Summer Vacation: Heart Attacks, Downfield Passes and the UAB Blazers

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

In yesterday's Southern Miss piece, we remarked on the remarkable consistency of Southern Miss' program, their unlikely ability to win between seven and nine games every single year.  In the process, we showed a tidbit about how the standard deviation in Southern Miss' year-to-year results has been one of the lowest in the country through the years.  Whose is the lowest standard deviation?  Your UAB Blazers, ladies and gentlemen!

In 15 years at the FBS/1A level, UAB has won five games seven times. They've won less than four or more than six just four times.  They have been the epitome of consistency ... and they've been to just one bowl game in their FBS existence, a forgettable 2004 trip to the Hawaii Bowl.  Head coach Neil Callaway took over for Watson Brown following the 2006 season, and he has re-established UAB's typical level of play; the Blazers have won four, five and four games the last three years.  Granted, last year's was probably the most entertaining and unpredictable four-win season of the bunch, but is there any reason to think a break from the trend is going to come about anytime soon?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 82
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Florida Atlantic 31-32 L 29.8 - 37.4 L
11-Sep at SMU 7-28 L 21.8 - 31.5 L
18-Sep Troy 34-33 W 39.9 - 33.7 W
25-Sep at Tennessee 29-32 L 26.1 - 28.1 L
6-Oct at Central Florida 7-42 L 19.0 - 35.0 L
16-Oct UTEP 21-6 W 35.7 - 9.9 W
23-Oct at Mississippi State 24-29 L 28.8 - 22.8 W
30-Oct at Southern Miss 50-49 W 38.1 - 28.8 W
6-Nov Marshall 17-31 L 18.5 - 32.8 L
13-Nov East Carolina 42-54 L 26.2 - 33.6 L
20-Nov Memphis 31-15 W 20.3 - 29.7 L
27-Nov at Rice 23-28 L 22.0 - 29.6 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.3 66 31.6 95
Adj. Points Per Game 27.2 65 29.4 74

The record may have been a bit boring, but nothing else about UAB's 2010 season was.  The Blazers were two plays from 2-10 -- they won via Hail Mary against Troy*, then went for two to beat Southern Miss in overtime.  However, they were also two plays from 6-6 -- they had a last-second, chip-shot field goal blocked against Florida Atlantic, and they lost in double-overtime at Tennessee.  If you're scoring at home, that's four crazy endings in the first eight games of the year.  Throw in tight losses to Mississippi State and Rice, and you've got a picture of a season that could have gone to extremes in either direction ... and a season that probably took about 15 years off of the lives of both Neil Callaway and Blazer fans.

Despite the drama, the Adj. Scores paint a picture of a 4-8 team ... that played like a 4-8 team.  The offense faded late in the season, the defense was rather consistently below average, the special teams were semi-brutal, and the Blazers earned a familiar record the hard way.

* Simply focusing on the Hail Mary does not do the Troy win justice.  They were down 23-0 early on; plus, their game-winning drive started at about the one-foot line.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 69 65 68
RUSHING 75 62 79 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 68 73 62 64
Standard Downs 60 63 66 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 79 70 82 15
Redzone 65 68 64
Q1 Rk 74 1st Down Rk 62
Q2 Rk 53 2nd Down Rk 85
Q3 Rk 73 3rd Down Rk 67
Q4 Rk 76

UAB had an awkward quarterback arrangement early on in 2010.  David Isabelle was a crazy run threat early on, posting 214 yards in the opening weekend.  But he couldn't complete a pass to save his life (46% completion rate for the year), so Callaway brought Bryan Ellis in on passing downs.  The high proportion of passing downs passes for Ellis brought about some pretty completion rates for him too (56%), but with receivers running aggressive routes (low catch rate, high yards per catch), he made some things happen regardless (2,940 yards, 25 TD, 12 INT).  (The constant quarterback changes inevitably resulted in a high rate of Variability.)

The situation seemed to get clearer when Isabelle injured his hand against UTEP and was lost for most of the season; with Ellis running the show by his lonesome, UAB almost knocked off Mississippi State and did knock off Southern Miss.  But the O faded quite a bit down the stretch.

With receivers running aggressive routes, running back Pat Shed became a major dump-off weapon out of the backfield.  His rushing numbers -- 847 yards, 5.4/carry, 3 TD, -3.9 Adj. POE -- were decent, but he was one of the better receiving RBs in the country (471 yards, 73% catch rate, four touchdowns, 7.4 yards/target).  He was targeted on 15% of all UAB passes, which is one of the higher numbers you'll see for a running back.

UAB threw more and more on standard downs as the season unfolded; Ellis spread the love nearly equally to seven different receivers.  They played at a fast pace as well.

Though Isabelle was a neat weapon to have, clearly the style of offense UAB wants to run gives preference to more of an Ellis type of quarterback.  Isabelle saw the writing on the wall and transferred to Alabama A&M this offseason.

Other tidbits:

  • Almost all of the OL two-deep returns for 2011, including all-conference performer Matt McCants, who sat out the spring with an injury.
  • The passing game loses four major targets: Frantrell Forrest (558 yards, 67% catch rate), Mike Jones (531 yards, 51% catch rate), Roddell Carter (133 yards, 30% catch rate) and tight end Jeffrey Anderson (407 yards, 57% catch rate). Luckily, as stated above, three other major targets still return -- Shed, Patrick Hearn (536 yards, 55% catch rate) and Jackie Williams (327 yards, 58% catch rate as freshman).  This is something of an old-school, low-percentage, high-aggressiveness passing game.
  • While Shed is clearly the No. 1 guy at RB, be on the lookout for Georgia transfer Dontavious Jackson.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 75 65 84
RUSHING 95 85 103 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 68 52 78 86
Standard Downs 64 49 72 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 102 100 100 57
Redzone 86 61 95
Q1 Rk 45 1st Down Rk 68
Q2 Rk 106 2nd Down Rk 108
Q3 Rk 70 3rd Down Rk 44
Q4 Rk 66

Sun Belt and Conference USA schools should expect large rushing totals in 2011.  Seemingly everybody returns a good running back, and seemingly everybody lost a majority of their defensive line this offseason.  Slight exaggeration, but still.  UAB's defense was stronger than their raw numbers suggest (they played a pretty impressive slate of offenses), and they procured a likely upgrade at the defensive coordinator position -- former Clemson and Memphis head coach Tommy West takes over; but they will have to overcome the loss of three starters and much of their depth on the line.

The losses on the line are significant when you look at UAB's strengths from last season.  End Bryant Turner (12.0 TFL/sacks among just 21.0 total tackles) was a lovely pass rush weapon (he was also non-existent against the run), and UAB generated strong Adj. Sack Rates without having to blitz much.  They do return second-team all-conference tackle Elliott Henigan (45.0 tackles, 15.5 TFL/sacks, 5 PBU), which is nice, but almost everybody else from the rotation is gone.  D.J. Reese, David DeCordova, Justin Wells and Elliott McGaskin combined for 13.0 TFL/sacks and must all be replaced.  With Henigan injured this spring, undersized tackles Deric Scott and Cody Payne each got long looks; they combined for 3.5 tackles last year.

Other tidbits:

  • Tommy West is an old-school defensive coach (methinks he won't be accidentally discovering Football Study Hall), which means discussion of his defense was inevitably going to include great quotes like "There will not be as much thinking going on" and "Allow the players to play hard and reckless."  HIT SOMEBODY.  FOOTBAW!!
  • If UAB can overcome losses on the line, the rest of the defense looks interesting.  Linebackers Marvin Burdette (95.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) and Daniel White (45.5, 6.5) seem solid, and they'll be joined by JUCO transfer D.A. Autry, who had a big spring.  We'll see if safety Jamie Bender and corners T.J. Ballou and Marquis Coleman, who combined for five interceptions and 24 PBUs, can post numbers as strong with a lesser pass rush.

UAB's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about a little "Drama" from RZA?  Living your life in peace sounds pretty good when all of your games cause heart attacks.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Granted, they get bonus points for just how close their games were, but UAB did not actually play the most games decided by eight points or less in 2010.

Most Games Decided by Eight Points or Less
9 games: North Carolina
8 games: LSU, Northwestern, South Florida
7 games: Auburn, Florida International, Louisville, Navy, North Texas, Rutgers, UAB

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 98
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 89
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -6 / -6
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (7, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +3.4

Their record has yet to reflect it, really, but Callaway has had UAB playing like a league-average Conference USA team over the last couple of years.  They have struggled with consistency -- a team that almost beats Mississippi State and Tennessee should be able to win at least one of three versus Florida Atlantic, Marshall and Rice -- but the pieces are coming together.

We'll see if they can avoid a complete crater in the run defense with the turnover on the defensive line; if they do, there are plenty of interesting cogs.  Shed is a lovely run-catch threat, the receiving corps still seems semi-deep, and the back seven of the defense isn't bad.  With all the downfield passing, it will be hard for UAB to win turnover battles (though Ellis' 25-12 TD-to-INT ratio despite the downfield throws was encouraging), but the YPP margin suggests they're due for a good amount of luck, and the overall experience certainly seems to be in place.  Being a single touchdown better in 2010 would have resulted in eight or nine wins; can they improve that much despite the losses in the trenches?  And will improvement matter with a schedule that includes visits from Mississippi State, Central Florida and Southern Miss and their most winnable games (Marshall, Memphis, Florida Atlantic) on the road?

 

 

---

* 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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