Summer Vacation: SMU (Defense)

So, below is the first stab at the ever-elusive Defensive Footprint idea.  I'm pretty sure this will be changing 118 times in the coming months, but we'll just dive in.  Most of the feedback I got on my initial Defensive Footprint idea revolved around data to which I do not have easy access; there is value to looking at the percentage of tackles, tackles for loss, etc. that are racked up by different units (DL, LB, DB), but for now that is not an option.  So what we have below are the following five categories:

  • Standard Downs %Run: This compares opponents' standard downs %run to what was expected given the opponents' season rates.  In other words, given the opponents at hand, SMU should have expected 60.7% of plays to be rushes on standard downs; opponents ran 61.2% against them.
  • Passing Downs %Run: Same as with standard downs.  This is a way to see how much opponents may (or may not) have respected a given team's run or pass defense.  If opponents had a %run much more different than their season averages, chances are they were attempting to exploit a perceived weakness.  And if full-season numbers identify solid differences, then that tells you that opponents might not have respected a given team's run or pass defense.  (Looking at the below footprint, it doesn't appear that opponents disrespected either SMU's run or pass defense.)
  • Bend-Don't-Break: This is a comparison of a team's Def. Success Rate (efficiency) to its Def. PPP (explosiveness).  The higher the number, the higher percentage of a team's overall S&P was made up by success rate, i.e. the more willing a team was to sacrifice efficiency to prevent big plays.  (The lower the number, the more likely a team was to take aggressive risks.)
  • Need for Blitzes: This compares a team's standard downs sack rate to its passing downs sack rate.  The lower the number, the more they were able to generate pressure on standard downs, and the less need for blitzes.
  • Go After the Ball: This looks at a team's forced fumbles, interceptions and passes broken up.  In other words, it looks at their ability to go after the ball.  The higher the number, the more they got their hands on the football.

I am not married to any of this, but I feel it's a pretty good place to start.  So now let's see it in action.

Defense

Click to embiggen.

What does this tell us?

  • Teams didn't notice any specific weakness that they attempted to exploit.
  • SMU didn't really fall into the bend-don't-break category, but they were a little more efficiency-based than risk-based.
  • While they avoided risk, they still generated a decent pass rush, potentially because of their 3-4 set.
  • They, uh, did not go after the ball very well.  (Perhaps that falls right in with the "no-risk" categorization.)
Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 42 54 36
RUSHING 42 72 27 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 38 45 35 55
Standard Downs 56 89 42 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 16 17 18 14
Redzone 53 80 40
Q1 Rk 54 1st Down Rk 72
Q2 Rk 30 2nd Down Rk 40
Q3 Rk 46 3rd Down Rk 19
Q4 Rk 61

When Texas A&M moved from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense this past offseason, it's possible that they weren't just doing it to get the attention of their yearned-for conference to the east ("See, SEC!  We play defense like you guys, too!  We should totally join your conference!  You want our phone number?  Here's our phone number. I'll await your call.").  It's possible that they just saw how SMU's defense was developing a couple of hours north of College Station.

We get distracted when we see the words "June" and "Jones" put together.  All we can think of is ridiculous offenses paired with optional defenses.  But SMU's 2010 success, in their second season after defensive coordinator Tom Mason moved to the 3-4 scheme, was perhaps driven more by defense than offense.  (I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.)

Bullets of note:

  • In 2010, the SMU defense was effective in all the ways you would want to see from a 3-4.  They were fast enough to prevent big plays, and they attacked from all directions, especially on passing downs.
  • Whereas big plays were a weakness for the SMU offense, the SMU D thrived by preventing them.  Looking at their Standard Downs splits, you can see that they were perfectly content with allowing you five or six yards whenever you wanted, but they were steadfast in preventing the 25-yard gain.  Once they leveraged you into passing downs, they teed off.  They blitzed effectively and, in general, had one helluva passing downs defense.
  • If Mason and the Mustangs can account for three specific personnel losses, they could see further, and larger, success in 2011.  Linebackers Pete Fleps (98.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 3 passes broken up, or PBU) and Youri Yenga (62.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 6 PBU) are gone, as is starting cornerback Sterling Moore (2 INT, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 8 PBU).  All three players were solid, and they allowed Mason to attack from any angle at any time.
  • A few of SMU's big guns do return.  Severely underrated linebacker Ja'Gared Davis (76.0 tackles, 16.0 TFL/sacks), the primary attacker from the linebacking corps, is back, and that is very good news.
  • Leading tackler Taylor Reed (123.0 tackles) and solid corner Richard Crawford (50.5 tackles, 4 INT, 8 PBU) are also back in the red, white and blue next year.

And just for fun...

SMU's 2010 Season Set to Music

Since you were more likely to have seen Pony Excess than an actual SMU game this season (even their bowl game had one of those horrible mid-day on a weekday time slots), we'll go with the Beatles, "Dig a Pony."  Or maybe Son House's "Shetland Pony Blues."  Or Bob Dylan's "New Pony."  Or, if we're feeling creative, "1980 World Champion," by The Bad Plus.  (There was no song with "slush" or "slush fund" on my iPod. And as far as I know, Slush Puppie doesn't have a theme song, at least not one available on iTunes.)

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

In Pony Excess, we heard a couple interviewees talking about how SMU was the premier football program of the early-1980s.  I ... wouldn't take it that far.  This summer at Football Outsiders, I used an Estimated S&P+ figure to rank the Top 100 teams of the past century.  Here's where the SMU teams of the early-'80s placed using that rankings system:

1980: 19th (2904th overall)
1981: 10th (583rd)
1982: 24th (573rd)
1983: 21st (1408th)
1984: 27th (1556th)
1985: 27th (4462nd)

Now, to be sure, those are decent numbers.  And in terms of SMU's overall history, only their 1935, 1923 and 1947 teams ranked higher than those 1981-82 squads.  But everything is bigger in Texas, including the hyperbole.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 82
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 76
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* -12 / -10.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 18 (10, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin** +2.4

SMU is still in a bit of a danger zone in terms of program health.  The best predictor of future success is past success, and the Mustangs have only managed a little bit of it.  Once you have reached three, four or five straight solid seasons, you can start to feel comfortable about your program's long-term health.  Until two years ago, SMU was horrid.

The good news, of course, is that recruiting is on the upswing.  Rivals.com ranked their 2011 class second in the Conference USA, mere decimal points behind that of Central Florida and just outside of the overall Top 50.  Of course, incoming recruiting classes don't typically make a huge impact in Year One, so the impact of the last couple of successful classes might not be felt just yet.  For the "Five-Year Recruiting Rk" figure above, classes from three and four years ago are weighted more heavily than last year's because as a whole, juniors and seniors are going to impact the product on the field more than freshmen.

The overall experience of the squad, though, will be strong.  SMU returns 18 starters, and while the lack of big-play potential on offense could be a concern, the ceiling for the defense is pretty high.

You will likely see Phil Steele mentioning SMU in part of his "Turnovers = Turnaround" bit this summer, and he could be right.  But the Mustangs' TO margin in 2010 was very INT-heavy, which is less likely to turn around.  If Kyle Padron can make better decisions on standard downs, it could lead to improvement, but we'll see.

In all, SMU very nearly won the Conference USA title last year with poor luck, little big-play ability, and a downright poor turnover margin.  If they can replace Aldrick Robinson, they will have a damn good chance of contending again in 2011.  Maybe not in the theoretical Southwest Conference, but definitely in Conference USA.

 

---

* Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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