The Wyoming Cowboys And The Need For Three Years

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.

Bob Devaney coached there before going to Nebraska.

Fred Akers spent two years there, then moved to Austin.

Pat Dye was here a year, then headed to Auburn. For Dennis Erickson, it was a 12-month detour on the way to Washington State (where he stayed for a full two years).

Joe Tiller started to piece together some great offensive concepts there, then took them to Purdue (and the Rose Bowl).

Dana Dimel did some good things, then headed to Houston.

You win in Laramie, and then you leave Laramie. Guess that makes Wyoming the MAC school of the Mountain West then?

For a moment there, it looked like it was going to be quite easy for Dave Christensen. The former Missouri offensive coordinator took over Joe Glenn in 2009 and immediately engineered a three-win improvement and just Wyoming's second bowl win since 1966. But unfortunately, the team still wasn't very good. They won close games, got some breaks, and covered up the fact that there was still a lot of work to do under the hood. In 2010, the luck disappeared and the wins vanished. Now entering Year Three, Christensen has put some talent together both in the booth and on the field. Does he have enough to lead Wyoming to a legitimate step forward this fall?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 3-9 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk**: 106
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Southern Utah
28-20 W 21.5 - 39.1 L
11-Sep at Texas 7-34 L 18.5 - 36.6 L
18-Sep Boise State 6-51 L 22.8 - 25.2 L
25-Sep Air Force 14-20 L 28.3 - 27.6 W
2-Oct at Toledo 20-15 W 14.6 - 24.6 L
9-Oct at TCU 0-45 L 22.1 - 37.8 L
16-Oct Utah 6-30 L 19.4 - 34.6 L
23-Oct at BYU 20-25 L 12.4 - 28.5 L
30-Oct San Diego State 38-48 L 30.7 - 28.0 W
6-Nov at New Mexico 31-34 L 32.8 - 40.4 L
13-Nov at UNLV 16-42 L 13.3 - 42.5 L
20-Nov Colorado State 44-0 W 31.9 - (-5.7) W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 19.2 107 30.3 86
Adj. Points Per Game 22.4 97 29.9 79

In a way, Dave Christensen screwed himself in 2009 by succeeding so quickly despite a team with clear holes. In 2010, the Cowboys' win total fell by four games despite the fact that their overall F/+ rankings fell just four spots, from 102nd to 106th. Their offense improved by a decent amount while their defense regressed quite a bit, but for all intents and purposes, they were the same team in 2010 as in 2009.

So how did they falter? Close games, of course.

Season Record in Games
Decided by 7 Pts
or Less
Record in Games
Decided by More
Than 7 Pts
2008 3-1 1-7
2009 6-0 1-6
2010 2-3 1-6

The 2010 Cowboys got blown out the same amount as the 2009 team did, but their sense of clutch timing, something about as unsustainable as Lloyd and Diane's relationship in Say Anything (sequel? SEQUEL!!), clearly failed them. The team was too young, too banged up, and too thin to successfully pull off the same high-wire act they managed in 2009.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 87 102 75
RUSHING 87 110 52 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 84 71 90 119
Standard Downs 85 108 63 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 66 60 74 111
Redzone 92 91 93
Q1 Rk 67 1st Down Rk 76
Q2 Rk 47 2nd Down Rk 77
Q3 Rk 60 3rd Down Rk 89
Q4 Rk 113

Picture those 2007-08 Missouri offenses for a moment. Robotic quarterback throwing, throwing, throwing to some big targets and some fast ones, lining up as quickly as possible, then doing it again, right? Not exactly the identity Wyoming established last fall. Dave Christensen proved both that the spread is malleable and that he is only going to attempt what he can with the personnel he has. Wyoming in 2010 was a plodding, balanced offense that did the best it could with what was one of the worst offensive lines in the country.

When you've got a poor line, one that ranks worse than 110th in both Adj. Line Yards and Adj. Sack Rate, your odds of establishing even a semi-efficient offense are nearly nil. The Cowboys showed strong big-play ability on the ground -- they should again in 2011, as Alvester Alexander (792 yards, 4.2 per carry, +22.6 Adj. POE, 14 TD; 134 receiving yards) is one of the most underrated running backs in the country -- but it truly does start up front, and Wyoming was completely outmanned in 2010.

Will that change starting in September? If not, it won't be for lack of effort. Despite four returning starters on the line, Christensen and new offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon did a lot of shuffling. Two-year starting center Nick Carlson will once again man the middle, but just about everything else has changed. Right guard John Hutchins moves to left tackle to start in front of two-year starter Clayton Kirven, and right tackle Kyle Magnuson will start ahead of last year's starter Josh Leonard. Tyler Strong, a defensive tackle good enough to see the field as a true freshman last year (he has 2.0 TFL/sacks in seven games), moves to offensive guard. Despite a total of career starts in the 70s, this will be a pretty new line. The good news, of course, is that it almost certainly won't be worse than last year's unit.

This is good news for Alexander, whose plus-22.6 Adj. POE was good for seventh in the country. Just about any back in FBS would have struggled to average four yards per carry with the blocking Alexander received, and his production could skyrocket with help. Christensen and Brandon are planning to lean heavily on the run as well, which could bump Alexander's numbers up even further.

(The tandem of Christensen and Brandon, by the way, is an interesting one; when Gary Pinkel and Christensen were looking to move to the spread in 2005, Brandon was atop the list of coaches they contacted.)

Other tidbits:

  • The line takes on added importance in 2011, as it will also be protecting a squeaky, new quarterback. We're talking "nobody on the roster has taken a snap" new here. The candidates are both true freshmen: Brett Smith and Adam Pittser. Pittser was easily the more highly-touted of the two, but Smith was in town for spring ball, so he will have at least a temporary upper-hand. Quarterback is going to be a huge, huge question mark this fall; there's really no other way to say it.
  • Despite the losses of David Leonard, Zach Bolger and Travis Burkhalter (combined receiving yards in 2010: 1,001), the receiving corps is intriguing if the quarterback can get rid of the ball. Possession man Chris McNeill (257 yards, 9.2 per catch, 62% catch rate, 3 TD) is back, but there are three receivers in particular who have my attention: running-back-turned-receiver Robert Herron (235 rushing yards, 5.9 per carry, -0.6 Adj. POE; 57 receiving yards, 46% catch rate), former star recruit (relatively speaking) Mazi Ogbonna (183 yards, 10.2 per catch, 78% catch rate) and tight end T.J .Smith (175 yards, 21.9 per catch, 57% catch rate in six games as a redshirt freshman). All three are quite unproven, but they did quite a bit with the opportunities they received. Ogbonna is a possession receiver with a high ceiling, Herron could be your prototypical boom-or-bust guy, and Smith is a larger target who made the most of minimal targets.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 104 110 91
RUSHING 102 112 95 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 97 88 99 114
Standard Downs 83 95 73 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 93 103 88 52
Redzone 85 93 76
Q1 Rk 79 1st Down Rk 86
Q2 Rk 89 2nd Down Rk 111
Q3 Rk 78 3rd Down Rk 71
Q4 Rk 96

For most of the last few years, Wyoming has had a perfectly competent defense under coordinator Marty English. It was the key to the Cowboys' surprise bowl season of 2009. But turnover, a change in scheme (from a 3-4 to a 4-3) and poor depth severely damaged any chance for success in 2010. The defense did an okay job of preventing big plays, but they completely sacrificed efficiency to do so. They got after the quarterbacks on passing downs but folded against the run. (This last sentence, by the way, is exactly what you expect to see, really, when your two best defensive ends are converted linebackers.)

There were few losses among the front seven, and with so many players growing more familiar in their new roles, Wyoming should certainly improve in this regard. Both of the ends referenced above -- Gabe Knapton (47.0 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks) and fullback-turned-OLB-turned-DE Josh Biezuns (50.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks) -- are back in 2011, and they've both bulked up a bit more. They lead a surprisingly deep line into play. Seven returning linemen recorded at least 1.5 TFL/sacks in 2010, including tackles Mike Purcell (34.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) and Ben Durbin (11.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) and ends Mat Birkeness (17.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) and Mark Willis (3.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks as a redshirt freshman). Patrick Mertens (26.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks as a redshirt freshman) might be lost for the season due to injury, however.

This bunch is joined by a few interesting recruits: high-three-star, freshman end Eddie Yarbrough, junior college end Miraldo Michel and redshirt junior tackle Kurt Taufa'asau all graded out well in Rivals' ratings, and among these ten players, stability is at least somewhat likely.

Other tidbits:

  • The pass defense was a relative strength but faces some losses. Both starting safeties -- Chris Prosinski (87.0 tackles, 2 INT, 2 FF, 5 PBU) and Shamiel Gary (71.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU) -- are gone, as is a starter at cornerback, Marcell Gipson (41.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU). Corner Tashaun Gipson (35.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 9 PBU) is a playmaker and a keeper, and safety Luke Ruff (20.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) should ease into the starting lineup with little trouble, but that still leaves two starting jobs up for grabs and few experienced players to take over.
  • The only real hit taken by the linebacker corps was voluntary: Ghaali Muhammad (59.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) moved to running back to back up Alexander. This was an odd move, since a) the RB unit already has Alexander, and b) Muhammad was probably Wyoming's best linebacker last year, but if nothing else it appears to show confidence in the remaining members of this unit. Brian Hendricks (54.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks) will likely assume more of an attacking role, and the Cowboys have two interesting options in the middle: Devyn Harris (35.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU as a redshirt freshman) and Oliver Schober (33.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU). The big question mark is at the strongside "LEO" position, where incoming junior college transfer Korey Jones appears to be battling with German freshman Mark Nzeocha. These were two of Christensen's more highly-touted recruits, but this still assures that at least one complete newcomer will be in the starting lineup.

Wyoming's 2010 Season Set to Music

If you are one to believe the 'Pokes were lucky in 2009, and said luck evened out last year...

"Bad Luck," by Social Distortion
"Bad Luck and Trouble," by R.L. Burnside
"Good Luck, Bad Luck," by Gregory Isaacs
"I Won't Be in Hard Luck No More," by Big Joe Williams
"Love and Luck," by Jimmy Buffett
"Luck of Lucien," by A Tribe Called Quest
"Lucky," by Radiohead
"Shit Luck," by Modest Mouse
"Sister Luck" by The Black Crowes
"You Got Lucky," by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Typically when teams' win totals fall by four or more, this coincides with a (predictable) plummet in F/+ ratings. But that's not always the way it works.

Smallest F/+ Changes For Teams Suffering
Regression of Four Wins Or More
Year Team Last Year's
Wins
This Year's
Wins
Change in
F/+
2009 Louisiana Tech 8 4 +6.5%
2007 SMU 6 1 +0.3%
2010 Wyoming 7 3 -1.1%
2009 Colorado State 7 3 -2.0%
2008 Miami (Ohio) 6 2 -2.4%
2008 Purdue 8 4 -4.0%
2007 Rice 7 3 -4.0%
2008 New Mexico 9 4 -4.2%
2008 Virginia 9 5 -5.3%
2006 Central Florida 8 4 -5.4%

Of course...

Smallest F/+ Changes For Teams Experiencing
Increase of Three Wins Or More
Year Team Last Year's
Wins
This Year's
Wins
Change in
F/+
2006 Purdue 5 8 -6.3%
2006 Maryland 5 9 -3.4%
2007 Miami (Ohio) 2 6 -2.7%
2009 Wyoming 4 7 -2.6%
2007 Memphis 2 7 -2.2%
2009 Marshall 4 7 -1.6%
2008 Arizona 5 8 -1.1%
2008 Louisiana Tech 5 8 -0.8%
2006 Middle Tennessee 4 7 -0.8%
2006 Central Michigan 6 10 -0.5%

Typically win your win total improves without your team really improving, you don't have to wait long for your comeuppance.

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 99
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 91
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -2 / -1.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 17 (8, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +1.3

The win totals may have dramatically changed twice in two years, but in terms of the pure on-field product, little has changed in Dave Christensen's first two seasons. He has been slowly putting pieces together, attempting to install his offense and find the right personnel for a stable defense. His tenure is proof that almost every coach (almost) deserves a full three years before drawing any major conclusions.

With a semi-mentor in place as offensive coordinator, Christensen officially has one of the more interesting pairs of coordinators at the mid-major level. He's also got an excellent running back, strong defensive ends and decent receivers and linebackers. There are legitimate pieces coming together, but whether Wyoming is ready for a true step forward in 2011 depends on a reshuffled offensive line, a retooled secondary ... and, of course, and amazingly young quarterback. It feels like the Cowboys might still be a year away, especially with a schedule that includes home games versus Nebraska and TCU and trips to Air Force, Boise State and San Diego State. Hosting Weber State, Texas State, UNLV and New Mexico, Wyoming should easily get back to at least four or five wins, but a) they'll need seven to make a bowl (since they play two FCS teams) and b) they probably won't reach seven.

Christensen is slowly and methodically building his program, not unlike what his mentor Gary Pinkel did at Missouri, and it could pay off as long as fans and administrators don't get impatient with a 5-7 season in 2011.

 

 

---

* 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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