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Blueprint for BCS National Championship Success V: Measuring the Irish

By · August 16th, 2010 · 1 Comment
Blueprint for BCS National Championship Success V: Measuring the Irish

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a five-part series detailing the blueprint for winning the BCS national championship and measuring the Irish performance against this standard.

As Irish fans know all too well, Notre Dame hasn’t been part of the national title picture for over a decade. The last year the lads in blue and gold laid a legitimate claim to a championship was 1993, as a consistently strong team hasn’t been a fixture in South Bend since the end of the Holtz era.

Since 2000 the Irish have posted a pedestrian 70-52 (0.574) record including a 1-5 bowl clip to go along with five non-winning seasons. But there were some bright spots. Bob Davie led the Irish to a 9-2 regular season record in 2000 capped by a Fiesta Bowl appearance. Tyrone Willingham started his tenure in South Bend with a 10-3 mark and an invitation to the Gator Bowl. And the recently departed Charlie Weis opened his career with nine and 10-win seasons and consecutive BCS bowl births.

Unfortunately, the pervasive theme during those four years was a strong—albeit not great—regular season, capped by a bowl invitation that seemed motivated more by the financial draw of the Irish fan base than the on-field product.

Despite solid regular season records that potentially merited an upper-tier bowl invitation, the outcome of these season finales were far from favorable. The Irish were severely overmatched in the 2000 Fiesta Bowl, a 41-9 thrashing at the hands of Oregon State, the 2003 Gator Bowl was a 22-point loss to North Carolina State, and Weis’ 2005 and 2006 BCS bowl teams lost by an average margin of nearly three touchdowns. In many ways these bowl performances highlighted what many fans and detractors knew going into the game—these squads simply weren’t elite, national championship caliber teams.

But how far were these teams from title contention? Furthermore, what was missing, and is new head coach Brian Kelly the man to get the program pointed in the right direction?

Benchmarking Notre Dame to the Blueprint

What follows is a statistical comparison of the last 10 Irish squads to the BCS national championship blueprint identified in the previous four installments. The tables below include a 10-year average comparison of the BCS champions and Notre Dame, the value and ranking cutoffs, and the number of years the Irish met or exceeded these cutoffs for each blueprint metric. As with the previous segments, the data is divided among the three statistical categories (miscellaneous, offense and defense).


Benchmarking the Irish: Miscellaneous Metrics

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The Irish have come up short in turnover margin over the past decade. The past 10 BCS title winners averaged a turnover margin of 14.2 compared to only 4.6 for the Irish. Additionally, Notre Dame only exceeded the value cutoff for this metric in two years, 2000 and 2005.

In most seasons the problem was generating turnovers and Weis’ more veteran squads were a perfect example of this trend. The Irish only lost 14 turnovers and ranked in the top seven in this category in 2005, 2006 and 2009, but failed to crack the top 35 in turnovers gained in the same years posting an average ranking of nearly 70.


Benchmarking the Irish: Total Offense Metrics

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With the exception of two seasons, the Irish haven’t performed at a championship level in total offense. Over the past 10 years the Irish averaged more than a yard less per play, and 76.5 yards and 12.2 points less per game. The 10-year ranking comparisons are equally as different.

Weis’ 2005 offense was, by far, the best unit. The Brady Quinn-led squad met the value and ranking cutoffs in every total offensive metric including a gaudy 48.9 percent third down conversion rate, 6.1 YPP, 477.3 YPG, and 36.7 PPG. Last year’s unit wasn’t far off, exceeding the value and ranking cutoffs in YPP and YPG, and only narrowly missing the third down efficiency and PPG cutoffs.

The 2007 offense was the low point of the past 10 seasons (and perhaps in the history of Notre Dame football), but the 2001, 2002 and 2003 offensive units weren’t far behind. During these four years the Irish converted a paltry 33.4 percent of third downs and averaged a ranking of 107.5, 106.8 and 99.8 in YPP, YPG and PPG respectively.

Benchmarking the Irish: Rushing Offense Metrics

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Notre Dame’s rushing offense has been somewhat of a bipolar affair over the last 10 years.

The focus of the offense shifted from a run-heavy approach under Davie and in the first year of Willingham’s tenure, to a more balanced unit in 2003-2005, and, finally, to a pass-first scheme with Weis at the helm. The offense averaged 532 rush attempts per season and a run/pass split of 68/32 from 2000-2002, 474 attempts and a split of 54/46 from 2004-2005, but only 424 attempts and a 49/51 split since 2005.

During the early part of the decade when there was a strong focus on the running game, the offense performed at high levels. The Irish met every rush metric value and ranking cutoff in 2000 with one exception, and met half of the cutoffs in 2001.

But since 2001 the Irish have only exceeded two value cutoffs (attempts in 2002 and 2005) and only one ranking cutoff (attempts in 2005) while averaging a paltry 3.4 yards per attempt, 126.3 yards per game, and 14.4 touchdowns per year. Compared to the 10-year BCS champion averages of 4.9 YPA, 198.9 YPG, and 32.6 touchdowns per year, these values don’t stack up well.

Benchmarking the Irish: Passing Offense Metrics

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It’s should come as no surprise that the last 10 Irish offenses didn’t meet a single pass metric value or ranking cutoff until Weis installed his pro-style scheme.

From 2000 through 2004 the Irish averaged a modest 6.4 pass YPA, a paltry 11.6 passing touchdowns per year, a very inefficient 51.5 percent completion rate, and a pass efficiency rating under 110. The performance during these years was good for average rankings of 78.2 (YPA), 82.6 (touchdowns), 88 (completion percentage) and 80 (pass efficiency)—compared to average rankings of 17.8, 26.7, 21.2 and 14.5 for the last 10 BCS champions. Not only was the passing game an afterthought in terms of production, it was also woefully inefficient.

Weis arrived in 2005, modernized the Irish passing game, and morphed the offense into a much more efficient unit. Since 2005 (excluding the 2007 season) the Irish averaged eight YPA, 31 touchdowns, a 63.6 percent completion rate, and a pass efficiency of 148.8, much more in line with the averages of the last 10 BCS champs in the table above. Additionally, twice—in 2005 and 2009—a Weis-led offense met every blueprint passing value and ranking cutoff.


Benchmarking the Irish: Total Defense Metrics

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The best total defensive unit Notre Dame fielded in the last decade was 2002, a unit that met the value cutoffs for third down efficiency, yards per play, and yards per game, and barely missed the value cutoff for points per game (16.7 compared to 16.4). Additionally, this defense met the ranking cutoff for YPP, and narrowly missed it for YPG (13 compared to 10) and PPG (nine compared to 8). All in all, the 2002 Irish defense was very nearly a top 10 unit.

But apart from 2002, there wasn’t a year that the defense came close to meeting the total defense blueprint value and ranking cutoffs. The Irish fielded (roughly) a top 30 defense in 2001 and managed to exceed the third down efficiency value cutoff in 2000, 2003 and 2008, but did not meet a single other total defense value or ranking cutoff during the last 10 years.

Excluding 2002, Notre Dame has allowed almost a 36 percent third down conversion rate, over 5.3 YPP, nearly 355 YPG, and almost 24 PPG. Comparing this performance to the 10-year BCS champion averages of 31.3 percent, 4.3 YPP, 277.9 YPG and 13.7 PPG shows just how far the Irish have been from fielding a championship caliber defense.

Benchmarking the Irish: Rushing Defense Metrics

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The story defending the run isn’t wholly different from that of the total defensive metrics. The 2002 defensive unit was one of the best in the country, but the remaining years, with 2004 as a notable exception, didn’t measure up well.

The 2002 Irish defense allowed an exceptional 2.8 yards per attempt and a paltry 95.2 yards per game—good enough to meet the value and ranking cutoffs in both categories. This unit also allowed only 11 rushing touchdowns on the year, good for a ranking of 12th in the country. Both values are just outside the cutoffs (9 touchdowns, 10th place ranking).

But 2004 was an even better year for Notre Dame’s rush defense. This unit met or exceeded every value and ranking cutoff and allowed 2.7 YPA, 88.2 YPG, and only 6 rushing touchdowns on the ground—an exceptional performance that ranked 4th nationally in each category.

Excluding 2002 and 2004, the Irish only met one value and ranking cutoff—3.1 YPA (18th ranking) in 2003—as the defense allowed an average of 3.9 YPA, 147 YPG, and 15.9 rushing touchdowns per year, values that (again) do not compare well to those of the last 10 title winners listed above.

Benchmarking the Irish: Passing Defense Metrics

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The pass defense follows a somewhat different trend than the total and rushing metrics.

The 2002 unit was tops in terms of scoring and in nearly all of the efficiency metrics, allowing only 12 touchdowns (15th ranking), a very low 49.3 percent completion rating (14), and a 98.2 (10) pass efficiency. Additionally, the Irish surrendered only 5.9 yards per attempt (17), 11.9 yards per completion (39), and 204.8 yards per game (46).

This was good enough to meet the value cutoff in touchdowns, completion percentage, and pass efficiency, in addition to the ranking cutoff of the first two metrics. The remaining metrics (YPA, YPC and YPG) only narrowly missed the value cutoffs.

Apart from 2002 the Irish performed very well in completion percentage and fairly good in a few other categories. Moreover, there were some other years where several value and/or ranking cutoffs were met and others only narrowly missed.

The last 10 Irish defenses averaged a 53.8 percent completion rate which compares very favorably to the 50.1 percent average of the title winners. Additionally, these defensive units allowed an average of 213.1 YPG and a pass efficiency of 121.9. While neither are as close to the BCS champs as the completion percentage comparison, both are respectable 10-year averages, especially considering the number of defensive coaching/scheme changes.

There were also some fairly solid units apart from 2002. The Irish met eight passing value and ranking cutoffs (YPA, YPC, YPG, and completion percentage) in 2007, and missed by small margins in touchdowns (19 compared to 14) and pass efficiency (111.8 compared to 101.3). The 2001 unit also fielded a strong pass defense, and met the value and ranking cutoffs in YPG and completion percentage, the value cutoff in touchdowns, and missed the 94.6 pass efficiency value cutoff by a relatively small margin (113.7).

The Fighting Irish of the Last Decade

It should come as no surprise to those who followed Notre Dame football over the past decade that the Irish did not field a championship caliber team during that period.

There were certainly a few good squads, but there was never an offensive unit that aligned with the BCS championship blueprint, only one defense that very nearly aligned with the blueprint, and never a complete team performance. Even pairing the best offense (2005) and defense (2002), the Irish fall short of meeting every metric value and ranking cutoff.

This trend was most evident in the aforementioned years of upper-tier bowl games where there were deficiencies on at least one side of the ball, and sometimes on both sides. The 2000 Fiesta Bowl squad protected the ball and fielded a strong rushing attack, but certainly benefited from luck and was not a complete defensive unit. The 2002 Gator Bowl team fielded the best defense of the last decade, but paired it with an offense that set many records in futility. And the 2005 and 2006 Weis-led BCS teams were good-to-very-good offenses coupled with below average defensive units.

Offensively, two years stand out. The 2000 team fielded a running attack consistent with those of the blueprint and the 2005 pass offense met or exceeded every pass and total offense value and ranking cutoff. But neither unit completely aligned with the blueprint.

Davie’s 2000 offense was never able to parlay the running game success into an efficient passing attack, and, while Weis’ 2005 squad was efficient and effective through the air, it didn’t match the efficiency and effectiveness of the previous 10 BCS champions on the ground.

Defensively, the 2002 Irish met or exceeded almost every value and ranking cutoff and narrowly missed on the others. But, apart from that year, there wasn’t a defensive unit that aligned with the majority of the blueprint metrics. Additionally, while the Irish offense has been fairly solid protecting the ball, the defense has struggled to consistently force enough takeaways to generate turnover margins consistent with championship level football.

Brian Kelly and Going Forward

The past is the past, Kelly is the future. And while it is difficult—if not impossible—to use his past to predict the future, his past is the only data available, limited as it may be.

His time in FCS isn’t directly comparable, and the same argument can be made for his tenure at Central Michigan. Historically the Irish have played a very strong schedule, and the Mid-American Conference is hardly a juggernaut. This leaves his three years at Cincinnati (excluding the 2006 International Bowl) as the most likely representation of what his Irish squads will look like, but here only his last two will be examined.

Measuring the Bearcats

The 2008 Bearcats amassed a 11-3 record, first place Big East finish, and BCS Orange Bowl birth against the Hokies of Virginia Tech, but certainly did not mimic a BCS champion. Cincinnati was minus eight in turnover margin and only met or exceeded three offensive and five defensive value/ranking cutoffs.

The offense was fairly balanced in its approach (49/51 run/pass split), but far more efficient and effective through the air averaging a ranking of 30.5 in the blueprint passing metrics. The defense ranked in the top 30 in all four total defensive blueprint metrics, was strong against the run (roughly a top 20 unit), and fairly good defending the pass (roughly a top 40 unit).

In 2009, Cincinnati went undefeated in the regular season and won their second consecutive Big East Conference title before being dismantled by the Gators in the Sugar Bowl. This unit improved dramatically in turnover margin (plus nine), and met or exceeded 16 value/ranking cutoffs on offense, but only one on defense.

Last year’s Bearcat offense was much more pass-heavy compared to 2008 (43/57 run/pass split), and the production on the ground suffered accordingly. Still, the offense met or exceeded every blueprint metric value and ranking cutoff with the exception of third down efficiency, rush attempts, rush YPG, and rushing touchdowns. The improvement on offense didn’t translate to the other side of the ball where the defensive performance regressed. But the loss of 10 starters obviously played a role as the unit ranked outside the top 40 in every defensive blueprint metric except rush YPA, YPC, and passing touchdowns.

What Does It Mean for Notre Dame?

Two years is a relatively small data set, but there are certain characteristics of Kelly’s teams that are very promising and others that are cause for concern. Offensively, his teams have shown the ability to be very efficient units capable of scoring early and often. Additionally, he was able to field a top 30 defensive unit in 2008 with a roster full of rather mediocre talent.

His offensive approach, however, is much more pass-heavy than the majority of recent champions. While the 2009 Bearcat offense was efficient on the ground (five rush YPA), they came up very short in rush YPG and the 361 rush attempts strongly suggests a de-emphasized running game. Additionally, Kelly hasn’t shown the ability to field the dominant, top 10 defense needed to capture a title, and his teams have also struggled to force turnovers.

Of course, Notre Dame isn’t Cincinnati. Weis left Kelly more talent—particularly on defense—than he has ever had, and he should continue to have a talented roster at his disposal provided he can recruit well.

Still, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has only one year of coordinator experience and is a big bet for an Irish unit that needs immediate, dramatic improvement. Moreover, Kelly’s emphasis on throwing the ball isn’t consistent with the BCS championship blueprint and is a decidedly more risky approach than is needed. Morphing the defense into top 10 form is requisite to championship football, and, while a pass-happy offense certainly doesn’t doom him to failure, Kelly will need to go against the trend to bring the first title since 1988 to South Bend.



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