2011 Season Preview: Mesas And The Arizona Wildcats

EUGENE OR - NOVEMBER 26: Quarterback Nick Foles #8 of the Arizona Wildcats throews a pass against the Oregon Ducks on November 26 2010 at the Autzen Stadium in Eugene Oregon. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Mike Stoops has turned Arizona into a consistent Top 35 program. He returns a star quarterback, all sorts of weapons at receiver, linebacker and cornerback ... and a combined one starter on either line. And he faces the most front-loaded schedule in college football. Good luck, Coach.

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

Back in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2009, in an essay entitled "Recruiting and the Ruling Class," I wrote what was probably the single truest thing I will ever write:

How hard is it to break into college football’s ruling class? Most of the teams in this class — USC, Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame — have been national powers for decades. The most recent additions to the club, really, are Florida and LSU, and they have been established for quite a while now.

Two summers later, that still jars me a little bit. Like girls attracted to bad boys, I love a sport that doesn't respect me. My school, Missouri, is a BCS conference program, has won 40 games in four seasons, spent seven days at No. 1 a few years ago, ranks in the Top 30 in home attendance, set an ESPN College Gameday attendance record ... and yet, there is almost nothing it can do to earn an invitation into the sports true, elite, ruling class.

I reference Missouri here because, frankly, it's what I do. But nobody knows this better than Arizona fans. Less than 20 years ago, they seemed to have it all put together. Their cover letter looked nice (finished in the Top 10 in 1993), they bought a new suit (had the "Desert Swarm" gimmick), they had quite a few years of experience (finished fourth in 1998), they bought books and studied for the interview (preseason No. 4 in 1999) ... and they didn't get the job. In fact, they got laughed right out of the building (No. 3 Penn State 41, No. 4 Arizona 7). From 12-1 in 1998, they failed to even win 12 games combined in any two years again until 2007-08. You are allowed to win big in college football if you are not a member of the ruling class; but you will find it very hard to recruit at the highest level and win big again unless your name is USC, Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Nebraska or, maybe, Penn State or Auburn.

(Virginia Tech and Oregon have been knocking at the door, but in terms of long-term recruiting, the answer is still unclear. And I guess I should probably avoid mentioning "Oregon" and "recruiting" in the same sentence at the moment.)

Against this somewhat depressing backdrop, Arizona has begun to win again and is threatening to establish residence in what is at least college football's second tier. But if you look at their F/+ Progression table below, you see a very clear, measurable plateau. (Or, since we're talking about Arizona here, a mesa.)

2007: +9.1% F/+ rating (31st), 5-7 record
2008: +8.0% F/+ rating (34th), 8-5 record
2009: +8.6% F/+ rating (34th), 8-5 record
2010: +8.7% F/+ rating (36th), 7-6 record

A late-season collapse in 2010 wilted some petals in Arizona's cactus blossoms, and even though Mike Stoops has brought a level of success to Tucson that Wildcat fans hadn't seen in over a decade, fans of every stripe bore quickly of any type of plateau, even good ones. (You can spot the "can't take us to the next level" complaint coming from 200 miles away.) It would behoove Stoops to figure out another step forward soon, and in a wide-open Pac-12 South, opportunity awaits. Unfortunately for the Wildcats in 2011, "opportunity" does not typically respond well to a complete and total lack of starting experience in the trenches.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk**: 36
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
3-Sep at Toledo 41-2 W 44.6 - 1.3 W
11-Sep The Citadel
52-6 W 28.8 - 17.7 W
18-Sep Iowa 34-27 W 28.0 - 19.0 W
25-Sep California 10-9 W 24.6 - 15.5 W
9-Oct Oregon State 27-29 L 43.0 - 36.0 W
16-Oct at Washington State 24-7 W 18.7 - 19.1 L
23-Oct Washington 44-14 W 39.9 - 24.6 W
30-Oct at UCLA 29-21 W 29.4 - 32.9 L
6-Nov at Stanford 17-42 L 33.9 - 28.1 W
13-Nov USC 21-24 L 25.3 - 25.1 W
26-Nov at Oregon 29-48 L 39.2 - 29.3 W
2-Dec Arizona State 29-30 L 32.0 - 12.1 W
29-Dec vs Oklahoma State 10-36 L 18.3 - 18.8 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 28.2 53 22.7 41
Adj. Points Per Game 31.2 32 21.5 23

On a play-by-play basis, Arizona played well enough to become a legitimate ten-game winner last fall. Unfortunately those plays weren't distributed well enough to get them to ten wins. And even more unfortunately, they managed to get in their own way quite often down the stretch.

  • They threw an interception in the redzone and missed a 36-yard field goal in a two-point loss to Oregon State.
  • They missed a 34-yard field goal and lost a fumble at their 22 (that led to a touchdown) in a three-point loss to USC. (Alex Zendejas was, for all intents an purposes, a perfectly average kicker who made 74% of his field goal attempts; but these two misses were killers.)
  • And of course, they had two extra points blocked, one at the end of regulation, and one in overtime, in a devastating loss to Arizona State.

Sure, they also got romped by Stanford, Oregon and Oklahoma State, but there was a pathway to ten wins and they just couldn't keep from shooting themselves in the collective foot. Now they face a situation in which they return virtually all of their skill position talent, linebackers and defensive backs ... and must work through incredible attrition on both lines.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 37 37 40
RUSHING 63 74 58 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 31 22 37 71
Standard Downs 44 35 42 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 21 29 16 58
Redzone 104 99 101
Q1 Rk 27 1st Down Rk 35
Q2 Rk 62 2nd Down Rk 53
Q3 Rk 22 3rd Down Rk 16
Q4 Rk 28

In the last six seasons, four teams have entered a season with zero returning starters on the offensive line. On average (and yes, we're dealing with a tiny sample size here), their overall S&P+ dropped by 7.8%, their Success Rate+ by 6.8%, their PPP+ by 7.8% and their OFEI (Brian Fremeau's drives-based rating) by 8.2%. I lead with this because, quite simply, it is perhaps the sole reason Arizona isn't the favorite (minus USC) in the Pac-12 South. An eight-percent decrease in Arizona's ratings drops them from the 30s to the 70s in Off. S&P+. There's a lot to like about the Arizona defense, but the Wildcats are going to be extremely limited if they cannot avoid this type of regression. (The good news: despite the presence of all-conference tackle Adam Grant, the line wasn't actually all that great; it's not like they're breaking up the 1982 Washington Redskins here.)

Arizona returns one career start on the offensive line. One! It is hard to get past that. But if you can, then you see quite a bit to like at the skill positions, starting with Nick Foles. Despite missing almost three full games to injury, the senior from Austin, TX, threw for 3,191 yards (67% completion, 7.5 per pass, 20 TD, 10 INT). This offense is committed to the pass, and despite throwing a disproportional number of his passes on passing downs, Foles came through. Arizona was particularly dangerous on passing downs, which typically reflects well on the magician behind center.

Foles returns almost his entire receiving corps this fall. Juron Criner (1,233 yards, 15.0 per catch, 69% catch rate, 11 TD) is an absolute stud and a reliable No. 1 option, and the battle for No. 2 could be fierce. David Douglas (515 yards, 9.9 per catch, 70% catch, 5 TD) is a reliable possession man, while David Roberts (487 yards, 11.1 per catch, 69% catch rate, 2 TD) and Terrence Miller (345 yards, 11.9 per catch, 67% catch rate) aren't so bad themselves. Throw in Bug Wright and Richard Morrison, and you've got a wealth of underneath and slot options. If there is a weakness here, it is that they could use another big-play threat, a guy who can take the short standard downs passes a long way. Not even incoming Texas transfer Dan Buckner (442 yards, 9.8 per catch in 2009) can really help in that regard.

Other tidbits:

  • Really, the only skill position player of any consequence who left after the 2010 season was running back Nic Grigsby (533 yards, 4.5 per carry, +2.3 Adj. POE, 8 TD). His replacements, Keola Antolin (668 yards, 4.7 per carry, -3.8 Adj. POE, 7 TD) and Greg Nwoko (270 yards, 4.7 per carry, +1.1 Adj. POE, 3 TD), are capable replacements. Nwoko should miss at least part of the season due to a knee injury, so it Antolin will be shouldering much of the load. He brings the added bonus of strong receiving ability (204 receiving yards) to the table as well.
  • Arizona fans looking for good vibes regarding the offensive line should look no further than their Alamo Bowl conquerors. Oklahoma State returned just 12 career starts on the line heading into 2010 (and had to replace first-round draft pick Russell Okung) but put one of the best lines in the country onto the field. Returning starter (and career starts) data is all about odds. You are more likely to improve/thrive with a ton of experience, but you are far from guaranteed. (Still, though ... one career start. That's incredible. Not only did Arizona have a lot of experience to work with last year, but they also got a little lucky with injuries. Few people got starts, which was good for them in 2010, and potentially bad now.

UPDATE: So it turns out that Juron Criner's "status for the 2011 season remains uncertain because of undisclosed medical reasons." I'm assuming he plays until I officially hear otherwise, but obviously his absence would change the status of Arizona's offense from "uncertain" to "amazingly disconcerting." That would leave a ton of possession receivers in the mix, with no proven big-play threat; that means lengthier drives and more opportunities for the green offensive line to mess up.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 20 14 29
RUSHING 15 9 22 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 28 25 32 11
Standard Downs 16 21 17 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 41 32 54 33
Redzone 23 34 18
Q1 Rk 32 1st Down Rk 28
Q2 Rk 4 2nd Down Rk 13
Q3 Rk 36 3rd Down Rk 40
Q4 Rk 46

The Arizona defense's numbers were powered by an unsustainably fantastic first month of the season; they took significant steps backwards in October before rallying late.

Arizona Defense, First Four Games: 13.4 Adj. PPG Allowed
Arizona Defense, Next Five Games: 28.1 Adj. PPG Allowed
Arizona Defense, Final Four Games: 21.3 Adj. PPG Allowed

Despite a couple of October glitches, the Wildcats still played at an above-average (at least) level in nine of 13 games, powered by an underrated line that was both stalwart (11th in Adj. Line Yards) and full of playmakers. Five linemen registered at least six tackles for loss (three reached double digits) ... and four are now gone. Ends Ricky Elmore, Brooks Reed and D'Aundre Reed combined for 112.5 tackles and 29.0 TFL/sacks, but they have all run out of eligibility. Three of the top four ends on the spring depth chart are seniors, but they have combined for zero career starts and minimal box score presence.

If there's a silver lining on the line, it's that the future is incredibly bright at tackle. Justin Washington (39.5 tackles, 11.5 TFL/sacks) was outstanding for a redshirt freshman last season, and his classmate Sione Tuihalamaka (18.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks) wasn't so bad himself. Threatening ends need to emerge, but at tackle, one of the hardest positions in football in which to build depth, Arizona is set for the foreseeable future.

To over-generalize, we can assume that with worse ends and strong tackles, Arizona's pass rush will regress a lot more than their line yardage. That puts a lot of pressure on a secondary that was young and quite hit-or-miss last season. Safeties Joseph Perkins and Anthony Wilcox (combined: 95.5 tackles, 2 INT, 19 PBU) are gone, and Adam Hall might miss the season with an ACL tear, but three exciting cornerbacks return: Robert Golden (53.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 12 PBU), Trevin Wade (43.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU) and Shaquille Richardson (27.5 tackles, 2 INT, 7 PBU as a freshman).

  • While there may be turnover at end and safety, the linebacker position is rock solid. Only three linebackers registered on the stat sheet, but all three return. Middle man Paul Vassallo (89.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) was your requisite tackling machine (with some nice blitzing potential), while Jake Fischer (49.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and Derek Earls (37.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU) were playmakers on the outside.
  • The quality of the line allowed members of the secondary to be quite aggressive (a general Stoops defensive trait, at least when he can get away with it), as evidenced by the fact that two cornerbacks, Golden and Richardson, combined for 19 passes broken up. A lesser line, one that either gets to the quarterback less frequently (therefore forcing corners to cover more conservatively) or is a bit more pliable against the run (therefore leading to fewer passing downs) could quickly negate some of the clear athleticism Arizona has at the cornerback position.

Arizona's 2010 Season Set to Music

Considering when the Wildcats were at their best, how about a little "September" from Earth, Wind & Fire? Say do you remember/Dancing in September/Never was a cloudy day.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here. And uh, it's not a stat tidbit so much as a Desert Swarm YouTube collection.

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 34
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 45
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -4 / -2.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (6, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.6

It's pretty obvious, isn't it? It all, all, depends on what happens in the trenches. Arizona has a good quarterback, a great No. 1 receiver (and a deep receiving corps), three strong, experienced linebackers, three athletic cornerbacks, and 11 of a possible 13 returning starters beyond the lines ... and they have one combined returning starter on either line. It is hard to know how to project Arizona's 2011 season because this is so rare.

(Then again, projecting Arizona could be pretty easy if you subscribe to the "Never bet against a streak" line of thinking. Not another team in the country has played at such an oddly consistent level over the past four years, and though the win total has changed here and there, the pure caliber of play has not.)

If Arizona had a cupcake-soft early schedule, I could talk myself into the Wildcats as a serious sleeper in a division where a sleeper could go a long way. Give the line some time to develop, and things could come together nicely. Instead, they play three potential Top 10-15 teams right out of the gates. They visit Stillwater on Thursday evening, September 8, then they play host to Stanford and Oregon in back-to-back weeks, then they have to travel to USC and Oregon State. Good lord! They could be playing at their typical level -- low- to mid-30s in terms of F/+ rankings -- and stand at 1-5 heading into the back half of their schedule.

Because of the schedule and the strange turnover, this will be a very unique coaching experience for Mike Stoops. With a friendlier schedule and time for development, Arizona could thrive. Instead, it's all about survival. Making a bowl game should be considered a success. If fans are grumbling about Arizona plateauing 12 months from now, instead of the fact that they regressed in 2011, then that's a win for Stoops.

 

 

---

* 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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