Daily Blog • June 17, 2010

Who will be this year’s Vanderbilt?

I have been publishing a Most Improved Teams list since 1999 and the list hit a home run that very first year. I pegged Hawaii as my #1 Most Improved Team and they were coming off an 0-12 record in 1998. The then “Rainbow Warriors” simply set an NCAA record for largest improvement ever by going to 9-4 in 1999!

This year there are 19 teams on my Most Improved List and these are all teams that had losing records last year but ones I believe will be bowl eligible this year. Last season I had 22 teams on the list and 12 of them were bowl eligible at the end of the year! Do you think it is easy picking teams with losing records that will have a winning record the next year?

I went back to 1992 and there have been 918 teams that had a losing season. Of those 918 teams only 261 had a winning record the next year which is 28.4%. That means if a team is coming off a losing season there is over a 70% chance that they will have another losing record the next year!

Over the last eight years 96 of the teams that have made my Most Improved List have been bowl eligible the next year. In that same eight-year span there have been 424 teams with a losing record and of those 424 only 111 have gone onto a winning record the next season (26.2%). Now you do the math here but as you can see very few teams go from a losing record to a bowl the next year if they are not on my Most Improved list.

This blog is about one that got away. It is not like I did not do my homework on Vanderbilt in 2008. In 2007, I liked them enough to put them #20 on My Most Improved List as they had 18 returning starters including their QB. Vandy appeared on their way at 3-1 but against Georgia, with the game tied, they fumbled at the UGA7 with 2:43 left and UGA was able to drive for the last play FG to beat them. Vandy missed two FG’s and an xp vs Kentucky and despite a 432-351 yard edge they lost at home by seven. A game-winning FG bounced off the upright and they lost to Tennessee by one. Change one play in any of those three games and Vandy would have been another team off a losing season (4-8 in ‘06) that became bowl eligible.

In ‘08 Vandy had three career starts returning on the offensive line, by far the lowest total I had ever seen from that position. They had just nine returning starters and I figured their window of opportunity had closed. Vandy benefitted from some great fortune that year. After five games they were #12 in the SEC on offense and #10 in the SEC on defense, much as I had expected. Amazingly they were 5-0! Somehow, someway, despite being outgained by an avg of 320-256 on the year (yes, 64 ypg!) they finished 7-6! I am not upset about not picking Vandy as their -64 ypg overall was the worst of any SEC team for the year and they just caught a lot of breaks during the year.

There was a team last year that I felt would finish last in their league but when I was doing their write up I felt the circumstances were very similar to Vanderbilt. Duke was a team I had high expectations for in 2008 and despite the fact that they were just 3-61 in the ACC during the decade I called for them to top Virginia in the ACC Coastal Division. Things looked great for that forecast as they opened the year 3-1 and walloped Virginia, 31-3, and at that point, UVA was not only 1-3 but was outscored by an avg of 32-9. The rest of the season did not go as I expected as Virginia rallied for five wins. Duke meanwhile led Miami, FL 24-14 and lost but they did beat the same Vandy team I talked about above on the road to go to 4-3. The Blue Devils lost in OT to Wake Forest (missed a 41-yd FG in regulation that would have won it), and then lost their star QB Thaddeus Lewis vs Clemson. They also lost to rival UNC by 8.

The ‘08 Duke squad had 16 returning starters and in ‘09 they had just 11 with their offensive line having just 25 career starts which was the 5th fewest in the NCAA. Going into the season my computer had them as a dog in nine of the 12 games. When I picked Vandy as a Most Improved Team in 2007, I was calling for them to get to their first bowl since 1982 and they accomplished that a year later with a less experienced squad. Duke has not been to a bowl since 1994 and is just 14-90 this decade and was less experienced than the 2008 version. I still felt the Blue Devils would finish last in the ACC Coastal and have their 15th straight losing season but there were plenty of parallels between the Duke of 2009 and the Vanderbilt of 2008. Coming into the season, the Blue Devils only had four ACC wins in the previous nine years but finished with three last year. In a game that ended up being the difference between a winning and losing season, they lost to FCS Richmond in the opener despite playing in front of a crowd of 33,311 (largest at home S/’01). They were outgained by Army 385-236 but won by 16 thanks to two late IR TD’s in a :16 span. After an expected 28-point loss to Kansas, they beat NC Central to go 2-2. They caught #6 Virginia Tech the week after the Hokies upset #9 Miami and only lost by eight. The next week Duke stunned NC State on the road with QB Lewis throwing for 459 yards and a 28-28 game turned into a 49-28 win. After a bye, they had a 394-249 yard edge and beat Maryland 17-13. Duke then beat Virginia on the road, 28-17, with a 424-196 yd edge and was 3-1 in the ACC (first time they had three wins in a row in the ACC S/’89). Unfortunately, they dropped their final four ACC games and did not go to a bowl game like Vanderbilt did in 2008 but they were very close.

So who is this year’s Vanderbilt?

I go right back to the ACC and look at NC State who is my pick to finish last in the Atlantic Division. Last year with a soft schedule it appeared the Wolfpack were poised for a big year. Against South Carolina they dropped a 32-yd TD pass at the end and the Gamecocks’ only TD was a 14-yd drive set up by a fumble. After a couple of wins over FCS teams, NC State had a 530-300 yd edge vs Pitt and won 38-31 for a solid 3-1 start. In their first road game, QB Russell Wilson had his int streak end with two picks and they lost 30-24. Duke had lost 20 straight ACC road games and despite the game being tied at 28 in the 3Q, NC State lost by 21. Injuries to the DB's hurt as they allowed 52 pts to BC and 45 to Fla St and fell to 3-5. They got past lowly Maryland with a 482-270 yd edge but were then pounded by Clemson and VT before upsetting rival North Carolina in the finale. Over HC Tom O'Brien's first three seasons he has 99 sts lost in 37 gms. They did have a def ypp of 11.6 last year and also qualify for my Turnovers=Turnaround (-11). The Wolfpack were 2-6 in the ACC and -53.5 ypg (4th worst). They lose 20 of 49 lettermen and have just 12 ret st'rs plus draw Virginia Tech and North Carolina out of the Coastal. They face nine bowl teams including three 2009 conf champs (GT, Cincy, ECU). While I still agree with my projection of the Wolfpack finishing last in the Atlantic, they have not caught a lot of breaks in O'Brien's first three years. If their fortune turns around, this team is capable of breaking the streak of four straight losing seasons, despite the tough schedule and they could be the next team that did not live up to my expectations the previous year only to exceed my expectations the following year with a less experienced team just like Vanderbilt in 2008.