I hear some people say, "I just want to see improvement," in reference to our 2007 squad. Well, if you can't see that we've improved by a large margin, you haven't been paying attention.
The offensive line was quite poor last year, to say the very least. We finished 8th in adjusted sack rate, and the run blocking was terrible. By comparison, coming into this week's game against Florida State, we had an adjusted sack rate so low that it would have been the best in the league by a relatively wide margin a year ago. Sure we gave up some sacks against Florida State, but the harsh truth of the matter is that our sacks have relatively little to do with the offensive line's failures, and a lot to do with a quarterback who is not manipulating the pocket well and who is taking all day to deliver the football. Beyond that, run blocking has improved a good bit, as stuffs and other short yardage / negative rushing plays have significantly declined. On the flip side, we are converting short yardage situations at a much higher percentage, and the big uglies are a large reason why.
The tailbacks are playing much, much better, and we have more depth and explosive capabilities. The Running Back Success Rate is far higher this year than in 2006, and the yards per carry have gone up significantly as well. At this point last year Darby wasn't even averaging four yards per carry, and now the triumvirate of Grant / Coffee / Upchurch is averaging right at six yards per carry.
The wide receiving corps is significantly better, and deeper. A year ago it was all D.J. Hall and not much else. This year we have Hall, but several other players have stepped up as well. Keith Brown is finally coming back around, Caddell is finally playing like we thought he would several years ago when he signed with Alabama as a highly-touted recruit, Mike McCoy looks like he could be a star in the making, and even Earl Alexander has started to make his way onto the field. Despite terrible quarterback play, the wide-outs are nonetheless playing pretty well.
The tight ends have significantly improved over a year ago. Nick Walker dropped a ton of weight -- I think it sums up what the Shula regime wanted the tight end to do when they had Walker weighing over 270 pounds -- and is now a legitimate receiving threat. McCall has looked decent, and Dial is fighting his way up the depth chart. We've gotten more production this year out of the starting tight end through five games than we got in thirteen games a year ago.
The defense, too, is playing much better.
In terms of pass defense, we have improved significantly. Opposing quarterbacks are having a much more difficult time against us than a year ago, as they are completing fewer passes and their completions are going for shorter gains. In 2006, opposing quarterbacks completed almost 60% of their passes against us, and averaged 12.44 yards per completion while averaging 7.32 yards per attempt. This year, opposing quarterbacks are barely completing 50% of their passes against us, and are averaging 12.01 yards per completion and 6.19 yards per attempt. Opposing quarterbacks had a 128.8 QB rating against us in 2006, but in 2007 that has fallen to a 113.9 QB rating.
The run defense, too, has improved. Opposing teams' RB Success Rate have gone down significantly, and the yards per carry has dropped off big time. A week after holding Georgia to a RB Success Rate of 44% -- despite the Dawgs having very talented tailbacks -- we go into Jacksonville and hold Antone Smith to just 15 yards off of 12 carries. Moreover, you can tell how much better the run defense has gotten just by looking at the comebacks in the Arkansas and Georgia games. Run defense doesn't get much credit, but it's a major key to coming back in games. It's really simple when you think about it. Opposing teams try to run the ball and run out the clock, and if you can't play really good run defense, you can't stop the opposing team to get the ball back for your offense. Without a very stout run defense in key situations, we would have lost against Arkansas and not been able to force overtime against Georgia. And all of this is coming with a true freshman at inside linebacker, and a defensive tackle that was no higher than fifth on the depth chart a year ago at the position.
Special teams has done better as well.
We're doing a better job of covering kicks and punts (opponent's average return is lower in both categories than a year ago), and we've actually started giving Arenas a chance. A year ago, it took a miracle for Arenas to field the punt and not get killed immediately, and this year we're giving him some decent blocking and he has made it pay off for us. Moreover, while Tiffin still isn't where we want him to be just yet, he's definitely progressed over a year ago, and he came up big with his kick against Arkansas.
Beyond that, the team as a whole is in much better physical condition, and for the first time in ages, we are carrying the fight to the opponent late in games. The past several years, we've either been completely out of gas down the stretch and getting beaten, or trying to somehow, someway, hang onto dear life in the waning minutes. This year has been very different. We finished strong against Vanderbilt, scored ten points in the final six minutes to beat Arkansas, rallied in the closing seconds to force overtime against Georgia, and even rallied late to give FSU a scare when it looked like the game was all theirs.
Looking at our team not as a whole but as a compilation of individual units, we have improved in every aspect relative to the performance of a year ago with the quarterback position being the sole exception. The shortcomings of the quarterback position have been glaring, and it can well be argued that those shortcomings cost us both the Florida State and Georgia games. However, regression at one particular position -- no matter how important that position may be -- should not take attention away from the fact that we are displaying marked improvement everywhere else.
Those who can't see the improvement should stop playing armchair quarterback and start actually paying attention to the games.