2011 Season Preview: Risk Management And The N.C. State Wolfpack

Tom O'Brien was willing to let Russell Wilson walk out the door to start the Mike Glennon era a year early. Will the move pay off, or did O'Brien just trade one more year of a popular quarterback for a rebuilding project? O'Brien may the king of risk, but will he be the king of Raleigh come season's end?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Aside from the occasional trick play, football coaches aren't known for taking too many risks. At least, not successful coaches whose names don't rhyme with Stress Biles. There is value in the known knowns, and the surest way to lose your job is to take risks or to avoid following the common path. Of course, the surest way to get ahead is to also take risks, if you're brave enough to do so.

As fans, there is nothing we like more than the people who go about things a little differently. It's the reason why Mike Leach is still beloved by a good portion of the college football blogosphere. It's the reason why people still hold the Dutch "Total Football" teams of the 1970s in so high regard. (Side note: buy this book.) Oh sure, we'll destroy you if you play the game a little different and lose (there's a reason why coaches get paid so damn much) ... but if you win? Undying admiration.

To say the least, N.C. State head coach Tom O'Brien took the biggest risk you can take this past spring when he kicked a known known to the curb. Quarterback Russell Wilson had a phenomenal junior season in 2010, but his constant flirtations with professional baseball (he plays minor league baseball in the summer, and in recent years the team has never been 100-percent certain if Wilson was coming back the next fall) were apparently, in O'Brien's eyes, a detriment to the team. He was missing valuable practice/bonding time over the summer and well into August, and fearing another year of this would not only damage chemistry but possibly force soon-to-be junior quarterback Mike Glennon to transfer, he announced Glennon, a big junior with a solid pedigree, as the starter this spring, even though Wilson still has one more year of eligibility. This led to the most predictable transfer announcement ever.

It's Glennon Or Bust for O'Brien and the Wolfpack in 2011. If the move works, then O'Brien has figured out a way around the rebuilding process and, with a post-spring two-deep that includes just 14 seniors, gotten a step ahead on what could be a great 2012 season.

If it doesn't work? Then he just voluntarily rid himself of a player who threw for 3,500 yards, rushed for 650 pre-sack yards, and wanted to finish his career in Raleigh, in favor of a guy who has thrown 52 career passes. Please be awesome, Mike Glennon.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 8-5 | Final F/+ Rk**: 23
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Western Carolina
48-7 W 26.9 - 34.7 L
11-Sep at Central Florida 28-21 W 24.8 - 23.0 W
16-Sep Cincinnati 30-19 W 34.3 - 31.1 W
25-Sep at Georgia Tech 45-28 W 37.2 - 25.9 W
2-Oct Virginia Tech 30-41 L 25.5 - 32.8 L
9-Oct Boston College 44-17 W 36.0 - 25.4 W
16-Oct at East Carolina 27-33 L 17.2 - 31.8 L
28-Oct Florida State 28-24 W 31.5 - 27.2 W
6-Nov at Clemson 13-14 L 14.5 - 17.9 L
13-Nov Wake Forest 38-3 W 31.7 - 19.6 W
20-Nov at North Carolina 29-25 W 25.8 - 30.3 L
27-Nov at Maryland 31-38 L 32.8 - 31.6 W
28-Dec vs West Virginia 23-7 W 36.7 - 19.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 31.8 32 21.3 29
Adj. Points Per Game 28.8 48 27.0 57

For a team that saw its offense maintain and its defense surge, N.C. State was close to so much more and so much less last year. In Russell Wilson's first two seasons as quarterback, the Wolfpack went just 11-14 (8-14 against FBS teams) with an above average offense and a quickly-regressing defense. However, the D rebounded considerably in 2010, and it made a significant difference. Playing the bend-don't-break role to perfection (they ranked 40th in the play-based Def. S&P+, but 13th in the drive-based DFEI), N.C. State created some drama; half of their 12 regular season games were decided by a touchdown or less. With solid fumble luck, they went 3-3 in such games, but they were close to everything from 11-1 to 5-7.

In the end, the Wolfpack were a 9-4 team that basically played like an 8-5 team. They were above average on both sides of the ball for the first time in a while, and if they hadn't lost to Maryland to close the regular season, they'd have indeed won their division and fought it out with Virginia Tech for an Orange Bowl bid and the right to get slaughtered by Stanford.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 39 36 42
RUSHING 48 40 50 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 45 46 44 15
Standard Downs 40 46 37 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 38 22 53 71
Redzone 35 34 37
Q1 Rk 39 1st Down Rk 39
Q2 Rk 36 2nd Down Rk 26
Q3 Rk 52 3rd Down Rk 65
Q4 Rk 41

Just think about how much N.C. State would have passed in 2010 if not for Russell Wilson's legs, huh? As it was, they had the seventh-highest pass rate in the country on standard downs. On passing downs, where Wilson's legs came in particularly handy, they ended up running about the average amount even if some of it was unplanned. But the 2010 gameplan was simple: pass to set up the run. And Wilson both passed (3,563 yards, 58% completion, 6.8/pass, 28 TD, 14 INT) and ran (663 pre-sack rush yds, +14.2 Adj. POE) a lot

There is one clear unknown regarding the Wolfpack's 2010 run-pass ratios, and it will impact their plan of action for 2011: how much of their pass-first mentality was due to the fact that they didn't have a running back they trusted? In Mustafa Green, they have a former four-star back who simply played like a true freshman in 2010. He rushed for a decent 597 yards (4.5 per carry), but his minus-8.5 Adj. POE suggests there is still plenty of growth that needs to take place. He is a big guy who provided a lovely pass target out of the backfield (272 receiving yards), but he was not yet trustworthy. And that's fine -- few first-year guys are. But as the season progressed, both his carries and production slipped from 10.5 carries and 55.5 yards in the first five games, to 12.8 and 47.0 in the next four, to 5.0 and 19.0 over the final four. In those same clumps of games, Wilson's carries rose a bit from 9.0, to 12.5, to 12.0, and now-junior James Washington (215 yards, 3.0 per carry, -6.5 Adj. POE) began carrying more of the rushing load despite limited effectiveness of his own.

While everybody is focusing on Glennon, Green's development could have just as large an impact on N.C. State's overall production. Even pass-first teams need some sort of threat on the ground, and it is evident that a good portion of N.C. State's Top 50 run game was due to Wilson. The good news, however, is that a good portion of it was also due to the offensive line. The Wolfpack had a good front five, and four of them (all but honorable-mention all-conference tackle Jake Vermiglio) return.

Other tidbits:

  • Glennon will not only be dealing with a higher level of responsibility, but he'll be doing so with a much different receiving corps. Not including running backs, Wilson had, basically, two primary targets and three secondary targets. Both primaries -- Owen Spencer (912 yards, 15.2 per catch, 59% catch rate, second-team all-conference) and Jarvis Williams (713 yards, 13.7 per catch, 63% catch rate) -- are gone, as is one of the secondaries, Darrell Davis (327 yards, 12.6 per catch, 55% catch rate). In terms of experience, Glennon will have to look toward T.J. Graham (316 yards, 12.6 per catch, 53% catch rate) and tight end George Bryan (369 yards, 10.5 per catch, 55% catch rate, first-team all-conference). Expect Bryan and the running backs to see a lot of short passes if solid new weapons don't emerge. Senior Jay Bryan (86 yards in 2010) began the spring atop the depth chart next to Graham, but we'll see.
  • Even with Wilson altering the script an undefined amount, N.C. State's run-pass ratios show us all the different ways offenses can attempt to move the ball, and all the different forces behind a quarterback's statistics. With a disproportionally high number of passes coming on standard downs, one might have expected Wilson to end up with higher than a 58% completion rate.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 40 45 41
RUSHING 23 27 24 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 47 62 41 31
Standard Downs 51 70 47 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 31 36 33 6
Redzone 59 48 70
Q1 Rk 20 1st Down Rk 40
Q2 Rk 51 2nd Down Rk 87
Q3 Rk 20 3rd Down Rk 20
Q4 Rk 111

When it comes to N.C. State, stats and coaches agreed: it was much more difficult to run on the Wolfpack than to pass, so coaches decided to pass. Sure, N.C. State held some leads that would require opponents to pass, but not enough to so significantly skew the run-pass ratios. Against a defense that ranked 23rd in Rushing S&P+ (equally high in terms of efficiency and explosiveness) and only 47th in Passing S&P+, opponents took to the air.

Knowing this, the Wolfpack's plan was rather simple itself: allow large cushions on receivers (their Success Rate numbers were iffy at best) and hope the pass rush gets to the QB before he can get the pass off. That often worked -- the Wolfpack were fifth in the country in Adj. Sack Rate -- and it gave O'Brien and coordinator Mike Archer just enough "We'll eventually make a stop" confidence to go into bend-don't-break mode. Again, their per-drive numbers were phenomenal even if their per-play numbers were only decent.

N.C. State's strength in 2010 was its linebacking corps. The line was solid, both in stuffing the run and attacking the quarterback, but you're not going to find too many teams who had three LBs with double-digit tackles for loss. Nate Irving -- a stat-nerd favorite -- led the way with 21.5 TFL/sacks (almost one-third of his tackles were behind the line of scrimmage, which is astounding for a middle linebacker), but all hope is not lost with Irving having graduated from the Wolfpack to the Denver Broncos. Audie Cole (67.5 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks) moves from strongside to middle, and he has shown almost as much potential as Irving. He and Terrell Manning (59.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks) should make sure there isn't too much regression in the middle of the defense.

Other tidbits:

  • The biggest problem for N.C. State comes not in losing Irving, but in losing a good portion of its line depth. Tackle J.R. Sweezy (33.5 tackles, 11.5 TFl/sacks, 2 FR) was excellent in 2010, but he and end Jeff Rieskamp (17.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks) are the only two of N.C. State's top six D-line playmakers returning for 2011. The losses of end Michael Lemon (9.5 TFL/sacks) and tackle Natanu Mageo (7.0 TFL/sacks) will hurt.
  • Without Irving and some linemen, it will be interesting to see if N.C. State's approach changes in the secondary. Virtually the entire unit returns, and they may have to be a bit more aggressive to account for a regression in the pass rush. Like Mustafa Green, corner David Amerson might be ready for more responsibility after simply trying to stay above water as a freshman. If he and C.J. Wilson can hold steady, play-making safeties Earl Wolff (74.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF) and Brandan Bishop (49.0 tackles, 4 INT, 4 PBU) can continue to make drive-stopping plays. RB-turned-safety Dean Haynes (320 rushing yards, -9.1 Adj. POE in 2010) provides depth among the DBs, if nothing else.

NC State's 2010 Season Set to Music

In honor of their Champs Sports Bowl win, how about a little "Champion" by Kanye, "Champion" by Brother Ali, "Champion Requiem" by Mos Def, and the entire Champion Sound album from J Dilla and Madlib?

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 51
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 46
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +7 / +1.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (8, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -3.3

N.C. State raised their game in 2010 due to a combination of Wilson, a stellar defensive front seven, and luck (both of the fumbles and YPP varieties). Though there are still playmakers on defense, and though O'Brien clearly has a ton of confidence in Mike Glennon, it's hard not to notice that Wilson is gone, a chunk the front seven is gone, and the luck was strong enough that it could turn around in 2011.

After years as a perfectly average team under O'Brien, the Wolfpack took a significant step forward in 2010, but unless Glennon is the real deal, it's hard not to see them regressing a bit in 2011. Luckily, the schedule should allow them access to another bowl game. The non-conference schedule consists of three home cupcakes (Liberty, South Alabama, Central Michigan), four tough-but-winnable conference home games (Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Clemson, Maryland), and some winnable road games (Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Virginia) to boot. They'll have to get to seven wins because of the always-ridiculous two FCS opponents, but it will take a pretty lengthy step backwards for them not to reach that. That should keep at least some of the "You just let Wilson walk out the door??" heat off of O'Brien.

 

 

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* 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.

** 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.

*** 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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