Being the number one seed is meant to put you with the "easiest" bracket slots (I am not forgetting that all playoff teams need to be taken seriously) . I suppose that's why three of the top four Sagarin rated teams, NDSU (20), SDSU (53) and JMU (78) are in our bracket? Eastern Washington (73), who just dropped from the 90's a few weeks ago, is the top dog in the other bracket to Frisco. So when it comes to power, the Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) is top shelf and the top two dogs will be playing for the chance to win a National Championship and the defacto king of the MVFC Friday night (remember 2014 NDSU vs. IL State). My purpose is not to complain about the brackets, but to give perspective. This is a game with the best two resumes in FCS meeting in the Semi's.
I am going to dig deeper in this article to prepare you for all the hype that will be coming down the pike this week. The Jackrabbits are the second best FCS team according to Sagarin and I concur. This is their seventh straight playoff appearance and second consecutive one in the semi-finals. During our six out of seven year run of taking the whole ball of wax, we have faced and defeated SDSU three times in the playoffs. I am sure they wished we didn't exist, but we do.
Over the last eight years, including this year, the Jackrabbits have posted the second most wins in the MVFC (70-33), compared to NDSU (110-8). Yes folks, that's 40 more wins going into Friday night's game. Head to head, SDSU is 2-9 versus the Herd during this time frame. What has kept SDSU second fiddle to the Bison in both the playoffs and the regular season MVFC race? If there is a single flaw that differentiates the Jackrabbits from the Bison what is it and is it present in this years team?
I believe the single biggest difference between NDSU and SDSU revolves around the key quality I stated in my first blog (click here). The Herd has played exceptional defense during this whole run and the Rabbits haven't. They have played good to average defense, but not great defense. UNI and Illinois State have played consistently better "championship" caliber defense. Our foe to the south is known for it's offensive stars, not it's defensive ones. We think about the unbelievable three straight +2,000 yard rushing records by Zack Zenner. What a combo of receivers in Dallas Goedert and Jake Wieneke. They even have a great kicker in Adam Vinatieri as an alumni. All these players went on to the NFL. NDSU has NFL offensive players headed by the likes of Carson Wentz, lineman Joe Haeg and Billy Taylor who blocked for John Crockett. BUT WE ALSO HAVE NFL DEFENSIVE PLAYERS like Marcus Williams, Kyle Emanual, Nick DeLuca and Chris Board. Talking about Bison Championship teams will spark as many memories of great defensive lineman, linebackers and defensive backs as it does QB's, running backs and wide receivers. Not so with SDSU.
Does that same flaw of non-exceptional defense infect the current team? Let's dissect the latest statistical data to see what these tea leaves tell us. I want to take a layered approach to this. What is espoused by TV pundits when you watch the game is the overall year to date figures in each sub category for all games played. Last week we all were bombarded with Colgate being the nations leader in total defense, only giving up 219 YPG (yards per game), rushing defense at 88 YPG and scoring defense with 7 PPG (points per game).
I want to know what Colgate did against the good teams. They only played three games against top 25 FCS and FBS teams with winning records (Army, JMU and NDSU). What do the numbers look like against these opponents? They averaged giving up 367.7 YPG in total defense, 233 YPG rushing and 27.7 PPG. Not so world beating. In fact they lost two of these games and won the other with a last second field goal.
How about the Jackrabbits? They average 367 YPG in total defense, a 167.3 YPG in rushing defense and 20.8 PPG in scoring defense. Their points allowed is an anomaly. They should be giving up 3-4 points more per game. They have been bending but not breaking.
Lets look a little closer at some key sub set games. First, the Jackrabbits have to come to the Dome, so a good question to ask is how do they play on the road? Answer? Not nearly as good as their stats for all games played. Their only two loses came on the road (SU and UNI). They also played IL State, So. IL and Kennesaw State. Against these five teams SDSU gave up 423.8 YPG, 221.4 YPG rushing and 25.6 PPG. That isn't average defense, that is bad defense. That is why they were 2-3 w/l in those games.
How do the Bison play at home? We are 9-0 w/l. Code Green has held visiting teams to 257.1 YPG in total yards, 110.3 YPG in rushing and 9.4 PPG in scoring. All of this was accomplished against offenses that averaged 413.1 YPG, ran for 211.2 YPG and scored on average 31.1 PPG. As you can see, we shut down good offenses. The numbers I quoted above for defense by SDSU for games played on the road, the teams they played averaged what they normally produced on offense. The bunny rabbits didn't slow them down at all.
How did both defenses perform against opponents that ranked in the top 25 of Sagarin? Again, there is a decided advantage to how the guys in Green and Gold performed. The Bison defense held the nine teams that are 149 and under in Sagarin to 301 YPG total defense, 110.9 YPG in rushing and 12.2 PPG in scoring. You should be noticing something here. No matter how you slice the loaf, Code Green dials up numbers that meet the criteria for exceptional defense, under 325 total yards per game, 125 rushing yards and under 20 PPG.
How about the Blue Bunny defensive outfit? They played eight top 25 FCS Sagarin teams (five of which also played the Bison, so this is a good measuring stick). If this were a taste test, the results are very vanilla. They don't hit one exceptional defensive standard. They gave up 391.1 YPG, 170.3 YPG rushing and 23.6 PPG. As you can see, SDSU is very consistent in playing average defense for the last eight years. In this comparison against good teams, the Herd gives up 90 yards less in total defense, 60 yards less in rushing and 11.4 PPG less. We dominate, they bend. Is that my opinion? No, the actual numbers show it.
We will hear a lot of hype about this is a match-up between an offensive juggernaut in the Jackrabbits against the defensive stalwart, NDSU. What do the numbers really show? SDSU is one of the best offensive teams in the country, led by a veteran senior QB, a big offensive line, a productive running game and a skilled receiver corps. The key you will hear less about is that NDSU is equally as good on offense. Thank God for the inter-net and computers, so that mere mortals like us can fact check elite sports writers to see if they are shading the truth.
How many good defenses did SDSU face and how did their offense perform? Is it above or below their yearly averages? They faced three that held their other opponents under 340 total yards. They produced 351.7 YPG in total offense, 137.3 YPG rushing and scored 27 PPG. These are very average offensive numbers. Against the other nine teams they faced, they averaged 537.2 YPG, 267 YPG rushing and scored 50 PPG. It is safe to say they feasted on average and bad defenses (these stats are inflated also by a blow out, embarrassment game against a team that ranked 253rd out of all 255 Division I teams and was dead last in defense in the FCS. I think the team was named after a Christmas Tree ornament, Arkansas Pine-Bluff. Good Ol "juice" Stiegelmeier must have really been hyped up to run the score to 90-6 and gain 926 yards of total offense. The Herd has more pride than to pad numbers like that.
How did NDSU perform versus good defenses. We faced five teams with the same parameters I stated above for SDSU. We gained 430.8 total yards per game, ran for 230.6 YPG and scored an average of 38.2 PPG. This is 124.9 YPG more than these teams gave up against all other opponents they faced, a 113.9 more yards in rushing per game and 20.2 PPG more in scoring (better than doubling the 18 PPG they averaged against everyone not named the Bison). The other eight teams we played against with average or bad defenses, we didn't run up the scores (43.6 PPG, 478.5 YPG total offense and 301.6 YPG in rushing). We run out the fourth quarter. Its called winning with class.
Am I missing something? Is 351.1 YPG total offense, 137.3 YPG rushing and 27 PPG better than 430.8 YPG total offense, 230.6 YPG rushing and 38.2 PPG in scoring against more "real" defenses (SDSU faced three, we faced five good defenses)? Only if your a sports media expert.
Stats that matter for Friday night:
* SDSU ranks 46th in Total Defense (367 YPG), 56th in rushing defense (167.3 YPG) and 13th in scoring defense (20.8). These numbers dissipate when playing better offenses (447.6 YPG Total, 220.6 YPG rushing and 26.2 PPG in scoring). These stats are based on five real teams (NDSU, IL State, So. IL, USD and Kennesaw State). I threw out stats on Arkansas Pine-Bluff, even though they qualified as a good offensive team. A 90-6 win doesn't deserve an honest look. The Jack's also performed defensively at an "average" level against top 25 FCS Sagarin teams and they looked bad defensively on the road. Is this a trifecta?
* The Jackrabbits rank 8th in total offense (490.8 YPG), 17th in rushing offense (234.7 YPG) and 4th in scoring offense (44 PPG). These numbers went down significantly against the three good defenses they played all year. Truth be told, they were lucky to get out of Kennesaw State alive. The Owls lost their All-American QB early in the 2nd quarter to an arm injury and still they marched the ball up and down the field. They amassed 418 yards of total offense and 312 yards of rushing. Five fumbles and nine penalties stopped numerous drives.
* The Bison's offensive and defensive statistics remain constant no matter who they are playing. All of our defensive statistics are in the exceptional level against all comers. None of the Jackrabbit defensive stats are exceptional.
* Code Green is better than SDSU at stopping drives on third downs .283 (made 51 out of 180 chances, 11th in FCS). The Rabbits give up 3rd downs 34.5% of the time (61 of 177, 36th in FCS). The Bison are considerably better at stopping 4th downs (1st in nation at 17.2%, converting on 5 of 29 tries). Stiegelmeier's crew is 79th in FCS, allowing opponents to convert 52.6% of the time (10 of 19). The biggest discrepancy in ancillary defensive statistics is Red Zone Defense. Code Green is 1st in FCS allowing only 47.6% of teams to score. A paltry 6 of 21 entrants to the 20 yard line score a touchdown (28.6%). The Blue Bunnies are 70th in the FCS, allowing 81.8% (27 of 33) of their foes to score and a whopping 63.6% (21 of 33) to score touchdowns.
* Miscellaneous stats: The Jackrabbits have blocked 8 kicks (4 punts), so our special teams are going to have to be tight. We are better at not committing penalties (we are 6th in fewest penalties and 15th in least penalty yards). SDSU is 81st in committing penalties and 64th in penalty yards. This comes out to about three more penalties per game and 15 yards per game. We get twice as many sacks with the Jacks having 20 for the year (89th in FCS) and we have 41 (7th in FCS). Our punt return team averages 16.38 yards per return (8th in FCS) and SDSU tally s 5.12 yards per return (91st in FCS).
* Sagarin has the Herd with an 11.53 point spread and an 82% probability of victory. The Eigen spread is listed at 14.62. Vegas has the Bison an 8 point favorite. The 82% victory probability factor is the highest of all 42 bowl and playoff games, even Alabama is only a 72% chance over Oklahoma.
Where does this all lead? First I don't think Klieman moving to Kansas State is going to affect this team's focus. It was less traumatic than 2013 with losing Bohl. I think the team wants to give Chris the crowning gem of his NDSU career, a record fourth National Championship. Plus they want it for Stick (in doing so he becomes the all time leading QB winner at the FCS level at 49-3).
I think we need to focus on the basics of what has made Bison football great. The defense. It is not home team goose pimples blurting out how good Code Green is. This is the most statistically dominating Bison defense, with the deepest depth on the roster (we rotate defensive lineman like shift changes in hockey). When you throw in all the myriad of defensive numbers, SDSU pales in comparison. NDSU would have to play a bad game to lose (like 5 turnovers down in Brookings last year. I don't think Stick is going to go there. I also feel we played a slow and inconsistent offensive game first time around. I look for us to score into the 30's. It should be on to Frisco.