West Virginia Vs. Clemson, Orange Bowl 2012: Rising To The Occasion

Tonight's Orange Bowl provides yet another even matchup, and with two teams that have tended to rise to the occasion in 2011, the level of play could be pretty high, even if the overall rankings are not.

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

Say this for the BCS bowls: while the 10 most deserving teams may not have been selected to fill the 10 slots, the selection process ended up with the five most even matchups possible. According to F/+ rankings, of the 10 teams selected, LSU and Alabama were Nos. 1-2, Oklahoma State and Stanford were Nos. 3-4, Oregon and Wisconsin were Nos. 5-6, Michigan and Virginia Tech were Nos. 7-8, and West Virginia and Clemson were Nos. 9-10.

Team Record AP Rank 2011 F/+ Rk 2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
2011 S.T.
F/+ Rk
West Virginia 9-3 23 28 15 55 86
Clemson 10-3 14 24 16 61 39
Team Pace Rk Covariance Rk MACtion Rk Schizophrenia Rk
West Virginia 48 116 22 27
Clemson 19 119 52 20

Unlike yesterday's Sugar Bowl, which had the (occasional lack of) quality play that I feared, both West Virginia and Clemson tend to play their best against their best opponents. If that remains the case tonight, we could have an absolutely ferocious game. These two teams are athletic, dynamic and have just the combination play-making, play-allowing defenses that turn fun games into really fun games. Neither team ranked in the nation's Top 20 according to F/+, but as I've said many times this bowl season, styles make fights. And this fight could be fantastic. The BCS may have killed the Orange Bowl, but those who do choose to watch tonight should be entertained.

When West Virginia Has The Ball …

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
West Virginia Offense 15 17 6 20 11 11 18
Clemson Defense 61 62 27 72 56 77 51
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
West Virginia Offense 45.9% 24 26.8% 2
Clemson Defense 62.9% 67 38.6% 39
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

There were fits and starts along the way, but all things considered, West Virginia's offense improved about as much as one would have hoped with Dana Holgorsen taking the reins in 2011.

  • WVU Offense, 2010: 65th in Off. S&P+, 49th in Success Rate+, 64th in PPP+, 84th rushing, 42nd passing, 55th on standard downs, 47th on passing downs.
  • WVU Offense, 2011: 17th in Off. S&P+, 20th in Success Rate+, 11th in PPP+, 11th rushing, 18th passing, 24th on standard downs, second on passing downs

The Mountaineers improved by between 25 and 75 spots in every major category; with Holgorsen's reputation and the returning personnel, this was about what was expected. Still, it wasn't a given. And it took a while to get rolling. But what's interesting is, WVU's offense got rolling not because of the passing game, but because the running game suddenly gained competence.

WVU Offense, First Three Games: 26.2 Adj. PPG, 70.9 Rushing S&P+, 106.9 Passing S&P+
WVU Offense, Next Six Games: 43.5 Adj. PPG, 143.5 Rushing S&P+, 133.2 Passing S&P+
WVU Offense, Final Three Games: 30.2 Adj. PPG, 111.8 Rushing S&P+, 98.5 Passing S&P+

In the first three games, the run game was mostly in the hands of freshmen Vernard Roberts and Andrew Buie, who combined to gain just 200 yards in 62 carries (3.2 per carry). Beginning with the fourth game, however, the run game became the purview of a third freshman, Dustin Garrison (742 yards, six touchdowns, and a plus-10.9 Adj. POE), and junior Shawne Alston (339 yards, 10 touchdowns, plus-13.0 Adj. POE). While they slowed down a bit at the end of the season, WVU's offense went from wholly mediocre to very, very good over most of the final three-quarters of the season. It appears Alston will be the main man tonight, however, as Garrison is out with a tweaked knee.

Of course, the threat of the run was as important as actual rushing yards to the Mountaineers, as they still pass more than just about anybody in the country. Geno Smith attempted 42 passes per game in 2011, and WVU's Adj. Run-Pass ratio was, among BCS teams, one of the five most pass-heavy in the country. No. 3 target Ivan McCartney saw as many passes as 55 No. 1 receivers did at the FBS level. Tavon Austin (1,063 yards, 9.3 per target), Stedman Bailey (1,197, 11.4), McCartney (572, 7.2), Devon Brown (333, 9.0) and Dustin Garrison (201, 5.6) all provide unique, viable weapons for Smith, who finished with a stat line about which he had to get starry eyes when Holgorsen came aboard in Morgantown.

To stop West Virginia, Clemson's defensive line is going to have to play at a high level, something they haven't necessarily done much of in 2011. The Tigers rank 90th in Adj. Line Yards and 93rd in Adj. Sack Rate, to say the least, there was a bit of a drop-off after the losses of Da'Quan Bowers and Jarvis Jenkins to the NFL. If they cannot disrupt the play near the line of scrimmage -- either giving Alston and company open lanes to run or not getting any pressure on Smith -- then only poor execution will prevent WVU from putting up big numbers. It is odd to say the line hasn't been good considering end Andre Branch, Clemson's No. 2 tackler, has been excellent (16 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks). But he needs more help than he has received up front. Tackles Brandon Thompson and Rennie Moore (combined: 16 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) have had their moments, but they'll need to be at the top of their game; otherwise, corner Coty Sensabaugh and the other Clemson defensive backs will be facing too much pressure.

When Clemson Has The Ball …

Team F/+
Rk
S&P+
Rk
FEI
Rk
Success
Rt+ Rk
PPP+
Rk
Rushing
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Clemson Offense 16 21 19 19 20 49 9
West Virginia Defense 55 52 45 64 71 76 62
Team Std. Downs
Run %
S.D.
S&P+ Rk
Pass. Downs
Run %
P.D.
S&P+ Rk
Clemson Offense 58.1% 27 26.5% 16
West Virginia Defense 56.5% 60 34.8% 67
National Average 69.1% 30.9%

As stark as West Virginia's offensive improvement has been, Clemson's has been just as severe and important.

  • Clemson Offense, 2010: 74th in Off. S&P+, 70th in Success Rate+, 51st in PPP+, 46th rushing, 72nd passing, 64th on standard downs, 67th on passing downs.
  • Clemson Offense, 2011: 21st in Off. S&P+, 19th in Success Rate+, 20th in PPP+, 49th rushing, ninth passing, 27th on standard downs, 16th on passing downs.

Let's just say that first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris very much earned the monstrous raise and extension he just received. (At least, as much as any assistant football coach can earn a seven-figure salary.) The departure of running back Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington's lingering ankle issues may have hurt the run game a bit, but the addition of both Morris and spectacular freshman Sammy Watkins to the passing game more than made up the difference. Players like Watkins are why we always expect too much of freshmen; he was the No. 1 target almost the moment he walked into the door, and in averaging 10 yards per target (116 targets, 79 catches, 1,159 yards, 11 touchdowns), he provided some of the steadiest production in the country. He sprained his shoulder against Wake Forest, and in terms of Adj. Points (which take quality of opponents into account), the two proceeding games (he missed the N.C. State game and was limited versus South Carolina) saw easily the worst offensive performances of the season.

Clemson with Healthy Sammy Watkins (11 games): 34.6 Adj. Points
Clemson with Injured Sammy Watkins (two games): 17.8 Adj. Points

When Watkins gets at least eight touches (either via carry or reception), Clemson is 7-1; when he doesn't, they are 3-2. With Watkins leading the way, everything else falls into place. DeAndre Hopkins (854 yards, 9.0 per target) is an excellent No. 2 receiver, tight end Dwayne Allen (571 yards, 6.7 per target) a solid No. 3, etc. Clemson is a pass-first team, and if the pass is clicking, then the avenues get a little more navigable for Ellington (1,062 yards, plus-3.7 Adj. POE), who rushed for 125 yards (6.3 per carry) in the ACC championship.

Like Clemson, West Virginia learned in 2011 what departures, particularly on the defensive line, can do to your overall defense. The Mountaineers ranked first in the country in Def. F/+ last season, fifth against the rush. This year, without all-conference linemen Scooter Berry and Chris Neild, highlight-reel safety Robert Sands and four other starters, the Mountaineers fell from great to incredibly mediocre.

WVU still has playmakers in linebacker Najee Goode (62.5 tackles, 12.5 for loss), end Bruce Irvin (14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks), tackle Julian Miller (11 tackles for loss, six sacks) and corner Keith Tandy (three interceptions, nine passes broken up), but when not making plays, they are allowing quite a few. Unlike last year, you can push them around up front (Miller is 259 pounds, Irvin 236 -- Neild and Berry were each over 285), and if a 3-3-5 is not bolstered by a sturdy front three, bad things tend to happen. WVU's line stats aren't as poor as Clemson's (72nd in Adj. Line Yards, 66th in Adj. Sack Rate), but they still put the rest of the defense at a disadvantage. As with WVU, if Boyd has time to throw (to Watkins in particular) and Ellington has room to run, we'll have ourselves a shootout.

The Verdict

Clemson by 0.6.

As with quite a few other recent bowls, these two teams are incredibly evenly matched. With each team's offensive advantages and covariance rankings that skew toward playing better against good teams, the Tigers and Mountaineers should put on a nice show. The numbers lean slightly toward Clemson, partially because of a special teams advantage (CU kicker Chandler Catanzaro is strong, and Watkins is an outstanding kick returner), but this game very much falls into the "a big play or two will skew it one way or another" category. Enjoy.


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.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.