Beauty, Upside And The Colorado State Rams

DENVER - SEPTEMBER 04: Quarterback Pete Thomas #4 of the Colorado State Rams looks to the bench for signals against the Colorado Buffaloes during the the Rocky Mountain Showdown at INVESCO Field at Mile High on September 4 2010 in Denver Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

They know pretty in Colorado. Concert venues, stretches of highway, pancakes and burritos ... they have it covered. Accordingly, Colorado State's gameday experience is one of the prettiest in the country. Located on the edge of Fort Collins, Hughes Stadium separates city from mountains and, like a lot of Mountain West (or, in BYU's and Utah's cases, former Mountain West) programs, combines scenery with football in a way unseen through most of the country.

However, and you knew this segue was coming, there was almost nothing pretty about Colorado State's 2010 football season. After a 7-6 campaign and bowl win in his first season, fourth-year head coach Steve Fairchild has seen his tenure start to move in the wrong direction; he has won just six games in two seasons, but there's at least a little ray of hope in the fact that the Rams went 3-9 with an extremely young, occasionally explosive team. If you're going to bottom out with a bad team, then unlike others, you might as well do so with an inexperienced squad and a true freshman quarterback. So ... that's ... something ... right?

As a program, Colorado State is in an interesting position. They have won recently, and occasionally at a high level -- three Top 20 finishes (1994, 1997, 2000), four ten-win seasons -- but only under Sonny Lubick, who coached in Fort Collins from 1993 to 2007. No other CSU coach has managed a career record over .500 in the last 50 years (only three have ever done it), and in a Mountain West in transition, it is difficult to figure out what Colorado State's ceiling is right now. Fairchild's recent recruiting has included some higher-upside players, and as their freshman quarterback becomes a sophomore, junior, etc., we will probably see CSU developing into something much more competitive. But whether their ceiling is more Wyoming or more BYU, it is difficult to say. Lubick was a good enough coach that CSU's field is now named after him. If Fairchild turns out to only be a good coach and not a great one, then what does that mean for the program?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 1-11 | Final F/+ Rk**: 115
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep vs Colorado 3-24 L 8.3 - 32.8 L
11-Sep at Nevada 6-51 L 17.0 - 35.2 L
18-Sep at Miami (Ohio)
10-31 L 23.2 - 30.8 L
25-Sep Idaho 36-34 W 37.5 - 38.3 L
2-Oct TCU 0-27 L 14.0 - 25.6 L
9-Oct at Air Force 27-49 L 32.0 - 38.5 L
16-Oct UNLV 43-10 W 36.3 - 31.9 W
23-Oct at Utah 6-59 L 11.7 - 39.2 L
30-Oct New Mexico 38-14 W 31.3 - 34.1 L
6-Nov at San Diego State 19-24 L 17.1 - 23.1 L
13-Nov BYU 10-49 L 23.6 - 40.3 L
20-Nov at Wyoming 0-44 L 5.7 - 41.7 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 16.5 114 34.7 104
Adj. Points Per Game 21.5 102 34.3 120

Colorado State does deserve credit for winning the games they could win -- they got shots at three terrible teams at home (Idaho, UNLV, New Mexico) and won all three games -- and almost sneaking out an upset at San Diego State. But ... the only reason they deserve credit for winning three of the four games they had a chance at winning is that they only had a chance to win four games. The average score from their other eight games was Opponents 42, CSU 8. This was a team taking its lumps and hoping they would be in position to build something in future years.

Growing pains suggest growth; the term applies much more to the CSU offense than the defense. The defense was just bad, allowing a higher rate of Adj. Points than any other team in the country. They attacked the quarterback and often got there, but if they weren't registering a sack, they were giving up a big play. The offense, on the other hand, had a clear up-and-down path. With Pete Thomas lined up behind center from day one (he threw all but two of CSU's passes as a true freshman), the Rams' offense started poorly, surged in the middle, then faded.

CSU Offense, First 3 Games: 16.2 Adj. PPG
CSU Offense, Next 6 Games: 27.1 Adj. PPG
CSU Offense, Last 3 Games: 15.5 Adj. PPG

The Rams played at an above average level on offense (average = 27.1 Adj. Points) four times, all during that middle stretch of six games. Granted, those strong performances sandwiched two terrible efforts against good defenses (TCU, Utah), but as I've said many times, growth is rarely linear.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 92 89 93
RUSHING 94 100 91 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 87 70 95 78
Standard Downs 93 67 103 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 94 100 88 115
Redzone 102 96 102
Q1 Rk 92 1st Down Rk 90
Q2 Rk 87 2nd Down Rk 97
Q3 Rk 113 3rd Down Rk 72
Q4 Rk 57

It is certainly a reason for optimism when you cast your lot with a freshman quarterback, and he produces the best part of the offense right out of the gates. Offensive coordinator Pat Meyer did not simplify things for Pete Thomas (2,662 yards, 6.8 per pass, 65% completion rate, 11 TD, 13 INT) or lean on the run game. He called pass after pass after pass, and despite the fact that Thomas clearly still has learning to do in terms of knowing when to get rid of the football (he did the line no favors by holding onto the ball for long periods of time with no threat to actually tuck and run), he threw for more yards than any Mountain West freshman ever had, and his completion rate broke the national freshman record. That is a pretty strong starting point, no?

As a whole, Thomas' full-season trends predictably followed the same path as the offense's as a whole.

Pete Thomas, First 3 Games: 6.4 yards per pass, 67% completion rate, 0.9% TD rate, 5.5% INT rate
Pete Thomas, Next 6 Games: 7.9 yards per pass, 68% completion rate, 4.8% TD rate, 1.8% INT rate
Pete Thomas, Last 3 Games: 5.7 yards per pass, 57% completion rate, 1.7% TD rate, 3.5% INT rate

Probably out of necessity, Thomas spread the wealth considerably last year. Tyson Liggett was the leading target, but he had just a 15% target rate; the national median for a team's No. 1 target was 24%. Lou Greenwood (14%) and Zac Pauga (13%) were close behind. Two of the top three (Liggett and Pauga) are gone, but a dropoff is not to be assumed. Both Liggett and Pauga were both decent possession options (both had a 9.3-per-catch average and a catch rate around 70%), but the explosive guys are back. Greenwood (474 yards, 13.9 per catch, 64% catch rate), who has spent time at both running back and receiver, has No. 1 potential, and returnees like Byron Steele (313 yards, 15.6 per catch, 65% catch rate) and Matt Yemm (265 yards, 12.6 per catch, 66% catch rate) are quite a bit more explosive than either Liggett or Pauga proved to be last year. With this unit, we might see Thomas' completion percentage drop slightly and CSU's overall explosiveness ratings (PPP+) rise.

Other tidbits:

  • The line was far from terrible last year, and it returns four starters and 60 career starts. Weakside tackle Paul Madsen was a second-team all-conference performer on a unit that was decent in terms of run blocking. They will lead the way for a running backs unit in need of a boost. Leonard Mason (513 yards, 5.6 per carry, +4.0 Adj. POE, 5 TD) was the bright spot in the unit last year, but he's gone, leaving behind Chris Nwoke (357 yards, 4.8 per carry, -3.9 Adj. POE, 1 TD), Raymond Carter (235 yards, 3.6 per carry, -8.0 Adj. POE, 1 TD) and two incoming, high-three-star recruits: Dorian Brown (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) and Kapri Bibbs (5-foot-10, 198 pounds). Carter was once a big-time UCLA recruit before transferring, but if he fails to quickly display the upside that has eluded him to date, he could be overtaken by some youngsters.
  • Idea for a future study: Investigate what teams' average Adj. Sack Rates are with a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior quarterback. From an anecdotal standpoint, it appears that teams with younger quarterbacks have worse sack rates as a whole, and obviously that has little to do with the line. It might be a variable I try to isolate from the sack rate totals in the future.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 112 115 96
RUSHING 105 115 81 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 109 111 106 97
Standard Downs 109 113 91 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 116 115 114 24
Redzone 102 115 85
Q1 Rk 104 1st Down Rk 109
Q2 Rk 101 2nd Down Rk 100
Q3 Rk 108 3rd Down Rk 113
Q4 Rk 110

Going into detail about a bad defense is typically boring because, to be bad overall, you're probably bad at just about everything, and how does one expand on that? Colorado State, on the other hand, was interestingly terrible. They actually made more plays than a bad defense is supposed to make, squeezing out a Top 25 Adj. Sack Rate; they were particularly effective at getting to the quarterback on passing downs ... and yet, they were 116th in the country in overall Passing Downs S&P+. It just does not compute. But what it means is, exciting things were happening when CSU was on the field; most of it was bad for the Rams, but not completely all of it.

I'm not going to try to convince you that this unit has any sort of big-time potential, but I will say that the same level of fun should be at play for the Rams, and for one specific reason: Mychal Sisson. The best linebacker you've never heard of, Sisson made the most of his 75.5 tackles -- he racked up 15.0 TFL/sacks, picked off a pass, broke up two more, recovered two fumbles ... and forced seven fumbles. Look at the national leaders in forced fumbles, and you see quite a few recognizable names: Texas' Sam Acho, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Oregon State's Stephen Paea, Alabama's Courtney Upshaw. But Sisson was at least two forced fumbles ahead of all of them. He is a true playmaker.

Unfortunately, a few of Sisson's primary partners in playmaking are gone. Linebackers Ricky Brewer (76.0 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) and Alex Williams (43.5 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks) used up their eligibility, and Michael Kwawulok (31.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks) was lost for the season to knee injury this spring. Sisson will do better if he's free to attack instead of playing safety valve; he'll need help from guys like Mike Orakpo (29.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks as a freshman) and little-used James Skelton and Charles Favors within the linebacking corps.

Other tidbits:

  • The defensive line is an interesting contrast: all relevant ends from 2010 -- Broderick Sargent (27.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks), C.J. James (17.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks in nine games), Davis Burl (16.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) -- return, but none of the relevant tackles do. Defensive coordinator Larry Kerr will look to cobble together a decent set of tackles from 2009 part-time starter Zach Tiedgen (17.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks in 2009; injured last season), redshirt freshman John Froland and junior college transfer Colton Paulhus. The main problem: those three players are 274, 260 and 267 pounds, respectively. I realize CSU doesn't play in the SEC or anything, but ... that's just too damn small. There might be early playing time available to incoming three-star signee Isiah Norton (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) if he can get his bearings quickly.
  • Across the board, CSU's PPP+ numbers were better than their success rates, meaning the Rams were better at preventing big plays than preventing efficient attacks. This is over-generalizing, but that says to me that the safeties and linebackers were more solid than the edge players (cornerbacks, maybe defensive ends). The cornerback position gets shored up with the move of Elijah-Blu Smith (34.0 tackles, 2 FR) from safety to corner and the return of Momo Thomas (10.5 tackles, 1 INT in four games) from injury, but Smith's move puts pressure on strong safety Ivory Herd (63.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU) opposite a less-experienced free safety like Ezra Thompson (23.5 tackles) or converted receiver Austin Gray.

Colorado State's 2010 Season Set to Music

Pretty sure I've used either or both of these already, but in honor of Pete Thomas let's go with either Bad Brains' "Youth Are Getting Restless" or A Tribe Called Quest's "Youthful Expression."

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Getting to the quarterback does not, in and of itself, a good defense make. Colorado State proved that in 2010. Still, the enormous difference between their Adj. Sack Rate rankings and overall defensive rankings was just ... odd.

Defense Adj. Sack
Rate Rk
Std. Downs
Sack Rt Rk
Pass. Downs
Sack Rt Rk
Overall Def.
S&P+ Rk
Passing
S&P+ Rk
Boise State 1 91 4 1 2
Texas 2 120 6 23 11
Miami 3 107 55 9 8
West Virginia 4 23 1 5 15
Fresno State 5 80 9 47 31
N.C. State 6 18 12 40 47
Pittsburgh 7 55 35 41 25
California 8 83 3 22 14
Oregon State 9 106 36 34 37
Purdue 10 57 10 43 40
Florida State 11 11 7 32 27
Arkansas 12 59 17 29 19
Oklahoma 13 72 15 8 10
SMU 14 99 52 42 38
Western Michigan 15 39 8 88 98
Central Florida 16 52 13 37 30
Utah 17 95 60 17 49
Nebraska 18 92 50 11 4
Virginia Tech 19 77 19 28 13
South Carolina 20 12 42 6 20
LSU 21 13 2 18 9
Missouri 22 73 37 24 6
Miami (Ohio)
23 7 44 64 57
Colorado State 24 111 5 112 109
Troy 25 27 14 83 75

One of these things ... not like the other ones...

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 94
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 87
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -8 / -9.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (7, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +8.1

Though the definitions may change depending on your level of competition, in the end winning football comes down to upside and depth. You need players who can make the big plays necessary to win, and you need enough decent players to avoid having giant holes your opponent can exploit. Well, Colorado State has the upside. Pete Thomas had what had to be considered a magnificent freshman season; he's the face of the program, and he's got three more years. Lou Greenwood is an interesting overall talent, and the offensive line is solid and experienced. Mychal Sisson, meanwhile, is as exciting a defensive player as you're going to find at the mid-major level.

The problem is, of course, depth. There are giant holes at running back, in the secondary, and all over the defensive line. Looking at CSU's YPP Margin, one has to figure they'll get a bit more lucky in 2011, and that will result in more opportunities for wins. But here's the problem: again, the Rams only had even a slight chance in four games last year. Improvement means, what, a chance in six games?

The schedule keeps CSU's ceiling rather low. The Rams have imminently winnable home games against Northern Colorado, San Jose State and Wyoming, but they must leave Fort Collins to take on the other beatable opponents (New Mexico, Utah State, UTEP, UNLV). Obviously none of these poor teams have devastating home-field advantages, and if Thomas, Greenwood and company are able to perform at a consistently high level, then they may be able to sneak out six wins. But the ceiling for 2011 seems to be around six wins. The ceiling for the program as a whole? Your guess is as good as mine.

 

 

---

* 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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