Nebraska Vs. South Carolina, Capital One Bowl 2012: The 'Yeah, But...' Game

LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 25: Cornerback Marcus Mendoza #32 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers jumps atop a pre game scrum as the Nebraska Cornhuskers prepare to plan the Iowa Hawkeyes at Memorial Stadium November 25, 2011 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska defeated Iowa 20-7. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

Alshon Jeffery versus Alfonzo Dennard. Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead versus Melvin Ingram and Antonio Allen. There will be plenty of battles to watch in this one, even if the points could be at a premium.

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

Today's Capital One Bowl participants each had "Yeah, But..." seasons. Nebraska won nine games, overcame quite a few defensive injuries, and took out three Big Ten heavyweights (or light heavyweights) -- Ohio State, Penn State, Iowa -- in their first season in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, South Carolina fielded an explosive defense and overcame quarterback drama and an injury to Marcus Lattimore to win 10 games for just the second time in school history and the first time in Steve Spurriers seven years in Columbia.

Good seasons for both, right?

Yeah, but ... Nebraska's offense was every bit as limited in 2011 as it was in 2010. And they got embarrassed by Wisconsin and lost the Big Ten Legends Division title by two games to Michigan State (a team they beat by 21 points). And besides, a No. 21 spot in the AP polls is not necessarily impressive when they started the year 10th. (Not that they had done anything to deserve a ranking of 10th, of course; the Football Outsiders projection of 26th and 8-4 seemed more realistic then and now.)

And in letting their game versus Auburn slip away at home in early October (before either Stephen Garcia's dismissal or Marcus Lattimore's injury), South Carolina also failed to pull in their second consecutive East division title. Are good seasons still good seasons if you don't meet some key goals?

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Nebraska 9-3 21 17 28 25 13
South Carolina 10-2 10 27 37 12 112
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Nebraska 38 101 94 74
South Carolina 68 86 108 1

South Carolina won ten games despite dreadful special teams and extreme schizophrenia. Can they win 11 like that? And will this game's low MACtion rating send you careening to another one of the 1:00 PM ET games?

When Nebraska Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Nebraska Offense 28 48 30 63 31 39 43
South Carolina Defense 12 13 6 24 16 53 4
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Nebraska Offense 74.7% 39 43.2% 72
South Carolina Defense 64.3% 12 38.9% 29
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

In 2010, redshirt freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez led Nebraska to the following ratings: 47th in Off. F/+, 75th in Success Rate+, 37th in PPP+, 42nd in Rushing S&P+ and 63rd in Passing S&P+, 39th on standard downs, 63rd on passing downs. Or to put it another way, they were almost exactly the same offense in 2010 as they were in 2011. They did a little better job of finishing drives (their OFEI rose from 45th to 30th, primarily because they lost seven fewer turnovers), and they passed a hair better, but the second verse of Taylor Martinez's tenure was almost the same as the first.

Nebraska is going to run at you with Martinez (896 pre-sack rushing yards, plus-10.2 Adj. POE) and Rex Burkhead (1,267 yards, plus-8.0 Adj. POE). If you stop it, they're going to keep trying it for a little while longer. The two have enough big-play potential that they can quickly make up for a handful of lost series with a long run or two, but if the big plays aren't coming, Nebraska isn't scoring. The passing game may have improved with the emergence of decent receivers like Kenny Bell (408 receiving yards, 7.6 per target) and Quincy Enunwa (293, 7.9), but this is still a run-first, run-second offense. The Huskers are not wont to either play from behind or move on to Plan B.

This provides an interesting matchup with the South Carolina defense. While the Gamecocks were rock solid overall, a good portion of their defensive success came when the opponent was passing the ball. Against the run, Carolina occasionally showed some cracks. However, a good portion of those cracks came against lesser opponents; Navy and The Citadel combined to average 5.1 yards per carry against the 'Cocks, but SEC offenses had less success, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. A couple of lesser performances may have doomed the Carolina defense to a worse rating than is necessarily accurate.

Like most good SEC defenses, South Carolina's is fast and startlingly athletic. End Melvin Ingram was the face of the defense, primarily because of his amazing game versus Georgia; he is athletic enough to score a long touchdown on a fake punt and a good enough defender to collect items in every column of the box score: 13.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, six quarterback hurries, two interceptions, two passes broken up and a fumble recovery. And of course, there are plenty of other athletes. Fellow ends Devin Taylor and blue-chip freshman Jadeveon Clowney combined for 16.5 tackles for loss and 11 sacks, corner Stephon Gilmore defended 10 passes, and "SPUR" linebacker/safety Antonio Allen was a box score collector himself (8.5 tackles for loss, three picks, four forced fumbles). In theory, Carolina should have little trouble stopping this offense, but their lack of focus in stopping more specialized run games gives me pause.

When South Carolina Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
South Carolina Offense 37 45 47 41 44 26 62
Nebraska Defense 25 17 43 20 13 26 10
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
South Carolina Offense 68.2% 36 39.1% 37
Nebraska Defense 68.5% 33 28.8% 8
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Because of Stephen Garcia's issues and receiver Alshon Jeffery's general disappearance, Carolina's was a grind-it-out offense even before Marcus Lattimore tore his ACL; without him, the upside diminished, but the approach remained the same. As strange as it sounds for a Steve Spurrier offense, the 'Cocks actually run the ball almost as much as the Huskers. And like South Carolina, Nebraska is a bit more adept at defending the pass than the run.

Since Connor Shaw took over for the troubled Garcia and Brandon Wilds took over for Lattimore, the approach has been pretty simple: grind. In the last five games, quarterback Connor Shaw has averaged 18.6 passes and 15.2 carries per game, and Wilds has thrown in 18.8 carries. Only once in his five starts did Wilds average over 4.9 yards per carry (20 for 109 versus The Citadel, if that even counts), but that's not really the point. They want to soften you up as much as possible, then hand you back over to their defense. Of course, in the last two games, Shaw seemed to figure out this whole "passing" thing; against The Citadel and Clemson, he completed 30 of 38 passes (79 percent) for 417 yards (11.0 per pass), six touchdowns and one interception; nine different receivers caught at least one pass in those games, and three -- Jeffery (seven for 110), Ace Sanders (five for 56) and Wilds (five for 55) -- caught at least five. Two games does not a trend make, but color me intrigued. And hey, I am all for one more opportunity to potentially see the 2010 version of Alshon Jeffery making plays; he spent half the 2011 season on the Missing Persons list.

Another reason for hoping for Jeffery's A-game: we could see some incredible one-on-one battles between Jeffery and Nebraska's ace cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. The senior from SEC country (Rochelle, GA) was one of quite a few key defenders to miss time for the Huskers in 2011, but he is one of the stickiest defenders in the country. Jeffery may have disappeared in zone coverage for much of the season, but he will get his man-to-man opportunity today.

How well-equipped are the Huskers when it comes to stopping the Carolina run game? Hard to say. With Jared Crick injured for much of the season, Nebraska struggled to make plays close to the line of scrimmage. They registered a startling 51 tackles for loss this season, the worst total in the country among bowl teams and fifth-worst overall. Crick made three tackles for loss in five games this year, and starting tackles Baker Steinkuhler and Chase Rome combined for only six all season. Lavonte David managed to make 20 percent of Nebraska's tackles for loss (11), 21 percent of their sacks (3.5), 20 percent of their interceptions (two) and 33 percent of their egregiously low six forced fumbles. If he wasn't making a play, nobody was. South Carolina appears capable of grinding out three or four yards at a time if they want, but forget that, Coach Spurrier. We want to see you throw to Jeffery.

The Verdict

Nebraska by 3.7.

For the most part, defenses hold the advantage over offenses in this game; this, of course, means that special teams and field position will play primary roles in determining the winner. That is why Nebraska gets the nod from the numbers. The Huskers dwarfed the Gamecocks in both Special Teams F/+ (13th versus 112th) and Field Position Advantage (21st to 74th). Carolina's punting game is terrible, and in just about every other special teams category, they are 70th or worse. Nebraska, meanwhile, has a high ceiling in just about all of those categories. If the 'Cocks can shut Martinez down, however, they will never be too far away from the Huskers. This should be a relatively tight, low-scoring game.

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

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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