Summer Vacation: The Central Michigan Chippewas And Margin For Error

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

Winning in the Mid-American Conference is like winning in the NFL: just about anybody can do it once (aside from Eastern Michigan and the Cleveland Browns, anyway), but doing it again is incredibly difficult. The foundations of talent are so similar for each team that a single breakthrough player, or a coach who gets hot, can make the difference between 4-8 and a conference title.

In the NFL, however, a) players are allowed to stay more than four years in one place (that doesn't mean they will, of course), and b) coaches don't leave for a better job at the first hint of success. (There are, uh, other differences between the MAC and NFL too, but we'll stop there.) While parity exists in the NFL, it goes a step further in the MAC. Players use up their eligibility, and coaches get called up to the Big Ten (or the Big 12, or the Big East, or...). Your reward for finding a great coach is having to find another one in three years. One bad hire, and you can fall very, very far. The margin for error is minimal.

Right about now, nobody knows this better than Central Michigan. The Chippewas hit a total home run in hiring Brian Kelly after the 2003 season. They had gone just 12-34 in four years under Mike DeBord, but Kelly came along and got things rolling quickly. CMU rose from fifth in the MAC West in his first year, to fourth in his second, to first in his third; they went 9-4 in 2006, whipping Ohio in the MAC title game ... and Kelly was gone before the Motor City Bowl, snatched away by Cincinnati.

So the Chippewas hired former CMU offensive coordinator Butch Jones as his replacement, and led by breakthrough quarterback Dan Lefevour, the wins kept rolling in. CMU won another MAC title in 2007, won eight games in 2008 (and finished second in the West), then won another MAC title in 2009. Four years of winning is damn near impossible in today's MAC, but with Lefevour and the Kelly/Jones combination, Central Michigan pulled it off. But Lefevour was out of eligibility ... and Cincinnati hired Jones away after Kelly moved on to Notre Dame (he was replaced by former Michigan State running backs coach Dan Enos, on whom the jury is clearly still out). Their reward for success was more coaching searches and a new quarterback, and in 2010 CMU swiftly and dramatically fell back to the pack.

So now, just one year removed from an extended (for this conference) run of dominance, CMU is trying to figure out a way to separate themselves once again. Can they?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 89
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Hampton 33-0 W 21.7 - 21.8 L
9-Sep at Temple 10-13 L 26.6 - 23.9 W
18-Sep at Eastern Michigan 52-14 W 29.4 - 27.2 W
25-Sep at Northwestern 25-30 L 31.6 - 30.5 W
2-Oct Ball State 17-31 L 18.1 - 36.2 L
9-Oct at Virginia Tech 21-45 L 19.5 - 34.4 L
16-Oct Miami-OH 20-27 L 29.4 - 36.6 L
23-Oct at Northern Illinois 7-33 L 25.9 - 27.2 L
30-Oct Bowling Green 14-17 L 11.2 - 28.6 L
5-Nov Western Michigan 26-22 W 27.7 - 27.3 W
13-Nov at Navy 37-38 L 29.1 - 39.4 L
26-Nov at Toledo 31-42 L 28.3 - 32.4 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 24.4 82 26.0 60
Adj. Points Per Game 24.9 81 30.5 84

Things started in promising enough fashion. With a new quarterback, new staff, and new weapons, the CMU offense clicked as well as ever over the first month of the season. The Chippewas lost three turnovers in a defensive struggle against Temple, but they still looked solid overall. As opponents adjusted, however, CMU got severely bogged down before a late rebound.

CMU Offense, First Four Games: 27.3 Adj. PPG (QB Ryan Radcliff's Avg. Passer Rating: 147.0)
CMU Offense, Next Five Games: 20.8 Adj. PPG (Radcliff: 106.4)
CMU Offense, Last Three Games: 28.4 Adj. PPG (Radcliff: 139.6)

Quarterback Ryan Radcliff struggled mightily in the middle third of the season (an injury to running back Paris Cotton didn't help), but with the late emergence of receiver Cody Wilson (35 catches, 420 yards in the last three games), things picked up. The defense, meanwhile, was much more consistent. Not better, just more consistent.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 95 78 104
RUSHING 99 72 109 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 93 80 98 115
Standard Downs 100 68 105 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 83 90 80 91
Redzone 96 110 84
Q1 Rk 107 1st Down Rk 87
Q2 Rk 102 2nd Down Rk 109
Q3 Rk 101 3rd Down Rk 97
Q4 Rk 20

Through the ups and downs in Central Michigan's 2010 performance, one thing was constant: the Chippewas wanted to pass. A lot. Radcliff (3,358 yards, 7.2 per pass, 61% completion, 17 TD, 17 INT) launched 39 passes per game, throwing more than average on standard downs and quite a bit more than average on passing downs. That he completed 61% of his passes despite throwing a disproportional amount on passing downs is an encouraging sign for the future, though the slump, and the interceptions (3.6% INT rate), were obviously a bit disconcerting. The INTs should improve over time -- Dan Lefevour's INT rate was a solid 2.3% as a sophomore and a fantastic 1.5% as a junior/senior -- but the slump appears to have been due as much to lack of quality targets as anything else.

Does Cody Wilson's (1,137 yards, 13.7 per catch, 77% catch rate, 10.4 per target, 5 TD) late emergence solve that problem? Perhaps -- anything over 10 yards per target is absolutely phenomenal -- but he will likely need help. The only two other targets who averaged better than a mediocre 6.8 yards per target (Kito Poblah, Matt Torres) are gone. Wilson will be complemented by Jerry Harris (332 yards, 11.1 per catch, 53% catch rate), Cedric Fraser (210 yards, 13.1 per catch, 50% catch rate) and tight end David Blackburn (285 yards, 13.0 per catch, 48% catch rate, 3 TD), none of whom lit the world aflame last year. Quite a few redshirt freshmen could see opportunities this fall as well.

Signs point to Cody Wilson becoming one of the more highly frequented targets in the country in 2011. How good can a passing attack be when it is focused around one guy? Pretty good, actually. And pretty bad. Of the 20 teams most directly focused on one receiver (see the Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit below), six (Auburn, Oklahoma State, Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina) finished among the Top 12 in Passing S&P+, while four finished among the Bottom 30 (Bowling Green, Buffalo, Florida Atlantic, Toledo). There is little correlation between the go-to-ness of your go-to guy and the quality of your offense. So fear not, Ryan Radcliff; throw to Cody Wilson, then do it again, then do it again.

Other tidbits:

  • The offensive line got banged around by both injuries and opponents in 2010. Offensive coordinator and line coach Mike Cummings used five different starting lineups up front because of injuries, and the line's struggles (they were sixth-worst in the country in terms of run-blocking) certainly didn't do Radcliff and the offense any favors. It's one thing to throw more frequently than normal on passing downs; it's another to face as many passing downs as CMU faced in 2010. Better run blocking leads to fewer passing downs leads to fewer interceptions leads to ... et cetera. The line must replace two quality (and full-time) starters in center Colin Miller and guard Jeff Maddux, but five players with starting experience return (69 career starts in all), led by experienced guard Rocky Weaver.
  • If a better line leads to better (and more) rushing, then Paris Cotton (651 yards, 4.6 per carry, +2.0 Adj. POE, 6 TD) looks to benefit ... as long as he can hold onto the ball. Fumble issues (including a key drop in the fourth quarter of a tight loss to Bowling Green) led to his receiving only 13 carries over the last three games. Wonderfully-named backup Zurlon Tipton (203 yards, 3.6 per carry, +2.7 Adj. POE, 5 TD) seems like a solid option as well. As you can see, neither back put up great per-carry averages, but it does appear that a lot of that was due to the line. Expect improved numbers out of both of these backs.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 96 107 88
RUSHING 92 92 86 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 96 106 85 94
Standard Downs 104 111 83 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 67 43 74 82
Redzone 101 108 90
Q1 Rk 90 1st Down Rk 103
Q2 Rk 76 2nd Down Rk 72
Q3 Rk 105 3rd Down Rk 75
Q4 Rk 59

It's amazing what happens to your pass defense when you lose both starting ends and three starting defensive backs. CMU ranked 49th in Passing S&P+ in 2009 (65th in Passing Success Rate+, 43rd in Passing PPP+), but new defensive coordinator Joe Tumpkin found the going a bit tough; there was a bit too much youth and questionable talent, and the Chippewas' pass defense plummeted. (To be sure, their Run D fell too, from 73rd to 92nd, but the tumble was much more precipitous when the forward pass was involved.)

Due to some combination of philosophy and lack of trust in personnel, CMU's pass defense was extremely conservative, offering huge cushions to opposing receivers and basically giving away five or six yards on every play. If they were actually able to leverage opponents into passing downs, they did well -- they got a little more aggressive and a lot more efficient -- but their standard downs defense assured that opponents would not actually see too many passing downs.

CMU will have a lot more experience in 2011, particularly on the line and in the secondary. Whether the experienced players are actually good, we don't know for sure. Perhaps the four best play-makers on the defense -- tackle Sean Murnane, linebackers Matt Berning and Nick Bellore, and cornerback Vince Agnew -- are all gone. They are basically the only ones gone, but that is a rather hefty loss.

The top four ends -- Joe Kinville (4.0 TFL/sacks), Darryll Stinson (3.5), Caesar Rodriguez (3.0) and Kashawn Fraser (2.0) -- return (well, Fraser might return); they will be counted on to generate much more of the play-making than they proved capable of last year, and we'll see if they come through. If they do, and the pass rush doesn't tail off too much (last year it was better than the pass defense as a whole, but a lot of the pressure came from the tackle and linebacker positions), then an experienced -- and potentially more aggressive -- secondary could benefit.

Other tidbits:

  • Four of CMU's top six defensive backs return, though replacing Agnew at cornerback will be key. Avery Cunningham (39.5 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU) got a ton of playing time as a freshman last year, but he wasn't much of a playmaker; he just kind of existed. You typically make your largest level of improvement between year one and year two, though, so Cunningham could become a lockdown guy in the future. We'll see if "the future" begins in 2011, or if he needs another year. Safety Jahleel Addae (61.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) has almost as many tackles for loss as any of the defensive ends; it benefits CMU when he is able to play aggressively.
  • Last year's question marks, the line and secondary, should be improved overall, but last year's strength, linebackers, could become a weakness. Gone are stalwarts Berning and Bellore, and while strongside 'backer Armond Staten (55.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 5 FF) has all-conference potential, he is almost alone when it comes to experience. Mike Petrucci (34.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FR) will take over in the middle, but the rest of the rotation will be rather green.

Central Michigan's 2010 Season Set to Music

"Back to the Middle," India.Arie. And yes, I owned, and loved, that first India.Arie album. I am not ashamed.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

I'm pretty sure I've already done a nerd tidbit similar to this, but...

Teams Who Went To Their No. 1 Target The Most
Rk Team Player Target
Rate
Passing
S&P+ Rk
1 Toledo Eric Page 40.0% 60
2 Bowling Green Kamar Jorden 37.3% 114
3 Navy Greg Jones 37.0% 26
4 South Carolina Alshon Jeffery 36.1% 9
5 Florida Atlantic Lestar Jean 33.0% 71
6 Western Michigan Juan Nunez 32.5% 79
7 Washington Jermaine Kearse 31.7% 18
8 Illinois A.J. Jenkins 31.6% 73
9 Georgia Tech Stephen Hill 31.2% 104
10 Alabama Julio Jones 30.8% 4
11 Cincinnati Armon Binns 30.7% 27
12 Oregon Jeffrey Maehl 30.5% 21
13 Auburn Darvin Adams 29.8% 1
14 Oklahoma Ryan Broyles 29.6% 7
15 Buffalo Marcus Rivers 29.4% 110
16 Michigan Roy Roundtree 29.3% 5
17 Maryland Torrey Smith 29.2% 39
18 Temple Michael Campbell 29.1% 90
19 Oklahoma State Justin Blackmon 28.9% 8
20 San Diego State DeMarco Sampson 28.8% 24

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 71
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 97
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -11 / -14.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (7, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +1.5

You can rise and fall quickly in the socialist utopia known as the Mid-American Conference, and honestly, Central Michigan has as much of a chance to rise as anybody else in a wide open MAC West. Northern Illinois should regress, and while both Western Michigan and Toledo should be solid, they are not likely to run away with the division. Central should find themselves right in the mix for the division crown, especially with home games against NIU and Toledo.

There is little standard deviation in recruiting rankings among MAC teams -- 11 of 13 teams rank between 86th and 112th in five-year recruiting average (only No. 68 Toledo and No. 120 Buffalo stray from that pack) -- and CMU did not derive much of an advantage in this regard while they were winning. They won because of individual breakthrough players, and they have to hope that guys like Radcliff and Wilson indeed break through in 2011. They'll have solid lines and decent backfields, and the experience level as a whole should be better, but whether they win their fourth MAC title in six years or finish 4-8 again will depend as much on a few key individuals as anything else.

 

 

---

* 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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