Advanced Expectations: National Championship Contention

Expectations are a fickle beast. Some may believe the best way to get attention from a desired female is to take her out for a delicious and expensive 5-star dinner. However, others will have much more success just being the last coherent guy standing at the bar at closing time.

You see, there can be more than one strategy to seal the deal just like there can be more than one strategy to win a football game or make it to the National Championship. However, in both examples, you have to pick your strategy and go with it or you end up losing. Clemson has found a strategy and definable identity that works in Chad Morris’ up-tempo HUNH offense.

There have been several elite-level HUNH teams over the past few years that have risen up and jumped into the middle of the National Championship picture like we would like to do this year.

I’m talking about Auburn 2010, Oregon 2010, Oklahoma 2010, Oklahoma St. 2011, Oregon 2011, Oregon 2012, and Texas A&M 2012. All of the above teams are HUNH teams that finished in the top 6 of the final AP Poll.

The average scoring offense rank of these teams was: 5.28

The average scoring defense rank: 37.4

So, it would seem that our Tigers are not that far off in national rankings at 6 and 46.

That is, until you get into advanced stats like Bill Connely’s S&P. Of course, there are many acceptable statistical formulas out there but I like S&P in this situation because it is a good indicator. More on that later.

All of the above HUNH defenses rise dramatically from Scoring Defense to S&P (most of these HUNH teams are ranked in the top 10 defensively) but we do not rise in those rankings like these other teams. We go from ranked 46th in scoring defense to just 34th in S&P.

34 isn’t so bad but, we are ranked 55th vs. the run and 95th vs. the pass. Interestingly, we are ranked as high as 8th in S&P’s "per possession" formula. That tells us right away that the difference between us and these elite level HUNH teams is simply not giving up so many big plays.

We were 109th in the nation last year at giving up 20+ yard plays. A&M was ranked 71st and Oregon 15th. Oregon gave up 43 20+ yard plays last year. Texas A&M gave up 58 20+ yard plays. Clemson gave up 69 20+ yard plays (45 passing =109th, 24 rushing =108th). Notice that it wasn’t just passing plays either. We were equally bad at giving up big plays in the run game.

So, what happens when you remove the big plays? Well, A&M was ranked 9th in defense by S&P. Oregon was ranked 2nd in defense by S&P. So, if we cut the big plays by 20 this year, which is about 2 per game, we move up into the National Championship category of defense for elite level HUNH teams.

This is probably going to happen and I’ll tell you why.

You already know that our defense should be better based on returning starters, talent, and depth. However, we were already playing at that level at the end of last year.

In the last 5 games of 2012, we dropped from giving up 6.12 20+ yard plays/game in September and October to 4.5 in November and December. That is right at what Texas A&M averaged per game at 4.46. The modest expectation should be that we meet or exceed that mark in 2013, and with almost our entire front 7 returning, remain stout in the red zone like we were as well (75% score rate/ 52% TD rate).

(Disclaimer: By all statistical indications, Georgia has the best returning offense in the country and is probably going to bust us up pretty good in week one. However, take solace in the fact that they will be doing the same thing to SC next week and probably to LSU as well.)

I realize that STS, and a lot of posters on STS for that matter, were not a fan of the Venables hiring. That's ok. This is completely understandable when you choose to look at his body of work without factoring in the HUNH offense.

As I pointed out in "Hurry Up Defense," factoring in the HUNH’s effect on defensive rankings makes Venables a fantastic hire. However, even if you don’t want to buy into that, there is no denying the fact that he has improved Clemson’s defense in 2012. Well, I guess you can try.

Venables took the 81st ranked defense in 2011 that lost its two best players in Branch and Thompson and finished with the 46th ranked defense in 2012. That’s a hell of a turnaround. Not to mention that this is the highest ranked scoring defense from a team running the Malzahn/Morris system.

The only argument against our defense not being improved is that we played against better offenses in 2011. Ok, so the average offensive rank went from 59.2 in 2011 to 68.8 in 2012. It's true, however...

Scoring Defense, Total Defense, S&P, and F/+ all show that our defense improved last year. FEI, one half of F/+, says that we were slightly worse. FEI heavily penalizes "bend but don’t break" defenses like Venables’. The defensive scheme change alone likely caused us to go down in the rankings more than those 5 spots. I don’t agree with STS for using FEI as the gospel for their statistical conclusion and I hope it was an oversight.

I mean no disrespect here. I just hope we're not letting our "preformed opinions" about Venables hide the other statistical indicators available. Yes, we’re all guilty of it at times and I think STS is the best Clemson site on the web but, I expect better from the best Clemson site on the web. Sometimes you just have put preformed opinions away for the greater good. For example:

"Venables is a bad hire. The Oklahoma fans hated Venables and wanted him out." Well, they got what they wanted. In Mike Stoops first year by himself at Oklahoma, they dropped from 31 to 50 in scoring defense, 7 to 23 in defensive F/+, and 7 to 15 in defensive S&P. Looks like we got an oops on Stoops (I know, terrible, had to do it).

"But Kraken, that just because the Big 12 offenses are so good. Dabo should have never fired Vic Koenning because we always had top 20 defenses with him." Well, VK got his first taste of the HUNH last year at UNC. VK ended up with the 53rd ranked scoring defense against that similarly bad ACC schedule (DNP FSU or Clem either). UNC dropped in defensive S&P from 52 to 74. Ouch, that’s 1 spot worse than our ranking with Steele in 2011. If I could find the sarcasm font I would now tell you how shocked I am at this.

Look, I think we got a good DC here. Can we please not light the torches and grab the pitchforks if we’re ranked 41st this year? Screw the uneducated fans of other teams that make fun of our defense. We win, and they shut up. I don’t want to be an ignorant fan (looking at you OU and Okla St.) that’s running good people off for the wrong reason.

In the proper HUNH perspective, Venables is elite level. He has consistently outperformed all the other HUNH DCs. I encourage you to do your own research there. Compared to slower paced teams, he doesn’t measure up and his body of work never will. Some of you are going to figure this out and the rest should go ahead and expect to want a new DC every other year.

Now on to the offensive expectations:

All of those elite-level, "National championship picture" HUNH teams above finished either #2 or better in Scoring Offense or #2 or better in Offensive S&P. Allow that to sink in. Not 10th…not 5th…not 3rd…#2 or #1 only. That it is our realistic expectation if we are going to be National Championship contenders.

In 2012, we finished 6th in Scoring Offense and 5th in S&P. How do we get to 1st or 2nd offensively?

Well, in passing offense we were #2 in S&P (Georgia #1). We’re right at the top there and we could even afford to drop a little. As Dr. B pointed out, we can certainly improve sacks, QB decision making, and INTs but I don’t see where it’s fair to ask for much more there statistically without Nuk Hopkins.

In Rushing Offense S&P, however, we are ranked #26 (A&M #1, Oregon #2, Alabama #4, FSU #5…is a pattern registering here). We are simply missing the Rushing Offense effectiveness that all of these high-level teams have.

This is why on almost every post on this site, I sound like a broken record and end up mentioning that dominant play on the OL is the key to the season. Improvement on the OL forces teams to commit an extra man to the run, take more chances, and leaves more space for our skill players to make plays on the outside. The whole thing gets easier and our chances for success each drive goes way up.

In order to compete for a NC, our yards per carry need to increase from 4.23 (70th last year) to 5.50 (top 10). That is the expectation of the 2013 season that matters most to me. The division champion, FSU, averaged 5.62 yards per carry last year. We should expect and demand that Clemson grows up in the trenches and delivers the same physical effectiveness as these other elite teams. Otherwise we’re fooling ourselves into thinking we’ve turned the corner.

Can we do it? Our OL went from inexperienced last year to deep and veteran this year. The good news here is that in our last 5 games which included SC and LSU, we improved some to 4.41 yards per carry. The bad news is...that’s just not going to get it. Even if you take out the LSU game, we averaged 5.00 yards per carry in November. Again, not elite level.

Our push up front did not improve at the same rate our defense did last year. That's why I believe it should be the #1 thing that we fans focus on when holding this coaching staff accountable.

We’ve reached the National championship level in creating a schematic advantage and of passing effectiveness. Now we must get better where it matters most on the elite level…running the football. This year will be a referendum on our ability to develop Offensive Linemen under Coach Swinney, Coach Caldwell, and perhaps most importantly, Coach Batson. I expect to run the ball on the elite level this year and I can’t wait for the season to start so I can see it.

So in summary, in order to announce our arrival on the National championship level, I think you can look at these three advanced expectations:

We should give up no more than 4.5 plays of 20+ yards per game and remain stout in the redzone (75% score/ 52% TD or better).

We should be ranked #1 or #2 in either Scoring Offense or Offensive S&P (either straight up points or efficiency)

We should average 5.5 yards per carry running the ball.

We've all been waiting for a year like this for a long long time. Many of us have watched in disdain as the administration fired Coach Ford and neglected football at Clemson for 15+ years. Now, we've recommitted and our first legitimate season of high expectations is almost here. Much love to the Tiger fans that have been waiting, donating to IPTAY, and paying into the SEP for a long time waiting for a season like this. Let's kick some Dawg ass!

These opinions are not necessarily those of the Proprietors of Shakin' The Southland.

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