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Colorado State and the enduring truth of football

Daniel Dunn/Icon Sportswire

Anyone who has studied the evolution of college football over time knows that the Colorado State Rams’ “almost-but-not-quite” 2015 season should not come across as a surprise.

This isn’t a reference to first-year coaches, or to Colorado State’s extended history, or the Rams’ 2015 schedule. This point is rooted in the one reason Bobo’s Boys finished with a 7-6 record and failed to win a wide-open Mountain West Mountain Division. Boise State lost three conference games last year, two of them at home and one of them to New Mexico. In so many ways, the Mountain West spun sideways last year. It could have been Colorado State’s moment of supreme opportunity, but a breakthrough eluded the Rams, even though they fared better than most teams in the league in several categories.

Colorado State didn’t flourish in every major statistical category last season, — in a handful of categories, the Rams were either sixth or seventh in the 12-team Mountain West. In rushing yards allowed and red-zone defense, the Rams were eighth or worse. However, the Rams were a top-five team in many MWC listings: second in passing yards gained; second in passing yards allowed; fourth in third-down defense; fifth in points scored and rushing yards gained per game; fourth in red-zone scoring percentage; third in fewest sacks allowed, first among all teams which don’t run an offense in the option/flexbone/veer family of systems (Air Force and New Mexico).

That’s not an overwhelming statistical resume, but it’s a collection of many upper-tier placements in a league. What’s particularly striking about Colorado State’s statistical profile last season — one which ties into a long-term awareness of college football’s characteristics and tendencies — is the Rams’ No. 2 ranking in pass offense and pass defense (as measured by yards).

College football used to be a running back’s sport. In the late 1980s, Bo Schembechler was still making Rose Bowls at Michigan with the old-time religion. Pat Dye was winning the SEC at Auburn with a similarly old-school recipe. Arkansas was winning the Southwest Conference with Ken Hatfield’s run-first offense. The revolution which would overtake the sport — with Steve Spurrier, Mike Leach, Hal Mumme and Rich Rodriguez re-imagining the sport’s possibilities — had not yet arrived.

Quarterbacks in the 1980s and earlier decades might have been formidable runners in wishbone or option contexts, but not from shotgun looks. The equal threat of a handoff, pass or QB keeper on every snap had not yet become a regular part of the sport.

Today, passing is the ball-movement method of choice in college football. This doesn’t mean the combination of a power running game and a flinty defense can’t work — Alabama shows that it can and does — but the 128-member Football Bowl Subdivision is so much more a landscape dominated by passing than running, compared to the Division I-A world we once knew in the late 1980s.

Colorado State’s ability to throw and defend the throw should have translated into a season which achieved more than a 7-6 record. The combination of CSU’s relative consistency across most statistical measurements, combined with its passing prowess on both sides of the line of scrimmage, ought to have led to more pigskin prosperity.

It didn’t.

Turnovers. Ruin. Lives.

Turnovers. Ruin. Lives.

I have charted — not exhaustively, but consistently — the weight of various statistics in college football over the past several seasons at multiple places of (previous) employment.

Statistics such as first downs, total yards, and rushing yards will generally translate to victories if only because gaining more yards usually (but not always) reflects superiority. However, passing yards are often accumulated when trying to play catch-up. That statistic is very inconsistent as an indicator of success (and is therefore a reason why CSU’s stats didn’t lead to a better season). So are penalties. Just ask the bad-boy Miami Hurricanes of the Dennis Erickson years, or the great Oakland/Los Angeles Raider teams of the early 1980s. They committed penalties because they were aggressive and carried a nasty attitude. So what if they coughed up a few personal fouls? They’d whip the opposition on the next several plays.

So much about football — at all levels, not just college — has changed over the past 25 years. Yet, in this whirl of constant flux, one statistic remains supreme: turnovers.

Old-time football coaches might be entirely out of step with modernity in terms of going for it on fourth down, but their advice about avoiding turnovers is still as resonant — and relevant — as ever. Turnovers still kill.

Colorado State learned as much last season, and THAT is why the Rams’ struggles — despite statistical successes across many categories — should not be surprising to college football historians.

CSU finished tied for 117th (with another disappointment, Nebraska) in turnover margin, at minus-12. The Rams were one of only 16 teams in the 128-member FBS (Charlotte was excluded from NCAA record-keeping) with a double-digit negative turnover margin.

You can be right in so many ways, but if you’re wrong on turnovers, a lot of your other feats won’t matter.

No one has to think very long about Colorado State’s number one priority in 2016.

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