Summer Vacation: Booster Hell, Power Backs and the SMU Mustangs

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

While Pony Excess, ESPN's phenomenal 30-for-30 documentary on the shady goings-on that led to SMU receiving the death penalty in the late-1980s, may not have shined a positive light on anything to do with SMU, Dallas, the Southwest Conference, boosters, money, college football, college football recruiting, Craig James, Eric Dickerson, Reggie Dupard, former governor Bill Clements, Sherwood Blount (for whom there is a special place reserved in Booster Hell), former SMU athletic director Bob Hitch, or, really, anybody even remotely associated with the university, city, state, or football conference in the entire decades of the 1970s and 1980s, it did succeed in two specific ways: 1) it got people talking about SMU football (no publicity is bad publicity!), and 2) it painted the present-tense SMU football program in a positive, redemptive light.

And to be sure, SMU's revival under June Jones has been nothing short of miraculous. Not only did the Mustangs break through for eight wins and a bowl victory (their first since 1984) in 2009, but they did not give away many gains in 2010.  Teams that surge forward in one year tend to regress a bit the next, but SMU did not.  The Mustangs advanced to the Conference USA title game via tie-breaker over Tulsa, though Central Florida's defense precluded them from celebrating their first conference title in 26 years.

Beyond everything else, even horizontal steps should still be considered progress for the 'stangs, who have won almost as many games in the past two seasons (15) as they had in the previous six (16), and more than they won from 1989 to 1995 (13).  Whether 2011 will see horizontal or vertical progress, however, remains to be seen.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Click to embiggen.

Record: 7-7 | Adj. Record: 9-5 | Final F/+ Rk**: 59
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
5-Sep at Texas Tech 27-35 L 24.1 - 29.1 L
11-Sep UAB 28-7 W 32.8 - 23.1 W
18-Sep Washington State 35-21 W 28.7 - 29.8 L
24-Sep TCU 24-41 L 43.2 - 24.3 W
2-Oct at Rice 42-31 W 33.7 - 32.1 W
9-Oct Tulsa 21-18 W 30.7 - 19.4 W
16-Oct at Navy 21-28 L 30.5 - 29.6 W
23-Oct Houston 20-45 L 22.9 - 28.9 L
30-Oct at Tulane 31-17 W 33.4 - 23.3 W
6-Nov at UTEP 14-28 L 25.1 - 33.6 L
20-Nov Marshall 31-17 W 32.6 - 30.9 W
27-Nov at East Carolina 45-38 W 22 - 33.6 L
4-Dec vs Central Florida 7-17 L 25.1 - 24.2 W
30-Dec vs Army 14-16 L 27.8 - 20.5 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 25.7 74 25.6 59
Adj. Points Per Game 29.5 44 27.3 60

The Adj. Score measure is intended to show how a team would have done against a perfectly average opponent in a given week, and seven of SMU's 14 games were played within five points in terms of Adj. Scoring Margin.  That means SMU was a rather consistently, impressively average team throughout most of 2010.  (Which, in Conference USA, is above average.)  Only four times was the Adj. Scoring Margin over 10 points -- three times good, once bad.

Predictably, then, SMU finished with a .500 record.  Tight wins over Tulsa and East Carolina balanced out tight losses to Texas Tech, Navy and Army.  And as we'll see below, turnovers really held the Mustangs back at the end of the season.  They were minus-5 against Central Florida and Army, turning decent performances (typically good enough to beat an average team) into losses.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 66 46 74
RUSHING 66 45 82 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 58 40 76 19
Standard Downs 75 58 82 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 37 34 45 86
Redzone 81 67 83
Q1 Rk 103 1st Down Rk 60
Q2 Rk 42 2nd Down Rk 63
Q3 Rk 54 3rd Down Rk 74
Q4 Rk 51

Back in the late-1980s, I rode the passing game to success on Tecmo Bowl by pulling the same thing everybody else did -- running straight backwards with my quarterback until my receivers were sufficiently open downfield, them calmly chucking the ball 85 yards (or 120) for a touchdown.  Unfortunately, Kyle Padron was too busy "being born" and "learning how to walk and talk" to play Tecmo in the late-'80s and early-'90s, so he was unaware of the effectiveness of this quarterbacking ploy.  He should have perhaps tried it; maneuvering around close to the pocket and waiting for his receivers to get open just got him hit a lot in 2010.

For a CUSA offense, SMU's was certainly not too bad.  They were relatively efficient (as evidenced by Top 50 success rates), but they lacked severely in explosiveness (PPP+ rankings in the 70s and 80s).  They were not efficient enough on standard downs to be truly consistent without the coinciding athleticism, but, as is the upside to Padron hanging in the pocket and waiting as long as possible to throw the ball, they bailed themselves out enough on passing downs to win their division.

SMU threw as much as anybody in the country (57.7% of the time on standard downs, third most in the country), and for a run-and-shoot offense, a high sack rate can be devastating.  The Mustangs ranked 57th in Passing Downs Adj. Sack Rate, meaning, relatively speaking, they handled blitzes rather well.  (That they ran a lot of draw plays on those downs didn't hurt.  This was a uniquely high-variability offense.)  The problem was, they ranked 95th in Standard Downs Adj. Sack Rate.  If you watched the Conference USA title game, you know that Kyle Padron had the tendency to hold onto the ball a looooooooooooong time, and against a strong defense like Central Florida, that was deadly.  Part of June Jones' offensive style is that isn't all quick reads like your typical spread offense (Texas Tech was at or near the top of the sack rates rankings just about every year in which Mike Leach roamed the sidelines); that said, Padron still needs to figure out where the line is between trying to create and holding onto the ball for too damn long.  Against SMU's overall level of competition, 34 sacks is far too many for an offense to be successful, even if it came in over 500 pass attempts.

Bullets of note:

  • The bad news for SMU heading into 2011: they were lacking in overall athleticism in 2010, and now they must replace receiver Aldrick Robinson (65 catches, 1,301 yards, 14 touchdowns).  Robinson was the one, true big-play threat on a team lacking in big plays.  His absence could make for even more of a reliance on long, sustained drives, which, with the aforementioned sack issues, could be problematic.
  • The good news: virtually everybody else returns.  Padron was still decent in his sophomore season 59.4% completion rate, 7.5 yards per pass, 31 touchdowns, 14 interceptions), and he and his offensive line will get another season to figure each other out.  Plus, big running back Zach Line (1,523 yards, 10 touchdowns, 6.1 yards/carry) and little receivers Cole Beasley (87 catches, 1,060 yards, six touchdowns) and Darius Johnson (78 catches, 845 yards) are valuable.
  • With the variable that Line brings to the equation, SMU has a power-and-efficiency aspect somewhat unique to June Jones' offensive history.  (They were not afraid to hand to Line on 2nd-and-long, which typically set up many more third-and-manageable than Padron would have likely earned on his own.)  They just need a deep threat.
  • An aside: as a "You don't need a fullback to succeed in the red zone" guy, I'm obviously a bit displeased by SMU's red zone production.  Come on, guys, help me out here.  You even have a big back!

Defense

Click to embiggen.

What does this tell us?

  • Teams didn't notice any specific weakness that they attempted to exploit.
  • SMU didn't really fall into the bend-don't-break category, but they were a little more efficiency-based than risk-based.
  • While they avoided risk, they still generated a decent pass rush, potentially because of their 3-4 set.
  • They, uh, did not go after the ball very well.  (Perhaps that falls right in with the "no-risk" categorization.)

 

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 42 54 36
RUSHING 42 72 27 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 38 45 35 55
Standard Downs 56 89 42 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 16 17 18 14
Redzone 53 80 40
Q1 Rk 54 1st Down Rk 72
Q2 Rk 30 2nd Down Rk 40
Q3 Rk 46 3rd Down Rk 19
Q4 Rk 61

When Texas A&M moved from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense this past offseason, it's possible that they weren't just doing it to get the attention of their yearned-for conference to the east ("See, SEC!  We play defense like you guys, too!  We should totally join your conference!  You want our phone number?  Here's our phone number. I'll await your call.").  It's possible that they just saw how SMU's defense was developing a couple of hours north of College Station.

We get distracted when we see the words "June" and "Jones" put together.  All we can think of is ridiculous offenses paired with optional defenses.  But SMU's 2010 success, in their second season after defensive coordinator Tom Mason moved to the 3-4 scheme, was perhaps driven more by defense than offense.  (I'll give you a moment to let that sink in.)

Bullets of note:

  • In 2010, the SMU defense was effective in all the ways you would want to see from a 3-4.  They were fast enough to prevent big plays, and they attacked from all directions, especially on passing downs.
  • Whereas big plays were a weakness for the SMU offense, the SMU D thrived by preventing them.  Looking at their Standard Downs splits, you can see that they were perfectly content with allowing you five or six yards whenever you wanted, but they were steadfast in preventing the 25-yard gain.  Once they leveraged you into passing downs, they teed off.  They blitzed effectively and, in general, had one helluva passing downs defense.
  • If Mason and the Mustangs can account for three specific personnel losses, they could see further, and larger, success in 2011.  Linebackers Pete Fleps (98.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 3 passes broken up, or PBU) and Youri Yenga (62.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 6 PBU) are gone, as is starting cornerback Sterling Moore (2 INT, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 8 PBU).  All three players were solid, and they allowed Mason to attack from any angle at any time.
  • A few of SMU's big guns do return.  Severely underrated linebacker Ja'Gared Davis (76.0 tackles, 16.0 TFL/sacks), the primary attacker from the linebacking corps, is back, and that is very good news.
  • Leading tackler Taylor Reed (123.0 tackles) and solid corner Richard Crawford (50.5 tackles, 4 INT, 8 PBU) are also back in the red, white and blue next year.

And just for fun...

SMU's 2010 Season Set to Music

Since you were more likely to have seen Pony Excess than an actual SMU game this season (even their bowl game had one of those horrible mid-day on a weekday time slots), we'll go with the Beatles, "Dig a Pony."  Or maybe Son House's "Shetland Pony Blues."  Or Bob Dylan's "New Pony."  Or, if we're feeling creative, "1980 World Champion," by The Bad Plus.  (There was no song with "slush" or "slush fund" on my iPod. And as far as I know, Slush Puppie doesn't have a theme song, at least not one available on iTunes.)

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

In Pony Excess, we heard a couple interviewees talking about how SMU was the premier football program of the early-1980s.  I ... wouldn't take it that far.  This summer at Football Outsiders, I used an Estimated S&P+ figure to rank the Top 100 teams of the past century.  Here's where the SMU teams of the early-'80s placed using that rankings system:

1980: 19th (2904th overall)
1981: 10th (583rd)
1982: 24th (573rd)
1983: 21st (1408th)
1984: 27th (1556th)
1985: 27th (4462nd)

Now, to be sure, those are decent numbers.  And in terms of SMU's overall history, only their 1935, 1923 and 1947 teams ranked higher than those 1981-82 squads.  But everything is bigger in Texas, including the hyperbole.

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 82
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 76
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -12 / -10.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 18 (10, 8)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +2.4

SMU is still in a bit of a danger zone in terms of program health.  The best predictor of future success is past success, and the Mustangs have only managed a little bit of it.  Once you have reached three, four or five straight solid seasons, you can start to feel comfortable about your program's long-term health.  Until two years ago, SMU was horrid.

The good news, of course, is that recruiting is on the upswing.  Rivals.com ranked their 2011 class second in the Conference USA, mere decimal points behind that of Central Florida and just outside of the overall Top 50.  Of course, incoming recruiting classes don't typically make a huge impact in Year One, so the impact of the last couple of successful classes might not be felt just yet.  For the "Five-Year Recruiting Rk" figure above, classes from three and four years ago are weighted more heavily than last year's because as a whole, juniors and seniors are going to impact the product on the field more than freshmen.

The overall experience of the squad, though, will be strong.  SMU returns 18 starters, and while the lack of big-play potential on offense could be a concern, the ceiling for the defense is pretty high.

You will likely see Phil Steele mentioning SMU in part of his "Turnovers = Turnaround" bit this summer, and he could be right.  But the Mustangs' TO margin in 2010 was very INT-heavy, which is less likely to turn around.  If Kyle Padron can make better decisions on standard downs, it could lead to improvement, but we'll see.

In all, SMU very nearly won the Conference USA title last year with poor luck, little big-play ability, and a downright poor turnover margin.  If they can replace Aldrick Robinson, they will have a damn good chance of contending again in 2011.  Maybe not in the theoretical Southwest Conference, but definitely in Conference USA.

 

---

* 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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