Saturday, August 11, 2007

Charles Rogers has a Sore Bum, but He's Going to Tough it out

In the summer of 2002, perplexed that Michigan State was being hyped as a top 20 team despite the fact that they had no defense and were replacing their offensive line, I created the Charles Rogers Theorem. The Theorem is a means to identify overrated teams based on the confluence of two factors:

1. Lots of returning skill position players, but few returning linemen; and

2. Playing much better at the end of the season (typically in an end-of-year rivalry game and then the bowl game) than they did over the first 10-11 games.

The Theorem rolled along nicely for several years, spotting overrated teams like '02 Michigan State, '04 Clemson, and '05 Iowa and Tennessee. Last year, to paraphrase Merle Haggard. Charles Rogers let me down by flagging Florida as the most overrated team in the country. Yes, the Florida team that won the national title. Because I'm blessed/cursed with the intellectual self-confidence to believe that my baby can't be wrong, I'm ploughing ahead with the theorem. When it flagged Auburn as overrated going into 2004, I created an exception for teams that undergo dramatic coaching improvement, such as going from Hugh Nall calling the plays to Al Borges. After the Florida debacle last year, there are two new lessons:

1. The Theorem isn't responsible for hasty misapplication by its operator. Florida did indeed play much better in 2005 in its last two games and it was replacing four starters on the offensive line, but the defensive line was returning virtually intact. The only new starter was Jarvis Moss, a much-hyped recruit going into his senior season. Sure enough, Florida's offense struggled (at least by the standards of a national champion, or even an SEC champion), but their defense was outstanding and carried them to Glendale, where they played Sonny to Ohio State's Carlo. I was too eager to flag the Gators and didn't appreciate that their defense was going to be excellent.

2. Good coaching can hedge against a team being truly overrated. Urban Meyer did a really good job last year of improvising a run game despite a suspect offensive line and an absence of a competent running back. He and his defensive brain trust (Charlie Strong and Greg Mattison) unleashed hell on SEC offenses with a combination of Ron Zook's wonderful recruits and terrific defensive scheming. The defensive scheme in the National Title Game, specifically the blitz looks that ensured single-blocking on the defensive ends, stands out as an especially salient example. In the Theorem's best years, it flagged teams coached by people with names like "Bobby Williams" and "Phil Fulmer." It was up against it when it went after Urban Meyer. This exception to the rule is the one source of hope for the team that screams "OVERRATED!!!" this year...

Category One – Red Flag – won last two games (at least) and an imbalance between skill position and lines or between offense and defense:

Georgia

Georgia played much better in its last three games, all of which were wins over ranked opponents, than it did for the first ten games of the season, when the Dawgs eked by luminaries like Colorado and Ole Miss before giving up 51 at home to Tennessee and then losing to Vandy and Kentucky. I just don't buy the explanation that Georgia became a different team in those last three games. Rather, the better explanation is that they were a flawed team that had slightly underperformed in a 6-4 start before correcting themselves in their final three games. It must also be said that Georgia corrected itself against three ranked teams that happened to have really bad quarterbacks. Brandon Cox isn't terrible, but he was slumping badly and was probably hurt at the end of the year. (He followed the Georgia game with 137 passing yards in the Iron Bowl and 111 passing yards in the Cotton Bowl. Hats off to Tommy Tuberville for finishing on a two-game winning streak without a real passing threat.) Reggie Ball and Sean Glennon were ridiculously easy pickings. A superficial look at the Dawgs says "hey, they matured and beat three ranked teams!" A more realistic look says "they didn't magically transform from the team that was mediocre for ten games and they picked on some flawed opponents in their final three."

Going into 2007, every discussion of the Dawgs (at least from 30,000 feet) has focused on two aspects: Matt Stafford's maturation and a pair of excellent running backs. If you think that returning linemen tend to matter, then the picture is bleak. Georgia returns two starters on the offensive line and have a true freshman penciled in at left tackle. That couldn't be a problem against Derrick Harvey or Quentin Groves, could it? On the defensive line, Georgia returns one starter. Its projected starters at defensive end are a junior college transfer and a senior who has never started before. (Warning!) The Dawgs start the year against Bobby Reid (2nd in the Big XII in passing efficiency) and Blake Mitchell (threw for 275 at Florida, 284 at Clemson, and 323 in the bowl game); you think that quality defensive ends who can generate a pass rush will be important?

The one saving grace for Georgia is that Mark Richt has been a consistent winner at Georgia. The Dawgs had to replace their entire offensive line in 2003 and yet they won the East. That said, the 2003 Georgia team returned seven starters (including David Pollack) from the defense that led Georgia to the 2002 SEC Title. Additionally, that defense was helmed by Brian VanGorder, who was more confidence-inspiring than Willie Martinez. All told, Georgia won't have a disastrous season this year, but their pre-season #13 ranking is significantly overstating their merit. This looks like an 8-4 team that will lead fans to blame Matthew Stafford for not improving when his pass protection is the real reason that the offense struggles.

Conversely, Georgia's friends on the Flats look underrated this year, as they played worse in their final three games than they did for the rest of the season and they return almost everyone on the lines while replacing Calvin Johnson. The factor cutting against Georgia Tech being underrated is the consensus that they are better without Reggie Ball, which leads to a push in the conventional wisdom that they'll be better this year. Also, in the realm of bowl games being over interpreted, Taylor Bennett's performance against a bad West Virginia secondary is a problem, as is the fact that a significant portion of his 326 yards passing was of the "I'll throw it up and Calvin will go get it" variety.

Category Two – Yellow Flags – Either played better at the end of the season than they did for the first 11 games or have an imbalance between returning starters at skill positions and on the lines, but not both:

Penn State

After Georgia, the Theorem feels the strongest about the Nittany Lions. Penn State's win over Tennessee in the bowl game was the first time the Lions beat or were ever competitive with a good team, such that even Stewart Mandel figured out that the Outback Bowl could cause the Lions to be overrated this year. They replace two starters on the offensive line and three starters on the defensive line. The lost defensive line starters will be replaced by sophomores whose job it will be to keep opposing offensive linemen and fullbacks off of Dan Connor and Sean Lee. That preseason #18 ranking looks awfully optimistic. Don't be shocked if they lose to Notre Dame.

Actually, I'm kinda hoping that that happens because the Michigan-Notre Dame series has been VERY friendly to the underdogs and Notre Dame will be a decided underdog if they come to Ann Arbor at 1-1 or 0-2. Incidentally, I think that Notre Dame is underrated this year, mainly because they have the Theorem working in reverse. They were beaten decisively in their last two games and they lost their glamour boys. That said, they lost a ton of players on the lines and will be starting a parade of young players because of the Ty Willingham Experience, so they aren't a perfect fit for the mantle of underrated. Still, 8-9 wins wouldn't surprise me in the least.

Florida

Cue the definition of insanity as doing the same stupid thing and expecting the result to change. Florida did play better in its last two games than it did for the first 12 games, especially on offense when the Gators finally broke the 26-point barrier against a living, breathing opponent. Additionally, Florida is replacing all of its defensive line, save Derrick Harvey, and the replacements aren't as VHTerrific as the players they are replacing. Florida is returning four starters on the offensive line and, as we have seen before, coaching matters. Thus, they are by no means a perfect fit for the Theorem. That said, they are massively overrated as pre-season #3. Phil Steele agrees, as he has the Gators at #14, but he also has Georgia at #11, so I can't cite the guru approvingly for everything.

Cal

If ever there was an obvious instance of the coaching exception overruling the Theorem, it was the '04 Cal team, which was excellent despite being flagged. I heart Jeff Tedford, so it's with significant trepidation that I point out that Cal returns DeSean Jackson and played its best game of the year in the bowl rout over Texas A&M, but they have to replace two offensive linemen and three defensive linemen. They're preseason #12, but Phil Steele has them at #28, which means that either the guru is wrong or we can prepare for an "I was the only one..." intro to the Cal section of Phil Steele's 2008 spectacular.

LSU

I don't really think that the Tigers fit the Theorem because they return so much on the lines, but they did play their two best games in the two last games of the year. Additionally, Les Miles seems like the sort of coach who will eventually preside over a team that is significantly disappointing. Plus, you can almost never go wrong dubbing the preseason #2 team as overrated. All that said, I'd be surprised if they don't win at least ten in the regular season.

South Carolina

Like LSU, they return a ton on the lines, so the only reason to think that the Cocks are overrated is that they played better in their final two games. Oh, and because they're South Carolina and they don't exactly handle expectations well. They're sure to make me feel dumb for picking them to win the East, which is what I'm doing right now. They're also outside of the preseason top 25, so they can't really be overrated except by people like me, Phil Steele, and Orson Swindle.

South Florida

The only flag here comes from the fact that they beat West Virginia and thumped East Carolina after starting 7-4. They return almost everything on the lines and they're 37th in the preseason coaches poll, so the Theorem doesn't really apply. That said, if they flame out this year, I'll be sure to claim that I saw it all along.

Texas Tech

The Red Raiders started last year 6-5 before winning their final two (including an epic comeback in the bowl game) and they replace four on the offensive line and three on the defensive line. On the other hand, they are chronically underrated and as a result, they're 38th in the preseason coaches poll. They don't belong on this list.

4 comments:

Dongshow said...

good stuff, and very thoughtful reading. I agree on Georgia, Florida and Penn State except the part about losing to Notre Dame. With that game being at happy valley they should squeak by.

Mostly gun shooting, skiing and fishing but we cover football, soccer and f1!

OzzieVirgil said...

I was feeling rather bullish on UGA this year, but someone sent me a picture of their starting Freshman LT's arm's. Holy Hell, think Myles from Murphy Brown.

He will be eaten alive.

Paul Westerdawg said...

I don't know who will win the SEC East, but I don't think it will be SC.

Road games against UGA, UT, ARK and LSU + UF and SC at home. That's harsh.

They could be the best SC team since '84 and still lose 3 SEC Games.

BTW - excellent article.

Adam said...

1. I can't click on www.dongshowproductions.com in a million years.

2. Dude, did you just say "Murphy Brown" in a fooball comparison?

3. Am I gay cause I actually could picture Myles from Murphy Brown

4. I'm with you Paul. I would be more shocked if the tie-break formula doesn't come into play in the east than if it does.

5. I agree with the Florida inclusion, but there's so many other teams who don't fit into the theorm that I think are over-rated, I'm wondering if my rating system is just Jacked Up.