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N. C. State vs. Vanderbilt: How Dandy is that Vandy D?

The Wolfpack have a lot to overcome to win the Music City Bowl, but the Commodore D might not be as formidable as it appears at first glance.

Grant Halverson

At first glance, it appears N. C. State is heading for a whoopin' when it takes on Vanderbilt in the Music City Bowl on December 31st in Nashville. The Wolfpack registered a meager 7-5 mark in the moribund ACC, they are playing an 8-4 SEC team on a six-game winning streak, that SEC squad is in effect the home team for the game, the Wolfpack are being guided by a lame duck coaching staff, and the Commodore defense appears to be among the best in the nation (15th in scoring defense, 10th in passing defense, 17th in total defense). Add to those sad facts the fact that N. C. State last beat an SEC team in 1999, and you have a recipe for an early afternoon hangover for this noon kickoff (in which case you will want to just keep right on drinking until 2013).

In addition to free form haiku submissions in the comments and the occasional anagram (Jordan Rodgers = jar dongs do err), one thing you can always count on here at BTP is for your intrepid staff to look beyond the nagging reality of history and the potentially misleading story of raw stats to find a shred of hope. Here it is: the Football Outsiders' Fremeau Efficiency Index likes N. C. State's defense better than Vanderbilt's unit. State ranks 38th; Vandy comes in at 42nd.

How is this so? As I noted in the first look at the game, the Commodores have played some truly horrendous offenses. Using the Fremeau Efficiency Index for offense as our guide, we see that Vandy played five top 50 offenses but just as many offenses that ranked 101st or worse among the 124 FBS programs. The ‘dores were 1-4 against top 50 offenses, surrendering an average of 27.4 points per game in those contests, and the lone win against a so-called "good" offense was over a Tennessee team that had pretty much quit on its coach/season/raison d'etre by week 12. Against the five teams ranked 101st or below, the ‘dores yielded a mere 11.2 points per game and went 5-0. For comparison sake, the Pack played four offenses ranked outside the top 100 and held them to an average of under 10 points per game. It ain't that hard to do.

A blowout, shutout win over Presbyterian (let's see you try that mess against Methodist) further fuels Vandy's impressive raw rankings in scoring, passing, and total defense. And the scoring defense is also bolstered by a good bit of luck. Over the last decade or so, the average yards a team needs to gain to score one point (ypp) is 15.44, but Vandy opponents needed 17.9 yards for each point this year. In other words, Vandy's opponents have left about 35 points off the scoreboard over the course of the season. The Commodores should have allowed about 21.2 points per game, which would still rank just inside the top 25 but is not nearly as intimidating as the 18.3 figure they posted for the season.

Not surprisingly given the above ypp numbers, Vandy was the fifth stingiest team in the nation in surrendering touchdowns in the red zone this season, but is that a skill, a product of playing a lot of really bad offenses, or merely luck? By no means is N. C. State's one-dimensional offense overly formidable (it ranks 70th in the Fremeau index), but I think the Pack will surpass 20 points in the game despite the many obstacles it faces (lame ducks on the road, etc.). If so, the game comes down to which N. C. State defense shows up. If the unit that allowed just 11.1 points in State's wins shows up, the last day of 2012 will be an enjoyable one for the Pack faithful. But if the group that gave up 43.4 points in State's losses takes the field, 2012 may seem like the year that refuses to end.