Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fact-checking the fact-checker

One of my favorite features in the blogosphere is Dr. Saturday's "Fact-checking," which provides detailed statistical analysis in an attempt to verify some of sportswriters' and fans' favorite memes.

The doc took on the so-called "Rodriguez Leap" last week, with an emphasis on determining whether or not Michigan fans can realistically expect a significant step forward in RichRod's second year (or, more accurately, if his teams have done so in the past or if it's simply a myth).

The verdict:

Those numbers speak for themselves -- the second-year leap is real. Dr. Saturday does, however, provide one caveat:
Unlike any of his previous stays, Rodriguez isn't returning a potentially dynamic quarterback. Tate Forcier, in fact, is not only unlikely to resemble Shaun King or Woody Dantzler as a true freshman, he isn't even a lock to finish the season as functional starter.
Rodriguez might not return a dynamic quarterback, but if you watched Michigan's spring game, you know he's got one.

His point is accurate in one regard: You never know about freshman quarterbacks, even ones as prepared as Forcier. But that got me wondering just how good (and experienced) Shaun King, Woody Dantzler and Rasheed Marshall were in their respective schools' breakout seasons -- and, on a related note, if it's unrealistic to expect something similar from Forcier.

Let's take a look:

* King started as a junior in 1997 and put up solid numbers (54% completion, 24 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) before breaking out big-time and setting the NCAA pass efficiency record in Tulane's undefeated 1998 season. People often don't realize that Tulane's offense was extremely pass-heavy; it was at Clemson that the "spread 'n' shred" was implemented.
* Dantzler saw spot duty prior to 1999, when he rotated with Brandon Streeter as a redshirt sophomore and established himself as the starter heading into 2000. Dantzler was far more of a running threat than King, finishing with 588 rushing yards and a respectable 131.8 pass efficiency in '99 while getting about half the snaps. In 2000, the ground game REALLY took off, as Clemson's offensive numbers exploded despite Dantzler's pass efficiency remaining relatively static at 134.5.
* Marshall was a first-year starter as a redshirt sophomore in 2002 after seeing a handful of snaps in mop-up duty the previous year. He took over for Brad Lewis, a pocket passer who rushed for a whopping 41 yards in Rodriguez's ugly first season in Morgantown. Marshall didn't exactly tear it up in '02 (53.7% completion, nine touchdowns, five interceptions and 666 rushing yards), but combined with running back Avon Cobourne, a third-year starter, the offense was an entirely different animal.

Summary: None of the three quarterbacks had more than a year of starting experience heading into his team's breakout season (Marshall didn't have any), and only King put up numbers that would be extremely difficult to duplicate -- and I think it's safe to say that Michigan won't be putting the ball in the air 364 times this season, as Tulane did in '98.

More importantly, read that note on Marshall again. He was a dual-threat, first-year starter taking over for a pocket passer after a disastrous season in which the team struggled to do anything on offense (other than turn the ball over). When paired with a talented, experienced running back, he put up respectable passing numbers and did enough on the ground to lead the team to an 8-3 record.

Everything in that sentence -- up until the final record, anyway -- would accurately fit Michigan heading into this season. There were so many times last year when the mere threat of a running quarterback would have opened up a huge play -- either via the QB keeping the ball on a zone-read fake or the running back having a huge hole because the weakside defensive end and linebacker wouldn't have been able to crash into the line -- that I can guarantee a significant improvement in Michigan's offensive numbers this season, regardless of the quality of Forcier's passing. And based on what I saw in the spring game, I'll be a bit surprised if Forcier's passing numbers don't exceed both Marshall's and Dantzler's.

Am I expecting 8-3 (or 9-3)? Well ... I'm not so sure. The schedule is far easier than last year, but even with Penn State and Ohio State at home, those are almost certainly losses. And expecting a team that's still VERY young to go 9-1 over the remainder of the schedule is probably unrealistic.

But do I expect significant improvement and bowl eligibility? Absolutely. And if Forcier is able to perform like his predecessors did in RichRod's second year at each stop -- which isn't out of the realm of possibility -- it would be such a remarkable improvement from last season's QB play that an Alabama-like turnaround isn't out of the question.

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