You can get a good idea for who was good and who was lucky (or vice versa) by looking at conference standings with close games removed. We know things like overall point differential are predictive, and this gets at how many of a team’s games were won or lost handily and how many boiled down to a single play or two.
For example, from 2017, the MAC West standings with one-possession finishes removed:
- Toledo 7-1 (9-3 overall)
- NIU 3-1 (4-2)
- CMU 3-2 (4-5)
- WMU 2-1 (4-3)
- EMU 1-1 (2-1)
- Ball State 0-8 (2-9)
Toledo was definitively the best in the West, and Ball State was the worst. In between, things got blurry. Add in close finishes, and the standings don’t change much: Toledo won its only close game, while NIU (3-1) and CMU (3-0) bolstered their standing with some good bounces.
The MAC East was a little stranger.
- Ohio 4-0 (7-1)
- Miami 4-1 (5-2)
- Buffalo 3-1 (4-2)
- Akron 3-3 (4-6)
- BGSU 1-5 (1-8)
- Kent 0-7 (0-10)
Bowling Green and Kent State were clearly at the bottom, and the trio of Ohio, Miami, and Buffalo separated itself at the top. Akron fell squarely in the middle.
Of course, Akron went 3-0 in one-possession MAC games. Ohio, Miami, and Buffalo combined to go 2-9. Miami: 0-3. So despite a minus-82-point scoring margin for the season and a plus-0 margin in the MAC, the Zips emerged as your East champ.
We also know that there’s a ton of randomness in those tight games, which evens out over time. Akron is not likely to get the same number of bounces in 2018 and will probably see its record regress.
Miami, meanwhile? Well, this is a big year for Martin in a couple of different ways.
For starters, Martin’s team could be really good. The RedHawks return most of last year’s key contributors — quarterback Gus Ragland, receiver James Gardner, running back Kenny Young, left tackle Jordan Rigg, defensive end Doug Costin, outside linebackers Brad Koenig and De’Andre Montgomery, safety Joshua Allen, corner Deondre Daniels — and almost all are seniors. They will boast a potent combination of play-making ability and experience.
This is also a big year for Martin, however, in that he really needs to start proving he’s a good coach.
Martin inherited a team that had bottomed out. The RedHawks had gone 0-12 in the year before Martin’s arrival and had gone 8-28 since their semi-blessed run to the 2010 MAC title (they went 10-4 despite a minus-23 scoring margin, thanks to a 6-0 record in one-possession games).
Martin has, without a doubt, restored a level of competitiveness in Oxford. Miami was 125th in S&P+ in 2013, but the RedHawks improved slightly in his first two years (112th and 115th), then took clear steps forward. They improved to 98th in 2016 and eked out a bowl bid with a late-year winning streak. And in 2017, they surged to a pretty incredible 56th. Against a schedule that featured six teams ranked 80th or better, they put together a performance that post-game win expectancy suggested should have been around 8-4.
Post-game win expectancy is a way of looking at the key stats from a game and saying, “On average, according to these key metrics, you’d have won this game X percent of the time.” Like filtering out close games, this is a good way of getting at your true potential without the effects of random bounces.
Miami didn’t go 8-4, though. The RedHawks went 5-7. They were 0-5 overall in one-possession finishes, figuring out ways to lose games with a 98 percent post-game win expectancy (Marshall 31, Miami 26), 80 percent (Cincinnati 21, Miami 17), 70 percent (Kent State 17, Miami 14), 45 percent (BGSU 37, Miami 29), and 44 percent (EMU 27, Miami 24).
On a one-year basis, that’s fine, if unfortunate. Stuff happens in football.
But Martin is now a devastating 5-17 in one-possession finishes over four years at Miami. The RedHawks rarely finish on the right side of the bounces, finishing an average of 1.4 wins per year below where post-game win expectancy would have them. We know that some coaches consistently over- or underachieve in this measure, and right now, Martin is one of the sport’s biggest underachievers.
Maybe this is all just karma spent as penance for the great breaks of 2010. And hey, maybe that’s worth it. Or maybe Martin teams just don’t function well in tight games. Martin committed one of my cardinal sins in the RedHawks’ 2016 bowl against Mississippi State, not only kicking an 18-yard field goal early in the game, but doing so as a pretty significant underdog. And I was talking about close games holding him back in last year’s preview as well.
Offense has lagged behind in Martin’s four seasons in Oxford. Miami has improved defensively each year, but the offense has ranked an average of just 100th in Off. S&P+. There was clear improvement in 2017, though. The Redhawks rose to 80th thanks to a unit that lacked for big plays but generated greater consistency (49th in success rate) than a year prior (68th), and against a harder schedule, no less.
Their two biggest strengths: they avoided negative plays, and they hit some shots downfield. There’s no reason to think that they will be any worse at either of those things in 2018.
No negative plays:
Young was one of the steadiest rushers in the MAC. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry despite minimal explosiveness, and the only way you do that is with steady three- to seven-yard gains. He almost never got caught behind the line, and he gained five yards on 45 percent of his carries. And he did this behind an unstable line.
Miami ended up starting eight different linemen at least once, and only two (Rigg and left guard Sam McCollum) started all 12 games. That tends to create massive inconsistency, but Miami ranked 19th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) all the same. That’s a very good sign considering the RedHawks return Young, backups Alonzo Smith and Leonard Ross, and those responsible for 57 of last year’s 60 line starts.
The bad news: Miami returns only one of its top four receivers from last year.
The good news: The RedHawks get the right one back. Gardner caught 47 balls for 927 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2017 earning a unique distinction. Of the 77 FBS players targeted at least 90 times last fall, only two combined a success rate of at least 50 percent (which suggests strong efficiency) with an average of at least 19 yards per catch. Gardner was one, and Oklahoma State’s James Washington was the other. Good company.
Gardner was a great vertical threat, and he had a strong QB giving him the ball. Gus Ragland completed 64 percent of his passes with a 17-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio during Miami’s 6-1 finish in 2016; he came down to earth a bit last fall (56 percent, 19-to-7) but still threw for 2,000 yards despite missing three games with a leg injury. He’ll get a potential push from Michigan grad transfer Alex Malzone, but he’s far more of a proven entity than Malzone at this point.
Ragland will need to create a rapport with a few new possession guys, however, for his connection with Gardner to remain potent. Only one other returning wideout, 6’5 junior Luke Mayock (nephew of Mike), had more than 50 receiving yards last year. Sophomore Dom Robinson has made waves early in spring ball, and redshirt freshman Mitchell Lewis was a mid-three-star recruit (as was incoming freshman tight end Maleak Bryant).
All of these guys are 6’4 or taller, by the way, so unique matchups abound.
Improvement is rarely linear, but it has been for Miami’s defense. In four seasons since Martin took over, the RedHawks have gone from 112th in Def. S&P+ to 104th, then 84th, then 75th, then 39th. Miami was decent against the run, good against the pass, and spectacular in the red zone, and the defense made massive strides with mostly sophomores and juniors.
Those guys are now juniors and seniors. Seven of the top eight linemen, four of the top five linebackers, and five of the top seven defensive backs all return. In terms of havoc stats (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles), six of last year’s eight most productive guys are back.
If there’s one concern, it’s that the secondary got away with not having to prove its depth. Seven DBs made at least 8.5 tackles last year, and they combined to miss just two games. That’s pretty rare injuries luck, and it makes the loss of safety Tony Reid and corner Heath Harding — the only two departees among those top eight havoc guys — a bit of a worry.
Corners Deondre Daniels and Cedric Asseh combined for 16 passes defensed (Asseh had nearly as many PDs as tackles), and safeties Joshua Allen and Daryus Thompson are both experienced, so the starting lineup is probably fine. But any injury issues could force defensive co-coordinators John Hauser and Spence Nowinsky (a new addition from Illinois State) to dip into a pool of unknowns.
The front seven should hold up, though. Miami gave up a few too many big plays against the run but made a lot of stops, too (46th in rushing success rate, 14th in power success rate) and did so despite major shuffling in a linebacker unit that wasn’t as lucky as the DBs from a health perspective. Brad Koenig is a keeper, and fellow seniors De’Andre Montgomery and Junior McMullen combined for 6.5 TFLs despite each missing time.
Seniors everywhere. This unit will undergo a massive reset in 2019, but it should be one of the MAC’s best this fall, especially if the red zone success holds up.
Miami’s special teams unit was fine despite youth. Kicker Samuel Sloman and punter Kyle Kramer were sophomores, and kick returner Jaylon Bester was a freshman, but the RedHawks were at least decent in each of those categories and ranked 48th overall in Special Teams S&P+. They need a new punt returner, but that was the weakest part of the unit anyway.
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|22-Sep||at Bowling Green||97||1.8||54%|
|14-Nov||at Northern Illinois||69||-4.6||40%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||82|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||96 / 55|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-11.3 (117)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||103 / 95|
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||-1 / -2.1|
|2017 TO Luck/Game||+0.5|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||67% (66%, 69%)|
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)||7.8 (-2.8)|
Martin returns one of the most proven rosters in the MAC. Miami’s still got some questions — the RedHawks need a couple of tall possession guys to emerge in the passing game, and the secondary might have to prove its depth this time around — but those are minor compared to most conference foes.
The biggest question is perhaps Martin himself. Because the close games probably aren’t going away.
S&P+ projects Miami 7-5 overall, but that’s with the assumption of close wins. A whopping nine games on the schedule have a projected margin of 5.3 or fewer points; going .500 or so in those games will mean a bowl. Going 6-3 might mean a division title.
But close-game performance suggests 2-7 might be closer to reality. And that might mean a job opening in Oxford.