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Summer Vacation: Mustaches, Ground Games, and the Florida Atlantic Owls

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

It happens a couple of times a season.  I flip on ESPN2 during the typical times Sun Belt games are usually shown (Wednesday nights, Sunday mornings, Mondays at dawn) ... and there he is.  The man who has more Burt Reynolds swagger than Burt Reynolds.  The man who recruited Joe Namath to Alabama.  The man who built The U.  The man who took lowly (at the time) Louisville to a New Year's Day win over Alabama.  The man who has an athletics complex named after him in Louisville.  The man who once said, in regard to his Oklahoma Sooners possibly facing a Colorado team without the Buffs' starting quarterback, Koy Detmer, "we don't want a damn asterisk behind it when we beat their ass" (they lost, 38-17, but that's besides the point).

Actually, I should have saved this write-up for a Saturday.  What I Love: That Howard Schnellenberger is still around.  He's 77 years old, and the "Schnellenberger to retire?" rumors gain a little more steam each winter.  But his mustache is still -- and will always be -- glorious, he is the only coach Florida Atlantic has ever known (he almost literally built the program with his bare hands), he brought the Owls to a bowl in just their second season at the FBS level, and he is indeed still chugging along. 

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 4-8 | Adj. Record: 1-11 | Final F/+ Rk**: 104
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep at UAB 32-31 W 28.9 - 30.8 L
11-Sep Michigan State 17-30 L 22.1 - 33.0 L
25-Sep North Texas 17-21 L 30.1 - 32.5 L
2-Oct at South Florida 3-31 L 14.6 - 35.6 L
9-Oct at UL-Monroe 17-20 L 23.2 - 30.6 L
23-Oct at Arkansas State 16-37 L 15.4 - 27.0 L
30-Oct Florida International 21-9 W 31.9 - 15.5 W
6-Nov at Western Kentucky 17-16 W 6.2 - 20.9 L
13-Nov UL-Lafayette 24-23 W 22.6 - 32.2 L
20-Nov at Texas 17-51 L 22.6 - 39.4 L
27-Nov at Middle Tennessee 14-38 L 14.4 - 35.9 L
4-Dec Troy 7-44 L 14.0 - 34.0 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 16.8 113 29.3 79
Adj. Points Per Game 20.5 107 30.6 88

While Schnellenberger may still be around, it looks like he might need to find his second (eighth?  Twenty-seventh?) wind to restore FAU to the heights they established a few years ago.  The Owls regressed in the win column for the third straight year in 2010 -- from eight wins in 2007, to seven in 2008, to five in 2009, to four.  Things started on a decent path -- FAU knocked off what turned out to at least be a decent UAB team, then suffered competitive losses to Michigan State and North Texas (if there were such a thing as a "competitive loss" to Todd Dodge and the Mean Green, anyway).  Aside from a surprisingly strong rivalry game performance against the best Florida International team ever, though, it was one long downhill slide for the offense.  As defenses figured out that Atlantic ran the ball worse than Miami Northwestern High School (and this might not be an exaggeration), the going got rough.

The defense, meanwhile, allowed the national average of 27 Adj. Points or better three times -- all in a three-week slice late in October.  For the season, they were rather consistently a touchdown or so below average.  This alone would not be a deal-breaker, but with a tumbling offense, "below-average" just wasn't going to cut it.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 106 99 109
RUSHING 118 117 118 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 71 42 81 118
Standard Downs 106 96 110 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 103 105 100 103
Redzone 119 119 119
Q1 Rk 105 1st Down Rk 103
Q2 Rk 116 2nd Down Rk 114
Q3 Rk 65 3rd Down Rk 100
Q4 Rk 112

Well, we can say this much for sure: this year's Florida Atlantic offense is not going to look much like last year's.  For an offense that ranked 103rd or worse in five of the six categories above, that is not necessarily a bad thing.  With a new cast of characters, what's going to happen ... they're going to be worse than 118th rushing, 119th in the red zone and 106th overall?  It's technically possible, but the difference between FAU's 2010 perch and dead last is not that stark.

The change starts behind center.  Jeff Van Camp (2,459 yards, 7.3/pass, 57.3% completion rate, 17 TD, 13 INT) departs after what was, all things considered, a rather solid season.  Accomplishing what he did with one of the worst ground games in the country was admirable, even if the completion rate was not where you'd like to see it.  With Van Camp go his three top targets.  Lester Jean, Avery Holley and tight end Rob Housler combined for 1,911 receiving yards, 13 touchdowns, and 66.3% of all targets last season; I'm not sure there's a team in the country returning a lower percentage of its targets than FAU.  Run-catch threat Willie Floyd (256 rushing yards, 141 receiving yards, 2 TD) is gone too.

So what's left?  Nine members of the offensive line two-deep, for starters.  FAU's line was ravaged by injury last year (only one starter played all 12 games), which meant bad things in 2010 (103rd in Adj. Sack Rate, 118th in Adj. Line Yards) but could hint at better things soon.  When you are breaking in a completely new passing game, there are worse things in the world than having a savvy, experienced line for protection.

With Van Camp gone, it appears to be a four-way battle for the starting job.  Last year's backup, David Kooi, has to be considered a favorite, but it appears that Graham Wilbert, Nick Bracewell and Stephen Curtis are all being given an opportunity to impress Coach Mustache.  For what it's worth, it appears Wilbert has been doing rather well this spring.

Other tidbits:

  • For better or worse, running back Alfred Morris, FAU's second-leading career rusher, returns for another season.  Even accounting for his shoddy line, Morris produced one of the lowest Adj. POE totals in the country last year: -14.2.  Combined with his more-respectable-but-come-on performance of 2009 (-3.5 Adj. POE), one has to figure the FAU run game won't improve dramatically until they get a little bit of new blood instilled in the position. Hey, speaking of new blood...
  • ...who is the new quarterback going to have to target?  Tight end Darian Williams is the leading returning target from last season -- he was targeted with just 7% of Van Camp's passes; even worse, he caught just 35% of them at 11.9 yards per catch and 4.1 per target.  In terms of wideouts, DeAndre Richardson (114 yards, 9.5/catch, 5.4/target) is this year's version of a "veteran presence."  Be on the lookout for Byron Hankerson and young Marcus Cunningham as well.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 91 102 78
RUSHING 87 94 72 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 93 82 96 89
Standard Downs 87 88 87 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 97 109 86 79
Redzone 38 67 27
Q1 Rk 111 1st Down Rk 96
Q2 Rk 74 2nd Down Rk 94
Q3 Rk 81 3rd Down Rk 92
Q4 Rk 83

From the information above, one thing should quickly stand out: opponents felt really, really comfortable with the idea of running the ball against FAU.  On a per-play basis, the Owls' run defense really didn't seem any worse than their pass defense, but when you can get six yards per play on first down, why would you choose something different?

From a "bad mid-major defense" perspective, FAU's was not particularly vulnerable to the big play, especially against the run.  Theirs was a problem of efficiency.  To address this issue, Schnellenberger decided to make a change.  In 2011, FAU will be lining up in a 3-4.  Honestly, the timing for this isn't bad.  Returning end Cory Henry (8.5 TFL/sacks) seems rather well-suited to OLB at just 238 pounds.  Meanwhile, at 6'4, 275 pounds, fellow end Kevin Cyrille (6.5 TFL/sacks) seems potentially capable of withstanding the extra pressure associated with being the single true end on the line.

As always, moving to a 3-4 puts pressure on potentially undersized tackles to not crumple taking on more blockers; at 290 pounds, stumpy Jimmy Jean might be up for the challenge, however.  The other tackle/end spot looks to be manned by 6'4, 275-pound Kevin Cyrille.  Whether Andrew Stryffeler (last seen as a 245-pound freshman end last fall), or whoever wins the other tackle spot, can too ... that remains to be seen.

  • All I can say is this: I really hope linebacker Yourhighness Morgan (34.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks) thrives in the new defensive alignment.  Because I need more Yourhighness in my life.
  • In theory, the 3-4 and its disguised looks might take pressure off of a retooled secondary.  Cornerbacks Tarvoris Hill and Tavious Polo combined for four interceptions, 5.0 TFL/sacks, nine PBU's and a far-too-high 90.0 tackles last year.  The Owls are experienced at safety with Marcus Bartels (80.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 7 PBU) and Demetrius Williamson returning, but we'll see about the cornerback position.

Florida Atlantic's 2010 Season Set to Music

Because the run game killed both FAU's offense and defense, and because the iPod is overflowing with songs including the word "run" in the title...

Ten Great "Run"-based Songs

"Come Running," Van Morrison
"F***ed Run," Blues Traveler
"Hit It Run," Run-DMC
"Miles Runs the Voodoo Down," Miles Davis
"Run Devil Run," Jenny Lewis & The Watson Twins
"Run For Your Life," The Beatles
"Run Thru," My Morning Jacket
"Runaway," Pat McGee Band
"Turd on the Run," Rolling Stones
"You're Running Wild," Emmylou Harris

And yes, "Born to Run" was just too damn obvious.  So was "Long Train Runnin'," for that matter.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

I'm still sorting through all of the targets-and-catches data I received from Marty of a while back, but as you've perhaps noticed in the last couple of profiles, I'm slowly incorporating the data into these pieces.  One thing you notice rather quickly: few players are the targets of over 30% of a quarterback's (or quarterbacks') passes (completions and incompletions).  FAU's Lester Jean, however, was.

Highest Target Rate, 2010
1. Eric Page, Toledo (40.0%)
2. Kamar Jorden, Bowling Green (37.3%)
3. Greg Jones, Navy (37.0%)
4. Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina (36.1%)
5. Lester Jean, Florida Atlantic (33.0%)
6. Juan Nunez, Western Michigan (32.5%)
7. Jermaine Kearse, Washington (31.7%)
8. Jordan White, Western Michigan (31.6%)
9. A.J. Jenkins, Illinois (31.6%)
10. Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech (31.2%)

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 97
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 115
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -9 / -7.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (7, 5)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +4.3

No matter my admiration for weird old Coach Schnellenberger, it's hard to be too tremendously optimistic about Florida Atlantic's prospects in 2011.  Their YPP margin shows they were quite unlucky, and it's possible that the 3-4 could lead to a few more turnovers along the way, but with a passing game completely starting from scratch and a run game that was dreadful in 2010, one can only see minimal improvement (if any at all) on that side of the ball.  That puts a lot of pressure on a defense that is learning a new scheme.

It appears that FAU has a few solid athletes around which they can build -- Cory Henry, DeAndre Richardson, etc. -- but in an ever-improving Sun Belt conference, where Florida International is surging, Arkansas State is explosive, Troy is Troy, and even the UL-Monroe's of the world might be getting their stuff together, it's unlikely that FAU has enough in the tank to make too much of a run this year.

Uh oh ... I think I just underestimated Coach Schnellenberger.  Pencil them into the New Orleans Bowl.




* 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.