I decided to take a closer look at our season, and, at the same time, look at Utah. The bottom line is that we finished off the season losing four of our last six games, while the Utes were winning four of their last five. On the surface, this looks like Utah is a hot team facing a team on the wan. Is that really the case? The betting line that opened on Monday has us 3 point favorites. Is that realistic?
First, the betting line is just that. It is not a game prediction. The professional bookmakers want betting to fall evenly on both sides of every game. The payoff is already skewed in their favor, so all they want is to have the bets break even. The line they publish is the spread they think will motivate about the same amount to be bet for each team. All football bets are straight bets, which payoff at 10/11 ($11 bet pays $21). This means the house makes almost 10% if the bets break even, no matter who wins. This is their goal. 10% a week ain't bad. So, don't mistake Tech being a 3 point favorite as meaning the odds makers think Tech will actually win the game. They don't care who wins.
So, how good are the Jackets? Based on the teams we beat, we are OK, but not especially good. Based on the teams that beat us, the same is true.
Looking back on our season, it is instructive to see how the teams we played fared over their entire schedule. Starting with Western Carolina, we beat a team that finished the season 1-10 against an FCS schedule. Our game was not the worst beating they absorbed. Middle Tenn State ended the season with six straight losses to finish at 2-10. The Jayhawks of Kansas, a team we lost to last year, was our peak game of the season. They finished the season at 2-10, winless in the Big 12. Our last game in September saw us defeat the Tar Heels of UNC by a TD. The Heels also lost four of their last six to end the season at 7-5. This means our first four opponents had a season record of 12-35. That said, we were undefeated for the month and feeling pretty good about our team. No one had stopped our offense to this point. The somewhat depleted UNC defense, loaded with 4-star recruits, barely held us under 500 yards. We were juiced!
Then came October. The offense ran up only 400 yards against NC State and the reserves blew a 24-point lead and had to hang on at the end to a ten-point margin. The first cracks in our season appeared in this game. A lot of discussion ensued in the aftermath about whether our team collapsed, or did the coaches do the right thing in letting reserves get some game experience. Next up was Maryland. The Terps scared the daylights out of us, but we hung on to win by five points. October was not being kind to us, but we were 6-0 and ranked #12 in the nation with Virginia at 3-2 (with a loss to Southern Miss and an OT win against South Dakota) coming up. No one predicted our loss in Charottesville, but the Cavs turned out to be a good team and finished with an 8-4 record. We were still reeling the next weekend in Miami and Hurricanes parlayed a fumbled punt and a hapless offensive performance by Tech to beat us handily. IMO, this was our nadir game. Nothing worked. Then we came home to play undefeated and top ten ranked Clemson. In the end, the team we thought we had showed up and completely befuddled the Tigers for a "not that close" 31-17 win. We closed October with a 3-2 record. We beat two teams we should have beaten and one we should not. We lost to a team we should have beaten and another we thought we could beat easily, but misjudged. But, at 7-2, things did not look that bad. Our October opponents ended the season with a combined record of 33-28.
At this point, four of our seven wins had come against teams with a combined final season record of 7-40. On the bright side, we beat three teams that became bowl eligible. Just ahead, November was always going to be our toughest month, and it came to pass.
For the second season in a row, a freak play turned the tide in favor of VPI and we lost a game it appeared we might win. This time a personal foul after a stop on 3rd and long gave the Hokies a first down. That play stole our momentum and gave them a chance they did not deserve and turned a possible victory into certain defeat. Our defensive weakness was laid bare for the first time, but we still could have won the game. The offense returned against Duke, but the defense was again absent in a 7-point win that should not have been close. Then the inability to make stops killed us against uGA, but the Dogs were improving weekly and we were their tenth consecutive win. In the end, November played out as expected: we lost to two teams that played for their conference championships and beat the team we should have.
Our 8-4 record was what most of us predicted. I look back on the season and see three pivotal games. Against Maryland, we showed just how bad a team with our talent can be when not motivated to play. The Terps ended the season at 2-10 and should never have been in the game with us. The second was a near perfect game a few weeks later against Clemson. Does Dabo Sweeney ever want to play us again? The third game was the punch play against VPI. Otherwise, the results all make sense. Looking back on the season, I would say we were a nine win team that gave away a game to finish with eight wins.
Utah opened their inaugural PAC-12 season with a win over Montana State, a team that would make the FCS playoffs with a 9-2 record. In their first league game, the Utes lost to USC in one of the weirdest games ever. Utah attempted a game winning 41-yard field goal on the game's final play, only to have it blocked and returned for a touchdown (that was awarded two hours after the game was over). They followed this deflating loss with a resounding 54-10 win at BYU. At this point they were 2-1 and could have easily been 3-0. These three opponents ended the season with a combined 28-7 record. All three are playing in the post season. While Tech played a soft early season schedule, this was the meat of the Utes season.
Next up were two losses against Washington and Arizona State. Both would eventually become bowl eligible, but these two losses sunk them to the cellar in the PAC-12 South standings and, in the Washington game, they lost their starting QB for the season. In spite of this, they went on the road the next week and beat Pittsburgh. They followed that with a loss at Cal. In this stretch against teams evenly matched with them, the Utes were 1-3. Their overall record was 3-4 but all four losses were in the PAC-12.
Luckily for the Utes the soft part of their schedule was coming up. They won the next four games against teams that would finish the season 17-32 combined. A season that had seemed lost was redeemed by these four wins and they sat with a record of 7-4 and only had a home game left against 2-10 Colorado. But, the Buffaloes ended their 23-game road losing streak with a dominating 17-14 win in Salt Lake City to end the Utah season on a sour note.
Now, how good are the Utes? They look like a solid defensive team with an average offense. They beat only one FBS team with a winning record. But that was an impressive win against a strong BYU team. Like us, they also lost to a really bad team.
In reviewing the season, it is clear Utah had two different teams this year. With Jordan Wynn in the lineup they had a balanced attack and a stout defense. When Wynn was lost, they became a more conservative run oriented team that was inconsistent passing the ball and had trouble scoring at times. They rely heavily on their defense, which held opponents to under 20 points a game.
Jeff Sagarin rates the Utes slightly higher than us and has their strength of schedule rated higher than ours. The Utes were lucky in not having to play powerhouses Stanford or Oregon, who lifted the PAC-12 ratings considerably and elevated all the conference teams somewhat. That said, I think this game will come down to how well the Tech option offense can overcome the strong run defense of the Utes, and how well Tevin Washington can soften their stacked line with accurate passes. On the other side, if we cannot stop the run against a team with a only fair (at best) pass offense, this will be another disappointing day. I hope it's not a replay of the Duke game.