Summer Vacation: The Big East, the Filthy Diablo and the Memphis Tigers

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

Talk about bad timing.  EXPANSIONAPALOOZA™ got rolling last summer, the Big East is still potentially looking at expansion, and look!  Memphis is available!  Their basketball program is still on solid footing, they've got FedEx money at their disposal ... what could go wrong here?  Surely they're a strong candidate, right?

Oh. Right.

The Memphis football program has chosen a really bad time to crater.  The Tigers have won three games in two seasons, and in last season's finale against Central Florida, they drew all of 6,000 people.  (For the record, the announced attendance was 14,992, which still isn't good.)  In a 60K-capacity Liberty Bowl Stadium.  Ggh.

Also: the 2011 Memphis squad returns all of nine total starters (four on offense, five on defense) after a few semi-important players elected to flee the premises.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, I guess (recent recruiting has been solid), but it does suggest that UM is not in line for a quick turnaround in coach Larry Porter's second year in charge.

Make no mistake.  Memphis wants that Big East bid.  And with football potential, revenue and accomplishment driving the bus, it's probably not going to happen.  Not with 6,000-15,000 attending a home game (season average: 23,918).

And to add a brisk slap to the program's face, former C-USA member TCU accepted an invitation Monday to join the Big East, the Bowl Championship Series conference that the Tigers have pursued for more than five years. TCU, winners of 25 consecutive regular-season games, is No. 3 in the latest BCS rankings.

''Obviously, if our football was where TCU's is right now, (the Big East) would be taking us,'' athletic director R.C. Johnson said. ''I'm convinced of that.''

Me too, sir. Alas.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 1-11 | Adj. Record: 0-12 | Final F/+ Rk**: 118
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Mississippi State 7-49 L 14.7 - 39.8 L
11-Sep at East Carolina 27-49 L 18.9 - 35.8 L
18-Sep Middle Tennessee 24-17 W 19.6 - 22.4 L
25-Sep at UTEP 13-16 L 16.1 - 22.3 L
2-Oct Tulsa 7-48 L 13.7 - 29.5 L
9-Oct at Louisville 0-56 L 13.9 - 45.1 L
16-Oct Southern Miss 19-41 L 21.6 - 32.8 L
30-Oct Houston 17-56 L 26.3 - 39.1 L
6-Nov Tennessee 14-50 L 17.6 - 38.3 L
13-Nov at Marshall 13-28 L 10.7 - 35.5 L
20-Nov at UAB 15-31 L 17.0 - 29.4 L
27-Nov Central Florida 17-37 L 24.9 - 32.8 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 14.4 119 39.8 117
Adj. Points Per Game 17.9 115 33.6 115

Fun story: in 1999, I made my first trip to Memphis (for a Mizzou-Memphis football game).  I barely remember anything about the game itself (other than the fact that Mizzou won, and I got an 18-pound turkey leg for about $4.50 at the stadium), but I do remember Beale Street afterward.  My friend and I weren't tremendously interested in drinking at the time, but we were interested in going to Dyer's Burgers.  I mean ... THEY'VE USED THE SAME GREASE FOR 100 YEARS.  When they moved to Beale Street, they transported the grease vat in an armored truck!  They drain the grease off the deep-fried burger ... with the bun.  Even my wife, for whom this would generally be considered a terrifying experience, was blown away by these burgers a few years later.

(And yes, there are deep fried twinkies on the menu.  Why do you ask?)

Anyway, my friend and I walk into Dyer's, order ourselves a tray of chili cheese fries, and ask our server about one of the items on the menu.  "What's a Filthy Diablo?"  "Well, it's named after a local band. It's basically a triple cheeseburger ... with two whole kielbasa sausages on it."  We winced ... and we ordered two damn Filthy Diablos with our chili cheese fries.  Though I didn't drink that night, my general Beale Street experience was extremely similar to others': I ended up leaning against a wall outside, trying to collect myself for a good, solid half an hour.

How unhealthy was the Filthy Diablo?  It's no longer even on the menu!  The Filthy Diablo: too unhealthy for even Amurrcans to eat.  Instead, to get your official harrowing Memphis experience, you now either have to drink it (in the form of a Diver) ... or you just have to have attended a 2010 Memphis Tigers football game.  There just isn't much good to say here.  The national average for Adj. Points (and real points) is around 27.0 ... and Memphis' offense came within five points of average just twice.  And they allowed fewer than average Adj. Points on defense just twice.  The closest they came to an adjusted win was in their only real win of the year, a tight, plus-four-turnover-aided win over Middle Tennessee.  They had one of the six worst offenses in the country and one of the 11 worst defenses.  They were poor in every way imaginable.

I love Memphis, for obvious, diablo-related reasons (and the fact that I've never not had a wonderful time in Memphis) -- and because of said love, I tend to indirectly root for UM to succeed -- but wow do the Tigers have a long way to go.  Not sure how they got here, but they're here.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 115 114 117
RUSHING 117 116 119 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 105 105 105 102
Standard Downs 114 113 111 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 110 113 106 109
Redzone 116 120 110
Q1 Rk 110 1st Down Rk 96
Q2 Rk 109 2nd Down Rk 115
Q3 Rk 118 3rd Down Rk 116
Q4 Rk 93

There are 27 categories of rankings in the above tables.  Memphis ranked better than 100th in two of them and better than 93rd in none.  Because of that alone, it's probably misleading to talk about any sort of exciting, accomplished player or unit -- nobody's accomplished on this offense.  Some guys started games, some guys got some carries, some guys attempted to make some blocks, some guys threw passes and some guys caught passes, but nobody really accomplished anything.  So when we look at UM's offense for 2011, it's all based on potential.  More specifically, does anybody have any?

A couple of people do, at least.  Okay, one does.  Receiver Marcus Rucker (6'4, 180; 704 receiving yards, 17.2 per catch, eight touchdowns) seems like a stellar, big-play talent.  He might (might) have a decent quarterback throwing him the ball too.  Andy Summerlin, a JUCO transfer who injured his shoulder at the beginning of spring practice last year and redshirted, looks like he will potentially replace last year's signal-calling duo of Ryan Williams (2,075 yards, 7.2 per pass, 57% completion rate, 13 TD, 10 INT as a freshman; announced that he was transferring this offseason) and Cannon Smith (FedEx heir who threw for 246 yards and is now a defensive back).

Beyond that?  Who knows?  Running back Jerrell Rhodes will likely replace Gregory Ray in the starting lineup; their lines -- 4.3 yards per carry for Ray, 4.0 for Rhodes; a bad minus-10.8 Adj. POE for Ray, an atrocious minus-14.1 Adj. POE for Rhodes -- are similar, but not in a good way.  Rhodes was just a true freshman last year, so he will likely improve, but it still doesn't appear that he is the heir to Deangelo Williams' throne.

Other tidbits:

  • Two starting linemen return after Joel McLeod also asked for a release this offseason.
  • The overall receiving corps might be decent despite (stop me if you've heard this before) the announced transfer of Jermaine McKenzie (409 yards, 16.4 per catch, three touchdowns).  Rucker is potentially great, and Tannar Rehrer (284 yards, 12.3 per catch) and Curtis Johnson (230 yards, 10.5 per catch) seem like alright options.
  • Apparently the reason Williams decided to transfer was that Memphis is moving to more of a spread attack this season, and that's not his skill set.  I honestly cannot say it will hurt Memphis to move toward this style of play; with as many new pieces as Porter and offensive coordinator Eric Price have to work with, now's the time to make a change.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 109 93 110
RUSHING 77 87 67 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 114 94 116 43
Standard Downs 110 110 104 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 108 72 115 68
Redzone 82 66 84
Q1 Rk 100 1st Down Rk 112
Q2 Rk 95 2nd Down Rk 95
Q3 Rk 113 3rd Down Rk 103
Q4 Rk 99

Compared to the offense, Memphis' defense is a source of great strength and excitement.  Led by a deep, big defensive line that stuffed the run relatively well (43rd in Adj. Line Yards), there is at least potential here, especially at tackle.

The interior of the line has to be considered the team's single biggest strength.  Frank Trotter (59.5 tackles, 16.5 TFL/sacks at end last year) moves inside; he's a little small (265 pounds) to be playing tackle, but thanks to his counterpart, Memphis' likely starting tackles still average about 308 pounds.  Why?  Because of man-mountain Dontari Poe (6'5, 350; 31.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks).  I've never seen Poe play, but he excites me.  Six or seven tackles for loss is decent for a tackle, and 31 tackles is tremendous for a man of Poe's size.

So Memphis has that going for them.  The ends that line up alongside Trotter and Poe should be decent too.  Dasmine Cathey (6.0 TFL/sacks) and Corey Jones (4.5 TFL/sacks) have shown glimpses of potential, though the "Need for Blitzes" figure shows that Memphis was rarely able to generate any sort of pass rush on standard downs.  That, of course, could have something to do with what appears to have been a sieve of a secondary too.

Other tidbits:

  • Here's another case where the numbers and the play-calling do not jive.  Memphis' rankings against the rush weren't particularly good, but they were much better than their passing numbers (especially in the PPP category).  Opponents still ran a good portion of the time against them.  And clearly, they moved the ball pretty well no matter what they were calling.
  • Jamon Hughes, Memphis' lone first-team All-CUSA pick, was a tackling machine in 2010 (108.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks).  He is gone, but there are at least a couple of decent options in DeRon Furr (45.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FR) and Terrence Thomas (28.0 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks).  Both were used as sources of attack last year, but they'll most likely need to show they can make the standard tackles this year as well as just the big plays.
  • One bright spot in an otherwise dank and dark secondary: Mohammed Seisay was pretty strong (31.0 tackles, 2 INT, 3 PBU) for a freshman.

Memphis's 2010 Season Set to Music

In honor of one of the first bands I ever saw play in Memphis (and possibly my favorite band in the world in 2001), how about a little "Snakes in My Bushes" by North Mississippi Allstars?

Snakes in my bushes, hanging down from the trees
Snakes in my bushes, hanging down from the trees
Last snake charmer put them snakes on me.

Snakes in my bushes, spiders climbing up the vine
Snakes in my bushes, spiders climbing up the vine
Snakes run me crazy, murder on my mind.

Sounds about like watching Memphis in 2010, eh?

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Twenty Worst Teams of the F/+ Era (2005-10)
1. 2006 Temple (F/+ rating: -35.1%, 1-11)
2. 2010 New Mexico State (-29.5%, 2-10)
3. 2009 Washington State (-29.3%, 1-11)
4. 2008 Idaho (-28.4%, 2-10)
5. 2009 New Mexico State (-28.0%, 4-9)
6. 2008 North Texas (-27.9%, 1-11)
7. 2008 Washington State (-27.6%, 2-11)
8. 2010 New Mexico (-27.4%, 1-11)
9. 2005 Temple (-27.0%, 0-11)
10. 2006 Buffalo (-27.0%, 2-10)
11. 2009 Rice (-26.4%, 2-10)
12. 2005 New Mexico State (-25.4%, 0-12)
13. 2010 Memphis (-25.4%, 1-11)
14. 2006 North Texas (-25.2%, 3-9)
15. 2005 Buffalo (-24.2%, 1-10)
16. 2009 Eastern Michigan (-24.2%, 1-11)
17. 2005 Florida Atlantic (-23.7%, 2-9)
18. 2006 Louisiana Tech (-23.7%, 3-10)
19. 2006 Utah State (-23.6%, 1-11)
20. 2010 Akron (-23.4%, 1-11)

This is not the sort of elite company you want to join.  The good news is, a spot on this list doesn't guarantee hopelessness.  The 2009 Idaho Vandals went to a bowl game after 2008's atrociousness.  Buffalo did in 2008, two years after their back-to-back years of horror; Temple did the same in 2009, three years after theirs.  Washington State at least improved in 2010.  You're not assured further misery after a season like Memphis had in 2010, especially since a coach's first year can often run off the rails before things get pulled together.  But still ... this is not the sort of elite company you want to join.

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 112
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 78
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -13 / -10
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 9 (4, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +8.2

If hope exists for the Memphis Tigers, there are two primary reasons why: First, their five-year recruiting has been much better than their overall performance  Their last two classes have each been ranked fourth in the Conference USA by Rivals.com.  It appears the talent is building, though obviously there are still miles of inexperience through which to wade before any sort of talent upgrade can be realized.

The other primary reason for hope is simply that their YPP Margin was second in the country, miles ahead of most others.  That suggests that, along with being rather poor at football, they were also incredibly unlucky.  There's no guarantee that their overall quality will improve much in 2011, not with what appears to be a second rebuilding effort in as many years in the works, but they should be at least a little bit luckier.  That alone isn't enough to get them back into the Big East discussion, but it's something.

To Memphis fans wondering what the hell happened to their football program, realize two things: 1) I, too, share your befuddlement, and 2) Really, you don't deserve a good football team.  You've already got Dyer's, barbecue, Beale Street, barbecue, Silky's, barbecue, the Beale Street Music Festival (the lineup this year: outstanding), barbecue, Graceland, barbecue, barbecue, and barbecue.  To ask for a good football team on top of that is just plain greedy.

I will now remove my tongue from my cheek and go back to hoping I get to catch Dontari Poe in action on TV sometime this year, and dreaming about the Filthy Diablo...

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** 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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