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Bob Davie’s New Mexico is overachieving mightily, but is too one-sided

The Lobos have got to get better than awful on defense in order to keep this up.

NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-New Mexico at Texas-San Antonio Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

This preview was published April 7 and has since been updated.

In an age of increasingly competent pass attacks, the best way to navigate close games might still be to run the option.

Each year, I post an updated list of coaching overachievers and underachievers.

My second-order wins concept looks at single-game win expectancy figures.

The idea behind win expectancy is simple: It takes the key stats from a game (success rates, explosiveness, field position factors, and other factors that end up going into the S&P+ ratings), mashes them together, and says, "With these stats, you probably could have expected to win this game X percent of the time."

Add those figures up over the course of a season, and you get a glimpse of what a team could have expected its record to be.

Second-order wins are good for figuring out which teams might have been a bit lucky.

  • In 2015, the four teams which overachieved their second-order win total the most were Northwestern, Houston, Michigan State, and Iowa. The four combined for 47 actual wins, when their second-order win total was just 37.3.
  • In 2016, the tables turned; win expectancy said those teams should have won about 28.3 games, and they won 27. They fell back in line with expectations.

Through the years, certain coaches have managed to consistently overachieve, though. I haven’t posted this year’s list yet, but heading into 2016, Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo topped the overachievers list, averaging 1.1 more wins per season than second-order wins would’ve expected. Kansas State’s Bill Snyder was second at plus-0.9 per year. (Spoiler: they’ll be the top two in the updated list. They were both projected to win 7.2 games in 2016; they both won nine.)

Why am I mentioning this in a New Mexico preview? Easy: New Mexico overachieved drastically for the last two years. Second-order wins suggested the Lobos should have won about 5.1 games in 2015 and 7.5 in 2016; they won seven and nine, respectively.

The Lobos were the No. 5 overachiever in 2015, No. 10 in 2016.

One easy explanation: randomness doesn’t correct itself immediately. Just because you overachieved one year doesn’t mean you’ll revert the next. It’s hard to win nine games with one of the 10 worst defenses in the country, as the Lobos did last year. Maybe that’s not something they can count on, even if they did it two years in a row.

But maybe it’s the option. Niumatalolo runs it. The read option is one of Snyder’s base concepts, as is true for the No. 3 coach on last year’s list, Gus Malzahn. Maybe there’s something to be said for mastering deception in key moments.

In 2016, New Mexico had its best offense yet under Davie. The Lobos combined option-level efficiency (19th in rushing success rate) with big-play capability not typically seen in an option attack. They couldn’t pass, and it didn’t matter because you couldn’t force them to. And when things got tight, the Lobos just did what they do. They went 5-1 in one-possession games and won nine games for the first time in nine years and only the fifth time in 85.

When Davie came to Albuquerque in 2012, he didn’t have any lasting marriage with the option attack. When he was head coach at Notre Dame, his best offense came the year Jarious Jackson threw for 2,700 yards. But he saw the option for what it was: a way to control the ball and keep a defense flat-footed enough to negate athleticism advantages. And he hired former Sam Houston State coordinator Bob DeBesse to master it.

The results have been undeniable. Winners of seven combined games in the four years before Davie’s arrival, the Lobos raised the bar to about four wins per year, then broke through in Davie’s fourth and fifth years. They have ranked in the top 50 in Off. S&P+ for three of the last four years and hit 40th last fall. They win despite almost no defensive progress whatsoever.

I’m struggling to figure out how maintainable it is, though. Winning five of six one-possession games is almost never sustainable, but overachieving in general might be, especially with what the Lobos return — namely, quarterback Lamar Jordan, running backs Richard McQuarley and Tyrone Owens, and four offensive linemen with starting experience.

Still, the defense is starting over once again. Davie loaded up on JUCO transfers (two tackles, four linebackers, four defensive backs) to try to turn the tide. That all-in strategy could pay off, or it could just assure UNM is starting over again soon. Regardless, Davie — the most coveted defensive coordinator in America for a while in the 1990s — knows how much of a lead weight a bad defense can be. And he’ll need to do something about it if he wants to maintain these win totals.


2016 in review

2016 New Mexico statistical profile.

Second-order wins weren’t skewing in UNM’s favor early on. After an easy win over South Dakota, the Lobos played tossups with awful New Mexico State and Rutgers teams and lost both. They stole one back against San Jose State, but following a 28-point loss to Boise State, they were 2-3, and bowl hopes were remote.

The offense was beginning to find its groove, though, and following a shootout win over Air Force, the defense improved just enough to make a difference.

  • First 5 games (2-3): Avg. percentile performance: 30% (56% offense, 26% defense) | Yards per play: UNM 6.4, Opp 6.0 (plus-0.4)
  • Last 8 games (7-1): Avg. percentile performance: 45% (64% offense, 41% defense) | Yards per play: UNM 7.2, Opp 6.4 (plus-0.8)

You were guaranteed big plays and points in New Mexico games. I doubt that changes.


Offense

New Mexico offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

Davie’s approach has been beautifully pragmatic. It’s as if everything he’s done has come from the mindset of: “We can’t be good at everything, so we’re going to be good at a couple things.”

Davie has only once signed a class that ranked better than seventh in the Mountain West, but of the 28 three-stars he’s signed (per the 247Sports Composite) in the last five years, 11 have been either quarterbacks or skill position guys. He found an offense that can draw athletes, and he’s worked around everything else.

The results are undeniable. Despite ranking 104th in Passing S&P+, New Mexico had the most well-rounded offense in the MWC in terms of efficiency and explosiveness.

New Mexico offensive efficiency & explosiveness

The Lobos do have some pieces to replace. Teriyon Gipson rushed for nearly 3,000 yards over the last three years and averaged an absurd 8.6 yards last fall. Slot receiver Dameon Gamblin was the closest thing the Lobos had to a possession receiver. Left tackle Reno Henderson was all-conference.

Still, they seem equipped to replace those pieces. Tyrone Owens split feature back duties with Gipson and between-the-tackles guy Richard McQuarley, and he was nearly as explosive as Gipson. Plus, junior Diquon Woodhouse appeared deserving of more carries (he gained 232 yards in just 27 rushes), and former star recruits Kentrail Moran and Daevon Vigilant are ready after redshirt years.

NCAA Football: New Mexico at Arizona State
Tyrone Owens
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

At receiver, everybody but Gamblin returns. That includes not only reserve slot guys like Emmanuel Harris and Anu Somoye, but also a host of big-play options. Patrick Reed, Q’ Drennan, and Matt Quarells [update: Quarells has transferred to Iowa] combined to average 19.5 yards per catch in 2016, and Delane Hart-Johnson averaged 29.7 per catch in 2015 before missing last season after a car wreck. All that is required of the New Mexico passing game is the occasional play-action bomb, and the Lobos appear capable.

As for the line, injuries and shuffling led to seven players starting at least four games in 2016, and four return. It’s unclear how deep the line may be, but among those without starting experience, UNM boasts seven linemen who were either three-stars or high-twos. Line doesn’t appear to be a concern unless there are several injuries.

Then there’s Lamar Jordan. Listed as a receiver when he was being recruited out of Frisco (Tex.) Centennial High School, Jordan has been the perfect man to helm the Lobo option. He has taken a lot of hits and has yet to play a full season, but he’s rushed for 2,158 yards and thrown for 2,620, and he’s been the leader of two top-50 offenses. It would be a surprise if he weren’t leading a third.

And if or when he gets hurt, junior JaJuan Lawson, redshirt freshman Tevada Tuioti, or JUCO transfer Cameron Burston should be able to fill in. Burston is more of a drop-back passer, so he could fill a passing downs role at times regardless of Jordan’s health.

Barring a rash of injury, New Mexico has the pieces to run the offense it wants, and the Lobos could do it even better than last year.

NCAA Football: New Mexico Bowl-New Mexico at Texas-San Antonio
Lamar Jordan and company
Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

New Mexico defensive radar

As impressive as it has been watching Davie’s pragmatism create one of the most dangerous mid-major offenses, it is strange to watch a Davie team struggle defensively.

In five seasons, New Mexico has ranked 117th or worse in Def. S&P+ four times and peaked (I probably could have used quotation marks there) at 107th in 2015. Veteran Kevin Cosgrove took over the unit in 2014 and engineered slight improvement for two years, but the 2016 defense regressed once more.

New Mexico knew what it wanted to be; the Lobos just couldn’t pull it off. They were good at attacking the run, ranking 76th in Rushing S&P+, 53rd in Adj. Line Yards, and 45th in stuff rate. In the MWC, being able to hinder a ground attack is Mission No. 1.

Mission No. 2, however, is “Don’t be completely awful against the pass.” Mission failed. After what appeared to be a decent start against woeful attacks (passer rating through three games: 122.1), the Lobos proved incapable of stopping teams that knew what they were doing. Over the final nine games of the regular season, they allowed a passer rating of 162, giving up a deadly combination: 62 percent completion rate, 15.7 yards per completion. Even in a run-happy conference, you can’t allow that.

It’s hard to see why 2017 will be different. Four of the top six tacklers on the line return, as do three of six at linebacker. But the top four tacklers in the secondary do not. Granted, due to injury, a lot of defensive backs saw the field, and the Lobos do return four DBs who made at least nine tackles. But three began as either walk-ons or unrated recruits, and none defensed more than three passes.

New Mexico needs a blood (and talent) transfusion in the back, and all hope will be in recent recruits. Davie signed four JUCO transfers — including three-stars Willy Hobdy and Jalin Burrell — to plump up the depth chart, and three-star youngsters like Corey Hightower and Nico Bolden will potentially see the field soon.

The good news is that the bar is really low. But that doesn’t mean it will be better, especially when you add in the fact that the players UNM does have to replace up front are the ones who sacked the quarterback. Of the four who had at least two sacks last year, three are gone.

NCAA Football: New Mexico at San Jose State
Kimmie Carson
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still hard to worry as much about the front, though. Linebacker Kimmie Carson is solid, and end Garrett Hughes had 6.5 sacks last year. Plus, the Lobos employed a good-sized rotation, and 2016 understudies like end Cody Baker and linebackers Austin Ocasio and Alex Hart will probably be able to play about as well as the guys they’re replacing.

The intriguing part is that Davie also loaded up on JUCOs up front, adding two tackles and four linebackers. And his best-regarded signing class, the 2016 batch, now features exciting redshirt freshmen like end Teton Saltes and linebacker Rhashaun Epting. The pass defense might not be better, but at least the run defense might not be worse.

NCAA Football: Gildan New Mexico Bowl-Arizona vs New Mexico Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

I can talk about the option all I want, but here’s something else that can flip close games: special teams. Jason Sanders was the second-most efficient place-kicker in the country per S&P+ (he was 6-for-6 on kicks longer than 40 yards) and one of the best kickoffs guys as well. Plus, Elijah Lilly was rather all-or-nothing in kick returns, but the alls were impressive.

UNM ranked 25th in Special Teams S&P+, and with everybody back, this should be a strength again, even if punter Corey Bojorquez outkicks his coverage at times.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Abilene Christian NR 30.2 96%
9-Sep New Mexico State 124 6.6 65%
16-Sep at Boise State 29 -23.1 9%
23-Sep at Tulsa 77 -11.8 25%
30-Sep Air Force 116 3.4 58%
14-Oct at Fresno State 115 -1.7 46%
21-Oct Colorado State 43 -14.5 20%
28-Oct at Wyoming 80 -10.4 27%
4-Nov Utah State 73 -7.6 33%
11-Nov at Texas A&M 19 -27.7 5%
18-Nov UNLV 118 3.9 59%
25-Nov at San Diego State 52 -18.3 15%
Projected S&P+ Rk 110
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 38 / 130
Projected wins 4.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -4.1 (81)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 102 / 103
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / 1.4
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.9
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 49% (66%, 33%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 7.5 (1.5)

Per S&P+, UNM had one of the worst defenses in the country and lost more of last year’s production than almost any defense in the country. The result: a projected defense that ranks dead last in FBS.

I don’t think it will be that bad — loading up on JUCO transfers might be dicey in the long-term but should lead to short-term overachievement — it’s not going to be good. And that means New Mexico should look like the New Mexico we’ve seen in recent years.

There are two ways to look at New Mexico’s schedule.

  1. The optimistic way points out that every home game is winnable, and if the Lobos go 5-1 at home, they’re almost certainly bowling again.
  2. The pessimistic way notes that every road game is losable, and a few (Boise State, Tulsa, Texas A&M, San Diego State, maybe Wyoming) are very losable.

The ceiling and floor are close together, though if the good fortune turns at all, reaching a bowl will be a bit of an accomplishment.

Considering what he inherited, Davie’s done a hell of a job. But not even the magic of the option can sustain you forever if you can’t make stops.


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