2011 Season Preview: Sample Sizes And The Boise State Broncos

Last year, Boise State played at a higher level than they ever had, but they lost a game and didn't get a shot at the big boys. With basically another two-game schedule on the docket for 2011, can the Broncos overcome losses at receiver and defensive back and make it back to the BCS?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

If every college football team played 162 games, this would all work out in the end. The greatest teams would lose plenty of games, but they would still have ample opportunity to prove themselves the greatest. Alas, college football schedules are not even 10 percent that long, nor, clearly, should they be. (I mean, just think about Alabama's unemployment rate if the Tide had 81 home games...) This is the ultimate 'small sample size' sport. But it doesn't stop us from drawing dramatic conclusions based on single games. After all, what choice do we have?

The emphasis on single wins and losses, of course, does still skew our perceptions of greatness, as I very much learned during last summer's Top 100 of the Last Century countdown. (I learned a lot of things during this countdown -- do not mention 1966 to Alabama fans, do not expect people to react well to a list without recency bias and do not expect to have a phone call with Beano Cook without talking about those late-1940s Notre Dame teams, to name three.) According to the Est. S&P+ numbers I used, the greatest team of all-time may have actually been a one-loss team (1959 Ole Miss). No. 3 may have had a blemish, too (1966 Notre Dame).

But how is it possible that a team like 1959 Ole Miss could be one of the best ever when they didn't have a perfect record? The answer, of course, is that when we use numbers we tend to weight the entire season equally. At least, I do. And honestly, in the end, individual wins and losses don't mean that much. That Ole Miss team reached No. 1 because they were, quite simply, incredible. They gave up three touchdowns all year -- two on drives of less than 10 yards and one on perhaps the greatest punt return of all-time. They averaged well over 30 points per game in an era where that didn't really happen. They were an unbelievable team.

But they lost a game.

Granted, it was to the No. 28 team of all-time. Granted, it was on the road. Granted, it took two goalline stands and the aforementioned greatest punt return ever to take them down. And granted, almost every team below Ole Miss on that list would have lost to that team on that night, too. But it doesn't matter. They lost, therefore they weren't great enough.

When I was on Allen Kenney's podcast at Blatant Homerism last week, he asked me how this year's Football Outsiders Almanac could have Boise State projected third after being quite low on them (they were projected 14th) last year. The answer was simple: that's how good they were last year. In terms of pure, on-field quality, Boise State broke through like no other mid-major team has done in recent history. They were simply outstanding.

Best Non-BCS Teams According to F/+ Ratings (2005-10)
1. 2010 Boise State (+30.5%)

2. 2009 TCU (+28.7%)
3. 2010 TCU (+25.2%)
4. 2008 TCU (+24.7%)
5. 2006 BYU (+22.3%)
6. 2006 Boise State (+19.8%)
7. 2009 Boise State (+19.6%)
8. 2008 Boise State (+19.4%)
9. 2008 Utah (+16.6%)
10. 2007 BYU (+15.6%)

Boise State had a Heisman finalist at quarterback, incredible skill position depth, and perhaps the best set of lines, offensive and defensive, in the country. They were as big and fast as a great major conference team. They manhandled Virginia Tech in the trenches, and they had no serious trouble with Oregon State (they took them out by almost the same margin that Oregon did, only the version of Oregon State they played had James Rodgers). They didn't get a chance to play any other major conference teams, of course, because for the fourth consecutive year they were stuck playing a fellow mid-major in their bowl. But they proved everything they possibly could with the schedule they had.

But they lost a game. And to a WAC team, no less. Granted, it was to No. 28 Nevada. (Symmetry!) Granted, it was on the road. And granted, it took two extremely makeable field goals missing the mark to take them down. But they lost. And if they lost to Nevada, how could they possibly have competed with great BCS teams, right? We can just write them off as beneficiaries of a cake schedule and call it a night, right? I don't know if Boise State could have beaten Auburn in the national title game, but I guarantee they would have hung around. Instead, it was just another missed opportunity for the underdog Broncos to prove that they are no longer underdogs, even against the big boys.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 12-1 | Adj. Record: 13-0 | Final F/+ Rk**: 2
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
6-Sep vs Virginia Tech 33-30 W 31.7 - 25.2 W
18-Sep at Wyoming 51-6 W 31.9 - 14.3 W
25-Sep Oregon State 37-24 W 33.8 - 17.2 W
2-Oct at New Mexico State 59-0 W 43.6 - 16.0 W
9-Oct Toledo 57-14 W 61.0 - 28.6 W
16-Oct at San Jose State 48-0 W 37.9 - (-4.6) W
26-Oct Louisiana Tech 49-20 W 42.4 - 24.7 W
6-Nov Hawaii 42-7 W 52.2 - (-5.0) W
12-Nov at Idaho 52-14 W 35.6 - 6.3 W
19-Nov Fresno State 51-0 W 39.2 - (-5.1) W
26-Nov at Nevada 31-34 L 46.8 - 24.0 W
4-Dec Utah State 50-14 W 36.5 - 24.0 W
22-Dec vs Utah 26-3 W 30.0 - (-6.2) W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 45.1 2 12.8 2
Adj. Points Per Game 40.2 4 12.3 3

it's easy to understand how much the S&P numbers liked Boise State when you realize that their battle with Virginia Tech, their one true "calling card" win of the season, was possibly their worst performance all year. The Broncos cruised at a comfortable altitude through the first month of the season, then began to truly soar in October.

First Four Games: Boise State 35.3 Adj. PPG, Opponents 18.8 (+16.5)
Next Six Games: Boise State 44.7, Opponents 7.5 (+37.2)
Final Three Games: Boise State 37.8, Opponents 13.9 (+23.9)

That a plus-23.9 margin over the final three games is clear regression tells you about the level of play BSU attained in October and early-November. It truly is a shame that they hit this level against teams like San Jose State and Idaho because I'm pretty sure they'd have torn apart most BCS conference teams at this time as well.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 4 2 6
RUSHING 17 11 21 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 3 3 4 44
Standard Downs 5 8 4 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 29 9 41 3
Redzone 16 10 21
Q1 Rk 15 1st Down Rk 9
Q2 Rk 4 2nd Down Rk 5
Q3 Rk 4 3rd Down Rk 31
Q4 Rk 43

Chicken or egg question of the day: Were Titus Young's and Austin Pettis's catch rates (72% and 70%, respectively) amazing because they were amazing receivers? Or was it because Kellen Moore throws the most catchable ball in college football? Both? If it was the former, then the Boise offense might suffer a bit of a comedown upon their departure; if it was the the latter, then congratulations, Tyler Shoemaker and Geraldo Hiwat: Moore is about to make you stars.

One hint it might be the latter: running backs Doug Martin and Jeremy Avery combined to catch 42 of 44 passes thrown at them, a 95% catch rate. Nothing against Martin and Avery, who clearly have pretty good hands, but ... even good quarterbacks miss an easy, dump-off target more than twice in 44 passes. Like Boise State, Moore proves his worth by excelling at such a high level on the easy stuff that you get a pretty good idea he handles the tough stuff well too.

One hint it might be the former: When watching Young (1,215 yards, 17.1 per catch, 72% catch rate, 9 TD) and Pettis (951 yards, 13.4 per catch, 70% catch rate, 10 TD) in action last year, one thing was certain: they had Moore's trust. Even against Virginia Tech, Moore had no trouble tossing lobs in their directions, knowing that they would be able to make a play or, at the very least, prevent a negative play. And especially in Young's case, most of the time he did. His yardage per target of 12.3 was one of the best figures in college football among frequently targeted receivers.

Now, both Young and Pettis are gone; they accounted for 49% of Boise State's targets last year. Are Shoemaker (582 yards, 18.2 per catch, 64% catch rate, 5 TD) and Hiwat (160 yards, 14.5 per catch, 55% catch rate as a redshirt freshman) ready for their closeups? And will tight end Kyle Efaw (299 yards, 12.5 per catch, 73% catch rate, 5 TD) and star punt returner Chris Potter (125 yards, 15.6 per catch, 80% catch rate, 1 TD) have larger roles to play this time around?

Other tidbits:

  • Avery and Jarvis Hodge (combined: 800 rushing yards, +14.3 Adj. POE, 14 TD; 154 receiving yards) are gone, but Martin (1,260 rushing yards, 6.3 per carry, +12.3 Adj. POE, 12 TD; 338 receiving yards) returns, and wow, is he a good back. He looks bigger than his 215 pounds suggests, but he plays just about as fast as your normal 5-foot-9 back. Poor D.J. Harper returns to a backup role as well. He was lost to a knee injury three games into the 2009 season ... and he was lost to another knee injury three games into 2010. He responded well to the last injury (160 yards, 8.9 per carry, +3.9 Adj. POE, 2 TD) at the beginning of last season; let's see if he's able to do so again.
  • Six returning linemen have starting experience, led by three-year starting center Thomas Byrd (40 starts) and almost-three-year starting left tackle Nate Potter (30). Boise State had what might have been a top-five O-line last year, and despite the losses of guard Will Lawrence and tackle Matt Slater, they could again this year.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 1 1 1
RUSHING 4 2 5 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 2 3 2 5
Standard Downs 1 3 1 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 6 6 6 1
Redzone 3 3 5
Q1 Rk 1 1st Down Rk 1
Q2 Rk 3 2nd Down Rk 16
Q3 Rk 6 3rd Down Rk 3
Q4 Rk 28

Is it possible that a mid-major defense, even a really, really good one, can field the best unit in the country? If you believe at least a little bit in the S&P+ concept, then ... yeah. And it's possible that, including TCU's 2008 defense, it has happened twice in three years (and both with 4-2-5 schemes, no less). Nobody in the country gameplanned and started games better, and nobody in the country executed better than Boise State, and ... did you see what their line did to Virginia Tech last year? Boise State was outstanding in the way that they knocked opponents on their heels immediately; even in their two closest games (the Virginia Tech win and the Nevada loss), they went up 17-0 in the first half each time. They struggled a bit late in games -- Tech scored 16 points in the second half to tie, Nevada scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to do the same -- but they proved just how much the first half matters. Do well enough in the first half, and it might not matter what you do late.

The strength of the 2010 defense was undoubtedly the line. Starting at midseason, when I began to realize how good this defense might be, I began rooting for them to get a chance at Auburn; it didn't happen, of course (and in the game they lost, they were certainly manhandled late, albeit by a Top 10 Nevada line and running game), and since they only got to play a banged-up Utah offense in the bowl game, I am left to just theorize about how good they might have been. But the numbers -- both advanced defensive stats and pure size numbers (most of their ends are over 250 pounds, most of their tackles over 295) -- are certainly on Boise's side here.

Ten different linemen registered at least two tackles for loss, and eight return this fall, led by a pair of outstanding, and identically productive, ends: Shea McClellin (22.5 tackles, 13.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT) and Tyrone Crawford (22.5 tackles, 13.5 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU). But it is at tackle where Boise shines. A four-headed monster of Billy Winn (19.5 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks), Chase Baker (19.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks), Ricky Tjong-A-Tjoe (17.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks) and Mike Atkinson (7.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks in four games) returns to manhandle the interior of mid-major and major conference lines alike. The squatty (6-foot-0, 312 pounds!) Atkinson is perhaps the best of the bunch, but he was suspended for the last nine games of the season for disciplinary reasons. This is a great line either way, but it could be even better if he keeps his head on straight. If Georgia fans are looking for something over which to wring their hands about their season opener against Boise State, this is it. The 'Dawgs could do alright against a Boise offense working in some new pieces, but their thin offensive line could get blown up.

Other tidbits:

  • The two-man linebacking corps often had a pretty easy job, taking advantage of a dominant line; it is difficult to tell for sure how good this unit is, but their top three, and four of their top six, return, led by weaksiders J.C. Percey (47.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) and Aaron Tevis (31.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT) and middle men Byron Hout (24.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks in nine games) and Tommy Smith (18.0 tackles).
  • Unlike the front six, a) the Boise State secondary's athleticism isn't quite at the same elite level, and b) they have to deal with some key losses. Star cornerback Brandyn Thompson (25.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 7 PBU) is gone, as are two of Boise's top three safeties (Jeron Johnson, Winston Venable, Jason Robinson). Safety George Iloka (56.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU) returns, as do corners Jamar Taylor and Jerrell Gavins (combined: 53.5 tackels, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 5 PBU, 3 FF); Hunter White (24.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT) has decent experience at the nickel back position, as well. But compared to the rest of the defense this unit is the thinnest and most questionable.

Boise State's 2010 Season Set to Music

Because of the missed field goal that prevented another undefeated season, how about a little "Kickin' My Heart Around" by the Black Crowes? Is that too mean?

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 the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 9
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 81
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +8 / +11
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (7, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -8.4

Last year, I was worried that Boise State was projected a bit too low in the Football Outsiders Almanac. This year, at No. 3, I'm concerned they may be a bit too high. This is, for all intents and purposes, the same team as last year, only with a potential downgrade at both receiver and defensive back. Of course...

A) A lesser version of last year's team would still be one of the better mid-major squads in recent memory; and...

B) This is still basically a two-game schedule. Trips to Fresno State and San Diego State could be interesting, but for the most part Boise State's season will be defined by their Georgia Dome battle against Georgia on Labor Day Weekend and their November 12 battle with TCU in Boise. The thought of a four-way Mountain West battle between Boise State, TCU, Utah and BYU was intriguing, especially with TCU and BSU each taking potential steps backwards this year, but Utah and BYU both ruined that plan.

So the Broncos find themselves in the same place as always: trying to stay focused against lesser teams while others try to figure out a way to write them off. As far as I'm concerned, Boise State is all but a member of college football's ruling class at this point; they just rarely get a chance to actually prove it.

 

 

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

---

* 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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