Summer Vacation: Rambler, Gambler and the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders

We started in Dallas, circled through Texas, weaved down toward the Gulf of Mexico, headed north to Jonesboro, then stopped for some Dyer's Burgers on Beale Street.  Now we move further into the state of Tennessee.  Somebody should make a map of this trek.  Confused?  Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

You've come a long way, Sun Belt Conference.  In 2010, the phenomenon known for a while in major conferences came to the SBC: the incredibly disappointing bowl season.  Middle Tennessee won their final seven games of 2009 (including the New Orleans Bowl) and went 10-3 overall.  With quite a bit of talent returning -- especially flashy run-pass quarterback Dwight Dasher -- the Blue Raiders were a popular choice to both win the Sun Belt and, in potential showcase games against Minnesota and Georgia Tech, make something of a national statement.

Instead, Dasher was suspended for four games -- not for four-digit gambling debts, but for borrowing money from an MTSU alum to cover said debts -- and was extremely hit-or-miss upon his return, and Middle Tennessee needed to win their final three games of the season just to return to bowl eligibility.  They did so, making their third bowl in five seasons (not a small feat for a school that began FBS play in 1999), and that alone should be commended.  But both Dasher and the Blue Raider defense regressed (for reasons that, in hindsight, make a lot more sense), and there's no getting around the fact that MTSU did not live up to expectations last fall.

So now the question: is Middle Tennessee better off without Dasher this season?  His backup was solid, and the circus surrounding his suspension could not have been good for either continuity or morale.  The offense returns quite a bit of intriguing talent in 2011, but that brings us to the next question: what the hell happened to the defense last year?  And is improvement possible with significant losses in the trenches?

The Blue Raiders probably cannot meet the expectations set for them last offseason, but they could at least be able to tread water and threaten for their third straight bowl game this fall.  And again ... that's not a minor accomplishment in an improving Sun Belt Conference.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 3-10 | Final F/+ Rk**: 100
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Minnesota 17-24 L 31.7 - 33.4 L
11-Sep Austin Peay
56-33 W 29.4 - 36.4 L
18-Sep at Memphis 17-24 L 11.7 - 29.2 L
25-Sep at UL-Lafayette 34-14 W 25.2 - 25.8 L
5-Oct Troy 13-42 L 11.4 - 33.0 L
16-Oct at Georgia Tech 14-42 L 18.9 - 34.4 L
23-Oct UL-Monroe 38-10 W 29.1 - 12.4 W
2-Nov at Arkansas State 24-51 L 14.3 - 38.8 L
13-Nov North Texas 17-23 L 22.8 - 29.0 L
20-Nov at Western Kentucky 27-26 W 10.4 - 29.3 L
27-Nov Florida Atlantic 38-14 W 33.3 - 20.5 W
4-Dec at Florida International 28-27 W 29.8 - 29.3 W
6-Jan vs Miami (Ohio)
21-35 L 22.3 - 32.3 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.5 62 28.1 69
Adj. Points Per Game 22.3 98 29.5 76

Something immediately bears mentioning: Middle Tennessee 'gained' 25.0 Adj. Points or more in six games last season -- three of four times with Logan Kilgore at quarterback and just three of nine times with Dasher (1550 yards, 57.8%, 6.2/pass, 6 TD, 18 INT; 543 rushing yds, +5.9 Adj. POE).  While the defense clearly did not help matters by allowing fewer than 25.0 Adj. Points just twice, the offense was crippled by spates of Dasher-related turnovers.  He was minus-two or worse in terms of TDs-to-INTs in four games, all losses -- minus-four against Georgia Tech and Miami (Ohio), minus-three against Arkansas State, and minus-two against lowly North Texas.  Average score in those four games: Opponents 38, MTSU 19.  Average score in the other nine games: MTSU 30, Opponents 24.

Kilgore (540 yards, 62.5% completion, 6.8/pass, 3 TD, 5 INT) was not immune to turnovers himself, of course, but ... a 3-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio is still better than 6-to-18, no?

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 108 93 113
RUSHING 97 89 100 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 112 89 119 93
Standard Downs 108 76 113 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 111 110 112 41
Redzone 75 29 91
Q1 Rk 116 1st Down Rk 109
Q2 Rk 89 2nd Down Rk 111
Q3 Rk 105 3rd Down Rk 102
Q4 Rk 102

Due to both shifts in personnel and general schizophrenia, Middle Tennessee's offense was far from normal in 2010.  Their run-pass ratio was heavily run-oriented on standard downs, they ran less than normal on passing downs, and they were nearly all-run in the red zone (of course, it's hard to find fault in their red zone play-calling -- their Red Zone Rushing Success Rate+ was eighth in the country).  They played at a very high pace, for better or worse, and their variability was quite high.  Only once all season did they play back-to-back games at a reasonably high offensive level.

MTSU's efficiency left something to be desired overall in 2010, but despite Dasher's eventual presence, the Blue Raiders' primary problem was one of big plays: they didn't have many.  Running back Philip Tanner (928 yards, 5.8/carry, 13 TD, +16.1 Adj. POE; 194 rec. yds), who I think MTSU will miss much more than Dasher, was a solid, sturdy back, and he boosted MTSU's standard downs success rates to decent levels.  But he still wasn't a great big-play threat, and the receiving corps really presented no particular go-to option.

What changes for 2010?  Dasher, Tanner and possession receiver Garrett Andrews (377 yards, 11.1/catch, 2 TD) are gone, but there's hope.  Kilgore's back, and D.D. Kyles (414 rushing yards, 5.4/carry, 4 TD; +1.6 Adj. POE) is an intriguing option in the backfield.  They will benefit from the return of four offensive line starters (seven with starting experience).  The line wasn't great (their Adj. Sack Rate was likely assisted quite a bit by Dasher's elusiveness; when they blew a block, it was as likely to result in a pick as a sack), but it was decent for a Sun Belt line, and experience is experience.

Other tidbits:

  • MTSU needs more big plays in 2011, and two receivers might be able to step up in that regard.  Malcolm Beyah (388 yards, 13.4/catch, 2 TD) and Sancho McDonald (321 yards, 15.3/catch, 1 TD) are interesting targets, but they'll need to develop infinitely more reliability.
  • There really weren't many players in college football more enjoyable to watch than Dasher.  His 2009 New Orleans Bowl performance was the reason I always stick up for the minor bowls -- you never know when a fun performance like that is going to come out of nowhere.  His departure will certainly lead to a less exciting brand of MTSU football, but ... exciting isn't always good.  There are plenty of wins to be found amid boring stability.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 108 101 103
RUSHING 107 93 110 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 100 100 97 92
Standard Downs 85 62 101 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 114 117 109 61
Redzone 115 117 109
Q1 Rk 113 1st Down Rk 85
Q2 Rk 96 2nd Down Rk 107
Q3 Rk 92 3rd Down Rk 110
Q4 Rk 77

Dasher's suspension + Middle Tennessee was a bit disappointing = Dasher's fault, right?  Not really.  Honestly, Dasher was always a bit hit-or-miss.  In 2009, MTSU's Off. F/+ rating was just minus-11.7%, good for 111th in the country.  In 2010, they actually improved slightly to minus-11.1% (109th).  (Dasher regressed, but players like Tanner picked up the slack.)  The defense, however, went careening off a cliff.  They fell from 23rd to 108th in Def. S&P+, one of the biggest drops on record.  Why?

Perhaps because of this guy.

Manny Diaz did such an incredible job with the Blue Raiders' defense in 2009 that he got the call to join Dan Mullen's staff at Mississippi State.  He did such a solid job with the Bulldogs' defense in 2010 that he got the call to join Mack Brown's staff at Texas.  He is one of the country's best, fastest-rising, young defensive coaches (and not just because he enjoys himself a little Football Study Hall now and then), and his absence from the press box in Murfreesboro may have just made that much of a difference.

That, and the Blue Raiders did lose some key personnel.  Here's Paul Myerberg on MTSU's defense last summer:

It’s hard to ignore what Middle Tennessee has lost on the front seven: all-conference linemen Chris McCoy and Brandon Perry and linebackers Danny Carmichael and Cam Robinson. The Blue Raiders will rebuild on the fly, particularly at linebacker. Senior Antwan Davis returns on the strong side: he made 52 tackles last fall, fourth among returning defenders. However, outside of Davis, M.T.S.U. won’t have the luxury of experience at the position. Sophomore Justin Jones looks like the man at linebacker after his stellar rookie campaign, though he did not land a start a year ago. Middle Tennessee could also turn to junior Gorby Loreus, another of last season’s reserves, on the weak side.

It’s always difficult to replace linemen like McCoy and Perry, both of whom demanded constant attention from opposing offensive lines. I’m not sure if any of Middle Tennessee’s returning linemen will draw the same kind of attention, though senior Jamari Lattimore is certainly one of the top ends in the Sun Belt. The big question, of course, is what kind of production Lattimore puts forth while being the center of attention; there’s no question he benefited from Perry’s stature as one of the top interior performers in the conference a year ago.

At larger schools, you "move 'em up and move 'em over."  At Alabama, Nick Saban replaces NFL-caliber players with more NFL-caliber players.  At Middle Tennessee, however, the loss of a potentially NFL-caliber starter like Chris McCoy (drafted in the seventh round) can be significantly damaging.  Combine that with the loss of Diaz, and that might explain why Diaz' replacement, Randall McCray, lasted only one season in Murfreesboro before deciding that Safeties Coach and Special Teams Coordinator at Pittsburgh sounded like a pretty attractive gig.  Now head coach Rick Stockstill looks to another up-and-comer, Steve Ellis, to fix what clearly didn't get fixed last year.

Other tidbits:

  • There is another, potentially more epic rebuilding project to undergo on the defensive line this year.  All-Sun Belt end Jamari Lattimore (56.0 tackles, 15.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) is gone, as are four other D-line contributors.  The five players combined for 167.5 tackles and 45.5 TFL/sacks.
  • Of course, looking at how much opponents chose to run the ball last year, maybe turnover on the line isn't a bad thing.  Still ... this is a lot of turnover.
  • Also gone: secondary stalwarts Rod Issac (4.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FF, 6 PBU at cornerback) and Jeremy Kellem (87.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 6 PBU at safety).  Cornerback Arness Ikner and safety Derrick Crumpton seem to have decent potential, but still ... with this sort of turnover both on the line and in the secondary, do not expect much improvement in MTSU's dreadful (but not as dreadful as the rushing numbers) pass numbers.
  • Good news: three strong linebackers are back, led by Darin Davis (60.0 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT).  That's something, at least.

Middle Tennessee's 2010 Season Set to Music

In honor of Dasher, how about a little "Rambler, Gambler" by Bob Dylan (and hundreds of blues singers)?  I looked for a decent version on YouTube, but all I got were hundreds of lame covers by dudes with guitars in front of their computers.

(Seriously, don't do a YouTube search of this.  You'll feel sorry for yourself -- and them -- afterward.)

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Biggest Single-Season Def. S&P+ Rankings Drop, 2005-10
1. 2010 Middle Tennessee (85 spots -- 23rd to 108th)
2. 2007 Louisville (83 spots -- 20th to 103rd)
3. 2010 Virginia (73 spots -- 30th to 103rd)
4. 2009 New Mexico (72 spots -- 26th to 98th)
5. 2006 Iowa State (66 spots -- 44th to 110th)
6. 2010 East Carolina (63 spots -- 39th to 102nd)
7. 2010 Ohio (61 spots -- 45th to 106th)
8. 2006 North Carolina (61 spots -- 45th to 106th)
9. 2007 Nevada (61 spots -- 29th to 90th)
10. 2008 Texas A&M (60 spots -- 30th to 94th)

Fun fact: all six teams at the top of that list lost either their head coach or defensive coordinator (or both) before the season in which they fell off a cliff.

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 90
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 101
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -19 / -16
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 10 (7, 3)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.3

The good news: there is skill on offense, and there's almost no way in hell Kilgore will throw as many picks as Dasher over the course of the season, at least not without a lot more touchdowns as well.

The bad news: YPP margin suggests that, even with the horrific turnover margin, MTSU wasn't particularly unlucky last year.

The good news: MTSU has been near or above average for a Sun Belt team for four seasons now, and if they could survive (sort of -- they did still go bowling) the loss of Diaz in the coaching staff, they can survive the loss of players like Dwight Dasher and Jamari Lattimore on the field.

The bad news: three returning defensive starters! A completely rebuilt defensive line! And not much of a recruiting base from which to draw replacements.

Rick Stockstill is a good coach, and I think this is still a squad that can get to another bowl, but the ten-win season of 2009 might have been the highpoint for the Stockstill era.  Reaching those heights again might be difficult.

 

---

* 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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