Friday, December 09, 2005

More Gang of Six Debate

HeismanPundit was kind enough to respond to the argument that USC's offense is not especially complicated. My responses are below.

First of all, the argument that you 'impaled' was not mine, but College Football Resource's.


Sorry. Got my "Boise State is going to beat Georgia and it won't be close" authors mixed up. My bad.

Second, I think you have a real misunderstanding of what my whole 'Gang of Six' argument was about. It was basically that these six teams--each of them at different strata in the college football universe--were better than they would be otherwise thanks to their offensive systems, each of which are/were revolutionary in their own way. Unfortunately, people took it to mean that I was saying these teams were unbeatable or something. That's not what I was saying at all. I was merely pointing out that if it weren't for their system--if they ran a simple SEC-style offense, for instance--Boise would never have even been in the conversation at the beginning of the year as to whether they could beat Georgia. They would not have been ranked. Thanks to their system, they WERE ranked and only a six point underdog. They certainly weren't a six point dog because people thought they had legitimate talent. The system made their lack of talent better. That is the point of the Gang of Six. It was that those teams were better than they would be otherwise.


The basic point that certain teams run better offensive systems than others is incontestable, but the flaw in HP's reasoning, as well as in the Gang of Six model in general, is that it has no value. If the teams in the Gang of Six really run better offensive schemes than the rest of college football, then why is their success somewhat variable? Let's look at last year's Gang of Five and how they performed this year:

USC - Possibly the best offense since the 1945 Army team, despite losing their offensive coordinator. (His loss, if scheme was more important than talent, should have caused USC some heartburn.) As one personnel director said, their scheme has little to do with their success.

Boise State - Got shut down by Georgia and Fresno State, despite returning most of their offense. Apparently, their scheme can be defended after all, including by a Fresno team that does not have a good defense and does not have much more talent than Boise State.

Louisville - Productively offensively (as one would expect when they replaced their quarterback and running back with blue chippers Bush and Brohm,) but as West Virginia and South Florida showed, not unstoppable.

Florida - Ah, the real piece of evidence against the Gang of Six. A scheme that ripped the Mountain West to shreds was thoroughly ineffective in the SEC, finishing 62nd in the country in total offense (despite returning every significant starter other than Ciatrick Fason) and reducing the head coach to tears in Baton Rouge. Apparently, SEC defenses aren't good solely because they play against simple offenses.

Cal - 31st in total offense, aided in part by a ridiculously easy out-of-conference schedule (although, in their defense, they probably didn't know that Illinois was going to commit seppuku by hiring Ron Zook.) Interestingly, every team in the low-tech Big Ten met or exceeded the 35 points that Cal put up on the Illini.

Anyone can pick out the top offenses in the country and then claim that they're more sophisticated, but what value does that designation have if those offenses often fail to repeat their success the following year? And this would be even more evident if we went back and looked at programs that would have been labeled as "Gang of Five" in past years. Joe Tiller, anyone? How about the Tennessee offenses of the Peyton Manning era, which met all of the criteria for membership other than underuse of backs and tight ends? Or Ralph Friedgen's Maryland/Georgia Tech offenses, which met all of the criteria?

Look at Gang of Six member Notre Dame as a perfect example. In 2004's system, they were shit. In 2005 with a new system, they are very good. What is the common denominator?


A crappy prior regime? HP will get no disagreement from these quarters that Charlie Weis has worked wonders with the Notre Dame offense, but let's also acknowledge two points:

1. Notre Dame's prior offensive regime was complete crap.

2. Notre Dame's offense is replete with blue chip high school talent. Just about every starter on the offense was a four- or five-star recruit in high school. Moreover, the offense was almost exclusively comprised of juniors and seniors. Thus, Weis was stepping into a perfect situation to turn the offense around.

But if we want to quibble, Notre Dame probably fails on the "run when the other team knows you're running" part of the test, as the Irish were an underwhelming 49th in the country in rush offense and averaged only 3.68 yards per carry.

As for USC, to say they don't do anything revolutionary is silly. I can care less what a single scout says. There were scouts in the Sporting News that said that USC had no chance to beat Oklahoma last year, that Leinart was overrated, etc. I know several scouts personally and most of them don't know shit. So, just because you can quote a scout who says otherwise does not prove anything. The fact that a ton of teams around the country are trying to use their backs in the same manner as Bush is used at USC is proof alone that the Trojan offense has been influential.


Note that the quote was not from a scout, but rather from a "personnel man," which is a step up from your average rank-and-file scout. There's also a big difference between making observations about USC's offensive system, which is exactly the kind of thing that a scout or personnel man can do well, and then making predictions, which are difficult for anyone, especially for a game like the Orange Bowl between teams with divergent styles and no common opponents. And the fact that USC is copied doesn't mean that the sophistication of their offense is the primary reason for their success, rather than their overwhelming talent.

If you think that USC is just out-talenting people to win 34 in a row, then you have your head in the sand. USC has a lot of talent, but so do Texas, LSU, Tennessee, etc. It is USC's system, combined with that talent, that has made them untouchable. To ignore that is just ignoring reality.


Did I not say that coaching, especially on the defensive side of the ball, was a major reason for USC's success? Did I not mention Paul Hackett? Reading comprehension, my man. My point is simply that USC's offensive scheme isn't THAT revolutionary and that the "Gang of Six" concept is mostly useless as a predictive tool.

So, once again to recap: The Gang of Six theory does not ignore defense or other factors in football. It merely picked out six teams that had separated themselves in offensive sophistication, with the result being a rise in their program's success. USC is an elite school, but was struggling until the system arrived. Cal was shit for years and suddenly got good. Now, it is to the point where they can lose a first round pick at QB and have a bad replacement, but the system still enables them to go 7-4 (coulda easily went 9-2, but lost a couple last minute games). As disappointing as Louisville has been, they replaced Shelton and the nation's pass efficiency leader and went 9-2. Think it was because of talent or that system that kept them together? Boise went 8-3, but they have serious talent problems. If they ran a straight I formation, they are a 5-6 team, easy.


I can agree with most of that, although I also point out that Michael Bush and Brian Brohm were significant talent upgrades over their predecessors, so L'ville didn't exactly have to overcome Herculean odds to have a good offense this year.

Again, if you have impaled any theory, it wasn't mine.


It's hard to say what I'm impaling these days.

One other thing: If just having better players than everyone else means you win every game, then why isn't LSU undefeated right now? Why does any less talented team beat more talented teams? It happens all the time. Like I said, not all scouts are phi beta kappa.


See above, Reading Comp Scholar. I'm not denying that coaching has a major effect, but HP still overstates the complexity of USC (and others') offense relative to the rest of the country.

5 comments:

Heisman Pundit said...

This is what was so frustrating about this debate. But I will try one more time:

Sorry. Got my "Boise State is going to beat Georgia and it won't be close" authors mixed up. My bad.

This prediction was clearly wrong. If you look at my run up to the game, I said that the key question was whether Boise scheme was good enough to overcome UGA's talent advantage. It wasn't. I thought it was and I was wrong. A singular game prediction has nothing do with the whole point of the Gang.

the flaw in HP's reasoning, as well as in the Gang of Six model in general, is that it has no value. If the teams in the Gang of Six really run better offensive schemes than the rest of college football, then why is their success somewhat variable?

The reason why they have variable success is because they all have variable talent. USC has the best talent. Florida is next. Then ND. Then Cal. Then Louisville. Then Boise. The point is that the system in each one of these cases made the teams much better. USC, despite its talent, would not be 45-1 without Chow's system.

USC - Possibly the best offense since the 1945 Army team, despite losing their offensive coordinator. (His loss, if scheme was more important than talent, should have caused USC some heartburn.) As one personnel director said, their scheme has little to do with their success.


USC is running the same scheme as when it had Chow. Steve Sarkisian is a Chow disciple. Again, without USC's scheme, the Trojans are Tennessee and that personnel director is the Volunteer head coach. I actually know some guys who were personnel directors. They all love USC's talent but they think LSU is pretty talented too. It's USC's scheme that makes the difference.


Boise State - Got shut down by Georgia and Fresno State, despite returning most of their offense. Apparently, their scheme can be defended after all, including by a Fresno team that does not have a good defense and does not have much more talent than Boise State.


Like I said, the fact that Boise is even in this conversation is testament to their scheme. Boise? What recruiting base do they have? They do NOT have even Fresno's talent, yet at that (WAC) level of college football, they have been dominant the last few years. Hint: It's not because of talent. Ask that personnel director. Or, maybe I can ask him for you.

Louisville - Productively offensively (as one would expect when they replaced their quarterback and running back with blue chippers Bush and Brohm,) but as West Virginia and South Florida showed, not unstoppable.


Again, never said they were unstoppable. Think they would have gone 9-2 running Georgia's offense?

Florida - Ah, the real piece of evidence against the Gang of Six. A scheme that ripped the Mountain West to shreds was thoroughly ineffective in the SEC, finishing 62nd in the country in total offense (despite returning every significant starter other than Ciatrick Fason) and reducing the head coach to tears in Baton Rouge. Apparently, SEC defenses aren't good solely because they play against simple offenses.


Clearly, this was the one team that lagged behind, but mainly because it was the first year in the system. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Meyers' teams actually have a history of struggling in their first year offensively, as Utah and Bowling Green put up almost EXACTLY the same numbers as Florida did before dominating the next season. I find it funny SEC people crow about UF...after all, they went 8-3 with a system that they claims doesn't work! ROFL.

Cal - 31st in total offense, aided in part by a ridiculously easy out-of-conference schedule (although, in their defense, they probably didn't know that Illinois was going to commit seppuku by hiring Ron Zook.) Interestingly, every team in the low-tech Big Ten met or exceeded the 35 points that Cal put up on the Illini.


The Big Ten is hardly low-tech. They have some good offenses like NW and MSU there, are do you not watch the Big Ten? Second, Cal averaged 424 yards per game and 33 points per game, numbers that would have ranked second in the SEC. I think that it makes more sense to list Cal's actual numbers than its ranks, no? Oh, and Cal did it all despite losing their top running back, receivers and quarterback. Gee, wonder why they still put up numbers and finished 7-4 despite lesser talent? Could it be...uh, the system?

Anyone can pick out the top offenses in the country and then claim that they're more sophisticated, but what value does that designation have if those offenses often fail to repeat their success the following year?


With the exception of Florida, which I think deserves a mulligan because it was the first year in the system, every team in the Gang performed very well offensively. Some fell further due to personnel losses, but for the most part, they were very good offenses. Care to bet that these same six won't be among the best next year again?

Joe Tiller, anyone? How about the Tennessee offenses of the Peyton Manning era, which met all of the criteria for membership other than underuse of backs and tight ends? Or Ralph Friedgen's Maryland/Georgia Tech offenses, which met all of the criteria?


First of all, I never said that these offenses would always be the be all and end all of cfb offenses. I just pointed out that RIGHT NOW they are the cream of the crop scheme-wise. Some of these coaches and systems will get caught up to. It's natural in football and I have ALWAYS said so. At some point, defenses will catch up and find solutions and the pendulum will swing. But the fact that you think Tennessee with Manning was a sophisticated offense just shows that you do not get what I am talking about. It's not about what teams do, but HOW they do it. It's not output, but input.

But if we want to quibble, Notre Dame probably fails on the "run when the other team knows you're running" part of the test, as the Irish were an underwhelming 49th in the country in rush offense and averaged only 3.68 yards per carry.


Look. Some of these teams have varying degrees of emphasis. Weis has a shit back in Walker, so he does what he can with him, which in this case this season was a 1,000 yard year. But, if you look at the way Weis' offense works, you can tell that structurally it is set up nicely for when a good back comes in. Stats do not tell the whole story, my friend.

Note that the quote was not from a scout, but rather from a "personnel man," which is a step up from your average rank-and-file scout.


Elgin Baylor was a personnel director and he drafted Danny Ferry. Personnel directors, by definition, know personnel. They do NOT understand the subtleties of scheme.

There's also a big difference between making observations about USC's offensive system, which is exactly the kind of thing that a scout or personnel man can do well, and then making predictions, which are difficult for anyone, especially for a game like the Orange Bowl between teams with divergent styles and no common opponents.


Well, the Orange Bowl is a good example of what separates good teams from great teams. OU had just as much talent as USC and had 11 guys drafted by the league. Except the game was a 55-19 blowout. Why? Because OU didn't know what the fuck USC was doing on offense because the Big 12 doesn't have anyone who does what USC does.

And the fact that USC is copied doesn't mean that the sophistication of their offense is the primary reason for their success, rather than their overwhelming talent.


If USC just had overwhelming talent, it would be successful. But it is USC's scheme, combined with that talent, that makes it dominant. Without its scheme, USC is LSU--a nice 9-2 teams that occasionaly underachieves.

My point is simply that USC's offensive scheme isn't THAT revolutionary and that the "Gang of Six" concept is mostly useless as a predictive tool.

Ooookay, so USC's offense isn't THAT revolutionary. Even if true, so what? My point was never about how revolutionary it was, though Norm Chow--one of the innovators in college football--is the one that designed it. Finally, the Gang of Six is not supposed to be a predictive tool (don't worry, I won't nag you about reading comprehension). They are not the Heismandments. They are just examples of the direction that offenses are headed in college football. Whether you agree or not, schools all over are implementing things that these schools do best. Are these teams perfect? No. But, they are shining examples to other teams of how to be successful with varying degrees of talent. A great system is a way to make up for lack of talent. It is also a great way to make a lot of talent look a lot better.

I'm not denying that coaching has a major effect, but HP still overstates the complexity of USC (and others') offense relative to the rest of the country.

What have I said? I said that these six offenses are the paragons of the new wave of offenses in college football. College football is moving IN their direction, not AWAY from them. Or have you not seen any games lately? As for the teams themselves, they are each examples of the effect that a good system can have on a program. Three of the teams--Cal, Louisville and Boise--are not traditional powers yet have been in the national conversation of late. It is their systems, not their talent, that allowed this. USC has always had talent, but when that talent was mixed with a great system, the program revived, thus allowing it to get even more talent. Notre Dame was also wallowing, then a coach came with a great system. Suddenly, they are in the BCS. The jury remains out on Florida, but I believe that the right personnel in that particular system will pay dividends for Meyer soon. As it was, he beat Tennessee, FSU and Georgia--three teams that rely mainly on their talent to win.

What's very frustrating about this whole thing is that nothing I am saying can be denied. Perhaps it was all distorted by my prediction that Boise would beat UGA. That certainly worked people up. But, a bad prediction does not change the fact that these offenses are special in their design. Did I ever say they would go undefeated? Never. Unfortunately, people came up with their own ideas about what I meant. And at least it got the debate going...beats a lame blogpoll.

Heisman Pundit said...

Just for the record:

USC averaged 50 per game
Louisville averaged 45
ND averaged 38
Boise averaged 37
Cal averaged 32
Florida averaged 28

Clearly, Cal and Florida will be better next year, since both teams will have more experience at their disposal. USC will lose Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush and still probably averaged 35. Again, I wonder why?

Heisman Pundit said...

HeismanPundit was kind enough to respond to the argument that USC's offense is not especially complicated.

I forgot about this line. I think you are confusing 'complicated' with 'innovative' and 'sophisticated.'

You are right, USC's offense is very simple. The West Coast offense of Ty Willingham is complicated and so not effective. But USC's offensive principles--how it attacks the field and with who--are part of what make it part of the Gang. But, those principles are not entirely common among many teams.

Anonymous said...

HP, Why does Texas not fit the "gang of six" criteria?

Senator Blutarsky said...

Interesting debate - although I tend to side with Michael.

All other things being equal, give me well coached talent to beat any offensive scheme.

HP, the biggest thorn in your reasoning this year is Florida. You point to the Gators' record this year as some sort of vindication of your position, but it was due far more to an improvement in special teams and defense from the Zook era than from what Meyer was doing on the other side of the ball.

UF is, after all, the team with the most perplexing loss in the conference this year: a loss in Baton Rouge where the Gators were +5 in turnover margin. That's the game that brought Meyer to tears. That's the game that led Meyer to claim he wasn't running a system. That's the game that led him to abandon a lot of the spread option he had been running unsuccessfully to that point.

Also, I am curious about why you omit Texas Tech from the Gang. If there's any coach out there who's elevating scheme above everything else, and having some success, it's Mike Leach. If you haven't read the article about him in last week's New York Times' Sunday Magazine, go find it - it's by "Moneyball"'s Michael Lewis and it's a terrific read...