2011 Football Preview: The Idaho Vandals And America's Underdog

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

My wife refuses to watch the news when I'm around. I inevitably and instantaneously get annoyed with the "Party A says this; Party B disagrees" style of political reporting that assumes that the answer is always in the middle and both sides are equally crazy and stubborn, and I begin to argue with (and occasionally direct derogatory comments toward) poor, handsome Brian Williams. Then he throws to commercial, and since I live in the swingingest of swing states, Missouri, that means that, 15 months before the next election, I am privy to at least one attack ad per commercial break. And I really argue with those.

Just imagine if I were an Idaho fan. Not only have you had to watch your in-state neighbor Boise State become a rousing college football success, but you have to listen to them constantly getting described, basically, as America's Underdog, the scrappy little team from the northwest that hooked-and-lateraled its way into the country's heart. You, however, know better.

"This is a great example of why my wife and I no longer travel to Moscow games,'' [Boise State president Bob] Kustra said. "It's a culture that is nasty, inebriated and civilly doesn't give our fans the respect that any fan should expect when visiting an away team. ... I don't think at Boise State you're going to find that ... For me, this is not about football. For me, this is a cultural issue."

That's basically one "Little Sisters of the Poor" reference away from being the most perfectly blue-blooded (in Boise State's case, really, really blue) thing an academic has ever said in reference to sports. When you obtain a high level of success, your nearby rivals are going to resent you for it. (As a member of the Missouri fanbase that watched Nebraska beat his team like a stepchild for 25 years, I know of what I speak.) And, being sports fans, they're probably going to say pretty nasty things from time to time. But thinking you are "culturally" above somebody from the same region and state, all because of sport (and, probably, a few rural-vs-urban differences)? That's a strong sign that you've made it into the ruling class and are no longer to be treated as an underdog.

(Also a sign you've made it: fielding a team as good as Boise State's last year. But I'll talk about that during the Boise State profile.)

(One more thing: I'm okay with anything that results in students spelling out "I-N-E-B-R-I-A-T-E-D-!" in body paint. In fact, I encourage it. Good times.)

If we're talking honestly about who the National Underdog should be, there is but one candidate: the Idaho Vandals. Scoffed at by their more successful neighbors as both drunk and uncivilized ... cast aside as a one-time conference mate of USC, et al, because they weren't competitive enough ... led by a coach whose glorious voice sounds like that of a 1980s professional wrestler ... forced by circumstance to play their games both in potato country (the most American of vegetables for their innate fryability), and in a football stadium that resembles a beautiful cross between a basketball field house and a plant that processes frozen french fries. That's about as American as it gets, right?

Oh right, I'm supposed to be profiling the team itself. After the jump.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 3-10 | Final F/+ Rk**: 99
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep North Dakota
45-0 W 28.9 - 21.3 W
11-Sep at Nebraska 17-38 L 27.3 - 35.9 L
18-Sep UNLV 30-7 W 18.8 - 23.2 L
25-Sep at Colorado State 34-36 L 29.4 - 40.0 L
2-Oct at Western Michigan 33-13 W 26.3 - 5.7 W
16-Oct at Louisiana Tech 35-48 L 26.8 - 36.6 L
23-Oct New Mexico State 37-14 W 16.3 - 25.8 L
30-Oct at Hawaii 10-45 L 18.8 - 29.2 L
6-Nov Nevada 17-63 L 23.3 - 37.2 L
12-Nov Boise State 14-52 L 20.6 - 24.5 L
20-Nov at Utah State 28-6 W 19.4 - 13.8 W
27-Nov at Fresno State 20-23 L 12.9 - 24.6 L
4-Dec San Jose State 26-23 W 24.1 - 38.3 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 26.6 60 28.3 71
Adj. Points Per Game 22.5 96 27.4 61

After the rousing success of a 2009 season that saw them win eight games and a bowl (and oh, what a bowl win it was ... the only way it could have been better would have been if the name had already been changed to the Idaho Potato Bowl) for the first time since 1998, Idaho followed up by putting a similar product on the field but going just 6-7. Tight losses at Colorado State and Fresno State doomed their bowl eligibility; a year after going 5-1 in one-possession games, they went just 1-2. The defense was sporadically competent, and the team was perfectly decent over the first half of the season, but the offense faded. They suffered from the loss of star receiver Daniel Hardy during the loss to Hawaii, but really, the slump had begun two games prior.

First Six Games: Opponents 27.1 Adj. PPG, Idaho 26.3 (-0.8)
Last Seven Games: Opponents 27.6, Idaho 19.3 (-8.3)

Whatever the cause, they head into 2011 without star quarterback Nathan Enderle, leading rusher Deonte' Jackson, and Enderle's top three receiving targets. But there is at least a glimmer of realistic hope that the replacements can accomplish as much or more than those for whom they were understudies last year.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 97 100 96
RUSHING 114 115 112 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 85 75 89 100
Standard Downs 104 106 101 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 70 68 73 92
Redzone 108 117 97
Q1 Rk 112 1st Down Rk 107
Q2 Rk 96 2nd Down Rk 112
Q3 Rk 95 3rd Down Rk 37
Q4 Rk 47

To truly be America's Underdog, you need to run some wonderfully underdog-friendly offense. Idaho did not necessarily do that in 2010, but they did pass more frequently than almost any team in the country, so that's a start. Nate Enderle (3,314 yards, 6.9 per pass, 57% completion rate, 22 TD, 16 INT), who seemed like he was the starting quarterback in Moscow for 13 years, was done in at times by constant pressure and a completely inept running game. Enderle was able to engineer quite a few rabbit-out-of-hat plays on passing downs to keep drives going, but with a pass-first philosophy and a run game unworthy of attention from opposing gameplans, he was asked to perform far too many magic tricks. Now senior (and loyal backup) Brian Reader (568 yards, 8.0 per pass, 59% completion rate, 5 TD, 1 INT) takes over. He was strong in mop-up duty (we still call it "mop-up duty" when referring to the team that got blown out, right?), and he still has some interesting targets in the passing game, but they are even less tested than he is.

One unique aspect of Idaho's passing game is that they spread the ball around quite a bit. The Vandals must replace their top three targets from 2010 -- Daniel Hardy (545 yards, 17.0 per catch, 60% catch rate, 1 TD in eight games), Eric Greenwood (741 yards, 16.1 per catch, 52% catch rate, 6 TD) and Maurice Shaw (410 yards, 12.8 per catch, 52% catch rate, 2 TD) -- but passes to those three only accounted for 38% of Idaho's targets. Justin Veltung (497 yards, 19.9 per catch, 46% catch rate), 2009 bowl hero Preston Davis (267 yards, 8.6 per catch, 67% catch  rate), and Armauni Johnson all got quite a few opportunities to shine last year, and Veltung in particular showed that he may be quite worthy of more targets as long as he can tamp down some of his all-or-nothing tendencies.

There are weapons remaining here, though anytime you lose a quarterback who was so effective on passing downs, it gets a little scary; you never know if the next guy is going to be as good a magician. Just ask Texas.

Other tidbits:

  • With a new quarterback in place, it is always possible that Idaho will lean a little more heavily on the run. This isn't a completely disastrous idea, as it's likely the run game will be more effective this year. Arizona State transfer Ryan Bass (293 yards, -3.4 Adj. POE in 2008-09) joins three returning Vandal runners -- Princeton McCarty, Kama Bailey, Troy Vital (combined: 833 yards, -7.3 Adj. POE, 6 TD, 500+ receiving yards) -- and will run behind a line that returns 62 starts. The line was nothing to write home about last year, but ... again, we're looking for improvement here, not quality, at least not yet. Look out for three-star freshman running back Todd Handley joining the mix, too.
  • It will be interesting to see if Reader features his tight ends a bit more than Enderle did. Two interesting TEs return in Taylor Elmo and Michael LaGrone (combined: 260 yards, 3 TD), who both saw the field quite a bit as redshirt freshmen. Enderle checked down to running backs a lot, but he did not look to the young (and probably not yet trustworthy) tight ends much.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 84 103 72
RUSHING 98 103 89 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 77 92 71 90
Standard Downs 63 76 60 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 95 87 98 78
Redzone 21 25 19
Q1 Rk 50 1st Down Rk 62
Q2 Rk 94 2nd Down Rk 109
Q3 Rk 89 3rd Down Rk 45
Q4 Rk 63

Say this much for Idaho: they go for it. And with a coach who sounds like a professional wrestler, that should not be a surprise. Idaho blitzed, blitzed, blitzed and hacked away at the ball at all times. It didn't work all that well, but they didn't let oft-spectacular failure deter them. (Again, nothing more American...) The Vandals' top four returning linebackers combined for a fantastic 36.5 TFL/sacks, but for every play they made, they got gashed twice, which is how you post some great stat lines and still rank 103rd on this list.

The key for Idaho is pretty easy to spot: be better at being aggressive. They must replace their biggest playmaker in end Aaron Lavarias (44.0 tackles, 17.0 TFL/sacks), along with a strong mid-major safety in Shiloh Keo (53.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 5 PBU, 2 FF), but quite a bit does return. The fact is, four returning linebackers did combine for 36.5 TFL/sacks -- Robert Siavii (73.0 tackles, 13.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 4 FF), Tre'Shawn Robinson (67.5 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks), Homer Mauga (58.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and Conrad Scheidt (18.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks in nine games) -- and they're all a year more experienced. Siavii is particularly impressive, a 220-pound missile flying off of the weakside. If Benson Mayowa (22.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 3 FF) and Andre Ferguson (16.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks) can at least approximate Lavarias' production, the front seven should be, at worst, on even terms with last year's.

Other tidbits:

  • For a mid-major defensive line, Idaho's is not lacking for size. The ends are both around 250 pounds, and the tackles 295. Three-star junior college transfer Dontae Scott joins Michael Cosgrove (23.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks) up front, and if he is able to make waves, then the line is healthy. If not, then the tackle position is a bit too thin; I have no idea who among them would come through if not Scott. Redshirt freshman Karel Kearney? Freshman Ryan Edwards? Sophomore Quayshawne Buckley?
  • Perhaps because of constant blitzing, the secondary played quite soft, especially on passing downs, and they were burned by it. The loss of Keo is tough, and his two most likely replacements -- Quin Ashley and Thaad Thompson -- combined for 52.0 tackles and absolutely nothing else. Keo was a playmaker, and one of them will need to step up in that regard. The Vandals are probably set, however, at free safety and cornerback. Gary Walker (49.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 PBU) was strong at FS, and corners Aaron Grymes (66.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 PBU, 2 FF), Kenny Patten (40.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and Matthew Harvey (14.5 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU) all made a few things happen despite what appeared to be plenty of soft coverage.

Idaho's 2010 Season Set to Music

Since I'm totally committing to the theme here...

"America," by Motörhead
"America," by Simon & Garfunkel
"America Eats Its Young," by Funkadelic
"The American," by Angie Aparo
"American Baby," by Dave Matthews Band
"American Defense," by Son House
"American Dreamin'" by Jay-Z
"American Flag," by Cat Power
"The American Ruse," by MC5
"An Average American Superhero," by The Blue Meanies

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Idaho ranked dead last in overall F/+ in 2008, and they made a bowl in 2009. As a whole, how do teams typically do when they hit rock bottom?

  • 2005 Temple. From 0-11 with a minus-27.0% F/+ rating ... to 1-11 with a minus-35.1% rating. +0.5 games, -8.1% F/+.
  • 2006 Temple. From 1-11 and minus-35.1% ... to 4-8 and minus-17.9%. +3.0 games, +17.2%.
  • 2007 UAB. From 2-10 and minus-20.5% ... to 4-8 and minus-13.7%. +2.0 games, +6.8%.
  • 2008 Idaho. From 2-10 and minus-28.4% ... to 7-6 and minus-12.6%. +4.5 games, +15.8%.
  • 2009 Washington State. From 1-11 and minus-29.3% ... to 2-10 and minus-12.1%. +1.0 games, +17.2%.
  • 2010 New Mexico State. From 2-10 and minus-29.5% ... to ... ?

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 117
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 111
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +2 / -0.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (5, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -0.3

This is an enjoyable team. They wing the ball around on offense, they attack (for better or worse) on defense, and their coach is fantastically fun to listen to in interviews. But are they capable of actually playing good football? How good? Our Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projections are not optimistic about Idaho's prospects this year, giving them just a 13% chance of reaching bowl eligibility. But let's look beyond this season for a moment.

Though I can't speak to the cultural differences of different portions of the great state of Idaho (granted, Moscow is as much a part of Montana, Oregon and Washington as the rest of Idaho), I can tell you about the differences in quality between the Idaho and Boise State football programs. The Vandals cannot compete with their neighbors to the south, but that's just as well because they're no longer conference mates with the Blue-Blood Broncos. In fact, Idaho faces an opportunity of sorts over the next few years. Boise State has left the WAC, and Hawaii, Fresno State and Nevada are soon to follow. That leaves Idaho, San Jose State, Louisiana Tech (seriously, can La. Tech and UTEP just flip conferences so I stop getting confused?), New Mexico State, Utah State (for now), and soon-to-be newcomers like UT-San Antonio and Texas State. Somebody could establish themselves as the class of the new (and incredibly weak) conference. Could America's Underdog fill the void?

 

 

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.

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* 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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