The Washington State Cougars And The Value Of Improvement

A look at what's in store for the 2011 Washington State football team. The Cougars improved in 2010, but they will need to improve quite a bit more to secure coach Paul Wulff's job beyond this coming fall.

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.  Visit Football Study Hall for the complete set of profiles.

When Washington State scored 31 points in a shocking 17-point road upset of Oregon State last November 13, there was reason for celebration.  Why?  Pick a reason.  First conference road win since 2007.  First conference win, period, since 2008.  First time scoring 30 points against a BCS conference team in 31 attempts.  First time allowing under 20 points to a BCS conference team in 19 attempts.  For the first time since Paul Wulff took over in 2008, there was a sign of pure, unadulterated progress.

Granted, it came near the end of a 2-10 season, and granted, Wulff's record in Pullman is now a ghastly 3-32 versus FBS teams, but still ... progress is progress is progress, and Wazzu undeniably made some in 2010.  Enough, apparently, for Wulff to get a fourth year on the job.

This raises an interesting question, one that I brought up at Varsity Numbers when Charlie Weis' future at Notre Dame was in doubt following a 2009 season that saw the Irish improve incrementally.

Even though we know the odds are good that Weis will be removed from his duties, my question today is, Should he? If the last two coaches have achieved at precisely the same level as Weis, then what are the odds that a new coach wouldn't do exactly the same job? Should Notre Dame actually keep the same guy around for more than a handful of years to see if a long-term building project is the best idea?

Two things are relatively certain when discussing Weis' tenure in South Bend:

1. The program fell off the face of the planet in 2007 when Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija and company left town
2. They have shown steady improvement each of the last two years.

The improvement is hard to see when just looking at wins and losses -- the records show relative stagnation between 2008 and 2009 -- but the statistical improvement is there. [...] Maybe the fact that the Irish rank just 41st [in overall S&P+] in their fifth season is clear proof that Weis should be gone. Personally, I always err on the side of giving a coach more time. There's no question that 2007 was a disaster, and however Weis handled the massive turnover in personnel from 2006 to 2007, he erred significantly. But they improved in 2008 and have improved again in 2009. The personnel could dictate more improvement in 2010 no matter who the coach is, and it might as well be Weis leading (and potentially winning with) the players he recruited.

You could apply quite a bit of that to Wulff and Washington State.  When Wulff left Eastern Washington for Wazzu (after eight years and just two seasons with better than seven wins) in place of Bill Doba in 2008, the Cougars immediately fell from 5-7 and 60th in Football Outsiders' overall F/+ rankings* in 2007, to 2-11 and an incredible 118th, below such luminaries as 1-11 SMU, 2-10 Tulane and 0-12 Washington.  In 2009, things got even worse; Wazzu fell to 1-11 and 120th, dead last among all FBS teams, including mid-majors.

We'll come back to the historical ineptitude of the 2008-09 squads, but the fact is, the Cougars did indeed improve in 2010, and they did so with a young team.  Granted, I should have applied an "I think Weis should probably stay ... unless, of course, Notre Dame can woo Brian Kelly, who is an awesome coach" disclaimer to my Irish analysis above, but ... Brian Kelly wasn't coming to Pullman.  At this point, no matter how much of Wulff's mess was inherited and how much he created on his own, you might as well give him ample time to clean it up.  I would, of course, recommend Wulff win quite a bit in 2011 -- six wins would be nice, in fact.

2010 Schedule & Results**

 

 

Record: 2-10 | Adj. Record: 2-10 | Final F/+ Rk: 94
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Oklahoma State 17-65 L 17.3 - 32.1 L
11-Sep Montana State
23-22 W 13.5 - 34.9 L
18-Sep at SMU 21-35 L 22.3 - 34.1 L
25-Sep USC 16-50 L 18.3 - 38.6 L
2-Oct at UCLA 28-42 L 24.8 - 41.2 L
9-Oct Oregon 23-43 L 33.8 - 32.4 W
16-Oct Arizona 7-24 L 17.4 - 25.0 L
23-Oct at Stanford 28-38 L 40.7 - 26.3 W
30-Oct at Arizona State 0-42 L 15.5 - 35.6 L
6-Nov California 13-20 L 17.4 - 33.4 L
13-Nov at Oregon State 31-14 W 26.2 - 28.8 L
4-Dec Washington 28-35 L 31.3 - 39.1 L

 

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 19.6 106 35.8 110
Adj. Points Per Game 23.2 91 33.5 111

 

Improvement is typically not linear.  A team doesn't just get better one week, then a little better the next, and so on.  For Washington State, improvement was both modest and inconsistent.  The Cougars' offense averaged 17.9 Adj. PPG in their first four games, then 29.2 in the next four (coinciding with the emergence of freshman receiver Marquess Wilson, who had 21 catches for 456 yards in these games), then just 22.6 in their last four.

The defense, meanwhile, performed at an above-average level ("average" is about 27 Adj. Points per game) just twice, in back-to-back games, against Arizona and Stanford.

The purpose of Adj. Points is to spot trends after accounting for the opponent at hand.  Though neither Wazzu's real nor adjusted point margins were pretty in 2010, one can spot from the above chart noted improvement beginning in October.  The key, to state the obvious, will be to build off of that; any early regression to pre-October 2010 form will spell quick doom for Wulff.

Offense***

 

 

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 86 87 82
RUSHING 96 102 93 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 67 61 73 112
Standard Downs 90 104 80 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 64 65 72 114
Redzone 91 109 78

 

Q1 Rk 108 1st Down Rk 91
Q2 Rk 48 2nd Down Rk 89
Q3 Rk 81 3rd Down Rk 47
Q4 Rk 67

 

With sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel throwing to freshman Marquess Wilson and junior Jared Karstetter, Washington State fans found something that had been missing for a couple of years or more: hope.  Hope that Wulff and company would produce some actual, big-time FBS contributors, and hope that Washington State could actually compete athletically with other teams in their conference.

The amazing part about Wazzu's collapse was its depth; this wasn't like Vanderbilt finishing last in the SEC but still managing semi-respectable overall ratings -- this was a "worse than New Mexico State for two straight years" collapse.  To manage that, you have to be both poorly-coached and poorly-equipped to compete at the FBS level.  In Wilson and Tuel, specifically, Wulff has begun to produce actual athletes who can play at a high level.

Now he just needs more of them, particularly on the offensive line.  The line made Tuel run for his life (only five lines in the country were worse at preventing sacks) and made decent running backs in James Montgomery and Logwone Mitz look bad.  (This has to be particularly aggravating for Wulff, a former professional center and offensive line coach.)  Three starters return on the line, for better or worse, but this appears to be where Wulff has the most work remaining.  Sixth-round draft choice Zack Williams is gone, and Wazzu just needs a complete talent transfusion here.  Until that happens, the passing game -- which was downright solid when Tuel had enough time to actually throw a pass -- will not be able to meet its seemingly high potential.

Other tidbits:

  • Mitz (263 yards, 3.6 per carry, -0.1 Adj. POE, four touchdowns) takes over full-time duties from Montgomery (478 yards, 3.9/carry, +0.3 Adj. POE), who was both a little more explosive and a little less efficient.  At 6'1, 230, Mitz could form a nice tandem with little Rickey Galvin, a 5'8, 162-pound redshirt freshman who looked good enough this spring to secure the No. 2 spot on the post-spring depth chart.  They'll only look as good as their line will allow them to look, but there is potential here.
  • Washington State's Variability (explained here) was off the charts last season; variability does not automatically equate to poor offense, but in Wazzu's case it had to do with the fact that they still spent quite a bit of time down big in 2010.  Whereas they may have hoped to run more than they did, they often had to abandon the run when a) it didn't work, and b) they fell behind by double-digits.
  • Wilson really might be the real deal.  Bad teams often have receivers who put up big numbers simply because they're playing from behind and throwing a lot; Wilson certainly benefited from that, but his numbers hold up.  He caught 58 percent of the passes thrown his direction and averaged 18.3 yards per catch and 10.6 yards per target, all excellent figures for someone targeted as frequently as he was.

Defense

 

 

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 98 99 97
RUSHING 110 108 109 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 79 77 82 87
Standard Downs 84 87 79 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 90 94 90 42
Redzone 106 107 107

 

Q1 Rk 86 1st Down Rk 100
Q2 Rk 93 2nd Down Rk 68
Q3 Rk 107 3rd Down Rk 89
Q4 Rk 52

 

When you look at enough team profiles, you begin to catch on in terms of spotting trends or characteristics.  Last October, Jeff at the great CougCenter wrote a great post about the sorry state of the Wazzu linebackers, and the numbers back him up.  Wazzu ranked 87th in Adj. Line Yards but 110th in Rushing S&P+, suggesting the line was porous but the linebackers were worse.  Meanwhile, the Need For Blitzes line in their Def. Footprint (explained here) suggests that a large portion of their solid Adj. Sack Rate came from the defensive line; they either didn't, or couldn't blitz, which is another indictment on the linebacking corps.

This is perhaps bad news considering both the defensive line and secondary are a little less proven heading into the fall.  Gone are ends Kevin Kooyman (25.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) and reserve Casey Hamlett (3.0 TFL/sacks), along with tackle Bernard Wolfgramm (2.5 TFL/sacks).  There is still hope on the defensive line, though Wulff and defensive coordinator Chris Ball had to do some shuffling and recruiting to fill out the depth chart.  End Travis Long (10.5 TFL/sacks, 3 passes broken up, or PBU) was solid, and tackle Brandon Rankin (5.0 TFL/sacks) can be too if healthy.  The depth, however, will have to come from newcomers, either to Wazzu or their given position.  End-turned-tackle Justin Clayton is competing with redshirt freshman Toni Pole for a starting job, awesomely-named TE-turned-DE Skylar Stormo finished spring on the second string, and JUCO transfers Ian Knight and Niko Aumua are expected to produce quickly.

If the line can maintain an average level of play, the linebackers might at least be improved enough not to blow an advantage in the trenches.  Middle linebacker Mike Ledgerwood, who missed half of last season due to injury, looked good this spring, and C.J. Mizell (49.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) might hopefully begin to mature after a freshman season that led ESPN's Ted Miller to label him "mercurial."  Mizell appears to belong in the same athletic class as Marquess Wilson, but he's not quite straightened out above the neck yet.

Other tidbits:

  • The secondary could be pretty solid, even though it was thinned out by the losses of cornerbacks Chima Nwachukwu (exhausted eligibility) and Aire Justin (failed drug tests -- that Wazzu has managed to secure quite a few Fulmer Cup points while losing a lot of games is both impressive and almost alarming).  Nolan Washington (29.0 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PBU as a redshirt freshman) and Daniel Simmons (26.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) both return to the cornerback ranks, though Simmons finished spring behind sophomore Damante Horton on the depth chart.
  • One has to be careful before heaping too much praise on safeties of a bad defense -- it is easy to swoon over their inflated tackle figures because they made a lot of "well, somebody has to make the tackle" tackles.  But both free safety Tyree Toomer and strong safety Deone Bucannon made plays last year -- Toomer finished with 6.0 TFL/sacks and 4 PBU, while Bucannon chipped in 4.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 2 FF, and 5 PBU.

Washington State's 2010 Season Set to Music

It's got to be the Beatles' "Getting Better," right?  I almost feel that using Beatles songs in this space is cheating, but ... it doesn't get any more apt than "getting better all the time (can't get no worse)."  And I guess the "I used to get mad at my school" line applies too.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

 

 

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 114
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 82
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -1 / 0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (7, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +3.8

 

A five-year recruiting average much higher than their recent level of play ... a healthy number of starters returning on both sides of the ball ... a YPP margin that suggests they were quite unlucky last year ... it certainly seems as if Wazzu could be ready for another autumn of improvement.  The question is, of course ... what exactly does 'improvement' mean?  A 3-9 record?  Multiple conference wins?  If 'improvement' consists of something less than six wins and a bowl bid, will that be enough to save Wulff?  And if his seat is that hot, will that affect players' level of performance if they begin to press to save his job?

You've got to start somewhere, and Washington State did that in 2010.  But their four-year performance average still ranks 39 spots lower than anybody else's in the Pac-12 (Colorado ranks 75th), and they still rank lower in that category than any of the 11 FBS opponents on their 2011 schedule.

Taking a look at Wazzu's schedule, it is somewhat clear that a three-game road trip through San Diego State, Colorado and UCLA will all but determine Wulff's fate.  All three of those opponents will be beatable in 2011, but all three are away from home.  By the time Stanford comes to Pullman in mid-October, WSU could be 3-2 and fighting for bowl eligibility ... or 1-4 and playing for an interim coach.

 


 

* F/+ rankings are 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.

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it 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.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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