Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Sunday Splurge is Ready to Track Flights

Rich, it’s not you, it’s me.

Since Derek Dooley has made this the week to make World War II analogies, the Michigan defense is most like the German Sixth Army in February 1943: pathetic, feeble, stationary, ill-equipped for the task of fighting, and abandoned by its leaders. Penn State came into last night’s game last in the Big Ten in total offense. To boot, the Lions were starting a back-up, walk-on quarterback. 41 points, 435 yards, and 27 first downs later, the Lions had a win and Michigan has a complex. It’s hard to conceive of a worse defensive performance by a Michigan defense, but then again, we’ve been saying that a lot over the past three years, now haven’t we.

Not unreasonably, I thought going into the game that Michigan’s defensive success against Notre Dame’s back-ups in South Bend would be relevant and so I figured that the Wolverines would win comfortably. I was disabused of those notions when Michigan trailed 28-10 at halftime. The second half was much like the Iowa game. The offense scored to make the game reasonably close, but the defense couldn’t make a stop to get the ball back to the offense with a chance to tie. It’s not just that the defense is underpowered; it’s regressing. Michigan can’t even stop bad offenses now.

This hits on one of the major reasons why Rich Rodriguez looks likely to be looking for work at the end of the season: his teams regress. The 2008 team was a disaster, but moreso in the second half of the year. In the first half, Michigan was competitive with a Utah team that ultimately finished unbeaten and then beat Wisconsin in Ann Arbor. Last year, Michigan started 4-0 and was 5-2 after respectable, close road losses to Michigan State (in overtime) and Iowa (by two points) before the bottom fell out, starting with a hiding from Penn State. Sound familiar? The final straw last year was a disgusting performance in the second half in Champaign against the worst team in the Big Ten. Sure enough, after being Croomed out of the SEC, Ron Zook is on the menu this week to put the final nail in Rodriguez’s coffin. The shoe is on the other foot. Nothing quite says failure like going 0-3 against a coach whose name elicits laughter among college football fans.

The second reason why Rodriguez has failed in Ann Arbor is that his coaching staff doesn’t handle the small stuff. You know, stuff like having competent special teams. I first grew to like Rodriguez as a coach when I watched his 2005 West Virginia team rip holes through a good Georgia defense in the Georgia Dome. (Given what we now know about Willie Martinez, that might not have been the accomplishment that it seemed at the time.) That game ended with West Virginia using a clever fake punt to help run out the clock. Where exactly is that Rich Rodriguez now?

Michigan lost by ten last night, despite virtual parity in total yards and an advantage in yards per play. Likewise, Michigan outgained Iowa by 139 yards and lost by ten in its previous game. Michigan lost the Iowa game by turning the ball over four times, but the Wolverines didn’t have a single turnover last night. How does a team outgain its opponent on a per play basis, not the ball over, and still lose by double-digits? A massive disparity in field position is a good place to start. Penn State started three drives in Michigan territory; Michigan didn’t start a single drive in Penn State territory. The same was true in the Iowa game. How’s this for your stat of the day: in four Big Ten games, Michigan has started a drive in its opponent’s territory once. Part of this is because the defense doesn’t force turnovers, but it’s also because Michigan is terrible on special teams. Is it possible that Rich Rodriguez sealed his fate by his decision not to bring back Bryan Wright, a disappointing scholarship kicker who could do one thing well: kick the ball high and deep on kickoffs. If so, that would be a fitting coda on Rodriguez’s tenure: a short-sighted decision that didn’t put proper value on a small, but important part of the game. It’s not enough that Michigan fans are tortured by Jim Tressel’s record against the Wolverines; we now have to watch our head coach’s tenure wither on the vine because Michigan gives away a truckload of hidden yards as a result of insufficient attention to special teams.

The third reason why Rodriguez has failed is because he has the Tommy Tuberville problem: position coaches on his weak side of the ball who don’t mesh with the coordinator. Tuberville was undone at Auburn because his buddies on the offensive side of the ball were constantly interfering with the offensive coordinators who were brought in from the outside. In retrospect, Scott Shafer’s spectacular failure at Michigan in 2008 and his resulting success at Syracuse (the 'Cuse are currently 15th nationally in total defense and yards allowed per play) is evidence that Rodriguez’s position coaches got in the way of a capable coordinator. A similar issue might be going on right now with Greg Robinson, although it is just as likely that Robinson is simply a bad coordinator, in which case Rodriguez’s untergang is the result of a terrible hiring decision after firing Shafer. (One exculpatory possibility for Rodriguez: maybe Michigan wasn’t willing to pay for a top defensive coordinator. Robinson makes less than just about every defensive coordinator in the SEC. If this was the result of an edict from Bill Martin to hire a coordinator on the cheap, then Michigan behaved like a newly-wealthy guy who pays for a Mercedes and then skimps on maintenance.) It’s possible that Rodriguez could save himself by bringing in a proper defensive coordinator (after all, this offense isn’t far removed from Oregon’s, statistically speaking), but that might be a futile move if the same position coaches remain to muck things up. Also, if Rodriguez looked far and wide and decided on Robinson, who is to say that he’ll get the decision right this time? (This comes back to a question from earlier this year: is picking good coordinators a skill or is it simply a matter of luck and resources?)

The fourth reason for Rodriguez’s failure is that he just hasn’t recruited well. The defensive backfield that started the season consisted of a four-star wide receiver and then a series of three-star recruits. The big change for the Penn State game was to insert a two-star true freshman safety into the lineup. This is not all Rich's fault, but one would think that the response by Rodriguez and company to inheriting a depth chart that included a frightening defensive backfield would have been to recruit the hell out of the position. That hasn't happened. Maybe Rodriguez is unlucky in that he pulled in blue chip players like J.T. Turner and Vlad Emelien who didn’t pan out for one reason or another, but at the end of the day, I believe that Rich is unlucky in the same way that another Michael thought that Moe Greene was unlucky. And we know how that turned out.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Stewart Comes to his Senses

So Stewart Mandel, what does the current sad state of the Big East say about your oft-repeated opinion that conference strength is cyclical?

It's not a mystery how we got here. Over the past three years, five of the eight teams have undergone coaching changes. That turnover included the departures of the only three coaches (West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez, Louisville's Bobby Petrino and Cincinnati's Brian Kelly) who had led teams to BCS berths since the league's post-2004 reconfiguration. A league can't experience that much coaching turnover without suffering a down period. But that's also the one factor that gives me pause in assuming the league will follow the same cyclical pattern as its counterparts. The Big East is the lone AQ conference coaches treat as a stepping stone to greener pastures. In that regard, it's no different than a mid-major league. If Charlie Strong manages to turn around Louisville, some SEC school will hire him. If Butch Jones brings Cincinnati back to the BCS, he'll probably be in the Big Ten a year later.

It's hard to maintain success with such instability, which means the Big East will inevitably have to make some changes. Some of the schools may need to start investing more heavily in their programs (no small feat in the current economy) to make it enticing for good coaches to stay. But most likely, the league will need to expand. We know the Big East has been discussing just that, with TCU in particular. Even a 10-team league provides greater assurance of having at least a couple of bell cows in any given year to help avoid debacles like this season.

Or maybe you were just wrong to describe conference strength as cyclical?  The teams in the Big East have smaller followings, less tradition, smaller stadia, inferior facilities, and weaker recruiting bases than the teams in the SEC and (to a lesser degree) the teams in the other AQCs.  It makes sense that the Big East would collectively achieve inferior results on the field.  There is absolutely nothing cyclical about that state of affairs.

A Few Thoughts on the Contenders

I was tempted to put Auburn in the top spot of my ballot based on their superior list of scalps and then I checked the Sagarin rankings and took a step back.  Sagarin's Predictor ranking - the one that accounts for margin-of-victory and is therefore a more sound ranking than the formula he uses for the BCS rankings - has Auburn all the way down at #17.  I found that number fairly shocking.  Yes, Auburn has had a number of close calls this season, but #17?  Right now, Sagarin would have the Tigers as a 6.5 point underdog to Alabama on a neutral field; at Tuscaloosa, the number would be ten.  How much money would be bet on Auburn as a ten-point dog in the Iron Bowl?  And would that money come from sharps or the general betting public seeing that huge number and viewing it as totally inconsistent with Auburn's reputation?  Sagarin's relatively low opinion of Auburn indicates to me that we might be getting swept up with excitement about Cam Newton and allowing his brilliance to obscure the fact that Auburn is allowing 5.0 yards per play, which is worse than all of the other major national title contenders.  Likewise, if we look at yards per play margin, the numbers back up Sagarin’s skepticism:

  YPP Gained YPP Allowed Margin
Oregon 7.3 4.5 2.8
Auburn 7.3 5.0 2.3
Missouri 5.9 4.7 2.2
TCU 6.7 4.1 2.6
Boise State 7.7 3.6 4.1
Alabama 7.3 4.7 2.6
Michigan State 7.0 4.7 2.3
Utah 7.4 4.0 3.4

Auburn is in a grouping with Missouri – a team that Sagarin does like, most likely because they have put up big numbers in several games – and Michigan State – a team that Sagarin dismisses in an even harsher manner than Auburn.  Brian Cook’s statement that "there's no way to justify Boise over Auburn" is just wrong.  There’s a very easy way: Boise is much better on a yardage per play basis.  Now, I seriously doubt that many voters in the Coaches or Harris Polls are taking yards per play into account when they put Boise ahead of Auburn; they’re just voting based on inertia and name recognition.  That said, one can still make a good case for Auburn being outside of the top two.  I’m not going to take that step because of the quality of Auburn’s scalps, as well as the fact that I’m an SEC homer much of the time, but it’s not unreasonable for someone to take that step.

The yards per play numbers also demonstrate the strength of the non-AQC contenders this year.  My test for teams from outside of the major conferences has always been this: did they dominate their opponents like I would expect from a major conference contender?  The answer right now is “yes” for both Boise State, TCU, and Utah.  Utah’s number is excellent, but it has to weighed against a schedule that has been cake so far.  TCU and Boise State have played decent schedules so far; their strength-of-schedule rankings are not far off of those of Oregon’s or Michigan State’s.  That will not remain true for Boise State as they move through the WAC.  TCU’s SOS should remain in its current range as they add games against Utah and San Diego State.  The Horned Frogs should be the most viable of the non-AQC title contenders, but their loss in Glendale against Boise State is holding them back.

Stepping away from the national title contenders and looking at the locals, Georgia is an impressive +1.0 (6.2 on offense; 5.2 on defense) and Georgia Tech is +.5 (5.8 on offense; 5.3 on defense).  Georgia has its good number despite playing a good schedule (#34 according to Sagarin), so maybe this season is going to turn out to be a junior version of 2007 all over again.  Despite the fact that Georgia has had a season that had Mark Richt on the firing line at one point and Auburn has had a season that has led to Gene Chizik getting coach of the year mentions, Sagarin would have Georgia as only a three-point dog on a neutral field against Auburn.  If Jordan-Hare is really homefield for Georgia (the Dawgs are 6-2-1 in their last nine trips to the Plains), isn’t that game a pick ‘em?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Is Knoxville Burning?

It makes perfect sense to go from defending Brett Favre to saying a kind word about the head coach of the University of Tennessee, right? So Derek Dooley compared his team's situation to that of the German soldiers facing the Allied assault at Normandy. This actually makes me like Dooley more. For one thing, his comments show that he has actually opened a history book and read some pages. He is aware of the Allies' dummy army that deluded the Germans into thinking that the assault was coming at Calais. How many other head coaches at major programs can you see opening a history book (or a book of poetry, or good literature, or biology? I'm not wedded to my major here.) and then showing that they comprehended what they read? These coaches are the highest paid employees at major universities. Why shouldn't they indicate an interest in learning for its own sake?

And then the mock furor from the media is just hilarious. First of all, it's a f***ing analogy! Dooley isn't saying that his players are literally soldiers in the Wehrmacht. He's not saying that his players are in a life-or-death situation. Why the hell is the media reaction inevitably so literal? And since when were military analogies off limits when discussing football?

I have an idea: let's ban the use of the term "blitz" because we don't want linebackers to be confused and thinking that they are actually piloting a Heinkel 111 over Coventry. That makes as much sense are complaining about Dooley's use of D-Day.

Second, this may be news to the morons who are turning Dooley's comments into some sort of mini-scandal, but the Germans in the pillboxes at Omaha Beach were probably not ardent Nazis. The immediate reaction from the members of the media (people whom I would guess know less about the subject than Dooley) was: World War II! Germans! Nazis! Hitler! Holocaust! Making the limited point that one's players shouldn't sit around waiting for orders like the Germans did in pissing away their limited window to sweep the Allied forces back into the English Channel does not turn his players into guards at Treblinka. There is a distinction to be made between the average German 20-year old fighting under orders and the nuts who led the world to disaster. (Yes, I know that Daniel Jonah Goldhagen would disagree.) At a minimum, there is a shade of grey here, but that would be news to people reacting to Dooley's comments.

All that said, Dooley's analogy could be better. The Germans did face a massive armada at Normandy, but they had dug-in positions, better tanks, and better artillery. Does that sound like 2010 Tennessee to you? They ended up losing because they were outnumbered, they were indecisive in repelling the invasion, and the Allies had total air superiority, which limited the Germans' ability to move their forces around. The better analogy would have been to the Red Army soldiers facing the German invasion in June 1941. That was another instance of soliders of a totalitarian goverment waiting for orders while facing an attack, only in this instance, they were also hopelessly outmatched because of mistakes that their leaders had made years before. (I guess this makes Fulmer into Tukhachevsky and his firing into the 1937 purge?) But wait, that means that the Tennessee players are all Stalinists! OUTRAGE!!!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Follow-up on the Rooney/Favre Post

So it turns out that Wayne Rooney is staying after all. I don't know what this says about my complaint that the American sports media is starting too look too much like the Fleet Street tabloids. It is interesting that I went for a run this morning and listened to a Guardian podcast in which Kevin McCarra made the point that it's hard to know what's going on in the saga because everybody is lying. That point seems especially salient now.

A few other thoughts:

1. The NFL's stance on Favre illustrates a major difference between American pro sports leagues and the EPL. In the U.S., it's possible for the NFL to suspend a player for legal activity. The commissioners of the major sports leagues have enormous power over their players and franchises. In contrast, the English Premier League has very little power over its teams. The big story across the pond last week was the legal wrangling over the sale of Liverpool to John Henry's New England Sports Ventures. Liverpool were in a financial pickle in the first place because Tom Hicks (owner of the Texas Rangers) and George Gillett (owners of the Montreal Canadiens) bought the club, but had to take out an enormous amount of debt to do so. They dumped that debt onto the club, which meant that Liverpool's operating profits went to interest payments instead of upgrading the squad or building a new stadium at Stanley Park. The EPL either could not or would not prevent Hicks and Gillett from buying the club in a manner that made future problems very likely. Manchester United faces similar problems, as its American owners - the Glazer family of Tampa Bucs fame - took out debt to buy the club and are now paying unsustainable interest rates to maintain ownership. Thus, the two most famous teams in the EPL faced the same issue - crippling debt - because of the EPL's lax stance towards ownership. It's interesting that the U.S. is considered to be more of a free market economy than England, but England's biggest sports league takes a laissez-faire approach to ownership, whereas American sports leagues (and especially the NFL) are tightly regulated.

2. In my defense of Favre, I didn't mention that it is fitting that a guy who clearly seeks out media attention as evidenced by his now-annual summer Hamlet imitation was hoist by his own petard. If you encourage close media scrutiny, then it's probably a good idea to make sure that your personal conduct with withstand the scrutiny. Sending pictures of your jewels is not a good idea, especially when the recipient came to fame in a contrived manner and thus would be exactly the sort of person who would disclose the pictures.

3. As to the sexual harassment angle, there are a variety of reasons why that doesn't seem to hold water (at least when looking at the angle from 30,000 feet). One issue is that Jenn Sterger was probably an independent contractor when working for the Jets. I raised this in the comments and someone asked if her wearing of a Jets jersey would make her an employee. The answer is no, but if you want to know more about the never-ending employee/independent contractor test, this is a good place to start.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

My First (and Likely Last) Post Defending Brett Favre

For those of you are are not inclined to like or follow the rest of the world's version of football, the big story this afternoon is that Wayne Rooney - the best player in England - has apparently demanded a transfer from Manchester United. Rooney suffered an ankle injury last spring and never fully recovered in time for the World Cup. As a result, he was one of the scapegoats for England's disappointing performance. (Note: the performance was only disappointing to those who are unaware that the English cannot pass and mover properly.) Rooney took a barracking from the English media for his performance in South Africa. The criticism went to new heights this fall when the tabloids reported that Rooney cheated on his pregnant wife with a prostitute. (Most amusing part of the story: the prostitute in question saying something to the effect of "he's not as ugly in person.") Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson kept Rooney on the bench for the matches following the revelations, presumably to protect Rooney from abuse from the fans. (The fact that Rooney's first match after the infidelity story broke was at Everton, the club that Rooney left to join United, was also a factor.)

Now, it appears that Rooney's relationship with Ferguson is damaged, almost certainly because of the media firestorm. Ferguson famously decided that David Beckham was surplus to requirements after he appeared more interested in his wife and celebrity than football. Additionally, Rooney is not the first England star to suffer as a result of the Fleet Street tabloids' obsessions with the private lives of England stars. John Terry lost the England captaincy last year because of revelations that he cheated on his wife with a teammate's ex. England left back Ashley Cole has also dealt with intense attention after his cheating on his wife became a major story. England manager Fabio Capello has also been distracted by a row with the media after this back cover of The Sun:

In short, English football has a real problem with its tabloid culture. This isn't the only reason why England haven't made a major tournament final since 1966. It probably isn't even in the top five. However, it is an unappealing aspect of English football culture.

I mention England because the excessive focus on the sex lives of their star players has migrated across the Atlantic. I'm not going to be a Pollyanna and claim that Deadspin's "expose" on Brett Favre allegedly sending pictures of his package to Jenn Sterger is something new. Deadspin, TMZ, and the like have been engaged in this game for some time. What is new about the Favre situation is that the NFL appears to be giving serious consideration to punishing Favre, either by suspending him or by some other means. The buzzword that gets thrown around is that they are "protecting the Shield." If a player embarrasses the league through his personal conduct, then the NFL must punish that player to preserve its brand.

Leaving aside the ugly, authoritarian quality of punishing a player for behavior that is completely legal (and doesn't even involve cheating on his wife, although it implies that result as a possibility), the worst aspect of the NFL's stance is that it empowers gossipmongers. We're not talking about losing sponsors like Tiger Woods. We're not talking about an instance in which there is a good chance that a crime was committed even though no charges were brought like Ben Roethlisberger. We're talking about quasi-legal discipline by a sports league for completely private behavior. Assuming that the NFL punishes Favre in some manner, Deadspin will have a new power. When it uncovers evidence of famous athletes behaving badly, the Deadspin editors will know that their decision to run with the story could cause the athlete to be suspended. None of us should be happy about the notion that entities like Deadspin are going to have the power to cause a palace coup.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

You Wouldn’t Get Away with this in your Brother’s Courtroom

On the heels of the Marist poll reflecting that Northeasterners are unusual in that they do not know or care about college football, here is Gregg Easterbrook attempting to write about the Oregon offense. Let’s count how many mistakes our favorite this NFL fan makes when he steps out of his comfort zone:

First, let's examine what Oregon is doing. The blur offense combines four existing ideas -- the "pistol" set developed at the University of Nevada (itself a high-scoring team, averaging 43 points); the single-wing run fakes used since football became a sport, then forgotten as old-fashioned, and now revived; the triple-option that is a standby of high school and college football, though very rare in the NFL; and the spread set that was considered radical a decade ago but now is practically conventional.

My goodness, this is going to be a fish in a barrel Fisking. Oregon’s offense is not a heavy user of the Pistol. Watch the highlights of their shelling of Stanford. Not a single play in this highlights package comes from the Pistol. Every touchdown was scored from a normal shotgun, one-back set. Additionally, Easterbrook would be OK if he claimed that Oregon’s offense uses option principles, but he’s wrong when he uses the term “triple option” because one of the three options that a quarterback had in that offense was to bury the ball in the fullback’s gut. As best I can tell, Oregon does not use two running backs (all of its touchdowns against Stanford come from one-back sets), so it’s wrong to say that Darron Thomas has three running options on Oregon’s base plays when really, he has only two. (There is a triple option angle to the Spread ‘n’ Shred when a quarterback runs a zone read play and also has the option to throw a bubble screen if a corner or safety crashes from the outside, but I don’t recall Oregon using this approach. There is also a two-back version [or a back and a slot receiver version] that has a dive man and a pitch man, but I don't recall Oregon using this approach too much. Unlike Easterbrook, I’ll admit to not being an expert on the Ducks’ version of the Spread, so I’m willing to be corrected on this.)

The pistol set means the quarterback is 4 yards behind center, rather than 7 yards as in a shotgun. (A pistol is smaller than a shotgun.) Like the high school version of the spread, the blur involves lots of hitch screens, in which the quarterback quickly throws sideways to a wide receiver who's hitching. Being only 4 yards behind center means the quarterback gets the snap a bit faster and the hitch screen throw has slightly less distance to travel, arriving one second earlier. Saving a second helps accelerate the tempo. In the pistol, the tailback is behind the quarterback rather than next to him as in the shotgun. This means the tailback takes his handoff moving forward with momentum, rather than standing still as in a shotgun's draw action.

I’ve never heard someone claim that an advantage of the Pistol is that a screen pass gets to a receiver quicker. We’re not talking about a second faster; we’re talking about a fraction of a second faster. The major advantage is the second one that Easterbrook briefly describes: the offense combines a traditional downhill running game with the advantages of the shotgun (quarterback gets the ball facing the defense).

The old single-wing involved constant confusion about whether the ball was going forward, end-around or to a pitchman who came in motion from the outside back toward the formation. The Miami Dolphins rediscovered single-wing fakes in 2008 with the Wildcat formation, and the blur offense uses lots of single-wing confusion. Sometimes the quarterback fakes to the tailback into the line and then goes into the opposite side of the line in an old-fashioned move, now being rediscovered, called the "midline option." Sometimes the quarterback sprints outside with the motion-man pitchman behind him, basically a high-tech variation on the triple-option. Often, the quarterback executes a zone-read with the tailback. Everybody's doing the zone-read in college football this season; the blur offense just executes it really quickly.

Yes, the Miami Dolphins “rediscovered” the single wing offense if by “rediscovered,” you mean “hired Arkansas’s quarterbacks coach and implemented an offensive set that the Hogs had been using for two years, leading NFL fans to go wild over a new idea that college fans had seen for a while.” And no, Gregg, you have no idea what the midline option is. It doesn’t involve a fake to the tailback going into the line; it involves the tailback going outside with an unblocked defensive tackle hopefully following him, at which point the quarterback cuts inside into the space vacated by the defensive tackle. But nice try.

Pass patterns are minimal, which keeps the quarterback's mind from melting under the pace. Oregon runs hitch screens, then occasionally fakes a hitch screen and sends a receiver on the fake side deep. That's it -- that's the blur offense passing tree.

Do any Oregon fans want to comment on the claim that the only pass patterns in the offense are hitch screens (as opposed to bubble screens or any one of a number of different types of screens that the Spread ‘n’ Shred deploys) and fly patterns?

The blur offense has maybe 20 plays, though several involve an option about who carries the ball. A very simple playbook allows Oregon to perfect the execution and snap really quickly. Players on the field couldn't possibly understand hand signals for a conventional 50-play college playbook.

I haven’t watched enough Oregon football to comment on the claim that the playbook is only 20 plays long, but I’m pretty damn sure that Easterbrook hasn’t, either. By way of comparison, the Urban Meyer version of the offense has a lot more plays and it is plenty effective (or at least it was when the Gators had a quarterback who could run the ball. That reminds me of the most basic element of the Spread ‘n’ Shred that Easterbrook doesn’t mention: the offense deploys the quarterback as a running threat and therefore outnumbers the defensive front).

Fantastic offense hardly ensures a BCS bowl win for the Ducks. Oklahoma set the NCAA scoring record at 58 points per game in 2008, using a variation on the high school-style Franklin spread. The Sooners went on to lose to Florida in the BCS title game.

Does Easterbrook mean the Tony Franklin spread? If that’s the case, then no, that’s not what Oklahoma ran. Through the miracle of a Google search, we can determine that no one has described Oklahoma offense as the Franklin spread. (Want to try again, Greg? Try starting with Kevin Wilson and the Northwestern version of the Spread.)

One last thought on Easterbrook’s sudden infatuation with Oregon: it’s not surprising that he would fixate on Oregon’s version of the spread (as opposed to Florida’s or Michigan’s, for example) because Easterbrook loves to bitch about "football factory" schools and by focusing on cute little Oregon with its coach from New Hampshire and its Donald Duck mascot, he doesn’t have to worry about sullying himself. If only he understood the terminology that he tosses around.

Monday, October 11, 2010


The Baseball G-ds giveth and they taketh away.  Friday night, the Braves rally from 4-1 down in the eighth, survive what looked like mortal doom in the top of the tenth, and then win in the eleventh.  Last night, the Braves get a dramatic home run from Eric Hinske (a carbon copy of his game-winning blast in the final week of the season against the Marlins) in the eighth, only to watch the lead get frittered away in the ninth.  The lead was lost because Billy Wagner wasn’t around to close the game, Martin Prado wasn’t around to field what would have been an inning-ending grounder, and Bobby Cox came to get Craig Kimbrel too soon.  (Would you rather rise or fall on the guy who allowed 3.9 hits per nine innings or the guy who allowed 7.1?  And keep in mind that Aubrey Huff hits as well against lefties as he does righties.  Maybe Bobby, always thinking of the long-term picture, wanted to make sure that Kimbrel didn’t have a Mark Wohlers moment.)

Brooks Conrad is going to end up as the goat.  He made a pair of errors and also made the Braves’ lives more difficult by popping up a bunt in the eighth.  He has been dreadful in the playoffs, but I can’t get mad at him.  For one thing, he’s a utility guy who has been forced into the lineup because two Braves infielders are out for the year, which has meant that the existing utility guy (Omar Infante) has become an everyday player and then Conrad has had to follow him into the lineup.  Getting mad at Conrad would be like getting mad at the Falcons’ third-string quarterback for losing a game.  For another, the Braves wouldn’t be where they are without Conrad.  The team made the playoffs by one game.  Take away any two of Conrad’s late-inning hits over the course of the season (and there is a panoply from which to choose) and the Padres are in the playoffs instead of the Braves.

Also taking the heat off of Conrad: the Braves are clearly inferior in this series.  I was annoyed on Thursday night that the Braves lost 1-0 on a run that: (1) was out at second earlier in the inning; and (2) scored on a play that Infante should have made at third.  Then I reminded myself that the Braves got three runners on all night and it’s hard to win when you don’t come close to scoring.  The Giants, in contrast, had nine runners in the game, so not only did they get the run, but they also had the majority of the scoring threats.  Yesterday was no different.  We can beat ourselves up over the top of the ninth or we can note that by the end of the game, the Giants had put 15 runners on to the Braves five.  The big issue in this series is that the Braves can’t touch the Giants’ starters because our hitters are swinging at everything.

One final thought: I was happy when I saw Paul Emmel behind the plate, thinking that he would feel guilty about butchering the play at second in Game One that led to the Giants’ only run.  Sadly, this didn’t play out, as Emmel hosed the Braves’ hitters repeatedly.  It’s like Emmel is seeking vengeance on behalf of all umps for years of earfuls from Bobby.  The hell with him. 

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Jim Delany as Paul Wolfowitz

In light of the recent Marist poll reflecting that the Northeast is a college football wasteland, doesn't the Big Ten's rumored interest in Rutgers or UConn look like a colossal risk? The Big Ten expanding into the Northeast would be like the US's adventure in Iraq: an attempt to bring a concept - representative democracy and the political culture that accompanies it in the case of Iraq; football that doesn't require manufactured excitement in the case of the Northeast - to a culture that has no recent experience with the concept.

Incidentally, the poll reflects that a higher percentage of people in the Midwest follow college football a great deal. I'd like to see a breakdown of the states that comprise the Midwest and the South. I'd bet that the Deep South's score would be high and then it would be diluted by the responses from the Border States. This leads me to a uncomfortable conclusion: you can probably track intense feelings about college football to the states that first seceded from the Union in 1861, possibly in order.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

My Top 25 is Both Innocent and Jejune

For my beloved Utah commenter who is no doubt working on his t-shirts for the soon-to-be three-time national champion Utes, here's Brian on where he thinks Utah should be placed:

Point one: Utah is not what you think it is. They leapt up on everyone's ballot thanks to an OT win over Pitt to open the year; Pitt went out and got clubbed by Miami 31-3. Utah's other games have been against terrible UNLV, terrible New Mexico, and terrible San Jose State. This is a typical random end-of-top-25 resume masquerading as a top ten team, and Miami should be well ahead of the Utes on everyone's ballot since their Pitt win was way more impressive (it was even on the road!) and they went to Clemson and won by two scores. Raise your hand if you think Utah beats OSU on the road. Right, then.

I assume that your response will be something along the lines of "of course we would beat Ohio State in Columbus, and then the Utes would clobber the Bengals in Cincinnati the next day before driving west to lose a squeaker to the Colts in Indy.

And speaking of the upstarts from big, empty states, why doesn't Utah play Boise State? Boise State bitches that major powers won't play them. I assume that Utah will make the same complaint when their strength of schedule is held against them in December. Why don't these teams play?* Boise State and Utah are hamstrung by the bottom halves of their conferences, which are terrible. With four or five tomato cans on the schedule already, they can't afford to play any bad opponents in the non-conference slate. Utah can't afford to play San Jose State when they are already playing Wyoming, UNLV, Colorado State, and New Mexico. Ditto for Boise State playing Toledo and Wyoming when they're already playing San Jose State, Lousiana Tech, and New Mexico State. Boise State and Utah are each playing one of the worst teams in the other's conference; what's stopping you from playing one of the best?

* - Yes, this criticism will have less weight going forward when Utah is in the Pac Ten. This is mainly an issue for the inevitable complaints by Boise State and/or Utah at the end of the season if they are unbeaten and asking for their wins to be treated the same as those of teams that played better, deeper schedules.