Friday, October 26, 2007

Random [Insert Vulgar Word for Feces Here]

BC-Virginia Tech

If you want a classic case of sports talk radio overreaction, take Steak Shapiro's take this morning that Matt Ryan solidified his place in the top five of the Draft, as well as his Heisman candidacy, with last night's rally. I'll freely admit that I didn't watch the end of the game. I turned it off after another Ryan interception in the fourth quarter. I was muttering to myself about Virginia Tech winning unwatchable games in which they are remarkably unpenalized for never having had an offense other than the "Vick run around!" set. Being the unreconstructed Wahoo, I was also whining in my head about the Hokies scoring a touchdown that wasn't a touchdown and a field goal on a drive kept alive by an appallingly weak pass interference call.

So imagine my surprise when I woke up and found that the Eagles had rallied for a 14-10 win. Imagine my total lack of surprise that Shapiro glossed over Ryan's weak performance for the first 55 minutes of the game and solely focused on the last five, ignoring the fact that Ryan's inability to hit his receivers was the reason why his heroics were needed in the first place. (and add in the fact that Tech's putrid offense is the only reason why the score wasn't 24-0 at the time). I'll grant you that Virginia Tech whipped BC's offensive line for the first 55 minutes and the rain also made it hard to throw the ball. I'll also grant you that his first touchdown throw was a thing of beauty. That said, Matt Ryan has never impressed me as anything more than a guy who can throw underneath accurately and move around in the pocket well. He's a second-tier Brian Brohm. He should be a second- or third-round pick. Instead, because he plays in Boston, he's a Heisman front-runner. Let's just say that there would be something very wrong in the universe if Boston College picks up its second Heisman Trophy this year and Alabama and Tennessee are still sitting on nil in that category. Let's also say that if Dennis Dixon plays well against USC this weekend, there are no reasons other race and geography why he shouldn't be miles ahead of Ryan in the Heisman race. Speaking of which...


This is the weekend that USC finally puts together a performance that leaves the rest of the country saying "yup, that's the team that we all voted #1 before the season." USC showed the pattern last year of going through the motions against unranked opponents and then kicking ass when the spotlight was on. Well, the spotlight is on this weekend and Oregon's crowd will almost certainly get the Trojans' attention. USC is still the best team in the country when they're focused. I am not at all a John David Booty fan, but Oregon's defense isn't good enough to punish USC for their weakness under center. Additionally, USC's front seven are going to present major, major challenges for Oregon.


I have a pretty good feeling about Georgia this weekend. This season is full of examples of teams playing well coming out of bye weeks. Remember Tennessee's performance against Georgia? Or Florida's performance against Kentucky? (Note: Alabama has the week off before hosting LSU.) Georgia has their backs against the wall and will be putting everything they have into this game. Theoretically, Georgia has the personnel to exploit Florida's weak secondary: a rifle-armed quarterback and a bevy of receiving threats. The problem is that said quarterback and receivers are very inconsistent. Additionally, Georgia has been very conservative offensively this year, in part legitimately out of concern for the offensive line and in part mistakenly "protecting" the offense by being limited and predictable. This is the game in which Georgia has to open up the playbook and put some faith in its quarterback of the future. It's an interesting sink-or-swim scenario.

Defensively, Georgia has done well against Florida's offense in the past, but I think we all understand now that Meyer's offense is much better with a running threat under center. Tennessee did a fine defensive job on Florida when Chris Leak was under center (37 points in two games) and then promptly shipped 59 points to the Gators in September. Florida's offense was also more effective against LSU this year than it was when Leak was the quarterback. In other words, don't expect the defensive effort we've been accustomed to against Florida. Overall, I see a fairly high-scoring game (28-25?) and Florida winning in the end, but I certainly wouldn't take the Gators -9.5. JMHO.

Penn State-Ohio State

I like Penn State in this game for a few reasons:

1. Ohio State has a terrible history at State College. They're 2-5 at Penn State, with one of the wins coming in a very tight game against a 3-9 Penn State team. Of course, that was during the era in which Ohio State won every game by one point on field goals that hit both goalposts and the crossbar before going through. OSU won in this fashion regardless of whether they were playing Michigan or Tattnall Square Academy. G-d I hated those teams. (I didn't really dislike the '05-'06 OSU teams. I could respect them for being really good and entertaining to watch.)

2. Penn State's defense is excellent and this Ohio State offense can be shut down. At a minimum, this means that Saturday night is going to be a tight, defensive game. In said circumstances, do you trust a quarterback making his first difficult road start? A quarterback who let an inferior opponent back into the game last week with turnovers? Me neither.

3. Ohio State is unbeaten, but it bears mentioning that this fact is not important in light of the weakness of their opponents. OSU has not played a single team ranked in Sagarin's top 30. (LSU, by contrast, has played five.) They're ranked #1, but they're not really a #1 caliber team. And who the hell am I kidding? I don't like the idea of an Ohio State-Boston College snoozefest in the title game, I'm rooting against that possibility, and I don't trust my alma mater to prevent it from happening.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Your Mind is Filled with Big Ideas, Images and Distorted Facts

In advance of the turdocaust of triumphalism that is likely on its way from Bill Simmons, I have a couple bones to pick with him:

Bill should stop picking on the outfielder from my state.

You would think that, after killing J.D. Drew for the entire season as being a choker, Simmons would write something containing the words "I was wrong" after Drew hit a clutch grand slam to put the Red Sox on their way to a critical win in game six of the ALCS. Or that maybe he would acknowledge that Drew didn't only hit that grand slam, but he went five for ten with six RBI during the three games in which Boston rallied from a 3-1 deficit. If he was really self-aware, Simmons would question the assumption that girds so much of his writing that certain players are chokers and certain players are clutch. After all, if Peyton Manning can lead an epic comeback in the AFC Championship Game against his bete noire and J.D. Drew can perform at a top level in crunch ALCS games, then maybe this notion of certain players being clutch is vastly overblown and the result of unreliably small sample sizes.

Predictably, Simmons doesn't engage in any approaching a mea culpa, but instead blathers on about how shocked he was and then adds in a bevy of e-mails from his Red Sox herd parroting the same line. File this under the heading of "no shit, Sherlock. You killed the guy all year and then he came up huge. I'm shocked that you were shocked."

A couple other notes on Drew:

1. His overall post-season numbers aren't outstanding, but here are his OPSs for the three Championship Series in which he's played: .750, 1.044, and .905.

2. Simmons made Drew out to be the worst player in recorded history this year, but he ended up with a 105 OPS+ and a .373 OBP. Admittedly, he didn't play like a $14M player, but he wasn't terrible or anything. Of course, I'm sure all those hits and walks were in "non-clutch" situations.

Bill should stop picking on the quarterback from my alma mater.

This passage bothered me when Simmons wrote it a few weeks ago:

Put it this way: When your own fans are chanting "Griese! Griese!" for your backup, only it's 2007 and they're chanting for Brian instead of Bob, then you know you've colossally failed as a starting QB. Is Brian Griese the worst athlete who ever had his name chanted at a professional sporting event? He has to be right up there, correct? This was like 19,000 NBA fans chanting "Madsen! Madsen!" at the same time. Anyway, you beat this Lions team by throwing the ball on them and outscoring them ... and I'm not backing Brian Griese in a shootout. No, thanks.

The Mark Madsen comparison annoyed me, starting with the fact that Griese has made the Pro Bowl, whereas Madsen has never been on the periphery of the periphery of considering for the NBA All-Star Game. Griese has a career passer rating of 84.6. For context, here are the career passer ratings of some other prominent NFL quarterbacks:

Peyton Manning - 94.7
Tom Brady - 91.8
Carson Palmer - 91.2
Ben Roethlisberger - 89.7
Chad Pennington - 89.3
Mark Bulger - 88.8
Drew Brees - 85.8
Matt Hasselbeck - 85.4
Donovan McNabb - 85.4
Jake Delhomme - 85.2
Brett Favre - 85.1
Brad Johnson - 83.1
Steve McNair - 83.1
Michael Vick - 75.7
Eli Manning - 74.6
Trent Dilfer - 70.8
Rex Grossman - 69.3

I'll concede that passer rating isn't a perfect way to judge a quarterback, but it's the most easily accessible. I doubt that different measures would lead to a different result than the obvious conclusion that Griese is a good quarterback. His numbers sit in the Hasselbeck-McNabb-McNair zone and most fans would conclude that those three are good quarterbacks. His numbers are miles better than Rex Grossman, the guy he replaced, and Trent Dilfer, the model for a game managing quarterback. The rap on Griese is that he struggles to stay healthy and that he was a questionable on and off the field when he played in Denver as Elway's replacement. Neither of those criticisms would lead one to believe that he's a bad quarterback.

In looking at these numbers, my primary reaction after "Bill Simmons' beliefs are refuted by the numbers, yet again" is that I would be royally pissed at Lovie Smith if I were a Bears fan. The Bears blew a shot at winning the Super Bowl last year because Smith was totally committed to Grossman as a starter, against all evidence. He stuck with Grossman in a way that he never would have stuck with an underperforming player at another position. Most damningly, Smith did so with a very viable option on the bench, an accurate passer who makes relatively few mistakes and who would have been perfect paired with the Bears defense. Griese would have been especially useful in the Super Bowl because the Bears' offense was going after a relatively conservative cover-two defense that puts a premium on accurate passes underneath and penalizes quarterbacks who take reckless risks down the field. Because of injuries and salary cap issues, last year might have been the extent of the Bears' window to win a Super Bowl with their dominant defense and they blew it with the "equivalent of Mark Madsen" sitting on the bench.

See, I made it through an entire post about Griese without mentioning the '97 Wolverines. Give me a sticker!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

My Top 25

1LSU 2
2Oregon 2
3Ohio State 1
4Kansas 7
6Boston College 3
7Florida 5
8Missouri 5
9Arizona State 1
10South Florida 9
11Kentucky 4
12Southern Cal 4
13West Virginia 1
14Auburn 3
15Virginia Tech 3
16California 10
17Michigan 7
18Virginia 7
19South Carolina 9
20Texas 1
21UCLA 5
22Kansas State 7
23Rutgers 3
24Alabama 2
25Connecticut 1

Dropped Out: Texas Tech (#19), Cincinnati (#20), Tennessee (#22), Illinois (#23).

Monday, October 22, 2007

Five Thoughts on the Falcons

1. The offensive line is putrid and we can't blame that on Bobby Petrino. I was worried about Petrino's offense experiencing the same protection problems that bedeviled Steve Spurrier in the NFL, but the Falcons' inability to protect the passer comes down to the fact that they have a number of injuries on the offensive line and the personnel is struggling mightily to adapt to a new style. Lord, please let the Falcons finish low enough that Jake Long is on the board when we draft.

2. I hope the rest of you noticed Keith Brooking tackling Lewis Sanders on the Saints' winning touchdown yesterday. For those of you who don't know, Sanders is a corner for the Falcons and he had stood Bush up at the one-yard line when Brooking hit Sanders and allowed Bush to fall into the end zone. I kept showing the play on slow-mo to Der Wife, who was cackling away before heading to the computer to figure out if the domain name is taken.

3. Who had "two quarters and change" in the "how long will it take before Byron Leftwich is injured on account of the Falcons' dreadful line?" pool? Leftwich looked pretty good before he got hurt, although he wasn't exactly going up against the '81 49ers secondary. Joey Harrington also looked OK when he had more than a half-second to throw the ball.

4. Why in G-d's name did the Falcons punt the ball to the Saints with two minutes to go? Did they really think that the defense could get a three-and-out? Fourth and long wasn't a great option, but it was the best of a bad series of options.

5. We're seven games into the season and we're still waiting for Jamaal Anderson's first sack.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Georgia Fans Probably Won't Appreciate my Feelings on Ron Zook, but...


Last night, as Michigan was in a dogfight with Illinois on the road in a crucial Big Ten game, every time the camera panned to Ron Zook, I kept thinking of Bobby Knight's line after the 1987 Midwest Regional Final against LSU. Indiana, the #1 seed in the region, had trailed by 12 points in the second half before rallying to win the game. Afterwards, when asked whether he was worried when LSU opened a significant lead in the second half, Knight said something to the effect of "yes, until I looked at LSU's bench and was reminded who was coaching them."

I've seen this look before. It typically preceded Florida losing to a team with the word "Mississippi" in its name.

Like Dale Brown, Ron Zook cemented a firm reputation in the SEC as an excellent recruiter who was prone to bad gametime decisions. More importantly, Zook cemented a reputation as a coach who did not have the authority to keep his players in line. After all, how do you respect or fear a grown man who gets into a fight at a fraternity to protect the honor of his players?

Saturday night, Zook's Illinois lived up to billing. They had everything going in their favor. Michigan's star tailback was out for the entire game and the Wolverines were forced to play a true freshman under center for half the game because Chad Henne was out. The game was played in a stiff breeze, which should have favored a running team over a passing team. Illinois runs an offense that has been absolute kryptonite to Michigan for the better part of this decade. Still, Illinois contrived to lose by ten, in no significant part because the Illini gifted Michigan one key first down after another. Michigan's go-ahead drove was aided by: (1) a personal foul facemask after Illinois had stopped Michigan well short of a first down deep in its territory; (2) a late hit after Michigan gained six yards on 1st and 15; and (3) a fumbled punt. Illinois had previously prolonged Michigan go-ahead drive in the second quarter with a roughing the punter call on 4th and 27. Illinois finished the game with ten penalties for 107 yards, a slight problem in a game in which they were already outgained by almost 100 yards. If this were a normal team with Illinois's youth, the repeated dumb mistakes could be attributed to inexperience. With Ron Zook on the sidelines, there's no reason to think that the problems will be corrected.

Watching Illinois implode made me appreciate Lloyd Carr. Lloyd and I haven't
seen eye to eye at times this year, but the guy does have some quality traits. Watching a Lloyd team across the field from a Ron Zook team can drive those happy traits home:

1. Michigan doesn't kill itself with stupid penalties. Michigan is 13th in the country in fewest penalty yards allowed per game. Here are Michigan's ranks in that category over the past seven years (which is as far back as the NCAA statistical archive goes): 38, 2, 23, 8, 7, 5, 19. In other words, Michigan has not finished outside of the top third of college football in fewest penalty yards this decade. Stew on that the next time an opponent roughs your punter on 4th and 27.

2. As much as I bitch and moan about Lloyd not being adaptable, he does show the ability to change. Last night presented three examples. First, as in the Appalachian State, Oregon, and Northwestern games, Michigan was significantly better defensively against the run-based spread after halftime. (OK, Oregon probably stopped scoring out of pity.) If I'm going to blame Lloyd for Michigan defenders becoming incontinent the moment they see a zone read play, I oughta note that their prostates function better in the second thirty minutes. Second, I repeatedly complain that Michigan doesn't kill games off, so what did the Wolverines do when they got the ball with a 24-17 lead and seven minutes remaining? They drove for a field goal and, gasp, threw successfully on both second downs on the drive. The irony was that last night was one of the few times that Michigan could have been very confident they they could protect a lead, as Illinois's offense is poorly suited to coming from behind or doing anything related to the forward pass. Third, confronted with a situation where Michigan's primary running threat was injured, Carr and Mike Debord chose to emphasize the passing game. Michigan was far more aggressive than they typically are on their offensive calls, although falling behind 14-3 probably had a lot to do with that. Note to opponents: don't wake the sleeping bear.

(One caveat to this love-in: Carrdbord's playcalling when Ryan Mallett was in the game was abysmal. Yet again, they chose to protect their true freshman by having him throw only on obvious passing downs.)

3. Something tells me that if a Ron Zook team lost its first two games of the year in humiliating fashion, it wouldn't respond by reeling off six straight wins. Lloyd's gruff, "f*** the outside world" demeanor can annoy me at times, but it's pitch-perfect for rallying a team from a poor start.


As someone who loves SEC football, but doesn't have an intense rooting interest in the conference, this has been an outstanding year in the conference. Seemingly every weekend, the league serves up multiple games that come right down to the wire. The consensus best team in the league - LSU - has been pushed to the last play in three straight weeks. Alabama played classics with Arkansas and Georgia; the Dawgs played classics with Alabama and South Carolina; and seemingly every Auburn game comes down to the fourth quarter. It's just great fun to behold.

My big beef right now is with the seeming consensus that Les Miles screwed up by going for a touchdown at the end of the LSU-Auburn game. To everyone advancing this opinion, I ask you: have you ever seen college kickers before? Is it so unbelievable that a 20-year old might not perform when a team's entire season is placed upon his shoulders? Is it inconceivable that Colt David would have missed a 39-yard field goal, given that he already underperformed significantly at home against Florida? Do we need to recount instances in which normally reliable college kickers have missed field goals with games on the line? Hell, do we need to recount instances in which normally reliable college kickers have missed extra points with games on the line? Miles and Gray Crowton called for one of the safest passes in football: a fly pattern down the sideline with the quarterback under orders not to underthrow the ball. The playcall was doubly safe because they knew that Auburn would not have their safeties back as they were desperate not to give up additional yardage. Their corners were not going to be playing off because they were almost certainly instructed not to surrender a short hitch or out pattern. Auburn's defense was begging for a deep ball; LSU simply did the rational thing and attacked the weakness of the defense.

Additionally, the caterwauling about everything that could have gone wrong is misplaced. Demetrius Byrd caught the touchdown with four seconds remaining on the clock. The time keeper didn't stop the clock for several seconds after the play. Thus, unless some sort of unprecedented juggling act would have taken place in the end zone, the play was not going to eat up the entire clock. A sack wasn't a significant risk on a three-step drop. Whatever imaginary risks the critics can dream up, none of them are as significant as a college kicker missing a critical field goal from 39 yards out.

And no, I'm not defending Les Miles simply because he's the odds-on favorite to be Michigan's next head coach, even if his decision was a bit of a Bull Halsey move.

The better criticism of LSU is this: what the hell has happened to their defense? I'll grant you that giving up points and yards to Florida and Kentucky is no great insult, but Auburn? When your offense has given you a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, how do you let Auburn drive the length of the field on you? How do you give up 24 points to Auburn in Baton Rouge after Auburn scraped nine points together in Fayetteville on the previous Saturday? Players reading their press clippings? SEC offenses figuring Bo Pelini out? Did we overrate LSU's defense after they shut down Virginia Tech's wretched offense?


I said this before and after the Georgia game and I will now repeat myself: Phil Fulmer was not going to lose his job for losing to Georgia; he's going to lose it for losing to Alabama. Bama is Tennessee's arch-rival. The Alabama-Tennessee series tends to go in streaks, which means that Vols fans would worry significantly if it looked like Alabama had swung momentum. Alabama just hired a proven commodity as its coach, which means that the scrutiny on Fulmer goes up a notch. The fact that the Vols got blown out in Tuscaloosa only makes matters worse. The fact that Tennessee never seemed to figure out that Alabama's gameplan was "throw the ball to D.J. Hall over and over again" is even worse than that. The fact that it appeared that Tennessee gave up in the fourth quarter is worse still. The fact that Tennessee will presumably be worse next year without a four-year starter under center is worse still.

For the record, John Parker Wilson played the game of his life on Saturday, illustrating the truism that just about any quarterback can have a good game with unlimited time to throw. LSU's defense is underperforming at this stage, but they will not give Wilson that sort of time in two weeks. I expect a vastly different result.


Gary Danielson was throwing around the Vince Young-Michael Vick comparisons on Saturday regarding Tim Tebow and it's hard to disagree at this point. Tebow combines running and passing threats better than any quarterback I can remember. This year is showing that Urban Meyer's offense can work very well in the SEC, but there needs to be a slight caveat that Meyer has the perfect guy to run the offense and we cannot assume that he'll be able to find someone to replace Tebow. Terrelle Pryor would be a good choice, especially because that would keep him out of Columbus.

I was especially impressed by Florida's response after Kentucky cut the deficit to 38-31. The Gators did not play for the clock and they were not going to give Andre Woodson a chance to tie the score against Florida's naked secondary. They went right down the field and scored a touchdown to ice the game. Maybe if you cheered for a team that hasn't iced a game in eons (although they made strides on Saturday night), you would also get excited about Florida going for the throat.

Friday, October 19, 2007

We Have Consensus

Scott Burnside:

But the Thrashers' 0-6-0 start goes far beyond coaching, which is what makes the future of this franchise so troubling and begs the question: When does ownership finish the job?

The short answer: not yet, despite the fact that the failure of the coach is as much a failure of personnel as it is of coaching acumen. Waddell, if he doesn't know that, is about to find out when he takes over the team he built Thursday night against the New York Rangers.

Allan Muir:

Safe to say, Hartley deserved the collar. He was part of the problem...but hardly the only part.

It was Waddell, after all, who asked Hartley to win with a roster that included neither a legitimate No. 1 or No. 2 center. It was Waddell who failed to replace Marc Savard, who departed for Boston in the summer of '06, and who this summer committed four years and nearly $10 million to Todd White, a free agent who scorched opposing goaltenders for 44 points last season. It was Waddell who maintained a scouting department that has delivered sub-par results in any situation other than a chip shot like calling Ilya Kovalchuk's name first overall in 2001. It was Waddell who painfully cashed several layers of the team's future, for the departed Keith Tkachuk and a couple of diminishing assets in Alexei Zhitnik and the dime-a-dozen Pascal Dupuis. And it is Waddell who's yet to come to terms with Marian Hossa, the team's most important asset, and one who seems more likely by the moment to head elsewhere when he reaches free agency this summer.

Jeff Schultz:

Waddell took heat for mortgaging the future with pre-deadline deals last year. He shouldn’t. Those deals got the Thrashers into the playoffs. But blame Waddell for the holes that existed before the trades, and the holes that remained unfilled after the season.

Player development has been dreadful. There is little to show for nine drafts and 82 players. Of the 28 defensemen drafted, the only two here are Garnet Exelby (eighth round, 1999; blind squirrel, meet acorn) and Tobias Enstrom (eighth round, 2003; just got here).

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Euro '08: Likely British-Free

The field for the European Championship, a.k.a. the World Cup minus Brazil and Argentina, is beginning to take shape with qualifying down to the final two rounds. The big news is that England, needing only a draw in Russia to put themselves in pole position for qualification, coughed up a 1-0 lead in Moscow and now have to hope for Israel to take points off of Russia in order to have any chance of qualifying. The highlights:

I am left in the odd position of rooting against Israel, who cannot qualify for Euro '08, but can play the role of spoiler and bring this undeserving England side back into the frame. Not that I think that Russia will bring a lot to Euro '08 - the last time the Russians made an impact at a major tournament, they were the USSR and most of their best players were Ukrainian - but I love watching England fall on their faces. The fact that a Dutch manager, Guus Hiddink, played the role of banana skin is terribly amusing to me. Hiddink vs. McClaren is like Pete Carroll vs. Lloyd Carr in the Rose Bowl when both coaches have had a month to prepare.

Most of the blame from the English press is falling on their manager Steve McClaren, a fractionally incorrect penalty decision, and their inept keeper Paul Robinson, who has absolutely no idea how to properly direct a rebound. It will not occur to the English that, gasp, maybe their players just aren't that good. Their flagship player right now is Steven Gerrard, whose major accomplishment yesterday was a stunning miss when he could have put the game out of reach. And maybe it's an indictment of English football that they haven't produced a quality keeper since Gordon Banks or a sharp manager since Bobby Robson.

Joining the English in the ranks of the royally pissed this morning are their old friends in Scotland, who contrived to lose 2-0 in Georgia. (Not Herschel Walker's Georgia; Zaza Pachulia's Georgia.) Scotland had been the surprise package of qualification up to this point, as they led a group that also contains both of the 2006 World Cup finalists (Italy and France) and a 2006 quarterfinalist (Ukraine) to boot. Unfortunately, Scotland also have a rich history of getting their fans' hopes up and then cruelly destroying them. They're the Chicago Cubs of international football: fanatic fan support, occasional glimpses of excellence, followed by crushing defeats just when things were looking up. Highlights:

Scotland will still make it to Austria/Switzerland if they beat Italy in Glasgow in November, but the loss yesterday puts the onus on the Scots to beat a team that is, if nothing else, very accomplished at grinding out 0-0 draws. The Italians do have a recent history of being too defensive in trying to protect leads - see '04 vs. Sweden, '02 vs. South Korea, and '00 vs. France - and the Italian coach, Roberto Donadoni, is questionable in terms of his tactics. Scotland-Italy promises to be an exceptionally interesting match, as the Scots will have incredibly intense fan support tinged by dark fatalism if anything goes wrong. The fact that the reigning world champions provide the opposition only spices the stew even more. The final piece of the puzzle is that both teams can qualify if France don't get the right result in their November match in Kiev, which ought to be somewhat chilly.

Unlike England, several European powers have either qualified or on the precipice of doing so. Germany qualified on the weekend with a goalless draw in Ireland, thus ensuring that Joachim Loew and his scrupulously maintained nostrils will be making the short trip to the Osterreich this summer:

Mockery aside, the Germans are the favorites this summer, as they will have virtual homefield advantage and they have a terrific young cast of players who bloodied their noses in the '06 World Cup and are now ready to win something big. The question for the Germans is whether their strikers will be able to put the goals away, as Lucas Podolski is struggling mightily at Bayern and boy band reject Kevin Kuranyi has never produced on the international stage. This was not a problem when Michael Ballack was scoring regularly from the midfield, but who knows if he will be healthy and in form by the summer as he's neither right now. The Germans will be qualifying from their group along with the Czech Republic, who were the best side at Euro '04, but are now a little long in the tooth.

[Update: I blanked on Miroslav Klose's existence. Since he scores in bushels for Germany and for his club teams, Germany have a more reliable striker than any of their main competitors. Germany are the clear favorite. Carry on.]

The Germans' old buddies Holland will almost certainly be joining the Teutonic party this summer as they are four points clear with two to play and a home match against Luxembourg next up. The Dutch put two past Slovenia yesterday, which is a veritable offensive outburst in the van Basten era:

The hope is that the combination of three key players - Sneijder, Robben, and van Nistlerooy - playing together at Real Madrid, along with Robin van Persie and Clarence Seedorf hitting their form at Arsenal and AC Milan, will lead to goals this summer. For a spell, I was thinking that the Dutch couldn't score because this generation of players isn't as good as the Bergkamp generation that produced excellent results in the 90s, but that doesn't appear to be the case as the Dutch have plenty of players doing well at the top levels of club football. If they don't score this summer, then the blame will ironically be directed at Holland's greatest striker.

The Dutch will be joined by Romania from Group G. Sweden and Spain look set from Group F. The Spanish are rounding into form and have, by far, the best midfield in Europe with Fabregas, Xavi, and Iniesta. (I'm totally unbiased is lavishing such praise onto two Barca players and a Catalan who started out in Barca's youth system before being signed by Arsenal.) The question, as posed by Phil Ball, is whether Spain can find a ball-winner to play behind that trio. Iniesta has been playing that position fairly competently for Barca in the past couple weeks with Yaya Toure out, but ideally, Spain would have another player in that role to free Iniesta to get forward. The other eternal question with Spain is whether they are constitutionally incapable of living up to expectations. The Spanish are often compared to England in terms of failing to meet expectations, but they are a different case. The English fail because they can't produce a quality manager or keeper and their players are a little overrated in terms of technical skill. The Spanish have a bevy of good keepers and do not suffer for good managers (Luis Aragones is questionable, but there is no English equivalent to Juande Ramos), but they still flatter to deceive over and over again. With the Spanish, it is truly a mental block.

Defending champions Greece booked their spot yesterday with a 1-0 win over arch-rivals Turkey and damaged Turkey's chances significantly in the process. Turkey must now win in Norway on November 17. Swirl that sentence around for a few moments. Finally, Poland and Portugal look set as the victors of Group A. Thus, the probable field for Euro '08:

Czech Republic

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Please Let Mark Bradley Be Right

Mark Bradley has joined John Hollinger in the ranks of respected basketball pundits who rate the Hawks' chances highly this year. He makes a good analogy to the team's emergence in the '85-'86 season, which I hope plays out this year. With the Falcons and Thrashers in the tank and Georgia and Georgia Tech headed for unremarkable seasons, this would be a good time for the Hawks to grab some headlines.

Incidentally, I'm intrigued by the lineup the Hawks deployed last night with Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams in the backcourt. Joe doesn't want to play point, but putting him there and moving Marvin to the two alleviates the logjam in the frontcourt and allows the Hawks to deploy their five best players: Johnson, Marvin, Childress, Josh Smith, and Al Horford. (I'm projecting a little on Horford, but I think he'll be the best option at the five by midseason.) If that lineup can defend against smaller, quicker guards, then it would present a lot of match-up problems for opponents. I'd much rather the Hawks' forward get minutes than their point guards.

My Top 25 Was Swayed by...Lou Holtz?

1South Florida 3
2Ohio State--
3LSU 2
4Oregon 1
5Oklahoma 2
6California 3
7Kentucky 8
8Arizona State 4
9Boston College 3
10South Carolina 1
11Kansas 7
12Florida 4
14West Virginia 3
15Kansas State 11
16Southern Cal 2
17Auburn 2
18Virginia Tech 2
19Texas Tech 7
20Cincinnati 10
21Texas 2
23Illinois 3
24Michigan 2
25Virginia 1

Dropped Out: Florida State (#17), Colorado (#21), Maryland (#24), Wisconsin (#25).
Some thoughts on...
When Lou Holtz ranked Kansas #2 on ESPN's college football wrap-up show, I initially took his opinion as seriously as everything else that Holtz says, which is to say that I attributed it to a deranged sideshow and went on my merry way. Upon reflection, he has something of a point. I don't really think that Kansas is the #2 team in the country, but what's the difference between the Jayhawks and Ohio State, other than name and the fact that Kansas's win at Kansas State is better than anything on Ohio State's resume? What's the difference between Kansas and Arizona State or Boston College? Everyone seems to be focused on the prospect of South Florida and Boston College running the table, but has anyone noticed that Kansas misses the top three teams in the Big XII South and has already beaten one of the two other contenders in the North on the road?
I have a remarkably simple explanation to describe Auburn's rise from the dead: the Tigers have an excellent defense and a bad offense. Every game they play against a quality opponent is going to follow the same script: a tight, defensive game that comes down to turnovers, special teams, and late drives. Auburn lost two such games consecutively against South Florida and Mississippi State, then won two such games against Florida and Arkansas (with an anomalous blowout of Vandy thrown in for good measure). The Tigers aren't as bad as we feared when they were 1-2 and they aren't as good as they look now that their luck/skill in close games has returned. With LSU, Georgia, and Alabama still on the schedule, expect three more coin-flip games. Also, don't sleep on the possibility of Ole Miss upsetting Auburn. The Rebs have been knocking on the door for a year and a half; at some stage, they're going to win a close game.
The Gators are in the opposite place as Auburn: they have lost two close games in a row and are therefore underrated right now. Florida hasn't won a close game yet this year. They're in the same spot that LSU was in last year before the Tigers reeled off a perfect second half, fueled by their luck evening out in the Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Arkansas games. The one difference is that LSU's defense was better last year. I like Florida this weekend against Kentucky because I can't see the Cats stopping the Florida offense, although I don't know that I'd take Florida -7 because Kentucky has the passing game to exploit Florida's secondary.
Now would be a good time to sell on the Hoos. The schedule gets tougher and they have won every close game they've played this year. At some stage, their luck is going to even out. I bumped them into the poll in place of Wake because of a good win over UConn, but I suspect I'll be popping the Terps back into the rankings after the teams meet this weekend.
I haven't weighed in on the Georgia game yet this week because I didn't see it, but did it tell us anything we don't already know about the Dawgs? They're an average SEC team. They don't do anything especially well, but they don't have any glaring weaknesses. They're deeper than Vandy, which explains the way the game played out. Matt Stafford has not turned into a star, the offensive line is decent at times and embarrassing at others, the defensive ends are not good enough for Willie Martinez to play his preferred style, and Georgia has enough talent to muddle its way to an 8-4 season.

Monday, October 15, 2007

It's 1990 all over again!

I've been watching college football since the early 80s and prior to this season, 1990 took the cake for the craziest season I had ever seen in terms of the contenders getting knocked off of their perches in rapid succession. In the end, voters were left with the unenviable task of picking between a 10-1-1 Colorado team and an 11-0-1 Georgia Tech team. Colorado lost at Illinois, tied Tennessee, required a fifth down to beat 4-7 Missouri and a last-minute touchdown to beat 5-6 Stanford at home and still almost blew the national title when the otherwise sane Bill McCartney decided to punt the ball to Rocket Ismail late in an Orange Bowl that his defense was dominating. Georgia Tech plodded through the underwhelming pre-Florida State ACC, tying 6-4-1 North Carolina along the way. The Jackets also required a last-minute field goal to beat 6-5 Virginia Tech at home. How were voters left in the bind of picking between two eminently flawed teams? The rest of college football collapsed. Here were the pre-season contenders:

Notre Dame - Opened with quality wins over Michigan and Michigan State before they contrived to lose at home to 5-6 Stanford, then got back into the national title race in November with big wins over Miami and Tennessee before losing at home to Penn State on a Craig Fayak field goal. The Stanford loss is very hard to explain, but the Cardinal did also give Colorado a run for their money and then closed the season with road wins over Arizona and Cal, both of which had seven wins.

Michigan - Lost the opener at South Bend despite running the Irish silly (Elvis, noooo!!!!), then ascended to #1 before losing back-to-back one-point games at home to Michigan State and Iowa. Rebounded to win their last six, finishing with a bowl rout of Ole Miss in which Michigan gained something like 700 yards of offense. Michigan was also aided by John Cooper ineptly sending Greg Frey on a option-keeper on 4th and 1 late in a 13-13 tie. The lessons? 1990 was a nadir in the coaching ranks and John Cooper made bad decisions against Michigan.

Tennessee - Tied Colorado and Auburn early in the season (the Auburn game was one of the most exciting games you'll never see on ESPN Classic) before annihilating Florida, then contrived to lose at home to an average Alabama team when a potential game-winning field goal was blocked and set up Alabama kicking a game-winner. This was at the time when Tennessee couldn't beat Alabama if the Tide announced before each play what they were going to run. The Vols then lost at home to Notre Dame to fall out of the picture.

Auburn - Ascended to #3 after the tie with Tennessee and a last-second win over Florida State before Steve Spurrier announced his arrival in the conference with an epic 48-7 beatdown that heralded the end of one era and the beginning of another. Auburn then completely collapsed, losing at home to Southern Miss and in Birmingham to Alabama before a stirring, last-minute win over Indiana in the Peach Bowl.

Florida - As per usual, was on probation. Absent their usual NCAA dilemma, the Gators would have been in the running until Florida State buried them in the first of many unhappy trips to Tallahassee for the OBC.

Florida State - Followed their customary loss at Miami with the aforementioned loss on the Plains in which they blew a 17-7 lead. That loss likely kept the Noles out of the national title at the end of the season and allowed Georgia Tech to play pre-felon Nebraska in Orlando instead of a team that could actually beat them.

Miami - Lost at BYU in the opener and then in South Bend in the last Catholics vs. Convicts match-up. The Canes took out their frustrations in one of the all-time bowl game ass whippings, a 46-3 detonation of Texas in Dallas despite accumulating roughly 450 yards in penalties.

Texas - Came into the Cotton Bowl at 10-1 having handed on-probation Houston their only loss; left thinking about a new coach. This was also in the era when the SWC consistently produced champions with gaudy records that no one took seriously.

Penn State - Lost their first two games to Texas and USC before running the table until a bowl game loss to Florida State. If you want to know why 1990 was such a bizarre year, try this on for size: the Blockbuster Bowl was the best bowl game of the season.

Washington - Recovered from an early loss to Colorado and would have been in position to win the national title if not for a three-point loss at home to a 5-6 UCLA team. Are you getting the picture that 1990 was a little bizarre?

Clemson - Lost road games to Virginia in September and Georgia Tech in October, then ran through a creamy-soft schedule before bombing Jeff George and Illinois in the bowl game. That result lent some credibility to Georgia Tech's national title aspirations.

The point of this historical babbling, other than to tickle the pleasant memories of watching games when I was 15 in lieu of having a social life, is to show that what we are experiencing this year is not unprecedented. We're only in mid-October and all of the pre-season contenders already have a loss. We're only halfway through the season and most teams play more challenging schedules in the second half as opposed to the first. South Florida at #1 or playing for the national title might seem a little strange, but is it any weirder than Georgia Tech playing for the national title in the Citrus Bowl? Or Colorado winning the national title with as many black marks on its resume as it had?

The other point to be made is that a weird season does not represent a sea-change in college football. I've heard or read umpteen "parity is upon us!" commentaries, but I've yet to hear or read anyone explain why parity has struck this year, but it didn't in 2004 or 2005 when the preseason #1 and #2 both went unbeaten and met in the national title game. 1990 was a weird year and in retrospect, it was an out-lier as 1991 and 1992 both featured major programs going unbeaten from start to finish in the regular season. Talking heads are typically reluctant to simply throw up their hands and say "shit happens," but this might be the year to do so.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

My Top 25

2Ohio State 2
4South Florida 2
6Boston College 1
7Oklahoma 3
8Florida 1
9South Carolina 3
10Cincinnati 3
11West Virginia 3
12Arizona State 10
13Missouri 8
14Southern Cal 12
15Kentucky 4
16Virginia Tech 10
17Florida State--
18Kansas 8
19Auburn 7
20Illinois 6
21Colorado 4
22Tennessee 4
24Maryland 2
25Wisconsin 7

Dropped Out: Georgia (#14), Miami (Florida) (#15), Rutgers (#16), Kansas State (#19), UCLA (#20), Clemson (#24).