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Morning Tailgate Mailbag: Alabama's Defense, Boise's Geography Problem And Marrying Jim Grobe

In the first Morning Tailgate mailbag, we cover Alabama's ridiculous defense, underdog strategies, Houston's ridiculously bad defense, Boise State's BCS conference prospects and more.

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So I figured I would try a mailbag with Friday Morning Tailgate columns. The idea is to make sure that I'm covering topics that readers would like covered, and here are some of the questions I received this week. A mailbag column is only as good as the questions, so ... send 'em in!

Just how ridiculous is Alabama's defensive S&P+?

-- @OrlandoMcCain

This week's Def. S&P+ rankings at Football Outsiders are a bit staggering. Alabama's rating of 163.7 is 17.6 points higher than that of No. 2 Boise State. As a frame of reference, 9.9 points separate Boise State and No. 7 Virginia Tech, and 18.6 points separate Virginia Tech and No. 19 Georgia. The Tide have so completely shut down their opponents that they have left LSU in the dust ... and last I checked, LSU's defense was rather stout.

Let's use standard deviations to further elaborate on the ridiculousness:

  • Defenses That Are +1 Standard Deviation From National Average: Central Florida, Florida, Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Stanford, Texas, Wisconsin.
  • Defenses That Are +2 Standard Deviations From National Average: Boise State, LSU, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Penn State, Virginia Tech.
  • Defenses That Are +3 Standard Deviations From National Average: None.
  • Defenses That Are +4 Standard Deviations From National Average: Alabama.

Obviously we are not even halfway through the season, and opponent-adjusted numbers can still swing dramatically from week to week. But it is difficult to think of a way in which Alabama's defense could improve right now. They absolutely choke the life out of you. As mentioned in yesterday's Heisman piece, their numbers are so crazy that they completely shut down Florida's running game, and Florida's opponent-adjusted rushing numbers improved.

(Actually, there is a very specific way Alabama could get better. They rank only 77th in Adj. Sack Rate. Just think where they would be if they were in the Top 25. Yikes.)


Kentucky’s offense is bad, like Bill Curry bad. The severe drop they’ve taken in just five games this season is staggering to me. My opinion is that Kentucky cannot sustain success trying to do the same things everyone else in the SEC is doing offensively (or defensively, really) due to the fact that their personnel are largely inferior. Given that Mizzou is sort of in a similar situation in terms of homegrown talent, what could Kentucky do to hide its weaknesses (i.e. personnel) and exploit those of other teams? Scheme (e.g. triple-option or return to Air Raid) and an out-of-the-box approach to recruiting are some ideas I’ve come up with, but I’m not sure there’s a SABR type way to evaluate high school football talent to exploit inefficiencies in that kind of player market.

-- Anything But Gatorade

In my happy place, we one day figure out how to use relevant and available high school data to project certain types of college success. I don't know if we'll ever get there, but that is certainly on the long, long, long-term to-do list.

As it pertains to what the hell Kentucky could be doing differently, I will defer to Smart Football's Chris Brown on this one. Here is but a small sample of his work on the subject:

In the David/Goliath post, Brown covers quite a few potential "David" strategies: passing, reducing the length of the game and the total number of plays, high variance defense, and so forth. I covered a bit of this topic in my UL-Monroe preview from last spring. The idea is pretty simple on its face: if you are trying the same thing as teams more talented and athletic than you, then you almost certainly will not succeed. Being different does not guarantee success -- solid underdog strategies and tactics didn't stop UL-Monroe from getting outscored by Florida State, Iowa and TCU by a combined 117-34 margin -- but if you are outmanned, you have to try something different. Otherwise you are just hoping that your opponent shoots itself in the foot 17 times. Granted, in college football, teams make plenty of mistakes, but "hope they screw up" still isn't a sustainable strategy.

Kentucky had a truly unique weapon in Randall Cobb last year, and he evidently masked a lot of deficiencies. Without him, the Wildcats just have nothing on offense this year.


Is there such a thing as a "quick defensive turnaround" in CFB? What does the template look like? (Signed, desperate UH fan.)

-- @FO_RiversMcCown

This actually does happen. Between 2006 and 2010, nine teams saw their Def. S&P+ improve by 60 or more spots in one year, and 23 jumped by 50 or more. Granted, 23 is only 3.8 percent of the 600 teams who have played FBS football in that span of time, but it does still happen.

Let's look at some of the teams who improved the most:

  • 2010 Stanford (78 spots, from 99th to 21st). The Cardinal had a new defensive coordinator (Vic Fangio) and a new defensive scheme (a hybrid 3-4 of sorts), and after feeling their way through the first half of the season, they dominated beginning around mid-October.
  • 2010 N.C. State (74 spots, from 114th to 40th). This improvement was based largely on personnel. Star linebacker Nate Irving missed the 2009 season to injury, and when combined with some severe shuffling in the secondary, the 2009 defense completely cratered. In 2010, they bounced back with Irving leading the way.
  • 2009 Middle Tennessee (72 spots, from 95th to 23rd). Two words: Manny Diaz. Diaz was defensive coordinator in Murfreesboro for four seasons, beginning when he was 32, and in his fourth year, things clicked. He patented his version of a leverage-based, attacking defense, then took it to Starkville (in 2010) and Austin (in 2011).
  • 2010 Illinois (61 spots, from 74th to 13th). Following the disappointing 2009 season, Ron Zook brought in a new stable of assistant coaches in 2010. It was seen as a desperation move, and it was; it also worked. Vic Koenning has completely transformed that UI defense, as it is a strength again in 2011.

So if there is a template for quick defensive turnaround, it involves some combination of new scheme, new coach, and talent that either underachieved under a previous coordinator (Illinois) or was young/injury prone (N.C. State). Houston's recent defensive performance, however, shows that this isn't a fool-proof template. They brought in coordinator Brian Stewart for the 2010 season and made the switch to more of a 3-4 scheme, but they haven't gotten any better yet. Is it maybe a talent issue instead?


Why don't I watch more college football?

-- @AbbotJr

Crippling addiction to joy deprivation?


Is Boise State going to get into a major conference anytime soon?

-- @NWSportsFan99

I honestly don't know. It doesn't look good right now, at least in the short term, and really, it's a geography problem as much as anything else. Just look at the example of Boise State and TCU. Both have turned themselves into elite football programs in recent years. Outside of football and baseball (not that baseball really matters in terms of conference realignment), TCU doesn't exactly bring a ton to the table, but they have now accepted two major conference invitations in the last year or so. The reason, as much as anything, is that they aren't in the middle of nowhere.

Last summer, it looked as if everything were falling into place nicely. Boise State was joining Utah, BYU and TCU in a Mountain West Conference that was, at least with the upper half, taking on the look of a true BCS-level conference. BYU owns a national title banner, both Utah and Boise State own multiple BCS bowl wins, and TCU was getting ready to add a Rose Bowl title to their list of accomplishments. The conference's top four teams were easily stronger than those of the Big East, and it was not at all difficult to imagine the MWC receiving a BCS automatic bid in the future. Meanwhile, the Big 12 was under siege, and it looked as if Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State might become free agents.

But just as the Big 12 has given TCU opportunity, it took it away from the Mountain West as a whole. When only Colorado left for the then-Pac-10 and Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State failed to follow, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott went after Utah instead. Then BYU went independent. Then TCU accepted a Big East invitation. Suddenly, with TCU's impending departure and the additions of Nevada, Fresno State and Hawaii, the future Mountain West doesn't look that much different from the WAC that Boise State left behind.

Boise State has proven they can and will succeed despite their conference affiliation. But despite some incredible recent success versus BCS teams, it does appear that voters will continue to dock BSU for their overall schedule strength. They can still put themselves in position to win a national title if a lot of BCS conference teams lose, but I don't see them being offered a major conference invitation anytime soon. The Big 12 is focusing on Big East teams, it appears, and the Pac-12 is not expanding (and didn't really look in Boise's direction when they were thinking about expanding). Thanks to geography, those are really the only possibilities, and at the moment, they are not possibilities.


@SBN_BillC Marry, f***, kill: Tom O'Brien, Jim Grobe, Paul Pasqualoni.
Oct 05 via Twitter for MacFavoriteRetweetReply

Marry: Paul Pasqualoni. Good guy. Loyal. Boring. Husband material.
Kill: Tom O'Brien. Because if you don't, he's going to kill you instead.

So that leaves ... uh ... hmm.

Marry: Jim Grobe. Good guy. Loyal. Creative. Uses a lot of misdirection to keep the relationship alive.
Kill: Tom O'Brien. There is no other answer for this.

So that leaves ... uh ... pass.

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