Monday, December 28, 2009

Half-Assed Thoughts on Urban Meyer's Homage to Bobby Cremins

1. Yesterday, I was running to the gym and reflecting on a conversation that I had with a friend in the parking lot of the Decatur Y in the aftermath of the January 2009 bowl games. The friend and I agreed that: (a) Florida and USC were the premier programs in the country; (b) Urban Meyer and Pete Carroll were the premier coaches; and (c) it was inevitable that we would get eventually the match-up that we all craved: Carroll's defense against Meyer's offense. One year later, Urban Meyer is taking some sort of undefined leave of absence to get his heart back in playing shape. USC is coming off of its worst season since Carroll's first, their previously impregnable defense was embarrassed by Oregon and Stanford (!), and Carroll was reduced to deploying a blind fan as a prop to distract the world from the fact that his team was playing in the Emerald Bowl (Der Wife was in total shock when she realized that USC was playing a nut-themed bowl game in a baseball stadium on December 26) and that his tailback received a Land Rover from an agenty-type figure who made insanely implausible explanations in an attempt to justify the obvious. The point?

This is a comforting thought when one's program just went 3-9 and 5-7 after not having a losing season for four decades.

2. If I were an Alabama fan, Saturday night would have felt like the night the Berlin Wall fell. The SEC has turned into a bi-polar world: Florida and Alabama dominating and every one else flailing desperately to hold on. All of a sudden, that other pole looked like its empire was crumbling. Yes, Florida could have hired a Gary Patterson-type coach, but the last time they were shocked by a legendary coach retiring after a painful loss to an SEC rival, Jeremy Foley gave the world Ron Zook. Bama fans can be irrationally exuberant, but this was one instance in which that exuberance had some basis. To a lesser extent, Georgia fans would have been feeling the same way. Mark Richt won two SEC titles in four years after Steve Spurrier took Daniel Snyder's money. Now, he looked decidedly second-best in an East dominated by Meyer's Florida, punctuated by an embarrassing performance in the 2009 Cocktail Party that featured Georgia wearing uniforms that made them look like the Peach County Trojans. How different would Georgia fans feel about their coaching situation if Mark Richt were opposed by Steve Addazio and Lane Kiffin as opposed to Urban Meyer and Lane Kiffin? The meta-point here: our perceptions of coaches are relative and are determined in large part by the quality of coaches on the schedule. Remember when Mark Richt and Houston Nutt were seen as the two best coaches in the SEC?

3. My kingdom to know what Lane Kiffin will tell recruits when the dead period ends (assuming that the Laner can be bothered to actually comply with the no-contact restriction). Kiffin is clearly obsessed with Florida. He took an obvious shot at Florida's coaches before the SEC Championship Game. He couldn't shut up about Meyer and the Gators from the moment he was hired. Now, Meyer has shown literal weakness. I would imagine that the tone from the head man in Knoxville is not going to be restrained. Please, lord, let a recruit blab the content of the pitch.

4. Der Wife is a Ph.D. psychologist and when I described Meyer's condition and the nuggets that I gleaned from the recent SI profile, she had an immediate thought: panic attacks. It's weird to think of someone so successful as being a victim of intense anxiety, but there you go. Meyer certainly wouldn't be the first successful figure with demons. It's funny that Meyer's image in the blogosphere is that of an unstoppable, unemotional force, an automaton that stares and points his way to domination. It turns out that he's very anxious and capable of impulsive decisions. Who knew?

5. Meyer's weekend is a good reminder that coaches are vulnerable to injuries and decline just like athletes. We like to assume that good coaches are going to be good for decades. However, it's quite possible for a coach to get burned out or overly satisfied with his accomplishments. He can be exposed as a guy who was dependent on one player or a schematic innovation that opponents solved. He can be felled by panic attacks. When I assess a coach, I almost always rely on that coach's track record as the first piece of evidence. Meyer's strange weekend is a reminder that a coach is not always a produce of his resume because coaching ability can wax and wane.

6. Tell me that this description of Ara Parseghian's retirement at Notre Dame doesn't sound familiar in light of Urban's resignation/sabbatical:

In 1973, Parseghian had the perfect season that had previously eluded him, topped off by a thrilling 24-23 win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He considered retiring on top after that game, but later decided to stay on. The Irish would have most of their starters back in 1974 and were favored to repeat as national champions. Then six players were suspended for violating school rules and several other key players were injured. An upset loss to underdog Purdue all but derailed the team's hopes to repeat as national champions. All of this, combined with the ever-present pressure to win took its toll, and he privately decided after the eighth game to resign at the end of the season for the sake of his health. However, his resignation was not publicized until mid-December. Notre Dame's 13–11 win over Alabama in a rematch in the Orange Bowl enabled Parseghian to go out on a winning note. He was succeeded by Dan Devine.

Parseghian planned to take one year off from coaching and see if he still "felt the itch" to return afterwards. He ruled out taking a sabbatical leave from Notre Dame, feeling that it would be unfair to have an assistant run the program, only to have to step aside after one year.

I assumed when the Meyer news broke on Saturday night that he would take a year or two off and then return. Then, I remembered that Parseghian left and never came back. One day later, it turned out that Meyer's departure had lasted a day. So, to sum up, who the hell knows?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Counterpoint on the Vazquez Trade

Christina Kahrl from the Baseball Prospectus makes a good point about the lack of bounty that Frank Wren received for Javier Vazquez($):

The Braves didn't get to trade Vazquez for what he was in '09, any more than they can bank on what he was in '09 being what they'd get in 2010. Vazquez's recent swings from valuable to exasperating are a matter of record, with the recent peaks still separated by another one of his trenches, which doesn't help a proposition that selling high is going to yield maximum return. It's one year of a reliably unreliable starting pitcher, equally capable of greatness or making his manager a Maalox junkie. Not finding a rube willing to give you everything for Christmas because he thinks Vazquez is suddenly going to be reliable does not make you a badly run franchise, it instead reflects a smarter marketplace and a potentially more contrained range of possible actions.

I still dispute the notion that the best the Braves could do in trading away one of the best starters in the NL for a league-average outfielder and a prospect who is going to start the year in Low-A. That said, Kahrl is right that we can't expect Vazquez to turn in another season like his 2009 contribution. Sadly, there aren't as many easy marks in the GM ranks as there were when Michael Lewis put pen to paper to write Moneyball. (Insert Omar Minaya joke here.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

We Just Got Fleeced by the F'ing Yankees

I really, really, really do not understand Frank Wren's rationale in trading the Braves' best starter for Melky Cabrera, who will likely be the weakest bat in the starting lineup.

Javy Vazquez pitched like a legitimate Cy Young candidate last year. He was near the top of the NL in strikeouts and ERA. He is signed to a relatively reasonable deal (albeit one that expires at the end of the year). I'm not opposed to the Braves trading him because they are selling him at his peak value, but I was really expecting more in return for him than an outfielder with a mediocre bat (the Braves have plenty of those) and a prospect who is going to start the year in Low A. (Baseball Prospectus rates Aroldis Vizcaino as the #2 prospect in the Yankees system, but he's a crapshoot at his age.) The only way this makes sense for the Braves is if they are freeing up salary to sign a quality first baseman. Even so, they are now going to be giving a bunch of at-bats to another league-average or lower outfielder, which was the team's problem last year.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Five Thoughts on the 7-7 Falcons

1. It wouldn't be a trip to the Meadowlands in December without...

2. Frankly, it's a miracle that the Falcons have a chance to finish with a winning record. They've played a reasonably tough schedule by virtue of drawing the NFC and AFC East. The star quarterback has been alternatively mediocre and hurt. The star running back has been out for weeks. The draft picks who were supposed to fortify the defense are all injured, as are a number of corners and offensive linemen. The kicker who couldn't miss last year had to be cut because he forgot how to kick straight. I have to say that I'm very happy with Mike Smith for potentially coaxing nine wins out of this bunch. (I really shouldn't be penciling in two more wins in light of the fact that the Falcons have to visit the Bucs, a team that was seconds from winning at the Georgia Dome.)

3. The term in soccer is a smash-and-grab: a game in which a team is badly outplayed, but sneaks a goal against the run of play and wins. Yesterday was a classic American football version. It seemed as if the Jets spent the entire second and third quarters with the ball on the Atlanta side of midfield. It was only through the Jets' charity, which was expressed in the form of being unable to kick an oblong ball through the uprights, that the Falcons had a chance to win the game in the final minutes. At the end, all I could say to myself was that the Falcons had won a game that they did not deserve to win. Yay!

3a. The Jets' roster is such that they should be better than they are. They have a solid running game built around a quality offensive line and an above-average running back. Their receiving corps is quite decent now that they have added Braylon Edwards. Their linebacking corps is excellent. They have the best cover corner in football. Their coach is a master at dialing up crazy blitzes. So why are they only 7-7? The answer has to be the rookie under center, which leads to this point: Mark Sanchez is going to be under an inordinate amount of pressure over the next two years. Start with the fact that he was a high draft pick and the Jets mortgaged some of their future to acquire him. He plays in the largest media market in the country. His team moves into a new stadium next September. He is surrounded by a talented roster, which makes Sanchez a true missing link. (Contrast the early expectations on Sanchez with those on Matt Stafford, who has very little surrounding talent and therefore is not the difference between the Lions winning and losing.) His franchise hasn't played in a Super Bowl since 1969. In sum, things could go very well or very badly for Sanchez in short order.

4. It's really trite to bitch about playcalls that don't work, but I can't end this post without a little venting about Mike Mularkey. He's good for at least a couple WTF moments each week. Against the Saints, the reverse from the Wildcat formation on the Falcons' penultimate drive was a head-scratcher, especially coming on the heels of two straight touchdown drives when the Falcons came down the field running their basic offense. The final call on fourth and three was also frustrating; a throw underneath to Jason Snelling is not the best idea in the world when you know that the linebackers are going to be sitting in short zones because of the down and distance. Yesterday, the second and third down calls right before the winning touchdown were annoying. Consecutive rollouts to the short side of the field? I know you're worried about Rex Ryan's blitzes and you want to move the pocket, but you're in a part of the field in which there is already significant compression and you're compressing your players (and thus the defenders) even more. What worked against the Giants in a similar situation? Throwing the ball up to Tony Gonzalez to use his size. What ended up working against the Jets? The same thing. So why did you wait until fourth down to use your best option?

5. Other than Matt Ryan not playing well, one of the big disappointments this season has been Jerious Norwood. With Michael Turner alternating injuries and ineffectiveness (most likely as the result of carrying the ball 3,453 times in 2008), this was Norwood's big chance. I've always liked Norwood and wanted to see him get more touches. Sadly, Jerious has blown his big chance. Jason Snelling, who is no one's idea of a star, has outplayed him. Is Jerious banged up? I certainly hope that that's the explanation.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Everyone Loves a List

For a goofy morning timewaster, enjoy ESPN asking you to rank 20 of the best footballers in the world. In case you're interested, here is my list:

2.Lionel Messi
3.Cristiano Ronaldo
4.David Villa
5.Michael Essien
6.Fernando Torres
7.Didier Drogba
8.Wayne Rooney
10.Andres Iniesta
11.Frank Lampard
12.Robbin van Persie
13.Luis Fabiano
14.Steven Gerrard
15.Franck Ribery
17.Samuel Eto'o
18.Andre Pirlo
19.Michael Ballack
20.Thierry Henry

As compared to the rest of the voters, I am higher on Xavi, Essien, Villa, and van Persie. I am lower on Henry, Eto'o, Ballack, Kaka, and Gerrard. My reasoning on Xavi is that he is even more indispensable to Barca than Messi is (especially now that the Blaugrana have Ibracadabra, who can generate offense by himself). Xavi not only dominates games for Barca and Spain; he allows those teams to play a defined style that forces opponents to cede possession and bunker up in their own defensive thirds. If I were starting a team, I'd take him over anyone.

I was a little annoyed that there were no keepers or defenders on the list, other than Maicon who is a defender in name only. Was ESPN worried that voters would not know who Iker Casillas is?

I guess I should also say a couple words on the Champions League draw:

VfB Stuttgart v Barcelona

Olympiakos v Bordeaux

Internazionale v Chelsea

Bayern Munich v Fiorentina

CSKA Moscow v Sevilla FC

Lyon v Real Madrid

FC Porto v Arsenal

AC Milan v Manchester United

The only team that I wanted Barca to avoid was Lyon. Instead, Barca has drawn the weakest of the eight teams available. Don't look at the fact that Stuttgart made the round of 16 and are a side from a good European league. Rather, look at the facts that they are currently outside of the relegation zone only on goal difference, they qualified from a group ahead of a Rangers side that has been devastated by the recession's effects on Scotland (short version: Setanta going under killed the SPL's TV money) and something called Unirea Urziceni, and their keeper illustrated his "Mad Jens" moniker by relieving himself during a game. This is a colossal mismatch.

The tie of the round of 16 is undoubtedly Inter and Chelsea. I was strangely disappointed that Jose Mourinho didn't offer any of his customary verbal bouquets when Barca and Inter met in the group stages. Maybe he's been beaten down by the hyper-critical Italian press. Maybe he knew that, unlike Chelsea, his Inter couldn't cash the checks that his mouth would write. In any event, I hope that he rebounds to make his return to Stamford Bridge tasty. Inter have a dreadful record in Europe and Chelsea look like the favorites right now, so you can see where I'm going here. Still, we have to see how Chelsea's African contingent look when they return from the Cup of Nations. The same is true for Barca and Arsenal.

United-Milan is also supposed to be a top tie, but I'm not feeling it from either of these teams these days. United clearly miss Ronaldo, although his departure doesn't explain Ferdinand and Vidic forgetting how to play. Their record is good in England and they qualified comfortably, but this team doesn't impress. Still, they should handle Milan. I had to laugh when I read this morning that Ronaldinho saves his best for big occasions like Champions League knock-out ties. Ronnie saves his best for churrascarias. I will always love the guy, but there are few better examples of a player who pissed away the chance to be a legend by not taking care of his body.

It seems likely to me that the quarterfinals will be the three La Liga sides, the three EPL sides, Bordeaux, and Bayern. If there is going to be an upset, then CSKA over Sevilla seems the likeliest spot. Sevilla were upset at this stage two years ago by Fenerbahce and a trip to Moscow in February could be tricky. I am also tempted to say that Lyon can beat Real Madrid because of Real's defensive weaknesses and their streak of losing at this stage of the competition, but Lyon have a lousy record in the knock-out stages. If Ronaldo is healthy, then Real should win.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Poll Question: One Moment That Changed College Football

For those of you who like footie (or even people who don't, but are interested in critical moments in recent sports history), I highly recommend Jonathan Wilson's piece in The Guardian about Manchester United's defeat at Old Trafford against Real Madrid and the tactical rethink that Alex Ferguson underwent as a result. To briefly summarize, Real came to Old Trafford and whipped United with a new formation that dropped a midfielder back and thus allowed an attacking midfielder and the two fullbacks to get forward and menace the United backline. Real jumped out to a 3-0 lead before Ferguson was able to take countermeasures. The game convinced him to move away from a 4-4-2 and instead deploy a variable formation with one striker and various players from the midfield popping up in attacking areas. This flexible approach is what made Cristiano Ronaldo into such a devastating force. He could play as a striker, a right winger, a left winger, or an attacking midfielder. The defense never knew where he was coming from. Also, the flexible formation allowed Ferguson to vacillate between very attacking set-ups against overmatched opponents and very defensive set-ups, such as the park-the-bus formation he rolled out at the Camp Nou in 2008 with Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez as auxiliary defenders.

The article got me thinking about college football parallels. I'm looking specifically for games in which a smart coach saw his approach exposed and made tactical or strategic changes that laid the groundwork for future success. Here is the best that I can offer right now:

1. Tom Osborne responding to various beatings at the hands of Miami and Florida State by recruiting a new class of faster defenders from the Sunbelt. A Nebraska fan would have to chime in with details on what specific loss it was that caused the re-think. (If you want to go in the other direction, Nebraska's 31-7 loss to Texas in 2003 caused the program to overreact and abandon the offensive system that had made the program great. As Georgia Tech has shown this year, the rationale that defenses are too fast and good to handle option football is totally wrong. I'm now waiting for someone to bring back the wishbone.)

2. Steve Spurrier realizing the importance of a good defensive coordinator at some point during the 1996 Fiesta Bowl thrashing at the hands of a now-faster and meaner Nebraska team.

3. Florida State's come-from-behind win at Georgia Tech in 1992 that led to the Fastbreak offense, two national titles, two Heisman winners no longer under center, and FSU's ludicrous domination of an allegedly major conference for nine seasons. Conversely, Georgia fans might point to the loss at home against Auburn in 2001, after which Tommy Tuberville chided Richt for not running the ball enough. I would argue that, two SEC titles in four years be damned, any turning point that involves taking offensive advice from Tommy Tuberville is not a good one.

Now that I think about it, this is a Chris Brown question.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Launch the V2s! (Or why Big Ten Expansion Won't Cure What Ails the Conference)

Because I am who I am and this blog is what it is, I'm going to compare Jim Delany to Hitler. The Big Ten is making a very public show of its interest in expansion. I have no doubt that this move is motivated by a major case of SEC envy. Barry Alvarez was probably sitting on his couch for the first weekends of the past two Decembers, watching the #1 and #2 teams in the country play each other in the Georgia Dome and thinking to himself "man, we need something like that." However, what the Big Ten needs is not the game in early December; what it needs is teams of the quality of Florida and Alabama.

Let's imagine that the Big Ten had a conference championship game this year pitting Ohio State and Iowa and the game was played in Chicago on the same day as the SEC Championship Game. Florida and Alabama were #1 and #2, playing for a spot in the National Championship Game. The game featured the 2008 Heisman winner against the eventual 2009 winner. It featured two of the top four defenses in the country. It featured Urban Meyer against Nick Saban, the two coaches who would probably command the highest salaries if every college coach became a free agent tomorrow morning. In contrast, Ohio State/Iowa would have pitted two teams outside of the top five. The quarterback match-up would have been wasted talent/big disappointment Terrelle Pryor against the immortal James Vendenberg. The coaching match-up would have pitted Jim Tressel and Kirk Ferentz, who were last seen competing with one another in Columbus to see who could create a denser diamond out of the lumps of coals in their nether regions.

There are reasons why the Big Ten is sixth in the 2009 Sagarin conference rankings while the SEC is first. There are reasons why the same was true in 2008 and 2007. In 2006, when the Big Ten was allegedly up and had a famous #1 vs. #2 game in November, the SEC was first and the Big Ten fifth. This is the fourth straight season in which the Big Ten has finished way behind the SEC, its one rival in terms of media profile, fan interest, and revenue generation. Those reasons have nothing to do with the conference ending its season before Thanksgiving. Big Ten teams would suck just as much in September as they do the other three months of the season.

There are two reasons for this gap, one of which the Big Ten can control and one of which it can't. The obvious reason is that there is a vast disparity between the talent available in the Southeast and the Midwest. One can look at the Rivals database for any year and realize the gulf in proximate talent. For instance, this year, there are 44 players in the eight Big Ten states rated as four-star or higher by Rivals. There are 49 such players in Florida alone. Big Ten teams are behind the eight ball because population drain from the Midwest, as well as a variety of other factors, means that they are farming barren fields.

The second factor, which the teams in the league can control, is a collection of mediocre coaches. The Big Ten and SEC outpace every other conference in terms of revenue. What the Big Ten states lack in fast, mean dudes who can tackle, they make up in eyeballs that interest advertisers. What the Big Ten should be doing with that revenue is ploughing it into brand name coaches. After all, if you have to go outside your region to acquire talent, shouldn't you hire a top coach who has: (1) name recognition in Florida and Texas; and (2) the ability to make average talent look better?

SEC programs are certainly willing to spend top dollar for the coaches with the best resumes; Big Ten programs are not. There is no analog in the Big Ten to Arkansas hiring Bobby Petrino or South Carolina hiring Steve Spurrier. South Carolina and Arkansas can best be described as lower middle class in the SEC. They are behind Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida in terms of natural advantages. Thus, they hired two coaches with great resumes and paid those coaches market value for their services. Even when SEC programs hire cheaper, underwhelming coaches (see: Kiffin, Lane and Chizik, Gene), they then spend their savings on top notch assistants. If they end up with Braxton Bragg instead of Robert E. Lee, then they at least get Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet to be the subordinates. Leaving aside the fact that there are no Petrinos or Spurriers in the Big Ten's middle class, there are no Malzahns or Monte Kiffins, either.

Every head coach in the SEC falls into one of three acceptable categories for a major program head coach: (1) significant success as a head coach at a lower level (Johnson, Meyer); (2) success as a head coach on a comparable level (Petrino, Miles, Nutt, Brooks, Spurrier, Saban); or (3) coordinator for a national championship program (Richt, Mullen, Kiffin, Chizik). Where does Pat Fitzgerald fit into those categories? Or Ron Zook? Or Danny Hope? Or Bill Lynch? Or Tim Brewster?

And so, to come full circle, the Big Ten right now reminds me of the Third Reich in the summer of 1944. Germany was about to get hammered in the East by Operation Bagration and in the West by Operation Cobra. Faced with major issue, Hitler decided that the way to win the war was by firing a bevy of V-2 rockets at London. His decision was a classic case of praying for some sort of saving throw the the dice when faced with basic shortcomings. This analogy isn't perfect because there was nothing that Germany could do to win the War after Stalingrad, whereas there is an obvious way for the Big Ten to get out of its current crisis. (The analogy also has a timeline issue in the sense that Hitler was always too obsessed with technological solutions, so pinning his hopes on the V-2 was not just a summer 1944 mistake.) Hitler didn't have the option of bringing in better generals to reverse setbacks in the field. Still, the basic idea is that the Big Ten is proposing a solution that does not address the problem. Expanding to 12 teams and adding a championship game will add revenue to the league, but the conference is already awash in revenue. The problem is what the programs are doing with that revenue.

(And speaking of revenue, coming back to the Mandel article that I linked above, I don't understand how a championship game that should generate something in the neighborhood of $12M annually [assuming that it is close to as economically successful as the SEC Championship Game] could possibly be offset by the occasional loss of a second BCS bid that is worth $4.5M. Mandel also ignores the fact that, using this year as an example, if Ohio State beat Iowa in the title game and knocked them out of at-large contention, Penn State would have stepped right in to fill their shoes. Those criticisms aside, Mandel's piece about Big Ten expansion is excellent and I agree with his conclusion. There is no obvious candidate for expansion other than Notre Dame. Missouri seems unlikely to join and Pitt does not bring much in terms of additional fans/TV markets.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Two Good Reads

1. Eve Fairbanks' piece in The New Republic about South Africa's transportation system in advance of the World Cup. This paragraph was especially amusing:

But there are hotels all over sprawling Johannesburg. The city itself needs to be navigable; soccer fans don’t just move back and forth along pre-set axes like foosball dolls. Any tourist would be impressed with the Rea Vaya, but with months to go to kickoff, it took us eight additional taxi rides to get where a tourist might reasonably want to go. And anticipating the patterns of public transport use has never been Johannesburg’s strongest suit: Transport to and from the stadiums was the biggest black mark on last June’s trial-run Confederations Cup. I have visions of German spectators, brimming with I-told-you-sos, smugly blogging the beating of their minibus-taxi drivers next June.

I sent this article to about ten different friends and relatives. The transportation situation at the World Cup next summer could turn into a massive fiasco, although I'm hopeful that South Africa will respond with the world's attention fixed upon it. The one positive coming from the article is the fact that Jo'burg is getting a new public transportation system for the World Cup, which would be a rare instance of a major international tournament leaving a useful legacy in terms of infrastructure. I think about this point every time I drive to a Braves game and mutter to myself that MARTA doesn't go to the Ted.

2. S.L. Price's piece in Sports Illustrated about Urban Meyer. I couldn't put the piece down, if for no other reason than it was a reminder of how much of an outlier Meyer is, not unlike most people who are at the apex of a very competitive profession. A few random thoughts:
  • I wonder how many dads in the State of Florida will decide that it is a good idea to make their sons run home eight miles for striking out in a baseball game.

  • The story of Meyer failing as a minor league baseball player was reminiscent to me of the similar tale about Billy Beane in Moneyball. I could see how both of them were inspired to success in sports by their failings as athletes. (I wouldn't be shocked if there is a similar story floating around in the ether about Jose Mourinho.)

  • Price did a good job of confronting the criticism of Meyer for his players' run-ins with the law. At the end of the piece, I felt a little bit more sympathetic towards Meyer's position. The endorsement from Marty Johnson's father was definitely meaningful. On the other hand, the influence of his wife, who has psychological training, reminded me of Tom Osborne, who also had a background in psychology and ultimately ended up with a roster full of miscreants? Is the story that Osborne and Meyer use psychological expertise to justify keeping very talented players on their rosters for selfish reasons? Do they have good intentions, but their players take advantage of a caring approach? Are their players' misdeeds covered excessively because their teams are so good? I'm just thinking out loud here. Maybe I should just say that when I read the Shelley Meyer passages, I thought "Tom Osborne."

  • My first thought when I read the following quote by Meyer was "and this is when Urban Meyer goes from great coach to merely good: "You know what? I used to really stress about what people thought. But I don't care anymore. I've won. I've done it. I'm in a different place." Then Meyer was hospitalized after the loss to Alabama and I was reminded that maybe he is still the competitive guy who headbutted his players when he coached wide receivers at Notre Dame.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

My Top 25 Sure Would Like to See Texas Play TCU

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

Dropped Out: Southern Cal (#16).

Thoughts on the rankings:
  • I wanted to put TCU at #2 in the country. I really did. I wanted to punish Texas for some of the worst clock management in recorded history. I wanted to reward TCU for dominating their schedule like a true national title contender (as opposed to 2008 Utah). In the end, I couldn't justify doing so when Texas's schedule was so much stronger than TCU's and they have the same record. Sagarin has Texas ahead of TCU, as does the FEI. In the end, I'm left lamenting about a foolish system that forces voters to parse differences between teams with very similar resumes. I'm left lamenting that a Plus One would pit Texas and TCU against one another and then we could have a definitive result as to who should play Alabama after the Tide whack Cincinnati.
  • And while I'm complaining about the BCS, the statistically indefensible decision to forbid computers from taking margin of victory into account is what would have pushed Cincinnati into the title game ahead of TCU. It's bad enough that voters and computers have limited data sets with which to compare teams; the BCS then requires that the computer throw out a source of data that everyone with a brain agrees is relevant.
  • One criticism that I'm not buying: the one that the TCU-Boise State pairing is a terrible idea and designed to protect major conference teams from being embarrassed. My question to people making that criticism is this: who else would you want TCU and Boise State to play? Florida is the only credible option, but they are performing a useful function by playing Cincinnati, another upstart team that went unbeaten against a somewhat questionable schedule. The only other options would be Iowa or Georgia Tech, neither of whom would be described as elite. Sorry, but I don't think that TCU would be getting the test that we all crave against an Iowa team that mastered the narrow win against bad opponents or a Georgia Tech team that has nothing approximating a defense. Iowa and Georgia Tech are both 8-9 win teams masquerading as BCS teams because of clutch/lucky (clutchky?) play. TCU will prove as much or more against Boise State as they would against either of those teams. And really, how embarrassing would it be for the BCS for TCU to mangle two teams that the college football cognoscenti view as good, but not great?

  • Speaking of which, what happens when the Iowa offense (87th in the nation in yards per play) takes the field against the Georgia Tech defense (100th in the nation in yards per play allowed) in a BCS Bowl? As interesting as the Paul Johnson-Norm Parker chess match will be (I'm going with Johnson because I've made the mistake too many times of confusing Big Ten defensive success in conference games with an actual good defense), I suspect that the Iowa offense and Georgia Tech defense will rend the space-time continuum when they oppose one another.
  • I think it's time for someone to do an iPod shuffle on the bowl matchups. We're getting to the point where we have seen everything before. Penn State-LSU should be entertaining, but that's an exception. Arizona-Nebraska? Clemson-Kentucky? West Virginia-Florida State? We've seen this all before. And has there ever been a weaker Outback Bowl than Auburn-Northwestern? I guess that's more a criticism of the Big Ten and SEC for not being especially deep this year as opposed to the bowl match-ups.
  • The final insult for the ACC would be for Virginia Tech, the highest rated team in the conference, to lose to SEC mid-table Tennessee. This might be one of those rare instances in which I root for the Vols. (In the interest of full disclosure, the teams I will not root for except in special circumstances: Ohio State, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Tennessee, and Florida State. This might need to be a post of its own.)

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Thoughts on the Elephant Stampede in the Georgia Dome

1. From the opening kickoff, the SEC Title Game reminded me of the January 1993 Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Miami. A Tide team with a dominant defense and a functional offense was going into the game as a slight underdog against a team from the Sunshine State that was the defending national champs on a long winning streak with a Heisman winner under center. As in 1993, Alabama started the game as the aggressor, the team that looked like it had more to play for. Behind a thumping running game and a suffocating defense, the Tide took a one-score lead into the locker room at halftime and then dominated the third quarter en route to an easy win. Alabama was a two-point conversion away from winning by the exact same score. If you closed your eyes, you could almost confuse Mark Ingram with Derrick Lassic. (No one will ever confuse Trent Richardson with Sherman Williams.) The major difference between the two games is that Bama won the national title against Miami despite the fact that Jay Barker piled up 18 yards passing and two picks in a performance reminiscent of Buck Belue's performance in the 1981 Sugar Bowl against Notre Dame. On Saturday, Greg McElroy comprehensively outplayed the Golden Child.

2. Has anyone else thought at times that Alabama played the wrong quarterback last year? McElroy has had some shaky games, but against Bama's two toughest opponents - Virginia Tech in the opener and Florida yesterday - he played at a level about which John Parker Wilson can only dream. He throws a nice ball (the touchdown pass to Colin Peek was a thing of beauty) and he made plays without taking bad risks. The runs that he had to extend drives were just gravy. After the SEC Championship Game last year, I thought that Alabama was going to have to get better scheme-wise on offense to match what Florida was doing, but that turned out to be wrong. Bama just needed better quarterback play.

3. I have no idea what happened to the Florida defense yesterday, other than a Herbstreit-ian "they got punched in the mouth and never responded" explanation. I expected Florida's offense to struggle because of their pass protection issues, their average receivers, and their quarterback's slowed decision-making process. I did not expect Florida's defense to get trampled underfoot. I did not expect to see Alabama run the ball with such success at Brandon Spikes & company. I did not expect the Gators to allow the Tide to convert 11 of 15 third downs. I did not expect Bama to average 13.3 yards every time they put the ball in the air. I wish I had an explanation. The best I can offer is that: (1) Bama looked more motivated (Florida has had an air of defending champs indifference this year that was masked by a relatively easy schedule); and (2) Bama's coaching staff spent weeks getting ready for this game and had Florida's tendencies down pat. You know, like when Charlie Strong likes to blitz a corner from the short side of the field.

4. Alabama is clearly a better team than Texas, as evidenced by the fact that Nick Saban doesn't turn into an imbecile in the final seconds of a conference championship game. The Tide are more tested and more balanced. That said, I worry a little about Bama's ability to sustain the level that they showed against Florida. Bama pointed to this game for a year. By October, it was clear that Alabama and Florida were going to play each other for the conference title and probably a trip to Pasadena. Now that the Crimson Tide have blown up the Death Star, how do they get up for an encore? Maybe I'm barking at shadows here. Maybe the combination of a month to prepare and Nick Saban reaming his team the moment a walk-on drops a cup of Gatorade in practice will ensure that Bama will bring its "A" game. Still, part of me remembers the absolute stinker that Ohio State laid in Glendale after they won a 1 versus 2 battle royale.

5. I have not yet seen it mentioned, so I'll just throw this out there: Alabama is 0-7-1 against Texas all-time. Bear Bryant was 0-3-1 against the Horns. Nick Saban will really etch himself into Crimson Tide lore if he does something that the Bear could not. And the Bama history buffs are going to have a field day with the Tide returning to Pasadena for a post-season game for the first time since 1945. Methinks that those people are going to have some fun the first time they belt out the lyrics to "Yea Alabama" in Southern California.

5a. The tradition, the uniforms, the fight songs, the venue, this is the perfect national title game...if not for my gnawing suspicion that the second-best team in the country will be playing in Glendale.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Instathoughts on the Draw

THANK YOU, SEPP BLATTER!!! The US could not have come away with a better draw. It's too much to ask for a draw with three weaklings at the World Cup, so the key is to avoid being in a group with two other quality teams. It doesn't matter if you have drawn 1970 Brazil because two teams are going through; you just want to avoid drawing two other teams who can beat you. With a group including the weakest teams in Pots C and D, this is an unmitigated success for the US.

Additionally, I don't see England as a bridge too far for the US for a few reasons. First, it's England at the World Cup and they aren't playing at home. Second, England are a relatively narrow team (they have no left wing and their best attacking players all come through the middle), so they won't be able to take advantage of the US's suspect left and right backs like, say, Holland would. Third, if the US is going to play on the counter, they will want to play against a defender who leaves his post. Ladies and gentlemen, meet England right back Glen Johnson. Landon Donovan, meet the acres of space that Johnson will leave behind him as he bombs forward. (I do realize that Johnson getting forward contradicts my notion that England are a narrow team. Just let me have my illusions.) In all three respects, England are a little like the Spain side that the US upset this summer, only they don't have half the technical ability of Spain's midfield.

The major counter to everything I've just written: Fabio Capello versus Bob Bradley. With both having months to prepare. I'm having flashbacks to Pete Carroll versus Lloyd Carr in Pasadena.

Tim Vickery did say that Brazil were due for a tough group. Tim is always right. Holy cow, I'm not sure that I've seen a group with three teams as good as Brazil, Ivory Coast, and Portugal, at least since the tournament expanded to 32 teams. Right now, the Portuguese look like the odd team out. Remember their exit from Euro '08 with Ricardo flapping at German crosses? There is no team in the world that presents a greater aerial threat from set pieces than the Selecao. And the Ivory Coast have Didier Drogba. Yeah, Portugal are headed out. F*** you, Ronaldo. This group will be interesting not just to see who comes out, but also because there will be a major incentive to finish first to avoid playing Spain in the Round of 16. Not that Brazil would be scared of Spain (or anyone), but they would rather not be playing a contender right out of the box in the knock-out stages.

Where is Sophia Loren when you need her? Conspiracy theories can be great fun, but FIFA did the hosts no favors by handing them one of the two toughest draws from two of the pots. Also, the idea that FIFA wanted to screw France went out the window when the France got the coveted South Africa draw. You'll hear the "no host country has ever failed to make the knock-out stages" stat a million times, but I can't remember a host side worse than South Africa. Even South Korea and Japan had better resumes and they also added fanatical support at home. Austria and Switzerland just hosted the Euros and neither came close to coming out of their groups. At the end, talent has to play a role.

I'm going to guess that Spencer Hall is annoyed. I watched the '06 Final with Spencer and he spent much of the time explaining why he hates Italy more than any other team. I found this bizarre, since France is so obviously more hate-worthy and there is hard evidence for that fact. (I'm just not sure what it is.) Anyway, Italy could not have done any better with their draw. (And yes, I know that Paraguay did well in qualifying.) They're famously slow starters, but it's hard to see complications against New Zealand and Slovakia. That said, I can also see a second-round match against Cameroon with the entire stadium rooting against the Azzurri.

Just so you know, the over/under on "don't get bogged down here with your bigger foe on the horizon" jokes from me when Germany meets Serbia: 427.

Stuff that only I care about: Argentina, Greece, and Nigeria were all drawn together at USA '94. The fourth team in that group was Bulgaria. Argentina bombed Greece (with Maradona's famously demented celebration after scoring) and then beat Nigeria 2-1 in an outstanding match. Then, Maradona was sent home for failing a drug test (Ephedrine, if I recall correctly. If you remember what he looked like at that stage, the idea of Diego taking diet pills is not especially surprising.), Bulgaria drilled Argentina in the last group game, and then Romania sent them home in the round of 16. Nigeria blew a late lead and were knocked out by Italy, and Bulgaria made the semis before losing to a pair of Roberto Baggio goals. And no, I didn't look any of that up.

If the seeds hold, then we'll get Germany and Argentina in the quarterfinals for the second straight World Cup. Maybe this time around, Argentina will see fit to play Leo Messi.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Post That Ends With Stewart Mandel and George Clooney in the Same Sentence

Good lord, Mandel, stop writing about Notre Dame! It's embarrassing when Sports Illustrated's top college football writer has such a poor grasp of what ails college football's most famous program. Here is his explanation for why the Irish are down:

Twenty years ago, the Irish were not alone among major independents, but by 1993, Florida State, Miami and Penn State had all joined conferences. Is it a coincidence that 1993 was also the last time Notre Dame came close to a national title? As I wrote Monday, today's blue-chip football prospects grow up watching certain conferences. Kids in Georgia and Louisiana dream of playing in the SEC. Kids in Texas dream of playing in the Big 12. Besides the South Side of Chicago and certain Midwestern Catholic conclaves, not a lot of kids today grow up specifically watching Notre Dame. So not only does the school have to recruit nationally, it has to sell prospects on why playing for Notre Dame is better than playing in a certain conference. Weis was able to sell Jimmy Clausen, Michael Floyd, et. al., on his pedigree as an NFL offensive Yoda, but I'm not sure what incentive he could offer to comparable defenders.

Here are Notre Dame's recruiting ranks for Charlie Weis's four full classes:

2009 - 24 (12th in average star ranking)
2008 - 2 (1st in average star ranking)
2007 - 8 (6th in average star ranking)
2006 - 8 (13th in average star ranking)

And lest we think that Weis was compiling great classes that contained nothing other than offensive players, here is Notre Dame's starting lineup on defense this year and their recruiting ranks by Rivals:

DE - Kapron Lewis-Moore - four-star, 5.8
DE - Kerry Neal - four-star, 5.8
DT - Ian Williams - three-star, 5.7
DT - Ethan Johnson - four-star, 6.0
LB - Darius Fleming - four-star, 5.9
LB - Manti Te'o - five-star, 6.1
LB - Brian Smith - four-star, 5.8
CB - Robert Blanton - four-star, 5.8
CB - Gary Gray - four-star, 5.9
S - Sergio Brown - three-star, 5.6
S - Kyle McCarthy - three-star, 5.5

Wow, only eight blue chip players! It really is impossible for an independent program like Notre Dame to convince top players to come to South Bend! Why are Irish fans so foolish to think that such a result is possible when recruits are clearly going to discriminate against them for not being in a conference?!? (Seriously, have you ever heard a recruiting analyst claim that players make decisions based on conference affiliations?)

How the f*** is 8-4 the ceiling for a roster that is probably only rivaled by Texas, USC, Ohio State, Georgia, and Florida in terms of the percentage of blue chip players occupying the starting spots? Notre Dame does not have any disadvantages that are killing its recruiting, as evidenced by every recruiting class of the Weis era. They do have the self-imposed disadvantage of having hired three bad head coaches.

And then this argument is so bad, I, I, just read it:

In his article, Walters cites Alabama's long spat of mediocrity before hiring its home-run coach, Nick Saban, as a comparison to Notre Dame. But unlike Saban, Notre Dame's next coach can't sign 30-plus players knowing some won't qualify. He won't be able to land 95 percent of his roster from within the Southeast. That's why Alabama (and Florida, and Texas) will never stay down for long, and that's why coaches like Saban, Urban Meyer and Bob Stoops don't view the Notre Dame job with as much allure as its history would seem to warrant.

So let's see. Alabama has a regional recruiting profile. Because they are recruiting the Deep South where the public high schools can be, shall we say, hit or miss, Bama oversigns because they know they are going to lose some of their recruits to qualification issues. Notre Dame, on the other hand, has a national recruiting profile. Unlike Alabama, they can go to Hawai'i and pick off a five-star linebacker like Manti Te'o. Because of its huge geographic base, Notre Dame does not need to take chances on potential academic casualties. And this is a disadvantage for...Notre Dame? That makes perfect sense! I look forward to Mandel next making the case that he is in a better situation with the opposite sex than George Clooney because he has fewer options and therefore has an easier time making decisions.

My Top 25 is Meh

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

Dropped Out: Mississippi (#15), North Carolina (#21).

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Belated Thoughts on the Iron Bowl

1. I heartily co-sign on Spencer Hall's destruction of the Bolerjack-Beuerlein team:

N is for Nitwits: Nowhere is there a greater chasm of total dropoff in broadcasting than between Verne and Gary on CBS and the number two crew, Craig Bolerjack and Steve Beuerlein. It's easy to criticize broadcasters: they have to appear on television, which is instantly mockable, and then have to evaluate live events as they happen for the ears of the listening millions. They make mistakes. It happens. Conditions granted. Moving to next paragraph where we rip the innards out of them anyway.

Bolerjack and Beuerlein together got nothing--repeat, nothing--right in calling Alabama/Auburn right Saturday. They announced the temperature as "purple o'clock." They belched into live mikes and referred to Saban as "Sheila." They drew elaborate games of tic-tac-toe on the screen during plays. At one point, both fell asleep during the broadcast in the most enjoyable five minutes of the production.

None of this happened, by the way, but it would have been an improvement over what did. Bolerjack missed Ingram's short run on 4th and 1 by confidently calling out "GOT IT!" even though Ingram was clearly a full two yards short. He bellowed over much of the game pointlessly while Beuerlein got paid to say things like this: "Gilbert Arenas still gets nervous before every punt. That's amazing."

Not at all. Punt returns involve 11 men running full-speed at you, with many of them intent on shattering any bones they can get a helmet on in the process. If you're not nervous doing this in front of 90K people, you're not human. As much as Bolerjack wrestled with making sensical statements, Beuerlein was worse, suggesting things like "Auburn came to play today!" when he wasn't blandly mumbling out the box score, making declarative statements about the sun being sun-like and the air being particularly air-y, and saying that Doug Flutie completed his famous Hail Mary to Brian Brennan in 1984. Gerard Phelan probably didn't watch this game, but he wouldn't appreciate you airbrushing him out of history, Steve.

If they're calling a game I care about in the future, I'll just turn on that endless loop of dying mules I have on iTunes just for such occasions.

Bolerjack started the game by describing a 3.5 yard run by Mark Ingram as a two-yard gain. He and Beuerlein got amorous about Mount Cody's block on the Tide's first touchdown, even though Cody blocked left and Trent Richardson ran right. Beuerlein touted a "great block" from an Alabama offensive lineman on a screen pass, but on the replay, the lineman whiffed and Roy Upchurch made a nify move. Every five minutes, I found myself thinking "what would Dr. Z do with this atrocious performance?" Like Spencer, I was put off by the Chip Caray-esque "Got it!" call when Bama obviously had been stopped on a fourth and one. He also managed to identify Auburn's starting quarterback in the historic 1989 game as Gary Hollingsworth, which is probably news to Tigers' starter Reggie Slack, who played the game of his life in upsetting the #2 Crimson Tide.

I guess my issue is more with CBS than with Bolerjack and Beuerlein. They made a "Dave O'Brien calling the World Cup" decision. Bolerjack is a non-descript NFL play-by-play guy. Beuerlein is a former Notre Dame quarterback with no obvious connection to the SEC. I associate them with a forgettable Tennessee-Jacksonville 1 p.m. game that's on in Atlanta because the Georgia Dome isn't sold out and the Jags are this market's "home" AFC team. I don't associate them with the Iron Bowl. They don't know the players or coaches very well. They certainly don't know the history between the teams. This is kind of an issue when you're paying $55M annually for the right to show games. The least you can do is to find a second string announcing pairing that won't piss off the core audience by not confusing Auburn's starting quarterback with Alabama's.

1a. I'm fairly confident that Spencer Tillman is about the last person who would have sources on the Notre Dame coaching search. That said, plead G-d, let the Irish hire Brian Billick. An arrogant NFL offensive "guru" whose success came in the reflected glory of others? When hasn't that worked for Notre Dame before?

2. During the game, I wrote the following note to myself: "Julio Jones: most overrated receiver since..." He came into the game with a whopping 462 yards receiving on the year. I follow SEC football with a high degree of interest and that number surprised me as being low. Does Bama just suck at coming up with ways to get him the ball? Is this a Greg McElroy issue? In September, I thought that McElroy was a significant improvement over John Parker Wilson, but the last two months have disabused me of that notion. Anyway, McElroy did a nice job on Bama's last drive. With their backs against the wall, the Tide used Auburn's fear of Jones to hit Julio underneath several times.

3. Was I the only one who was waiting for Bama to line Mark Ingram up in the Wildcat and then throw the ball? Auburn sure looked like they were crashing down on Ingram every time he lined up to take the snap. I'd be surprised if we don't see that look on Saturday.

4. Best touch on the winning touchdown: Bama having Cody on the field, which screams "run between the tackles." Second best touch: Saban not being content with the field goal like 90% of coaches.

5. Underrated play of the game: Auburn leads 21-20 and has second and nine at the Alabama 43 with nine minutes to go. Auburn lines up, then gets their read from the sideline. At the last second, Bama suddenly changes their alignment and moves their corners up to press the Auburn receivers. Auburn runs an option to the wide side, most likely based on Bama's look before they changed at the last second. Bama throws Ben Tate for a seven-yard loss, puts Auburn into long yardage, and then gets the ball back down one with plenty of time for their Daniel Moore moment. Beautiful defensive coaching by Alabama.