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What Week 2's Florida and Notre Dame losses teach us about clutchness and regression

Florida's turnover margin and Notre Dame's red zone defense were the keys to their success in 2012. Both teams came crashing down to earth in those departments on Saturday.

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

For those of us who get annoyed by the narrative that certain teams are clutch -- a truly ludicrous concept, considering the small sample sizes that characterize college football analysis -- and who are still put off by the term "Ohio State, 2002 National Champions," there were three bete noire title contenders in 2012: Florida, Notre Dame, and Ohio State. How has each managed to continue being clutch in 2013?

In 2013, thanks to a Grenada/Panama opening schedule that pays homage to the major military conflicts of the Reagan and Bush I Administrations, the Buckeyes have not yet been tested. But Florida and Notre Dame both failed their first major tests of 2013 in a manner that showed that their successes in 2012 were not replicable in at least one important sense.

Florida's success in 2012 was based on playing great defense, dominating on special teams, and minimizing risks on offense. Florida finished eighth nationally in turnover margin, which proved the difference in the litany of close, low-scoring games they played, save the Cocktail Party. In fact, Florida’s strong defense and special teams was sufficient to overcome an offense that was not only mediocre in terms of producing yardage, but also struggled in the red zone.

Saturday’s loss to Miami was a strange combination of Florida losing a strength while retaining a weakness. Turnover margin and red zone performance both tend to regress to the mean. With respect to the former, Florida did indeed regress, as they committed five turnovers, which was one-third of their total for 13 games in 2012. With respect to the latter, Florida remained dreadful in the red zone, which was a continuation of a flaw from last season. It seems strange that a team with a strong running game and a mobile quarterback would be so weak inside the 20, but there you go.

Notre Dame’s success in 2012 was predicated on the defense. That unit was not elite in terms of either yards per play allowed or the more sophisticated drive- and play-based measures used by Football Outsiders, but the Irish defense was elite in terms of points allowed. Notre Dame managed that feat by preventing big plays and deploying a unique version of a bend-don't-break defense. Opponents could move the ball on the Irish, but they struggled to cross the goal line.

Michigan scored touchdowns on all four trips inside the Notre Dame twenty-yard line on Saturday night; in 2012 the Wolverines managed a grand total of six points on five trips into the Irish red zone. Tack on Jeremy Gallon’s 61-yard touchdown catch, and you have the recipe to go from allowing six points to a rival to allowing 41. Is that regression to the mean by the Notre Dame defense? An illustration that success based on the shifting sands of turnover margin or red zone performance is not a recipe for long-term success? Probably.

On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that there were two teams on the field at Michigan Stadium and … whatever it is that we’re supposed to call Joe Robbie Stadium these days. Miami’s defense was dreadful in 2012, as the Canes finished 11th in the ACC in yards per play allowed. That team would not have been capable of stiffening against Florida; they wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of the charity that the Gators ultimately bestowed on the Canes, because they would have given up a series of big plays.

Likewise, 2012 Michigan spent the better part of the season with Denard Robinson running plays called by a pro-style offensive coordinator and Devin Gardner running pass patterns for limited returns. This Michigan offense doesn’t have a running threat like Robinson, but it’s more effective because of a better run-pass balance and because Gardner appears to be money in the red zone … assuming that his knack for turning scoring chances into touchdowns is not itself about to regress to the mean.

Other thoughts on the weekend:

  • Miami’s and Michigan’s wins were especially sweet because they were the final home games for the foreseeable future against the rivals who ended the series. "How dare you break up with me!" is a powerful emotion.
  • Despite some excellent performances against top competition – eight yards per attempt against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game comes to mind immediately – Aaron Murray had a reputation among the more cliché-ridden as being what the English would refer to as a "big game bottler." Murray’s performance against South Carolina ought to put that meme to bed forever, but it also ought to cause people to be circumspect about using the tag in the future. Ask yourself: how many times has a player been labeled as not being clutch, only to them deliver in a big game and demonstrate that the label was unfair all along?
  • Speaking of the Dawgs, don’t sleep on them as a potential national title contender. The loss they suffered is about as ideal as a loss can be in terms of the rankings: a Week 1 loss on the road against a top-10 opponent by a slim margin. If the Dawgs can get by LSU at the end of the month, then they’ll have a pair of top-10 wins on the resume with a highly manageable slate going forward, especially in light of Florida’s struggles. They would stand a good chance of heading to Atlanta at 11-1 to play in the game that has become a de facto play-in game for the BCS Championship Game. On the other hand, Georgia’s defense will have to make major strides to fit the profile of a championship-winning D.
  • Put this in the "maybe a Goodell-style dictator would be a good thing for college football" file: on the second weekend of the season, there were exactly two games pitting ranked teams. We’ve completed 14 percent of the regular season and the following top-25 teams have played two games without meeting anything resembling a test: Texas A&M, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, UCLA, Nebraska, Baylor, Wisconsin, and Louisville.
  • In a rare moment of unity, Michigan and Ohio State fans can join hands this week and laugh their tails off that Jim Bollman and Greg Robinson are currently employed as coordinators.
  • Speaking of Texas, the Horns beat Ole Miss 66-31 in Oxford last September, and the result didn’t cause many people to bat an eye. Twelve months later, the Rebels may be favored against the Horns in Austin. A song comes to mind…

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