Friday, October 30, 2009

Not Exactly a Vote of Confidence

I read this analysis of Florida's pass protection issues and my only thought was: can I really imagine Willie Martinez dialing up the complicated stunting/blitz packages that would be required to mimic what Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State were able to do to shut down the Florida offense?

I really don't have a good sense as to what will happen tomorrow. If the game follows form, then Florida's defense will dominate Georgia's offense by making them completely one dimensional and then create just enough on offense to win an ugly game by ten or so. However, weird things have happened in this rivalry before (although not as much in the past two decades, unless "weird things" is translated as "Florida wins all the time.") Maybe Florida breaks out. Maybe Georgia suddenly finds balance on offense. Maybe Florida's defense and special teams put points on the board to start a rout. Maybe A.J. Green goes wild. There seem to be more variables to this game than there normally are for a big SEC game.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I Think the Germans Have a Word For This...

Something about enjoying the misfortune of one's rival?

This Is What You Get For Being Spineless

There are some criticisms of the BCS that I can stomach. "Computers suck!!! Nerdzzz!!! is not one of them. What is most annoying about the criticism is that it is correct in the limited sense that the computer rankings as they are currently used are not very useful. However, this is because the computers cannot take margin of victory into account, so you end up with results like Iowa being #1 in the computers despite a one-point win over Northern Iowa and a three-point win over Arkansas State. Dr. Saturday makes this point adroitly:

Along the same lines, to say "Iowa is No. 1 according to the computers" is a little misleading, since it's more accurate to say that "Iowa is No. 1 according to the computers as manipulated by BCS politics," with the prohibition on margin of victory standing as Exhibit A. Computers can only make judgments based on the information humans choose to give them, and restricting a key piece of information totally changes the results -- for example, both Jeff Sagarin and Kenneth Massey publish their "real" rankings, the set they've developed and honed for years and prefer to use before adjusting the data to meet BCS stipulations, and Iowa isn't No. 1 in either of them. It's not even close, actually, coming at No. 4 in Sagarin's poll (and all the way down at No. 12 in his "Predictor" rating for gamblers) and a humble No. 7 in the estimation of Massey's numbers.

So if you're somewhat baffled by the digital love for the Hawkeyes, don't blame the computers -- blame the feeble human minds behind the system that doesn't trust the machines enough to let them use all the relevant information.

Margin of victory was excluded from the rankings after the 2001 season when Nebraska made the national title game because they did not have a bevy of close wins over overmatched opponents like Oregon did and then the Huskers got hammered by Miami. The subsequent hue and cry about Oregon's omission from the title game ignored the fact that Miami also would have beaten the Ducks like a drum (unless you think that the Ducks' pass defense, which allowed 7.28 yards per attempt, could have covered Andre Johnson and Jeremy Shockey). Based on a sample size of one, BCS critics bitched margin of victory out of the computer rankings altogether, a result that any statistician would tell you is a terrible idea. If margin of victory doesn't matter, then why do gamblers - the people with actual skin in the game as opposed to mere ideological interest - use it?

To put on my amateur history buff hat for a moment, the knee-jerk reaction by the BCS commissioners to castrate the computer rankings is not unlike the various decisions made by the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations that led to the Vietnam War. After the McCarthy era and the incessant "who lost China?" criticisms, Democrats generally and Kennedy and Johnson specifically were terrified of being portrayed as soft on Communism, especially in Asia. As a result, they committed U.S. power to propping up a corrupt regime that could not support itself or command the respect of its people. (This was the same mistake that we made in World War II by ploughing aid to Chiang Kai Shek's inept military leadership, so yay for our policy-makers learning from prior mistakes!) In short, Kennedy and Johnson were a little too responsive to criticism and ended up making a colossal mistake. Does that sound a little like the BCS to you? Anyway, that's what I think about when I look at the quagmire of computer rankings that spit out hard-to-justify results.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nice Shot, Maverick

1 Texas 2
2 Alabama 1
3 Florida 1
4 TCU 2
5 Iowa 2
6 Cincinnati 1
7 Southern Cal 3
8 Oregon 4
9 Georgia Tech 4
10 Oklahoma State 4
11 Boise State
12 LSU 7
13 Penn State 9
14 Houston 1
15 Pittsburgh 10
16 Virginia Tech 6
17 Ohio State 3
18 Miami (Florida) 10
19 Oklahoma 1
20 Utah 4
21 West Virginia
22 Arizona
23 South Carolina
24 Mississippi
25 Navy
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Texas Tech (#9), Brigham Young (#16), Arkansas (#17), Nebraska (#21).

Random Thoughts From the Weekend

I'm totally comfortable with TCU playing for the national title. On a neutral field, I'd take them over Iowa or Cincinnati right now.

OK, I'm pretty close to admitting the error of my ways on Georgia Tech. The Jackets played defense on Saturday for the first time in eons. I also snickered to myself watching Virginia try to run the spread a day after Tony Barnhart claimed that the Hoos had gone "back to basics." Last week was not the best for Mr. College Football.

I updated my Facebook status during the Michigan game to state that I had always wondered what it would look like if an entire team showed up to a game drunk. The game was to Michigan what the Tennessee game was to Georgia: just a total system failure on all fronts, a performance that was significantly worse than the team had played before. The somewhat out-of-character nature of the game didn't stop my friend Carlos from unleashing the following texts in the space of an hour:

Are you beginning to have doubts?

I am sorry, but I will not accept this for much longer.

RR is still G-d to you, right?

His staff is a joke.

Kiffin has Tennessee competing with the No. 1 team in the country. Year one.

F*** you. Apologist.

Lloyd could do no right, but RR is your definition of perfection.

No comeback? RR can do no wrong, right?


Sooner or later, give me results.

We looked poorly coached out there. Brian Kelly won today with his third string QB.

0-2 against MSU. 0-2 against PSU. Lloyd? 10-3 and 9-2.

You don't know what you have until you lose it.

I'm not doing a very good job of being the Michigan therapist.

My support for Alabama earlier in the season was based on the fact that Greg McElroy was playing at a level of which John Parker Wilson could only dream. Now, McElroy can't hit anyone and Alabama has reverted to last year's edition. It's interesting that the top two teams in the SEC are both in a world of hurt when they hit the red zone. I'm at a loss to explain it.

I have a friend who swears that coaches are interchangeable gym coaches and that 90% of all results can be explained by talent and natural variance in performance. He ought to use Pitt as an example. Either Dave Wannstedt figured out how to coach or his solid recruiting has Pitt looking like a legitimate team.

Could Jimbo Fisher have received a bigger endorsement than the Noles' performance on Thursday night? His offense went up and down the field on a quality defense, digging Florida State out of a big deficit and saving what's left of their season. Meanwhile, the defense staffed by Saint Bobby's cronies managed to get shredded by the worst offense in the ACC, all while Bowden looked on like the spectator that he is. (If Joe Paterno is Queen Elizabeth, I guess that makes Bobby Juan Carlos.) If there is a good argument against Fisher being the head man next fall, I've yet to hear it.

ACC Atlantic versus Big XII North. I don't have a punchline here. They're both just bad.

Lane's Boner

Let's start with the conclusion that Lane Kiffin's decision to shackle his offense when they reached the Alabama 27 with 40 second to go was indefensible. Kiffin had a low trajectory kicker who had just been blocked on a 47-yard attempt. A 44-yard field goal isn't a gimme in the NFL (ask Herm Edwards), let alone in college on the road in the rivalry game against the top-ranked team in football. Kiffin's quarterback was in the zone. His offense was close enough to the Alabama end zone that he could be confident that the Tide would be bringing pressure and it's always an advantage for a play-caller to have a general idea as to what defense is coming. His decision to give up 4-6 plays and settle for the field goal was insanely stupid and I said this before Mount Cody blocked the kick. About the only person who didn't notice Kiffin's mistake was Gary Danielson, who was lying in wait to be excessively technical and yet also wrong when asserting that Alabama should have been penalized for Cody taking off his helmet.

That said, the game illustrated that Kiffin might end up being an underrated coach. Head coaches are often judged on their tactical decisions at the end of close games. These decisions are important and they are easy for fans to judge, but they are also only a small component of being a head coach. Other aspects that are more important, but sometimes harder to judge are recruiting, player development, motivation, and assembling a good coaching staff. Kiffin seems to be doing a good job in all four areas. We knew before Saturday that he's a good recruiter and that he has assembled an excellent staff, although the combination of Monte Kiffin's scheme, which relies on pressure from the front four, and the Orgeron's ability as a position coach, has exceeded even my high expectations.

Tennessee has now been able to play at an emotional high for three rivalry games in the space of a month, which is not easy. Finally, Kiffin deserves some credit for Jonathan Crompton's progression as a passer. If you would have told me after the UCLA game that Crompton would have the best day of any passer so far this year against the Alabama defense, I would have given you the look that I used to reserve for panhandlers when they told me that they were scientists lost in Atlanta after a conference. The offense is supposed to be Kiffin's strong suit. I still don't love Tennessee's scheme, but I do like the way that Kiffin has brought the trigger man along. The Vols are 3-4, but this has been a more encouraging debut season for the Laner than I was expecting.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I Now Feel Sympathy for the People of Odessa, Texas

Irony: an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected. For example, a noted critic of blogs illustrating the usefulness of new media by drafting a piece in a traditional media outlet that is rife with shoddy arguments. Maybe The New Republic was looking to pay homage to running a famously inaccurate piece by Betsy McCaughey attacking the Clinton Administration's 1994 health care reform proposal. Maybe TNR was scratching its noted itch to print pieces that go against conventional wisdom. Otherwise, I'm at a loss to otherwise explain how they ran this screed by Buzz Bissinger attacking Moneyball six years after its publication.

Buzz starts by arguing that money is important after all:
Whatever happens in the National League and American League Championship series unfolding over the next week or so, one outcome has already been decided--the effective end of the theories of Moneyball as a viable way to build a playoff-caliber baseball team when you don't have the money. That no doubt sounds like heresy to the millions who embraced Michael Lewis's 2003 book, but all you need to do is keep in mind one number this postseason: 528,620,438. That's the amount of money in payroll spent this season by the teams still in it--the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Angels, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Moneyball? You bet it's Moneyball, true Moneyball, like it always has been in baseball and always will be.
But this is exactly the point that Lewis was trying to make in the book! Lewis viewed Billy Beane as a man ahead of his time because he was able to field a competitive team despite the fact that the Oakland A's had far less money than its rivals and money is important in building a winner. Beane figured out that the wealthy teams could afford players who had everything - athleticism, a good batting eye, power, speed, defensive ability, etc. - and that he had to prioritize certain skills over others because he couldn't afford complete players. Beane figured out that a batting eye was the most important skill for a baseball player and that it was undervalued in the market, so he focused on finding players with that skill. The fact that big money teams have coopted that model doesn't mean that Beane was wrong; it means that he was right and that the market corrected itself. (In his defense, Bissinger does acknowledge that Beane's methods were copied later in the article, but Bissinger doesn't understand that this fact defeats his argument that Moneyball is an overrated book.)

Bissinger then tries to pin all of Oakland's success on Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito:
Looking largely at the narrow time frame of 2000 through 2002, Lewis attempted to explain the phenomenon of how the A's had done so well (they made the playoffs all three of those years) with such little dough. The explanation was dazzling, although Lewis barely mentioned the three reasons the A's had been so successful--pitchers Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson. The three won an astounding 149 games during that span. Each of them were 20-game winners in at least one of those seasons. The odds of three young pitchers coming together like that on one team was basically a matter of baseball luck, in the same vein at least of Beane saying success in the postseason was a matter of luck because of the limited number of games played (his teams during the 2000-02 period never got past the first round).
Bissinger then attacks Beane's preference for drafting college pitchers:
Except it just hasn't proven itself to work consistently. His theory that only college pitchers should be drafted over high school ones because of their experience sounded plausible. But it flew in the face of the Atlanta Braves, who won their division 14 years in a row from 1991 to 2005, and relied on pitchers drafted straight out of high school all the while.
Buzz, there's this thing called the Internet. And on the Internet, there's this thing called If you are indeed a baseball fan, then you might find it interesting. On, you can find from where every modern player was drafted. Lo and behold, it took me five minutes to figure out that Hudson, Mulder, and Zito were all drafted by the A's from college, thus validating Beane's preference. But kudos, in any event, for contradicting yourself within a matter of paragraphs. You're doing a fine job of being the flag-bearer for traditional journalism.

As for the reference to the Braves, Atlanta has exploited a market inefficiency in its own way by concentrating its drafting efforts on local products. The Braves have decided that it's foolish to assume that they can know everything about thousands of players from all around the world, so they are going to focus their scouting efforts on Atlanta and the surrounding areas, thus gaining an advantage over other teams by knowing more about the players that they are drafting. This approach isn't full-proof. Bissinger extols the Braves, but whom did the local baseball collective take in the first round in 2002? Jeff Francoeur, a toolsy outfielder who lacks the batting eye to be a successful major leaguer. In other words, the Braves took a player who validates Beane's criticism of many scouts.

Buzz then moves on to deriding the A's 2002 draft as overrated:
Beane had seven first-round draft picks that year, each of them extolled by Lewis for their buried-treasure status. Three of them are still playing in the majors, none with anything close to superstar careers and all of them long gone from the A's. Three others were busts. Poor Jeremy Brown never stopped being fat and slow and finished with a grand total of 10 major league at-bats before retirement.
Here is the compete 2002 first round. Bissinger has the gall to criticize Beane's draft in an October in which his first pick - Nick Swisher - is starting for the likely AL champions and his second pick - Joe Blanton - is starting for the NL champions. Beane drafted Swisher and Blanton from colleges. The fact that Oakland didn't have the money to keep either player doesn't change the fact that Beane made good picks. OK, Jeremy Brown didn't pan out. You know who else didn't pan out? The guys taken before (Dan Meyer) and after (Chadd Blasko) him. The hit rate for picks in the 30s just isn't very good. But you're a baseball fan, Buzz, you know that. You wouldn't dream of misleadingly labeling Brown a first-round bust, hoping that readers will conflate the value of an NFL or NBA first round pick with that of a MLB first round pick. Right?

This is the paragraph that convinced me that Bissinger is having a laugh, because it can be refuted with one name:
Two of Beane's greatest disciples, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, moved out from the long shadow of their boss to become general managers. DePodesta lasted two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his last season in 2005 marked by 91 losses and a team chemistry so healthy that barbs of racism were traded back and forth among players. He is now with the San Diego Padres. Ricciardi went to the Toronto Blue Jays and was recently fired after eight seasons. He never made the playoffs, a difficult feat to accomplish when you are in the same division as the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. But he also made some hideous decisions, signing Vernon Wells to an insane seven-year deal for $127 million and Frank Thomas to a two-year $18 million deal.
Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein.

Right, Billy Beane is not the "man who changed baseball" . . . other than the fact that big market teams appropriated his methods and one of them used his approach to win its first World Series in 86 years.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

WTF, Barca Edition

When the Champions League draw took place, I took a look at Barca's group and immediately asked the question "is Rubin Kazan a club or a Hollywood agent who got thanked at last year's Oscars?" Not anymore. To say that Barca losing to a little-known Russian champion at the Camp Nou is a shock would be a significant understatement. The Blaugrana had not lost a match yet this season. They had dominated Inter on the road and then beat Dynamo Kiev rather comfortably. They remain unbeaten in La Liga and ground out a 0-0 draw at the Mestalla over the weekend. This defeat comes out of the blue.

Or does it? Major clubs often stumble following international breaks because their players often return physically and emotionally spent. This would be especially true for Leo Messi, who played two crunch matches for Argentina and has had to deal with the stress of being criticized at home for not replicating his Barca form for his country. While Cristiano Ronaldo comes across as an arrogant prick, his total self-confidence has a lot of value as a footballer in that he seems impervious to criticism. Messi comes across as a humble, sensitive guy, which makes him a much more endearing figure, but it also means that it's more likely that he would be affected by the disappointment that is his national team. Anyway, it sounds like Messi didn't play well yesterday and that was a factor in the defeat.

Another factor is that Barca have a hole at left forward. Thierry Henry has alternated injuries with ineffective play so far this season. His replacement - Pedro - has some promise, but is young and inconsistent. The hole at left forward is exactly why Barca seem to be so gung ho on bringing Robinho to Catalunya in the winter transfer window.

A third factor is that Rafa Marquez is a suspect defender. It sounds like he was culpable for both goals. Marquez is not a first choice centerback. Pique and Puyol are the starting pairing and Dmytro Chygrynskiy was purchased to be the first replacement. Thus, I wouldn't be overly concerned, as we aren't learning anything new: Marquez is capable with the ball, but he is prone to make defensive errors.

Maybe there isn't that much to read into the loss. Barca dominated possession, hit the post on multiple occasions, and lost out in large part because of a wonderstrike. Barca opened last season with a loss to newly-promoted Numancia and they lost at home to last place Espanyol, so there is precedent for this excellent side losing to an inferior opponent. Also, it's probably unfair to put Rubin Kazan in the "inferior" category. They won the Russian league, which has been improving considerably over the past several years because of the infusion of oil money. (See: Zenit.) This loss isn't the end of the world. However, it does mean that Barca are going to have to get results in winter games in Russia and Ukraine, which is never easy. Their margin for error is now almost gone.

You're Better Than This, Tony

There ought to be a college football equivalent of Godwin's Law that any time an otherwise reasonable pundit tries to rank conferences, he inevitably writes his worst material. Tony Barnhart illustrates this maxim. The Pac Ten sixth? The same conference that Sagarin has at number one?

Tony's reasoning is, to be blunt, inept. LSU's close games against Mississippi State and Georgia show the depth of the conference, but Cal's losses to USC and Oregon show that Cal is terrible. The same Cal team that won fairly easily against Maryland and Minnesota. (I know those two opponents aren't world-beaters, but given the sorry state of non-conference scheduling, those are relevant results.) Barnhart just blithely asserts that the Pac Ten is full of bad teams and then moves along.

The worst part of Barnhart's piece is that he makes no reference whatsoever to non-conference results. Call me crazy, but that might be a useful way to compare teams. Arizona State took Georgia to the wire in Athens. Oregon handed Utah its only loss. UCLA won in Knoxville and beat Kansas State by two scores. USC has beaten Ohio State and Notre Dame on the road. Washington played very close games with LSU and Notre Dame. Leaving Washington State aside, there are almost no embarrassing losses for the conference. The Pac Ten is a good league this year. I'm not convinced that it's better than the SEC, but it's better than the remainder of the leagues and it's laughable that Barnhart could suggest that the Mountain West is in its vicinity.

Look, I love the SEC. I wouldn't blog so much about it if I didn't. However, there ought to be a limit to the "woo, SEC!!!" sentiment. Barnhart goes off the deep end with that sentiment this morning. For a guy with the "Mr. College Football" moniker, he comes across as a guy who doesn't know about or pay attention to football outside of the region.

Monday, October 19, 2009

My Top 25 Wants to Punish!!!

1 Alabama
2 Florida
3 Texas
4 Southern Cal
5 Cincinnati
6 TCU 1
7 Iowa 2
8 Miami (Florida)
9 Texas Tech 7
10 Virginia Tech 4
11 Boise State 1
12 Oregon 5
13 Georgia Tech 2
14 Oklahoma State 6
15 Houston 8
16 Brigham Young 3
17 Arkansas
18 Oklahoma 5
19 LSU 5
20 Ohio State 9
21 Nebraska 11
22 Penn State 1
23 South Carolina 1
24 Utah 1
25 Pittsburgh 3
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: South Florida (#18).

I had such a hard time with this ballot that the only think left to do is channel Top Gun:

Michael: Colt, you just did an incredibly brave thing. You beat Oklahoma for the second year in a row. What you should have done was kick their tails back to the Dust Bowl! Backup quarterback, suspect line, no receivers, five turnovers, and you only managed 16 points against that wilting opponent? You don't own that uniform, the boosters do! Son, your ego is writing checks your average arm can't cash. You've been sacked, you've lost your qualifications as the Heisman front-runner three times, put in the second day of the Draft twice by me, with a history of high speed passes over five receivers' heads - and one sideline reporter!
Jordan: Lisa Salters? [Colt shrugs]
Michael: [to Jordan] And you, asshole, you're a Caucasian receiver! You're lucky to be here!
Jordan: Thank you, sir.
Michael: And let's not bullshit, Colt. Your program's name ain't the best in the Big XII. Generations of fans are used to watching Oklahoma win the conference and you plying your trade through the back door. You need to be doing it better and cleaner than that twerp with a visor. Now what is it with you?
Colt: Just want to serve Burnt Orange Nation and make them forget about everything that Vince Young has done since the Rose Bowl, sir!
Michael: Don't screw around with me, Colt. You're one hell of a faux Drew Brees. Maybe too faux. I'd like to bust your butt down behind Matt Barkley and his Trojan hordes, but I can't because they forgot to play defense for a quarter. I got another problem here. I gotta send somebody from this mangy group of contenders to Pasadena. I gotta do something here, I still can't believe it. I gotta give you your dream shot if you keep winning! I'm gonna send you up against the best. You two characters, are going to the National Title Game, provided that you fit on Gary Danielson's magic board. For four hours (give or take an interminable halftime show), you'll be flying against SEC Speedz. You guys are number three, Bama and Florida are numbers one and two. Oddly enough, they're going to play. One of them will lose it and turn in their wings. You guys could be number one. But you remember one thing: if you screw up, just this much, you'll be flying coach to San Diego! To end your careers in a meaningless December bowl! Right near Miramar!
Colt: Yes sir!

Cue Kenny Loggins.

Random Thoughts on the Weekend

I ought to preface this complaint by saying that I don't dislike Florida. I liked the Spurrier Florida teams because they played a major role in the SEC becoming the conference that it is today. I like Urban Meyer's offense. I liked last year's Florida team because they were so freaking good. I still like this Florida defense. That said, I am not liking this Florida team and the main reason is because various entities have anointed them as the national champion before they have earned the title. CBS keeps flashing their presumptuous hierarchy of national title contenders as if it is a fact that Florida can lose a game and still play for the national title, as long as that game is not the SEC Title Game (and watch Gary Danielson's tone change if an unbeaten Alabama beats an unbeaten Florida in Atlanta). Various media entities still give Tim Tebow credit as if he is the Tebow of 2007 and 2008, rather than the skittish 2009 Tebow whose level of play has slipped, most likely because of a lack of confidence in his receivers and offensive line. Now, we can add SEC officials to the list of entities who have decided that Florida should play for the national title, because they did their absolute best to get Florida back on level terms after Arkansas took the lead with 9:36 remaining. (Was it just me, or were Lundquist and Danielson genuinely crest-fallen when Arkansas took the lead?) I thought that the personal foul call on A.J. Green was the worst call I had ever seen, but the personal foul call on Florida's penultimate drive takes the cake. The #1 team in the country is not entitled to preferential treatment against a spunky, unranked opponent in Gainesville just because the Gators are supposed to be very good. Part of me wonders if the conversation this week is going to be about the officiating in Gainesville, leading to a bit of a backlash against the Gators. Urban certainly has to hope so, as he would thrive off of it.

On a related note, I'm generally not inclined to buy the complaints of fans that their refs are the worst in the world because fans never like officials, but SEC fans have a legitimate gripe. The richest, most competitive conference in America desperately needs to raise the standard of officiating to the standard of play.

I'll say one nice thing about Florida: they don't look great, but compared to every other team in college football other than the one in Tuscaloosa, they are doing just fine. Texas is completely underwhelming, as they snuck past an Oklahoma team that did its best to hand the Horns opportunities to turn the game into a title credential-affirming rout. I have serious philosophical reservations about a team winning the national title when it cannot run the ball to save its life. Virginia Tech's resurgence turned out to be a hoax based on a lucky win over Nebraska and a couple big home blowouts. The dirty little secret is that Bud Foster's defense isn't that good (at least this year). USC looked like they were about to assert themselves into the top tier with a big win in South Bend, but then they showed the lack of the killer instinct that Pete Carroll teams normally have in spades. That leaves us the Gators, the Tide, and the frisky terrible schedule brigade (Cincinnati, TCU, and Boise State, in that order). Oh, and Iowa, the least interesting national title contender ever. (And I'm saying that as someone who was on their bandwagon in the summer?) Wasn't this supposed to be a good year in college football?

OK, Ohio State fans, I have a question for you. Would you rather: (1) beat Michigan this year and have Jim Tressel decide that his offensive approach only needs minor changes; or (2) lose to Michigan and have him make significant alterations? A series of hidings at the hands of Florida, LSU, and USC were not enough to convince Tressel to come out of the dark ages, but the one message that he would receive loud and clear would be a loss to the Bucks' arch-rival, especially if it looks like Rich Rodriguez is accomplishing more with less on one side of the ball. Tressel has seen first hand how a different coach can change the dynamic of the rivalry, as the commencement of his tenure in Columbus caused a 180 degree swing in Ohio State-Michigan results and, to a lesser extent, the reputation of Lloyd Carr.

Alternatively, it could be that Terrelle Pryor simply isn't a good quarterback. If that's the case, then Ohio State is in real trouble because they don't have any other options. The plan all along was for Pryor to be the starter and then for Braxton Miller to replace him. Miller is a high school junior.

The ACC finally has quality teams that can challenge Virginia Tech: Miami and Georgia Tech. The three teams have played one another with the home team winning each time. So are we headed for a three-way tie at 7-1? All three teams have yet to play Virginia, which is a suddenly frisky 3-3. My guess is that Virginia will pick one of the three off, most likely on a day in which Virginia's inconsistent offense is clicking, and that will decide the division. Georgia Tech is the most likely of the three to get picked off because of their defensive weakness, their record in Charlottesville, the good job that Virginia did against the Johnson offense last year (warning: small sample size), and the fact that they have serious letdown potential this weekend.

After posting on Friday about how the Heisman isn't worth a warm bucket of spit, now seems like a good time to point out that Mark Ingram would be the front-runner if he played for Ohio State. Maybe the fact that his father was a New York Giant will swing the normal preference against Alabama players? Ingram's performance on Saturday night was epic.

Friday, October 16, 2009

We're an Arbitrary, Meaningless Way!!!

In the aftermath of President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize, Jonathan Chait has penned an entertaining attack on awards. Happily, there is college football content:

Some years later, Gino Toretta of the University of Miami won the 1992 Heisman Trophy, which goes to the best college football player. Toretta was approximately the third-best player—at his position, within his state. He was probably one of the worst starters on his own team. Toretta went on to be selected in the next-to-last round of the NFL draft, where — without suffering any major injuries — he completed a total of five passes in his career.

There is also a passage that hits a little close to home:

Yet awards provide emotional responses — gratification, victimization, schadenfreude — that makes the ritual perversely compelling. Understanding that the process is fatally flawed, or even corrupt, seems to do nothing to diminish its appeal. Those most convinced that, say, the Oscars do a horrible job of rating films are the very people who cling to their emotional investment in the outcome.

How is it that I have complete disdain for the Heisman Trophy and yet I frequently find myself arguing about the injustice that no Tennessee or Alabama players have ever won it? If the award is a meaningless statue given to an unjustifiably small subset of college football players and is governed by a set of irrational and indefensible rules, then why do I care?

And this observation was especially interesting to me:

Our mania for awards stems from a desire to sift through a chaotic world and impose linearity and a singular winner.

Can't we say the same thing about our desire to label one team as a "champion" at the end of a season? After all, what is the national title but another award? Dozens of college football teams play dozens of games for four months and then at the end, because we have to impose order on a disordered world, we declare that one team is the "champion" and then spend decades arguing about whether the right team won. American pro sports are worse, as they all involve a long regular season followed by a short playoff, at the end of which there is an arbitrary "champion" that is often demonstrably inferior to other teams in the league.

Why do we feel the need to have a defined champion at the end of a season? Is it because we feel the need to impose the structure of an individual game upon a season, such that there must be a winner? Is it because we want sports to mimic society and society is governed by laws? Is it a nefarious plot on the part of apparel companies, who would have a hard time selling "Georgia: Really Good Season in 2007" shirts? Is it, as Chait suggests, an attempt to impose order in a world where chaos reigns?

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tell Us, Diego, What Do You Think of Our Bedroom Practices?

After months of concern that talented, but unbalanced World Cup mainstay Argentina would fail to qualify, Diego Maradona's Argentina gutted out a 1-0 win in Montevideo yesterday against rivals Uruguay to book their place in South Africa 2010. And thank goodness, because without Argentina, we would miss out on articles that open like this:

"You lot take it up the arse," were Diego Maradona's words to the press immediately after his team secured a place at next year's World Cup finals. It was almost adding injury to the insult when he scanned the room and added, "if the ladies will pardon the expression". Looking increasingly Botox-ridden, the angry yet victorious Argentina coach was somehow able to raise a nervous chuckle from those on the receiving end of the abuse.

He wanted to dedicate the triumph to the fans back home and especially those who bothered to cross into Uruguay, to his girls Dalma and Giannina, and to his squad, who worked like never before for the 1–0 result. "But certain people who have not supported me, and you know who you are, can keep sucking," he added.

Grotesque and undignified, Maradona then grabbed his genitals with both hands, signalling some sort of manly insult to the TV cameras in the tunnel outside the dressing room.

Argentina gutted out a big road win and good for them in doing so because the World Cup is richer with them in it, but this was not the glorious '86 Argentina that stormed to victory on the back of the best player in the world. This was the ugly duckling '90 Argentina that stumbled to the World Cup Final on the strength of solid defending and little else. Argentina created little in the way of chances throughout the match, but they did do a good job of shutting down Uruguay's offense after the first ten minutes or so. I'm at a loss to say whether Argentina won because of good defense or Uruguay's inability to make the killer pass that would unlock the backline. If I had to take a position, I would be inclined to say the latter.

When I forked over $10 to watch the game on pay-per-view, I was most interested in seeing how Maradona is able to reduce Leo Messi to a bystander. As promised, Messi was an isolated figure. Having heard Tim Vickery describe Messi's problem with Argentina several times, it was fascinating to see it play out. With Barcelona, Messi has Dani Alves at right back, flying up the flank to stretch the defense laterally and create space. With Argentina, Messi has Nicolas Otamendi, who does nothing of the sort. With Barcelona, Messi plays with strikers who present themselves for one-two opportunities. With Argentina, Messi plays with Gonzalo Higuain, who does not offer the same chances. With Barcelona, Messi can give the ball to Xavi or Iniesta in the midfield, knowing that he will get it back if he makes a good run. With Argentina, there is no such confidence.

In club play, Messi is a star wide receiver whose coach uses a variety of different methods to put him in spots to succeed. (Think Percy Harvin with Florida.) In international play, Messi is like a star wide receiver who gets bracketed by a corner and a safety on every play and whose quarterback can't get him the ball. (Think Braylon Edwards with the Browns.)

Messi's frustrations bled into his play, as he did find himself in dangerous positions on two occasions in the last half hour as Uruguay pressed for a winner. Leo wasted both opportunities. In his defense, he did play a smart ball to Juan Sebastian Veron in the move that led to the only goal. Still, Argentina need a major rethink in order to use their best asset properly. They now have eight months to find a solution. There are numerous examples of teams that looked like crap in World Cup qualifying before winning the tournament, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that this out-of-sorts Argentina side can win next summer. And if they don't succeed, we'll at least have Diego Maradona's sociological observations to enjoy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Happy Thoughts

I was planning on blogging about the Georgia game on Saturday afternoon, but there was nothing to say. The Dawgs were atrocious in just about every phase of the game. The secondary played as if they had never played before. "Sieve" would be a charitable way to describe the offensive line. A.J. Green was anonymous; Jonathan Crompton was impeccable.

Four days later, Georgia's shortcomings have been covered in nauseating detail. Numerous writers have weighed in to decry the direction of the program, with some going too far in wailing that all is lost and a long-term decline is right around the corner. At times like this, it's often helpful to remember that we are talking about glorified teenagers playing football. Their performances are going to vary, sometimes wildly. The Dawgs were absolute crap on Saturday, but a team is never as bad as it looks at its low point or as good as it looks at its high point. It seems impossible with the memories of Tennessee receivers floating through the secondary uncovered, but this team will have a high point or two. They were competitive on the road at Oklahoma State. They handed South Carolina their only loss. They won by 11 at Arkansas, a victory that will look better and better as the season progresses. They led LSU in the final two minutes. This isn't a vintage Georgia team by any means, but they are more 8-4 than 6-6.

That last sentence assumes that Saturday's loss doesn't cause a death spiral. I'll admit that the thought crossed my mind, but it's more likely that Saturday is a nadir and the rest of the season is a little better. Mark Richt didn't forget how to motivate a team altogether. So, in an effort to find a silver lining...somewhere, here are five recent examples of teams that had terrible losses and turned their seasons around:

2007 Georgia - Remember the last time the Dawgs visited Knoxville? Remember a suspect Tennessee team with a bad offense beating Georgia 35-14? Remember what happened next?

2007 Michigan - You think you know pain? You don't know pain until your team is ranked #3 in the preseason and then opens with home losses to a I-AA team by two and then to Oregon by 32. Michigan won eight in a row after that start before injuries to Chad Henne and Mike Hart halted their run.

2003 LSU - They won a national title despite a 12-point loss at home in October to a Ron Zook-coached team. Swirl that around in your mouth for a moment.

2003 Clemson - Lost 45-17 at Wake Forest (the pre-good Wake Forest) to drop to 5-4 before winning their final four games, including wins over Florida State and Tennessee (back when that meant something).

2002 Iowa - Lost at home to a 7-7 Iowa State team and then didn't lose for the rest of the regular season.

1999 Wisconsin - Everyone remembers the Badgers winning a second straight Rose Bowl and Ron Dayne winning the Heisman. Not everyone remembers the Badgers losing at 3-8 Cincinnati in the third game of the season. They lost the next week to Michigan by five, then won their last eight.

1999 Alabama - Lost at home to Louisiana Tech and then won the SEC.

1983 Miami - You may have seen a highlight or two of Miami upsetting Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to win the first of the school's five national titles, but did you know that they started that season with a 28-3 loss at Florida?

So here's the question. It's possible for this Georgia team to rally. They certainly have the talent and Richt has never lost a team before. Do you want Georgia to rally? Let's say that the Dawgs lose a competitive game in Jacksonville and then end the season with wins over Auburn, Georgia Tech, and a Big Ten team in the Outback Bowl. Is that a good result if it causes Richt to decide that major changes do not need to be made? Is it a good result if it means that Willie Martinez is the defensive coordinator in 2010?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Quick MNF Thought

I thoroughly enjoyed the Dolphins-Jets game last night. Maybe it was the prominent roles played by Chad Henne and Braylon Edwards. Maybe I was excited to watch the fourth quarter after 90 minutes of Dancing With the Stars. Maybe it was because it's always fun to watch a New York hype bubble get popped, with Rex Ryan's immovable defense being the latest. Mostly, it was the Miami offense. I thoroughly enjoy watching diverse offensive schemes, so seeing the Dolphins incorporate the wildcat, the spread 'n' shred, and a conventional pro-style offense was great fun. Jon Gruden's commentary added to my enjoyment because he is the one NFL talking head who understands the difference between the wildcat and the spread. Gruden has been a massive upgrade over Tony Kornheiser. If I'm going to be Statler & Waldorf regarding ESPN, it's incumbent on me to point out when they get a decision right. So, kudos to the mouse.

When Georgia Loses, Rip on the Media's Love for the Gators

I'll admit to only keeping a half an eye on the Florida-LSU game on Saturday night at Taco Mac because it was in the same time slot as the Michigan game. Every time I turned my glance from the TV in front of me to the TV to my left (G-d, I love modern civilization!), it seemed like Florida had the ball and was slowly bludgeoning their way down the field with running plays. At a certain point, I started to wonder "has LSU seen the ball all game?" By the time the game ended, LSU had three points and 162 yards. Florida prevented the #4 team in the country on its home field from getting into triple digits in either rushing or passing. Florida's offense was no great shake, but its two-headed tailback did put up 122 yards on 28 carries against a stout run defense, thus compensating for a passing game that only generated 134 yards.

So, in the aftermath of a big game that Florida won because of a suffocating defense and a steady running game, what's the story? TEBOW!!! It's clear that, short of throwing five interceptions and Florida losing, it didn't matter what actually happened on Saturday night because the Gator quarterback was going to get the credit. In an annoying illustration of how big sports media works, ESPN and CBS decided that Tim Tebow is the star that they are going to market, so they were going to do so regardless of actual events. It must be nice to get to rest on one's laurels for, you know, an entire season.

And speaking of that topic, I heartily co-sign on Matt Hinton's criticism of the national championship pecking order, especially this paragraph regarding the gumbo of potential one-loss SEC Champions:

Setting aside the distant possibility that a one-loss South Carolina or Auburn might fill that role, the automatic assumption that one-loss LSU, with a marquee non-conference win over Washington, nothing to hang its hat on statistically (the 5-1 Tigers are currently being outgained by 27 yards per game on average) and a series of squeakers over mediocre teams, would be more deserving than any of a dozen other contenders at the year requires a little more critical comparison than "they're in the SEC." For that matter, the prospective resumé of a one-loss Florida (the Gators may finish the regular season with a single win over a ranked team, give or take South Carolina) doesn't deserve to be shielded from a thorough critique by the conference umbrella, either.

Florida has won three national titles. On each occasion, the Gators had a regular season loss and ascended to the title game over other one-loss teams on the basis of having played a very difficult schedule. However, what was true in 1996, 2006, and 2008 will not be true in 2009. Outside of Florida, the SEC East is as weak as it has ever been. Florida State is fielding its worst outfit since the 70s. The rest of Florida's non-conference schedule is a joke. Thus, this Florida team almost certainly needs to go unbeaten to play for the national title, or at least that would be the case if pundits weren't already making assumptions on behalf of the Gators, confusing them with previous teams wearing the same uniform. Virginia Tech has played the #2 ranked schedule in the country. USC has played the #13 ranked schedule. Florida's schedule is ranked #49. Moreover, both the Hokies and Trojans have remaining road dates against opponents who are better than anyone on Florida's regular season slate: Georgia Tech and Oregon. I'd take Florida on a neutral field against either the Trojans or Hokies by a touchdown, but Florida needs to prove that they belong rather than Gainesville Gary giving them a preemptive mulligan.

My Top 25 Dreams of the Dome in December

1 Alabama
2 Florida
3 Texas
4 Southern Cal 1
5 Cincinnati 1
6 Virginia Tech 1
7 TCU 3
8 Miami (Florida) 1
9 Iowa 2
10 Nebraska 15
11 Ohio State 3
12 Boise State 1
13 Oklahoma 8
14 LSU 10
15 Georgia Tech 3
16 Texas Tech 7
17 Oregon 2
18 South Florida 6
19 Brigham Young
20 Oklahoma State 4
21 Penn State 1
22 Pittsburgh
23 Houston
24 South Carolina
25 Utah
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Auburn (#14), Georgia (#17), Missouri (#18), Mississippi (#20).

It's official: if Mike Lupica and Bob Ryan said on the Sports Reporters that Alabama-Florida is the game of the year in college football, then it must be so. The Sagarin Predictor has the Tide and Gators at least 1.5 points better than any other team in college football. Nevertheless, I've already received my first e-mail from a Florida friend complaining that any team would be put on a plane with the Gators. The heresy!