What Could Have Been May 14, 2012
Here’s your post, Tom.
I say that because the genesis for this post is not my brain – it’s my friend Tom’s. After the NFL draft a few weeks ago, he opined that it really is remarkable that Ron Zook had this much talent and a 34-51 record. Actually, I don’t think that’s exactly what he said. We were discussing Illini football on the internet, I was all “seven picks in the first three rounds the last two years and we went 14-12″ and Tom was all “oh what could have been if we had only average special teams and and average number of interceptions” and I was all “that feels like a post” and then a few days later Tom was all “where’s my post” and I was like “dude it’s May I’m lazy”.
So here’s your post, Tom. What could have been if Ron Zook had taken all that talent and…
…put together even average special teams
Even though I told you all to memorize these numbers in case there was a quiz, I’m going to give them to you again. Back when new Special Teams coach Tim Salem was hired, here’s what I wrote comparing his special teams at Central Florida and Ron Zook’s special teams at Illinois:
Illinois was 120th out of 120 teams last year in kickoff returns, averaging a hard-to-believe 15.71 yards per return. Central Florida, where Tim Salem was the special teams coach? 3rd nationally, averaging 26.93 yards. Think about that. That’s one first down the offense doesn’t have to gain on every single drive. 42 kickoff returns for UCF, meaning 42 drives with one less first down required. 11 less yards needed to get into field goal range. 11 yards closer to setting up the other team with poor field position even if you go three-and-out.
And if you think it was just a fluke, in 2010 UCF’s kickoff return teams were #1 nationally, averaging a stunning 27.78 yards per return. 2009? Oh no – only 13th nationally.
Kickoff coverage? UCF was 9th last year (Illinois was 82nd). Fluke? Nope. In 2010 UCF was 3rd, and in 2009 UCF was 10th.
Let’s recap all of this. Kickoff returns the last 3 years – Salem: 3rd, 1st, 13th. Zook: 120th, 101st, 105th.
Kickoff coverage the last 3 years – Salem: 9th, 3rd, 10th. Zook: 82nd, 84th, 90th.
What about punt returns? Salem: 60th, 12th, 29th. Zook: 118th, 117th, 114th.
I know, right? Numbers that are still just as stunning as they were five months ago. So think about it – think about what these Zook teams could have done with Salem’s special teams numbers. Actually, don’t even give him Salem’s numbers – just give him the national average. Give those teams a modest 8.4 yards per punt return and 21.8 yards per kickoff return. That’s 6.4 more yards every punt return and 6.1 yards every kickoff return. What is that – maybe 50 additional yards of field position per game? That’s huge. And that’s just going with the averages. Put some Frank Beamer special teams in place, and we’re probably talking 80-100 yards per game. Yards that Zook’s teams simply pissed away because special teams weren’t a priority.
So what if he also…
…taught his players how to intercept the ball
Remember the big wins over Penn State and Ohio State in 2007? Want to know the main reason we won both games? Interceptions. Against Penn State, Anthony Morelli turned the ball over four times in the last 16 minutes – three interceptions and a big forced fumble by (I want to say) Kevin Mitchell. Take away one of those, and they probably get the go-ahead score.
Ohio State – it was Miami Thomas. A huge deflection in the end zone that Antonio Steele intercepted, and then the key interception right before our eight minute drive. Interceptions can flip a game like that (see: Hunger Bowl, Kraft Fight), and, well, Ron Zook teams were possibly the worst in the country over the last 7 years. Maybe there are two or three teams who were worse, but I haven’t found them. I challenge anyone to beat these numbers:
Year/interception ranking out of 120 teams
Yes, some of it is bad luck. A large part, actually. Some interceptions are simply right place/right time, where a defensive lineman gets a hand on a pass and it deflects directly to a teammate instead of falling harmlessly to the ground. But Ron Zook teams had a habit of not being in the right place at the right time. Seven seasons don’t lie – his teams were awful at getting game-changing interceptions.
But they still could have pulled out a few more victories had Ron Zook…
…actually cared about the field position battle
I dabble a little in NERDstats. Only enough to get my toes wet and then it’s back to my lounge chair while the nerds are in the pool. But I do like some of the FEI ratings put together by Bill Connelly and Brian Fremeau at Football Outsiders. OK, fine, I love these NERDstats. But don’t tell anyone.
My favorite, at least as far as “if Ron Zook even cared a tiny bit about these things he’d be a great coach” goes, is the FPA stat – Field Position Advantage. Want to find a stat where you can separate the undisciplined coaches from the others (you know, besides wins and losses)? FPA.
Football Outsiders describes Field Position Advantage like this:
FPA is a description of which team controlled field position in the game and by how much. Two teams that face equal team position over the course of a game will each have an FPA of .500. Winning the field position battle is quite valuable. College football teams that play with an FPA over .500 win two-thirds of the time. Teams that play with an FPA over .600 win ninety percent of the time.
It makes sense, doesn’t it? Win the field position battle; win the game. It starts with kickoffs – solid returns and impenetrable coverage gives you an advantage right away. Same with punt returns (and having a great punter that can pin people deep). But it’s also turnovers (remember how we didn’t let Wisconsin score from their end of the field but lost 28-17 because we gave them four drives that started in our own territory?). And at its core, to have a solid FPA you obviously need an offense that can move the ball and a defense that can force three-and-outs. I’m sure there’s a big correlation between third down conversion rate and FPA.
So all of that plays in, but more than any other stat, I think FPA mostly reveals which teams had awful special teams and poor turnover margins. Take last year for example. We were one of the top teams in the country at stopping our opponent and forcing a punt (theoretically setting our offense up with solid field position throughout the game), but that was balanced out by an awful offense that would give the ball right back. So we should be around the middle in FPA, right? Wrong. 111th out of 120 teams. Why? Awful returns, awful coverage teams, -.46 turnover margin. What should have been 8-4 or 9-3 became 6-6 simply because we didn’t do the little things. Any of them.
And that rests on Zook. Here’s our FPA for every season since Football Outsiders started tracking it in 2007:
What made 2010 decent? At first glance, I’d say it was Anthony Santella (14th in the country in punting) and turnover margin (.62 turnover margin, 22nd nationally, helped by being 3rd in the nation in fumble recoveries). Recover a fumble at the 22, and you just tilted the FPA in your favor. Other than that season, though, we were in the bottom quarter every single year. Again, this stat isn’t the end-all, be-all; we went to the Rose Bowl in 2007 ranking 96th in this statistic. But if you want to find teams that should have been much better than they were, look at FPA.
Ask a Georgia fan about their FPA in 2009: a top-12 team preseason sunk by awful special teams, drive-killing turnovers, and an FPA ranking of 96th. Or these crazy-talented teams that Butch Davis recruited at North Carolina – why did they always lose 5 or 6 games? Their FPA the last three years: 98th, 114th, 77th.
My North Carolina friend looks back on the Davis recruiting classes and wonders what could have been (actually, he wonders when Midnight Madness starts). Georgia fans wonder why their top-10 recruiting classes didn’t produce top-10 results. So many of those answers can be found in doing the little things, which leads to winning the field position battle, which leads to winning games.
And that’s how I’ll remember the Zook era. More talent than probably any other era in Champaign outside of the late-80′s. And 34 wins in 85 games.