Week 4 Football Recap (10/1/12)

By Paul Bessire

Monday, October 1 at 8:00 PM ET

For the weekly football review blog throughout the season, I am stealing a page from our weekly football podcasts (while also preparing for said podcasts) and will identify three things that stood out to me in college football and the NFL from the weekend as well as a play or two from the Live ScoreCaster in game projected results that  had the most notable bearing on a pivotal game.

College Football Week 5 Thoughts:

ACC Uh Oh… Before the season started, we were predicting that all but one ACC team (Duke 3.5Ov) would go UNDER its season Over/Under consensus win total line. That sounds almost impossible and comes across as a great indictment to a conference that still receives a BCS automatic qualifying bowl bid.

The reality has been even worse.

While Duke has already covered its line with a 4-1 record, the rest of the conference has been brutal (not to mention the Blue Devils’ 50-13 loss at Stanford in the only non-conference game the team has played against a BCS-AQ school). As a whole, the ACC is 5-10 in non-conference games against the other BCS-AQ conferences. Those wins have come against Auburn (ranked #53 in our updated College Football Power Rankings), UConn (#62), Penn State (#51), Temple (#88) and USF (#59). In other words, the ACC does not have a win against a top 50 team out of conference. Furthermore, in those ten losses to BCS-AQ teams, the ACC lost by an average score of 34.2-18.1.

And there are these results: Middle Tennessee State 49 @ Georgia tech 28 and Louisiana Tech 44 @ Virginia 38 (though that was technically closer than we predicted, LaTech still won and covered the spread).

Before the season, we debated the weakest conference of the automatic qualifiers on our season preview podcasts. It was a toss-up between the Big East and the ACC. With a 3-4 record against the Big East (and one of those wins coming over a brand new Big East team in Temple) and the other numbers above, the ACC should be more concerned about getting passed over by the Sun Belt or WAC (MTSU is an average Sun Belt team and the WAC has just one fewer team, 3, in our top 50 than the ACC, 4).

West Virginia 70 – Baylor 63… Rapid fire on this crazy game:

You could set the quarter time-limit to 15 minutes (does anyone actually play more than 5 minute quarters?) on NCAA ’13 and play a friend with these two teams and still maybe not reach 133 combined points.

This game featured the highest posted closing total in known history at 84.5 (up from 79.5 when we posted the picks on Wednesday) and it went over by SEVEN TOUCHDOWNS.

Generally, throwing one interception over the course of 100 pass attempts is extremely noteworthy. Generally, it takes 3-5 games, even in today’s college football game, to do that. Nick Florence and Geno Smith threw the ball 98 times in one game and had just one interception.

We had a strong opinion on Baylor to cover +12.5 (down to +11 on Friday and back up to +12 on Saturday) and I was still very worried about an against-the-spread loss after my team had scored 63 points with 3:08 left in regulation. “They left too much time on the clock. This may be a brutal loss.”

The Live ScoreCaster™ chart from this game (which temporarily broke the chart because it was not built for multiple teams to hit 60+ points) is fun. The Mountaineers scored 70 points, yet were never greater than an 80% favorite to win the game until the final five minutes.

Nick Florence averaged passing for 20.0 yards-per-completion.

There were 82 rushing plays in this game. None of them will be remembered. If I ask any college football fan – even those who watched this game in its four hour-plus entirety – to guess if there were over or under 60 running plays in this game, almost all would say under.

Before the season, our top Heisman selections (as discussed in the aforementioned podcasts – though not official predictions because we do not project such things) were: 1) Matt Barkley, QB, USC 2) De’Anthony Thomas, ATH, Oregon 3) Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia and 4) Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama with Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee, Quandre Diggs, CB/RET, Texas and Steadman Bailey, WR, WVU as sleepers. After this game, Smith has 1,728 yards passing, 20 touchdowns, no interceptions and an 83.4% completion rate for the undefeated Mountaineers. It’s his Heisman to lose at this point (Bailey’s numbers – 635 receiving yards, ten TDs for a 2,500+ yard, 40 TD pace – are gaudy, but he hasn’t done anything without Smith), but don’t count out Thomas – whose biggest games are ahead of him – and Diggs – who takes on Smith and Bailey in West Virginia’s first true road game of the season this week. And if I could add a couple other players to the mix to watch right now, Braxton Miller, QB, Ohio State, Bjoern Werner, DE, FSU and Collin Klein, Tebow, Kansas State are on the cusp.  

I don’t look at the polls... On Twitter, through Support Contacts on the site, on air and among those that I talk to otherwise, people/fans consistently like to bring up teams in our Power Rankings that are ranked higher or lower than they are in polls. Inevitably, fans are upset that we do not have their school as high as the polls do (and never as high as they think their team should be) or they are disappointed that a team that their team beat or a  team that is their team’s rival is ranked higher in our Power Rankings than in the polls. The truth is, I don’t care that that is the case. And I don’t have an explanation as to why because I am not in a position to rationalize the ignorance of others (part of my job is to exploit the ignorance of others, but that happens naturally through our approach).

The AP and USA Today polls are an important fixture to the game of college football. They provide an endless source of debate and rationalization for irrational fan homerism (that may not be a word, but it’s the best non-word for this discussion). Growing up, I remember waking up on Sunday mornings and eagerly awaiting the announcements of the polls each week to promptly join my entire family in whining about the lack of respect that the Wisconsin Badgers were receiving. I get it. That’s part of the reason the culture loves college football.

I don’t look at college football (or basketball) polls. I don’t even know when they come out or who votes in them. They mean very little to me (technically, I would say they mean nothing to me, but our data provider only provides live data for games involving top 25 teams in the AP Poll, so I inadvertently find out which games have top 25 teams by looking at our Live ScoreCaster™ offerings. The more that I have thought about their existence, the less I understand them and the less relevant they seem to me.

Seriously, what are the polls trying to accomplish? Do they rank the teams that are most deserving of being ranked highest based strictly on wins and losses and not scores (as the BCS mandates the computer rankings must do)? Do they rank the teams that the voters think will have the best records at the end of the season (if this is not the case, why are there polls before the season starts)? Do they rank teams by talent? Do they rank teams by the most heavily represented regions by the voters? I don’t know the answer because every voter interprets his/her vote differently, which ultimately means to me that the polls mean nothing.

I do know that our power rankings try to definitively solve the answer to the question: Which team would be favored over the most teams and to the greatest degree? They don’t always jive with the polls, but they almost always line up with the teams that are favored in matchups (and when that does not happen, our predicted outright upset picks are 12-7 on the season).

A great example of this appears in our rankings of Oklahoma and Kansas State. Kansas State beat Oklahoma 24-19 at Oklahoma. We have OU (#11) ranked ahead of KSU (#13). The AP Poll (looking at them now for this discussion) has Kansas State at #7 and Oklahoma at #17. If they played ten more times, Oklahoma should win 6-7 of those. It’s difficult to argue against that. The Sooners would certainly be favored at sportsbooks and probably by at least a touchdown. And I cannot imagine many non-Kansas State alumni would lay any points if the Wildcats were favored in the game (as the polls suggest that they should be).

The polls are irrelevant. They mean nothing to me and I don’t look at them (except when I am writing a blog entry about their uselessness).

NFL Week 4 Thoughts:

Injuries, Injuries, Injuries… Around this time of year, people look at the teams leading the standings and often discuss whether or not specific teams are built for playoff football. Any notion of that actually relating to experience or to whether or not a team’s style translates to winning in cold weather (though they stand out in our mind throughout history, there very few weather-impacted games in the NFL and not one specific style consistently wins over others when weather is a factor), is ridiculous. What this conversation really touches on are health and consistency. Is a team likely to be as healthy in December and January as it is now? Is the team capable of sustaining its current level of play through December and January? Most of what we discuss on this site has to do with the latter, but the former is of the utmost importance as well.

In a league that is defined by its parity and “any given Sunday” brand, health is a critical piece to a successful season. While major injuries to key players will often generate buzz, the frequency and quantity of injuries to a team’s roster is of even greater importance than the severity of any one or two specific injuries.

In recent years, teams like the Giants (2007 and 2011), Packers (2010) and Cardinals (2008) were teams that suffered many injuries on both sides of the ball early in the season, yet got healthier as the season progressed. Not surprisingly, these teams also translated that late-season health into a deep run to the Super Bowl (with three of those teams winning the Super Bowl despite not winning more than ten games in the season). Other teams like the Texans (2011), Steelers (2011) Bears (2010), Chiefs (2010) and Cowboys (pick a year) had strong regular seasons, but faded in the postseason due to injuries.

This season, the Texans, Vikings, 49ers and Chargers (note, the Saints have also been one of the healthier teams with respect to expected starters playing , but coaching and roster turnover has superseded that) have missed the fewest starts due to injuries in the NFL. Those teams are 13-3 straight-up right now. They are also prime candidates to fade if the injury bug bites (which is generally considered random, yet has to be considered more likely to hit the Texans and their oft-injured stars than the other teams).

Of the teams that appeared in the top half of our original NFL Power Rankings for the season, the most injury-riddled teams have been the New York Giants (again), Dallas Cowboys, Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. Each of these teams fits the mold of a team that may not be lighting it up now, yet could be a force in the postseason (if the team gets there – only the Bengals have three or more wins from this group).

#Norv… We have had strong opinions against-the-spread in each of San Diego’s four games thus far on the season. Not only have we alternated picking for and against the Chargers to cover, we have alternated for and against them to win straight-up (going 3-1 ATS and SU over that span with the one loss coming at Oakland to start the season).

Norv Turner’s team has driven many fans and bettors crazy for the exact reason that this is the case. The Chargers have an above average team with an above average coach, above average quarterback and above average defense, but they are not elite in any capacity and, without a major matchup advantage (and thus little margin for error), are prone to making costly mistakes (Turner's career epitomizes this kind of team). This helps them dominate the weaker teams in the league, yet makes them vulnerable to losing (often big) to teams that are elite in one or more areas.

When people talk about “football IQ” or “heart” trumping talent, I think of teams like San Diego (the two teams playing tonight – Chicago and Dallas – as well as Detroit and Buffalo are great examples of this as well). The Chargers (and Bears and Cowboys and Lions and Bills) have above average talent and even above average schemes, but they are more likely to have a weakness or make a mistake that an above average opposing team can exploit than they are to find an area to exploit in an opponent that would give them the edge in “coin-flip” games in the NFL. I can see this in the numbers and the results. This means something in the regular season. It means almost everything when most games are against above average talent in the postseason.

Minnesota… Minnesota is 3-1. Before the season started, we would have given the Vikings an 8.7% (or about 1-in-11) chance of being 3-1 at this point. One would assume that, among 32 teams, about three teams would defy expectations to this degree.

Does this mean that the Vikings are here to stay? I doubt it.

While wins over San Francisco at home and at Detroit are certainly noteworthy, Minnesota has won its games against a weak schedule in about the least sustainable ways possible.

The Vikings schedule is currently ranked #23 of 32 in our Strength of Schedule Rankings and the team lost to a team that we ranked #31 in the league in last week’s NFL Power Rankings.

In its wins, which have come by a total of 21 points, Minnesota has turned the ball over just three times total. Christian Ponder, who threw interceptions on 3.1% of his passes last season and on 3.0% of his passes in college, has not thrown an interception in 123 pass attempts (which is only about 2.4% likely to happen). In the last two games, wins over San Francisco and Detroit, the Vikings’ opponent has averaged more yards-per-play than Minnesota. The Vikings have committed more penalties than their opponents in all but one game and had a kickoff and punt return for a touchdown in a seven point victory yesterday. And, as alluded to above, Minnesota has been one of the healthiest teams in the league thus far.

While it has been nice to see early dividends paid from what we thought was the second best draft class from this past draft (Matt Kalil, our #1 offensive lineman, Harrison Smith, our #1 safety and Josh Robinson, our #5 corner back have more than lived up to our expectations), this team is likely a season or two away from true playoff contention. The mistakes they are making (penalties) are likely to continue and hurt this team more going forward. The mistakes they are not making (throwing interceptions) will happen at some (likely “inopportune”) point.

Live ScoreCaster Play of the Week:

The Live ScoreCaster App has several notifications that can be turned on for games that will keep users up-to-date on things like quarterly scores and projections, games ending, projected lead changes and major swing plays. I love utilizing all of these, especially the latter two as it’s interesting to see which plays lead to teams being favored and ultimately winning the game (as it happens).

For the Major Swing notification, when the projected winning percentage in a game shifts by 35% or more over the course of up to two plays, the notification is activated and the user learns the play, the current score and the new projection. Most games don’t actually have these kinds of plays. And those that do often come in the form of late, game-winning field goals that are less than 65% likely to convert. But there will still be a few other plays each week that stand out for playing pivotal roles in big games.

It was another great week of NFL action. We recently added a publicly viewable page that will show the charts from all Live ScoreCaster games for a week after each game. These are available for free to everyone. In other words, you should check out the win probability charts from New England @ Buffalo, Minnesota @ Detroit (the Lions were never favored after kickoff), Carolina @ Atlanta, and Washington @ Tampa Bay on our new Live History page. For this week’s highlighted play, though, I will focus on the game that has provided the most Major Swing alerts of any game this season, Miami @ Arizona, where each teams were greater than 90% to win at some point within a game that ultimately went to OT.

One of the bigger plays of the entire season thus far was followed by another one of the biggest plays of the season to-date. Trailing 14-13 with 8:05 left to go in the game, Miami had the ball and was driving into Arizona territory. At the time, the game was essentially 50/50, with a projected average score of 17.5-17.0 Cardinals. Then, Legedu Naanee fumbled on the Cardinals’ 39. Patrick Peterson, a dynamic playmaker on defense that we highlighted in the blog two weeks ago, picked up the ball for Arizona and returned it to the Miami three yard line. Even though it did not result in a score, the fumble recovery and return shifted Arizona’s chances of winning the game to 95% up one point with first and goal and the lead at home in the fourth quarter.

On second down, Kevin Kolb threw an interception in the end zone that cut Arizona’s chances of winning down to 63%. And on the very next play, Tannehill hit Brian Hartline for an 80 yard touchdown. Add on the two point conversion and Miami, winning 21-14 with seven minutes left to play, was an 89% favorite to win the game (giving Arizona about a 40% chance to tie the game and then Miami a 20% chance to win it in regulation after that and a 10% chance to win it in OT).

See the chart that tells the story of this game: Arizona 24 – Miami 21.

GM Chat (9/28)

On September 28 at 8 pm ET, I joined several randomly selected users in our first ever GM Chat. Even with the small group, the conversation was great and I enjoyed the interaction. While I look forward to opening up the chat to more people (like everyone) in the future, there were some interesting topics discussed and I do not want those to go largely unheard so we have maintained the transcript of the chat here.

New Football Content:

Just a reminder about our new content for this season. In addition to the weekly 3 Up 3 Down College Football (John Ewing), Tuley’s Vegas Beat (Dave Tuley) and NFL Draft Prospect Watch (Matt Richner) columns and the normal weekly Power Rankings, Playoff Probabilities and Fantasy Projections (including value projections for daily salary cap fantasy sites like DraftDay.com), we have added the following resources and articles:

Injuries – Thorough Listing of All Players Removed from College Football and NFL Simulations

Team Stats – In-Depth NFL and College Football Team Statistics

Player Stats - In-Depth NFL Player Statistics

ATS Stats – Comprehensive Against-the-Spread and Over/Under Records for NFL and College Football Teams

Rest of Season Fantasy – Fantasy Football Projections for Every Future NFL Week