2012 Wyoming Football: Lucky Versus Good

BOISE, ID - NOVEMBER 26: Brett Smith #16 of the Wyoming Cowboys moves to escape Jarrell Root #96 of the Boise State Broncos at Bronco Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Boise, Idaho. (Photo by Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images)

Dave Christensen's Wyoming Cowboys have ridden the luck roller coaster in recent years, and it has taken them to two bowls in three years despite a mediocre product. But entering Year Four with an exciting sophomore quarterback and all sots of experience and depth, the 'Pokes have a chance to just be good, not lucky. Related: Wyoming's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore.

For more on Cowboys football, visit Wyoming blog Cowboy Altitude, plus MWC blog Mountain West Connection.

In three seasons on the job, Coach A goes 6-7, 6-6 and 6-7. His teams rank 104th, 106th and 107th, respectively, in the F/+ rankings. He finishes Year Three with an impatient fanbase and enters Year Four in need of a solid season to stave off vultures.

In three seasons on the job, Coach B goes 7-6, 3-9 and 8-5. His teams rank 107th, 107th and 103rd, respectively, in the F/+ rankings. He is named his conference's coach of the year in Year Three and is rumored for certain major-conference job openings in the offseason.

For Coach A and Coach B, the statistical profiles and overall records are exactly the same. But Coach A is stagnating, and Coach B is … Wyoming coach Dave Christensen. The quality of Wyoming's product has neither improved nor regressed in Christensen's time in Laramie, but they have ridden a roller coaster of close-game success to two fun seasons and one crater. In 2009, they went 6-0 in one-possession games, 1-6 in the others, and upset Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl on their way to a surprising 7-6 season. In 2010, they went 1-6 in "others" again but went just 2-3 in close games and crumpled to 3-9. In 2011, they surged once again, going 4-0 in one-possession games (with a ridiculously young team, no less), and reaching their second New Mexico Bowl in three years.

Christensen's is a reasonably hot name in the coaching world, but should it be? How does one adequately judge accomplishment? Are wins and losses all that truly matter? Does a stagnant trajectory in the advanced statistics count for anything as long as the close wins roll in? And what if Wyoming experiences another close-game regression in 2012?

Wyoming enters 2012 in an odd situation. It made a bowl and won a lot of close games despite being an impressively young team. It returns a play-making sophomore quarterback, three-fourths of a four-headed No. 1 receiver, five offensive linemen with starting experience and almost all of last year's defensive two-deep. But the advanced stats paint a picture of a team that played well enough to beat an average opponent just once last season (see their Adj. Record here) and benefited from 2.4 points per game of turnovers luck in a season that saw them win four games by three points or less.

So exactly what kind of shape is the Wyoming program in at the moment? Is it better to be a little lucky than good? If you take full advantage of good luck, can you eventually turn into a strong program? Christensen is a solid, no-nonsense coach who has proven to be quite resourceful -- he was hired because of the offensive expertise he showed as a Missouri assistant, and as much as anything he has won games at Wyoming with field position, defense and conservative offense. Before he arrived, Wyoming had been to two bowls in 18 years; now they've been to two in three. These are concrete, verifiable accomplishments. Is he destined to become the next Joe Tiller, Pat Dye or Fred Akers (all of whom parlayed successful coaching stints in Laramie into quality major-conference tenures)? Or is he the next Turner Gill, relying on conservatism, breaks, diamonds-in-the-rough, smoke and mirrors to occasionally win? And if he takes Wyoming to a bowl every other year, does it matter?


Related: Check out Wyoming's statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about Wyoming last July:

The win totals may have dramatically changed twice in two years, but in terms of the pure on-field product, little has changed in Dave Christensen's first two seasons. He has been slowly putting pieces together, attempting to install his offense and find the right personnel for a stable defense. His tenure is proof that almost every coach (almost) deserves a full three years before drawing any major conclusions.

With a semi-mentor [Gregg Brandon] in place as offensive coordinator, Christensen officially has one of the more interesting pairs of coordinators at the mid-major level. He's also got an excellent running back, strong defensive ends and decent receivers and linebackers. There are legitimate pieces coming together, but whether Wyoming is ready for a true step forward in 2011 depends on a reshuffled offensive line, a retooled secondary ... and, of course, and amazingly young quarterback. It feels like the Cowboys might still be a year away, especially with a schedule that includes home games versus Nebraska and TCU and trips to Air Force, Boise State and San Diego State. Hosting Weber State, Texas State, UNLV and New Mexico, Wyoming should easily get back to at least four or five wins, but a) they'll need seven to make a bowl (since they play two FCS teams) and b) they probably won't reach seven.

I undershot. The Cowboys did not instill me with confidence in creeping by Weber State, 35-32, to start the season. But they won tight games at Bowling Green (turnover points margin: plus-29.7 points in a one-point win), San Diego State (plus-4.1 in a three-point win), Air Force (plus-12.5 in an eight-point win) and Colorado State (minus-0.7), and it earned them the right to get whipped by Temple in the New Mexico Bowl.

And right about now I begin to feel guilty. Stats make me skeptical, but accomplishments are accomplishments. With a true freshman quarterback and a mostly young defense, Wyoming did win all of these close games and did force (with some luck) all of these turnovers. Just consider me, to put it politely, less than sold about their future viability. But with the experience they are building, they might not necessarily need to lean on luck for too much longer. They just need to hope the luck doesn't turn.

Offense

Needless to say, handing the reins to a true freshman quarterback is not the first step toward winning close games and bouncing back from a 3-9 season. But that's exactly what Christensen did in 2011, and that's exactly what Brett Smith did on the field. Like Austyn Carta-Samuels in 2009 (the LAST true freshman quarterback to take Wyoming to a bowl game out of nowhere), Smith's best skills were sack avoidance and game management.

He was not flashy in any way, but he was incredible at avoiding sacks (Wyoming's line ranked 83rd in Adj. Line Yards but 13th in Adj. Sack Rate, and typically a difference that large between the two categories suggests the quarterback had a role to play, for better or worse, in the sacks department), he threw short, efficient passes (61-percent completion rate, at just 10.4 yards per completion), and he carved out solid ground in the running game (6.1 yards per non-sack carry). Granted, this wasn't the first time Christensen has found success with a "B. Smith, No. 16" freshman quarterback, but this B. Smith, who sat out the spring with an arm injury, did not wow with potential and athletic prowess -- he simply managed the game like a mature, seasoned senior. And in theory, Wyoming has him for three more years. (One could have said the same thing about Carta-Samuels two years ago, but he transferred to Vanderbilt after a difficult 2010.) That is exciting, even if it has potentially led to some overblown expectations.

Smith will have to find his way without Alvester Alexander in the backfield, however. Alexander plodded through three mostly competent seasons in Laramie but went pro early to help his family. The good news for Wyoming (and, in this case, bad news for Alexander) is that, looking at his stats, he appears replaceable. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry with only moderate explosiveness in 2011, and his minus-8.7 Adj. POE suggests he was about a touchdown worse than the average back last fall, given his carries, blocking and opponents. Some combination of junior Brandon Miller, sophomore Kody Sutton, and some youngsters (wonderfully-named, three-star sophomore Nehemie Kankolongo has yet to make an impression on the field) should be able to replicate his numbers. They should be aided by a line that indeed returns five players with starting experience (64 career starts), including second-team all-conference guard Nick Carlson.

If the running game doesn't see a dropoff, the table should be set for an improved passing game. It's never good to lose your No. 1 target, but with Mazi Ogbonna's departure, Wyoming didn't necessarily lose a No. 1 so much as a No. 1A. Ogbonna (17.8 percent target rate), Robert Herron (16.9 percent), Dominic Rufran (15.7 percent) and Chris McNeill (15.2 percent) were all basically the same in Smith's eyes, and the latter three return. McNeill produced strong per-target averages despite mostly being a passing downs target, and Rufran was huge in the spring game. These three, combined with a pair of intriguing freshmen (high three-star signee Trent Sewell and athletic Eric Nzeocha), could make for the best receiving corps Wyoming has had in a while. And in his second year in Laramie, offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon should be able to figure out what to do with such a deep unit.

Defense

The name of the game for the Wyoming defense has been speed, speed, speed. Considering recruiting limitations, Christensen has chosen speed over size for the most part, and it shows. This year's two-deep should include, among other players, 225-pound end Mark Willis, 210-pound linebacker Todd Knight, 170-pound cornerback Blair Burns and 175-pound safety Kenny Browder. And you can see throughout the advanced stats that this approach has well-defined strengths and weaknesses. Wyoming ranked a healthy 62nd in Adj. Sack Rate, for instance, but only 112th in Adj. Line Yards. They got pushed around a bit too much to be efficient (they were 112th in Success Rate+) but made up for it with decent big-play prevention (88th in PPP+).

Wyoming returns just about everybody from 2011 -- its top three tackles, three of its top five ends, four of its top five linebackers, all but one defensive back; plus, it welcomes back three players missing from the defense in 2011: tackle Patrick Mertens (missed 2011 with illness), linebacker Ghaali Muhammad (moved to running back due to depth concerns) and linebacker Oliver Schober (missed 2011 with injury). Wyoming will have one of the deepest, most experienced defenses in the country in 2012. Now, the question becomes, do they have the star power? The four players they must replace -- ends Gabe Knapton and Josh Biezuns (who combined for 11.5 of Wyoming's 22 sacks), weakside linebacker Brian Hendricks, and free safety Tashaun Gipson -- were all probably the best players in their respective units. Depth can usually overcome lost star power, but at the mid-major level that isn't necessarily the case. And in the case of Knapton and Biezuns, if Wyoming cannot replicate their successful pass rush, then the cost-benefit of analysis of "going small" skews toward the costs.

That said, new defensive coordinator Chris Tormey has some interesting players at his disposal. Assuming he recovers completely from spring injuries, Muhammad should combine with Korey Jones to form a pair of solid outside linebackers. Meanwhile, cornerbacks Blair Burns and Marqueston Huff were each decent ball hawks in 2011, combining for 13 passes defended; throw in another 11 from nickelback Luke Anderson, and you've got a soild, potentially aggressive set of defensive backs. Up front, Mertens returns to give the Cowboys depth at tackle alongside seniors Mike Purcell, Kurt Taufa'asau and B.J. Sumter, and in limited action, sophomore end Sonny Puletasi managed two sacks among his 5.5 tackles.

It would seem this defense could respond well to an aggressive attack, and that's basically what Tormey wants to bring to the table.

The new DC loves to mix things up and threw a lot at the offense this spring. The vanilla defense of English is gone. You will still see a standard 4-3 but the Pokes will also work out of a 3-3-5 and 4-2-5. There are numerous blitz packages and Tormey hasn't even installed the entire defense yet.

If the above names thrive under new coaching, and if big strong safety Mark Nzeocha takes to his relatively new position as well as it appeared he would this spring, then this defense is well-positioned to improve.

Defining Success

The primary problem with winning through unsustainable means is that they often lead to unsustainable goals. Win eight games one season, and you will feel pressure to win eight the next. With home games versus Cal Poly, Air Force and Colorado State, along with winnable road games versus Idaho, New Mexico and UNLV, we'll set the bar simply at bowl eligibility. Sustain last year's gains to some degree, and you have succeeded. But it might be difficult.

Prognosis

While at Football Outsiders, my friend Bill Barnwell spoke a lot about the concept of "regression toward the mean" versus "regression TO the mean." We look at projection factors like turnovers luck and fumble recovery percentage, and when we see a team that got particularly lucky or unlucky, we assume the luck will shift just as violently in the other direction the next season. It doesn't typically work that way; well, it doesn't unless you are Wyoming, anyway.

In three years under Christensen, Wyoming has been quite lucky, quite unlucky, and quite lucky again. It is easy to get sucked into the pattern, then, and assume all the breaks will go against the 'Pokes in 2012. If they do, then Wyoming will struggle mightily to match last year's success. If it doesn't, however -- if Wyoming has what I will just call neutral luck -- then the Cowboys' experience and depth (and a manageable schedule) could carry them to their third bowl in four seasons. Wyoming has interesting talent all over the field (Brett Smith, Dominic Rufran, Nick Carlson, Ghaali Muhammad, Korey Jones, the cornerbacks, Mark Nzeocha, etc.), and they are quite experienced. But will they get the bounces?

Wyoming has won games without the benefit of actually being very good in recent years, and now they are positioned to get quite a bit better. There's something to be said for that.

For more on Cowboys football, visit Wyoming blog Cowboy Altitude, plus MWC blog Mountain West Connection.

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