Sunday, November 30, 2008

Seven Thoughts on Tech's Big Saturday

1. Does anyone know if Kirk Herbstreit has addressed his comments after Frank Solich's termination that the option is dead in college football because defenses are too fast for it? It turns out that the triple option works just fine with the right guy coaching it. Defenses may be faster now, but that doesn't mean that they don't blow assignments or miss tackles. Speaking of which...

2. Georgia's safeties were horrendous on Saturday. As every analyst repeated in the lead-up to the game, option football requires that defensive players carry out their assignments. Without knowing what the exact assignments were, it sure looked like the Dawgs' safeties were ignoring their assignments during the third quarter. The best example was Georgia's safeties collectively bum-rushing Josh Nesbitt on a key third down, allowing Roddy Jones to streak down the sideline for a long gain on the drive that ended with Tech tying the score.

3. Other than ending a long losing streak against their most hated rival, what had to satisfy Tech fans the most about the way that the game played out on Saturday was the way that they won. Georgia clearly had the most talented players on the field. With the possible exception of Michael Johnson, Georgia had the four best players on the field: Matt Stafford, Knowshon Moreno, A.J. Green, and Rennie Curran. Tech won because its coaches organized inferior talent in a better system. Show me a Tech grad who doesn't like a brains over brawn story?

4. If that was Matt Stafford's last game between the hedges, he certainly left Georgia fans with some terrific memories. Tech came in with a solid defense and Stafford shredded it for 271 yards in the first half. He finished with 407 yards passing and five touchdowns. Matt did have the one customary Stafford D'oh, throwing a pick six to Morgan Burett, but he was otherwise flawless. Georgia scored 42 points and gained almost eight yards per play while turning the ball over only once. The offense played a whale of a game.

5. Did anyone other than my brother notice that the answer to the AFLAC trivia question was wrong? The question was which two teams have finished in the top ten in each of the past six seasons. The answer was Georgia and USC, which would work if the 2006 season did not take place in the last six years. Way to go, CBS fact-checkers! Oh, and one other note for CBS: please explain to Craig Bolerjack the rules for intentional grounding so in the future, he doesn't claim that a throwaway by Nesbitt outside of the pocket is the same thing as Stafford throwing the ball away between the tackles.

6. The SEC finished 4-6 against the ACC. No, we should not be proud of that.

7. It's time for some lame psychoanalysis. If Georgia were the kind of team last year that coupld only be motivated to play at a high level by dancing in the end zone in Jacksonville or wearing black uniforms, then it would stand to reason that they would be the same kind of team that could just lose the plot for a quarter or a half. Put another way, Mark Richt needed to pull out all the stops last year to get Georgia to play to its ability (and beyond). If Georgia's players are the kind of players who require gimmicks to play hard, then that might explain why they are the kind of players who can lose a half 31-0 or a quarter 26-0. I will freely grant that I'm grasping at straws here, except to say that Georgia's highlight video for the 2008 season should be set to the Pixies' "Where is my Mind?"

My Top 25 Uneasily Votes for Oklahoma

1Florida 1
2Oklahoma 1
3Texas 2
4Southern Cal 1
5Alabama 1
6Penn State --
7Texas Tech --
8Utah 1
9Ohio State 1
10Oklahoma State 1
11TCU 1
12Boise State 2
13Oregon 9
14Mississippi 4
15Cincinnati 4
16Iowa --
17Georgia Tech --
18California 2
19Boston College 4
20Ball State 1
21Georgia 8
22Pittsburgh 4
23Oregon State 8
24Missouri 10
25Michigan State --

Dropped Out: Florida State (#24).
I voted Oklahoma ahead of Texas after looking at three different criteria:

Oklahoma-Texas by the Numbers

Yards per play - Oklahoma 7.08, Texas 6.59
Yards allowed per play - Oklahoma 5.08, Texas 5.21
Per play differential - Oklahoma 2.0, Texas 1.38
Points scored per red zone trip - Oklahoma 6.30, Texas 5.86
Points allowed per red zone trip - Oklahoma 4.86, Texas 4.0
Red zone differential - Oklahoma 1.44, Texas 1.86
Turnover margin - Oklahoma +20, Texas +3

The numbers are close, but Oklahoma has an advantage. I'm a big believer in the yards per play differential stat as a measure of the strength of a team and Oklahoma has a significant advantage in this department. I was expected Oklahoma to do better on offensive yards per play; I was not expecting the Sooners to have a small edge on defense as well. Oklahoma's defensive number indicates to me that the wacky numbers that their defense has allowed are a function of Oklahoma playing at a fast pace and scoring quickly. Oklahoma's opponents have run 5.5 more plays per game than those of Texas. Oklahoma's per-play differential compares favorably with the other top teams in the country:

USC - 3.29
Florida - 3.02
Penn State - 2.38
Oklahoma - 2.0
Texas Tech - 1.63
Alabama - 1.61
Texas - 1.38

(Incidentally, Utah is at 1.06 despite having played a relatively weak schedule. I won't lose any sleep about the Utes not getting to play for the title. The 2004 Utes were at 1.86.)

Texas is at the bottom of the group, although it must be said that the Horns have played a significantly tougher schedule than Penn State or Alabama. There are also two points that should be made about Texas relative to Oklahoma. First, the Horns have been much better at red zone defense, which ameliorates the gap in yards per play a little. Second, Oklahoma has been dreadful at covering kickoffs, so Texas has a slight special teams advantage. That said, those two points are not enough to trump Oklahoma's healthy advantage in the most basic test for a football team: yards per play.

Oklahoma's superior turnover margin is the icing on the cake. Even if Texas's defense were better in terms of yardage (which it is not), Oklahoma has forced 29 turnovers (6th in the country) and Texas has forced 16 (98th in the country).

Oklahoma-Texas against Common Opponents

Dropping the results against Texas A&M and Baylor (the weaklings of the Big XII South), we can look at the Horns' and Sooners' results against Kansas, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech. Oklahoma beat all three opponents by double digits and, if I recall correctly, almost never trailed in those games. Texas lost to Texas Tech (and one can just as easily point out that the Horns trailed for almost the entire game as one can point out that they led late and were a dropped interception from winning), won narrowly against Oklahoma State, and blew Kansas out. Yes, Texas beat Oklahoma, but Texas was a little more impressive in its games against the other top teams in the division.

Oklahoma-Texas according to Sagarin

Sagarin Predictor - Oklahoma 95.50, Texas 95.32
Sagarin BCS Formula - Oklahoma 93.94, Texas 93.50

Regardless of whether you use Sagarin's superior measure that accounts for margin of victory or his bastardized version that does not, Oklahoma comes out slightly ahead of Texas, which is consistent with my perception of the teams when I sat down to do my rankings.

Two Final Points

1. The difference between the teams is small. By no means do I think that voters would be irrational to put the Horns ahead of the Sooners. A neutral-site win does matter, even if I'm more persuaded by Oklahoma's dominance over a better schedule. While I hate the idea of head-to-head results being accorded status as a bright-line test between two teams, it ought to be accorded status as a plus factor like race in admissions. Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003). The fact that voters are forced to split hairs between two very similar teams is an indictment of the current system.

2. Oklahoma getting the nod over Texas is not a total victory for the Sooners. Oklahoma gets the right to play Missouri in Kansas City, which is no gimme because of locale and the Missouri offense. If Oklahoma wins, then they play the SEC Champion in Miami. If they lose, then Texas gets the honor. In other words, Oklahoma has only won the right to try to jump another hurdle. Ask Phil Fulmer how that worked out for his 2001 Vols. Hell, Bob Stoops can look across the field on Saturday night to ask Gary Pinkel if he would have preferred not to have played that 13th game last year.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Five Thoughts on the Falcons

7-4! Meaningful games in December! WTF!?!

1. Mike Smith, thank you for giving Professor Romer a tingly feeling by going for fourth and goal to ice the game. Thank you for putting the game in the hands of Michael Turner and the left side of the offensive line as opposed to your suspect defense. Thank you for making the decision favored by both balls and brains. After Turner's clinching touchdown, I had a good time imagining Smith reciting Tony Montana's "all I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don't break 'em for no one" speech.

2. One aspect of the game against Carolina that annoyed me: letting the Panthers throw the ball to Steve Smith at will. It's no secret that Smith is easily the most dangerous weapon on that Carolina offense. Smith reminds us all of this fact by gesticulating wildly and pointing to the roof of the Georgia Dome every time he makes a catch. So why is it that the Falcons didn't devote extra attention to him. I understand that the Falcons play a lot of zone and it's not as if they can double-cover a guy in zone. That said, there has to be a way to modify a cover-two to take into account the fact that an opponent has one great receiver. For instance, Carolina got a big third-and-long conversion on their drive to cut the Falcons' lead to 24-21 in the fourth quarter. Smith ran a post pattern into the gap between the linebackers and the safeties in the cover-two. He was wide open and Jake Delhomme had an easy throw for a long gain. In those circumstances, why wouldn't the Falcons' linebackers take deeper drops in Smith's area to prevent him from getting open behind them? This is all obvious in retrospect, but doesn't it make sense to force Delhomme out of his comfort zone?

3. Matt Ryan's success is causing me to do a little re-evaluation of the way I view college quarterback prospects. In retrospect, when I was proclaiming that Ryan was unimpressive at Boston College, I was not taking into account his mediocre receivers and running game. Those conditions forced him to throw the ball under pressure into tight spots. In other words, his college experience was not unlike what most pro quarterbacks face. The lesson might be that pro teams should stay away from quarterbacks from major college powers who are used to great protection and open receivers. The April 2006 Draft class backs this up. Jay Cutler is doing very well; Vince Young and Matt Leinart are not.

Now, you might be thinking the following: "Michael, as a Michigan fan, shouldn't you realize that your alma mater is both a college power and a quarterback factory?" It's true that Elvis Grbac, Todd Collins, Brian Griese, Tom Brady, and Chad Henne were surrounded by excellent receivers and offensive linemen. However, Michigan fans have often joked about the Wolverines' incredibly predictable offense forcing quarterbacks to make throws into tiny windows. That would be great preparation for the NFL. Brady was probably overjoyed in his first years in the league to come up to the line without hearing opposing linebackers announcing the play that Michigan was about to run.

4. Please tell me that I wasn't the only one who read Sports Illustrated's profile of Albert Haynesworth and thought to myself "linchpin of the best defense in football...native of South agent at the end of the year...plays a position of need for the Falcons...reservations at Bones?" Arthur Blank, I'll take back all the jibes about you falling in love with Keith Brooking and paying him twice his value if you can charm Haynesworth into black and red.

5. There are three historically bad teams in the NFL this year: Detroit, St. Louis, and Kansas City. The Falcons play all three at home.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

My Top 25 is Fighting a Red River War

1Texas 2
2Florida --
3Oklahoma 2
4Alabama --
5Southern Cal 1
6Penn State 1
7Texas Tech 6
8Ohio State 1
9Utah 2
10Boise State --
11Oklahoma State 3
12TCU 1
13Georgia 3
14Missouri --
15Oregon State 3
16Iowa 7
17Georgia Tech 9
18Mississippi 6
19Cincinnati 1
20California 1
21Ball State 3
22Oregon 7
23Boston College 3
24Florida State 2
25Michigan State 8

Dropped Out: Pittsburgh (#21), Miami (Florida) (#22), North Carolina (#25).
Random Thoughts on the Weekend:
I struggled with the top three on my ballot. Ultimately, I put Texas on top because they've played the toughest schedule of the three top teams. That is subject to change after this weekend, as Oklahoma and Florida both face more challenging opponents. I did not put Texas ahead of Oklahoma because of their head-to-head result because I hate per se rules in ranking teams. At various points this year, I've seen people advocate rules like: (1) only conference champions should play for the national title; (2) no one-loss major conference team should be ranked ahead of an unbeaten major conference team; or (3) when two teams finished tied, the winner of the head-to-head match-up should win the tie-breaker. These are all cop-outs to allow pollsters to avoid engaging in the hard analysis of comparing resumes. There are a variety of reductio ad absurdums that can show the weakness of each rule. The Big XII South could end up illustrating a major flaw in the head-to-head rule. Right now, just about everyone has Texas Tech as the third-ranked team in the division. The consensus is that Oklahoma and Texas are both better teams, which is a reasonable conclusion in light of the fact that the Horns and Sooners have played tougher schedules and didn't get blown out like the Red Raiders did on Saturday night. Now, assume for the moment that Oklahoma State beats Oklahoma on Saturday. Does Texas Tech jump Texas because of an Oklahoma loss? Put another way, if Texas Tech is the third-best team in a three-way tie, how can they be the best team in a two-way tie?
Can someone explain to me what meaningful difference exists between 2007 Illinois and 2008 Michigan State, other than the fact that Illinois showed that they were capable of playing with a top ten team? Mark Dantonio's very basic approach to scheming would be fine (but sub-optimal) for a team with great talent. Going vanilla with second-tier talent is a recipe to get hammered by teams with better talent. But hey, he stopped Michigan State's tradition of losing to inferior opponents and he hates Michigan so much that he'd rather see the Wolverines lose than the Spartans make the Rose Bowl, so good for him!
Memo to ESPN: this weekend wasn't rivalry week in any conference other than the Big Ten. Most of the end-of-season rivalry games take place this weekend and next.
I thought about docking Utah solely out of spite because of the Mountain West hiding the biggest game in conference history on a network that no one gets, but I ultimately decided not to let loose my vengeful Old Testament G-d. I've also considered docking the Utes for the Mormon Church's role in funding Amendment 8 in California, but that would open a whole can of worms that I'd prefer to save for fishing season. I did root for the Utes over BYU for that reason, along with my general per se rule against rooting for teams whose fans believe that G-d wants them to win (Notre Dame, Al Qaeda, etc.) Wow, this was a lot more theology than I intended when I started this post.
Don't ask me why I got so mad at Oregon when I was doing my rankings. I don't look at my rankings from the prior week when I'm filling out my ballot and this week, I was not feeling it for the Ducks. Part of their drop can be explained by some teams above them putting in some excellent performances (Iowa, Georgia Tech, and Ole Miss).
I pity the poor souls in Charlottesville who devoted three hours of their lives to watching Virginia and Clemson combine for 382 yards of offense at less than three yards per play.
I'm grasping at straws to try to feel better about Michigan's epic fail this season. One such straw is a comparison to LSU. The Tigers have had a miserable season for two primary reasons: (1) they failed to replace Bo Pelini properly; and (2) an inept quarterback can have a cascading effect throughout the team. Both of these factors are fixable and can make a team look a lot worse than it is.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A Statistical Explanation for the Prevalence of Fall Coronaries in Gwinnett County

As Auburn was driving for the potential winning score on Saturday, I was thinking to myself "isn't this pretty much the same as every Georgia game this year?" With the exception of the two games against elite opponents (Alabama and Florida) and the one game against a really bad opponent (Tennessee?!?), every game has been the same: relatively low-scoring and ending with the opponent trying to drive for a tying or winning score in the final minutes. South Carolina, Vandy, Kentucky, Auburn, all the same. The LSU game is the only exception and even there, LSU was driving late, albeit in an attempt to close the game down to one score.

Four close games, all against teams outside of the top 30. Any good team is entitled to a close game or two against an inferior opponent. Also, in most years, I'm willing to cut SEC teams a little extra slack in playing close games because of the depth of the conference (especially defensively). That said, Georgia seems to have played a whole bunch of close games this year. And this year is hardly unique. Richt's first SEC Champion started 8-0 and half the wins were by one score. Richt's 2004 team, the one closest this this year's squad in terms of expectations, won half of its ten games by one score. The 2007 Dawgs seemed to play every other game close in the first half of the year before catching fire in the second half.

Anyway, there are two possibilities here. The first is that Georgia doesn't play any more close games than any other major power and I'm experiencing a sensation that affects most college football fans. The second is that Georgia does play more than its share of close games. In honor of Nigel Tufnel, I decided to look at the top 11 BCS Conference teams (as measured by winning percentage) since Richt's first season in Athens and rank them by the number of games decided by one score in which they played. To the numbers we go!

  1. Michigan - 43 games - 23-20 - 43% of all games
  2. Auburn - 40 games - 27-13 - 40% of all games
  3. Georgia - 40 games - 26-14 - 39% of all games
  4. Miami - 35 games - 20-15 - 36% of all games
  5. Florida - 36 games - 19-17 - 36% of all games
  6. Ohio State - 33 games - 22-11 - 33% of all games
  7. LSU - 33 games - 24-9 - 32% of all games
  8. USC - 31 games - 17-14 - 31% of all games
  9. Virginia Tech - 29 games - 12-17 - 28% of all games
  10. Texas - 28 games - 20-8 - 28 % of all games
  11. Oklahoma - 23 games - 14-9 - 22% of all games

So what do we learn from these numbers?

1. One of the basic precepts of the Sabrmetric revolution in baseball is the conclusion that a team's record in one-run games is mostly random. A team that has a good record by virtue of winning a disproportionate share of close games is likely to regress to the mean as the season progresses. The best way to measure a team is to look at its scoring differential rather than its record. It appears that this is not the case in college football, as the top programs win roughly 60% of their close games. It's possible that top teams are likely to be leading and give up late scores to make games look closer than they appear, but that explanation doesn't ring true to me. The best explanation I can offer is this: if Georgia and Vandy are tied at 17 with five minutes to go, Georgia still has a better team and is more likely to get the winning score. The question then becomes this: why was Georgia tied with Vandy after 55 minutes to begin with?

2. It is not at all surprising to see Michigan at the top of this list. There are a number of reasons why Michigan fans were not overly upset to see Lloyd Carr retire despite the fact that he had a good record in Ann Arbor. One of the most prominent reasons was Lloyd's tendency to make each game a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lloyd assumed that most games would be decided in the fourth quarter. He perpetually underrated the talent advantage that his teams had over most of the team's on their schedules. (Lloyd does deserve credit for recruiting well and creating the talent advantages in the first place.) Thus, Michigan would employ sub-optimal offensive strategies (read: running between the tackles and horizontal passing) until threatened, at which point Michigan would use its best assets: NFL-caliber quarterbacks, wide receivers, and offensive linemen in a spread passing attack. If Lloyd would have used the Citrus Bowl offense that ripped Florida to shreds as the team's base offense, then the Appalachian State debacle never would have happened. If he would have used the spread passing attack with Tom Brady as the base offense in 1999 instead of giving the ball to Anthony Thomas 25 times per game from the offset I, then Michigan wouldn't have played nine games decided by one score (nine!?!) with a future NFL Hall of Famer under center.

3. I was expecting to see Ohio State higher on this list, but after the Bucks played 20 one-score games in Jim Tressel's first three years, they've only played 13 in the almost five seasons since. The are a couple lessons to be drawn here. One is that Ohio State has played in a lot fewer close games since they went to a spread passing game with Troy Smith and now Terrelle Pryor. One could also argue that Tressel has accumulated more talented teams now that he's playing with his own recruits and/or that Tressel's coaching style has evolved and he's realized that it's better to dominate opponents than it is to assume that every game is going to come down to one or two plays. The second lesson is that whatever magical skills Tressel possessed in 2002 and 2003 to win close games were a mirage. Tressel was 15-5 in one-score games through 2003 and is 7-6 in one-score games since that time.

4. I've been a Mack Brown defender since his early years at Texas when he got the mindlessly applied "can't win the big one" label, but even I was surprised to see that Texas has the best winning percentage in one-score games in this cohort. That runs counter to the notion that Mack assembles talented teams and just rolls the ball out so they can play. He can clearly make good tactical decisions when his teams are pushed. Conversely, Frank Beamer is seen as a coach who gets the most out of more limited talent, but Virginia Tech has the worst record of the teams in the cohort and it isn't close.

5. I was interested to compare Ron Zook and Urban Meyer in this department. Meyer has coached 16 one-score games out of 49 total games at Florida (.326). Zook coached 18 one-score games out of 38 (.473).

6. So what does this all mean for Mark Richt, other than confirming my sense that his teams are more likely to play tight games? I might be over-interpreting here, but Richt doesn't seem to get as much out of his offensive talent as he should, which prevents Georgia from dominating its opponents. Richt developed his offensive approach at Florida State in conditions where there was no pressure to maximize production using scheme and play calling because of the Noles' huge talent advantage. Also, I think it's fair to say that playing a lot of close games has a negative correlation with winning a national title. The three teams at the top of the list have not won national titles in the time period covered; six of the bottom eight teams on the list have. (A counter point: two of the three teams that have played the lowest percentage of close games have not won a national title since 2001. Another counter-point: Auburn hasn't won a national title, but they did have a perfect season during this time period.) It's not impossible to win a national title by playing a style that leads to a lot of close games, but it sure does increase the degree of difficulty.