Yesterday, we looked at the 10 most imprisoned teams from the 2013 season, the teams that always got trapped in the kinds of games they rarely if ever won. Today, we consider the 10 teams that consistently managed to do one of the following:
A) It played the type of game that suited its personnel and identity.
B) It managed to win regardless of a game’s overall style and flow.
In other words, some teams played 10 or more of the kinds of games they were meant to play. Other teams played five to seven kinds of one game, and five to seven kinds of another game.
All the teams did extremely well, regardless of whether they followed path A or B. You’ll keep seeing references to these two identities (“A” and “B”) throughout this piece.
The envelope, please:
10 – STANFORD
The Cardinal weren’t monstrously good. They were not quite what one would call a colossus. Yet, they still imposed their will on most opponents. The mostly followed path A but had a little bit of “B” in them as well.
The A-path dimensions of Stanford in 2013: The Cardinal outrushed opponents in 11 of 13 FBS regular-season games (the 13th game was a result of making the Pac-12 Championship Game against Arizona State). They won time of possession in 10 games.
The B-path element of Stanford’s 2013 profile is this: The Cardinal gained more first downs than an opponent in six games, and gained fewer first downs in six games (finishing even in the 13th game). Stanford went 6-0 when getting more first downs, 5-1 when getting fewer first downs.
9 – BALL STATE
The Cardinals of Muncie, Ind., were very different from the Cardinal of Palo Alto, Calif. Ball State’s team was pure “A” all the way, needing one very specific style over the course of its season. Coach Pete Lembo’s team was quite unique in the FBS, in that it outpassed its opponent in 10 of 11 FBS games. Oregon State, Marshall, Texas Tech, Western Kentucky, Florida State, and Louisville were the other teams that outpassed opponents in at least 10 FBS games last season. Only some of the teams on that list translated that advantage into high-level results. Ball State was one of the teams that did. You’ll see the other ones later in this list.
8 – AUBURN
The Tigers were an “A Team” in that they almost always outrushed opponents — 10 of 12 times during the regular season, but Auburn followed example “B” to a greater degree. The Tigers were 5-1 when winning first downs, 6-0 when not. The team was 3-0 when gaining more passing yards than an opponent, but 8-1 when not. Auburn was 4-0 when committing more penalties than the opposition during FBS regular-season games from 2013, 4-1 when committing fewer penalties, and 3-0 when the penalty differential was even.
Turnovers painted a similar picture for Auburn last year: Gus Malzahn’s team was 4-1 with a negative turnover differential, 4-0 with a positive differential, and 3-0 with an even differential. The Tigers were 4-1 when they won time of possession, 7-0 when they lost it. This team loved — and needed — to run the ball, but its abundance of huge special teams plays, supplemented with some big-play passes, enabled Auburn to win almost any kind of contest last season.
7 – OHIO STATE
The Buckeyes’ profile was similar to Auburn’s dossier in this regard. Ohio State outrushed opponents in all 12 FBS regular-season games, but penalty splits (5-1 with more penalties, 6-0 with fewer or as many penalties) and turnover splits (4-0 with a negative differential, 7-1 with a positive differential) reinforced the Buckeyes’ ability to transcend the numbers and win in a “whatever it takes” manner. Ohio State prevailed in a shootout over Michigan; it easily subdued most of its Big Ten foes; it narrowly defeated Iowa and Wisconsin in a couple of genuine bruisers. This team always won with the running game, but beyond that, it took different paths to the finish line, similar to Auburn.
6 – MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans regularly outgained opponents (11 times in 12 FBS games during the regular season) because their defense was so strong. Michigan State finished with a negative turnover differential in only three of its 12 games. The Spartans won time of possession 11 times. This was a team that liked to play — and win — in one way more than another. Yet, it’s well worth noting that Michigan State found some offensive fireworks at Nebraska (especially in the second half) and in the Big Ten Championship Game against Ohio State. This was mostly an “A” squad, but there was enough “B” (the ability to win any kind of game) to lift Mark Dantonio’s team past a determined opponent in crucial situations.
5 – LOUISVILLE
The Stanford Cardinal loved to bulldoze opponents, but the Cardinals of Ball State and Louisville loved to fly. Louisville joined the redbird air attack last season, outpassing opponents in 10 of 11 FBS regular-season games. The Cardinals never encountered a game with a negative first-down differential. They outgained opponents nine times and outrushed opponents nine times as well. Yet, it’s the passing game that separated Louisville from other FBS teams in terms of its statistical profile — not the total yards, but the ability to outpass opponents consistently and win. Outpassing opponents, as shown in this piece from Aug. 6, hardly guarantees victory in college football, at least in relationship to several other basic statistical categories. Louisville will try to continue to pass the ball, but with every bit of the effectiveness it displayed during Petrino’s first go-round as the Cardinals’ head coach.
4 – MISSOURI
The Tigers from the Show Me State joined Auburn and Ohio State (two other teams on this list) in one fascinating way: Missouri, Auburn, and the Buckeyes were the only three FBS teams that went 8-1 in games when they got outpassed. Part of the story in that remarkable statistic is the fact that these three teams played nine FBS regular-season games in which they were outpassed to begin with. Yet, they all achieved richly. Missouri stuck to a tried-and-true formula, even though it brought some big-play passing to the table with Dorial Green-Beckham on the receiving end of Maty Mauk’s and James Franklin’s passes.
The Tigers ran the ball and stopped the run, outrushing 10 of their 12 FBS opponents. They exhibited superior ball security, enduring a negative turnover differential only once last season. The SEC didn’t feel like Bear Bryant’s league last season, but Missouri followed the old-time SEC formula better than anyone else, including Alabama, which had (for the record) two FBS games with a negative turnover differential and nine FBS games in which it outrushed an opponent.
3 – NORTHERN ILLINOIS
The Huskies weren’t imposing at all against Bowling Green and Utah State, but until that point, they blended the “A” and “B” identities quite expertly. Northern Illinois developed an “A”-side personality in terms of outrushing opponents (11 of 12 FBS regular-season games) and turnover differential (a negative differential in only two of 12 games). On the other hand, NIU was 4-0 when outpassing an opponent, 7-1 when being outpassed. The Huskies were 6-1 when gaining more first downs, 5-0 when gaining fewer first downs. The team was 3-0 when winning time of possession, 8-1 when losing it. Northern Illinois was 4-0 when committing more penalties than the opposition, 7-1 when not.
Conventional thumpings and elegant escapes — this team pulled off both kinds of wins in 2013. The Huskies’ consistency under pressure gives them a justified place on this list.
2 – ALABAMA
The Crimson Tide didn’t dominate any one statistic the way Ohio State did in the realm of rushing or Ball State in the way of passing, but Alabama’s quality last season was built on the back of its balance. Alabama played only one game with a negative first-down differential; only two games with fewer yards; only two games with fewer rushing yards; and only two games with fewer passing yards. A number of teams dominated the rushing yards category but not the passing yards statistic. A few did just the opposite. Alabama, though, consistently outrushed and outpassed opponents in 2013. The Crimson Tide, it should be said, carried the run of play for most of the day against Auburn, only for their kicking game to abandon (and ambush) them in a huge way.
Just for good measure, Alabama played only two games with a negative turnover differential and only two games with a negative time-of-possession number. The conclusion to the regular season was a supreme gut-punch, but the body of work over the season remained impressive.
1 – FLORIDA STATE
The Seminoles’ numbers in these particular tracked statistics leave no doubt as to their supremacy in college football last season.
There wasn’t a single regular-season game from 2013, not one, in which Florida State finished with fewer first downs; fewer yards; fewer passing yards; or more turnovers than its opponent. Those were the “Team A” qualities belonging to coach Jimbo Fisher’s group. From a “Team B” standpoint, Florida State shrugged off penalties and time of possession. In games with negative penalty differentials, FSU went 6-0; without negative penalty differentials, the Noles went 6-0 as well. In games with more time of possession, Florida State notched a 5-0 mark; without a numerical advantage in time of possession, the national champions went 7-0. A lot of bagels were served by this team throughout a regular season that was nothing if not imposing.