EDIT NUSS: Those of you who have been receiving Cougar Sports Weekly from the very beginning might remember that my initial newsletter talked about just how far behind WSU was the past three years, and how it might not be realistic to expect the Cougs to make up enough ground in one year to end up in a bowl game. My analysis was based somewhat in statistics, but it was hardly exhaustive. Welp, Kirt went ahead and made some pretty pictures which are exhaustive, and depict exactly what I was trying to describe. Holy crap, this is spectacular. Enjoy.
We are at the halfway point of the college football season and with what many are judging to be a pivotal game coming up this weekend the speculation around teh interwebs about Coach Wulff's future at WSU has reached something of a dull roar. In this context it seemed appropriate to me to take a step back and take stock of just how the rebuild of the WSU football program is coming, and to do this I turned to what I consider the two best college football rating systems: Football Outsiders' Fremeau Efficiency Index (FEI) and S&P+ Ratings.
These two indices give us two slightly different views of a team's quality: FEI ratings are calculated based on each drive, while S&P+ ratings are based each play. Additionally, FEI only takes into account games played against FBS teams while S&P+ uses all games. Each of these are adjusted by the strength of opponent. I will also be using game efficiency (GE) which is similar to FEI, but is not opponent adjusted.
First of all lets look at the overall ratings over the last several years. WSU's ratings (not the ranks) are plotted by year in red, and all other Pac-12 teams are included for comparison in grey (Yes, I included Utah and Colorado for all year, before they were in the Pac). The black horizontal line represents the mean rating for all FBS programs for all years available. For past years the ratings are the final for the season, but for this season they include games played through 10/15/11.
There are a couple things that should jump out at your right away, most notably the deep hole the Cougs were in 2008 and 2009, and the marked improvement for the past two years. Notice especially 2009 in game efficiency and S&P+ in which the separation between WSU and the 11th place team (Colorado) is essentially the same separation between the 11th place team and the Pac-12 leader (Oregon). Let that sink in for a moment: The 3-9 2009 Colorado Buffs were to WSU what the Rose Bowl-bound Oregon Ducks were to that hapless Colorado team.
Since 2009, however, WSU has improved more than any other Pac-12 program by any of these metrics. While the improvement might seem like baby-steps to the casual fan for the past couple years because wins have been slow to stack up, the improvement in the quality of play has been enormous. To put it in perspective, if WSU was even an average FBS team (so a below average BCS team) in 2009, the same amount of improvement would have put the Cougs in the top 15 this year according to all three metrics (#14 in FEI, one spot ahead of Oregon, #2 in game efficiency ahead of Stanford and #10 in S&P+ ahead of Texas A&M). Now, I recognize that improvement likely wouldn't be linear into the upper echelons, but it should give you an idea how much ground has been covered. Now consider that improvement has happened over the course of one and a half seasons.
Despite all that improvement, however, WSU is still a below average FBS team (Except by GE, which is slightly inflated because there are no opponent adjustments). That all may change, however, now that Tuel is back in the lineup, and the good news is now that the Cougs have reached up to the "floor" of the Pac-12, even relatively modest improvement from here on out should translate quickly into wins.
Now lets look at offense:
The same approximate trend holds true here: Bottoming out in 08 and 09, and a strong recovery since then. What doesn't sit right with me is that WSU by both metrics is an average FBS offense, and a below average Pac-12 offense. This doesn't jive with what my gut tells me, but perhaps this situation will be solved as the season wears on.
Now for the defense:
(Note I multiplied Defensive FEI by -1 to invert the graph and make the direction intuitive with the other graphs presented. In reality higher FEI on defense is worse, but in this graph, lower=worse.)
The WSU defense is bad. Thank heavens for Colorado, whose defense rates worse that the Cougs in both FEI and S&P+. Never the less, these number appear to point at the defense as the weakest link in this rebuilding effort, only showing marginal improvement since the 2009 bottom-out. While at times my eyes have told me the defense is massively improved and points scored on them is greatly reduced, it is possible this is an illusion of the massive improvement on the offensive side of the ball which has kept the defense off the field. But when the FEI and S&P+ peer at the problem, it reveals that opponents are not having a much harder time moving the ball than they were two years ago. In retrospect this seems to make sense: San Diego State, UCLA and Stanford seemed to move the ball at will in the second halves of those games. What really scares me here is that there is no savior coming for this unit to give me hope, like Tuel's return gives me for the offense. If Wulff sticks around after this season, improvement on the defense seems like it should be the #1 priority.
Really none of this earth-shattering or breaks with common knowledge, but I think it does help illustrate the magnitude of the project Wulff undertook. As Brian pointed out earlier in the season, Wulff razed the program when he got to WSU, demolishing a house whose timbers were rotten (Take a gander at overall S&P+ from 2005-2007 revealing a completely stagnant barely above average FBS program). However, from the ashes of 2009 the performance of this team has shot upwards at a remarkable rate, even if wins have not come as fast as many of us would like. The good news is that the Cougs have now caught up to the back end of the Pac-12 and further improvement will see them overtaking teams, rapidly if the rate of upward progress continues. With or without Wulff here, I could see WSU firmly seated in the upper half of the conference within two years.
That being said, much more progress needs to be realized by the defense. Until this point dramatic improvement in the offense has been able to cover the relative stasis by the defense, but this will become a much more glaring problem going forward.