Thursday, October 27, 2011

Keep fighting the good fight, Minnesota

One of the downsides of having conferences with a lot of teams is that some of them are bound to be just awful. I've made it a habit to point out how unbelievably terrible Minnesota is this year, and with good reason: They're statistically on pace to be one of the worst teams in Big Ten history (and that's a really long history). I'm fairly confident that they're the worst BCS-conference team in the country this year ... but what if they're not?

Colorado's 45-2 loss to Oregon last weekend got me thinking: Is it possible that Colorado is worse than Minnesota? What about Kansas? There are definitely some other teams that stack up in pathetic-ness, and by "stack up" I mean "have a similarly embarrassing amount of."

Since I'm a numbers guy and the NCAA is kind enough to provide me with a nifty set of numbers to help quantify things, that's what we're using here. The data we'll use is straightforward: scoring offense and defense (for obvious reasons) and FEI rankings for offense and defense, which strip out a lot of the variables (number of drives, for example) and then spit out opponent-adjusted numbers about how good or bad you are on both sides of the ball. The only problem with FEI data for this purposes of this study is that it ignores blowout/garbage-time info, which means that if you really get crushed (and these teams are doing that on the regular), some of that stuff isn't included and the numbers won't look quite as bad as they really are. But anyway ...

Let's start with Minnesota and the ongoing quest for historic futility. The most recent humiliation was a 41-14 home loss to Nebraska (this included a garbage-time touchdown to slightly lessen the damage) that put Minnesota at 1-6. The one win was against Miami (Ohio), a team that's now 2-5, in a game in which Minnesota was outgained but held on after blocking a punt in the fourth quarter that was recovered for a touchdown; the losses are to USC, New Mexico State, North Dakota State (yup), Michigan, Purdue and Nebraska.

The numbers tell us that this team is not only the worst in the BCS conferences but possibly the worst in the country: 110th in scoring offense, 115th in scoring defense, 105th in FEI offense, 110th in FEI defense. That's pretty terrible -- the only teams of any type with lower composite scoring rankings are Florida Atlantic, UNLV and New Mexico, and the only teams with lower composite FEI rankings are UNLV and New Mexico.

So the very surprising conclusion here is that Minnesota is flat-out awful on both offense and defense. How awful (besides losing at home to both New Mexico State and North Dakota State)? Their current scoring ratio in Big Ten play -- hat tip to MGoBlog's awesome GopherQuest -- is 17.7 percent, which means they're the worst Big Ten team since 1981 Northwestern (15 percent) and within shouting distance of 1961 Illinois (12.7 percent). The horrible 8.4 percent ratio posted by 1934 Michigan is probably out of reach, but still. Barring an unlikely turnaround or possibly the immediate rehiring of Glen Mason, this will be the worst Big Ten team in my lifetime.

Next on the docket is Colorado, which looked like a typically mediocre team early in the year but has fallen off a cliff since beating Colorado State on September 17 (that's CU's only win). The results since then: 20-point loss to Ohio State (how did OSU score 37 points?!?), home loss to Washington State and three straight paddlings at the hands of Stanford, Washington and Oregon. There's nothing quite as embarrassing as a loss to North Dakota State in there, obviously, so that's ... ummm ... good?

To the numbers! Colorado is currently 107th in scoring offense, 117th in scoring defense, 76th in FEI offense (yay) and 113th in FEI defense. The composite scoring rank is just a hair better than Minnesota's, but the FEI formula obviously sees something not so terrible in Colorado's offense and spits out a composite ranking of 107th. As for an apples-to-apples comparison, CU's conference scoring ratio is ... drumroll ... 30.5 percent, although that number is aided greatly by a 36-33 overtime loss to Cal that came prior to the aforementioned cliff dive. Still, that's almost double Minnesota's craptacular Big Ten performance despite already having played arguably the three best teams in the conference. So Colorado is very bad but not epically horrendous.

And that brings us to Kansas. This is a special case study since it seems a little harsh to include a 2-5 team with a win over a not-too-bad Northern Illinois squad, but Kansas' inclusion will be obvious momentarily. Actually, let's just get straight to the point: Kansas is giving up 50.4 points per game. One more time: Kansas is giving up more than 50 points per game!!! Excluding the season opener against an FCS snackycake, there has not been a game this year in which KU has held a team to fewer than six touchdowns.

The offense is fine (at least relatively), currently sitting at 50th in scoring and 75th in FEI. That's not good, but it's not terrible for the purposes of this discussion. The defense, meanwhile, is just unbelievably awful at everything. I'm gonna ignore the template for a moment to provide some additional statistical proof: Kansas is 120th in scoring defense (obviously), 120th in total defense, 119th in rushing defense, 119th in passing defense, 119th in pass-efficiency defense, 113th in sacks and 111th in tackles for loss. Also, there is no other BCS-conference defense in the country within 13 points of Kansas' per-game scoring average. THAT IS SO FREAKING BAD!!!

The FEI data is a little less damning, bumping the defense up to 113th on the basis of a horrific schedule that's included Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Kansas State in the past five weeks (BTW, Kansas' composite FEI ranking is 116th). In other words, Kansas' defense might just be really crappy and not the worst defense that has ever existed. And since you and I are both wondering, the all-time records for points allowed per game and points allowed in a season are 50.3 (Louisiana-Lafayette in 1997) and 566 (Eastern Michigan in 2002). Kansas is currently on pace to allow 605 points and is also allowing 550.86 yards per game, which isn't far off the record of 553.0 set by Maryland in 1993.

How do you quantify the overall quality of a team that's OK at most stuff but so inexplicably pathetic in one area that the rest doesn't matter? Consider this: Kansas is putting up just over 30 points per game and is still being outscored in the average game by about three touchdowns (lol). Minnesota is being outscored by only 18 points per game despite having worse-looking composite rankings. In conference play, though, Kansas is closer to Colorado than Minnesota: A scoring ratio of 31.2 percent isn't historically noteworthy.

So ... if we're ranking the worst of the worst, the list goes as follows (from worst to not quite worst):

1. Minnesota
2. Kansas
3. Colorado

Kansas and Colorado are clearly really bad but deserve a little slack for two reasons: They can both do at least something decently and have both had the misfortune to play (and get killed by) a handful of really good teams. Minnesota, on the other hand ... no. Playing some close games early has helped buoy the margin of defeat, but those games were against New Mexico State, Miami (Ohio) and North Dakota State -- and two of those were losses! Getting beat by 13 at home by an FCS team and getting massacred by Purdue (a pretty bad team that lost to Rice and almost lost to Middle Tennessee State but led Minnesota 45-3 at one point) just can't be explained away. And the overall numbers are worse than anybody's* despite the relatively easy schedule; just wait til after the Michigan State and Wisconsin games.

You win, Minnesota (for a given definition of "win").

*Worse than anybody's numbers this year. It should be noted that Minnesota could get obliterated in all of its final five games and still not be as bad as the 2008 and 2009 Washington State teams that got outgained by a cumulative average of 241 yards and outscored by more than 30 points per game. Woo Wazzu!


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