Summer Vacation: Standard Downs, Big Red Blobs and the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

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

It seemed like the timing was just right.  First under Jack Harbaugh, then under David Elson, Western Kentucky developed into a thriving FCS-level team at the turn of the century.  From 2000 to 2004, the Hilltoppers went 49-17, winning the FCS national title in 2002 with a pasting of McNeese State.  They quickly arranged for their move to the big-time, a jump to FBS and the Sun Belt conference.

In their provisional FBS year of 2007, it seemed the transition might be a smooth one.  They went 7-5, knocking off Middle Tennessee and cleaning the clocks of the FCS teams they were leaving behind.

Then they lost 33 of their next 35 games against FBS teams.  Elson was dumped after the 0-12 campaign of 2009, and his replacement, former Hilltopper star quarterback Willie Taggart, didn't immediately fare much better in terms of wins and losses.

The positive spin: the Hilltoppers have maybe lost 33 of 35 against the FBS ... but both wins came in 2010!

More positive spin: they've only been a game behind North Texas in each of the last two years ... and the Mean Green have been at the FBS level much longer than they have!

Let's see ... what else ... their mascot is an awesome blob ... their campus is rather underrated and scenic ... they've usually got a good basketball team.  Plenty going for them.  But will their football team turn anything resembling a corner sometime soon?  If so, it probably starts in 2011.  As with a lot of bad teams, WKU returns quite a bit from last year's squad, and the young guys seem more talented than the older ones.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 2-10 | Adj. Record: 2-10 | Final F/+ Rk**: 102
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep at Nebraska 10-49 L 21.0 - 42.7 L
11-Sep at Kentucky 28-63 L 24.7 - 40.0 L
18-Sep Indiana 21-38 L 23.1 - 39.0 L
25-Sep at South Florida 12-24 L 24.8 - 33.2 L
9-Oct at Florida International 21-28 L 20.9 - 39.1 L
16-Oct UL-Monroe 30-35 L 24.6 - 33.4 L
23-Oct at UL-Lafayette 54-21 W 37.5 - 32.5 W
30-Oct North Texas 6-33 L 14.8 - 36.0 L
6-Nov Florida Atlantic 16-17 L 14.1 - 14.5 L
13-Nov at Arkansas State 36-35 W 20.6 - 35.2 L
20-Nov Middle Tennessee 26-27 L 24.5 - 16.2 W
27-Nov at Troy 14-28 L 15.0 - 29.9 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 22.8 90 33.2 99
Adj. Points Per Game 22.1 100 32.6 105

In terms of play-for-play quality, 2010 was WKU's best season since they joined FBS.  Everybody's got to start somewhere, right?  In Taggart's first season, the Hilltoppers saw their 33-game FBS losing streak come to an end in Lafayette, then they pulled another upset in Jonesboro.  Their long FBS home losing streak still persists, but ... had to save something for 2011, right?

So what did WKU do right against ULL and Arkansas State that they couldn't do most of the rest of the season?  Well, they won the turnover battle, for starters.  They plus-7 in TO Margin these two games ... and minus-four the rest of the year.  They were outgained by 60 and blew a two-touchdown lead against ASU before winning via daring two-point conversion in overtime; against ULL, they did something at least a little more repeatable: they passed well.

That's really about it.  No secret pathway to success here -- they just won two games because eventually you get some breaks and win games.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 111 104 112
RUSHING 103 94 103 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 116 106 117 68
Standard Downs 97 75 102 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 106 106 108 105
Redzone 73 69 71
Q1 Rk 102 1st Down Rk 106
Q2 Rk 117 2nd Down Rk 104
Q3 Rk 66 3rd Down Rk 85
Q4 Rk 97

Bobby Rainey took an odd path to 1,650 rushing yards in 2010.  He put up an outstanding 155 yards (5.2 per carry) against Nebraska and 184 (8.4) against Kentucky.  He also gained just 3.4 yards per carry (94 total) against Florida International and 3.2 (67) against UL-Lafayette.  For the season, his Adj. POE numbers (minus-6.5) suggest he was a perfectly decent back whose biggest skill was perhaps his durability.

At 5-foot-7, 196 pounds, Rainey was surprisingly strong and resilient; he carried the ball at least 20 times in every game and at least 30 times in five games; he averaged 28 carries per contest.  Throw in 29 receptions, and that's almost 31 touches per game.  Ridiculous.  He was the mid-major Javon Ringer.

As with Ringer, there is certainly benefit to durability, but Rainey is not the elite kind of back who can carry a good offense.  He was not particularly explosive, but his work was the primary factor in WKU's standard downs success rates being rather average (which, for this team as a whole, was outstanding).  If you keep things close, then he can win it for you in the fourth quarter, but he simply had no help in 2010, and that will have to change.

Other tidbits:

  • How instrumental was fullback Rod Johnson in Rainey's rushing success?  We'll find out -- Johnson's gone.
  • Also gone: two contributing linemen and seldom-targeted receiver Quinterrance Cooper.  Other than that?  Everybody's back.  Quarterback Kawaun Jakes (1,680 passing yards, 51.2% completion rate, 5.8 yards per pass, 10 TD, 6 INT; 360 rushing yards, minus-5.8 Adj. POE) was an interesting if low-efficiency quarterback, and go-to receiver Marcus Vasquez (332 rec. yds., 11.1 per catch, 3 TD) should be healthy after breaking his collarbone against Florida Atlantic.  Plus, eight of ten linemen on the OL two-deep return as well.
  • Rainey needs help in the big-play department?  Keep your eye on Willie McNeal.  Young Man Willie averaged 13.8 yards per catch and scored two touchdowns as a freshman in 2010.  He had just 26 catches, but nine of them came in WKU's two wins.  Good (or at least better) things happened for WKU when McNeal was involved.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 110 109 102
RUSHING 118 116 118 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 72 69 74 95
Standard Downs 119 118 117 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 55 64 47 104
Redzone 120 120 120
Q1 Rk 83 1st Down Rk 114
Q2 Rk 105 2nd Down Rk 112
Q3 Rk 76 3rd Down Rk 102
Q4 Rk 119

First, credit where it's due: when they were able to leverage teams into passing downs, Western Kentucky's defense was downright decent.  They blitzed, they attacked, and they made things happen.  The problem: they almost never forced passing downs.  And now two of their best non-line attackers are gone.

Western Kentucky returns almost its entire 2010 defense for another go-round in 2011, but they're missing all three linebackers.  Thomas Majors (82.0 tackles, 14.5 TFL/sacks) was one of the better mid-major linebackers, and Orlando Misaalefua (45.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FR) wasn't so bad himself, at least in terms of making plays.  Willie Taggart and defensive coordinator Clint Bowen (who has since left to take the D.C. position at North Texas) knew how to finish opponents off when they had leveraged them into bad situations, but WKU's inability to make things happen from down to down devastated them.  Now it's Lance Guidry's turn to figure out how not to allow opponents eight yards on every first-and-ten.

If there's a silver lining to losing their linebackers, it is this: while Majors really was solid, it appears that the LBs overall were just as instrumental in WKU's sieve of a run defense as they were in creating a solid passing and passing downs defense.  The defensive line was nothing special, but you don't become the second-worst standard downs defense in the country just because of a bad line.  If the LB replacements are a little stiffer against the run, then they won't be relied upon as much to make plays later in downs.

Other tidbits:

  • Keeping with the "solid against the pass, atrocious against the run" theme, WKU ends Jared Clendenin (31.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FR) and Quanterus Smith (38.0 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) were rock solid playmakers when they were able to pin their ears back.  But they were knocked back on their heels a little too easily; having two sub-280 pound tackles probably didn't take any pressure off of them.  For better or worse, virtually every member of 2010's line returns in 2011.
  • If the run defense gets better (and it can't really get worse), the pass defense could be stout again.  Three interesting cornerbacks return -- Derrius Brooks, Tyree Robinson and Arius Wright combined for six interceptions and 11 passes broken up.  Robinson and Wright were both freshmen as well, so there's hope there.  Safeties Ryan Beard, Kareem Peterson and Kiante Young were forced to make far too many tackles last year (125.0 in all), but ... well, they did make the tackles ... which is better than the alternative.

 

Western Kentucky's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about a little Pet Shop Boys, "You've Got to Start Somewhere"?  I'm sure Pet Shop Boys are big in Bowling Green, KY, right?

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here's a list of every team (I think, unless I missed one) that has either entered or re-entered FBS since 1990, and their record versus fellow FBS teams in their first three seasons.  It is very difficult to succeed quickly at this level, but Western Kentucky still made the transition about as poorly as anybody ever has.

Win Percentage (Versus FBS Teams), First Three Years in FBS (1990-present)
1. Marshall, 0.886 (31-4)
2. Nevada, 0.692 (18-8)
3. South Florida, 0.591 (13-9)
4. Idaho, 0.500 (12-12)
5. Central Florida, 0.481 (13-14)
6. Middle Tennessee, 0.464 (13-15)
7. Florida Atlantic, 0.367 (11-19)
8. Connecticut, 0.310 (9-20)
9. Troy, 0.280 (7-18)
10. North Texas, 0.276 (8-21)
11. Boise State, 0.269 (7-19)
12. UAB, 0.208 (5-19)
13. Buffalo, 0.161 (5-26)
14. Florida International, 0.154 (4-22)
15. UL-Monroe, 0.143 (3-18)
16. Arkansas State, 0.068 (1-20-1)
17. Western Kentucky, 0.037 (1-26)

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 118
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 114
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +3 / +4.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (7, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +2.5

It's funny how bad teams always return so many starters, eh?  There seems to be a process where the experienced players on a bad offense/defense are overtaken by youngsters ... those youngsters might or might not be any better, but it's a fun cycle.  Western Kentucky returned 18 starters last year, and they return another 15 this time around.  With the way they've been recruiting the last couple of years, that might continue.  Their five year averages are still atrocious, obviously (they haven't been in FBS that long), but they've pulled in the Sun Belt's best recruiting class each of the last two years, and if the youngsters are good enough, they should be able to see plenty of action in the next couple of years.

When you start your FBS tenure this poorly, it might take a long time to move toward respectability.  But Taggart's first season in charge represented a clear step forward even if the win column barely changed.  Another step forward this year, and the Hilltoppers could at least move toward "Sun Belt league average" territory in 2011.

 

 

---

* 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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