In the 2010 regular season, Oregon averaged 538 yards and 49 points per game. (Take out the near-miss at California, and those averages rise to 561 yards and 52 points.) They beat 11 of 12 opponents by at least 11 points, eight by at least 20. They won at Tennessee by 35, at USC by 21 and at Oregon State by 17. They beat eventual Orange Bowl champion Stanford by 21. And my numbers hated them. Well, hate is a strong word, but … the numbers weren't as impressed by Oregon's fast pace and gaudy totals (against weak opponents) as the eyeballs were. It got bad enough that, with Oregon ranked 29th in S&P+ in late-October, I had to cry on Ken Pomeroy's shoulder for a while.
Even post-adjustment, Oregon still ranks only 29th in the current S&P+ rankings. As you have tinkered with your formulas and approaches over the years, how have you tended to react to situations like this, where a team or small handful of teams just doesn't seem right? And what is the most egregious example you can recall, where a team ranked strangely high or low in your basketball rankings?
Pomeroy: I can challenge the Oregon case. In 2006, Gonzaga was thought to be a Top 10, maybe even a Top 5 team by the experts, and they were ranked in the 40s and 50s most of the season in my ratings. Even the casual fan remembers the scene with Adam Morrison crying on the court (actually before the game was completely decided) after Gonzaga lost in the Sweet 16 to UCLA in what could only be described as an epic collapse after the Zags dominated the Bruins for 38 minutes. At that point, I was crying, too. At least on the inside, because Gonzaga's run revealed a fatal error in my system.
There's strong evidence that in college basketball, there is little fundamental difference between a one-point loss and a one-point win when it comes to indicating a team's strength relative to its opponent. Therefore, my system doesn't treat those outcomes much differently. Gonzaga was different though -- they repeatedly coasted against weaker competition only to pull out a close win late. Normally, the system sees this as luck, but in Gonzaga's case it probably wasn't. The thing is, I have not changed my system since then. Gonzaga was a tremendously interesting exception, but an exception nonetheless. Every tweak I made in the offseason to put Gonzaga in its rightful place made the system as a whole worse. That's the thing about making tweaks -- I always rerun the system on past seasons, and when I did that with Gonzaga changes, it made the Zags predictions better, but the predictions were worse for all other games.
At some point late that season (or perhaps it was after the season was over), I came to accept three simple facts:
1. Numbers don't tell you everything, no matter how close we try to come with them.
2. Neither do scoreboards.
3. Sometimes scoreboards and other numbers are simply going to disagree.
When you're dealing with a 12-game sample size, crazy things will happen. They just will. Needless to say, this was a comforting line of thought as I was catching flak from Kansas State fans last year.
Hello again, Kansas State. Missed you.
In 2011, Kansas State was Oregon minus any sort of offensive explosiveness. In one of the most offense-friendly conferences in the country, the Wildcats barely cracked the Off. F/+ Top 30, and they didn't crack the Top 30 in overall F/+. If it were possible to perfect a bend-don't-break offense, the Wildcats did so in 2011. But guess what: they just kept winning. There is an advantage to be won when you give up the illusion of style points and simply try to do whatever it takes to win games.
- K-State barely even opened up the offensive playbook in a 10-7 win over Eastern Kentucky. Hell, since that game wasn't televised, they may have quick-kicked on every first down for all I know.
- They used a late goal line stand to win at Miami.
- They played rope-a-dope against Baylor, surviving a first-half offensive onslaught and calmly making every play in the fourth quarter of a 36-35 win.
- They picked off a pass on the first play of the game versus Missouri (which quickly led to an early lead), gave up three points on Missouri's first four trips inside the KSU 35, built a big lead, then held on to win by seven.
- They were outgained by Texas Tech by 241 yards but won, 41-34, almost entirely with special teams.
- Following a blowout loss to Oklahoma, they gave up 575 yards to Oklahoma State in just 19:11 of possession but, thanks to more good special teams, a pick six, and Collin Klein's long legs, they almost won anyway.
- They were outgained by 71 yards by Texas A&M and trailed by 10 points with under six minutes remaining, but behind five Klein rushing touchdowns and one beautifully timed bomb (to Chris Harper for 53 yards in the fourth quarter), they came back and eventually won in quadruple overtime.
- They gained 121 yards at Texas … and won.
- They were outgained by Iowa State at home, for god's sakes. But they won by seven anyway, of course.
When all was said and done, some combination of Klein's legs, perfectly timed late-game magic, and head coach Bill Snyder's wizardry led the Wildcats to one of the least likely 10-win seasons in college football history. They went 2-2 in games decided by more than a touchdown … and 8-1 in games decided by eight points or less. This isn't supposed to happen. In the final F/+ rankings, K-State finished behind five teams they had beaten (No. 16 Texas A&M, No. 19 Texas, No. 25 Missouri, No. 29 Baylor, No. 32 Miami), and it even kind of made sense.
This leads us to an interesting question for 2012, of course: can they do it again? And even if it makes my numbers look questionable to some, is it bad that I kind of want them to?
So anyway, the KSU program was in enough disarray following the dismissal of Snyder's nameless replacement that the best plan of action was apparently to bring Snyder back aboard for a few seasons. Two years later, how is it going? Not bad. Not great, but not bad. The Wildcats have gone 13-12, Snyder has resumed his JUCOs and transfers ways, and in 2010, they went to just their second bowl since their 2003 title run. The program's ceiling likely isn't what it was in the late-1990s, but it is higher than it was a couple of years ago. So that's something. […]
Honestly, it's hard to know what to make of this team. A high-quality running back is replaced by a more highly-touted, less-accomplished back of similar stature. An athletic receiving corps with higher potential than in recent years will be taking passes from a quarterback who was completely untrustworthy last year. Passing downs defense that was poor last year might get worse (okay, that's really not possible), and standard downs defense that was solid might get better. Your guess is as good as mine.
As with a lot of teams we have been previewing lately, a fast start will be key. K-State only leaves the state once before mid-October, hosting Eastern Kentucky and Kent State in gimme non-conference games, playing at Miami, then hosting Baylor (to whom they lost, 47-42, last year) and Missouri (to whom they have lost five in a row) to start Big 12 play. Anything between a 4-1 and 2-3 start is possible, and it is hard to figure out what is more likely given the newcomers (especially those named Brown) upon whom the Wildcats will be counting. Initial projections have K-State hovering around the .500 mark for basically the seventh consecutive season. One wonders if Snyder has another run in him at some point; with underclassmen at several key positions, KSU fans can look to the 2012-13 window for said run, if it exists.
"Anything between a 4-1 and 2-3 start is possible." Or, you know, 5-0.
"With underclassmen at several key positions, KSU fans can look to the 2012-13 window for said run, if it exists." Or, you know, 2011.
Though the results remained the same for the most part, K-State's quality did oscillate a bit as the season took twists and turns.
First Three Games: KSU 27.4 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 21.0 (plus-6.4)
Next Six Games: Opponents 29.5 Adj. Points per game, KSU 27.2 (minus-2.3)
Last Four Games: KSU 26.5 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 26.3 (plus-0.2)
The final three wins were probably the most fascinating of the bunch. K-State raised its offensive game when it had to against Texas A&M and Iowa State, but the Wildcats totally rode their defense in the win over Texas. And in the end, one close win is just like any other.
The more I look into it, the more I realize that close wins are not entirely random and are actually tied somewhat to your quarterback. That's good news for Kansas State in 2012, obviously. The brand of football they play has no margin for error in it whatsoever but, with Collin Klein behind center, they can get away with it. When Klein and defenders Arthur Brown and Nigel Malone leave after 2012, however? That might be a different story. Or, hell, maybe not. Why question Bill Snyder at this point?
I spent about 1,600 words telling you about last season because, honestly, it's a lot more fun than talking about the Kansas State offense or defense. Kansas State sent Collin Klein hurtling at the line more than 21 times per game in 2011, usually gaining just enough to move the chains. About 15 times per game, they sent little running back John Hubert around the corner and he, too, gained just enough. The two would seemingly combine to create third-and-3 after third-and-3, and then the 6'5, 230-pound Klein would gain exactly three yards, starting the process all over again.
This is a broad generalization, of course, but it isn't far from the truth. KSU ranked 56th on first downs, 88th on second and 35th on third. When forced to pass, Klein seemed almost equally likely to find a random receiver at the marker (seven receivers were targeted between 17 and 36 times for the season, and only one was targeted more frequently), scramble for the first down, or get sacked. Unafraid of taking a few extra hits, Klein was sacked on over 7 percent of his pass attempts in 2011. This wasn't the highest percentage in the country, but considering K-State did not play many masterful pass-rushing defenses, this got them ranked 119th in Adj. Sack Rate.
Really, the blame for that can probably be distributed among three entities: Klein (who waited too long to make plays sometimes), the offensive line (which ranked only 77th in Adj. Line Yards, suggesting it wasn't really that great in any capacity) and a receiving corps without any go-to targets. Chris Harper was targeted twice as much as any other KSU receiver but caught only 51 percent of the passes thrown at him and averaged under 7.0 yards per target (which is terrible for a No. 1). Tight ends Travis Tannahill and Andre McDonald teamed up for just a 50 percent catch rate. There were no surefire ways downfield in the KSU passing game.
There was, however, Tyler Lockett. The freshman, and K-State legacy, was an absolute supernova for the Wildcats, meaning he exploded beautifully, then disappeared, not that he was a terrible movie from the early-'00s. In four games in the middle of the season (Texas Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State), Lockett provided everything KSU didn't otherwise have. He caught five passes for 110 yards against Kansas, he scored two touchdowns, and he was incredible in the kick returns game, averaging 37 yards per kick return (over 15 returns, no less) in this span. But just as he was becoming one of the Big 12's most dangerous weapons, he suffered a lacerated kidney versus Oklahoma State and missed the rest of the season.
For the most part, KSU has to put a lot of hope in Lockett, both that he can stay healthy and that he can provide the same level of explosiveness over the course of an entire season that he did in a month last year. A few easy scores could go a long way for this plodding team, and honestly, there really aren't many other big-play options. Chris Harper and Tramaine Thompson each averaged over 13 yards per catch, but with sub-60 percent catch rates. John Hubert was efficient in catching passes out of the backfield (80 percent catch rate), but the passes rarely went anywhere (7.8 yards per catch). Unless a newcomer to the rotation (sophomore Curry Sexton, junior Torell Miller or redshirt freshman Kyle Klein, perhaps) is able to connect on some downfield routes, Lockett is just about it in that regard.
Occasionally easy scores could be doubly important for KSU in 2012, as the run game could suffer from turnover up front. KSU must replace its four most experienced linemen from last year -- all-conference tackles Zach Hanson and Clyde Aufner, guard Colten Freeze and backup tackle Manase Foketi had combined for 79 career starts -- and returns just 27 career starts, 25 of which come from guard Nick Puetz and center B.J. Finney. A little new blood might not be a bad thing (as mentioned above, stats suggest this line really wasn't very good, even with two all-conference guys), but this is a lot of new blood. Lockett's dad, Kevin, caught over 3,000 yards' worth of passes in a Bill Snyder offense. If Tyler could produce at least 800-1,000 this fall, K-State could be incredibly dangerous once again. No pressure, Tyler.
It was an odd hire when, in 2009, Bill Snyder chose embattled Maryland defensive coordinator Chris Cosh as his co-coordinator. Cosh was seen more as a good recruiter than a good coordinator, and perhaps the thinking was that, with Snyder on board, the defense was going to be pretty solid no matter what. Or maybe not. Regardless, the KSU defense was slow to come around, and K-State fans quickly came to believe Cosh was holding it back in some way or another . And to be sure, the 2010 numbers weren't kind. Kansas State had the least effective passing downs defense in the country that year and was only marginally effective on standard downs.
Cosh is now Skip Holtz's defensive coordinator at South Florida (new coordinator: last year's secondary coach, Tom Hayes), but before he left Manhattan, he did help to turn the defense around quite a bit. Of course, more defensive talent probably didn't hurt, huh?
In 2011, quite a few new names played roles on the K-State defense in 2011, and since we're talking about Bill Snyder, "new names" means, of course, "transfers and JUCOs." But as it did for most of the 1990s, it worked.
- Miami transfer (and former five-star recruit) Arthur Brown took over at middle linebacker, recorded 9.5 tackles for loss, picked off Baylor's Robert Griffin III in the fourth quarter, and became the face of the defense. Not a bad first year. But he had help from fellow newcomers.
- Defensive ends Adam Davis (a four-star JUCO transfer who logged 8.0 tackles for loss and 4.0 sacks) and Meshak Williams (10.0 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, and a major all-or-nothing presence) combined with another transfer, tackle Vai Lutui (2.5 tackles for loss, four passes broken up), to lead some serious improvement on the line. KSU ranked 100th in Adj. Line Yards and 95th in Adj. Sack Rate in 2010; they improved to 19th and 49th, respectively, in 2011.
- Cornerback Nigel Malone (seven interceptions, 10 passes broken up) was a revelation and borderline All-American. Combined with corner David Garrett, one of college football's most underrated players who, at some point in his career, was probably KSU's best corner, safety AND linebacker, KSU improved from 92nd in Passing S&P+ to 50th and from 120th on passing downs to 62nd.
These five players helped to transform a poor unit into a pretty damn salty one. The K-State defense was not without its flaws -- they were still, after all, only 50th in Passing S&P+ and 62nd on passing downs -- but the improvement was drastic, and the Wildcats were good enough at big-play prevention that they could play the bend-don't-break style to perfection.
Expect more of the same this season, though a thinned-out line and secondary are cause for concern. Garrett is gone, for one. So are end Jordan Voelker (5.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four passes broken up) and tackles Ray Kibble and Raphael Guidry (combined: 7.0 tackels for loss). If the next batch of JUCO transfers (which includes three new tackles) works out as well as the last one, then we might not notice any of these players are gone. But that is, after all, still an "if."
I honestly have no idea how to gauge success for Kansas State in 2012. A team that won 10 games last year probably sets the bar at 10 wins again. A team ranked 21st in the preseason coaches poll (with five conference mates ahead of them) is probably looking at between seven and nine wins. A team projected 47th (yes, 47th) in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 is probably looking at something closer to six wins. So let's just hedge our bets and say that if K-State is ranked at the end of the season, despite a brutal conference schedule (which includes trips to Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU and Baylor), they succeeded. Anything between five and 10 wins is a possibility.
Which means they'll go 11-1, winning every game by one point.
Bill Snyder has nothing left to prove. In the 1990s and early-2000s, he led one of the most intimidating defenses and explosive offenses around, and his Wildcats won 11 games in six of seven seasons and at least nine games in 10 of 11. (Again, this is a program that went 4-50-1 from 1985-89 and had experienced minimal success over the last century.) In 2011, he had neither an intimidating defense NOR an explosive offense, and he won 10 games anyway. At SB Nation, we jokingly (sort of) called him a wizard approximately 1,403 times last fall. His teams had no margin for error and didn't care.
At this point, if K-State goes 2-10 for every year between now and when Snyder retires, it won't change anything. Snyder will still have been one of college football's greatest coaches, one of its most accomplished magicians. He took over a program with nothing -- literally, nothing -- going for it in 1989 and turned it into a national power, then he came back and won 10 games again (at least once) just for old time's sake. That said, it's safe to say that he doesn't think he is finished. Despite Klein, Brown, Malone and company, Kansas State faces a rough schedule with no margin for error once again. The head (and the numbers) think that repeating last year's success is probably too much to ask. The heart, though? Different story. Are you willing to bet against Bill Snyder at this point? Didn't think so.
For more on Wildcats football, visit K-State blog Bring On The Cats.
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