Georgia Vs. Michigan State, Outback Bowl 2012: Tales Of Redemption

Michigan State has a chance to redeem itself after last year's dreadful Capital One Bowl performance against Alabama. Can they hang with an athletic, if offensively challenged, squad of Georgia Bulldogs?

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

As fans, we tend to have selective memory. Certain games create reputations for teams in your head, and if another game refutes that perception, you just forget it. It is what has happened with Michigan State and me. The Spartans proved themselves a high-quality team this year, winning ten games, comfortably placing in the F/+ Top 15, playing stellar defense, and coming within three points of a Big Ten title. But ... I just cannot shake last January 1, when State got so thoroughly eviscerated, and downright emasculated, by Alabama.

It's unfair, really. Michigan State's team ranked just 30th in F/+ despite a good record, and quite a few decent teams have been pantsed by Nick Saban's Crimson Tide over the years. But while I am not typically one to scream "SEC! SEC!" at any given opportunity, the fact is, I need it proven to me that State can hang with another fast, athletic SEC team before I believe it. The numbers believe in the Spartans, and I really want to. But I can't just yet.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Michigan State 10-3 12 10 20 13 14
Georgia 10-3 18 14 17 15 80
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Michigan State 92 17 17 5
Georgia 29 22 12 45

Leaving aside my own somewhat unfair perceptions, there are few more evenly matched bowls than this one. The two teams are almost identical in terms of both offensive and defensive proficiency, but special teams have held Georgia back a decent amount this fall, and State is given the statistical edge because of that.

When Michigan State Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Michigan State Offense 20 47 40 70 37 79 33
Georgia Defense 15 4 14 7 4 12 7
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Michigan State Offense 60.9% 63 31.2% 35
Georgia Defense 58.2% 6 30.3% 15
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

At first glance, it appears that both defenses hold significant advantages over the offenses in this one. For the Michigan State offense, one problem quickly presents itself: the Spartans are quite inefficient and reliant on big plays. They fall into holes on standard downs but are solid enough through the air to bail themselves out of trouble. One can see how that might be a problem against excellent defenses, and make no mistake: Georgia's is an excellent defense. In their second year under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, they have improved dramatically in every aspect. Two years ago, the Dawgs' defense was a liability, ranking 41st in Def. F/+ and 71st in Passing S&P+. Now, they rank in the Top 25 of every major advanced category, including Adj. Line Yards (15th) and Adj. Sack Rate (24th). Only two teams were able to average better than 5.5 yards per play against Georgia in 2011, and one of them was New Mexico State in a UGa blowout win.

While it goes against what is probably our intuition -- Michigan State is an efficient, run-heavy team, right? -- State's run game really hasn't been very good in 2011. Le'Veon Bell and Edwin Baker split carries, and while Bell lived up to his end of the bargain (900 yards, plus-15.3 Adj. POE), Baker struggled (655 yards, minus-11.9 Adj. POE). As Bell stole more and more of Baker's carries, Michigan State's offense began to improve.

Michigan State Offense, September/October: Baker 109 carries, Bell 87 carries, 26.4 Adj. PPG
Michigan State Offense, November/December: Bell 78 carries, Baker 55 carries, 33.9 Adj. PPG

Georgia has been slightly worse against the run than the pass, but the State offense has been at its best when Kirk Cousins is finding B.J. Cunningham (1,233 yards, 11.6 per target) and Keshawn Martin (742 yards, 8.2 per target) downfield. With 12 touchdowns, Cunningham has been one of the most underrated receivers in the country this year. His battle with Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin should be both entertaining and telling.

The well-rounded Dawg defense has stars in each tier of the defense. Big John Jenkins (6-foot-3, 351 pounds) is the perfect nose for a 3-4, both in terms of occupying blockers and making a few plays (six tackles for loss, three sacks). Outside backer Jarvis Jones is eighth in the country with 19.5 tackles for loss (and, if you believe Georgia's hilarious stat-keeper, 42 quarterback hurries, which ... no). Safety Bacarri Rambo is both physically (6-foot-0, 220 pounds) and statistically (seven picks, seven passes broken up) ridiculous. Cornerbacks Boykin (nine tackles for loss, three picks) and Sanders Commings (four tackles for loss, 12 passes broken up) are do-it-all types that allow Grantham to dial up attacks from every angle. Georgia mostly shut down an LSU rushing attack that is mostly better than Michigan State's in their last time out, so State may have to take their chances with the forward pass.

When Georgia Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Georgia Offense 17 25 32 35 12 83 4
Michigan State Defense 13 7 8 6 6 8 11
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Georgia Offense 58.5% 15 46.7% 39
Michigan State Defense 57.7% 4 39.8% 7
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

It is an eerily similar story when Georgia has the ball. The Dawgs rely on big plays and struggle on the ground, while Michigan State is well-rounded and fantastic on standard downs. The only primary differences: Michigan State runs a 4-3 instead of a 3-4, and Georgia is quite a bit more reliant on standard downs success on offense than the Spartans.

I've written quite a bit this year how Aaron Murray has been one of the more underrated quarterbacks in the country. Against a ridiculous slate of defenses, Murray has managed to still complete 59 percent of his passes and throw 33 touchdown passes. By game's end today, he should easily have passed the 3,000-yard mark for the season as well. This is impressive, not only because of the opponents he has faced, but also because of the revolving door he has had in the receiving corps. Quite a few different players have taken their turn serving as Murray's go-to guy: tight end Orson Charles (572 yards, 8.7 per target), possession man Tavarres King (472 yards, 6.1 per target), blue-chip freshman Malcolm Mitchell (614 yards, 11.8 per target), etc.

Of course, this is nothing like the revolving door at the running back position. Due to injuries, suspensions, attitude adjustments, and who knows what else, four players have carried the ball at least 70 times (including Aaron Murray), two others at least 30. All have produced similar, and rather mediocre, results. Five-star freshman Isaiah Crowell (847 yards, minus-2.2 Adj. POE) has been up-and-down (as freshmen tend to be) and struggled through injuries, but he is now healthy. It sounds as if Ken Malcome (123 yards, minus-3.7 Adj. POE) will get the start, however, and players like Carlton Thomas (361 yards, minus-0.1 Adj. POE) and Richard Samuel (240 yards, minus-3.6 Adj. POE) will get some carries as well.

Whoever is carrying the ball, it would behoove Georgia if they were to actually get up the field occasionally. And that is easier said than done against a Michigan State defense that has no obvious weaknesses. The Spartans racked up 88 tackles for loss, picked off 16 passes and broke up 40 more. They are young and exciting -- only one senior is projected to start -- and they play things a little straighter than the Dawgs. Sure, they will blitz corner Johnny Adams from time to time (he has three sacks), but for the most part, the tackles for loss come from the players who start closest to the line; ends William Gholston and Marcus Rush have 21 tackles for loss, tackle Jerel Worthy has added another 8.5, and SAM linebacker Denicos Allen has 17. (By the way, the four players I just mentioned are a sophomore, redshirt freshman, junior and sophomore. The future is bright in East Lansing.) Meanwhile, safeties Isaiah Lewis and Trenton Robinson each picked off four passes.

The Verdict

Michigan State by 2.8.

Any big play of any kind will be enormous in this one. A coverage breakdown, a slip, a special teams gaffe ... in the end, anything could make the difference in such an evenly-matched game. State is favored because of special teams; they are solid in virtually every aspect, from punt returns to place-kicking, and Georgia has struggled. But if the Dawgs can offset that advantage with a long play or two, they could be in the driver's seat. The last time the world saw Michigan State playing a strong, fast SEC team, it was over within about ten minutes. Now is the Spartans' chance for redemption. Do they have it in them?

--------------------

A Quick Glossary

Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.

F/+ Rankings: 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.

MACtion: This is a look at how closely teams are associated with big-play football (like those high-scoring, mid-week MAC games). Teams that rank high on the MACtion scale play games with a ton of both big plays (gained and allowed) and passing downs. For more, go here.

Pace: This is calculated by going beyond simply who runs the most plays. Teams that pass more are naturally inclined to run more plays (since there are more clock stoppages involved), so what we do here is project how many plays a team would typically be expected to run given their run-pass ratio, then compare their actual plays to expectations. Teams, then, are ranked in order from the most plays above the expected pace, to the least.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this 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.

Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.

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