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Miami (Ohio) lost 6 straight to start 2016 ... and might be the MAC East favorite in 2017

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Keep that late-season run going and improve in close-game situations, and you’ve got a contender.

NCAA Football: St. Petersburg Bowl-Miami (Ohio) at Mississippi State
James Gardner
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Technically, I was right when I said that Miami (Ohio) could be a bowl contender in 2016.

Chuck Martin brought in a load of Notre Dame transfers when he came to town, but the long-term strategy is to build with five-year players.

A lot of this talent is still of the freshman or sophomore variety, so Miami probably won't be in position to suddenly compete for the MAC East title. Still, Martin is building a deep, athletic squad, and if he can keep morale up for one more year and maybe win a few more close games -- the RedHawks are 3-8 in games decided by one possession over the last two years -- then this slow approach might bear fruit in 2017. Hell, there's an off-chance it will do so this fall.

Granted, the RedHawks pulled off a bowl bid while still losing four more close games. And they did it while violating Rule No. 1 in the Coach’s Guide to Good In-Game Decision Making (never kick 18-yard field goals five minutes into the damn game). But they did it.

Martin inherited a destitute situation, and within three years, he had Miami bowling. Strip away all other context, and that is impressive. The year before his arrival, the RedHawks went 0-12 and ranked 125th in S&P+, and with a massive youth movement, they managed to post only five wins in Martin’s first 30 games. And then they won six in a row.

So is Martin more of a David Bailiff or a Trent Miles?

In 2012 at Rice, Bailiff saved his job with a winning streak, then soared. His Owls were on a string of 28 losses in 40 games and started 2012 2-6 but ripped off five consecutive wins, then won Conference USA the next season. They would bowl for three straight years after eking out two bowl bids in the previous five decades. Bailiff is now preparing for his 11th year.

In 2015 at Georgia State, Miles only staved off demons for a little while. His GSU tenure had begun with a 3-29 record, but out of nowhere, his 2-6 Panthers won four games in a row to become bowl eligible. GSU then lost nine of its next 11, and Miles was fired.

I don’t completely trust Martin’s game management. Losing this many close games in a short amount of time (Miami’s now 5-12 in one-possession finishes) might not be a fluke.

I look at annual coaching overachievers and underachievers each year using second-order wins — basically the difference between what the stats think your win total should be and what it actually is — and while three years is a small sample, among the 223 FBS coaches with at least three years of head coaching experience between 2005-17, Martin’s number is 10th-worst, with an average record 0.9 wins below expected totals. That puts him right between Kent State’s Paul Haynes and Tyrone Willingham.

This is indeed a small sample, but it’s a red flag. The 18-yard field goal attempt early in the bowl loss to Mississippi State added to what the stats are saying.

Still, game management is something you worry about once you’re in position to win a lot of games. And thanks to Martin’s efforts, Miami is close. Because of that, I’m still thinking he’s more Bailiff than Miles.

If you ignore the order in which the wins came, it seemed well within the bounds of reality for Miami to challenge for a bowl in 2016. Per the 247Sports Composite, Martin signed the second-best class in the MAC in 2015 and the third-best in 2016. (He added the fifth-best class this past February.)

Miami rose from 115th to 98th in S&P+. The offense improved by 18 spots, the defense rose by 10, and the Redhawks pulled this off despite a two-deep with few seniors.

The trajectory appears to be both positive and realistic. There’s only one unit on the roster that appears to be in worse shape than it was a year ago: the defensive line, which has to replace its top three ends. But if Martin finds answers in the pass rush, all systems are go.


2016 in review

2016 Miami statistical profile.

Miami’s midseason turnaround was the product of improvement, a QB change, a lighter schedule, and yes, better close-game fortune.

The RedHawks were better than their 0-6 record suggested. Following a gross-looking 21-17 loss to Eastern Illinois, Miami responded with competitive showings against Western Kentucky, Cincinnati, and Ohio. And they made the mistake of playing Akron before the Zips collapsed under the weight of injury.

Once a shaky QB situation was rectified by Gus Ragland’s return from injury, Miami was ready to soar.

  • First 6 games (0-6) — Avg. percentile performance: 26% (~top 95) | Avg. yards per play: UM 5.2, Opp 5.1 | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-1.8 PPG
  • Next 6 games (6-0) — Avg. percentile performance: 47% (~top 70) | Avg. yards per play: UM 6.0, Opp 5.3 | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-10.5 PPG

The schedule helped; Miami played two teams ranked 99th or worse in S&P+ during the losing streak and four during the winning streak.

Still, the RedHawks were unquestionably better over the second half of the season. That’s impressive, considering this was still a young team that could have packed it in at 0-6. That the growth coincided with a QB change makes it feel sustainable.

Miami responded to failure with aplomb. In 2017, we’ll find out how the team responds to success.


Offense

Miami (Ohio) offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Miami’s offense was too young to even think about succeeding in 2015. The RedHawks bounced between two freshman quarterbacks, two freshman running backs, a receiving corps loaded with sophomores, and a line that gave 27 starts to freshmen and sophomores. That’s just not going to work, and they ranked 120th in Off. S&P+ as a result.

The growing pains at least showed signs of moving toward something impressive in 2016. This wasn’t an incredible, dynamic offense by any means — Miami still scored over 30 points or averaged better than 6 yards per play three times, but the passing game grew into itself while still bouncing between young QBs.

Well, it was less of a bounce and more of a handoff.

NCAA Football: St. Petersburg Bowl-Miami (Ohio) at Mississippi State
Gus Ragland
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been burying the lede a bit when it comes to talking about Miami’s turnaround. The RedHawks were mostly competitive during their 0-6 start, sure, but as soon as Gus Ragland was deemed healthy enough to play, Miami began winning. Like, immediately.

Ragland was Martin’s first Miami commitment and showed promise in completing 20 of 29 passes in 2015, but tore his ACL last spring. It appeared he could come back by October if needed, and when sophomore starter Billy Bahl got hurt and freshman Noah Wezensky struggled, well, Ragland was needed.

Ragland stepped in against Kent State and completed only 10 of 21, but two were touchdowns in an 18-14 win. And from that point forward, he completed 66 percent of his passes. He was 13-for-21 for 218 yards and four scores in a 37-17 romp over CMU. He was 26-for-35 for 380 and three in the bowl-clinching win over Ball State. And he was 22-for-30 for 263 in the near upset of Mississippi State. He threw 17 touchdowns to one interception, and his efficiency helped Miami to 19th in passing success rate.

Ragland isn’t as good a rusher as Bahl, but he takes far fewer sacks and makes far fewer mistakes. Though Bahl is an interesting QB, one assumes this is Ragland’s job.

Miami does have to replace maybe its best big-play weapon. Rokeem Williams averaged 19.3 yards per catch and came on strong in 2016, reeling in 14 of his 26 receptions in the last four games. Still, you can absorb the loss of your No. 3 and No. 5 (Sam Shisso) targets when your No. 1 and 2 return.

James Gardner and Jared Murphy combined for 88 catches, 1,314 yards, and 11 touchdowns last year at 9 yards per target. They’ll be joined by tight end Ryan Smith, big sophomore Chris Hudson (who missed 2016 with injury), and a wealth of young three-stars: redshirt freshmen Stori Emerson (247 Composite rating: 0.8242) and DeAndre Huff (0.8177) and true freshmen Mitchell Lewis (0.8429) and Jalen Walker (0.8113). If just one of that three-star foursome is ready, Ragland will have all the weapons he needs.

The run game lagged; Miami ranked just 93rd in Rushing S&P+ as compared to 57th in Passing S&P+. But with Ragland passing efficiently and taking fewer sacks than Bahl, the run game was in better position to make a difference.

Well, that, and Kenny Young and Maurice Thomas took on more carries.

  • RedHawk rushers, first 6 games: Alonzo Smith 91 carries for 354 yards (3.9), Kenny Young 48-208 (4.3), Maurice Thomas 12-60 (5.0), Spencer McInnis 13-36 (2.8)
  • RedHawk rushers, last 7 games: Smith 72-355 (4.9), Young 42-349 (8.3), Thomas 25-198 (7.9), McInnis 32-107 (3.3)

Smith (5’10, 221 pounds) and McInnis (5’10, 214) are the between-the-tackles guys, and that’s important. But mixing in more from the smaller Young (5’7, 196) and Thomas (5’11, 176) made Miami far more dangerous on the ground.

Of this foursome, only McInnis is gone. Expect a similar balance between thunder and lightning, but the more touches Young can handle (he also caught 17 passes for 199 yards), the better.

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Miami (Ohio)
Kenny Young
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Miami (Ohio) defensive radar

The Brian Kelly tree loves some bend-don’t-break defense, and Martin — Kelly’s defensive coordinator and successor at Grand Valley State, then his offensive coordinator at Notre Dame — has a couple of different branches.

Miami’s defense wasn’t particularly efficient in 2016, especially in run defense. The RedHawks were 87th in rushing success rate and 112th in power success rate; if you could maintain a mistake-free run game, you could play keepaway. But if you were forced to pass, bad things could happen. Miami ranked 44th in Passing Downs S&P+ and 30th in passing downs success rate. Opponents had a 132.7 passer rating on first down but a 107.5 on third.

When a defense is so much better on passing downs, you assume there’s a good pass rush, but Miami ranked only 113th in passing downs sack rate. But that’s actually good news; only the pass rush needs to be rebuilt in 2017, and it wasn’t very good to begin with.

That’s not to say that last year’s top three ends (JT Jones, Austin Gearing, and Zach Smierciak) weren’t any good. They combined for 22 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks, and five forced fumbles. Still, Miami’s sack rates were the worst part of its pass defense ratings. And an awesome set of pass defenders — corners Heath Harding and Deondre Daniels (5 interceptions, 17 breakups, 8 tackles for loss), safeties Tony Reid and Joshua Allen (2 INTs, 7 PBUs), linebackers Brad Koenig and De’Andre Montgomery (5 INTs, 11 PBUs) — returns almost fully intact.

I’m curious what a run of injuries might do to the secondary; the injury bug was mostly kind to the defense last year and forced Miami to deploy only six regular defensive backs. The starters are great, but we know nothing about the backups.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Cincinnati
Brad Koenig
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Martin has employed the co-coordinator approach. George Barnett and Eric Koehler have split offensive duties since they got there, and two years ago Martin made cornerbacks coach John Hauser co-coordinator with Matt Pawlowski.

The offense has had its fits and starts, but the approach has worked for the defense. Miami ranked 112th in Def. S&P+ in Don Treadwell’s last season but has improved to 104th, then 85th, then 75th in Martin’s tenure. But whether the RedHawks can pull off a fourth straight year of defensive improvement will depend on the run defense.

Returning every tackle will help, but outside of bowling ball Nate Trawick (5’11, 312), there isn’t a ton of size here. The next four returnees after Trawick average just 6’2, 280 — not awful, but not great. Still, an experienced set of linebackers (Koenig, Montgomery, and Junior McMullen) should assure bend-don’t-break levels of big-play prevention. Miami may have ranked 87th in rushing success rate, but the Warhawks also only gave up five rushes of 30-plus yards in 13 games.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Cincinnati
Heath Harding
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Miami boasts one of the MAC’s better kick returners in Maurice Thomas, whose 24.2-yard return average helped the RedHawks rank 15th in kick return success rate. Plus, then-freshman Kyle Kramer took over punting duties midseason and averaged a healthy 41.1 yards per punt. Because of Kramer, Miami ranked 65th in punt success rate by the end of the year.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the other aspects of special teams — place-kicking, kickoffs, punt returns — were somewhere between bad and awful. This is another case of “Everybody returns!” being both a blessing and a curse. Regardless, everybody returns.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep at Marshall 101 0.2 50%
9-Sep Austin Peay NR 39.1 99%
16-Sep Cincinnati 75 -1.9 46%
23-Sep at Central Michigan 97 -0.4 49%
30-Sep at Notre Dame 17 -23.9 8%
7-Oct Bowling Green 95 4.2 60%
14-Oct at Kent State 123 6.4 65%
21-Oct Buffalo 128 15.9 82%
31-Oct at Ohio 103 1.2 53%
7-Nov Akron 122 11.4 74%
15-Nov Eastern Michigan 96 4.5 60%
21-Nov at Ball State 90 -2.1 45%
Projected S&P+ Rk 88
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 102 / 73
Projected wins 6.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -7.1 (98)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 88 / 92
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 1 / 5.2
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 79% (82%, 75%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 6.9 (-0.9)

S&P+ projects Miami will rise by about 10 more spots in the rankings and win one more game in 2017. That would suffice, though considering the difference Ragland made in Miami’s efficiency, I would say the baseline is maybe closer to 75th or 80th.

That said, this needs to be the year that Miami proves it can win close games. The RedHawks have three likely wins on the schedule (Austin Peay, Buffalo, Akron) and one likely loss (at Notre Dame), but a whopping eight games bring a win probability between 45 and 65 percent. A top-75 team that executes well in tight circumstances (Miami was 2-1 in one-possession finishes when Ragland was QB) could win nine or more. A top-90 team that underachieves in close games will have to settle for 6-6 again.

Last year’s surge saved Miami’s trajectory under Martin, and based on recruiting and Ragland, there’s reason for optimism. And if Miami wins big in 2017, I promise I’ll stop complaining about 18-yard field goals.


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