Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mountain West Wins Stack Up Well

The Mountain West is a “tweener” conference. It hasn’t yet been accepted as a BCS conference, but it has already leaped from the ledge of the little guys and is currently mid-air over the gulf separating the haves from the have-nots. This flight of faith was undertaken hoping that the landing spot doesn’t move out from under it. The conference set out on this course a few years ago by spurning ESPN’s offer for meager pay and weeknight football games, and then recommitted recently by going alone (without the WAC, for example) in its quest to achieve AQ BCS status. The magic carpet in all of this being on field performance, and so far this season (to the relief of the suits and ties in MWC circles), the collective performance of teams in the MWC has been much more similar to the BCS conferences than the non-BCS conferences. After four weeks this season, here is how the MWC stacks up in non-conference games (stats compiled on Phil Steele’s Tuesday blog at www.philsteele.com/Blogs/DailyBlog.html ):

Total Overall Winning Percentage:
SEC          43-5       89.6%
Big Ten     34-10     77.3%
Big East    30-10     75.0%
Big 12      34-14     70.8%
ACC        33-15     68.8%
Pac 10     19-11      63.3%
MWC     22-14      61.1%

CUSA     20-28      41.7%
WAC       16-23     41.0%
MAC       15-37     28.8%
Sun Belt    10-26     27.8%

In overall games (including games against FCS teams), the conference is 7th. Not really newsworthy except for the fact that the conference appears to have separated itself from the other four non BCS conferences and is clinging to its 7th place spot with hopes that it brings a permanent place at the table.

Winning Percentage vs. FBS Teams Only
SEC          32-5      86.5%
Big Ten     26-10    72.2%
Big East     20-10    66.7%
Big 12       25-14    64.1%
ACC         20-14    58.8%
Pac 10      15-11    57.7%
MWC      16-14     53.3%

CUSA      11-28     28.2%
WAC         9-23     28.1%
Sun Belt      7-25     21.9%
MAC          7-36     16.3%

After removing games against FCS teams, the conference is still in a solid seventh place, and again is much closer to joining the top six than the bottom four. In fact the winning percentage gap between the MWC and the next closest conference widens from 20% to 25% after removing wins against lower division teams.

Winning Percentage vs. BCS Teams Only
SEC         10-4      71.4%
ACC         9-10     47.4%
Big East     7-8       46.7%
Pac 10       7-8       46.7%
MWC       5-9       35.7%
Big Ten      4-9       30.8%
Big 12        3-8       27.3%
CUSA       6-19      24.0%
WAC         2-13     13.3%
Sun Belt     2-20       9.1%
MAC         2-27      6.9%

In games against teams from the best conferences, the MWC actually jumps up to 5th place passing the Big Ten and Big 12, putting it squarely as a peer to all non-SEC BCS conferences. If the conference can keep up this kind of performance consistently, its peers will have no choice but to reluctantly acknowledge the landing.

Conference Teams with Records Below .500

Big 12         1       8.3%
SEC            1       8.3%
PAC 10       1      10.0%
Big East      1       12.5%
ACC            2       16.7%
Big Ten       2        18.2%
MWC          2       22.2%

CUSA        5        41.7%
MAC         7        53.8%
Sun Belt     5        55.6%
WAC         5        55.6%

Finally, when looking at the number of teams in each conference with losing records, the MWC with only two such teams also fits much more closely with the six conferences above it than the four below it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

What We Learned in the Colorado State Game

For a game that BYU won handily and featured a lot of scoring over a previously unbeaten in-conference contender, it was not a particularly interesting, exciting, or encouraging victory. There are a number of contributing factors and in reviewing the team’s progress over the previous week, many of these come to light.

Last week I wrote:
“I think that the team comes out with a little fire and a chip on their shoulder. They will have corrected the tackling issues, and will show up on third down. With the ball in the hands of the offense more, the defense will be more rested, becoming more stingy, and will put up more points than last week. The long plays go in our favor and BYU gets a nice rebound. BYU wins 41-20.”

Here is my assessment of the questions asked before the game:

1. Will they play with fire in the belly? One quarter was enough. The defense came out with intensity and played that way for the entire first quarter, getting turnovers, making hard hits, and putting the offense in good field position. Although that waned somewhat as the game wore on, the defensive intensity of the first quarter set the tone for the game and really was the determining factor in the game. The offense never really got into a rhythm, scoring quickly on short fields and did not have many early sustained drives or time of possession.

2. Will the front seven be able to contain CSU’s QB? No problem. QB Grant Stucker ended the game with -36 yards rushing on a couple of sacks. His running threat was a non-factor. That said, he had eons of time to throw, especially in the second half.

3. Will the defense get stingy on third down? Mostly. After conceding nearly all third downs to FSU last week, the defense held CSU to 7 of 17 third downs this week, a significant improvement.

4. Will the punt return unit finally get a chance? Two thumbs up for the unit. Of note out of five punts, Matt Marshall had a back breaking punt block in the first quarter and McKay Jacobsen had a confidence building clean fair catch. No real preview to the actual return capabilities, but a good performance by the punt return/defense team.

5. Can the defense limit the big plays? Sufficiently. Although the defense gave up 438 total yards, they limited the big plays and forced CSU to do it in small chunks, which sucked up game time, but kept CSU out of the end zone quite a bit more than FSU last week.

6. Which run defense will show up? Closer to Tulane than FSU. CSU was playing catch up for the entire game and primarily looked to the passing game to get them back in it, but still, was limited to 66 yards rushing on 28 carries (2.8 yd/carry average). Nice job by the run defense.

7. How effective will the blitz be? Almost non-existent. There was very little blitzing (apparently a game strategy decision by coaches), and equally little pressure on the quarterback, especially in the second half, so it should not be a surprise that CSU was able to pass for 372 yards. The sacks that BYU did get were often coverage sacks.

8. How big of a factor will missed tackles be? No longer an issue. After missing tackles on seemingly every play against FSU, the defense resumed its sure-handed grip on opposing ball carriers, and stopping them for minimal gain an many key plays.

9. Will the turnover pendulum swing back? On its way. After a -5 in the turnover department last week, it was progress to be even (two each), especially with CSU who was one of the national leaders so far this season in turnover margin. However, Max Hall has got to be somewhat disappointed in his two-interception outing, putting him even this season with 8 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. To put it in perspective, last season Max had 7 touchdowns in the UCLA game alone and only 8 interceptions through 11 games. Although he is effectively moving the ball, he has now thrown a pick in 7 consecutive games (15 total during those games).

10. How much success will Max to McKay have with deep balls? Minimal. After Hall to Collie deep was the story of the game last year against CSU, Hall to Jacobsen (or Chambers), was not much of a story. Chambers had a 37 yard catch to the 5 yard line, Jacobsen had one that was called back, and there were a few that didn’t connect, but otherwise most balls were thrown at fewer than 20 yards.

11. Have the fans recovered and will they show up? Almost. Although selling the game out for the 14th consecutive game, the crowd seemed to be a bit slow to react and not much of a factor. Perhaps that is because the Mtn. seems to muffle the crowd noise for television somewhat, so if you were at the game and have a different perspective, please speak up.

12. What impact will the new turf have on the game? Primarily embarrassment. There did not seem to be much in the way of player slippage, although the field looked like a joint meeting of the local beginner golfer convention and a gopher reunion. Between plays there was a crew out stomping down divots and relocating displaced chunks of sod. Not a good showing for the field crew of the stadium.

All in it was a good enough game, not a great game. The first quarter, which essentially was the difference in the game, went as fans and players would have hoped, but the remaining three quarters were much less decisive, leaving some question in the minds of fans as to the team’s actual progress over the previous week’s game.

Friday, September 25, 2009

What to Watch for Against Colorado State

With less than 24 hours until kickoff, the team finally has a chance to rinse the residue of last weeks’ disappointment from their collective and individual memories. Each week, I provide a list of things to watch for as you assess the team’s progress over the previous games. As always, improvement is the name of the game, and to assess this, you need to look beyond just the yardage totals and final score. And, as expected after last week’s non-show, the defense will be under the microscope this week.

Will they play with fire in the belly? Watch for the team to come out on fire—swarming, sharp, hitting hard, having fun, playing with intensity. There may not be a more motivational situation in college football than to vindicate a bad loss and prove the doubters wrong. If this doesn’t happen, and the team looks tentative or only luke-warm, then underlying questions of the heart may surface… and my dating life tells me that nothing good happens after that.

Will the front seven be able to contain CSU’s QB? Last week, FSU QB Ponder seemed to be able to pick up whatever yards he needed whenever he needed them. CSU’s QB is not as mobile or as accurate, but has now seen how it’s done and no doubt will hope to emulate. The defense will need to adjust and make corrections, or they could be on the field a long time. QB pressure, like was displayed in the first two games is also going to be key.

Will the defense get stingy on third down? Unless they are able to do this, the time of possession could be just as imbalanced as last week (40 min for FSU compared to 20 min for BYU). After allowing 12/15 third down conversions, BYU is near the bottom in the nation. This week they will need to correct that.

Will the punt return unit finally get a chance? That will depend on how the defense does on third downs… but it is about time. Two games without a punt return.

Can the defense limit the big plays? Colorado State is known for taking big chances and utilizing a number of trick plays. They have had relative success with that approach this season (and last season against BYU). BYU’s defense on the other hand has been relatively stingy on per snap yards, having only given up three plays longer than 25 yards in three games. If they can keep it up, it will make a statement about the secondary and the pre-game preparation.

Which run defense will show up? Last week in giving up 313 yards rushing the defensive line made FSU’s offensive line and backs look All-American. Bronco thinks that it was execution errors and is (and hopefully was) correctable. That remains to be seen.

How effective will the blitz be? Part of the success against the run is going to be getting to the QB and linebackers taking the right gaps. This worked for two weeks. Last week it was shredded by FSU. Was this due to failed tackles and missed assignments (better execution needed), or was it a matter of FSU watching and learning and dissecting our system and tendencies (structural adjustments needed)?

How big of a factor will missed tackles be? For that matter, last week several key plays were made after the FSU player slipped the first tackler. Had the first BYU player to arrive held on the game would have been significantly closer, and perhaps ended differently.

Will the turnover pendulum swing back? Speaking of holding on… the offense needs to hold on as well. Can Max avoid a pick? Will Chambers dig out his death grip? Will the defense pick up a few?

How much success will Max to McKay have with deep balls? McKay has become a deep ball specialist this season averaging an incredible 28 yards per catch. Last year against CSU Hall to Collie was the story of the game. Will McKay have similar success?

Have the fans recovered and will they show up? After last weeks’ hype attack and subsequent crash, will the fans be able to rebound? As of Thursday, the game was not yet sold out and the ticket office was advertising available tickets. They will likely be needed in this game to get the team off to a good start in the first quarter, something that has yet to happen, as BYU has only scored 6 points total in the first quarter so far this year.

What impact will the new turf have on the game? Much has been made of the failures of the new turf. It was not obvious during the game, but was commonly raised after. It has only been a week, and some of the issues cannot be corrected except with time, so it will be up to the players to adjust and make it work.

I think that the team comes out with a little fire and a chip on their shoulder. They will have corrected the tackling issues, and will show up on third down. With the ball in the hands of the offense more, the defense will be more rested, becoming more stingy, and will put up more points than last week. The long plays go in our favor and BYU gets a nice rebound. BYU wins 41-20.

BYU Rebound History after Top 10 Losses

This isn’t the first time that BYU has lost as a top ten ranked team and (despite the fears of the sky-is-falling fans out there) surely, it won’t be the last. In fact, this is the tenth time that this has occurred and there are some interesting insights and lessons to be gleaned (and a bit of hope) by looking back at the previous ten losses and seven rebound games.

Including the two weeks this season as #9 and #7, BYU’s football team has been ranked in the AP top 10 for a total of 58 weeks (see the previous entry entitled BYU No Stranger to Top 10). There were three seasons that they finished ranked in the top 10, meaning they have played a total of 55 games while perched above eleven, and the team has been 45-10 (.818) in those games.

Losses While Ranked in the Top 10
Year  Opponent (score)    Pre    Post    Final    Record
2009  FSU (54-28)               7       19         ?           ?
2008  TCU (32-7)                 9      18        25        (10-3)
2001  Hawaii (72-45)           9      19         25       (12-2)
1990  Hawaii (59-28)           4      13         22       (10-3)
1990  Oregon (32-16)          4       11        n/a         n/a
1985  Ohio State (10-7)       9      16         16       (11-3)
1985  UTEP (23-16)             7      17         n/a         n/a
1985  UCLA (27-24)             8      16         n/a         n/a
1981  UNLV (45-41)             8      17         13       (11-2)
1979  Indiana (38-37)          9      13         13       (11-1)

The Breakdown
• Including this year, 5 of the losses were to current AQ BCS teams (FSU ‘09, Oregon ’90, UCLA ’85, Ohio St. ’85, Indiana ’79)
• Only three of the losses were to conference teams (TCU ’01, Hawaii ’90, UTEP ’85)
• Two were in bowl games (Ohio State—Citrus Bowl, Indiana—Holiday Bowl)

How the FSU Loss Stacks Up
• The 26 point loss to FSU was the third worst, after losing by 31 to Hawaii in 1990 and 27 to Hawaii in 2001. Last year’s 25 point loss to TCU is number four. The 1990 loss to Oregon was by 16 points is number five.
• All five of the top ten losses prior 1990 were by a touchdown or less—Indiana by 1 in 1979, UNLV by 4 in 1981, UCLA by 3 in 1985, UTEP by 7 in 1985, and Ohio St. by 3 in 1985

Rankings Drop
• The 12 spot drop from #7 to #19 is the biggest one of all ten losses
• After losing to Hawaii in 2001 and UTEP in 1985 BYU dropped 10 places each time
• The smallest drop was 4 places after losing by 1 point to Indiana in the bowl game in 1979
• The average drop has been 8.5 spots

A Bit of Hope
• There were two seasons where the team made it back into the top 10 again (1985, 1990)
• There was one season where the team returned to the top ten twice (1985)
• Every season that they cracked the top 10, the team has finished ranked
• The most losses they ever finished with after falling out of the top 10 was 3 (1985, 1990, 2008)
• The only other time they dropped out of the top 10 this early was in 1985 after losing to UCLA in the second game of the season (and made it back to the top 10 two more times that year)
• The next earliest time was in game five against Oregon in 1990 and also made it back into the top 10 that year (back up to #4).

The Rebound Game
• Of the ten losses, two were in bowl games, and one is still TBD, so there have been 7 rebound games and they have gone 5-2 (.714) in those games.

  o 2008 W 42-35 UNLV
  o 2001 L 10-28 Louisville
  o 1990 L 14-65 Texas A&M
  o 1990 W 52-9 Colorado State
  o 1985 W 31-3 Washington
  o 1985 W 59-0 Wyoming
  o 1981 W 27-7 San Diego State

• Of those seven games, there appears to be the most similarities to 1990 post-Oregon-loss game with Colorado State. A big early season win against a top ranked team. A jump in the polls. A bad loss to a high profile team relatively early in the season. And, conveniently, a follow up game against CSU. BYU fans and players hope the outcome is also similar!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What We Learned in the Florida State Game

[Note: This has been published simultaneously at www.philsteele.com/Blogs/Individual_Team_blogs/BYU_Blog.html]

I have now completed my self-imposed 72 hour deep breath and am prepared to assess this game from a place other than the ledge. This loss was a hard pill to swallow… A bad loss to a team held in low national esteem on national TV while ranked in the top ten and playing in front of the home crowd. It showcased an impotent defense and a very generous offense. On the flip side, however, the team is still 2-1, nationally ranked, with a win over a very good Oklahoma team on their resume, and several redemption games still left on the schedule.

Last week I wrote:
“FSU will be ready for this game—for them it is redemption, a chance to salvage a season, prove the doubters wrong, and knock off a top 10 team on national TV (sorry Direct TV subscribers). There is also a chance that BYU has begun to believe the hype and all of the things that are being said about them (let’s hope not), which, if true, probably will take one to two quarters to snap out of. In any case, BYU fans and players will take a win any way they can get it.”

That turns out to have been the story of the game, only we never really snapped out of it.  I also posed 11 key questions that would impact the outcome of the game and allow fans to measure the team's improvement over the previous week. Here is my assessment of the answer and impact for each:

1. Will the injured Players Play? Yes and No. Harvey Unga played and had a good game, but looked as if he was still feeling the effects of his hamstring pull. Senior Scott Johnson sat out and was replaced by true freshman Craig Bills. Also, Braden Hansen sat out on the O line (as expected) and Moose Thorson played in his place. As the field general on the defense, Johnson’s presence in particular was missed on the field.

2. Can Max Hall avoid throwing an interception? No. No. No. This game was a turnover nightmare. Three interceptions, two fumbles, and zero take-aways from the other team. Max has now thrown a pick for six games in a row (13 in his last 6 games). That in and of itself isn’t incredibly meaningful (Ty Detmer used to throw a ton of interceptions) as long as Max is still consistently moving the offense with confidence; however, a streak like this can begin to shake that confidence.

3. Which direction will the running game go? Regressed from the Tulane game. The overall rushing game was relatively effective (5.7 yards/carry), but not very significant in the outcome of the game. With 108 rushing yards the rushing game seemed to have settled somewhere in the middle of its previous two showings (28 and 208 yards respectively). Time of possession and playing come-from-behind limited the number of carries by the blue team in the game.

4. How nice is it to be home? Not so much. The 18 game home win streak was snapped. The new field left much to be desired in its debut as it gave way to divots and slippage. Despite the sellout, crowd noise was never really a meaningful factor as FSU took an early lead and never relinquished.

5. Will the refs become a factor? Yes, but not really. The ACC refs only called three penalties on BYU (the fewest in the last 16 games dating back to only two against UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl to end the 2007 season), but it was what they didn’t call that seemed to stand out—frequent play-making holdings and a blatantly obvious slingshot PI on the pick six. That said, the game might have been closer, but given how well FSU played, it would not have changed the outcome.

6. How much will the altitude affect the Seminoles? A non-factor. Altitude tends to affect the defense more, since it is harder to substitute, and it tends to become a factor late in the game. FSU did a great job mitigating this by maintaining possession for 40 minutes, allowing the defense plenty of rest, and by taking a large lead into the fourth quarter nullifying the importance of any slowdown by its defensive players.

7. Who will kickoff? Riley Stephenson. He won the job in practice last week and was an improvement over the previous two games. He had five kickoffs: 2 touchbacks, 1 returned out of the end zone to the 18, 1 returned from the 1 yard line to the 27, and 1 that only went to the 12 yard line returned to the 40. It was nice to see a few kicks into the end zone and an instance of them starting behind the 20. Hopefully with more confidence and experience, Riley will improve his consistency and this type of kicking game will be the rule rather than the exception.

8. Have we solved the punt return issues? Don’t know. Florida State only punted once in this game and it rolled to a stop. Stay tuned…

9. Will the team stay healthy? Mostly. There were no season ending injuries, although nose tackle Russell Tialavea, lost early in the first quarter, will be out for 2-3 games with a sprained knee. Overall, this was a good outcome against an athletic physical team.

10. Will the receivers be able to get open on FSU’s man defense? Yes. For the most part, the offense was able to do as it wished. The only things that really stopped them were turnovers ending possessions and standing on the sidelines while the defense was on the field.

11. Can the defense maintain pressure on QB Christian Ponder? No. This was perhaps the key to winning the game for FSU. Ponder was 21/26 for 195 yards, 2 TDs, and no picks. Even more importantly he had 77 yards rushing on 11 runs, and the team was 12/15 on third down. The few times that the BYU defense did get in, Ponder was able to take a hit and deliver the ball or evade the tackle and run for significant gain. The Cougars missed numerous tackles, and gave up over 300 yards rushing. It was as if FSU knew exactly what we were going to do on each play—and now that our blitz schemes and alignments are on film from the first two games, perhaps they did.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Comparison of Conference TV Contracts

[Note: This article has been updated and reposted on 10/22/09 (Link_to updated_article).  The updated article includes the addition of Notre Dame as well as a more detailed and accurate assessment of the Big East that includes the basketball schools as well.]

This weekend’s collateral damage from the standoff between Direct TV and Comcast over Versus (BYU vs.Florida State will not be available on Direct TV) has raised the issue of college football television contracts to the surface again and brought back painful memories to fans of Mountain West teams outside the limited conference geographies. As such, it seems like a good time to take a closer look at the MWC TV contract relative to the other conferences’ contracts, including the pros and cons of each.

[I should note that I am a non-MWC footprint Direct TV subscriber, and a relatively happy one at that. This year and last year have offered great access to all of the BYU games as well as most other conference games—almost enough good times to help me forget the years of purgatory, when in 2006 and 2007 many of the games were not available to me at any price. It was during those lean times that I purchased my Slingbox, which has merely acted as my emergency backup during the recent fat times, but will be called upon to come through in the clutch this weekend due to the Versus contract disputes.]

Conf   Teams  $/Year    $/Yr/Team  Contract
SEC      12       $205.0     $17.1        CBS, ESPN
Big 10   11       $174.0     $15.8       BTN, ABC/ESPN, CBS*
Big 12   12       $79.5       $6.6        ABC/ESPN, FSN
ACC      12       $66.9       $5.6        ABC/ESPN, Raycom*
Pac 10   10       $53.2      $5.3        ABC/ESPN, FSN, ABC/ESPN*
Big East  8        $33.3      $4.2        ABC/ESPN
MWC      9        $12.0      $1.3        CBSC/Mtn.
CUSA     12      $11.3       $0.9        CBSC, ESPN
WAC       9         $4.0       $0.4        ESPN
MAC       13       $1.4       $0.1        ESPN
Sunbelt   9         $0.0       $0.0        ESPN, Cox/Charter

*Separate basketball contracts

When it comes to taking a closer look at the contracts, there are essentially four tiers—The Haves, The Wannabe Haves, The Not-Quite Have-Nots, and the Have-Nots. It is interesting to note that every conference, with the exception of the MWC, has some sort of arrangement with ESPN.

Upon closer consideration (and in light of the SEC/ESPN domino), it appears that the trend is toward larger, longer contracts for the biggest TV draws, which leaves fewer slots and dollars for the rest of the football world. The MWC and Big Ten have chosen to create their own networks in an effort to combat that trend. The Big 12, ACC, Pac 10 are exploring that now. The Big East is hanging on to what it has (primarily stemming from legacy efforts) and looking to improve its lineup for the next go-around. Conference USA is heading back down to the have-nots and the WAC is hoping to move up to the not-quite have nots. Overall, the MWC package is better than any of the alternatives its non-AQ brethren have by a long shot.

The Haves
The SEC and Big 10 are a head and shoulders above everyone else. The bar has been set and other conferences that want to keep up are scrambling to find a way to match the TV revenue that they are going to bring in over the next 15 years.

1. SEC
The SEC has an $825M, 15 year contract with CBS, for an exclusive time slot and first pick of games (14 regular season and championship game). The league made headlines earlier this summer when it signed a second 15 year deal for $2.25B with ESPN. ESPN gets its pick of the rest of the games, some of which are sublicensed to regional carriers. It is hard to find any issues with these arrangements. This large investment by ESPN will ensure that college football fans continue to hear about the “dominance” of the SEC from the Sports Leader for years to come, and due to limited time slots, will also preclude other leagues from signing similarly valued deals with ESPN.

2. Big 10
The Big Ten Network launched last year and is projected to bring in $2.8B over the next 25 years; this also guarantees coverage for all of the leagues games. In addition, there is a $1.0B, 10 year contract with ABC/ESPN, and a $20M, 10 year basketball deal with CBS. When the SEC is essentially using ESPN as its own conference network, the Big 10 did the next best thing by starting its own, and has a high enough profile to generate more viewers and dollars than the Mtn.

The Wannabe Haves
The Big 12, ACC, Pac 10, and Big East feel an urgency to keep up with the Joneses. Rumors of creation of joint TV networks between Big 12 and ACC or Pac 10 and ACC have been flying. The Pac 10 brought in a new commissioner with the primary task of working out a more favorable TV arrangement. The Big East is exploring all expansion options in an effort to maintain its place at the table.

3. Big 12
There is a $480M, 8 year deal with ABC to show first pick of up to 19 games per season (and ESPN has rights to all basketball games). FSN has a 4 year, $78M deal to show the rest. Of those, FSN has sublicensed 7 games to ESPN and 5 to Versus. Overall good exposure, but significantly less compensation for the effort than the SEC or Big 10.

4. ACC
The addition of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College has not quite played out in TV market land as was hoped. The ACC has a 7 year, $258M contract with ABC/ESPN that is expiring soon. In that deal, ABC gets first pick, then ESPN/ESPN2, then Raycom (as part of basketball deal), and lastly ESPNU. Raycom has a subordinate deal with them for 10 years for $300M for basketball. The ESPN contract requires a marquee game on Labor Day each year. It is obvious that the conference is exploring all avenues as it has been linked to nearly all of the mega conference TV network deal rumors.

5. Pac 10
The main contract here is $125M with ABC/ESPN for 20 games per year over 5 years ending in 2011. There is another contract with FSN for 5 years and $97M—5 of those games have been sublicensed to Versus, keeping 13 windows for games on FSN. The remainder of the games end up on a hodgepodge of Fox regional networks such as FSN Northwest, Fox Sports West, Fox Sports Arizona, Oregon Sports Netowrk, CSN Bay Area, etc. The prime gripe here is that most games are not readily available to a national audience. New conference commissioner Larry Scott was able to raise the profile of the Women’s Tennis Tour through savvy TV contracts and was hired to do the same with the Pac 10.

6. Big East
The Big East has a 6 year, $200M deal with ESPN running through 2013, which appears to be a Mike Tranghese boondoggle. In any case, the league is getting paid and has 17 games guaranteed to be on ABC or ESPN, with at least 3 on ABC. In order to achieve that the conference had to agree to up to 4 games on Thursdays, 2 on Sundays and mutually agreeable Friday games. 5 additional games can appear on ESPNU. Given that this is only an 8 team league, there are not that many games to begin with, especially in conference, and only 37% of these televised games ended up being played on Saturdays, effectively ensuring no marquee Big East games on the sport’s biggest day. With the recent beating the conference has taken in the media and from fans, there are rumors that the Big East is again looking to expand (Memphis or an ACC reverse raid), in order to improve its profile and reputation.

The Not-Quite Have-Nots
The Mountain West and Conference USA find themselves with real TV contracts that actually compensate them for the product (differentiating them from the WAC, MAC and Sunbelt), but for annual amounts and levels of exposure that don’t qualify them to be in the same grouping with the previous four conferences. It leaves them looking up with envy, but also looking down knowing it could be worse.

7. Mountain West
After leaving ESPN, for increased revenue and regular game times, the Mountain West television situation is finally settling down. What was originally a 12 year, $120M contract with CSTV, added Comcast the day after it was announced, and was since sold to CBS College Sports. The Mtn. was created and Versus (which is owned by Comcast) was given 8 games per year (as part of the contract 8 games per year must be distributed to a national audience of 70 million homes or more). CBSC has the rights to up to 24 games per year (and has selected 11 this year). Overall, the national footprint/access is improving as is the quality of the product; however, what suffers is the exposure on ESPN—both on TV and online, as the station does not have any vested interest in developing the leauge’s profile. There is also no web streaming available.

8. Conference USA
There is a legacy contract with ESPN/ESPN2 for 10 games per season paying $45.8M and another with CBSC for $22M over 6 years for its pick of the remainder of the games. Both contracts end at the end of the 2010 football season, and were originally set up pre-Big East raid of Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida, and pre-MWC raid of TCU. Many games required to be played on weeknights, in order to get on TV. When these contracts end, the conference will likely take a major hit on the revenue and exposure side of things.

The Have-Nots
9. WAC
The conference moves from its $1M per year contract with ESPN to one paying closer to $4M per year starting in 2010-11. The old deal allows ESPN/ESPN2 rights to a minimum of 8 games and the new deal requires a minimum of 10. The new deal also requires at least 6 games on ESPNU. Many of the games on ESPN/ESPN2 will be played on weeknights in order to find TV time. The silver lining in all of this is the online streaming and rights retained by schools for games not televised. This contract leaves a lot to be desired, but it is something and provides the exposure that is desperately needed by a conference trying to raise its profile. Should Boise no longer be a member of this conference during the next round of negotiations, look for the TV situation to take a step backwards.

10. MAC
The MAC will take what it can get. It has an 8 year, roughly $11M deal with ESPN to televise a minimum of 11 games—6 on ESPN/ESPN2 and 5 on ESPNU. Nearly all of these games will be played on weeknights. The bright spot for the MAC is that the creation of the Big Ten Network and the removal of Big Ten games from regional networks is that there is a demand for sports programming on many of the regional networks and many MAC games are being syndicated regionally.

11. Sunbelt
Its not easy being at the bottom of the college football food chain. The Sunbelt has a 3 year contract with ESPN to show at least 2 games per year. These games must be willing to allow for a 12 day advance scheduling window and play on weeknights. It isn’t clear if the league even receives any meaningful compensation for its product, but is looking for exposure however it can get it. Comcast/Charter Sports own the regional rights.

Note: Here are a few links to other sources covering TV contracts…
1. http://mattsarzsports.blogspot.com/2009/08/discussing-conferences-thyeir-tv.html
2. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/writers/stewart_mandel/07/24/tv-deals/index.html
3. http://www.ncaabbs.com/printthread.php?tid=350645

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What to Watch for Against Florida State

[Note: This was also published simultaneously at www.philsteele.com/Blogs/Individual_Team_blogs/BYU_Blog.html]

After significant improvement from game one to game two, the expectations are high. It will take a great effort just to maintain the level of play the team displayed last weekend vs. Tulane. However, on the margins there are still areas that can be improved and several unanswered questions. Here are several things to watch for in Saturday’s game:

Which injured players will play? Harvey Unga played for two series last week and is listed as probable for Saturday, but will he get in the game, and if he does, will he be 100%? Free safety Scott Johnson is listed as possible after notching his second concussion of the year; should he not play, Andrew Rich will move to free and Shiloah Te’o will play strong safety in his place. This will entail some drop off in secondary play, but how much remains to be seen. O lineman Braden Hansen is out with a sprained knee, and Moose Thorson, who had earned the starting spot at one time during fall camp, will replace him.

Can Max Hall avoid throwing an interception? After only throwing 7 interceptions in his first 10 games last year, Hall finished the year throwing 7 in his last three (AFA-1, Utah-5, AZ-1). He has started this year with picks in both of the first two games (OU-2, Tulane-1), and has now tossed it to the other team in five straight games (10 picks in last 5 games).

Which direction will the running game go? After only 28 net rushing yards against a quick and dominant OU defensive front, the team’s horses exploded for 206 yards on the ground last week in a one of the best team rushing displays in a while. It will be interesting to see if the team can pick up where it left off last week, or if it falls back to game-one-esque against another athletic front.

How nice is it to be home? The Cougars open their home schedule defending an 18 game winning streak. The game is sold out. After two games away, a high national ranking, and a winnable game against a high profile opponent, expect the fans to be rabid and the noise to make a difference on at least one play.

Will the refs become a factor? Although the first two games saw a lot of yellow coming from the zebras, they seemed to be balanced and well-called games for the most part. This weekend’s game will be called by an ACC crew, which isn’t necessarily significant, although BYU has been burned by sole conference officiating in the past (think Pac 10 crews).

How much will the altitude affect the Seminoles? Coach Bobby Bowden says it won’t affect his team at all… history would say he is missing something. The question is how much will it affect them and when will it start to kick in. Look for the FSU defense to begin to drag a bit by the fourth quarter.

Who will kickoff? And, will it stay in bounds? Bronco opened up the competition this week between Riley Stephenson and Mitch Payne for kickoffs (saying Payne will remain as placekicker on FGs and PATs). After both of them kicked it out of bounds last week, and Payne doing it the week before, watch for that to have been corrected. Stephenson has the stronger leg (he kicks it 5-7 yards further than Payne), so my bet is that as long as he was able to show consistency keeping it in bounds this week in practice, he will get the nod.

Have we solved the punt return issues? After no punt returns last week (all fair catches or bounces), this question still remains following a poor showing from this department in the Oklahoma game that nearly cost us the game.

Will the team be able to stay healthy? The 2009 Cougars are a talented, if not deep, team and have the potential to win a lot of games this year. One of the many things that might derail them would be significant injuries in thin positions (offensive line, quarterback, secondary, linebacker). As they gear up for a conference run, it is important that they come out of this game without losing any key players.

Will the receivers be able to get open on FSU’s man defense? Against OU, the outside receivers often struggled to get open, and while FSU’s secondary is perhaps not as good as Oklahoma’s, it is filled with fast athletic players that will attempt to win a man-to-man defensive battle with our receivers. Tulane tried a similar strategy, but without the athletes to make it work. Should FSU succeed, watch for a lot of passes to the backs and tight ends. If the Cougars win this battle it could be a memorable day in Provo.

Can the defense maintain pressure on QB Christian Ponder? The key to this game for BYU is going to be slowing down FSU’s passing game and the key to that is going to be getting pressure on the quarterback. Our defensive pass rush—its personnel, tendencies, blitz packages, alignments, and disguises—has been on display (and on film) for two weeks now. How effective it can continue to be will be the difference between a shootout and a comfortable win for the home team.

I think the BYU running game regresses somewhat, but that its passing offense continues to perform, and BYU’s defense slows FSU down just enough to get the win. BYU 34 FSU 23

Time for predictions… add your prediction in the comments below as well as anything else will you be watching for in the game.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Records within Reach vs. Florida State

Several players on this year’s team are quickly moving up the program’s all-time records charts. In particular Max Hall, Dennis Pitta, and Harvey Unga were already in the top 10 in several career categories as the season began, and now, with two games under their belts, have begun their statistical assault on the players that have gone before. I will provide a regular (although likely not weekly) update on the status of each, where they stand and what type of performance would be needed in that week’s game to move them up a notch. (The original assessment of each of player, as well as national award nominations, was posed on August 12, 2009 and can be found at the following link: http://www.byucougs.com/2009/08/records-should-fall.html)

Summary of Records within Reach vs. Florida State:
• Max Hall could reach #4 in total offense (needs 238 yards)
• Max Hall could reach #4 in TD passes (1 to tie, 2 for sole possession)
• Dennis Pitta could reach #9 in receiving yards (14 yards for #9, 158 yards for #8)
• Dennis Pitta could reach #2 in tight end receiving yards (158 yards)
• Dennis Pitta could reach #5 in receptions (8 catches)
• Harvey Unga could reach #6 in rushing yards (107 for #6, 122 for #5)
• Harvey Unga could reach #9 in all-purpose yards (60 yards)
• Harvey Unga could reach #3 in TDs (needs 3)

Max Hall
• #4 Passing Yards (began season #7, needs 1,093 to become #3)—With 329 and 309 passing yards in weeks 1 and 2 respectively, Hall moved into 4th place all time, passing Kevin Feterik, John Walsh, and Robbie Bosco. He needs 1,093 yards to pass Jim McMahon for #3 all-time.

• #5 Total Offense (began season #6, needs 238 yards to become #4)—Passed Robbie Bosco to move into 5th place all time. With 238 yards, will pass Steve Young for 4th place all-time.

• #6 Touchdown Passes (began season #6, needs 1 TD pass to become #4)—After throwing for 4 touchdowns already this season, Hall needs just 1 to tie with John Walsh and Robbie Bosco, and 2 to move into sole possession of 4th place.

Dennis Pitta
• #10 Receiving Yards (began season #11, needs 14 yards to become #9)—With 137 receiving yards so far, Pitta has passed Mike Chronister (1976-78) to reach #10. With another 14 yards, he will pass Glen Kozlowski for #9. Chris Smith is #8, 158 yards ahead.

• #3 Tight End Receiving Yards (began season #3, needs 158 to reach #2)—With another 158 yards, he will pass Chris Smith for #2 all-time in BYU’s storied tight end tradition.

• #6 Receptions (began season #8, needs 8 catches to move into #5)—Pitta passed Eric Drage and Reno Mahe during the Oklahoma game. With 8 more receptions, he will pass Gordon Hudson for #5.

Harvey Unga
• #7 Rushing Yards (began season #8, needs 107 yards to become #6 and 122 to become #5)—Despite not playing in game one and only getting three carries for 17 yards in game two (due to a hamstring injury), Unga passed John Ogden (1964-66) for 7th place all-time. He is expected to be full speed this week and with 107 yards he passes Pete Van Valkenberg (1970-72) for #6, and with 122 passes Luke Staley for #5.

• #10 All Purpose Yards (began season #10, needs 60 yards to become #9)—Will pass Reno Mahe with 60 yards, to become #9.

• #7 Scoring (began season #7, needs 24 points to reach #6)—Still needs 24 points to catch Curtis Brown at #6.

• #4 Touchdowns (began season #4, needs 3 to reach #3)—With 3 touchdowns, will catch Lakei Heimuli for #3 all-time.

Monday, September 14, 2009

What We Learned in the Tulane Game

Prior to the Tulane game, I wrote that weekly improvement was going to be the key to a successful season this year for the Cougars (something we didn’t see last year), and then essentially offered a checklist of areas of improvement to watch for in that game. And, if improvement from game one to game two is any indication, it looks like it may indeed turn out to be a special season. What follows is a checklist review of the areas specified prior to the game and how the team performed relative to each.
  1. One Game at a Time Mentality—Check. The team was ready for this game and appeared focused on the task at hand, rather than looking ahead to FSU. 
  2. Running Game Improvement—Check. After only gaining a net of 28 yards on the ground last week against OU, the team rolled out 206 yards this week. While Harvey Unga did play sparingly in the first quarter (3 carries for 17 yards), the improvement in the running game was primarily at the hands (or legs) or JJ DiLuigi and Brian Kariya. DiLuigi had 71 yards on 12 carries (5.9 yd/car) and Kariya had 63 yards on 12 carries (5.3 yd/car). For DiLuigi, this was a coming out party of sorts, and fans have been hoping to see this kind of a performance from him since his arrival in Provo two years ago. For Kariya, it was a validation of his performance last week. In both cases, it assures coaches and fans that the running back position should be deep enough to last the season. 
  3. O Line Protection—Check. No sacks were given up. Hall had plenty of time. The running lanes were huge. Great game by the O Line. With Braden Hansen going down with a knee early in the game, however, depth could become an issue. 
  4. Ball Distribution—Check. Hall put the ball into 12 receivers hands (as opposed to 7 last week), and five of those were outside receivers (only two last week). A full 50% of his passes were caught by the receivers accounting for 60% of the yardage (only 32% last week).
  5. Punt Return ImprovementTBD. There were no punt returns in the game.  
  6. Quarterback Pressure—Check. The Cougar D recorded two sacks on Tulane’s first drive setting a tone that would last for the entire game.
  7. Points—Check. They needed to hold Tulane to two touchdowns or less to maintain defensive respect nationally and came through with flying colors.
  8. Field GoalsUnsatisfactory. This is really an issue of placekicking in general… PAT’s, FG’s and kickoffs. Although Payne did hit his first field goal in five tries, he missed a subsequent point after. He also kicked another kickoff out of bounds. After replacing Payne, Stephenson did the same thing. The good news is they had got a lot of practice at both PAT’s and kickoffs.
  9. Penalties—Check. Only 5 penalties for 47 yards. None of them were critical. And, considering the number of new players that were able to enter the game late, they played a very clean game.
  10. Turnovers—Check. Hall threw one pick, but the defense was able to take two of its own, along with two fumbles. The turnover margin is now +1 for the season (+0.5/game), and much closer to the team’s 2006 high water mark set at an average of +1.08/game. Turnovers were key to the final score of this one, as each of Tulane’s turnovers led to BYU scores. 
It appears that the coaches and players must be reading this column, as they checked off 8 of the 10 items listed, leaving punt returns for another game, and failing to improve only in the kicking game.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What to Watch for Against Tulane

On the heels of a season-defining performance over Oklahoma, BYU football has been showered with positive national press this week. However, that performance could become much less significant should the team not build on it by continuing to improve as the season progresses. That will be the key to the season—continuous improvement. Remember, it was about this time last year that BYU beat UCLA 59-0 in an incredible performance by players and coaches; however, that was the high point of the season as far as execution goes, and the team seemed to decline each week. Had they continued to improve, the season would have ended very differently. With that in mind, prior to each game, I will outline a number of areas that can be improved and a couple of things to watch for as you try to gauge the team’s improvement each week.

One Game at a Time Mentality—Has the team been focused on Tulane? Have they been looking ahead to Florida State? Have they been caught up in the same national projections that fans are indulging in? Have they believed the hype? Watch for them to come out with focus and fire; if they don’t it will be a much closer game than it should have been (as was seen several times last year).

Running Game Improvement—It will be hard to not see improvement here, after going up against perhaps the best defensive line in the country with a first time starter. Harvey Unga (hamstring) will be a game time decision, and should he play, will add to the running game significantly, but essentially sitting out for the last several weeks, has got to have taken a toll on his conditioning. Manase Tonga appeared a bit slow last week—watch for him to pick up more positive yards. In Unga’s absence, watch to see if Brian Kariya can maintain last week’s form now that he is on film and if J.J. DiLuigi gets more carries (only one last week) in a confidence building performance.

O Line Protection—The offensive line performed well last week considering that four of them were starting for the first time, the other had a cast on his hand, and that they were going up against an NFL caliber onslaught. But, the reality is that Hall was sacked several times, hit more times again than is sustainable, and was under pressure almost the entire night. Watch for the line to provide more time and comfort to the General in the pocket.

Ball Distribution—Max Hall put the ball in seven different receiver’s hands last week, but two of those were tight ends and three were running backs (Kariya, DiLuigi, Tonga). Only Chambers and Jacobson got the ball on the outside (8 of 26 catches, 31%). Watch to see if more passes go to the outside against a potentially less talented secondary and if some of those go to the next receivers in the rotation—Luke Ashworth, Spencer Hafoka, or even freshman Brett Thompson.

Punt Return Improvement—OU punted 7 times last week, and we had 2 returns for 3 yards and a critical fumble. Watch for significant improvement in the return game this week.

Quarterback Pressure—Last year BYU brought the heat on UCLA and the defense looked All-American. But that was it. After the “game planning” for that game, they went back to an “out-execute-them” strategy for the rest of the season, and faced a steady decline. The D line and linebackers played an excellent game against Oklahoma, but now that the blitzed and alignments are on film, it will be interesting to see if they can maintain the pressure and keep Tulane’s QB on the run.

Points—After giving up only 13 points to the number three team in the land, expectations are high for the scoring defense. Watch to see if it can maintain mojo by keeping Tulane to two touchdowns or less. Anything more, and it will not look good scrolling across the bottom of screens across the country.

Field Goals—BYU has now missed four field goals in a row going back to the Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona. I am sure that they hope they don’t have to attempt any three pointers this week, but if they do, watch for consistency to emerge here soon, or expect it to be the difference in a game at some point.

Penalties—the team had 10 penalties for 87 yards last week, and if it hadn’t been for OU giving that penalty yardage right back, likely would have cost them the game. Watch to see if this improves and if last week can be chalked up to first game jitters or if it was more fundamental.

Turnovers—four turnovers (and several other close calls), and a negative two turnover margin last week leaves a lot of room for improvement. When BYU seemed unstoppable in 2006 it ranked fourth in the country in turnover margin (13 total turnovers and 27 takeaways) with a plus 1.08 per game.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

BYU No Stranger to Top 10

BYU vaulted 11 spots in the AP poll yesterday, going from #20 to #9, placing them in the top 10 for the first time since October 12, 2008, when the team was ranked #9 the week before losing to TCU. The team tied a record for the largest jump as it also shot up 11 spots in 1990, from #16 to #5, after beating #1 Miami. And while it is true that it’s been a while since BYU has been a consistent presence in the top ten, they have now been ranked in the AP top ten 57 times, beginning with its debut on November 11, 1979—an average of roughly 2 weeks per season for the last 30 years.  This is also the earliest that BYU has appeared in the AP top 10 since, showing up in the preseason poll as #10 in 1985.

The team has been successful as top-tenners, having gone 44-9 (.830) while ranked in the top ten (three of the polls were final polls, so there was no game).

There are a number of interesting streaks and facts related to BYU’s ranking in the top ten:

• Has been ranked 57 times in the AP top 10
• First time was November 11, 1979
• This (week 1) is the earliest the team has appeared in the top 10 since debuting in the preseason poll at #10 in 1985
• Has been ranked in the top 10 during 10 different seasons (1979, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1990, 1996, 2001, 2008, 2009)
• Average 1.9 weeks per year in ranked in the top 10 over the last 30 years (since 1979)
• Spent three weeks in the top 10 last season (2008)
• Record of 44-9 (.830) as a top 10 team
• Team is 12-4 (.750) when ranked #9
• Has been ranked ninth 17 times, more than any other top ten spot
• Has never been ranked #2
• Has been ranked in the top 5 for 17 weeks total over three seasons (1984, 1990, 1996)
• Has received number one votes during 18 weeks in the top 10 (32% of the time while ranked in top 10), in four different seasons (1979, 1984, 1985, 1990)
• Last season was only the third season (1985, 1990, 2008) in which the team was ranked in every poll, preseason through final
• Team’s longest streak of continuous top 10 rankings is 16 weeks, from 9/11/84 to 9/3/85
• Has been ranked in 23 consecutive AP polls, the seventh longest active streak (Texas 143, USC 118, Ohio St 70, Florida 67, Oklahoma 52, Georgia 36) in FBS
• Was ranked for 35 consecutive weeks from 1984-1986, the school’s longest such streak

I have included here some of the actual data (all rankings are AP):

1979—4 weeks (w10 #10, w11 #10, w12 #9, w13 #9)
1981—2 weeks (w4 #10, w5 #8)
1983—6 weeks (w10 #8, w11 #9, w12 #9, w13 #9, w14 #9, wF #7)
1984—14 weeks (w2 #8, w3#6, w4#8, w5#7, w6#5, w7#7, w8#5, w9#4, w10#4, w11#3, w12#1, w13#1, w14#1, wF#1)
1985—7 weeks (wP #10, w1 #8, w7 #9, w8 #7, w13 #9, w14 #9, w15 #9)
1990—9 weeks (w2 #5, w3 #4, w4 #4, w8 #9, w9 #10, w10 #8, w11 #5, w12 #4, w13 #4)
1996—6 weeks (w12 #10, w13 #8, w14 #7, w15 #6, w16 #5, wF #5)
2001—5 weeks (w10 #9, w11 #8, w12 #9, w13 #10, w14 #9)
2008—3 weeks (w5 #9, w6 #8, w7 #9)
2009—1 week (w1 #9)

Weeks by Ranking and Record When Ranked
#1—4 times (3-0, one final)
#3—1 time (1-0)
#4—6 times (4-2)
#5—6 times (5-0, one final)
#6—2 times (2-0)
#7—5 times (3-1, one final)
#8—9 times (7-2)
#9—17 times (12-4, one current)
#10—7 times (7-0)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

What We Learned in the Oklahoma Game

I was lucky enough to attend this one (making sure to gather a few extra game programs on the way out of the stadium), and then after some celebration pizza, returned home late Saturday night and proceeded to watch the entire game again on DVR. It was almost as good the second time.

After each game this season, I will post a weekly game recap along the lines of “what we learned in the fill-in-the-blank game”. There are already dozens of media outlets that will cover the game itself, so I will try to provide something that is unique and interesting (understanding that those reading this have likely already scoured the Internet trying to satiate their post-game thirst). Finally, given that this is the first game, and against such a quality opponent, there was a lot to learn.

1. Classy Fans—The Oklahoma fans were classy. In my conversations with them, I found them to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, and gracious. Before, during, and after the game, not a single four letter word was aimed my way… or my mother’s. As we were leaving the stadium, many OU fans reached out to congratulate us on the victory and a game well won. Having attended several Cougar non-conference road games over the last several years and been treated in just about every manner by opposing fans (at Arizona being the worst), this was refreshing and commendable. I can only hope that opposing fans are treated in a similar manner by the Cougar faithful.

2. De Facto BCS Game—This was a de facto BCS game for BYU. Nicest stadium in the world. Prime time ESPN. 75,000 Fans. Top 3 Opponent. Big Payout (only about $1.5M for BYU—compared to $9M for a non-AQ in a BCS game—but it didn’t have to be split with anyone else in the conference, so it is effectively about the same if not better).

3. Max Hall—Despite a few times looking a bit nervous as the stadium’s high definition cameras and big screen captured his eyes at the line, Max played a gutsy game, shedding the monkey from his back and redeeming himself completely from the last season’s forgettable ending.

4. This Isn’t Last Year’s Defense—the defense was the difference in this game and may end up being the biggest story of the year for this team. Across the board they were quicker, more assignment sound, and better able to disguise their formations. Not once did OU’s supposed superior “athleticism” appear to be a factor against the BYU defense. There were a number of defensive standouts:
  • Jamie Hill—In his first game with full defensive play calling responsibilities, he came through with flying colors—calling the right plays, mixing up the alignments, and confusing the OU offense.
  • New Positions—There may have been 8 starters back on defense from last year’s underperforming bunch, but several of them were in new positions—corners moved to safeties, safeties to linebackers, linebackers to ends, and ends to tackles. All of this added up to increased speed and the right people in the right spots.
  • Secondary—Brian Logan and Brandon Bradley were able to effectively lock down the outside, staying step for step with the OU wideouts, while Scott Johnson and Andrew Rich did the same in the middle.
  • Jordan Pendleton—Seemed to be all over the field. After bulking up somewhat and converting to outside linebacker from safety in the offseason, he seemed to be in on the action in several key plays and will be a handful for opposing teams all sesason.

 5. Preparation—The team seemed to be well prepared for just about everything from handling the noise in the arena with silent snap counts (several players said that the piped-in noise in the practice facility was louder) to having a go ahead fourth down play ready to roll without hesitation. Kudos to the coaches.

6. Chambers is Improved--With the caveat that he didn’t get a lot of playing time last season, when O’Neil Chambers did play last season he looked somewhat sluggish and hesitant. That is not the case this season as he appears confident and quick. Look for him to become a key part of the offense as the season progresses.

7. Pitta Is Back—After playing injured in the last few games last season, he appears fully healed and back to his clutch form. Future opponents be warned.

8. The Kariya Surprise—Brian Kariya, former walk-on, filled in admirably at running back for the injured two-time thousand-yarder Harvey Unga, and should be able to provide adequate shoulders to retain some of the load upon Unga’s return.

9. Kicking Game Questions—The punting game with freshman Riley Stephenson appears to be in good hands, however issues around place kicking and kickoffs that originally surfaced during fall camp almost prevented the victory. A missed field goal. Short kickoffs. A crucial kickoff going out of bounds. Hopefully Mitch Payne will be able to step it up and perform at a higher level, or this deficiency may end up costing BYU at least one game this year.

10. Upon Further Review—In a game filled with penalties on both sides, the refs seemed surprisingly balanced. However, there were three key penalties that appeared questionable in the single replay provided in the stadium. After watching them again several times at home, here is my take:

  • Late Hit Out of Bounds—After seeing it from another angle, this looked reasonable, if not clear-cut. Good call.
  • Pass Interference on BYU in End Zone—The replays on TV only reaffirmed my belief that this was a clean play on the ball. Perhaps even a textbook play. However, it would have been difficult for the referees to have seen the angles that TV provided. Poor but understandable call.
  • Pass Interference on OU in End Zone—I questioned this one at the time, thinking we caught a break and that George should have made the catch. While I still think George should have caught the ball, it looks like he was pushed in the back just before the ball’s arrival. Good call.
11. Weekend Spin—Despite ESPN’s continuous coverage of Sam Bradford’s status drowning out the story of BYU’s performance, anyone who watched the game knows that this was a game that BYU earned. They were step for step with OU if not ahead. After a missed field goal, a fumbled punt return at the 30 yard line, and a fumble into the end zone, OU was lucky not to be down 17-0 at the end of the first half, WITH Bradford in the game.

So now with game one in the books, the question remains as to how the pollsters will handle this one… The Wall Street Journal put BYU 5th in their poll over the weekend. The AP and Coaches poll will come out on Tuesday. Keeping in mind that polls don’t mean much at this point in the season, I expect them to land between 8 and 11.

Lastly, the team will now once again find itself in the media spotlight and in opponents’ sights—how it handles that pressure will determine the remainder of the season. Hopefully lessons were learned last year that will help the team avoid a similar fate, remaining focused on one game at a time and enjoying the journey.

What else did we learn? Post a comment and share your thoughts...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Numbers Inside the Missionary Advantage

Despite the fact that it seems to come up about every other week in the national media, the notion that BYU has players on its football team that are somewhat older than typical college athletes is not a new story. Many of their players do leave school and football behind (among other things) to spend two years at their own expense in an assigned region of the world providing service and sharing a message of faith and hope.

Both Pros and Cons
Some see this as an advantage—players return older, more physically mature, more mentally mature, and with increased discipline and focus. Others see it as a disadvantage—players return out of shape and rusty having not played football or worked out regularly for two years, players may lose their aggressive edge, and managing personnel and recruiting when losing 40+ players after every season can be a scholarship allocation and depth chart nightmare. It is often also pointed out that if it were such an advantage, then other schools would encourage their LDS athletes to serve missions (the opposite is usually true, as they are generally discouraged from serving). There is merit to the arguments on both sides, and the debate over whether having former missionaries on the team is an advantage or disadvantage will inevitably continue.

Apples and Oranges
What is nearly always missing in the debate, however, is the magnitude of the age difference, or advantage, in question. It is not uncommon for even respected national sports writers to compare an occasional 25 or 26 year old player on BYU’s roster to an 18 year old true freshman on the opposing team. Obviously that is a mismatch. But the underlying question is whether that is an advantage due to the missionary program or not. Given that a mission is a maximum of two years, such comparisons are clearly inaccurate, as other factors (such as late enrollment, redshirt, or injury exceptions) available to any athlete must have led that player to be older. The maximum age advantage then could only be two years—which would be the case if every BYU football player were a returned missionary, and no players on the other team were. But this is not the case—not all BYU players are, and there are some on other teams that have served missions as well. So, with the BYU missionary data courtesy of Carey Hoki, in the BYU Football Media Relations Office, we will take a look at the actual age difference of BYU players versus each of the teams BYU plays this season.

A few assumptions used and how they impact the analysis:
  1. Assume that all players having served a mission are two years older than they would otherwise be. Conservative—although two years is the expected duration, we know that some missionaries return home for various reasons prior to two years.
  2. No players on other teams have served missions. Conservative—there are a number of return missionaries on other teams, most notably Utah and Utah State.
  3. Redshirt years will not be considered, since that is an option available to all players at all schools and unrelated to missionary service. Although it is possible that BYU redshirts more of its players than others, since they are often not in game shape upon returning from two years off, any age difference due to redshirting cannot be attributed to missionary service. Neutral.
  4. Average assumed age of all non-missionary players (for BYU and opponents) is 18.5 (Fr), 19.5 (So), 20.5 (Jr), 21.5 (Sr). Any other age differences are due to other factors. Neutral.
  5. No other player delays are considered (such as military service, peace corp, delayed entrance, etc.). Conservative—there are other players in other programs that also delay their athletic careers to participate in something else for a time, extending their eligibility.
  6. Class mix impacts the average age of a team and varies from program to program. We assume that the average collective class mix of the teams that BYU plays (a roughly 10% sample) is typical of all college football teams. Neutral.
  7. Some teams may lose more than the average number of players to the NFL early, reducing the number of seniors on the team. This will not be considered in this analysis. Neutral.
  8. Fall camp rosters have been used for each team. There have obviously been changes due to injury and attrition since these were released, but it is assumed that such circumstances affect each team equally. Air Force has been excluded because it does not include freshmen on it preseason roster. Neutral.
  9. This looks at the entire roster, not just the starters or two deep. Neutral to slightly aggressive. This assumes that the percentage of starters that have been on missions is the same as the roster as a whole, which is close, but not exact. It looks like 13-14 players will start that have been on missions (59% compared to overall average of 56%).
The Relevant Difference
Based on the typical class mix, and given the assumptions above, the average age of a college football player is 19.71 years. Without considering missions, and given BYU’s current class mix, the average age of BYU’s players would also be 19.71 years. Of the 106 players on BYU’s roster in fall camp, 59 of them spent time as a missionary (55.7%). When considering the additional two years in age for those players, BYU’s average age is 20.82 years. The difference then, and only relevant number to the missionary debate is 1.11 years. Whenever comparisons are made or debates are had, as a team, BYU is only an average of 1.11 years older than a player of similar class on the other team.

                                            Fr          So          Jr         Sr      Total
Average Age (US)                18.5      19.5       20.5      21.5
Class Mix (US)                    37.6%    22.1%    21.7%    18.5%
Weighted Ave Age (US)                                                          19.71

BYU Players by Class            37          30         19           20         106
Class Mix (BYU)                  34.9%    28.3%    17.9%     18.9%
BYU Ave Age w/o Mission  18.5        19.5      20.5        21.5      19.71

BYU Former Missionaries     13          19         11           16          59
Percent of BYU Class          35.1%    63.3%   57.9%     80.0%       55.7%
BYU Ave Age w/ Mission    19.2       20.8       21.7       23.1      20.82
Actual Age Difference (yrs)  0.70     1.27       1.16       1.60        1.11

Against the Schedule

Here is how the age of BYU players stacks up against each of the opponents this season. The only difference here, being the class mix—some teams are heavy on upperclassmen and others have a disproportionate number of freshmen. BYU’s players range from being 0.97 years older than UNLV (52% juniors and seniors) to being 1.27 years older than Colorado State (45% freshmen).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Key Position Battle Results

As fall camp is now over and the team is finalizing game prep for the much-anticipated opener with the Sooners, it’s time for a look at how the key position battles turned out (as identified previously).

Key Position Battle Results
As camp opened on Aug 3, I broke down the position battles into three categories—open or unsettled starting spots, key backup spots, and locked down spots. Within each of those, I gave some thoughts to the various positions. Here is how those battled turned out:

1. Open Starting Spots (OL, WR, CB, DT, ST)
Offensive Line—This position has lived up to its billing as there has been plenty of drama on the line over the last three weeks. Matt Reynolds, the lone returning starter, broke his hand and missed most of camp, although is expected to start in the opener. Jason Speredon, the tentative starter at left guard, tore a rotator cuff and will miss the season due to surgery. Jesse Taufi has not yet qualified academically (although he may be able to join the team at some point during the season). Houston Reynolds, expected to be a backup, is out for the season with an ACL. The surprise of camp is Marco “Moose” Thorson (6-3, 321 So) who seems to have locked down the left guard spot over Braden Hansen and Ryan Freeman. Likely starters are Matt Reynolds (LT), Moose Thorson (LG), RJ Willing (C), Terrence Brown (RG), Nick Alletto (RT).
Wide Receiver—McKay Jacobsen and O’Neill Chambers are locks as expected. Luke Ashworth and Spencer Hofoka have been the next two in. Brett Thompson (6-3, 216 Fr) has been performing well in practice and will likely crack the rotation before the season is over.
Corner Back—Several injuries at this spot have created a revolving door. Brandon Bradley’s tendonitis in the knee flared up during the first week, and still has not fully recovered. He was expected to start at boundary corner, but JC transfer Lee Aguirre has taken advantage of the opportunity to showcase his skills, creating some question as to who will actually start on Saturday. At the other side, freshman Robbie Buckner was an early surprise locking down a spot with the ones, before he was sidelined with injury. Another JC transfer Brian Logan, has performed well enough to win the spot in his absence, but will be playing with a broken finger come game day.
Defensive Tackle—a bright spot of camp. Russell T was able to join the team, Romney Fuga has been able to quickly regain his pre-mission form, and Tevita Hola has been declared the most improved player on the team by Bronco. Bronco has also been personally coaching this position during camp as a way to get back to what he loves.
Special Teams—Jacobsen and Chambers have locked down kick return as expected. Riley Stephenson has also been very good as punter. It is kickoffs and field goals that have been surprisingly competitive as Mitch Payne was somewhat inconsistent on field goals and kickoffs during camp. He is still listed as the starter and hopefully will be able to perform come game time, but Stephenson could fill in well if called upon.

2. Key Backup Spots (QB, RB)
Quarterback—Brendon Gaskins backed up Hall last season and was slotted to do so again this year, at least for the beginning of the season. However, Riley Nelson will be the only returning quarterback on the roster next year, and Bronco stated that he wanted to get him at least 12 quarters of football this season. Gaskins, approached Bronco and suggested that Riley be given the backup spot in an effort to prepare him for next season—it was going to happen at some point during the season, but it was big of Gaskins to expedite it for the good of the team at his own expense.
Running Back—Two year starter Harvey Unga was held out of much of fall practice as a precautionary measure and still managed to pull a hamstring, but is expected to play Saturday. Manase Tonga was cleared to enroll in school and has picked up where he left off—he will be expected to immediately take some of the burden off of Unga. JJ DiLuigi showed enough to secure the third spot—backup tailback—and Brian Kariya will back up Tonga.

3. Locked Down Spots (LB, S, DE, TE)
Linebacker—the starters are the same here, but it is notable that Brandon Ogletree (5-11, 222 Fr) and Jordan Atkinson (6-3, 243 Jr) cracked the two-deep. Shiloah Te’o, backup strong safety, also played some at backer as part of a nickel package.
Safety—Scott Johnson and Andrew Rich consistently performed well in camp and should make this position the strength of the defense. True freshman Craig Bills (6-1, 209 Fr) impressed coaches and teammates this fall and earned the right to backup Johnson at free safety. He will likely see the field sooner than later—possibly in every game.
Defensive End—With starters Jan Jorgenson and Brett Denney locked in, the only notable development is the solid play of Vic So’oto, an athletic tight end-turned-linebacker-turned-defensive end.
Tight End—Braden Brown earned the third spot behind Dennis Pitta and Andrew George and will be the heir apparent next season.