Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Developing Themes for 2009

It is still very early, but I see two themes developing for the 2009 season that could be “game-changing”.

1. The Rise of the Mid-Major

While this may be fairly apparent to anyone paying attention, it appears that the non-BCS “mid-majors” may be on the verge of a breakthrough year after so many close attempts.

We had Boise State’s stunning OT victory over Oklahoma is the 2007 Fiesta Bowl as an opening act for this phenomena, but that could have been viewed as an aberration due to the close score. However, after a hiccup by Hawaii in 2007, Utah made an indelible impression on college football fans everywhere with their thrashing of Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

And a thrashing it was. The undefeated Utes beat the venerable Crimson Tide 31-17, racking up 349 yards against the nation’s 3rd best total defense (263.5 yards per game) and 7th best scoring defense (14.3 points per game).

In years to come I think the Utah over Alabama, rather than Boise’s 2007 victory, will be looked upon as the game changer for non-BCS conference teams. One of college football’s most storied programs, from its putative strongest conference, was beaten soundly in the very bowl game associated with that conference.

You can see a difference this year in how the non-BCS teams were ranked preseason, and currently. Traditionally mid-majors got no more than one tepid spot in the preseason polls, but this year Boise State, TCU, Utah and BYU were all among the top 25 for reasons I can only credit to Utah’s success last season.

Further the non-BCS teams have taken full advantage of their opportunity, with BYU defeating Oklahoma, and Boise beating Oregon. It is an opportunity both earned and planned as mid-Major programs of consequence have moved to aggressively schedule major conference teams.

The most recent AP poll finds BYU 7th, Boise State 10th, TCU 15th, Utah 18th, and recently victorious-over-Oklahoma State Houston at 21st. The CBS Sports BlogPoll also has BYU 7th, ahead of even Ole Miss.

Not only do mid-Majors appear in the polls to stay, BYU could be poised to do much more – play in the BCS title game. It will take some luck, but consider the teams ahead of BYU at this point –

1 Florida
2 Texas
4 Alabama
5 Mississippi
6 Penn State

The three SEC teams will sort themselves down to only one, making room for an undefeated Cougar team. So the question is can Texas, USC and Penn State remain unbeaten? Because say, were Texas to lose to Oklahoma, it is going to be hard to justify a one-loss Texas ahead of the team that BEAT the Sooners.

This could be the year. Even if it isn’t, I think mid-major respect is here to stay as it gets increasing difficult to justify automatic bids for conferences like the Big East and ACC over obviously more qualified mid-major teams. (On that note, this weekend’s game between BYU and Florida State may do much more to validate that point).

2. The Decline of Defense

I know it’s still early, but where have the defenses gone? Last season saw an average score per game of 27 points (26.99), or 0.4 points higher than the average for the decade (26.6), a not insignificant number. It also saw the highest scoring offense of the decade (Oklahoma at 51.14 ppg), and 4 of the top 16 (more than twice as many as one would expect).

The average score after two games this year? Well that would be 28.5 points per game, nearly 2 points higher than the decade’s average.

Yes, it is still very early, and I expect that average to come down as conference play begins. At least I think it will, as these games give pause for consideration –

Miami 38, FSU 34
Alabama 34, Virginia Tech 24
Ohio State 31, Navy 27
Georgia 41, South Carolina 37
Auburn 49, Mississippi State 24
Michigan 38, Notre Dame 34
Wisconsin 34, Fresno State 31
Houston 45, Oklahoma State 35

These are (for the most part) major conference teams that are scoring – and being scored upon – at historically high rates. Some of these are even notably “defensively oriented” teams (Auburn – MSU ended 3-2 last year for goodness sake).

As the season unfolds we will find out whether this is a real trend or not, and it bears watching. Moreover there are still teams that appear to practice defensive football.

In terms of the eventual BCS Champion I don’t think this current defensive lapse, if accurate, will make much difference – I still think it will be a defensively oriented team. It may however eliminate more teams from contention.


pimpfist said...

Utah thrashed Bama not OU.

Mergz said...

You are of course correct pimpfist. 'Tis the result of tired blogging.

Doug said...

Regarding the first point:

"They" chose Oklahoma over the team that beat oklahoma last year.

And BYU has to go undefeated first. This discussion, while valid, for now, and as interesting a week 2 meme as any, is a little bit cart before the horse.

Jason said...

Well, the BYU/TCU/Utah grouping will sort itself out by years end so the real test of how far mid-majors have come in public perception will likely come once they do. How far will one loss mid-major teams whos only loss is to other ranked mid-major teams fall?

I refuse to be impressed in the slightest by the Boise St. win over Oregon, at home with a pronounced home advantage, until we have at least some evidence that beating Oregon means a damn thing this year.