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KU football season preview with SB Nation writer and advanced stats specialist Bill Connelly

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Before the season, I wanted to be sure to touch base with friend-of-the-blog Bill Connelly, who writes for SB Nation, the SB Nation site Football Study Hall and also the Football Outsiders Almanac.

Connelly, as you might remember, studies the advanced statistics in college football. We've had content from him a few times in the past, and his play-by-play-based calculations continue to lead the way into a new era of college football statistics.

Connelly just completed a massive project of his own as well, providing free, detailed previews on each of the 124 Div. I teams. It's definitely worth checking out if you haven't yet.

For this week, though, I wanted to get Connelly's specific thoughts about the Kansas football team from a statistical perspective (especially since optimism sometimes overflows in August when every team is undefeated).

A transcript of our chat is below.

Jesse Newell: What's a reason/statistic that makes you optimistic about KU football in 2012?

Bill Connelly: In 2012? There isn't much. I like Dayne Crist, and I love Tony Pierson, and on defense, Toben Opurum is solid and Bradley McDougald is a lovely play-maker. But that's four guys. There's no doubt that Charlie Weis has pretty quickly upgraded the talent level, but he did so for a team that was truly awful last year. The goal for 2012 should simply be improvement.

Kansas quarterback Dayne Crist pulls back to throw on his first play from scrimmage during the Spring Game on Saturday, April 28, 2012 at Kivisto Field. In back, head coach Charlie Weis looks on.

Kansas quarterback Dayne Crist pulls back to throw on his first play from scrimmage during the Spring Game on Saturday, April 28, 2012 at Kivisto Field. In back, head coach Charlie Weis looks on. by Nick Krug

JN: What's a reason/statistic that makes you pessimistic about KU football in 2012?

BC: The offense ranked 107th in Off. F/+ last year, below Rice, Troy, Eastern Michigan, Buffalo, UAB, New Mexico State and Army (F/+ is Football Outsiders' official team ranking based on play-by-play and drive statistics). The defense ranked 111th in Def. F/+ last year, below Memphis, New Mexico State (again), Duke, Akron, Tulane and Army (again). There's really no reason to go too far beyond that, right? Even if Weis engineers some strong first-year improvement (which is never a given), that still only moves them back toward competent, not good.

JN: I really enjoyed your article about which defensive statistics are more sustainable and which are more based on luck.

Looking at KU, is there any evidence to suggest that KU's defense was lucky or unlucky in 2011?

BC: Not really. It looks like KU was about +1.2 points per game in terms of turnovers luck. They recovered 16 of their own 27 fumbles, and that should have probably been more like 14; meanwhile, they picked off eight passes and broke up 32, which is just about the right ratio.

JN: In your KU football preview, you talk about the evidence indicating that Charlie Weis might struggle again to be a successful college head coach.

What numbers from Weis' Notre Dame tenure make you pessimistic about his ability to rebuild a program?

Kansas head coach Charlie Weis talks with his son Charlie Weis Jr. during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012.

Kansas head coach Charlie Weis talks with his son Charlie Weis Jr. during practice on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. by Nick Krug

BC: Primarily, what gives me pause is simply that, once the Notre Dame program became truly his in Year Three, it bottomed out. He pieced together a solid offense again after a brutal 2007 season with Jimmy Clausen as a freshman, but the defense really never came around. That's obviously not a great sign.

That said, the Notre Dame and Kansas jobs are incredibly different. Notre Dame has an odd relationship between expectations and the reality of recent history, and while it hasn't been too long since Kansas played at a really high level, it is probably safe to say that he will get more time to figure things out in Lawrence.

JN: Weis was the offensive coordinator at Florida last year. Is there anything we can take away from those numbers that might indicate Weis' strengths/weaknesses as an offensive coordinator in college?

BC: Last year suggested two things: 1) He didn't deal well with the leftovers of previous coordinator Steve Addazio's "hybrids of hybrids of hybrids" approach. His best tight end was a former quarterback, his two best running backs were two of the better wideouts, etc. Florida's offense didn't regress with him pulling the strings, but it didn't even slightly improve either. 2) He still takes a professional approach to the college game, and that's not necessarily a good thing.

The pro-style offense is great if you have better talent than everybody else, but we don't really have any evidence that he is strong in terms of the underdog tactics requisite to turn a roster like Kansas' into a quick winner.

JN: The latest from KU camp is that receiver JaCorey Shepherd has been practicing at defensive back. Considering his impressive numbers at wideout in 2011 (16.3 Adj. yards/target) and KU's lack of a big-play guy at receiver, would you consider this a mistake? Or is 15 catches too small of a sample size to make any grand conclusions?

Kansas receivers Kale Pick (7) and JaCorey Shepherd bump chests after Shepherd's second touchdown of the game against McNeese State during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011 at Kivisto Field.

Kansas receivers Kale Pick (7) and JaCorey Shepherd bump chests after Shepherd's second touchdown of the game against McNeese State during the fourth quarter on Saturday, Sept. 3, 2011 at Kivisto Field. by Nick Krug

BC: It's definitely a small sample size, but he looked good when given the opportunity, that's for sure. I think it probably says more about the secondary than anything else. Outside of McDougald, Opurum and maybe Darius Willis, the defense doesn't really have many play-making options either.

Plus, as always, since Shepherd was only targeted 18 times all season on a bad passing offense, there's a chance that either a) he isn't good in practice, b) his route-running is limited or c) he's not a very good blocker. There's always context behind the numbers.

JN: I enjoyed reading the graphs and statistics from the statistical profile you did on KU.

I just wondered, at a quick glance, which numbers stick out to you most when looking over the 2011 Jayhawks?

BC: Honestly, the biggest thing is the complete lack of disruptive stats on the defensive side of the ball.

Iowa State quarterback Jared Barnett escapes a sack by Kansas defensive end Toben Opurum during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011 at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa.

Iowa State quarterback Jared Barnett escapes a sack by Kansas defensive end Toben Opurum during the second quarter on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2011 at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames, Iowa. by Nick Krug

Just five players had more than two tackles for loss, two players had more than one interception (none more than two), one player defended (interceptions + passes broken up) more than five passes, and nobody forced more than two fumbles.

Obviously going for more big plays leaves you more vulnerable to ALLOWING more big plays, but … Kansas simply has to make more plays on defense. In the Big 12, you're probably going to allow some big plays no matter what; do whatever you can to be more disruptive.

(This should be seen almost as a reason for optimism. Coaching CAN make a different in a defense's level of disruption. It just comes with a trade-off, i.e. the threat of allowing more big gains.)

JN: Looking at the aforementioned statistical profile, I noticed that KU has failed to win a game in the last two years according to your "Adjusted Score" measure. That doesn't seem like a good thing.

BC: No, no it's not.

JN: Since you started tracking play-by-play numbers, has any BCS team had a worse two-year stretch than KU had under Turner Gill in 2010-11?

Kansas university coach Turner Gill watches the jayhawks’ spring game on April 24 at Memorial Stadium. From his previous football experiences, Gill has already developed a sterling reputation in the Big 12 heading into his first year in Lawrence.

Kansas university coach Turner Gill watches the jayhawks’ spring game on April 24 at Memorial Stadium. From his previous football experiences, Gill has already developed a sterling reputation in the Big 12 heading into his first year in Lawrence. by Nick Krug

BC: Washington State actually ranked 120th, dead last, in each of Paul Wulff's first two seasons (2008-09). So there's that.

JN: Finally, my Kansas State buddy thinks I'm way too hard on his Wildcats. But really, going 8-1 in one-possession games shouldn't be repeatable (even with a Hall of Fame coach), should it?

BC: Auburn showed last year that you CAN keep at least some close-game magic going; the Tigers went 7-0 in one-possession games in 2010, then went 3-0 again in 2011. If KSU can keep things close again, they can pull off just enough 3rd-and-3 conversions to win most close games again, especially when you consider that Collin Klein is back.

That said, while Auburn was still pulling out tight wins, they were also losing five games by an average score of 42-14. KSU might still have close-game magic, but they will probably face a few more whippings along the way. Last year was an absolutely incredible run by KSU, but … doing it twice is even more difficult than doing it once.

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