Wisconsin Vs. Oregon, Rose Bowl 2012: Some Games Just Feel Right

Oregon cannot be stopped on standard downs, and Wisconsin cannot be stopped. The two best two-loss teams in the country face off in Pasadena, and the 2012 Rose Bowl should be a lot of fun.

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

Some games just feel right, don't they? You cannot wait to see them on the same field, you cannot wait to see how each team accounts for the other's strengths, and you cannot wait to hear Brent Musberger getting wrapped up in all of it. (And yes, I am on Team Musberger. Deal with it.) Oregon and Wisconsin had two of the most explosive, exciting teams in 2011, and they went about their business in drastically different ways. Not "Penn State versus Houston" different, but different enough to make the 2012 Rose Bowl one of the bowl season's most compelling matchups.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
Wisconsin 11-2 9 5 1 32 46
Oregon 11-2 6 6 8 6 30
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
Wisconsin 74 94 89 80
Oregon 23 72 69 96

Wisconsin and Oregon were two of last year's most talked-about teams; in 2011, their records are slightly worse, but they are both quite possibly better, especially from a statistical standpoint. Competing for a national title requires both luck and timing. Wisconsin didn't have the luck in 2011 (both losses were via semi-lucky last-minute bombs), and Oregon didn't have the timing (hello, season-opening game versus LSU). But both are phenomenal teams, and they should put on a hell of a show in Pasadena.

When Wisconsin Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Wisconsin Offense 1 1 2 1 1 2 1
Oregon Defense 6 10 7 8 9 18 6
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Wisconsin Offense 69.3% 1 42.7% 1
Oregon Defense 54.2% 9 30.3% 11
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Technically, Wisconsin did indeed lose one more game in the 2011 regular season than they did in 2010, but Russell Wilson still provided the upgrade expected of him when he transferred from N.C. State for his senior season. He completed the same percentage of passes as Scott Tolzien did in 2010 (73 percent), but in 18 more passes, he threw for 420 more yards, averaged 0.9 more yards per pass, and threw 15 more touchdown passes and three fewer interceptions. He also provided a greater aspect of mobility than Tolzien, making plays happen by either scrambling around in the backfield (which did occasionally lead to some sacks) or by taking off downfield. At a combined 11.2 yards per target, Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis easily outpaced last year's top two targets (Lance Kendricks and Toon), and Wisconsin was already pretty explosive last year.

Oh yeah, and Wilson also had the best endzone magnet in recent history sharing the backfield. That doesn't hurt. It is difficult to figure out anything unique to say about Montee Ball. He is fast, but not super-fast. Big, but not Ron Dayne enormous. He has perhaps the best vision of any back in college football, however, and when he spotted the end zone, he got there. Including receptions, he averaged 23 touches and three touchdowns, per game. Oh yeah, and the advanced stats love him too. Despite playing a number of strong defenses, Ball just kept producing. His Adj. POE was far and away the best in the country in 2011. The full Adj. POE list will be posted after the season, but at the moment, he has outpaced the No. 2 back (Trent Richardson) by 17.9 equivalent points (plus-55.6 to plus-37.7), almost three full touchdowns. He is as far ahead of Richardson as Richardson is ahead of the No. 19 back (Tulsa's Ja'Terian Douglas). He was magnificent.

As good as Wisconsin's offense has been, however, it hasn't faced a defense as fast as Oregon's since last year's Rose Bowl. Wilson will need to provide a boost that the Badgers didn't have in that game, as TCU was able to rein the Wisconsin offense in enough to steal the win. You can push the Ducks' front four around a bit -- the Oregon defense ranks 70th in Adj. Line Yards and averages just 272 pounds on its defensive line, while Wisconsin's offense ranks fourth and averages 323 pounds -- but while they will give you the first few yards for free, they're going to quickly swarm. Linebackers Michael Clay and Dewitt Stuckey have combined for 120.5 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and nine passes defended; the defense will attempt to leverage everything toward them and free safety John Boyett. And on passing downs, that speed and undersized line becomes a weapon; end Dion Jordan leads the team with 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, but 29 different Ducks took part in a tackle for loss, 15 in a sack. Russell Wilson is a special talent, but Oregon has special speed.

When Oregon Has The Ball…

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Oregon Offense 8 4 14 11 5 5 12
Wisconsin Defense 32 49 29 71 62 71 56
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Oregon Offense 66.2% 3 48.8% 50
Wisconsin Defense 63.1% 70 39.5% 19
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

Like Wisconsin, Oregon's offense may also have improved in 2011. And while the return of LaMichael James and the addition of De'Anthony Thomas certainly helped, the improvement began up front. Oregon is No. 1 in the country in Adj. Line Yards, ahead of even Wisconsin, and ninth in Adj. Sack Rate. Four linemen have started at last 32 games for the Ducks in their career (and only two are seniors), and the experience shows. Quarterback Darron Thomas and the Ducks have not been particularly effective on passing downs, but it hasn't mattered; nobody can leverage them into passing downs. This is a point of concern for a Wisconsin defense that has been solid in the back seven but inexperienced and ineffective up front.

The offensive line has been incredible, but it's not like James and company needed much help. Despite missing two games to injury (and despite the fact that backups Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas combined to steal 13 carries per game), James still rushed for 1,646 yards and 17 touchdowns in just 20 carries per contest. That's 150 yards per game, and against a decent set of run defenses; though dwarfed by Montee Ball's total, James still managed a plus-34.5 Adj. POE, fifth in the country, and the trio of James, Barner (909 yards) and Thomas (440 yards) combined for a plus-57.8. (And yes, Adj. POE accounts for good offensive lines.)

The Ducks actually pass a decent amount of the time, however, especially on standard downs, and they were pretty good at that, too. The leading receiver, actually, was Thomas (571 yards, 10.0 per target); the five-star freshman could give other dual-threat backs like Trent Richardson, Auburn's Onterio McCalebb and Virginia's Perry Jones a run for their money. Throw in Josh Huff (416 yards, 8.7 per target), tight end David Paulson (428, 9.5) and a healthy dose of James and Barner (combined: 342, 7.1), and you've got a multitude of weapons. Again, they are not amazingly effective on passing downs, but it is unclear how much that will hurt them here.

The Badgers' defense has its moments, especially on passing downs, but their down-to-down efforts have left something to be desired. Sophomore middle linebacker Chris Borland (93.5 tackles, 18.0 tackles for loss, seven passes defended, four forced fumbles) has been outstanding against the run, but at first glance it does not appear he has enough help around him. The starting line of ends Louis Nzegwu and Brendan Kelly and tackles Patrick Butrym and Ethan Hemer have not made enough plays (combined tackles for loss: 15.5, 2.5 fewer than Borland), and if they are unable to disrupt the proceedings up front, that will put far too much pressure on the secondary not to blow a single passing down.

The Verdict

Wisconsin by 0.5.

Primarily because of Russell Wilson and Montee Ball, Wisconsin gets the slightest of edges in what is really a complete tossup game; and really, there is good reason for that. Even in their two losses, the Wisconsin offense scored to tie or take the lead the last time they touched the ball. Still, the Oregon offense holds such a severe advantage on standard downs that one has to wonder how much the Badgers can stop them. This really should be one of the peaks of an already extremely enjoyable bowl season.

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

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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