Comparatively Speaking

We all do it. Enormous Tech beats Little State 48-7, and next week Gigantor U is expected to do the same. If they don't, then they must not be as good as old Enormous Tech, right? Well, maybe not.

Comparative scores and results are the easiest and quickest way to evaluate the relative strengths of two teams. However, as with most processes that are "quick and dirty", the judgments made coming from such a comparison are often wildly inaccurate.

Take, for instance, West Virginia's 27-10 win over East Carolina. For someone who didn't watch the game, it might look like a fairly routine victory, although one not reaching the margin predicted by many. The biggest surprise might have been ECU's slowing of the Mountaineer rushing juggernaut, as the Pirates held WVU to a season-low 153 yards on the ground.

What made that stat even more shocking was the ECU came into the game having given up more ground than the French Army in World War II. WVU was expected to roll over the Pirates on the ground, but in the end had to go to its air attack to seal the win. So, what was it about the WVU-ECU matchup that yielded results so wildly varying from expectations?

There were several different factors in play here. First, ECU wasn't as bad defensively as it appeared. The Pirates gave up 403 yards to Navy on the ground, but the Midshipmen's wingback-based rushing offense is difficult to defend, as Connecticut learned on Saturday. But the Pirates were much better in their next games, against UAB and Memphis, which showed they weren't abysmal defensively, especially against the run. ECU yielded 124 rushing yards to the Blazers and 177 to the Tigers – not awesome numbers, but ones that showed improvement.

ECU also brought a different defensive scheme to the table, one that held WVU in check in 2005 as well. With safeties playing wide to cut down on WVU's outside zone runs, the Pirates put more defenders on the sweet spot of those plays than West Virginia was prepared to block. And while the WVU scheme is meant to take advantage of gaps on these types of plays no matter where they may be found, the combination of some shaky offensive line execution and less than crisp running and decision-making by Steve Slaton led to fewer rushing yards and a closer game than expected.

When looked at on a game-by-game basis, analysis is fairly simple. Watching film, you can see why certain plays didn't work, whether due to poor execution, poor suitability against the defense being run, or a great play by a defender. When it becomes complicated is when you try to project those results to future games.

Which brings us to this week's contest. Many Mountaineer fans got the chance to watch LSU dismantle Mississippi State this past Saturday. The first quarter was barely over when I started getting emails and phone calls bearing the same message. ‘If we don't blow Mississippi State out, then we don't deserve to be in the top five.'

Well, excuse me if I disagree.

The Bulldogs look to have a solid front seven defensively, but have problems in the backfield. They have been very good against the run, but poor against the pass. LSU threw the ball at will against the MSU defense, gunning several deep passes downfield for big gains and touchdowns. Unfortunately, that's not WVU's game. The Mountaineers, no matter what LSU did against Mississippi State, will stick with what it does best – running the ball. And while that should lead to a win over the Bulldogs, it's not likely to yield a huge margin of victory. MSU figures to make WVU earn its rushing yardage, and constant big gains of the like the Mountaineers saw against Maryland and Marshall aren't likely to reappear.

The same is true defensively. LSU had a great matchup advantage with its outstanding front four, which hurried MSU quarterback Omarr Conner and kept him from getting much rhythm offensively or hurting the Tigers with scrambles. Again, that's not WVU's M.O. or forte on that side of the ball. With more time to throw, and facing linebackers nowhere near LSU's in terms of speed, Conner can be expected to have a respectable game against the WVU defense.

In the end, many of the game-to-game comparisons fail to pan out because they don't take into account the strengths and weaknesses of the teams that are playing. They look too much at what a certain team did against another before figuring out why it happened. Then, compounding the error, they look at the relative strengths of the two teams, rather than focusing on particular matchups.

Using that logic, WVU should be expected to beat Mississippi State by a similar margin as Auburn and LSU did. However, as we've briefly talked about here, LSU has different strengths than WVU – ones that Mississippi State had more trouble overcoming. While West Virginia is better than MSU at this point, and might well give Auburn or LSU all they could handle head-to-head, they don't figure to match up as well against the Bulldogs as the Tiger duo did.

Of course, these comparisons and matchups don't always work against WVU. The Mountaineers seem to match up extremely well against Pitt, as the Panthers don't have the speed in their defensive front seven to stay with Patrick White and Steve Slaton. While the Pitt offense can throw the ball and score, it will be hard pressed to match the Mountaineer ground attack again this year. Teams that don't have a speed-based running game (with the requisite offensive line toughness added in) will probably have a much more difficult time against Pitt.

Witness Michigan State, which rode its modified spread attack to a big win over the Panthers. Bring in a power running team, like, say a Boston College or a Rutgers, and Pitt figures to stand a much better chance.

There's not, of course, a 100% guarantee in any of this. That's one of the beauties of college football – every Saturday contains games like Illinois' upset of the Spartans or Georgia Tech's scoring explosion against Virginia Tech. It's simply instructive to remember that comparing scores against common foes really doesn't carry a lot of weight in determining the relative strengths of teams. Now, if we can only get the pollsters to believe it.

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