Summer Vacation: Bowl Gluts, Size Matters, and the UTEP Miners

We round out the Texas mid-majors with team No. 5 of 120 on this offseason's Summer Vacation project.  Today, we look at the UTEP Miners, Mike Price, Glen Mason Territory™, and the size = good principle on defense. Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

I love bowl games.  I'm always the first one to roll my eyes and shout "Then don't watch them!" when the inevitable "This is ridiculous, there are too many pointless bowl games" moans begin in a given year.  I watch all or part of most of them, and as I've mentioned before, I enjoy the dissonance between college football simultaneously being the most oligarchical (There is a well-defined ruling class, and don't you dare think about trying to join it) and socialist (You get a bowl game! You get a bowl game! You get a bowl game!) sport in the world.

That said ...

...the fact that a team as poor as UTEP managed to play in a bowl game last year suggests there might be something wrong with the system at hand.  The Adj. Scores below suggest that, playing an average team each week, UTEP quite possibly would have gone about 2-11, but in sneaking out wins against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (5-6 in the SWAC), New Mexico State (2010 F/+ rank: 120th, dead last), New Mexico (119th), Memphis (118th), Rice (108th), and SMU (59th), the Miners figured out how to make a bowl game with a single win that was even remotely respectable.  I don't blame them for this, of course -- you play the teams on your schedule, and if you win enough of them, you go bowling -- but it took a perfect confluence of scheduling events to get this team bowl-eligible (think about how hard it would be to try to schedule the three worst teams in FBS in a given year, only one of which is actually in your conference), and it almost certainly won't happen again in 2011.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Click to enlarge.

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 2-11 | Final F/+ Rk**: 109
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep UA-Pine Bluff
31-10 W 26.5 - 37.9 L
10-Sep at Houston 24-54 L 21.5 - 37.8 L
18-Sep New Mexico State 42-10 W 29.2 - 35.7 L
25-Sep Memphis 16-13 W 13.6 - 30.1 L
2-Oct at New Mexico 38-20 W 24.0 - 25.8 L
9-Oct Rice 44-24 W 30.9 - 26.8 W
16-Oct at UAB 6-21 L 11.8 - 35.9 L
23-Oct Tulane 24-34 L 23.9 - 32.9 L
30-Oct at Marshall 12-16 L 16.3 - 32.7 L
6-Nov SMU 28-14 W 33.4 - 26.7 W
13-Nov at Arkansas 21-58 L 28.1 - 38.8 L
20-Nov at Tulsa 28-31 L 22.9 - 30.7 L
18-Dec vs BYU 24-52 L 20.9 - 36.3 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.0 71 27.5 66
Adj. Points Per Game 23.3 90 32.9 107

First, something positive: when Mike Price came to town in 2004, UTEP had managed just a single winning season since Bob Stull left for Missouri in 1989.  They had won three games or fewer in 11 of those 15 season.  UTEP football was, for all intents and purposes, a wasteland.  So the job Price has done in establishing even relative respectability -- three bowls in seven seasons -- deserves praise.  This is not an easy job.  He took Gary Nord's leftovers and took the Miners to back-to-back bowls in 2004-05, getting themselves ranked in the Top 25 at points in both seasons.  He has won at least four games every year.  He has done, at the very least, a decent job in El Paso.

But one has to wonder how much more time he has there.  In losing six of seven to end 2010 (including a stomping in the New Mexico Bowl), he probably negated whatever good will he had established in getting to six wins in the first place, and ... while "three bowls in seven years" doesn't sound too bad, "one bowl in five years" sounds quite a bit worse.  UTEP is trending downward quickly, even if wins over some incredibly bad teams disguised that a bit.  I used to joke that teams had entered "Glen Mason Territory," when they were winning just enough, compared to their historical baseline, that firing a coach was tough to do ... even though they don't have a lot of hope for ever winning more again.  Well ... welcome to Glen Mason Territory, UTEP.  Dumping Price would feel good, but the alternative could still be much worse.

In 2010, UTEP's offense was all over the place, while their defense was consistently bad.  In 2011, the defense returns nine starters (is that a good thing?) while the offense returns just two (that's probably not a good thing).

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 102 97 103
RUSHING 92 83 99 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 98 95 101 69
Standard Downs 101 107 97 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 97 67 103 46
Redzone 107 100 111
Q1 Rk 97 1st Down Rk 97
Q2 Rk 112 2nd Down Rk 108
Q3 Rk 43 3rd Down Rk 69
Q4 Rk 110

Quarterback Trevor Vittatoe threw for 2,756 yards and 22 touchdowns last year.  He's gone.

Receiver Kris Adams was a spectacular big-play threat, catching 47 passes for 1,070 yards and 14 touchdowns.  He's gone.

The offensive line was a relative strength in 2010.  All five starters are gone.

Good luck, Joe Banyard.  A 6'0, 205-pounder from Sweetwater, Banyard rushed for a solid 623 yards (5.7 per carry) in 2010, doing most of his damage against the dregs of the schedule until breaking out for 155 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season finale against Tulsa.  He averaged only eight carries per game in 2001, so who knows whether he is capable of playing feature-back or not, but along with receiver Donavon Kemp (18 catches, 181 yards, 2 touchdowns), he is just about the only known quantity taking the field in 2011.

Other tidbits:

  • Receiver Marlon McClure could be an interesting weapon -- he caught 30 passes for 343 yards and showed big-time explosiveness on returns (two kick return touchdowns and a 31.0/return average; 13.1 yards per punt return) but is suspended for the spring for academic reasons.  If he is around in the fall, he will be a featured weapon of the new quarterback.
  • Hey, speaking of the new quarterback ... looks like it's a four-way race between JUCO transfer Nick Lamaison and returnees Carson Meger, Tate Smith and Javia Hall.  UTEP's in the middle of spring practice right now, and it doesn't appear that a favorite has emerged just yet.
  • Oklahoma State proved last year that you can succeed with a brand spanking new offensive line ... but it still isn't encouraged.  UTEP likes Eloy Atkinson quite a bit, but that still leaves four questionable spots.  There is athleticism at receiver, but it probably goes without saying that the "new QB + completely new offensive line" combination rarely works out well.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 119 120 114
RUSHING 120 120 117 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 112 119 105 119
Standard Downs 117 120 115 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 84 107 71 113
Redzone 110 118 99
Q1 Rk 120 1st Down Rk 116
Q2 Rk 112 2nd Down Rk 115
Q3 Rk 110 3rd Down Rk 114
Q4 Rk 90

So you're Andre Patterson, second-year defensive coordinator at UTEP.  For better or worse, most of last year's terrible defense (worst in the country against the run, only marginally better against the pass, as Jake Heaps and Luke Ashworth can attest) returns.  If you're going to improve this year's D, it's going to be through development instead of talent infusion.  So what do you do?  You make everybody bigger.

UTEP changed its offseason football routine this year to include more work with weights and less aerobic conditioning.

The idea was to get the team bigger and it worked.

A good example is redshirt freshman Michael Pickett, who was listed as 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, when he signed last February as a safety, but is now a 225-pound linebacker working with the first team.

"The whole team is bigger than last year," coach Mike Price said. "We lifted a lot during the winter; we didn't do the normal winter conditioning. We lifted instead of running."

 

SBN's own Tomahawk Nation has done tireless work in proving that while big defenses aren't necessarily good ones, good defenses almost have to be big.  When your defense gets so completely pushed around against the run, getting bigger doesn't seem like too bad an idea.  We'll see if it works.

Other tidbits:

  • It appears that UTEP runs your basic four-man front, but the tackles-for-loss figures look more like that of a 3-4 defense.  Nobody managed more than 4.5 tackles for loss, but ten players had at least 3.0.  You don't see that very often.
  • Cornerback Travaun Nixon made more tackles (59.5) than you'd like to see from your cornerback, but considering how UTEP's front seven did against the run, a lot of those tackles might not have been because his man made a catch.  His peripheral pass defense stats are spectacular -- he picked off four passes, broke up eight more, and "defended" 12 more.  Plus, he mixed in four tackles for loss.
  • The linebacking corps isn't terrible.  Jamie Irving, Isaiah Carter and Royzell Smith combined for 152.5 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and a handful of quarterback hurries and passes broken up.
  • Wow, was that line bad.  Bernard Obi (17.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF) has potential, but the "size = better" equation better work wonders for the interior of the line.  Tackles Marcus Bagley and Germard Reed better improve, and fast.

UTEP's 2010 Season Set to Music

This doesn't necessarily work for 2010 ... but it might for 2011: by end of next season, Marty Robbins' "El Paso" could become the Mike Price theme song...

Out through the back door of Rose's I ran, out where the horses were tied...
I picked a good one; he looked like he could run, up on his back and away I did ride.
Just as fast as I could from the West Texas town of El Paso, out thru the badlands of New Mexico.
Back in El Paso my life would be worthless; everything's gone in life, nothing is left.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Worst Teams to Win At Least Six Games According to F/+, 2005-10
1. 2006 Arkansas State (F/+: -20.0%, Record: 6-6)
2. 2005 Arkansas State (-19.6%, 6-6)
3. 2009 UL-Lafayette (-18.6%, 6-6)
4. 2010 UTEP (-18.1%, 6-7)
5. 2007 Memphis (-16.8%, 7-6)
6. 2005 UL-Lafayette (-16.8%, 6-5)
7. 2006 UL-Lafayette (-16.7%, 6-6)
8. 2006 Kent State (-16.5%, 6-6)
9. 2009 Hawaii (-16.0%, 6-7)
10. 2009 UL-Monroe (-15.8%, 6-6)

So that would make UTEP the second-worst team of the last six years to actually play in a bowl (between the pre-Red Wolves, New Orleans Bowl-losing 2005 Arkansas State Indians.  Just remember: I-N-D-I-A-N-S (and Red-W-O-L-V-E-S) spells vic...to...ry...

And just out of curiosity...

Worst BCS Conference teams To Win At Least Six Games, 2005-10
1. 2009 Kansas State (-8.3%, 6-6)
2. 2007 Northwestern (-7.6%, 6-6)
3. 2009 Iowa State (-6.9%, 7-6)
4. 2010 Northwestern (-5.4%, 7-6)
5. 2007 Indiana (-4.1%, 7-6)
6. 2008 Minnesota (-3.7%, 7-6)
7. 2008 Kentucky (-3.5%, 7-6)
8. 2007 Iowa (-2.6%, 6-6)
9. 2006 Purdue (-2.5%, 8-6)
10. 2009 Rutgers (-2.1%, 9-4)

Lots of Big Ten and Big 12 North on that list...

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 93
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 95
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -5 / -4
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (2, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -1.1

Looking at the F/+ Progression above, UTEP has not played at an "average Conference USA team" level since 2007.  Last year, Mike Price fielded his worst team in El Paso, and now a good number of offensive playmakers were gone.  With the same schedule as they had last year, the Miners could make another run at bowl eligibility, but ... the 2011 schedule is not the 2010 schedule.  Six opponents saw bowls in 2010, and UTEP gets most of the worst teams on the schedule -- New Mexico State, Tulane, Rice -- on the road.  If bigger really does equal better for the defense, and the offense can at least approximate last year's levels, then there are certainly some potential wins (Stony Brook, Colorado State, and the three road games above), but ... yikes.  Mike Price has accomplished a lot in his career (not all of it good), but I really struggle to find too many positives in next year's team.  Travaun Nixon and Joe Banyard are potential stars, and Marlon McClure is explosive, but ... this was an iffy-at-best team with those players and Vittatoe, Kris Adams, etc.  Without them?  Yikes.

 

---

* 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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