2011 Season Preview: Smaller, Better Jobs And The UNLV Rebels

LAS VEGAS - NOVEMBER 18: Phillip Payne #4 of the UNLV Rebels scores a touchdown as he gets away from (L-R) Jon Davis #6 Anthony Wooding Jr. #34 and Austin Niklas #57 of the Air Force Falcons during their game at Sam Boyd Stadium November 18 2010 in Las Vegas Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/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.

Lost amid all the conference realignment talk these past few days was an interesting (and, of course, potentially false) admission from Virginia Tech athletic director Jim Weaver that the Hokies would probably "politely decline" an offer of membership from the SEC. It was a nice reminder that bigger is not always better in college football, and that the most lucrative possible option on the table is not always the long-term winner. (It also could have been Weaver simply covering his, and Virginia Tech's backside, but still.)

This statement reminded me of last fall, when Montana turned down an invitation to the Western Athletic Conference. At first, a jump to FBS and pre-arranged conference membership seems like a no-brainer; but in looking at the long-term consequences of a jump, Montana officials decided that remaining an FCS power made more sense. A few months earlier, their head football coach had different ideas.

After seven incredibly successful seasons at Montana, Bobby Hauck agreed to become the new head coach of the UNLV Rebels. It was a coup of sorts for UNLV; Hauck won 80 games (11.4 per season), went 47-6 in the Big Sky (the SEC of the FCS), advanced to the FCS playoff all seven years, and made the title game three times. Winning at the FCS level obviously does not prove that you can win at the FBS level, but Hauck had certainly proven all he could in Missoula, so he left.

(There are potentially other factors involved in his departure, factors that do not in any way make Hauck look good, but without knowing the entire story, I will, for now, just point it out now and ignore it for the rest of this profile.)

Hauck is now the head coach of an FBS program, which is quite an accomplishment. But was this a smart move? Will Hauck be able to do anything that the last six guys haven't been able to do: win consistently? Since Harvey Hyde took the UNLV job in 1982, the Rebels have finished with a winning season just six times; they've done the deed just once since their move to the 16-team WAC (and, soon after, the Mountain West) in 1995. This is a tough place to win and could be a good example of a bigger job not necessarily being a better job.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 2-11 | Adj. Record: 1-12 | Final F/+ Rk**: 116
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Wisconsin 21-41 L 18.6 - 25.2 L
11-Sep at Utah 10-38 L 15.9 - 31.8 L
18-Sep at Idaho 7-30 L 13.0 - 32.4 L
25-Sep New Mexico 45-10 W 26.7 - 30.4 L
2-Oct Nevada 26-44 L 29.0 - 36.6 L
9-Oct at West Virginia 10-49 L 23.0 - 42.8 L
16-Oct at Colorado State 10-43 L 14.5 - 44.9 L
30-Oct TCU 6-48 L 18.3 - 32.1 L
6-Nov at BYU 7-55 L 6.4 - 37.5 L
13-Nov Wyoming 42-16 W 33.3 - 29.5 W
18-Nov Air Force 20-35 L 21.9 - 36.2 L
27-Nov at San Diego State 14-48 L 19.2 - 34.3 L
4-Dec at Hawaii 21-59 L 24.2 - 35.3 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 18.4 110 39.7 116
Adj. Points Per Game 20.3 108 34.5 119

Hauck's first season in Vegas was a trying one, and for very obvious reasons. UNLV was ridiculously young and semi-hopeless, but ... when you go as young as UNLV did, you probably know the hopelessness is coming. The Rebels were at least semi-decent in September and November, but an October crater defined the season.

First Five Games: UNLV 20.6 Adj. PPG, Opps 31.3 (-10.7)
Next Four Games: UNLV 15.6, Opps 39.3 (-23.7)
Last Four Games: UNLV 24.7, Opps 33.8 (-9.1)

Of course, the good news about youth is that it gets older. The Rebel defense could, in particular, improve rather significantly in the near future.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 91 103 83
RUSHING 104 112 92 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 66 62 72 98
Standard Downs 98 101 93 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 86 85 90 85
Redzone 28 39 17
Q1 Rk 101 1st Down Rk 104
Q2 Rk 50 2nd Down Rk 73
Q3 Rk 119 3rd Down Rk 81
Q4 Rk 49

UNLV's intent on offense was clear last year: a balanced attack running at a slow, underdog-friendly pace. This can obviously be a winning strategy, as long as you are at least semi-proficient at both running and throwing the ball. With quarterback Omar Clayton (1,818 yards, 6.4 per pass, 56% completion rate, 13 TD, 9 INT) throwing to Phillip Payne (689 yards, 17.2 per catch, 56% catch rate, 5 TD) and Michael Johnson (571 yards, 11.2 per catch, 65% catch rate, 5 TD), the passing game was solid, ranking 66th overall, fifth in the Mountain West. But oh, were they awful at running the football. Running backs Channing Trotter, Tim Cornett and Deante' Purvis all averaged under four yards per carry and combined for a minus-16.3 Adj. POE.

The good news, I guess, is that the worst offender of the bunch, Trotter (236 yards, 3.3 per carry, -9.5 Adj. POE, 1 TD), is gone, paving the way for a pair of now-sophomores -- Cornett (546 yards, 3.8 per carry, -3.8 Adj. POE, 6 TD) and Bradley Randle (109 yards, 4.4 per carry, -1.5 Adj. POE) -- to mature into the role along with Purvis (223 yards, 3.9 per carry, -3.0 Adj. POE).

The backs will be running behind at least a reasonably experienced line; five linemen with starting experience return, though only one (guard Jason Heath) has started a full season's worth of games. In all, they return just 36 career starts. Still, there is reason to believe the line won't regress much, and if the young runners step up their game, then the title of "biggest concern" moves to the quarterback position. Clayton is gone, and it appears the starting job will go to either junior college transfer Sean Reilly or sophomore Caleb Herring (365 yards, 6.5 per pass, 50% completion rate, 4 TD, 3 INT). Right now, it appears Herring is in the lead.

Other tidbits:

  • Whoever wins the quarterback position will have an underrated receiving corps at his disposal. Payne is a strong No. 1 (assuming he is fully recovered from a broken foot suffered in the offseason), having averaged 9.7 yards per target last fall. Beyond Payne and Johnson, tight end Austin Harrington (163 yards, 10.2 per catch, 62% catch rate) and H-Back Kyle Watkins (110 yards, 13.8 per catch, 73% catch rate) are nice possession options (tight end Anthony Vidal could be, too, but he averaged just 7.6 yards per catch with a 48% catch rate last year; that will need to improve) and Marcus Sullivan (102 yards, 17.0 per catch, 40% catch rate, 2 TD as a freshman) is an interesting all-or-nothing threat.
  • The UNLV offense was unique in one regard in 2010: they were absolutely horrid in the first and third quarters and above average in the second and fourth. The fourth quarter, I can explain: they were getting blown out a lot (all 11 losses were by at least 15 points) and faced a lot of second-string defenses. But ... the second quarter? This hints at decent stamina, but it also hints at UNLV giving up on the run as the half progressed and leaning on their solid passing game.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 116 118 115
RUSHING 113 117 106 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 117 115 115 117
Standard Downs 107 106 100 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 83 81 84 115
Redzone 70 98 53
Q1 Rk 112 1st Down Rk 101
Q2 Rk 113 2nd Down Rk 114
Q3 Rk 73 3rd Down Rk 65
Q4 Rk 35

It gets difficult to figure out what to say about defenses that were poor in almost every way. UNLV's defense was the eighth-worst in the country against the run, fourth-worst against the pass. They were much better on passing downs, which suggests they want to play aggressively if they can pull it off, but as I said about Nevada yesterday, passing downs aggression is only good if you're able to force passing downs. UNLV was not.

They do have an excuse, however: they were playing a lot of freshmen, many of whom were among their best players. Tackles Tyler Gaston (10.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks) and the monstrous Nate Holloway (12.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks; 6-foot-3, 350 pounds!) were both integral as first-year guys, as were end Ian Bobak (12.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks) linebacker Tani Maka (24.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks), safety Eric Tuiloma-Vaa (37.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and cornerback Sidney Hodge (38.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU, 2 FF). In two years, that's half of an extremely experienced starting lineup. For now, there will still be growing pains.

It does appear that the pass defense might be the first to improve. Tuiloma-Vaa and Hodge are solid, cornerback Will Chandler (30.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 5 INT, 3 PBU, 2 FR) is a nice playmaker, and safety Mike Clausen (22.0 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FR) should be able to replicate the production of departed safety Alex De Giacomo (70.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FR, 4 PBU). Junior college transfer Kenneth Spigner could make a fast impact as well.

Other tidbits:

  • There are certainly options on the line as well. Ends B.J. Bell (40.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks) and James Dunlap (27.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks) join Bobak; they are experienced, though none of the three made much, if any, noise last year. The line could be reinforced by an interesting freshman tackle, Desmond Tautofi (6-foot-3, 300), and hulking junior college end Trent Allmang-Wilder (6-foot-7, 280). UNLV is still lacking in a bit of ability up front, but size isn't really an issue.
  • If you're looking for impact from a newcomer, perhaps the best odds lie with junior college linebacker Princeton Jackson (6-foot-0, 230). He was nearly a four-star recruit from Rivals, and he joins a unit that really only features two experienced players: Maka and Nate Carter (26.0 tackles, 1 INT). All three 2010 starters are gone. As I've mentioned before, losing three starters from a bad unit doesn't have quite the same impact as losing three all-conference performers, but there is still very little proven here.

UNLV's 2010 Season Set to Music

Since Houck and company will look to move on quickly from their first season in Vegas, we'll highlight a very underrated song: "First... And Then," by Handsome Boy Modeling School and Dres from Black Sheep.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

When you look at what UNLV returns in the secondary, it is easy to get the impression that improvement is on the way. All but one defensive back returns, including two sophomores and a high-ceiling cornerback (Chandler). You can talk yourself into that. Only ... the Rebels ranked 117th in Passing S&P+ last year with these supposedly high-ceiling players. So how far can UNLV truly expect to rise in one year? Pretty far, actually.

From 2005-09, 48 teams ranked 111th or worse in Def. Passing S&P+. Seven (14.6%) have seen their rankings regress (obviously this is going to be a low number since there is barely any room to fall), 10 (20.8%) rose by zero to 10 spots, 12 (25.0%) rose by 11-20 spots, six (12.5%) rose by 21-30 spots, seven (14.6%) rose by 31-40 teams, four (8.3%) rose by 41-50 spots, and two (4.2%) rose by 51 spots or more. So 40% rose by 21 spots or more. It appears the difference between the 90th-, 100th- and 110th-ranked spots really is not that significant, and you can give yourself quite a bump in one year. If there is any improvement in that pass rush, I could see UNLV seeing one of those bumps.

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 the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 109
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 100
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -1 / -3.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (7, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +3.6

You assume a team that went 2-11 was probably at least a bit unlucky, and to be sure, UNLV's YPP margin suggests a little bit of a turnaround. But ... they lost no close games, they recovered more than 50% of their games' fumbles ... this was simply a bad team. But they were also young, and it is possible to see their running game improving a bit and their pass defense improving significantly. They won't be a good team, by any means, in 2011, but it is possible that Bobby Hauck could be building something.

Seven road games await the Rebels in 2011, including visits to otherwise beatable teams like New Mexico and Wyoming. Between that, and the fact that they face home games versus Boise State and solid Hawaii and San Diego State teams, it is likely that UNLV will improve a lot more in the advanced stats than in the loss column. With a team this young, the future might be at least reasonably bright, but it will be another couple of years before we find out if this move up was a smart one for Hauck.

 

 

Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

---

* 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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