2011 Season Preview: The Oregon Ducks And Some Antagonistic Numbers

What they lacked in advanced statistical prowess, Oregon made up for with pace and playmakers in 2010. With the offense set to potentially get better and an underrated defense set to get worse, what is in store for Chip Kelly's speedy Ducks in 2011?

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.

So we meet again, Ducks.

The good folks at Addicted to Quack were among the first to begin semi-regularly linking to a lot of my work at Football Outsiders (to which I'm quite grateful). I've had plenty of pleasant exchanges with them, and they seem generally supportive of the advanced stats we have been pursuing in recent years. Their reward? Watching my ratings dump all over their record-setting offense during the 2010 season.

Oregon didn't score fewer than 42 points in any of their first nine games, but heading into their November 13 showdown with California, the 9-0 Ducks ranked just 20th in S&P+, one spot behind 5-3 Pittsburgh. I couldn't stop writing about and over-analyzing it. I tweaked some formulas, I cried on Ken Pomeroy's shoulder, and I attempted to make peace with the situation. Eventually, I came to two conclusions: 1) every formula ends up with outlier teams, and 2) with the schedule at hand, we simply weren't going to learn how good Oregon truly was unless they were to whip their given opponent in the national title game.

Oregon pulled off an interesting balancing act in 2010. They managed to often take a while to ease away from opponents and then, when the game was no longer in "close" range (i.e. when plays were no longer being counted for S&P+ ratings), score a blitz of late touchdowns to win by a crazy margin. They led Tennessee just 20-13 midway through the third quarter but won, 48-13. They trailed Arizona State, 24-14, midway through the second quarter but rode seven Sun Devil turnovers to a 42-31 win. They led a bad Washington State team just 36-23 heading into the fourth quarter of a 43-23 win. They trailed USC, 32-29, midway through the third quarter before exploding for 23 points and an easy win. They led Arizona just 27-22 late in the third quarter before pulling away to win by 19. They led Oregon State just 23-13 early in the fourth quarter but won by 17.

In the end, wins are wins, and Oregon piled them up. I doubt that if they'd beaten Auburn in the national title game, their joy would have been tamped down by a "Yeah, but they weren't even a Top 5 team according to F/+!" response. They'd have ordered rings just the same. But here's the deal: if you used S&P+ ratings to retroactively predict Oregon's win-loss record, you'd have gotten either 12 or all 13 games correct, depending on how much you value home field advantage. The Ducks played against just two teams that finished ranked ahead of them in the final S&P+ -- Auburn and Stanford -- and they went 1-1, barely losing to Auburn on a neutral field and pulling away from Stanford at home. Those were, in fact, the only two opponents they faced who finished in the F/+ Top 25. They won the other 11 games, mostly with ease, and most of the teams in the F/+ Top 10 would have done exactly the same.

Oregon mostly dominated a weak schedule, but they did so with style and panache, and while this conceivably could have been the third-best Oregon team of the last four years (note that S&P+ doesn't knock every Oregon team, just the last one), timing is everything; the 2010 Ducks avoided catastrophic injury, pulled away for mostly easy wins, won the first 12 games on their schedule and almost won the 13th too. There is little more you can ask for than that.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 12-1 | Adj. Record: 12-1 | Final F/+ Rk**: 9
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
04-Sep New Mexico 72-0 W 31.3 - (-4.9) W
11-Sep at Tennessee 48-13 W 38.3 - 17.1 W
18-Sep Portland State
69-0 W 33.1 - 1.2 W
25-Sep at Arizona State 42-31 W 27.3 - 28.5 L
02-Oct Stanford 52-31 W 57.1 - 27.0 W
09-Oct at Washington State 43-23 W 32.0 - 31.0 W
21-Oct UCLA 60-13 W 48.5 - 22.0 W
30-Oct at USC 53-32 W 37.1 - 19.4 W
06-Nov Washington 53-16 W 33.2 - 5.6 W
13-Nov at California 15-13 W 17.1 - 10.5 W
26-Nov Arizona 48-29 W 44.0 - 27.1 W
04-Dec at Oregon State 37-20 W 32.1 - 21.3 W
10-Jan vs Auburn 19-22 L 23.2 - 21.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 47.0 1 18.7 12
Adj. Points Per Game 34.9 13 17.5 7

 

One thing you will notice below: Oregon's defense may have been better than their offense. No team in the country went after the ball better than the Ducks, and between that and devastating special teams, Oregon's offense was consistently set up with favorable field position (as evidenced by their Top 10 Field Position Advantage ranking).

The defense at the beginning and end of the season was some of the best in the country; in the middle, the offense surged just as the defense was showing cracks.

First three games: Oregon 34.2 Adj. PPG, opponents 4.5 (+29.7)
Next five games: Oregon 40.4, opponents 25.6 (+14.8)
Last five games: Oregon 29.9, opponents 17.2 (+12.7)

In the end, it was the defense that may have been the Top 10 unit. We'll look at how and why below.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 24 33 14
RUSHING 24 31 23 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 21 45 10 53
Standard Downs 20 27 17 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 28 59 14 6
Redzone 57 66 50
Q1 Rk 45 1st Down Rk 34
Q2 Rk 17 2nd Down Rk 17
Q3 Rk 28 3rd Down Rk 22
Q4 Rk 8

 

In terms of perceptions, style, flair and eye-popping point totals trump on-paper numbers. No offense was more under-the-microscope than Chip Kelly's last year because of the pace, shifts and formations involved. Though the Ducks' schedule-adjusted numbers were only excellent and not transcendent, the Pac-12's offseason was dominated almost as much by "How will Pac-12 defenses adapt?" talk as "Hey, look, it's not the Pac-10 anymore!" But defenses have had a few years to adapt to Oregon's style, and they have, to a tiny degree, succeeded. The Ducks ranked third in Off. F/+ in 2007 (moment of silence for What Could Have Been Had Dennis Dixon Not Gone Down), 13th in 2008, 10th in 2009 and 16th in 2010. Their sudden 2010 surge really didn't exist; in fact, there was the tiniest of regressions. Again, this was still a great offense, but they really didn't do anything that recent Oregon offenses hadn't done ever-so-slightly better.

Oregon's identity in 2010 was quite clear: run, run, run. They kept the ball on the ground two-thirds of the time on standard downs and half the time on passing downs, and it was mostly successful. What made Oregon click, however, was that they were not actually afraid of passing the ball. Quarterback Darron Thomas (2,881 yards, 8.0 per pass, 62% completion rate, 30 TD, 9 INT) was accurate and smart enough with the ball that the Ducks were able to get aggressive through the air as well. Weapons like Jeff Maehl (1,076 yards, 14.0 per catch, 66% catch rate, 12 TD), Josh Huff (303 yards, 15.9 per catch, 54% catch rate, 3 TD) and tight end David Paulson (418 yards, 17.4 per catch, 55% catch rate, 4 TD) were serious downfield threats, and what the Ducks occasionally lacked in passing efficiency, they more than made up for in explosiveness. Thanks to the threat of the run, defenses were never able to tee off on Thomas, even on passing downs, and Oregon benefited significantly.

This should be the case again in 2011. Maehl, one of the most frequently-targeted receivers in the country, is gone, as is possession receiver D.J. Davis (470 yards, 11.2 per catch, 66% catch rate, 3 TD), but with Huff, Paulson, lanky Lavasier Tuinei (396 yards, 11.0 per catch, 63% catch rate, 2 TD), junior college transfer Rahsaan Vaughn (6-foot-2, 192) and little-used-to-date players like Justin Hoffman and Will Murphy, there are still weapons here.

Other tidbits:

  • Oregon's line did not rank exceedingly well, particularly in run-blocking (the numbers suggest that LaMichael James and company made the line look good on quite a few occasions; and their performance against Nick Fairley and the Auburn line was certainly lacking at times), but with two two-year starters -- all-conference guard Carson York and right tackle Mark Asper -- returning, there should be decent continuity despite the loss of three (well, two and a half, really) starters. With so much talent at the skill positions, there will certainly be a lot of attention cast on the offense's biggest question mark.
  • God bless the hybrid. More and more teams are blurring the lines between running backs and receivers, and Oregon is no exception. Josh Huff is a great example. The true freshman was the Ducks' fifth-leading receiver and rusher last year; Chip Kelly has shown he will get the ball into the hands of his play-makers in one way or another, and with so much talent in the backfield, he will likely be utilizing the Huff role quite a bit. LaMichael James (1,730 yards, +26.4 Adj. POE) and Kenjon Barner (569 yards, +5.8 Adj. POE) return -- I haven't focused on them much here because, well, you know all about them -- and two former-five star backs enter the equation as well: redshirt freshman Lache Seastrunk and true freshman De'anthony Thomas, who is evidently asserting himself in fall practices.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 19 21 13
RUSHING 22 33 19 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 17 18 16 19
Standard Downs 32 35 26 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 7 7 5 71
Redzone 15 30 9
Q1 Rk 41 1st Down Rk 36
Q2 Rk 14 2nd Down Rk 3
Q3 Rk 8 3rd Down Rk 26
Q4 Rk 24

 

I like to say that the traits that create your best qualities are likely the same ones that create your worst. For instance, my brain tends to move very quickly, which means I'm typically either the first one to figure something out ... or I go careening off in the wrong direction while everybody else figures out what I'm missing. It appears that speed is in Cliff Harris' DNA as well, though it comes out in pretty different ways. On the good side, it makes him an absolutely incredible cornerback (28.5 tackles, 6 INT, 17 PBU) and perhaps an even better punt returner (29 returns, 18.8 per return, 4 TD). On the bad side, it makes him do incredibly stupid things like drive 118 miles per hour in a 65-mph zone, and with a suspended license, no less. (Though really, saying what the speed limit was when talking about somebody going 118 is a bit like telling you what color shirt he was wearing while driving; it is a piece of superfluous information.)

Harris was predictably suspended indefinitely for his June transgressions and will, at the very least, miss the season opener against LSU. This is bad news for a defense that swarmed the ball as well as any in the country in 2010 but is now missing quite a few of its best swarmers. Gone are linebackers Casey Matthews (58.0 tackles, 9.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 3 PBU) and Spencer Paysinger (62.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 6 PBU), and perhaps even more importantly, gone are two of the best playmaking linemen in the country, end Kenny Rowe (38.5 tackles, 16.5 TFL/sacks, 5 FF) and tackle Brandon Bair (36.0 tackles, 16.0 TFL/sacks, 8 PBU).

Chip Kelly's game is all about speed, speed, speed, and Oregon's success in 2010 was due as much to its defense (13th in Def. F/+) as its offense (16th in Off. F/+). Matthews was as important as Darron Thomas, Harris as important as LaMichael James, Rowe as important as Jeff Maehl, etc. Staring a depleted pass rush in the face, Oregon's secondary needs to come up big, and while corners Avery Patterson (15.5 tackles, 1 INT as a redshirt freshman) and Anthony Gildon (15.0 tackles, 2 PBU) are solid, they are not the playmakers Harris is, at least they haven't proven themselves just yet. Last year, when Oregon was able to leverage opponents into passing downs, the drive ended quickly. If they are a lesser unit both in the pass rush and in the secondary, then suddenly opponents will be able to extend drives a bit more and keep the offense off the field.

Other tidbits:

  • What the front seven lost in playmakers, it makes up for with sweet, sweet youth. Tackles Taylor Hart, Wade Keliikipi and Ricky Heimuli (combined: 34.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) all saw the field a decent amount as either freshmen or redshirt freshmen, and linebacker Boseko Lokombo (28.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 FR, 3 PBU) was an integral player as a redshirt freshman. In all, six of Oregon's nine primary linemen return, as do three of the top five linebackers, so depth really isn't an issue. But 2010 was such a perfect confluence of experience and playmaking ability that in losing Rowe, Bair, Matthews and Paysinger, plus cornerback Talmadge Jackson III (58.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 6 PBU) and, for an undefined amount of time, Cliff Harris, there is no guarantee that the new batch of players will live up to the same standard.
  • Only two teams had two linemen among the Top 30 in overall tackles for loss: Oregon and Troy. Not to sound like a broken record, but it really is going to be difficult to replace the production of Bair and Rowe.

Oregon's 2010 Season Set to Music

"Fast As You, " by Dwight Yoakam
"Fast Cars," by Aesop Rock
"Faster, Sooner, Now," by David Gray
"Give It Up Fast," by Mobb Deep
"Go Faster," The Black Crowes
"Life In The Fast Lane," The Eagles
"Live Fast Die Strong," by King Khan And The Shrines
"One Fast Move Or I'm Gone," by Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard
"Too Fast for Love," by Mötley Crüe
"Too Too Too Fast," by Ra Ra Riot

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 7
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 17
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +13 / +12.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (6, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -7.2

 

Allow me to defend myself for one last time regarding the 2010 team, then move on for good. Context, timing and luck matter. Your best team does not always win the most games, and your worst team isn't guaranteed a winless record. Oregon is the perfect example. The 2007 Ducks were likely the best team in the country before quarterback Dennis Dixon went down (Adj. PPG with Dixon: 43.3; without: 24.5). The 2010 Ducks, meanwhile, were worse offensively and slightly worse overall, but their schedule, their injuries luck and their overall timing was much, much better.

You win in college football by repeatedly putting a good team on the field and hoping that the breaks fall your way at some point. And over the last four years, Oregon has been the seventh-best overall team in the country. The 1994 Nebraska team was not better than the 1978 or 1983 Huskers, but the breaks fell their way (odd to say considering Tommie Frazier's blood clots), and they made the right plays at the right time. The 1996 Florida Gators were not Steve Spurrier's best team in Gainesville. The 1997 Michigan Wolverines were potentially worse than any number of 1970s Michigan squads that didn't win the national title. In the end, the banners still hang, and the rings still shine whether you're truly the best team or not. (Though as we see with today's nerd tidbit, the numbers and the wins usually match up at the end of the season.) I have reached my happy place with the 2010 Ducks, accepting that they probably weren't as good as my eyes told me at the time, accepting that my numbers still probably had them too low, and knowing that if not for Michael Dyer's hand, they may have been national champions all the same.

Depending on how well Pac-12 opponents adjust (and how well Chip Kelly adjusts to the adjustments), the 2011 Oregon squad will potentially be a better offensive team than the 2010 squad, but if the defense regresses in the playmaking department, opponents will be able to sustain drives and prevent LaMichael James, Darron Thomas and company from wearing their defenses down quite as much. Oregon will likely find themselves in quite a few more close games this year (last year, only two games were decided by one possession), and they will have to click like Auburn did in those situations to return to the title game. Don't count them out, but don't pencil them in either.

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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