnati does have quite a few advantages here. With Collaros, their offense is the single best unit in the game, the defense makes a ton of exciting plays, and the Bearcats were semi-steady all season before Collaros got hurt. But the possibility for glitches is high, and Vanderbilt improved by leaps and bounds as the season progressed. And with high MACtion potential (big plays, in both directions, on passing downs), but should be a fun one.

When Cincinnati Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Cincinnati Offense 26 40 21 66 25 20 58
Vanderbilt Defense 36 28 52 48 21 39 29
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Cincinnati Offense 61.3% 51 36.9% 21
Vanderbilt Defense 59.7% 18 38.5% 59
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

It is somehow easy to forget this, but two years ago, Cincinnati was inches away from a national title bid. If Hunter Lawrence's field goal drifts ever-so-slightly to the left (or Colt McCoy waits a tenth of a second longer to throw the ball out of bounds one play prior), the Bearcats would have played (and been whipped by) Alabama in the BCS championship. They almost certainly didn't have the defense to beat Alabama by any means, but their offense ranked second in Off. F/+ that season. With Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns and D.J. Woods catching passes from Tony Pike and Isaiah Pead running (occasionally) through large holes, the Bearcats were well-rounded and explosive. And when Pike got hurt, Zach Collaros replaced him, and the offense almost got better.

Two years later, Collaros' career ends with one more game than he possibly expected when he broke his ankle versus West Virginia on November 12. He is likely to play and lead what is still a reasonably well-rounded, if big-play dependent, offense. The passing game has left something to be desired -- Woods, also a senior, has caught just 48 percent of passes targeting him, and none of the top three receivers (Woods, Anthony McClung, Kenbrell Thompkins) averaged better than 8.1 yards per target (only McClung averaged better than 7.3). The numbers faltered when Munchie Legaux (47-percent completion rate) took over for Collaros, but they weren't that good before, either. The strength of this offense lies in the big-play ability of the run game. Pead (1,110 rushing yards, plus-12.8 Adj. POE, 304 receiving yards) and both Collaros and Legaux (combined: 572 pre-sack rushing yards, plus-15.1 Adj. POE) are agile, smart runners.

In terms of efficiency and explosiveness, it's strength versus strength, weakness versus weakness when Cincinnati has the ball. Vanderbilt has been wonderfully adept at preventing the big plays Cincinnati tends to generate, but the Commodores were not amazingly efficient. First-year coordinator Bob Shoop inherited a reasonably experienced unit and turned it into the best Vanderbilt defense since their 2008 bowl season. The defensive line makes its share of plays, primarily against the run (end Tim Fugger and tackle Rob Lohr combined for 24.5 tackles for loss), but the strength is an aggressive secondary that either intercepted or broke up 66 passes in 2011, No. 22 in the country. Corners Casey Hayward (five picks, nine passes broken up) and Trey Wilson (three and seven) are rock solid, and safeties Sean Richardson, Javon Marshall and Kenny Ladler have been rock solid. They will need to establish more of a pass rush in the future.

When Vanderbilt Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Vanderbilt Offense 54 59 41 53 38 13 78
Cincinnati Defense 49 48 31 63 58 41 77
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Vanderbilt Offense 65.8% 74 40.1% 15
Cincinnati Defense 54.8% 99 21.2% 16
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

The team that runs better, probably wins the Liberty Bowl. Cincinnati might struggle to pass efficiently versus the Commodores' defense, and meanwhile, Vanderbilt really hasn't thrown very well all season. Things improved as the season progressed -- after a dreadful start, quarterback Jordan Rogers managed a QB rating of at least 140 in four of the last five games -- but Vanderbilt succeeds when running back Zac Stacy (1,136 yards, with a plus-24.0 Adj. POE that is 11th-best in the country) is running well. He averaged 7.3 yards per carry (and scored 10 touchdowns) in Vandy wins, 4.6 (with three touchdowns) in Vandy losses. And for what it's worth, Vandy can be pretty dangerous through the air when Good Jordan Matthews is on. He was amazingly all or nothing -- 19.5 yards per catch, with just a 51-percent catch rate. Chris Boyd is a decent No. 2 (404 yards, 58-pecent catch rate), but the options dry up awfully quickly after that.

Speaking of all-or-nothing, meet your Cincinnati defense, ladies and gentlemen! The Bearcats were dreadful on standard downs (what I've often called the game-planning downs); run or pass (but especially pass), you can pretty much do whatever you want on first downs, or on second- and third-and-short. But if you fall into second- or third-and-long, they rain hellfire upon you. They are a Top 20 defense on passing downs, with a Top 25 Adj. Sack Rate. The line is full of play-makers -- tackles Derek Wolfe and "Breakfast Club" John Hughes both combined for 32 tackles for loss and opened up avenues for middle linebacker J.K. Schaffer to make all sorts of plays -- 76.0 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, three picks, three forced fumbles and six passes broken up.

Vanderbilt's offense is far from amazing, but it still improved a significant amount in James Franklin's (and offensive coordinator Herb Hand's) first season in charge. The Commodores ranked 113th in Off. F/+ last year and were dreadful in nearly every category; that they have improved to mediocre through the air and downright good on the ground is worth celebrating. We'll see what the ceiling is at Vandy, but 2011 was a strong first step.

The Verdict

Cincinnati by 4.3.

There is no question that Vanderbilt was a better team over the last half of the season; in the first six games, their Adj. Scoring Margin was minus-1.7, and in the second half it was plus-6.9. Momentum tends to vanish with the bowl break, but actual improvement really doesn't. If second-half Vandy shows up, and Collaros is healthy enough to truly play like Zach Collaros, then this game has a very high ceiling. James Franklin's Vandy era is beginning as the Collaros-Pead-Woods era at Cincy ends, and aside from maybe Northwestern-Texas A&M, this is likely to be the most fun, watchable game of the day.

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

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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