Nitpicking the Idea of FSU as a Top 10 Team

Last season, Florida State won 10 games for the first time since 2003, beat Florida for the first time since the same year, and had more wins than UF for the first time since Ron Zook's final season in 2004. I, being a Gator born in the '80s, find those facts intolerable (and would also like to point out that FSU had only nine wins over I-A teams, so there).

Preseason rankings from ESPN (No. 3), CBS (No. 8), SI (No. 9), and Athlon (no worse than No. 5) have FSU in the top 10, and with it likely being one of the top teams in the ACC, that shoe might fit. I would prefer not to put them there in my preseason BlogPoll ballot if possible, but I will if I find it necessary.

In the meantime before those ballots go out, I wanted to see if I could find reasons not to rank FSU in the top 10. Sure that's the Gator in me being cross about the rival I hate most, but it's also the contrarian in me coming out. Aside from obvious things like the offensive line injury plague of the spring reappearing in the fall or E.J. Manuel going down, what is the case for FSU not being a top 10 team? Can it be made based on understanding last year's team?

Note: All the stats I personally supply here have I-AA game data left out.

FSU wasn't great against top competition.

Last year, FSU only beat one team that had beaten anyone of note: South Carolina, who lost the Chick-fil-A Bowl despite outgaining the Semis by 106 yards (H/T: five turnovers). You could throw Maryland in there if you're impressed by the Terps beating NC State (23rd in final F/+ rankings), but that's it.

Take it a step further. Here's how FSU performed against teams from various tiers of the final F/+ rankings:

Tier Avg. Yard Differential Avg. Point Differential Record
vs. 1-25 -64.33 +0.5 3-3
vs. 26-50 +30.75 +10.25 3-1
vs. 51+ +220 +25 3-0


Looking at that first line, you might be tempted to say that FSU was fortunate in those games against top competition. The team was outgained by just over 64 yards per contest. The record, fortunately for FSU's case, reflects the near-even point differential though. Things got noticeably better against the next 25 teams, and FSU unsurprisingly feasted on the dregs of its schedule.

While it's not exactly news for a team to do better as the competition gets worse, this paints a picture of a team that was good but not elite. FSU has some work to do to get to elite status.

FSU had a late-season swoon.

FSU's 2010 schedule was undeniably back-loaded. All three of its games in the 51+ tier came before November, and from November on, the lowest ranked team in the F+ standings it faced was (sigh) Florida at 34. That FSU's raw numbers declined from November through the bowl should come as no surprise.

That said, its effectiveness compared to what its opponents averaged dropped too. For this section, I'll be talking about the margins between what happened in FSU's games versus what its opponents' season averages were (and remember, I-AA games have been taken out). That roughly approximates how the team performed compared to what you'd expect the average team to do. So for instance FSU rushed for 3.8 yards per carry against Oklahoma, and the Sooners allowed 4.14 YPC on the season. The margin for that category in that game is -0.34.

Here's how FSU's offensive margins between actual and expected on a per-game basis work out for the two time periods:

Time Yds/Carry Total Yds Pass Eff. Points For
Sept.-Oct. +1.30 +41.56 -1.91 +4.49
Nov-Bowl -0.29 -10.22 +30.67 +6.42
Difference -1.59 -51.77 32.58 1.93


This will blow your mind: despite the more mobile Manuel starting or playing a major role in three of the six post-November games, FSU's rushing relative to expectation dropped by more than a yard and a half per carry. Total yardage relative to expectation dropped by more than 50 yards too. Despite Christian Ponder battling injury in those games and the relatively green Manuel playing half of them though, passing efficiency increased. Go figure.

How about the defense?

Time Yds/Carry Total Yds Pass Eff. Points For
Sept.-Oct. -0.68 -58.47 -16.36 -6.10
Nov-Bowl -0.23 +37.85 -5.11 -4.43
Difference 0.45 96.32 11.25 1.67


It definitely was gassed towards the end of the season. Relative to expectation, FSU's D allowed half a yard per carry more and alarmingly almost 100 yards more per game in the final six contests. The passing defense let up a little too. 

So how did FSU keep winning despite the defense wearing out and the offense slowing down? One word: turnovers. In the loss to UNC, neither team turned it over. In the loss to Virginia Tech, FSU was -2. On the flip side, it was +2 against Maryland (+10.4 TO points), +4 against Florida (+19.2 TO points), and +4 against South Carolina (+19.7 TO points). The turnovers weren't so consequential against the Gators with their hopeless offense, but they were important in the wins over the Terps and Gamecocks. Relying on turnovers to that degree is not sustainable.

Manuel vs. Ponder

E.J. Manuel has the look of a future star. He's got a nice passing efficiency rating and is fluid running the ball. Whether he will be as effective a quarterback as Christian Ponder was is still in doubt if only because the coaches understandably haven't asked him to do as many things as they did of Ponder.

Being a backup, Manuel doesn't have that large a sample size to draw from. As a freshman, he shredded Wake Forest (defensive S&P+ No. 51), was decent against Maryland (No. 73), had no shot against Florida (No. 2), and was the MVP of the bowl against West Virginia (No. 22). In 2010, he was decent against Clemson (No. 14), great against Virginia Tech (No. 28), and great in three quarters against South Carolina (No. 6). There definitely was some growth there, as would be expected.

Here's the catch though: while Manuel was personally good, the offense wasn't as effective with him as it was with Ponder. To wit, let's look at the margins versus expectation on a per-game basis again:

Stat With Ponder With Manuel* Difference
Yards per Carry +0.92 -0.62 -1.54
Total Yards +32.51 -31.83 -64.34
Passing Eff. +11.58 +18.28 +6.70
Points Scored +5.75 +4.13 -1.62
Yard Differential** +69.4 -99.0 -168.48
Point Differential** +11.8 +0.33 -11.47


*The entire Chick-fil-A bowl is listed under Manuel as he played three of the four quarters.

**YD and PD are just the raw numbers, not adjusted for anything.

Relative to expectation, rushing fell off by a yard and a half per carry. That's worrisome given that Manuel is the more mobile and the better runner of the two. Total yardage dropped by just over 64 yards per game. Passing efficiency did eke up, which again shows that Manuel himself was effective, but points scored fell off some too.

The eye popping falls in yardage and point differentials can't be pinned on the offense alone, much less Manuel personally. However, they show what the result was when FSU had both the less-productive offense of Manuel and that tired defense going at it together. It's still crazy to look at: falls of nearly 170 yards and about 11.5 points per game. The defense won't be tired in all of 2011 though, and in fact it will likely improve in the second year under Mark Stoops. It really only had three truly bad games last year anyway (Oklahoma, UNC, and Virginia Tech).

The offense figures to be more productive with Manuel at the helm as it will consist of things tailored to him from the start instead of being the leftover plays he got as the second stringer. I think Manuel himself will be good, but FSU can't afford a situation like with last year where everything else gets less productive when he's in. After all FSU lost all three of its bad defensive games last year, though the UNC loss probably is on the kicker.

The schedule ain't bad though.

FSU's schedule is probably top-10 friendly. It draws Duke and Virginia as two of its three inter-division games, and Wake Forest, UL-Monroe, and Charleston Southern provide three more sure wins. FSU needs to go 6-2 (or 6-3, with an ACC title game appearance) over its other games to hit 11 wins, a total that could land the team in the final top 10. Three of those remaining teams (Maryland, Miami (FL), and Florida) have first-year coaches, NC State fired its all-ACC quarterback, and Boston College will probably not have an offense again. The schedule is more than manageable.

Is FSU really a top 10 team?

As with everything in the preseason, the answer is a solid maybe. A lot of it depends on things outside of Tallahassee. How good will Clemson's new Gus Malzahn-style offense be? Is Mike Glennon as good as Tom O'Brien thinks he is? Will Miami (FL) play up to its talent under Al Golden? Can Randy Edsall turn 2010's spike into momentum at Maryland? Will Florida's offense be even half as good as its defense will be?

How you answer those questions determines whether you think there are zero plausible losses for this team in 2011 or five plausible losses (to say nothing of its potential ACC Championship Game and bowl chances). I don't think FSU will run the regular season table, but I'm not ready yet to call how many losses it will pick up.

As we learned in this morning's fun stat nerd tidbit, preseason top 10 teams that were outside the top 14 of the previous year's F/+ rankings almost always end up lower in the postseason poll and nearly as often end up outside the final top ten. FSU's final F/+ rank in 2010? No. 15. Maybe I won't rank them in the top 10 after all.

Now if you'll excuse me, all this talk about Florida State makes me feel like I need to take a shower.


Bud Elliott pointed out in the comments that I should have been using yards per play rather than total yardage. This is true, so I went back and did the same calculations for that as I did above.

On offense, with Ponder under center the team averaged 0.79 yards per play above expectation. That fell to just 0.01 yards per play above expectation in Manuel's games, so the offense was still less effective overall with him than with Ponder. That's to be expected, as A) he was younger, B) he was second string, and C) he ran a more limited playbook than Ponder did. The difference here is not as dramatic as it looks in the total yardage calculations, though it still shows that the offense was less effective with Manuel despite him personally playing well. The late season swoon also still held. Through Halloween, FSU averaged 0.80 yards per play above expectation; from November on, it fell to 0.39 above for a modest drop of 0.4 yards per play.

On defense, FSU allowed an average of 0.36 yards per play fewer than would be expected. The late season swoon was more pronounced on this side of the ball. It went from 0.74 yards per play less than expectation to 0.09 yards per play above expectation, an increase of 0.84 yards per play. The only really good game the defense had in this regard from the UNC game forward was against Florida, where it held the Gators to 0.52 yards per play less than their season average. No other game in that stretch was better than 0.13 yards per play under expectation (Maryland).

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