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Statistically Speaking: Utah vs CSU

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Vegas? Does that mean we’re playing some Mountain West Conference team? Haven’t we arrived? Don’t we deserve a decent bowl opponent? This narrative has been persistent since the Utes’ bowl game was announced. This narrative is silly. Top-tier non-power-conference teams have not just been able to hang with their power opponents, they have absolutely dominated them.

The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl will pit No. 22 Utah against old Mountain West Conference foe Colorado State.
The Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl will pit No. 22 Utah against old Mountain West Conference foe Colorado State.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like centuries since the Utes were rubbing elbows with the other have-nots, fighting for scraps off the BCS table. The Utes and other non-BCS schools, chiefly TCU and Boise State, would compile impressive records with dominant wins over their conference foes and victories in their out of conference schedules against those BCS teams brave or foolish enough to schedule them. Fans and journalists alike penned impassioned arguments for why these schools from inferior conferences had accomplished enough to deserve major recognition, particularly as the Big East and ACC conferences were stumbling into the bowl games with unimpressive champions. Meanwhile, the entitled fan bases of elite schools dismissed the upstarts, talking about the ‘grind’, depth, and how the inferior athletes fielded by these teams simply could not compete with a real champion.

The records suggest otherwise. Since 2005 (when F/+ began keeping records), 15 non power-5 (or non BCS) teams have ranked in the top 20 of F/+. Those teams played power opponents 30 times, and they went 25-5. Top tier non-power competition has proven again and again that they can compete with the very finest teams in the country, and dominate the middle ranks of the power conferences. It’s absurd to hold the position that a team which finishes with 2 or fewer losses in any conference is not a legitimate opponent.

In 2014, the Mountain West Conference was deep. Six teams are over .500, and four have nine or more wins, all coming from the intensely competitive Mountain division. Razor thin margins separated the games between the conference contenders, and Colorado State was a handful of big plays away from playing in the Fiesta Bowl.

Here’s the thing with the passionate fans clamoring for more respect from the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, they were absolutely right. Empirical analysis leaves no doubt whatsoever that a team which succeeds at a high level in the Mountain West Conference can compete with anyone in the country in a one-off game. These teams have conclusively earned our respect.

The team the Utes play on Saturday is an excellent one. Of the bowls Utah legitimately had a shot at being selected for, Colorado State is arguably the best opponent.


Get excited. The team the Utes play on Saturday is an excellent one. Of the bowls Utah legitimately had a shot at being selected for, Colorado State is arguably the best opponent. The Rams haven’t earned grudging respect or empty words. They have earned the same passion and intensity that a game against Nebraska, Duke, or Boise State would bring.

I realize I can’t make you get pumped. If you were desperate for a shot at the Terrapins, I can’t make them come to Vegas. I can make one stone-cold lock of a prediction, though: if the Utes players have spent the last few weeks wishing they were playing Maryland or Duke, they are going to get their asses handed to them. These guys can play.

Advanced Metrics Primer- Utah vs. Colorado State in Las Vegas

ESPN FPI:

Offense (RK)

Defense (RK)

Spc.T (RK)

Overall (RK)

FPI (RK)

Utah

.67  (76)

7.65 (18)

4.11 (4)

12.42 (32)

11. (30)

Colorado State

12.99 (19)

-7.72 (102)

.58(56)

5.86 (52)

4.1 (56)

The Utes have played a lot of teams that look like this in 2014, with an average special teams, a flawed defense, and an offense that promises to make up for those shortcomings by putting a lot of points on the board. ESPN gives the Utes a 67.4% chance of coming away with this one, as these stats don’t think very highly of the Rams.

F/+ rankings:

FEI

Offense

Defense

Special Teams

Overall

Utah

74th

14th

5th

21st

Colorado State

19th

61st

22nd

32nd

S&P+

Offense

Defense

Overall

Utah

85th

46th

62nd

Colorado State

22th

45th

28th

The Footballoutsiders.com stats are much more favorable to the Rams. FEI values the Utes’ tougher schedule and excellent special teams play, but S&P+ prefers the Rams in every single category. Taken together, these numbers favor Colorado State overall, who come in at 30th in F/+ compared to the Utes 38th. These numbers better reflect the Rams’ successes. F/+ would argue that a defense which has surrendered more than 30 points only twice is probably pretty solid, regardless of the opponent.

Getting to the QB:

Nate Orchard’s last game as a Ute is going to feature ample opportunity to build up his sack total. The Rams have allowed 25 sacks this year, and have the 71st adjusted sack rate. The Utes ability to get to the quarterback has tailed off late in the year, and hopefully they can get back to their successful pass rush. The Rams offense is very difficult to stop, but if the Utes can slow them down, it will put them in a good position to control the clock and run the ball.

Booker goes Beast Mode:

Colorado State has struggled to stop the run. They rank 99th in adjusted line yards and have the 128th ‘stuff rate’, or percentage of carries which are stopped for no gain or a loss of yardage. They also are not good in short yardage situations, allowing teams to punch a TD or first down in on 3rd or 4th down with 2 or fewer yards to go a shocking 71.4% of the time.

There’s no reason for Dave Christensen to deviate from his run-heavy attack in this game. 65% or more of the plays will be run plays, and they are likely to find repeated success.

Vegas & Massey:

Vegas favors the Utes here, but not by much. The line opened with 4.5 points for the Utes, but has since closed to 3.5. The Utes are ranked 29th by Massey’s aggregator, while the Rams trail behind at 33rd.

Stat-Head Prediction:

I think the Utes should win this game. They are the slightly better team, and they don’t have the kind of chaos and turmoil that comes from losing your head coach before your bowl game. However, Colorado State is a complete, dangerous team that can hurt you in a number of different ways. If the Utes come out flat, disinterested, or even just unlucky, expect the Rams to capitalize on the opportunity and put the Utes in a position where they will really struggle to come away with the W.

I don’t think the Utes will come out flat. It’s been a while since their last bowl game, and I doubt they feel the sting of a lack of novelty in going to Vegas. The Utes will stall the Rams’ drives with sacks and big plays, and grind out long, demoralizing drives of their own by handing the ball off over and over again. They will prepare hard for this game and come away with a win against yet another talented, evenly matched opponent.

33-28 Utes