The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 19, 2011

2011 FBS Independents Preview

2011 FBS Independents Preview


While not a conference, there has been expansion in the ranks of the FBS Independents.  In fact, it has expanded by 33.3%.  Okay, that just means that one new team has been added to the ranks this year.  Brigham Young has left the Mountain West Conference to go out on their own.


All four independents have bowl guarantees if they become bowl eligible, so it is not such a bad deal to be unaligned with a conference—for now.  If for some reason, this group were to grow by one next year, and that team hails from Austin, Texas, then the Independents will have major relevance again.  At one time, the best teams in the nation were independent.  Remember Florida State, Miami, Syracuse, Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame were all independents in the 1980’s, when they dominated nationally.


Notre Dame

Coach Brian Kelly has the Irish faithful “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  After a 4-5 start last year, the Irish won their last four games against three bowl teams and a Southern Cal team that would have been eligible for a bowl by an average score of 27-10.


Now those fans are expecting a return to a BCS Bowl Game and a possible run to the big game.  It isn’t impossible; Notre Dame is loaded and has only three tough games.  They should be favored to beat two of them.


Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees are back to battle for the starting quarterback job.  Crist has the stronger arm, but Rees has a more accurate arm.  The two combined for 3,100+ yards and 27 touchdowns and should top those numbers this season.  Rees started the final four games when the Irish went 4-0.


Most of the top receivers return from last year.  Michael Floyd is one of the best in the nation.  He caught 79 passes for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and with the rest of this unit having quickness and great hands, defenses will not be able to double up on him all that often.  Theo Riddick is one of the best out of the slot; he finished second on the team last year with 40 receptions.  Tight end Tyler Eifert should compete for the Mackey Award.  He should top 30 receptions this season.  T.J. Jones and John Goodman give the Irish more weapons at this position.


Notre Dame has not been a scary running team since Lou Holtz was the coach, but they started to show signs of returning to a more daunting ground team.  In that four game winning streak to end the season, the Irish averaged 4.3 yards per rush and 156 yards per game.  Cierre Wood may not be the next Allen Pinkett, but he could approach the 1,000 yard mark this season.


Making the offensive efficient and consistent is a strong and somewhat quick offensive line with four experienced starters returning as well as several quality backups. Center Braxton Cave, guard Trevor Robinson and tackle Zack Martin could all contend for some form of national honors.


Notre Dame scored just 26 points per game in 2010, and we can see that number jumping by as much as 10 points this year.  Expect more than 400 total yards per game out of this offense.


Kelly’s biggest footprint on this team last year was the defensive improvement, as the Irish allowed just 20 points and 360 yards per game after giving up 26 points and 400 yards the year before.  With most of the key players from last year returning this season, expect more improvement in those numbers.  All three units are top notch.


The strongest of these strong units is the quartet of linebackers.  Inside, the tandem of Manti Te’o and Carlo Calabrese have no equals from among the 3-4 defenses in college football.  Te’o will be a high draft pick if he decides to come out after his junior season.


Up front, nose guard might be the only question mark in the defense.  The 3-4 needs a big, beefy guy who can control two gaps, and this may be the only weakness in this defense.  Teams with big beefy backs that can hit between the tackles may be able to find occasional success.  Ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson both have the potential to become NFL draft choices.


The secondary is sound thanks to the return of three starters.  Harrison Smith has few peers at the free safety position.  He intercepted seven passes and knocked away seven others last year.  Cornerback Gary Gray is a multi-talented defender.  He covers well and provides an excellent force against the run.


The schedule should give the Irish their first route to a BCS bowl game in five years.  Notre Dame plays no cupcakes this year, but most of the opponents are beatable.  A road game with Michigan in week two should be interesting, and a road game in the season finale against Stanford could be another “Game of the Year.”  Of course, there are the additional rivalry games with Michigan State, Purdue, and Southern Cal.  We tend to believe Kelly’s heroes will prevail in most if not all of these games.  In fact, we would not be surprised if the Irish were 11-0 when they head to Palo Alto.


Brigham Young

To many teams, winning seven games including a 52-24 bowl victory would be considered a successful season.  In Provo, it is considered an off year.  Relax Cougar fans; your team will improve this season as an independent.  Your schedule is tough, but your offense will be explosive once again.


Every skill position player that contributed for more than a play or two will be back.  Start at quarterback, where BYU has been known to produce a few good ones over the last 45 years.  The current future NFL player is Jake Heaps.  As a freshman, Heaps completed 57.2% of his passes for 2,300+ yards and 15 touchdowns.  We believe his numbers will top 3,300 yards and maybe 3,500 yards with 25+ touchdowns in 2011.


On the other end of Heaps’ missiles, the Cougars have two specialists in getting open nine yards deep when it is 3rd and 8.  Cody Hoffman and McKay Jacobson will not average 15 yards per reception, but they will convert a lot of third downs with receptions against pressure.  Tight end Devin Mahina provides a mighty big target at 6-06, and he should top his totals of last year (11-118).


In the past, BYU’s backs were noted for exceptional pass blocking and route running out of the backfield.  Unlike most teams, the Cougars have kept a split back alignment to run the original West Coast Offense.  The running game does not get the credit it deserves, but this team is capable of running the ball 50-60 times and gaining 300 yards.  J.J. DiLuigi and Bryan Kariya combined for more than 1,450 yards and 14 touchdowns last year, while Joshua Quezada added more than 500 yards and five touchdowns.  All three return.  DiLuigi caught 45 passes, and Kariya added 21, so the tradition continues in that respect.


Four starters return to a very capable offensive line that allowed just four sacks in the final six games.  Tackle Matt Reynolds may be the best player on the team, and he could be starting in the NFL next year.  Tackle Braden Brown and guard Braden Hansen were 2nd Team All-MWC choices last year.


Look for BYU to average more than 35 points and 425 yards per game this season.  Don’t be surprised if there are games in which the Cougars top 200 yards on the ground and 300 through the air, or 250 both ways.  It will be difficult if not impossible to stop them.


It is another story on the defensive side of the ball, where there is rebuilding to do.  The top three tacklers will not be around, and six starters are missing.  Coach Bronco Mendenhall took over the defensive coordinator duties last year, and he will remain in that position this year.


Mendenhall will need to work magic to come up with a championship-caliber secondary.  The Cougars lost three starters including the number one and three tacklers, who accounted for 22 passes defended.  After limiting opposing passers to a low 53% pass percentage and just 192 yards in a league where quarterbacks routinely pass for 250, BYU will give up more than 200 yards and allow as much as 60% completion percentages this season.


BYU is in better shape at linebacker.  The return of a healthy Jordan Pendleton  along with Brandon Ogletree gives the Cougars two quality players at this position.  Uona Kaveinga began his career at USC, and he is eligible this year and could start from day one.


Another former Trojan, nose guard Hebron Fangupo is perfect for a 3-4 defense.  He should control the A-gaps and give the linebackers the freedom to pursue aggressively.  Ends Eathhyn Manumaleuna and Matt Putnam need to improve and provide more pass rushing to their repertoire, as the Cougars did not disrupt enemy quarterbacks enough last year.


BYU gave up 21 points per game last year, but it was a “Tale of Two Cities.”  In the first seven games, they allowed 28 points and 400+ yards per game.  In the final six games, they gave up 14 points and less than 250 yards per game.  We have confidence in Mendenhall; he is a terrific defensive coordinator, and hiring himself for that position verifies he is a smart head coach.  However, the Cougars will take a step backwards on this side of the ball in 2011.  Call it 24-26 points allowed per game.


BYU’s schedule is tough.  The Cougars keep Utah and TCU from their old conference.  They go on the road to face Ole Miss, Texas, Oregon State and Hawaii.  They should dominate all the other teams on the schedule.  We believe they can win two or three of those tough games, so call it an 8-9 win season with a trip to the Armed Forces Bowl.



For a short time after the end of the 2010 season, it looked like Coach Ken Niumatalolo might be headed to an AQ school in a big conference, but in the end, he stayed in Annapolis.  After winning 27 games in his three years at the Naval Academy, look for the Midshipmen to take a small step backward for Coach N.


When an option team loses an experienced quarterback, they almost always regress a little.  Ricky Dobbs led Navy in rushing while passing for more than 1,500 yards as a senior.  His replacement, Kriss Proctor, threw a total of five passes last year, but he will be a better runner than Dobbs.  Proctor started against Central Michigan, a game in which Navy won 38-37.  He rushed for 201 yards in that game.  In 2009, he ran for 89 yards, including the decisive 40-yard touchdown jaunt to beat Wake Forest.  Proctor could rush for more than 1,000 yards this year, but he may find it hard matching his rushing output with his passing output.


Two of the three starting backs return this year, led by fullback Alexander Teich.  Teich is hard to bring down with just one defender, and that makes the spread option go.  He averaged almost six yards a try in 2010 and rarely lost yardage.  B-Back Gee Gee Greene rushed for almost 500 yards caught 18 passes at a 16-yard clip.


The receivers will be called on to block more than ever this season.  Brandon Turner has big play potential, especially when the opposing safeties begin to think Navy will never pass.  He averaged 28.2 yards on his four receptions last year.  He could catch as many as 25 passes this year, and if he can average “just” 20 yards per catch, he could take enough pressure off the running game.


The offensive line should be a strength this year.  In this offense, offensive lines do not need much time to gel.  With center Brady DeMell and guard John Dowd, Navy has a couple of blockers that will open some holes for Teich.  That will force an extra defender to cover inside, and that will allow Proctor more room to attack the perimeter.


Navy’s offense will be potent this year.  Last year, they averaged 30 points and 405 yards per game.  They may not equal those numbers this year, because the Midshipmen will try to control the clock more to keep a green defense off the field.  We can see this team leading the nation in rushing with about 325-350 yards per game, while throwing for only 60-75 yards per game.  It adds up to about 28 points per game.  If the offense can control the ball for about 68 plays and allow only 60-64, Navy can go bowling yet again.


Now, for the defense.  Navy’s best defense will be a ball-controlling offense, because the Midshipmen lost too much on this side of the ball.  Eight key players used up their eligibility, including six of the top eight tacklers.


Among the holdovers, end Jabaree Tuani is the one real star.  He registered 15 ½ total tackles for loss last year.  Navy was generous against the run last season, giving up 4.6 yards per attempt, and we cannot see any improvement here this year.


The four-man linebacker unit returns one starter and one top reserve.  Max Blue  is a little better against the pass than the run.


The secondary was not exactly terrific, as it gave up close to 70% completions.  With only one starter returning, teams may pass Navy dizzy this year.


An easy schedule will give the Midshipmen enough sure thing wins to propel them back to a bowl, but this team will not win as many games as last year.  If they should happen to lose to Delaware in the opener, then all bets are off.  Navy’s nine-game winning streak over Army could be in jeopardy.



Coach Rich Ellerson guided the Knights to a bowl game in just his second season in West Point.  Army finished with a winning record for the first time in 14 years.  In order for the Black Knights of the Hudson to go back to a bowl in 2011, the offense may have to ignite and look somewhat like it did in the days of Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard.  The defense is going to leak like a sieve this year.


Trent Steelman returns for his third year as a starter at quarterback.  He rushed for more than 800 yards when you factor out sacks, and he scored 11 rushing touchdowns.  While he was not called on to pass very often, he held his own as a passer, completing 53.4% of his passes for 995 yards and seven touchdowns against just three picks.


Fullback Jared Hassin is the best at his position from among the handful of teams that run the option.  He rushed for 1,013 and nine touchdowns last year.  At 6-3 and 235, he is a downhill runner with the ability to run for an extra yard or two after contact. 


Malcolm Brown and Brian Cobbs will be dangerous open-field runners when Steelman is force to pitch.  The two combined for 5.7 yards per rush and nine scores in 2010, and we expect more breakaway runs this season.


The two starting wide receivers from last year are back for more.  Austin Barr and Davyd Brooks were the leading receivers, but their combined efforts only produced 29 receptions and 453 yards.  Ellerson would probably like to use Brown and Cobbs more in the passing game.


Only one starter returns to the offensive line, but in the spread option, it is much easier to break in new linemen.  While there could be a bump or two in the road early in the season, the line should perform fine by the third or fourth game.


Army scored 27 points per game last year, while rushing for more than 250 yards per game.  They finished dead last in passing with just 78 yards per game.  Army games take a lot less time to play, and the total number of scrimmage plays in their games last year was less than 125.  That is how the Black Knights have to play to win—control the clock and use long drives to keep the defense on the sidelines.  It worked for Vince Lombardi, and it works for Ellerson.  Look for Army to take the air out of the ball even more this year.  We could even see their games going for just 120 plays.  Thus, we forecast Army to maybe score a couple points less this year but be just as efficient if not more so.


The defense is a major problem.  To start off, only five starters return to the fold.  Army runs the old “Desert Swarm” defense (Double Eagle Flex) used by Dick Tomey at Hawaii and Arizona (Ellerson was an assistant), and this defense requires more thinking than most NFL defenses.  New players sometimes get confused themselves, and it only take one missed assignment to create a huge running lane or wide open receiver.  We see this happening more this year than in Ellerson’s first two seasons.


Another major problem is the size of the defensive line.  In this defense, size is not as important as quickness and intelligence, as the linemen almost always stunt and switch positions.  However, this leads to a lot of lateral movement at the time of the snap.  Smaller players moving laterally can be annihilated by larger offensive linemen moving north.  One player who should shine is end Jarrett Mackey.  Mackey recorded four sacks in 2010.  Army will sorely miss Josh McNary, who led the team with 10 sacks.


The linebackers do a lot of blitzing in this defense.  Middle linebacker Steven Erzinger finished second on the team with 76 tackles, but leading tackler Stephen Anderson is now a commissioned officer.


The secondary returns both starting cornerbacks in Richard King and Josh Jackson.  King successfully defended seven passes with four interceptions.


Army gave up 24 points and just 338 yards per game last year.  Although undersized, they were able to pester opposing offenses and cause a lot of confusion.  This year, those opponents may not be quite so confused, and the Knights could have a difficult time stopping good running teams.  We look for a step backward here.  However, the schedule includes a bunch of teams that will not be able to exploit Army’s size liabilities.  This will give the Black Knights a chance to challenge for another bowl game.  It could come down to breaking the nine-game losing streak to that team with the goat.


Note: There is no official media poll for the FBS Independents.  What we have included here is an average of seven different print magazines and online sources (ours not included).


Average of 7 Online and Magazine Predictions



Predicted Won-Loss

Notre Dame


Brigham Young







2011 Independents PiRate Ratings



PiRate #


Notre Dame



Brigham Young










Next: The Mountain West Conference Preview—Monday, August 22

March 19, 2011

Saturday’s NCAA Tournament PiRate Criteria Ratings

All Times EDT

Number in (Parentheses) indicates PiRate Criteria Rating

For a detailed explanation of the PiRate Criteria Rating, click on the following link:


12:15 PM on CBS

Kentucky (14) vs. West Virginia (6)

The Wildcats seek revenge today for their regional final exit of last year.  This Kentucky team has what last year’s team lacked—consistent outside shooting to complement their more than decent dribble-drive.  While not as talented, Coach John Calipari’s squad is more complete this year.  The Blue Misters are jelling at the right time, and we believe they will advance to the Sweet 16.


West Virginia is not as dominating inside as they were last year, and they might be a little to slow and methodical to compete against the quicker Wildcats.  Coach Bob Huggins will have a great gameplan ready, and we believe the Mountaineers will keep it close.


We see this as a game of spurts.  Kentucky will enjoy one spurt in both halves, and WVU will attempt to creep back in the game both times.


Prediction: Kentucky 74  West Virginia 67


2:40 PM on CBS

Florida (15) vs. U C L A (-3)

The PiRate Criteria rates this game a giant mismatch, and we see no reason why not to agree. This would be a great game if all the former Bruins now playing in the NBA would have used their four years of eligibility.  However, this is more like the old Brubabes when schools fielded Freshmen and later Junior Varsity teams.  This UCLA team is better than Florida’s second team.  The Gators’ best players are still around, while UCLA’s best senior is the star of the Minnesota Timberwolves.


Florida has a large quickness advantage, and they will win the hustle points.  This one should be out of hand by halftime or five minutes into the second half.


Prediction: Florida 75  U C L A 62


5:15 PM on CBS

Morehead State (3) vs. Richmond (2)

This game will be one of the more interesting contests in the Round of 32.  Morehead State is an aggressive take-it-to-the-hoop and score or pass back for a three team.  The Racers have the closest thing to Elvin Hayes on their roster.  Kenneth Faried is much better than Dennis Rodman, but he is much thinner than Wes Unseld, and he has a better offensive game than both of those historically fantastic rebounders.  Faried can take it to the hoop, and he can pull up and fire from the foul line area, much like the great Hayes used to do with Houston and in the NBA.


Richmond will try to make this a game of the smart beating the strong, because the Spiders do not have much of an answer for Faried inside.  However, they enjoy a huge advantage on the perimeter.


This game will come down to this easy pointer: whichever team performs better at their strength and defends the other’s strength will win.  We think this one could end on a buzzer beater or go to overtime, but we will go with the chalk and take the higher PiRate score.


By the way, the last time an Ohio Valley Conference team advanced to the Sweet 16, it was Western Kentucky.  The Hilltoppers left the OVC more than two decades ago.


Prediction: Morehead State 64  Richmond 62


6:10 PM on TNT

San Diego State (19) vs. Temple (5)

If our criteria rating is going to be accurate this season, then we need to see the Aztecs play much better today than they did in a lackluster opening round win over Northern Colorado.  If San Diego State is firing on all cylinders, Temple has little or no chance in this game.


This Owl team is not quick enough or strong enough to battle this Aztec team if SDSU is playing just an average game.  If the Aztecs come out flat, Coach Fran Dunphy’s Owls could keep it close for 40 minutes and even be in striking distance.


Steve Fisher has been to the Final Four three times, and he knows how to prepare a team in tournament play.  He has enough talent to get there again, and we believe SDSU will play much better today against a much better opponent than Northern Colorado.  Remember this: Temple ran Duke of the Palestra floor less a month ago.  They have enough talent to win this game, but we do not see it happening.


Prediction: San Diego State 72  Temple 62


7:10 PM on TBS

Pittsburgh (18) vs. Butler (7)

We know better than to count out a team coached by Brad Stevens.  However, Butler’s bubble is going to burst today.


Pittsburgh is just too talented to lose this game, even if Coach Jamie Dixon sometimes loses control of that talent.  The Panthers know what Butler can do, and they will be fired up for this game just as much as if they were playing Ohio State, Duke, or Kansas.


Butler is playing its best ball at the right time, but they are plainly outmanned against a superior team.  We expect the Bulldogs to keep it close and still have a chance with 10 minutes to go, but the Panthers will wear them down and pull away to what looks like an easier win than it was.


Prediction: Pittsburgh 71  Butler 59


7:45 PM on CBS

B Y U (18) vs. Gonzaga (13)

When you penalize BYU for the loss of Brandon Davies, their criteria score drops by about five points.  This ironically makes this game a complete tossup.


Jimmer Fredette may be able to score 40-50 points in this game, but Gonzaga could place five players in double figures.  We tend to like the odds of five scorers outscoring one.


Coach Mark Few deserves high accolades for turning this Bulldog team around in midseason.  The Zags appeared to be NIT-bound, before they turned it up a notch and began playing the best basketball seen in Spokane since the days of Adam Morrison.


We believe Gonzaga is Sweet 16-bound, and we would not be surprised if they give Florida a great game in a potential matchup.


Prediction: Gonzaga 84  B Y U 75


8:40 PM on TNT

Kansas State (9) vs. Wisconsin (7)

This one is the other great game of the day.  How about Jacob Pullen versus Jordan Taylor, and Jon Leuer versus Curtis Kelly?  If you like great player matchups, then this is the game of the day for you.


Kansas State is a tad stronger on the perimeter and a tad quicker, while Wisconsin is a tad stronger inside.  We expect the tempo to be controlled by the Badgers, so the score will be one of the lowest of the day, if not the lowest.


We have no real favorite in this game, so we will stick with the PiRate Criteria scores.  Two points is not much; it equates to about a 55% chance of the favorite winning.


Prediction: Kansas State 59  Wisconsin 55


9:40 PM on TBS

Connecticut (9) vs. Cincinnati (9)

Here we have our first game between teams from the same conference and teams that have already played against each other.  In their lone regular season contest in Cincinnati, the Huskies won on the road by eight points. 


Both teams play tenacious defense and rely on just a couple of players to lead on offense.  They know each other well, so it should be a high-spirited, tightly-fought game with a lot of excellent defensive possessions sprinkled with the occasional great offensive play.


Cincinnati will concentrate their efforts on stopping Kemba Walker, while the Huskies will try to keep the ball away from Yancy Gates and Dion Dixon.


This is the other game that could come down to a buzzer-beater, but we have a sneaky suspicion that Connecticut is about to explode and play like Husky teams of the past.


Prediction: Connecticut 69  Cincinnati 59

March 14, 2011

2011 PiRate NCAA Basketball Tournament Preview

Filed under: College Basketball — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — piratings @ 7:01 pm

1. Which teams meet the upper range criteria in every category?  That means they outscored their opponents by eight or more per game; their field goal percentage was greater than 7.5% better than their opponents; they outrebounded their opponents by five or more per game; they forced at least three more turnovers per game than they committed; and they stole the ball 7.5 or more times per game.


ANSWER—No teams this year meet all the perfect criteria described above.  Six teams come close to meeting the perfect criteria, but all fall short in at least one statistic.  This means there is no clear-cut favorite—only six teams that most closely resemble the great champions of the past.  Of the six, three come from power conferences.  These three are Kansas, Ohio State, and Syracuse.


Kansas fails to meet the turnover margin requirement, but the Jayhawks surpass all the other qualifications.  Ohio State comes up a tad bit short in field goal percentage margin, rebounding margin, and steals per game, but just misses in all three.  Syracuse misses in rebounding and turnover margin, but they Orangemen do not miss by much. 


2. Which teams can be immediately eliminated due to a negative R+T rating?  Which teams have an incredibly low R+T Rating (<2.0)?


ANSWER—Three teams can immediately be eliminated due to negative R+T Ratings.  It comes as no surprise that Alabama State and Texas-San Antonio, two teams facing off in the First Round in Dayton, have negative R+T ratings.  The third team is Michigan.  The Wolverines were outrebounded by 1.9 boards per game, and they only had a +1.4 turnover margin with just 4.7 steals per game.


Five other teams finished with R+T ratings less than 2.0.  This usually means one and done for these teams, unless they have outstanding FG% margins or cupcake opponents with worse criteria numbers.  Those five teams are: Penn State, Richmond, St. Peter’s, UCLA, and UCSB.


3. Which teams are capable of winning it all?


ANSWER—We separate the contenders from the pretenders by looking at the total PiRate Criteria score and then looking to see if the high criteria scoring teams receive merit on every individual statistic.


Last year, Duke was head and heels better than the other 64 teams.  The Blue Devils had the highest score overall, and they satisfactorily rated in every PiRate category.


No teams appear to be as strong this year as the Blue Devils were last year, but nine teams meet most of the minimum requirements to be considered Final Four contenders this year.


It should come as no surprise that the top two teams, Ohio State and Kansas, rank at the top in the Criteria.  Kansas actually has the highest score of the 68 teams, a score of 23.  The Jayhawks outscored their opposition by 17.2 points, shot 11.7% better from the field than their opponents, and outrebounded their opponents by 7.8 boards per game.  These stats are worthy of a powerhouse.  However, KU enjoyed just a 0.9 turnover margin and stole the ball 7.9 times per game, giving the Jayhawks an R+T Rating of 9.5.  We tend to look for teams with an R+T Rating in excess of 10, so KU is not a great favorite to go all the way. 


Ohio State’s total Criteria score is 21, good for second best.  However, the Buckeyes enjoy an R+T Rating of 13.2, which is a number we really like in a Final Four contender.  This number correlates to 13 extra scoring opportunities that their opposition does not receive.  OSU outscores their opponents by 17.3 points per game, shot 6.9% better from the field than they allows, outrebounded their opponents by 4.9 per game, had a turnover margin of +4.8, and stole the ball 7.2 times per game. 


San Diego State comes in third with 19 total criteria points.  BYU, Pittsburgh, and Texas come in next with 18 points; the Panthers have an R+T rating above 10.  The other three teams with PiRate Criteria scores showing themselves to be strong contenders for a Final Four berth are Syracuse, Purdue, and Duke


Florida, North Carolina, and UNLV are actually almost in a statistical tie with Duke, meaning those three are dark horse candidates for the Final Four.


Overall, this is the weakest field by far in the six tournaments where we have ranked the teams according to our criteria.  Looking back, this could be the weakest field since the tournament expanded to 64 teams. 


North Carolina State, Kansas, and Villanova won national titles in the past with less than stellar numbers.  We do not have all the statistics from those years, so we cannot really calculate criteria numbers for those three champions.  Could this be a season in which one team gets hot for six games and comes from out of the pack to win it all?  It could happen, but we are sticking with this mechanical system and going with its results.  Kansas, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, and Texas appear to be the best PiRate Criteria matches to past Final Four teams, and they are the quartet we officially pick to make it to Houston.  Syracuse becomes the wildcard team that could sneak into the mix.


Here is a look at the First Four Round One games and the 32 second round games.  The number in (parentheses) represents the PiRate Bracketnomics criteria number.


First Four Round


#16 Texas-San Antonio 19-13 (Elim) vs. #16 Alabama State 17-17 (Elim)

At first, we thought this was highly ironic, but upon further review, we consider it sort of a compliment.  These two teams both must be eliminated based on negative R+T ratings.  Of course, one of them must win this game so that they can advance to a 25-point or more loss in the next round.


Most of you filling out your brackets do not have to worry about these games in Dayton.  You get to turn in your choices after these games have been played.


UTSA has better criteria numbers after you factor out both teams’ R+T numbers. 


Prediction: Texas-San Antonio 64  Alabama State 55



#12 U A B 22-8 (2) vs. #12 Clemson 21-11 (1)

If you have been following the “experts” since the pairings were announced Sunday evening, then you know that these two teams do not belong in the tournament in their opinion.  It is not our mission statement to declare which teams should and should not have been included in the Big Dance, but we will tell you that Harvard and Saint Mary’s enjoyed Criteria scores several points better than these two teams, while Colorado and Virginia Tech had equal numbers to these two.


This game should be as close as the criteria scores show.  UAB has a one-point advantage in the criteria, but the Blazers just do not excel in any stage of the game.  Clemson’s strong point is forcing turnovers by way of steals, and that leads to a lot of cheap baskets.  Cheap baskets pay off big time in the NCAA Tournament, so we will take the Tigers in this one.


Prediction: Clemson 74  UAB 67


#11 Southern Cal 19-14 (-1) vs. #11 Virginia Commonwealth 23-11 (-1)

The winner of this game is going home two days later.  Neither team merits inclusion in the Big Dance this year. 


Southern Cal has no apparent weakness according to the PiRate Criteria.  In fact, they have a great resume—for an NIT team.


The Trojans outscore their opponents by four points per game, and they outshoot them by 3.3%.  They have a small rebounding margin of 1.2, and they have an even smaller turnover margin of 0.6.  They average six steals per game and have a R+T rating of 2.1.  On top of these modest numbers, their schedule was average.


VCU is much in the same boat as USC with two exceptions.  They have a negative turnover margin, but they also average 8.5 steals per game.


The only other difference in these teams is their records away from home.  USC won only 41% of their games, while VCU won 60%.


This one is quite tough to pick, but we will go with the Trojans due to their superior inside talent.  We expect USC to win the rebounding edge by at least five.


Prediction: Southern Cal  65  V C U  60


#16 UNC-Asheville 19-13 (-5) vs. #16 Arkansas-Little Rock 19-16 (-13)

Obviously, we have two teams that would not even merit NIT bids had they lost in the championship games of their conference tournaments.  UALR has one of the lowest Criteria Scores in the seven years we have been calculating this data.


UNC-Asheville actually has a couple of positive Criteria stats.  Their R+T is 5.5, which had it come against a more difficult schedule, would have made them worthy of becoming a possible team to watch in the Round of 64.


We will go with UNCA here, as schedule strength is about the same for both teams.


Prediction: UNC-Asheville 69  Arkansas-Little Rock 59



Second-Round Games


East Regional


#1 Ohio State 32-2 (21) vs. #16 UTSA (Elim)/Alabama State (Elim)

This game will be over quickly.  There will be no scare, not even for two TV timeouts.  The second highest Criteria score versus one of the teams with an R+T Rating of “Eliminate.”


The Buckeyes outscored their opponents by more than 17 points per game.  Their strength of schedule was 13 points better than UTSA and 16 points better than Alabama State. 


We will go under the theory that UTSA will be the opponent in this game.  Using our Criteria Rating, Ohio State figures to be 30-40 points better than UTSA.  Coach Thad Matta will definitely empty his bench early in this game, so the Buckeyes may “only win” by 25-30. 


Prediction: Ohio State 78  Texas-San Antonio 50


#8 George Mason 26-6 (8) vs. #9 Villanova 21-11 (5)

George Mason is the higher seed in this game, so if they win, it cannot really be considered an upset.


Villanova was on course to be a four-seed when the Wildcats were 16-5 and contending for the Big East Conference regular season title.  The Wildcats could not compete down low against the more physical teams in their league.


George Mason has a higher PiRate Criteria Score, but it is not an insurmountable advantage.  The key stat for this game is the R+T Rating.  For GMU, it is 6.8.  For VU, it is 4.9.  Considering that Villanova played a harder schedule, these numbers basically cancel each other out, thus making this a tossup game.


There are two variables to consider here.  George Mason performed much better on the road, and Villanova is banged up a bit.


Prediction: George Mason 66  Villanova 62


#5 West Virginia 20-11 (6) vs. #12 UAB (2)/Clemson (1)

We believe the Mountaineers will be facing Clemson in this game, but the prediction will hold up if they play UAB. 


West Virginia is not as good this season as last season, and the Mountaineers will not advance to the Final Four, or even the Elite Eight.  They are liable to be out by the end of the weekend.  However, they are strong enough to get into the Round of 32. 


The Mountaineers best attribute is that they put up decent numbers against one of the toughest schedules in the country.  Of the NCAA Tournament teams, only Georgetown played a tougher schedule.  They will have to limit turnovers, or else this game will be close and go down to the wire.  We believe Coach Bob Huggins will be able to keep the pace at a level he likes and not allow Clemson (or UAB) to force the Mountaineers into enough mistakes to turn the tide.


Prediction: West Virginia 69  Clemson 62 (Or UAB 58)


#4 Kentucky 25-8 (14) vs. #13 Princeton 25-6 (-2)

Princeton has pulled off the big upset in the past, and they came within a missed jumper at the buzzer of becoming the only #16 seed to beat a #1 seed.  However, that was two decades ago.  The Tigers have not been to the NCAA Tournament in seven years, and that big win over UCLA was 15 years ago. 


Kentucky is not the type of team that will allow Princeton’s style of play to affect their style of play.  The Wildcats should actually play better than their norm with fewer mistakes. 


We believe that Princeton will actually crumble under relentless man-to-man pressure and turn the ball over enough times in the opening minutes of the game to allow the Wildcats to open a quick double-digit lead.  This group of Cats tends to fiddle around a little once they get a quick double-digit lead and then play uninspired ball until the opponent makes a run.  Then, they go on the attack at the right time and put the game away.


Adolph Rupp had a team just like this in 1958.  They were called “The Fiddlin’ Five.”  They were also called National Champions.  We won’t go so far as to put UK into this category, but we will advance the Wildcats into the next round and then into the Sweet 16.


Prediction: Kentucky 72  Princeton 59


#6 Xavier 24-7 (8) vs. #11 Marquette 20-14 (3)

If you are looking for a tough, hard-fought game with two Midwestern teams, then tune into this game Friday evening.


If the Musketeers were a little more competent at forcing turnovers, they could be a dark horse candidate to advance to the Elite Eight.  XU shoots the ball well and plays well on defense when it comes to preventing a lot of easy shots.  They do well on the boards, and against a team that cannot exploit their ball-handling and ball-hawking deficiencies, they will hold their own inside.  The only other possible problem for the Musketeers is a lack of depth, but in the NCAA Tournaments, TV timeouts are longer.  It is hard to wear a team down with such long breaks every four or so minutes.


Marquette does not have enough depth to take advantage of Xavier’s lack of depth, so this factor will become a non-factor.  The Golden Eagles got to this tournament due to their ability to put the ball into the basket.  Marquette needs to shoot better than 46% to win, while Xavier is adept at holding teams under 45% as a rule.


Prediction: Xavier 71  Marquette 65


#3 Syracuse 26-7 (17) vs. #14 Indiana State 20-13 (-4)

Syracuse has been getting very little national exposure since their 18-0 start ended with an 8-7 finish.  The Orangemen are a team to watch in this tournament.  If not for a pedestrian 71% winning percentage away from the Carrier Dome, we would have them as one of the top four teams in this tournament.


Coach Jim Boeheim’s team outscores their opposition by 10.3 points per game; they outshoot them by 7.6%, and they outrebound them by 3.6 boards per game.  Their turnover margin is +1.9, and they averaged almost nine steals per game.  Their R+T Rating is 7.6, and their Strength of Schedule is somewhere between above-average and very good.  This is the Criteria Score of a team that will advance to the Sweet 16 and compete for an Elite Eight and Final Four berth.


Indiana State needs the return of Larry Bird to win this game.  They are too perimeter-oriented.  The Sycamores do not have the beef down low to contend in the paint, and even though Syracuse plays a 2-3 zone, teams rarely beat the Orangemen by firing up 25 long-range bombs.


This one smells like a blowout.


Prediction: Syracuse 81  Indiana State 62


#7 Washington 23-10 (13) vs. #10 Georgia 21-11 (2)

Washington is one of those teams that can play with anybody in this tournament—when they are playing up to their potential.  The Huskies could also exit in the first round if they play like they did the weekend they went to Oregon and Oregon State.


Georgia is much more consistent, but their best effort will not defeat the Huskies’ best effort.


Washington lacked the seasoned experience this season, and it showed when they ventured away from Seattle.  The Huskies lost to weaker opponents because they lacked the composure to win on foreign courts.  That changed when they arrived in Los Angeles for the Pac-10 Tournament.  Isaiah Thomas took over command of the team and led them to the tournament title.  This makes UW a scary and dangerous team capable of returning to the Sweet 16.


Georgia must really dominate the glass in this game, because we believe they will turn the ball over too many times against UW’s pressure man-to-man defense.  It is our opinion that the Bulldogs will play a little timidly at the start of this game and find themselves in a hole.


The Bulldogs had trouble against Alabama’s defense, and Washington is similar but with a much better offense.


Prediction: Washington 78  Georgia 70


#2 North Carolina 26-7 (15) vs. #15 Long Island 27-5 (-1)


Long Island is just the type of team that can forget that their opponent is a dynasty program that chews up and spits out little programs like this.


Teams from Brooklyn don’t intimidate easily, especially when they are led by a trio of Texans.  So, LIU will not be intimidated, but will they be talented enough to make a game of this contest?


That’s the rub.  They lack the defensive ability to slow down the Tar Heels, while Coach Roy Williams’ team will be able to hold the Blackbirds under their scoring average.  The big problem for LIU will be holding onto the ball, and we could see North Carolina forcing 20 turnovers in this game.  When the Tar Heels force more turnovers than they commit, they are almost unbeatable.  This game could be interesting for a short time, but it will eventually get out of hand.


Prediction: North Carolina 88  Long Island 70


West Regional


#1 Duke 30-4 (15) vs. #16 Hampton 24-8 (-8)

Duke has nothing to worry about here.  This will be like one of their November/December home games where they quickly put the cupcake away with a barrage of power and speed.  You know the type: a 37-point win over Princeton; a 34-point win over Miami of Ohio; a 52-point win over Colgate.


Hampton got to the Dance using an aggressive defense and three-point shooting barrage on offense.  Duke will not be affected by the defensive pressure, and they will cut off the open shots from the outside.  It will be a mercy killing, and it will be quick.  Look for the Blue Devils to be up by more than 15 points before the halfway point of the first half.  By the time Coach K empties the bench, the Blue Devils should be up by 25-30 points.


Prediction: Duke 81  Hampton 61


#8 Michigan 20-13 (Elim) vs. #9 Tennessee 19-14 (10)

Michigan is the highest-rated team that fails to meet our R+T Rating requirement, so the Wolverines are automatically tabbed as a first-round loser.


Coach Jim Beilein has been in a similar position before.  He guided a West Virginia team with not-so-flashy Criteria numbers to the Elite Eight, where they forced Louisville to come from 20 points down to rally for the victory.  That WVU team had one of the worst negative rebounding numbers of any team in Elite Eight history, but that team made few mistakes and had a nice turnover margin.


This Michigan team was only outrebounded by two a game, but they do not create enough extra possessions with their miniscule turnover margin of 1.4 and their average of just 4.7 steals per game.


Tennessee has been up and down, and the Volunteers are not going to make a repeat run to the Elite Eight this year.  However, Coach Bruce Pearl’s troops will control the boards in this game and maybe force more turnovers than they commit.  We figure that Tennessee will have 10 more opportunities to score in this game, and that is too many for the Wolverines to make up with their three-point shooting.


Prediction: Tennessee 74  Michigan 69


#5 Arizona 27-7 (3) vs. #12 Memphis 25-9 (-1)

Memphis was not going to earn an at-large bid this season had they failed to win the Conference USA Tournament.  They received an ideal first round opponent, and the Tigers actually have a fighting chance to pull off yet another classic #12-seed over #5-seed upset.


Arizona needs to pound the ball inside and rely on numerous offensive rebounds to win this game.  Other teams might be able to exploit Memphis’s poor ball-handling skills, but the Wildcats do not have the defensive acumen to take advantage here.


Memphis will try to make this an up-tempo game where they can neutralize Arizona’s height advantage inside.  It has a chance of working, but Arizona probably has too much power inside and just enough quickness to stop the Tigers’ transition game.


Prediction: Arizona 76  Memphis 69


#4 Texas 27-7 (18) vs. #13 Oakland 25-9 (3)

This has become a popular upset pick in the media.  Oakland has generated a lot of positive press, and many “experts” are calling for the upset in this game.  We are not one of them.  Not only do we believe the Longhorns will take care of Oakland with relative ease in this game, we believe Texas is a force to be reckoned with in the next two or three rounds. 


Let’s look at Texas’ Criteria Rating.  At 18, the ‘Horns rate as our sixth best team in the tournament.  They have a 13.5 point scoring margin, a 7.1% field goal margin, a 6.6 rebounding margin, and a 1.2 turnover margin.  Their only Achilles Heel is a low amount of steals resulting in a R+T Rating of 8.3.  Had that number been above 10, we would be selecting Coach Rick Barnes’ team for the Final Four.


Oakland won this year with strong rebounding and an excellent ability to force their opponents into bad shots.  Center Keith Benson is a future NBA player, but he is not enough to propel the Golden Grizzlies into the next round.


Prediction: Texas 77  Oakland 65


#6 Cincinnati 25-8 (9) vs. #11 Missouri 23-9 (10)

On paper, this looks like the best game of this round between a team with contrasting styles.


Cincinnati is one of the top defensive teams in the tournament.  The Bearcats are tough inside, and they have quality depth to continue playing hard in the paint. 


Missouri uses the “40 minutes of Hell” approach that Coach Mike Anderson learned under his mentor Nolan Richardson.  The Tigers press full court and run the fast break as often as they get the chance.  They are perimeter-oriented and can score a lot of points in a hurry.


When we try to decide tossup games, we look to the all-important defense and rebounding stats, since that is what wins close games in the Big Dance. 


Missouri is vulnerable in both of these crucial areas.  They have given up a lot of cheap baskets this year when teams solved their press.  The Tigers were outrebounded by 1.7 boards per game.


Cincinnati owns a +2.7 rebounding margin, and the Bearcats held onto the ball quite competently.  We believe Coach Mick Cronin’s crew will advance.


Prediction: Cincinnati 68  Missouri 65


#3 Connecticut 26-9 (9) vs. #14 Bucknell 25-8 (-4)

Ask Kansas Coach Bill Self if it is wise to underestimate Bucknell.  The Bison know how to hold onto the ball and work for intelligent shots.  Give them an opening, and they can bury you with a high field goal percentage.


Connecticut did the unthinkable by winning five games in five days.  Their defense does not get the merit it deserves, because Kemba Walker gets more attention for his offensive antics.  The Huskies actually held teams under 40% from the field.


Coach Jim Calhoun knows how to prepare a team for tournament action.  He will have UConn ready for this game, and the Huskies will not overlook the Bison.


Prediction: Connecticut 73  Bucknell 58


#7 Temple 25-7 (5) vs. #10 Penn State 19-14 (-1)

Temple’s score must be tempered by the fact that they are a wounded team coming into this tournament.  Two starters suffered injuries late in the season, and one is out for the remainder of the year, while the other may or may not be ready to play.  We must throw out Temple’s score of “5” in the PiRate Criteria, because 40% of the key players that produced that number will either not play or be greatly less effective.


Penn State is a lot like Southern Cal in this tournament.  The Nittany Lions have the look of a strong NIT team.  Aside from a so-so record against a strong schedule, they really have little to offer outside of one star player. 


We believe this Keystone State rivalry game will be close, and it could come down to the last shot.  Because the Owls are limping, we will go with the Big Ten representative.


Prediction: Penn State 59  Temple 56


#2 San Diego State 32-2 (19) vs. #15 Northern Colorado 21-10 (-6)

Most of you reading this probably cannot remember Texas Western University, but you may have scene the movie where the Miners were too quick for Kentucky and pulled off the big upset to win the 1966 National Championship.  Maybe some of you remember the Long Beach State 49ers ascension into the top 10 under Jerry Tarkanian and then Lute Olson.  Still more can remember when Tark the Shark moved to UNLV and turned the Runnin’ Rebels into a national power.


San Diego State is the next Western team to fit this bill.  The Aztecs are legitimate contenders to advance deep into this tournament.  They have few exploitable weaknesses, and they are the best team West of the Rockies.  Coach Steve Fisher knows how to get teams ready for tournament play, as he has three Final Fours on his resume and one National Championship.


SDSU’s PiRate Criteria numbers are flashy.  Their scoring margin is 13.3 points per game.  Their FG% margin is 7.1%.  They outrebound their opposition by almost seven per game, and they force 1.6 more turnovers than they commit.  Their one weak spot is a pedestrian 6.2 steals average.  If they run up against a more powerful team inside, they could have trouble getting enough extra scoring opportunities.


Northern Colorado will not be one of those teams that can cause trouble for the Aztecs.  The Bears are a good rebounding team, but their rebounding prowess came against a schedule that rates 10 points weaker than San Diego State’s schedule.


Prediction: San Diego State 73  Northern Colorado 51


Southwest Regional

#1 Kansas 32-2 (23) vs. #16 Boston U 21-13 (-11)

Kansas is a team on a mission.  The Jayhawks will not allow a repeat of what happened last year, and that extra incentive should be enough to send KU to Houston.


Kansas has the top PiRate Criteria Score this year.  They meet the basic requirements that most prior National Champions have met—scoring margin: 17.2; FG% margin: 11.7; Rebounding margin: 7.8; Turnover Margin: 0.9; Steals per game: 7.9; R+T Ratings: 9.5.


How do you beat this year’s KU team?  Kansas State and Texas pulled it off by matching up well inside and going head-to-head with them in the paint.


Boston U has the second lowest PiRate Criteria score of the 65 teams that have positive R+T Ratings.  The Terriers are way overmatched in this game, and they will have to be glad they just made it here.


Prediction: Kansas 90  Boston U 62


#8 U N L V 24-8 (15) vs. #9 Illinois 19-13 (1)

If our ratings are worth their salt, then this game should not be all that close.  UNLV may be just the third best team in the Mountain West, but the MWC was better overall this year than the Pac-10.  Third best in the MWC makes the Runnin’ Rebels one of the dozen or so teams capable of making a two weekend run.


Coach Lon Kruger has taken two different teams to the Elite Eight (Kansas State and Florida).  His teams play intelligently without being flashy.


UNLV went 24-3 against teams not named Brigham Young or San Diego State.  They are not particularly strong on the boards, and this will eventually be their downfall.  The Rebels shoot the ball brilliantly, and they alter enough opponent shots to force a lower field goal percentage.  They also take care of the ball and do not make a lot of floor mistakes.


Illinois is an inconsistent, underachieving team.  This can be dangerous for the prognosticator, because it is difficult if not impossible to predict which schizophrenic state will appear for each game.


The Illini are not particularly strong on the glass or at taking care of the ball, and that is a recipe for disaster when the opponent is as good as UNLV.  Even if Illinois comes out playing their best basketball, it may not be enough to beat UNLV playing their typical game.


Prediction: U N L V  72  Illinois 64


#5 Vanderbilt 23-10 (5) vs. #12 Richmond 26-7 (2)

Here is another game getting a lot of attention due to its upset potential.  Historically, the #12 seed produces the a lot of great upsets.


This game could go either way.  Both teams have exploitable weaknesses, and it just so happens that both teams’ have the assets capable of exploiting the other’s weaknesses.


Let’s start with Vanderbilt.  The Commodores are not particularly strong on the defensive perimeter.  Worthy opponents have been able to beat them off the drive and get a lot of open inside shots.  This weak perimeter defense has also led to frontcourt players having to help, thus leaving open holes near the basket.


Richmond’s offense is a modified version of the Princeton Offense.  The Spiders have the talent to get open shots inside and in the five to ten-foot range.


Richmond cannot rebound against more physical teams.  The Spiders make up for their rebounding liabilities by seldom throwing the ball away.


Vanderbilt has an excellent physical presence inside with three beefy players that can rebound the ball on offense and defense.


So, which team gets the edge in our PiRate Ratings?  We always look to defense in rebounding in tossup games.  Vanderbilt holds the rebounding edge, while Richmond holds the defensive edge.  It is basically a wash, so we have to look elsewhere.  While Richmond has been much better away from home, Vanderbilt’s schedule is seven points more difficult.  We’ll go with the power conference team, but not by much


Prediction: Vanderbilt 70  Richmond 67


#4 Louisville 25-9 (12) vs. #13 Morehead State 24-9 (3)

This should be an interesting game, but in the end the big brothers are going to defeat their little brothers in this battle of two Bluegrass State teams.


40 years ago this week, another little brother upset a big brother on their way to a surprise appearance in the Final Four (later vacated).  In 1971, Western Kentucky did not just upset Kentucky, the Hilltoppers ran the Wildcats off the floor.  Can there be a repeat two score later?  No!


Coach Rick Pitino’s Cardinals are vulnerable on the boards, and Morehead State has the nation’s best rebounder in the nation in Kenneth Faried.  However, the Eagles do not have enough talent or depth to keep up with Louisville.  They may emerge with a slight rebounding edge in this game, but it will not be enough to make up for all the open shots the Cardinals will get.


Louisville is going to run into trouble when they meet up with a team that can rebound and play credible defense.  That would be Kansas in the Sweet 16.  Until then, they have a relatively easy route to the Sweet 16.


Prediction: Louisville 78  Morehead State 62


#6 Georgetown 21-10 (8) vs. #11 Southern Cal (-1)/Va. Commonwealth (-1)

Last year, we discussed Georgetown’s vulnerabilities and the probability that they would fail to make it past the first weekend.  We expected the Hoyas to fall as a favorite in their second game, but they were a one and done team.


This year’s team is not much better than last year’s Hoya team, but they received a much more favorable draw.


Coach John Thompson III’s Hoyas once again have a rather low R+T Rating thanks to a turnover margin of -1.9 and a low amount of steals per game.  They will exit from the tournament in the next round unless there is a monumental upset in their pairing.


Neither USC nor VCU has the talent to take advantage of Georgetown’s deficiencies.  The three teams combined have a R+T rating below Purdue’s.


One additional note: The Hoyas will be a tad bit better than their Criteria Score in the tournament.  Chris Wright suffered a hand fracture in the middle of the schedule, and he is expected to be near 100% for the tournament.  You have to add maybe one point to their Criteria Score, but that is not enough to put them over the top in their second game.


Prediction: Georgetown 69  Southern Cal 61 (or VCU 60)


#3 Purdue 25-7 (16) vs. #14 St. Peter’s 20-13 (-7)

If only… Purdue fans will never know just how good their team might have been with Robbie Hummel joining JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore playing together.  This would have been the best Boilermaker team since Rick Mount led Purdue to the Championship Game against UCLA in 1969.


The Boilermakers no longer have that one glaring weakness that Gene Keady’s teams had and thus prevented Purdue from getting past the second round.  This team does well on the boards like most of those past Purdue teams, but they are particularly strong when it comes to forcing turnovers and taking advantage by converting steals into points.  It is the way many teams go on runs that put opponents out of commission.


St. Peter’s just barely avoided being immediately eliminated with a negative R+T Rating.  They squeaked by at 0.1.  It might as well be a negative number, as the Peacocks were outrebounded by 0.4 per game and had a turnover margin of -0.9 against a schedule that was four points below average and seven points weaker than the schedule Purdue faced.


Prediction: Purdue 73  St. Peter’s 56


#7 Texas A&M 24-8 (8) vs. #10 Florida State 21-10 (2)

The Big 12’s third best team has enough talent to challenge for a Sweet 16 berth.  We’ll leave the next round for another time and talk about this game.


The Aggies have no glaring weakness, and they have a few strengths, namely rebounding and defense (which wins games in the NCAA Tournament).  They are much like Kansas Lite.  A&M was not a team of surprises during the regular season.  They beat the teams they were supposed to beat and failed to upset the teams better than they were.  We expect the trend to continue.  They are better than the Seminoles.


Florida State does not take good care of the ball, and that costs them in confrontations against good opponents.  The Seminoles do not play particularly well away from Tallahassee, and they should be making a quick exit from the Dance.


Prediction: Texas A&M 73  Florida State 65


#2 Notre Dame 26-6 (11) vs. #15 Akron 23-12 (-9)

This is the best Irish team since Digger Phelps led Notre Dame in the late 1980’s.  Throw in the fact that this team has a chip on its shoulders following a first round exit last year, and the Irish have to be considered the Sweet 16 favorite in their four-team pairing this weekend.


The Irish finished the regular season with a scoring margin of 10.4 points per game.  Down the stretch, they went 7-2 against teams in this tournament.  The Selection Committee placed Notre Dame in a bracket that should provide a very memorable Sweet 16 contest against one of their most bitter arch-rivals.


Akron has a big seven-foot center, but the Zips do not rebound the ball all that well.  Zeke Marshall, the aforementioned big man, concentrates his efforts on blocking shots, and he frequently is not in position to rebound the ball.  So, the blocked shot frequently turns into a made basket off an offensive rebound.  The Zips did not fare well on the road this year, and with a considerably weaker schedule than average, this does not bode well.


Prediction:  Notre Dame 81  Akron 57


Southeast Regional

#1 Pittsburgh 27-5 (18) vs. #16 UNC-Asheville (-5)/U A L R (-13)

One of us here at the PiRate Ratings might be dating himself, but he sees a lot of the 1962 Cincinnati Bearcats in this year’s Pitt team.  The Panthers have a dominating inside power game that will pulverize any finesse team that cannot hit 10 three-pointers.  Neither UNCA nor UALR has a remote chance to make this game a close contest.


Pitt outscored their opposition by 13.1 points per game.  This stat looks even better when you factor in that they compiled this gaudy stat playing in a league that produced 11 NCAA Tournament teams.  The Panthers outshot their opponents by 7.6%, and they totally dominated the glass with a 10.4 rebounding advantage.  If you are thinking the way to beat them is to play a packed in zone, think again.  Ashton Gibbs can bury you from outside with his near 50% three-point accuracy, and Brad Wannamaker can still get the ball inside to one of the bruisers waiting to punish you with a thunder dunk.


Only a negative turnover margin prevents the Panthers from being there with Kansas as a co-favorite for winning all the marbles.


Pitt’s cupcake opponent will have to be happy with winning their First Four game, because they will be humiliated in this game.


Prediction: Pittsburgh 78  UNC-Asheville 54 (or UALR 48)


#8 Butler 23-9 (7) vs. #9 Old Dominion 27-6 (10)

This is the second best matchup in this round, and the winner will put a scare into Pittsburgh in the next round and even have a decent shot at the upset.


Butler is now the hunted rather than the hunter.  The Bulldogs will not sneak up on anybody this year.  More importantly, they are not as talented as they were last year.  The Bulldogs fared much better on the road last year than this season.  However, down the stretch, Butler started to look like a team proficient enough to get past the first weekend once again.


Old Dominion has the talent to advance past the first weekend as well.  The Monarchs are a miniature version of Pittsburgh, the team they would face in the next round should they win this game.


ODU is the nation’s number one rebounding team with a +12.2 margin.  The Monarchs’ schedule was not outstanding, but it was on par with several teams from the so-called power conferences, and they finished 6-4 against teams in this tournament.  This is a better ODU team than the one that upset Notre Dame in the first round last year, and this game should be one you do not want to miss.



Prediction: Old Dominion 72  Butler 70 in overtime


#5 Kansas State 22-10 (9) vs. #12 Utah State 30-3 (14)

This is the one game where a number 12 seed winning would not really be all that much of an upset.  Utah State should have been a top eight seed in this tournament.  If we were conspiracy buffs, we would say that the Selection Committee searched for a team that the Aggies do not match up with all that well and placed them in this spot to verify their actions.


Kansas State does not take care of the ball well enough to advance very deep into this tournament, but their first game opponent cannot take advantage of that weakness.


Utah State has dominated their opponents by forcing them to play a patient half-court game with very little scoring in transition.  They prefer to work the ball patiently for a good shot and then force opponents to take a low-percentage shot.  Thus, the Aggies outrebound their opponents, but they do so by forcing more bad shots than by out-leaping their opponents.


Kansas State has the talent to force Utah State to play at a quicker tempo and force them to defend one-on-one.  Jacob Pullen is a poor man’s (and smaller) Derrick Rose.  He can break down most opponents off the dribble, and he should be able to force USU to resort to some type of combination defense to keep him from going wild.


What scares us most about Utah State is that they had two opportunities to show they are deserving of their lofty ranking.  They lost to BYU and to Georgetown, and they never really threatened to pull of the upset in either game.


This is one game where we are going to go against our own chalk.  Kansas State’s schedule was seven points tougher, and the Wildcats can exploit the Aggies’ weaknesses.


Prediction: Kansas State 70  Utah State 63


#4 Wisconsin 23-8 (7) vs. #13 Belmont 30-4 (9)

This game has become the most-picked upset special around the nation.  Belmont is being compared with Butler of last year.  The Bruins are lofty of all this attention-gathering admiration, but Wisconsin is not the Washington Generals.


Belmont has the highest scoring margin in the nation at 18.4 points per game.  The Bruins outshot their opposition by 5.7% per game, and they took a lot of three-point attempts.  They outrebounded their opponents by 3.9, and they had an eye-popping 5.3 turnover margin.  They share the top steals per game average in this tournament with Missouri at 9.7, and their R+T Rating is the best in the tournament at 16.2 (three better than number two Ohio State).


Of course, these statistics were compiled against inferior competition.  Belmont’s schedule strength is nine points below the national average and a dozen below their first round opponent.  Against the opponents that made it to this tournament, they were 1-3.  They beat Alabama State by 13.  The three losses were on the road to in-state rivals Tennessee (twice) and Vanderbilt, but they led in the second half of those games.


The last time Belmont was in the Big Dance, the Bruins came within a missed last shot of sending Duke home.   


Wisconsin was not expected to be this good in 2011.  This was supposed to be a minor rebuilding season for the Badgers.  The Badgers usually run Coach Bo Ryan’s Swing Offense with great efficiency, rarely turning the ball over.  They outscored their opponents by 9.9 points per game, and they outshot they outrebounded them by 3.8 boards per game. 


The Badgers have been a hot and cold team this year.  When they have been hot, they have been nearly unbeatable, because Ryan’s teams always limit possessions.  When they have been cold, they have been easily beatable, because Ryan’s teams always limit possessions.  They finished the season as cold as ice, so the Badgers must be considered a slight underdog in this game.


Prediction: Belmont 74  Wisconsin 70


#6 St. John’s 21-11 (9) vs. #11 Gonzaga 24-9 (13)

Here is a game where we believe the seedings should be switched.  Gonzaga has been here enough times to be considered a regular in the NCAA Tournament, like Duke, Kansas, Ohio State, and Connecticut.  This makes a baker’s dozen consecutive appearances in the Big Dance for the Bulldogs. 


In past years, Gonzaga had a big scorer that could take over games.  Adam Morrison comes to mind.  This year, the Zags are more difficult to prepare for, because they are more team-oriented.  There is not a big star on the roster, but all five starters are capable of taking the team on his shoulders with a hot night.


In their nine-game winning streak to close the season, Gonzaga eliminated Saint Mary’s from the Dance party with two victories.  The Bulldogs scoring margin in those nine games was 76-58.  This is a good team playing its best ball of the year, and we expect Coach Mark Few to win yet another NCAA Tournament game.


St. John’s comes into the tournament minus one of its stars.  Starting forward D. J. Kennedy went down for the season with a knee injury in the Big East Tournament, and the Red Storm is now suspect in the paint.  Their Criteria Score of nine should be discounted by two to three points.  It is enough to take this contest from tossup status to near-comfortable status for Gonzaga.


Prediction: Gonzaga 74  St. John’s 66


#3 Brigham Young 30-4 (18) vs. #14 Wofford 21-12 (-1)

So, you didn’t get a chance to see Pete Maravich play at LSU in 1968, 1969, or 1970, eh?  We must admit that nobody will ever be the collegiate equal for Maravich, but Jimmer Fredette may be the closest thing to him.


Throw out the floppy socks and floppy Beatles haircut and throw out some of the most unbelievable passes in the history of the game (so unbelievable that Maravich’s teammates frequently could not see them coming), and Fredette is not that far behind Maravich.


The sports nation will be turning its eyes to this game just to see if Fredette can make a run at a single game scoring mark.  If we remember correctly, Notre Dame’s Austin Carr set the mark back in 1970 with 61 points against Ohio U in a regional qualifier game.


BYU may have been a strong Final Four contender had Brandon Davies not loved his girlfriend so much.  The Cougars averaged 8.7 fewer points per game once Davies was suspended. 


Wofford will not be able to take much advantage of Davies’ absence.  The Terriers fared well in all PiRate Criteria categories, but they did not meet even the minimum “numbers to look for” in any category, and their schedule strength was five points below the norm. 


Prediction: Brigham Young 75  Wofford 63


#7 U C L A 22-10 (-3) vs. #10 Michigan State 19-14 (1)

If only this were a few years ago.  Neither of these historically dominating teams is going to make waves in this year’s tournament, and the winner will be around for just one more game.


UCLA would be a national title contender if Kevin Love had stuck around for four years.  Imagine Love as a senior on this team.  Can you say Bill Walton-like numbers?  Alas, the Bruins must get by with a couple of well above-average forwards instead of the best three-man tandem in the nation.


The Bruins have the worst turnover margin of any team in this tournament.  At -3.4, UCLA would need to dominate on the boards, and while they usually win that battle, it is anything but dominating.


Michigan State’s one asset year in and year out under Coach Tom Izzo has been their rebounding acumen.  For most teams, a +4.3 edge on the boards would be considered outstanding, but in East Lansing, this is considered a down year. 


Neither team has done all that well away from their home court this season, and there really is only one stat where one team stands out ahead of the other.  MSU’s schedule was four points tougher than UCLA’s schedule.  That’s our spread for this game.  


Prediction: Michigan State 64  UCLA 60


#2 Florida 26-7 (15) vs. #15 UC-Santa Barbara 18-13 (-10)

The Gators looked like a potential Final Four team in the last month, at least when they were not playing Kentucky.  UCSB is not Kentucky. 


Florida tends to commit too many floor mistakes to win four games in this year’s tournament.  They have enough talent to get through the first weekend, but we do not see the Gators extending their stay after that.


UCSB upset Long Beach State to get here, and the Gauchos are one of the weakest teams in the tournament according to our Criteria Score.  With negative rebounding and turnover margins, they just barely escape automatic elimination with a R+T rating of 0.3. 


Prediction: Florida 76  U C S B  54




Our Bracket


You have seen the 32 teams that we believe will win the second round games.  Here is how we fill out the rest of our bracket.


Third Round Winners

Ohio State over George Mason

Kentucky over West Virginia

Syracuse over Xavier

North Carolina over Washington

Duke over Tennessee

Texas over Arizona

Connecticut over Cincinnati

San Diego State over Penn State

Kansas over UNLV

Louisville over Vanderbilt

Purdue over Georgetown

Notre Dame over Texas A&M

Pittsburgh over Old Dominion

Kansas State over Belmont

Gonzaga over Brigham Young

Florida over Michigan State


Sweet 16 Winners

Ohio State over Kentucky

Syracuse over North Carolina

Texas over Duke

San Diego State over Connecticut

Kansas over Louisville

Purdue over Notre Dame

Pittsburgh over Kansas State

Florida over Gonzaga


Elite 8 Winners

Ohio State over Syracuse

Texas over San Diego State

Kansas over Purdue

Pittsburgh over Florida


Semifinal Winners

Ohio State over Texas

Kansas over Pittsburgh


National Championship

Kansas over Ohio State

August 31, 2009

2009 Mountain West Conference Preview

2009 Mountain West Conference Preview

A PiRate Look

In the last in our series of non-BCS conference previews, we take a look at the Mountain West Conference, the most successful of the non-BCS leagues.  Last year, Utah ran the table for the second time in five seasons and won a BCS Bowl in convincing fashion.  We believe the league has the best shot at placing yet another team in a BCS Bowl in January, 2010.  However, it won’t be Utah.

Here are the preseason PiRate ratings for the league.  The ratings have been rounded to the nearest whole number even though we calculate them to two decimal places.  Thus, when you see multiple teams with the same rating, they are not actually exactly even.  To understand what the rating means, it is set so that 100 is average.  Thus, a rating of 90 means the team is 10 points weaker than the average team in the FBS.  The average of all 120 FBS teams should round to 100 if the math has been successfully calculated.

For those who have not followed the PiRate Ratings before and wonder about the home field advantage, we do not assign set in stone advantages.  These are assigned on a game-by-game basis.  For instance, When Utah hosts BYU or vice versa in the “Holy War,” there really isn’t much home field advantage for either team.  However, if Utah hosted Boston College on a Thursday night after BC played at Miami just five days earlier, then Utah might receive a touchdown in home field advantage.  The PiRates think it’s ridiculous to issue a blank home field advantage for all teams or even assign a range of set home field advantages.


Mountain West Conference Preseason Ratings



Prediction *





    T C U








    Brigham Young




    Air Force




    Colorado State




    San Diego State




    U N L V




    New Mexico













*  Predictions not based on PiRate Rating but


on expected changes to rating during the year


T C U: The Horned Frogs have flirted with a BCS at-large bid in recent years, falling one game short last year and falling one game short of possibly playing in the Fiesta Bowl for a chance at a number three finish in 2005.  This year, TCU has possibly the best chance of any non-BCS team of running the table and crashing the BCS party.  Out of the league, they will have to win at Virginia and Clemson just two weeks apart with a breather against Texas State in between.  We think they will win just one of those two games, and Coach Gary Patterson’s team could finish 11-1 and sit on the bubble.

The vaunted Horned Frog defense led the nation last year allowing just 11.3 points and 218 total yards per game.  Even the national title game participant Oklahoma couldn’t run the ball against their front line.  That defense took a major graduation hit with seven players departing.  One of those four holdovers is All-American end Jerry Hughes.  The future NFL star dropped enemy QBs an NCAA-best 15 times and was credited with 4 ½ other tackles for loss; he intercepted a couple of passes to boot.  The three new starters on the line will benefit from all the double teams on Hughes. 

The news is worse in the second line of defense, where both starting linebackers and the top reserve have picked up their sheepskins.  Jason Phillips, Stephen Hodge, and Robert Henson were also the team’s top three tacklers.

The five-man secondary returns three starters, including two excellent cornerbacks (Rafael Priest and Nick Sanders) who batted away 22 enemy passes and picked off three more.

We know the defensive statistics will be off compared to last year, but fret not Frog fans.  TCU will give up less than 20 points per game for the fifth year in a row, and they will allow only 280-320 total yards per game.  Now, for even better news: the offense is going to be just as good if not better than last year, and it was a record-setting unit in Ft. Worth.  TCU averaged better than 200 yards both rushing and passing while scoring almost 34 points per game.

Quarterback Andy Dalton should top 2,500 passing yards with 15-20 touchdowns this year.  Considering that TCU usually tries to run the ball into the end zone when they get into the red zone, that number is impressive.   

Dalton’s top receiver is Jimmy Young.  Young narrowly missed 1,000 receiving yards last year, and if he stays healthy this year, he should top that mark.

The running game returns three of the four backs who rushed for 380 or more yards return this year, led by Joseph Turner, who is capable of rushing for 1,000 yards. 

The offensive line has some rebuilding to do, but both tackles return this year.  Marcus Cannon and Marshall Newhouse will compete for All-MWC honors.

Will 11-1 earn TCU an at-large BCS bowl?  It’s 50-50.

Utah:  The Utes ran over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl like a herd of elephants on the rampage.  Don’t expect a return trip to a BCS bowl this year, because too many key players have run out of eligibility.

The offense lost six starters, including MWC Offensive Player of the Year Brian Johnson.  The former QB passed for 2,972 yards and 27 touchdowns with just nine picks.  True Freshman Jordan Wynn has apparently won the starting job this year, so expect the team’s passing numbers to drop from 244 to possibly less than 200 yards per game.

Making things more difficult for Wynn is the fact that the top three receivers from last year have moved on.  David Reed is the leading yardage returnee, and he only caught 25 passes for 427 yards.  He is a deep ball threat.

The running game will carry a much bigger share of the offense this year.  Three very good offensive linemen return, including tackle Zane Beadles, and leading rusher Matt Asiata is back after rushing for 707 yards and 12 scores.  Look for him to get more touches this year and possibly top 1,000 yards.

The defense should be about as strong this year as they were last year, when the Utes surrendered 17.2 points and 289 total yards per game.  Seven starters return including the top four tacklers.  The linebacker trio of Nai Fotu, Mike Wright, and Stevenson Sylvester has no equal in the MWC.

Up front, Koa Misi is a multi-talented end.  He can get to the enemy QB or running back in the backfield, and he can play pass defense like a good linebacker.

The strength of the secondary will be the safeties.  Free safety Robert Johnson is the type of player coaches want as the last line of defense.

The schedule includes out of conference games against Utah State and Louisville at home and Oregon and San Jose State on the road.  The TCU and BYU games are both on the road, and a road game against UNLV could be tough as well.  There are too many chances for losses this year, so we think Utah could lose three times.

Brigham Young: A team noted for super offenses may succeed due to defense this year.  The Cougars suffered heavily to graduation on the attack side.  One of the four returning starters is quarterback Max Hall.  Hall just missed passing for 4,000 yards and hit pay dirt 35 times.

One player Hall will miss is Austin Collie, who caught 106 passes for 1,538 yards and 15 touchdowns.  BYU always has able replacements waiting to assume starting duties, but Collie’s contribution will not be equaled.  Dennis Pitta returns after grabbing 83 passes for 1,083 yards; he’s the top pass-catching tight end in college football.

It’s not well known, but BYU has had some running success the last few years.  Harvey Unga topped 1,100 yards rushing last year, making it three 1,000 yard rushers in four years.  Unga may have a hard time matching those numbers this year, as four starters need to be replaced on the offensive line.

The defensive line could have been dominating, but tackle Russell Tialavea decided earlier this summer to go on a mission for the church.  End Jan Jorgensen should continue to dominate after contributing 8 ½ tackles behind the line.

BYU is set at linebacker, where the starters all return after combining for 223 tackles and 11 sacks.  Behind that unit, the secondary returns two starters. 

One intangible to factor in early in the season is a rash of minor injuries to key players.  While none of the starters should miss much game time if any, they are missing practices.

The schedule does not allow Cougar fans to think BCS Bowl this year.  BYU opens with Oklahoma at the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium.  Maybe punter Tyler Holt can hit the jumbotron.  A home game with Florida State could give the Cougars a chance to score an upset.  In MWC play, BYU hosts both Utah and TCU, as well as Air Force.  The one tough road game is at UNLV.  If the Cougars can shore up their offensive line and come up with a couple of good receivers to compliment Pitta, they could pull off the conference championship.

Air Force:  The service academies usually have high football graduation losses every year, so when Air Force returns six starters to both sides of the ball, it has to be considered a glut of experience.

Quarterback Tim Jefferson earned Freshman of the Year honors in the league last year even though he didn’t post gaudy statistical numbers.  When he passed the ball, he completed 55% of his passes and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt.

Six backs saw significant action last year, and five return.  There may not be a star among the group, but they know how to make the option go.  The Falcons averaged 4.5 yards per rush in 2008, and that average should head north of five this year.

The offensive line returns three starters, and the blocking schemes in this offense make it easier than average for new starters to become competent.

The Falcon defense is strongest on the back line.  The secondary returns three starters who combined for 216 tackles, five interceptions, and 13 passes broken up.

The one weak spot is the defensive line, where two of the three starters this year are new to the lineup.  Nose tackle Ben Garland could make the All-MWC team.

The linebackers all have prior experience, led by Ken Lamendola, who topped AFA in tackles last year with 118.

The schedule includes the usual other two service academies plus Nicholls State and Minnesota out of conference.  While the Falcons won’t win the conference title, they should take home the Commander-in-Chief Trophy.  Expect to see the Falcons playing in a bowl for the third consecutive season.

Colorado State:  The Rams were a small surprise in Steve Fairchild’s first year as coach in Ft. Collins.  CSU broke even in the regular season and won the New Mexico Bowl game over Fresno State.  They will be lucky to repeat that feat this season.

Only five starters return on defense, and only two of them play in the front seven.  CSU surrendered 30.2 points and 410 total yards per game in 2008, and those numbers will get worse this year.  Look for a jump to 35-40 points allowed and 430-450 total yards allowed per game.

The secondary has some experienced talent returning, but they will be forced to cover receivers longer per play.  The pass rush should be much weaker. 

Mychal Sisson is the one bright spot on the stop side.  The weakside linebacker led the Rams with 105 tackles including eight behind the line.

The offense should still have some firepower even though a new quarterback and running back must be found.  As of this writing, Fairchild hasn’t officially named a starter, but we believe that choice will be Grant Stucker. 

The new starter behind Stucker is John Mosure.  He won’t remind Ram fans of Gartrell Johnson, who rushed for 1,476 yards and 12 scores last year.

The top two receivers from last year return to start at wipeout.  Dion Morton and Rashuan Greer teamed for 114 receptions and 1,973 yards last year.

The offensive line welcomes back four of the five starters from a year ago, so we expect the Rams to improve in the running game and remain strong in the passing game—if Stucker can take over the controls without short-circuiting.

The Rams open up with Colorado yet again, but this game will be played in Boulder instead of Denver.  After hosting Weber State, they host Nevada and venture to BYU.  TCU and UNLV must be played on the road, while Utah and Air Force come to Hughes Stadium.  It looks like the Rams will come up a bit short this year and win no more than five times.

San Diego State: Brady Hoke worked wonders at Ball State, and he begins his tenure on the West Coast in a great situation.  The Aztecs are going to improve immediately in his first year, and if the ball bounces right, SDSU could even challenge for bowl eligibility.

Seven starters return to both sides of the ball, and most of the key special teams players are back as well.  Quarterback Ryan Lindley didn’t play like a freshman last year, and now as a sophomore he could top 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air.

When Lindley passes, he will have one of the league’s best set of receivers running under the ball.  There are numerous capable hands on the roster, but none of them have breakaway potential. 

The running game has much room for improvement after averaging just 73 yards per game last year.  Atiyyah Henderson led SDSU with 490 yards on the ground.  He’ll run behind an offensive line about as talented this year as last.

For the record to move toward .500, the Aztecs must improve their defense against both the run and pass.  They gave up 461 yards and 37.2 points per game in 2008.  They must come up with a way of stopping the run, and it all begins up front, where three starters return from last year.  In the second line of defense, Luke Laolagi and Andrew Preston are the leading returning tacklers.

The secondary has been weak for two consecutive seasons, and it will be the weak point again this year.  Cornerback Aaron Moore broke up six passes a year ago.

Hoke’s best recruiting efforts were in the choosing of his staff.  Former New Mexico coach Rocky Long is the new defensive coordinator with former Ball State DC Mark Smith coming along as linebacker coach.  The Aztecs will come with many different types of blitzes this year and come up with some big plays.  Al Borges, the former offensive coordinator at Auburn, back when the Tigers had an exceptional offense, takes over in the same position here.  Former Cleveland Browns QB Brian Sipe will coach the QBs here.

The out-of-conference schedule could give SDSU three wins.  A probable loss at UCLA in the opener is the one tough game before conference play.  With New Mexico, Wyoming, New Mexico State, and Southern Utah coming to Qualcomm Stadium, and with a road game scheduled against Idaho, the Aztecs can win five games in year one of the Hoke era.

U N L V: The Rebels came within one game of becoming bowl eligible in 2008, and this should be the year they break through and earn a bowl bid. 

Junior quarterback Omar Clayton missed three games last year but still managed to pass for 1,894 yards and 18 scores versus just four interceptions.  With a strong supporting cast, Clayton should pass for 2,800 to 3,000 yards.

Wipeout Ryan Wolfe is the league’s leading returning receiver after catching 88 passes for 1,040 yards and six touchdowns.  Joining him are two promising receivers who can turn short passes into long gains.  Phillip Payne and Jerriman Robinson both averaged more than 15 yards per reception in 2008 and could combine for 100 receptions in 2009.

The only fly in the ointment for this offense is a solid running attack.  C. J. Cox is the leading returning rusher, and he had just 191 yards rushing last year.

The offensive line has three returning starters, including probable all-MWC tackle Matt Murphy. 

The defense returns seven starters, plus a former starter from 2007, to a unit that gave up 33 points and 423 yards per game.  Three players with starting experience return at linebacker, and three more start in the front line.    Linebackers Jason Beauchamp and Ronnie Paulo are the stars of this team.  Look for the duo to combine for 200-230 tackles.

While the secondary loses three starters, Coach Mike Sanford went the JUCO route to find adequate replacements.

The schedule gives the Rebels multiple chances to pull off an upset or two along the way.  After opening at home with Sacramento State, Oregon State and Hawaii visit Vegas.  Consecutive road games against Wyoming and Nevada precede consecutive home games with BYU and Utah.  TCU and Air Force are road games as well. 

New Mexico:  After guiding New Mexico to five bowl games in six years (a 6-5 record in the year they failed to earn a bid), former Coach Rocky Long was dismissed after posting one losing record.  Enter Mike Locksley, former offensive coordinator at Illinois.  Locksley may find the going rough for a few seasons, as he is making sweeping changes to the offense and defense.  The players to run those systems are not there.

On offense, the Lobos transform from a run the ball up the gut to set up the play-action pass to a no-huddle, spread passing attack.  Quarterback Donovan Porterie was not having a great year early in 2008, but it became much worse when he was lost for the season.  It allowed three other signal callers to see action, and they all return this year.  However, we don’t expect to see spectacular passing statistics.  In fact, we wouldn’t be surprised to see more interceptions than touchdown passes from this group, a lower than expected completion percentage, and a relatively low yardage per pass attempt (maybe as lower than last year’s 5.4).

The running game will suffer immensely with this new offense.  Losing 1,110 yard rusher Rodney Ferguson will make matters worse.  The UNM running game could drop from 208 yards per game to as low as 85-100.

There’s ample experience at the receiver positions, but the talent is not up to the standards set by the upper division teams.  There will be more receptions, for sure, but there will also be considerably more incomplete passes and interceptions.

The defense is switching from a 3-3-5 to a 4-3 this year, and it doesn’t help that there isn’t any experience or much depth in the defensive line.  No starters return, and since the passing game will create more total plays, this green unit will be exploited all year.  We could see opponents rushing for 160-180 yards per game with an average per rush well over four.  Also, the pass rush will not produce as many sacks or hurries.

Only one starting linebacker returns, but he’s the best defensive player on the team.  Clint McPeek led the Lobos with 103 tackles.  He’s not just a run-stuffer; he’s probably the best pass defender on the team as well.

The secondary returns a couple of able safeties, but both cornerbacks must be replaced.  The Lobos gave up 214 passing yards per game, and that number was actually impressive because it came against the likes of Arizona, Tulsa, and New Mexico State out of conference, as well as the usual pass-happy conference opponents.  This year, New Mexico adds Texas Tech to the schedule, so the Lobos could give up 250-275 passing yards per game.

We just don’t see many opportunities for this team to win this year.  The home game against rival New Mexico State may be their best and only shot.  The other games where they have a chance are on the road. 

Wyoming: Joe Glenn was never able to turn the corner in Laramie, and he’s now history.  His replacement is Dave Christensen, the former offensive coordinator at Missouri.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to bring Chase Daniel, Derrick Washington, and Jeremy Maclin along to suit up.  He does have a lot of returning talent from a team that wasn’t all that bad at times.

The spread offense will sputter somewhat in year one.  Junior college transfer Robert Benjamin will begin the season as the starter, taking over for former starter Karsten Sween.  Benjamin fits the mold to run Christensen’s offense, and if he can hold onto the job, he should rush for 600-750 yards and pass for 2,500-2,750 yards with a nice TD/INT ratio.

Wyoming lost 1,300 yard blazing rusher Devin Moore and bruising Wynel Seldon (637 yards rushing).  Benjamin is likely to be the leading rusher, and we expect the average yards per game to drop from 178 to 120-130.

Benjamin will have some quality receivers to pass the ball.  Tight end Jesse Salyards gives him a big target over the middle and on delayed release routes.  Defenses will have to respect him, and that will allow wipeouts Greg Bolling and Brandon Stewart to get open more.  Stewart can burn a secondary for a quick six, and he should score a lot more than once (his ’08 stat).

The offensive line welcomes back three starters plus a fourth player with starting experience.  They should provide a formidable pass protection for Benjamin.

Eight starters return to a defense that yielded just 330 yards per game in 2008.  All three defensive line starters from 2008 return, and the three Cowboys aren’t that far behind the lines of TCU and BYU.

Half of the four-man linebacking crew returns this year, led by inside ‘backer Gabe Knapton. 

The secondary returns three starters, and all three are capable of landing on the all-MWC team.  Chris Prosinski and the brothers Gipson (Tashaun and Marcell) teamed to knock down 29 passes last year.

Wyoming opens the season at home with preseason #9-ranked in the BCS Weber State.  The Cowboys should begin the Coach Christensen era on a winning note before facing Texas at home the following week.  A visit down US 287  to Boulder to take on Colorado should be the tell-tale sign of how improved this team will be.  If they can be competitive and pull off the upset in this backyard brawl, the Cowboys could flirt with a winning record and be the big surprise of the West this year.  We think the chances are slim, and CU will win that game handily, so Wyoming will take their lumps this year and compete with New Mexico, Colorado State, and San Diego State for sixth in the league.

Next up: A look at the first of the BCS conferences, The Big East.  It should be an interesting race and a possible death watch for a coach.

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