At pre- and mid-season, I read some tea leaves. I suggested two schemata for understanding our performance during the regular season: Star Wars films and Indiana Jones films. Here's how we fared.
1. Star Wars: what was predicted vs. what happened:
Scenario: A disappointing year where we don’t see enough improvement from Denard in terms of interceptions and
/or the D-line O-line and /or t hose things are fine but someone really important named Denard gets injured. There are, however, some redeeming factors. Like Natalie Portman Jake Ryan and kid Boba Fett Devin Gardner.
Record: 8-4. Losses to Alabama and ND, plus
2 out of 3 among MSU/Nebraska/Ohio Nebraska and Ohio.
Probability: (p = .19) Is this possible? Yes. With a likely downgrade of performance on the
D-line O-line, we might have some problems with the smashmouthy, max-protect MANBALL + occasional play-action offenses that proliferate in our conference the 5 competent defenses we play this year, and went 1-4 against them. Without much depth on the O-line and at other key positions at quarterback, we are an injury away from experiencing Molk-in-2009 2.0. On the other hand, is this probable? No. It’s not. We are returning so many starters that I have a hard time seeing us lose this many games. Plus, second year of system, etc. Yes.
Analysis: I clearly overestimated the difficulties Mattison would face turning a rag-tag band of washouts, role players, former walkons and underclassmen into an all-conference defense that did its best to win 3 of the 4 games we lost, but couldn't do it alone. I also clearly underestimated the difficulties Al Borges would face turning an all-conference offense returning 7 starters and a senior quarterback (with a chance to break a number of NCAA records) into an all-conference offense. Some of this can be blamed on chance--I mean, does anyone think we lose that Nebraska game if Denard gets up and plays 4 quarters? But OMG that second half against Ohio. I will have nightmares for months about rhythm-breaking, too-obvious Denard run packages and trying to get 3 yards up the middle when the middle = DEATH and the edges = LIFE. Sorry, Al: I like you but that was mean.
Verdict: Attack of the Clones
2. Indiana Jones: what was predicted vs. what happened
Scenario: We end up in a chaotic place where evil ones eat monkey brains and pull the hearts out of still-living captives. We make it out alive.
Record: 8-4. Racist stereotyping aside, this was an okay film. Rephrased, we could say an 8-4 season is “adequate but problematic.” That’s a good way to describe a scenario in which we lose 2 of the 5 losable games (
probably at Ohio plus one we-should-have-taken-them loss, at Nebraska), but still get to a decentish bowl game. Maybe this year it’s even not good enough to get to the conference championship, and a clear path to the Rose Bowl (where we’d get Nebraska gets to play any one of the several Pac-12 teams that are currently ranked higher than we are). It would also be a disappointing, but not too disappointing, end to the whole spread-option experiment, which is exactly what it is.
Probability: (p = .40). This is what the math and the Mathlete think is going to happen. It’s
probably the most rational prediction at this point, given our high-ish ceiling in a mediocre conference, but also our occasional, sometimes-inexplicable regression to the mean. If you are a betting man/woman, and like to make your bets cautiously, put your money here.
Analysis: Well, that was basically on the money, aside from a too-optimistic view of what other teams would do. Nebraska beat us to the Big 10 Championship Game.
Verdict: Temple of Doom
An Imaginary Interview that Clarifies Everything
Temple of Doom is a much better film than Attack of the Clones. How can we be both at the same time?
Well, imaginary interviewer, the reason for that is simple: my expectations were higher, and less realistic, pre-season. After the sobering beat-down against Alabama and the excruciating interception/fumble-fest at Notre Dame, 8-4 went from "unlikely but possible" to "among the most likely scenarios" in my mind. So yeah, I didn't have the same rosy outlook, so to speak.
But let's be honest, an 8-win season isn't so terrible, historically speaking.
There's some truth to this. We won 7 in 1994, and 8 in 1995 and 1996 (all years in which our regular season had 11, not 12 games in it). Then we won the national championship in 1997. On the other side of the coin, we would have been extremely happy with an 8-win season under Rich Rodriguez.
What's the big deal, then? Why are we either a really crappy movie or the 2nd-worst out of 4?
Expectations, my friend. Given what we accomplished last year, our returning offensive talent and the weak conference we played in this year, most of us thought we could do better.
So what happened?
Other than Alabama, who were clearly a lot better than us, the other teams who beat us were not better than us. This is what feels so supremely frustrating, to me and to others. In a sense, it comes down to "should have, would have, could have." We "should have" beaten Notre Dame, but shot ourselves in the foot with a plethora of ill-timed and boneheaded turnovers. We committed 6 and lost by 7 points...excruciating. We "would have" beaten Nebraska if Denard hadn't gone down, and possibly if Devin Gardner had been practicing as a QB as well. Of course, it might not have gone down that way (see: Notre Dame), but it sure looked like it was trending that way. Finally, we "could have" beaten Ohio if our second-half playcalling on offense hadn't been so predictable and stubborn. I mean, if a specific package made it 99% obvious to me what play we were going to run, you can rest assured it was 99.9% obvious to Luke Fickell. And why on earth would we come to believe that, out of nowhere, we had a power running game? On the other hand, with all that frustration, it's easy to forget that Ohio outgained us by a good chunk of yardage. But at least, with 1) better 3rd and 4th down play calls; 2) some outside short passing to pull defenders out of the box; 3) less obvious Denard-is-about-to-run plays; and 4) such as having both Denard and Devin in the backfield at the same time; we would have had a chance to win The Game.
How do you feel? Are you okay?
Yes, I'm fine. Sort of.
What about next year?
We'll be replacing 3 out of 5 on the O-line--with the real possibility that we'll be replacing 4 instead. Our recent recruits are talented but will be young and inexperienced, and after this year, my confidence in our offensive coaching has significantly declined. On the other hand, Devin looked sharp in relief of Denard, our defense should be as good or better and our schedule looks, for the most part, easier than it was this year. I don't think we'll be great, but I don't think we'll be terrible either. That will be the last year of the (mostly painful) post-Carr transition started in 2007. Then we'll be a big, angry team of maulers with an aggressive-minded coach in a larger and diluted conference. So long-term good, short-term "meh."
See you after the bowl game :)