Flow charts and lots of numbers (scare and) preview Arizona football

"Uh oh. They're about to John Mackovic me outta here."

Maybe it's not too early to be thinking college football. With the NFL and NBA lockouts upon us, we can only start staring at an imaginary ticker counting down the 2011 college football season. Last week, I gave you a little Q&A-styled preview of Arizona football with inquiries posed by College Football Zealots.

Now, I give you the behemoth of a math project thanks to SB Nation college football writer Bill Connelly. It's Arizona's season preview in numbers, pretty much, and let me tell you that it's down to the nuts and bolts. Bill comes to the conclusion that the Wildcats have plateaued, or for the Arizonans and myself a Mesa native, Mesa'd (I guess).

He gives UA an F/+ ranking that has remained steady the past four seasons. Here's the explanation of that:

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Like we saw as we watched the past two seasons, the Wildcats played well enough to win 10 games, and Bill's numbers reflect that. But of course, Arizona has fallen in close games and fumbled away victories that it should have won. On a side note to ease tempers toward the Wildcats' kicker, Connelly even mentions that Alex Zendejas' numbers reflect those of the average college football kicker, only it becomes a problem when the misses that he does have come in important situations.

Alex Zendejas was, for all intents an purposes, a perfectly average kicker who made 74% of his field goal attempts; but these two misses were killers.

Moving on. The biggest question mark for Connelly? Of course, the revamped and completely new offensive line. Oddly enough, Connelly says that the outgoing players weren't all that great, an interesting proposition to think about considering the run game struggled (was it the O-line or the runningback injuries?) and Foles often had a less-than-desired amount of time to get the ball out of the pocket. Here's Connelly's mathematical analysis:

In the last six seasons, four teams have entered a season with zero returning starters on the offensive line. On average (and yes, we're dealing with a tiny sample size here), their overall S&P+ dropped by 7.8%, their Success Rate+ by 6.8%, their PPP+ by 7.8% and their OFEI (Brian Fremeau's drives-based rating) by 8.2%. I lead with this because, quite simply, it is perhaps the sole reason Arizona isn't the favorite (minus USC) in the Pac-12 South. An eight-percent decrease in Arizona's ratings drops them from the 30s to the 70s in Off. S&P+. There's a lot to like about the Arizona defense, but the Wildcats are going to be extremely limited if they cannot avoid this type of regression. (The good news: despite the presence of all-conference tackle Adam Grant, the line wasn't actually all that great; it's not like they're breaking up the 1982 Washington Redskins here.)

On the defensive side of things, there's not much to say. Inconsistency killed Arizona, who played great early (against 'meh' teams) and struggled against the big boys. Though Oklahoma State blew them out, it was apparent the defense, though without any monster performers, played with some grit and smarts.

The defensive tackle positions will be a strong point for Arizona as Justin Washington returns for his sophomore season. And yeah, the defensive ends will need replacing and the secondary will need to get its 'ish' together. Interesting point in Connelly's analysis comes in the linebacking crew:

While there may be turnover at end and safety, the linebacker position is rock solid. Only three linebackers registered on the stat sheet, but all three return. Middle man Paul Vassallo (89.5 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) was your requisite tackling machine (with some nice blitzing potential), while Jake Fischer (49.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU) and Derek Earls (37.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU) were playmakers on the outside.

Of course, Fischer is out with an ugly ACL tear and the depth at the second level is, uh, not there. But hey, if anything it's interesting right? Right?

OK, so don't start making Molotov Cocktails just yet. Connelly, like myself predicts that fans will be calling for Stoops' head by the fifth or sixth game. In reality, however, we've all got to wait until this season is over to judge his work considering how front-loaded and tough the schedule is in 2011.

With a friendlier schedule and time for development, Arizona could thrive. Instead, it's all about survival. Making a bowl game should be considered a success. If fans are grumbling about Arizona plateauing 12 months from now, instead of the fact that they regressed in 2011, then that's a win for Stoops.

Indeed.

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