Summer Vacation: Capitalist Pigs And The Toledo Rockets

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

In last weekend's Central Michigan profile, I said the following:

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.

For the most part, MAC teams recruit at almost the same level. Looking at the five-year recruiting rank that you find at the bottom of all of these profiles, you see that seven MAC teams rank between 86th and 97th (Akron, Kent State, Western Michigan, Ohio, Temple and Central Michigan) and another four rank between 104th and 112th (Northern Illinois, Ball State, Eastern Michigan, Bowling Green). That leaves, basically, two outliers: Buffalo (120th ... not that far behind that second tier) and Toledo (68th).

Relatively speaking, Toledo has found massive recruiting success under third-year coach Tim Beckman. The former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator has put together two classes much stronger than anybody else in the MAC. In 2010, their 27 recruits averaged 2.56 stars according to Rivals.com; only Temple and Northern Illinois averaged higher than 2.25. In 2011, their 2.45 average was atop the list again, with only Northern Illinois and Bowling Green topping 2.25.

Though they haven't exactly gone out and signed a bunch of four- and five-star blue-chippers, the difference between Toledo's recent recruiting and, say, Buffalo's has been rather pronounced.

Four-star signees in the last four years: Toledo 3, Buffalo 0
Three-star signees in the last four years: Toledo 30, Buffalo 9
High two-star signees in the last four years: Toledo 35, Buffalo 21
Low two-star signees in the last four years: Buffalo 53, Toledo 30

We've said hundreds of times now that recruiting rankings are all about odds. If the coaching and development aren't there, then recruiting rankings don't really matter, especially once you sink beyond the four- or five-star level. But in a vacuum, where everybody develops at the same rate, then three-star recruits are quite a bit more likely to succeed than low two-star guys. If Beckman continues to bring in players of this caliber, then he will have figured out a way to derive a bit of a capitalist advantage in the most socialist of conferences.

So if recruiting does end up giving Toledo an advantage in the MAC, what will that advantage look like? Speed. Beckman has signed 16 three-star-or-better players: two RBs, four WRs, two OLs, two DEs, one LB, and five DBs. Eleven of the 16 are either WRs or DBs; in 2010, the passing game was a strength for both the offense and defense, and that strength could become magnified in future seasons.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 8-5 | Adj. Record: 5-8 | Final F/+ Rk**: 85
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
3-Sep Arizona 2-41 L 10.4 - 37.5 L
11-Sep at Ohio 20-13 W 18.6 - 4.1 W
18-Sep at Western Michigan 37-24 W 20.3 - 23.1 L
25-Sep at Purdue 31-20 W 31.2 - 35.0 L
2-Oct Wyoming 15-20 L 17.0 - 21.3 L
9-Oct at Boise State 14-57 L 43.2 - 37.7 W
16-Oct Kent State 34-21 W 34.0 - 35.9 L
23-Oct Ball State 31-24 W 25.5 - 29.3 L
30-Oct at Eastern Michigan 42-7 W 25.1 - 20.6 W
9-Nov at Northern Illinois 30-65 L 33.6 - 36.8 L
17-Nov Bowling Green 33-14 W 28.5 - 15.9 W
26-Nov Central Michigan 42-31 W 27.7 - 31.9 L
26-Dec vs Florida International 32-34 L 32.2 - 25.8 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 27.9 54 28.5 73
Adj. Points Per Game 26.7 68 27.3 59

Like savings bonds, it takes recruiting classes a while to mature. Toledo's freshmen and sophomores may be more talented than those of other MAC teams, but it's going to take a little while for that to pay off. In 2010, Toledo's level of performance was still solidly in the 80s in terms of F/+ rankings. In the MAC, of course, that was good enough for eight wins and their first bowl in five seasons. Both the offense and the defense oscillated between very good and quite poor, and strangely, the two units seemed to move in opposite directions at all times. The offense was good against Northern Illinois, and the defense was terrible. The defense was good against Ohio, and the offense was terrible. The Adj. Points Toledo both gained and allowed seemed to go up and down simultaneously, which ... well, it's odd. I don't have an explanation for it, it's just odd.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 74 94 62
RUSHING 83 88 75 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 60 87 48 73
Standard Downs 67 88 61 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 69 91 54 36
Redzone 46 72 42
Q1 Rk 57 1st Down Rk 94
Q2 Rk 57 2nd Down Rk 32
Q3 Rk 68 3rd Down Rk 49
Q4 Rk 77

Despite an emphasis on recruiting high-caliber receivers, Toledo's was not a wide-open, pass-happy attack in 2010. They ran quite a bit, tinkering with the script a lot in the process. Three running backs gained at least ten yards per game, and all four return in 2011. The unit is very much led by Adonis Thomas (1,098 yards, 6.3 per carry, +8.4 Adj. POE), who, with that name, was destined to either be a running back or a professional wrestler. Thomas was a wonderful weapon, both on the ground and through the air (372 receiving yards, 84% catch rate, 2 TD), and he helped to make what was an unexpected transition from quarterback to quarterback a lot more bearable.

Starting quarterback Austin Dantin (1,254 yards, 6.5 per pass, 66% completion rate, 7 TD, 8 INT) played relatively well in 2010 (sans the interceptions), but after a minor injury knocked him out against Wyoming, Dantin suffered a separated shoulder against Eastern Michigan and missed the rest of the season. Terrance Owens (1,244 yards, 7.6 per pass, 60% completion, 13 TD, 5 INT) took over and, really, did even better.

Toledo with Dantin as Primary Quarterback: 25.0
Toledo with Owens as Primary Quarterback: 29.4

The preseason depth chart shows Dantin and Owens as co-No. 1's, but it does appear that quarterback will be a strength no matter who wins the race. And either way, Eric Page is still available to catch passes. Page was the most heavily-targeted receiver in the country; 40% of Toledo's passes were directed at Page in 2010, an incredibly high number. Page (1,105 yards, 11.2 per catch, 71% catch rate, 8 TD) caught 99 of those passes; his style is a lot like that of former Bowling Green receiver Freddie Barnes: he is not going to burn you with big plays, but he is going to serve as one of the best possession receivers in the country. He was an extremely reliable option, and there's no reason to think he'll be any different in 2011.

Page's reliability opened up other receivers' opportunities and allowed offensive coordinator Matt Campbell to get aggressive in his play-calling. Kenny Stafford (337 yards, 18.7 per catch, 55% catch rate, 4 TD) was the primary deep threat in 2010 and has great size (6-foot-4, 204), but there is a deep group of receivers attempting to present themselves (and prevent Page from taking quite as many hits). Tim Cortazzo (133 yards, 12.1 per catch, 58% catch rate), Illinois transfer Cordale Scott, tight end Danny Noble (223 yards, 12.4 per catch, 56% catch rate, 5 TD), recent star recruits (Bernard Reedy, James Green) and incoming star recruits (Alonzo Russell, Justin Olack) could all play prevalent roles if given the opportunity.

Other tidbits:

  • The line is the only place where Toledo sees any attrition in 2011. They lose two starters but return two highly experienced tackles (Mike VanDerMuelen and John Morookian, who have combined for 72 career starts). They were solid (for the MAC) in run-blocking and great in pass protection. Even with the losses, this is certainly one of the better offensive lines in the MAC.
  • To add to the wealth of offensive options, both Dantin and Thomas are threats on the ground. Dantin gained 396 pre-sack rushing yards (+9.6 Adj. POE), while Owens threw in 187 (+0.5).

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 62 81 55
RUSHING 83 90 70 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 50 64 45 101
Standard Downs 75 98 65 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 62 69 53 44
Redzone 103 116 86
Q1 Rk 60 1st Down Rk 79
Q2 Rk 97 2nd Down Rk 88
Q3 Rk 57 3rd Down Rk 43
Q4 Rk 80

For all intents and purposes, the Toledo defense was a bigger defensive line away from being pretty stout. They limited big plays, they played well against the pass, they got to the quarterback with their defensive ends ... but they got bowled over by run blocking, and it limited their capabilities. Still, theirs was the 13th-best mid-major defense in the country and the best in the MAC by a small margin over Kent State. Not bad for having a glaring weakness. You could push Toledo around a bit, but if you didn't, they had the speed to keep up with you.

Last year's strengths should remain in 2011. The top six members of the secondary all return, including safeties Mark Singer (53.0 tackles, 2 INT, 3 PBU) and former four-star signee Jermaine Robinson (33.0 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU), and corners Desmond Marrow (56.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 6 PBU) and Byron Best (27.0 tackles, 3 PBU). If recruiting rankings are indeed to be believed, then cornerback Taikwon Paige (16.5 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU), safety Ross Madison and perhaps an incoming freshman like Chris Dukes or Kishon Wilcher should be ready to make a more steady impact as well. This secondary is about as deep as you can get in the MAC.

Meanwhile, the major weakness at least won't be any weaker. The Rockets must replace two backup defensive ends, but five interesting players return. Ends T.J. Fatinikun (37.5 tackles, 13.0 TFL/sacks, 4 FF, 2 PBU) and Malcolm Riley (31.5 tackles, 10.0 TFl/sacks) are excellent solid playmakers (especially Fatinikun), and Christian Smith (6.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks) had his moments as a true freshman. The tackle position is where improvement is needed, however. Johnie Roberts (23.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks) is solid, but Toledo has to be hoping that Elijah Jones (4.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks) can show consistency after a true freshman season that saw him make the most out of his 4.5 tackles ... but also saw him make just 4.5 tackles. Toledo may be recruiting laps around the rest of the conference, but they haven't signed a highly-touted tackle just yet.

Other tidbits:

  • Linebacker depth took a hit with the well-earned dismissal of Isaiah Ballard (66.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 2 FR, 5 PBU). Toledo must now replace both Ballard and all-conference weakside 'backer Archie Donald (102.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 PBU). This wouldn't be a huge problem if Toledo hadn't primarily played just four players in this unit: these two, Dan Molls (91.0 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 2 FR, 4 PBU) and Charles Rancifer (17.0 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU). Ballard and Rancifer filled the "STAR" position last year, an OLB/safety hybrid that contributes a good amount to the pass defense. Though I really like what both the line and secondary might be capable of this year, the linebackers are a large question mark.
  • A lot of people were confused by the hire of Tim Beckman as head coach, simply because he served as the coordinator for an Oklahoma State defense that got lit up in 2008. However, a) in 2008, OSU improved from 90th to 74th in Def. F/+, from 74th to 38th in Def. S&P+, b) any defense in the country was going to give up points and yards in the nuclear offensive environment of the 2008 Big 12, and c) I saw in person how Beckman's 'Pokes were able to confuse Chase Daniel to a degree nobody else could that season. Big 12 offenses were great, but Beckman's gameplans were creative (if not always successful), and he improved what had previously been a terrible unit. He got my endorsement (which was, I'm sure, worth a lot in the greater Toledo area), and the hire is looking good so far.

Toledo's 2010 Season Set to Music

When Gary Pinkel handed the baton to Tom Amstutz after the 2000 season, Amstutz was initially able to maintain a high level of play for the Rockets. From 1992 to 2005, Toledo suffered through only one losing season. But for the four years preceding 2010, Toledo's best record was 5-7. The 2010 season may have ended with a disappointing loss to Florida International, but...

"Back 4 You," by Jurassic 5
"Back Home," by Blue Scholars
"Back in Our Minds," by Funkadelic
"Back in the Chamber," by Del The Funky Homosapien
"Back in the Saddle," by Aerosmith
"Back in the USSR," by the Beatles
"Back in the USA," by Chuck Berry
"Back to the Earth," by Rusted Root
"Back to Your Heart," by Dinosaur Jr.
"Back Together Again," by Donny Hathaway

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Just for fun...

Top 20 MAC teams of all-time according to S&P+ and Est. S&P+
1. 1973 Miami (Ohio) (11-0) (Coach: Bill Mallory)
2. 1971 Toledo (12-0) (John Murphy)
3. 1974 Miami (Ohio) (10-0-1) (Dick Crum)
4. 1970 Toledo (12-0) (Frank Lauterbur)
5. 1969 Toledo (11-0) (Frank Lauterbur)
6. 2003 Miami (Ohio) (13-1) (Terry Hoeppner)
7. 1999 Marshall (13-0) (Bob Pruett)
8. 1978 Ball State (10-1) (Dwight Wallace)
9. 2000 Toledo (10-1) (Gary Pinkel)
10. 1979 Central Michigan (10-0-1) (Herb Deromedi)
11. 1975 Miami (Ohio) (11-1) (Dick Crum)
12. 1967 Toledo (9-1) (Frank Lauterbur)
13. 1968 Ohio (10-1) (Bill Hess)
14. 1966 Miami (Ohio) (9-1) (Bo Schembechler)
15. 1977 Central Michigan (10-1) (Roy Kramer)
16. 1978 Central Michigan (9-2) (Herb Deromedi)
17. 1995 Toledo (11-0-1) (Gary Pinkel)
18. 1977 Miami (Ohio) (10-1) (Dick Crum)
19. 1973 Kent (9-2) (Don James)
20. 1964 Bowling Green (9-1) (Doyt Perry)

Lots of late-1960s and 1970s here.

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 102
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 68
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +11 / +7.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 17 (9, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +0.3

I'm really talking myself into Toledo. They are fast and experienced, and while their step forward in 2010 was something not much more than a baby step (they certainly benefited from some fumbles luck along the way), it certainly seems as if Tim Beckman is methodically putting the pieces together.

Lord knows they'll have an opportunity to prove themselves. After a tune-up against New Hampshire, here are their next four games: at Ohio State (Big Ten Network), Boise State (ESPN), at Syracuse, at Temple. If they are standing at 3-2 after this, then they're well on their way to double-digit wins, but really, this stretch is about survival. They could be pretty decent and still start 1-4, and their season will be defined by how well they bounce back. They are potentially more talented than each of their last seven conference opponents, but numbers sometimes don't matter when negativity takes over. Survive, then thrive.

 

 

---

* 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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