Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Are you Almeria in Disguise?

That was better than sex. Or at least as good. I’m not certain. The last 20 minutes were certainly afterglow, the contentment of a job well done after Barca had plundered the net repeatedly. The Catalan sports dailies both agree, dubbing this Barca the Orgasm Team.

In retrospect, Real Madrid were beaten when Jose Mourinho announced in the lead-up to the match that Real needed to give the world a show. Since when have Mourinho’s teams ever been able to do that? Jose has shown the ability to do one thing right against the Blaugrana: park the bus. Using super-aggressive tactics, his Chelsea side escaped with a 2-1 defeat in 2005 that they were able to turn into a second leg win. Likewise, his Inter side scraped through with a 1-0 defeat last May using the same approach. When Real’s lineup contained “only” two anchor midfielders – Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, neither of whom are true Makeleles – they were done. From the outset, Barca heaped pressure on Los Merengues because Xavi, Iniesta, and Busquets had time on the ball in the center. That time allowed them to pick out the three Barca forwards. It even allowed Xavi to make a run himself to put away Iniesta’s pass for the opener. I was expecting Real to play a tight backline with assistance from a midfield three and one forward dropping back. Instead, Real got stretched and Barca punished them time and again. This game was 5-0 and it could have been ten. Ray Hudson was raving by the end that it is unfair to compare this Barca side to the Zico-Socrates-Falcao ‘82 Brazil side, or any other team in history for that matter. The performance was that good.

The indispensible Michael Cox of Zonal Marking makes several excellent, specific points about the tactical decisions that turned the match into a massacre:

Mourinho started the game with his wingers on the opposite flanks to usual – Ronaldo out on the right and Angel di Maria on the left, presumably to work around the problem of Real defending against Dani Alves, as Di Maria is the better defensive player. Whilst Mourinho is generally a reactionary manager anyway, in a sense Guardiola had won the first battle of the match without a ball being kicked, since Mourinho felt the need to play his most dangerous player somewhere other than the position where he had been turning in incredible performances so far this campaign.

Ronaldo is not alien to the right wing, of course – it is the position where he established himself at Manchester United. However, Mourinho is clearly a fan of stability – he’s changed his starting XI as little as possible so far this season, and considering how well Ozil (who plays left-of-centre) links up with Ronaldo, breaking up that combination was a surprise, and was (a small) part of the reason why Ozil wasn’t very effective in this game. There’s also an argument that Ronaldo playing high up the pitch on the right indirectly opened up space on the flank for Iniesta, who often moved to Barca’s left.

Far be it from me to ever defend Cristiano Ronaldo, but this game was a little unfair as a referendum in the debate as to whether Ronaldo or Messi is the best player on the planet. (We resolved this a while ago, didn’t we?) Ronaldo was reduced a pile of useless tricks, a shove at Pep Guardiola, and one instance of penalty box theatrics. Carles Puyol put Ronaldo on a leash and took him for a stroll, not unlike the 2008 Champions League Final. (Having a center back who can play as a right or left back is a huge advantage. Puyol played on the outside of the back three and was able to run with Ronaldo all day. A conventional center back would get eaten alive in open space by Ronaldo.) That said, Ronaldo had precious little support. He was decoupled from Ozil, who was totally absent from the match, and he got very little from the midfield or the fullbacks. When Ronaldo had the ball, he either didn’t have options in the form of intelligent runs from Benzema and Di Maria or he didn’t pick those runs out. (I’m leaning towards the former.) In contrast, Messi got service from his midfield and Villa kept popping up in dangerous spots. Thus, Messi had a major impact on the game without scoring in that he assisted on the third and fourth goals. The game underlined the point that Messi is a far better passer than Ronaldo. Real didn’t quite know how to handle him, which was a surprise after Mourinho was able to use Javier Zanetti and Esteban Cambiasso to shackle their countryman in last year’s Champions League semifinal. Cox makes this point:

Sometimes you simply cannot stop Messi. How could Real have done it? Well, they could have used another holding player, and the introduction of Lassana Diarra for Ozil at half-time was nothing more or less than the obvious – an admission Mourinho got his starting line-up wrong. Against truly top-class opposition, especially a team playing a player ‘in the hole’ (as Messi often was, despite nominally playing as a forward), Alonso as the deepest midfield doesn’t work – he is neither particularly mobile nor a good tackler, and needs an enforcer alongside him. The Champions League final of 2005 showed that particularly well.

So Mourinho is faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, part of Real’s failing tonight was that their offside trap was totally ineffective and they can remedy that issue simply by playing more games together. (This explanation isn’t entirely convincing because Ricardo Carvalho is the only new member of the back line, but he was the weak link tonight.) On the other hand, Mourinho cannot play for a draw when the teams meet again in Madrid on April 16. The fans at the Bernabeu will not stand for negative tactics as that will be an admission that Real cannot go toe-to-toe with their arch-rival. (Then again, this point is patently obvious. Barca have won five in a row against Real by a margin of 16-2 and haven’t conceded in over 300 minutes against Franco’s favorite team.) Moreover, if Barca come into the game with the lead in La Liga, then Real will have to go for the win. Can Real play the tighter, more defensive style that appears to be their only hope against the Blaugrana and still go for the win? Is the answer no more complicated than that Real don’t have the same defensive personnel as Inter? Jose can take a trip to the local theatre to ponder.

As for Barca, this win answers a number of questions. Will David Villa fit in with his new team? Two goals and an assist say yes. Will Pep figure out his best XI? I’d say that the unit tonight will be the starters in crunch matches going forward, especially because Abidal provides defensive balance opposite Dani Alves. (Note that Javier Mascherano is not part of the preferred XI. I still don’t know why Barca spent so much on a guy who provides depth behind Busquets.) Can the youngsters fill out the bench? Jeffren’s coup de grace goal set up by Bojan is a good sign. Will the boardroom political fighting between the Laporta and Rosell factions undermine the team? Maybe someday, but that day is not today. Can Xavi’s Achilles tendon hold up? Time will tell, but he looked great tonight. Will Mourinho’s move to La Liga unsettle the team? Eh, seems unlikely.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Sunday Splurge Wants Better Jimmies and Joes

I thought that nerds were smart?

I get the point that Georgia Tech fans were pessimistic going into the game in Athens on Saturday night with the Jackets 6-5, missing their starting quarterback, and coming off of an unimpressive performance against Duke.  In light of those expectations, losing 42-34 in large part because of a missed PAT seems like a victory.  However, this part of Mark Bradley's post-game column is excessively optimistic:

In the end his team lost, but the same Tech man who’d told me after the Jackets’ uninspiring defeat of Duke that he fully dreaded Saturday night in Athens was positively giddy in this losing aftermath. And another Tech man, the former captain Taz Anderson, sent this e-mail 18 minutes after the final whistle: “Tonight you saw a great football coach take a group that has little talent and keep them in a game where they were clearly overmatched.”

OK, I know what (some of) you Bulldogs are saying to that: “They’re Techies and they lost– who cares what they think?” And under other circumstances I might agree. But after this wild night I’d suggest both sides saw  the same game, which is to say an on-paper mismatch that became an on-field white-knuckler. And I’d also ask this: When was the last time Georgia’s coach worked a game that good?

If Tech has little talent, then whose fault is that?  Partially Chan Gailey’s, but at least partially Paul Johnson.  Do Tech fans not understand that the head coach has a major role to play in determining whether his team will have talent, either directly by recruiting players himself or indirectly by hiring the coaching staff?  Put another way, are Tech fans viewing Saturday night as a lab experiment in which the guy in the white coat did his best to get a reaction out of the materials at hand, all while ignoring the fact that that guy is responsible for the materials in the first place?  If Tech’s roster is full of promising underclassmen who were recruited by Johnson and is suffering because of Gailey’s last classes, then I guess this response makes sense, but I don’t see that phenomenon when I look at the Jackets’ mix of players.  To me, the post-game reaction places way too much emphasis on the coaching decisions that we see with our eyes (Johnson’s decision to let Georgia score at 35-34 and Richt falling for the gambit) and not enough on the coaching decisions that we don’t see (recruiting good players 365 days per year).

Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Tiebreaker)

Remember 2008 when the Big XII South (and therefore a shot at playing Florida in the national title game) was decided with the Big XII using the BCS rankings to split a three-way tie?  Remember how large segments viewed this as a travesty?  At this point, it seems fairly well accepted that this is the way to split a three-way tie.  The Big XII South is going to be settled by this method, as will the Big Ten.  As best I can tell, no one is clamoring for a return to using other methods.

The Big XII South coming down to BCS rankings makes perfect sense because it has a three-way tie in which the three teams each went 1-1 against one another.  The Big Ten’s three-way tie is a little more complicated.  Because Michigan State didn’t play Ohio State, there isn’t a complete set of results for the three teams tied atop the conference.  (By the way, if you want a good argument in favor of the Big Ten implementing a championship game, how about the fact that 27% of the conference gets to claim that they are conference champions?  Another good argument: money.)  Michigan State went 1-0 against the other two teams; Wisconsin went 1-1; and Ohio State was 0-1.  On the other hand, Michigan State is behind Wisconsin and Ohio State in the human polls and the BCS computer polls.  The Spartans are well behind the Badgers and Buckeyes according to Sagarin (they would be an 11-point underdog on a neutral field against Ohio State), Massey, and SRS.  In short, there is near-universal consensus that Michigan State is the weakest of the three teams tying for the Big Ten title, a conclusion that comes from the fact that the Spartans had very close calls with 7-5 Notre Dame, 7-5 Northwestern, and 4-8 Purdue.  With 36 games of evidence showing that Michigan State is not as good as Ohio State or Wisconsin, isn’t it better to use that evidence to determine the Rose Bowl bid as opposed to common record in two games (or, even worse, the fact that the Spartans haven’t been to Pasadena as recently as the Buckeyes or Badgers)?

Can Chuck Neinas find a defensive coordinator?

In 2009, Michigan finished a disappointing 71st in yards per play allowed.  As bad as that showing was, Michigan was ahead of Texas A&M (90th) and Florida State (105th).  A&M and Florida State both hired young, promising defensive coordinators, while Michigan stuck with Greg Robinson.  A&M returned nine starters on defense, Michigan returned seven, and Florida State returned six.  In 2010, the Aggies and Noles both improved to 11th in yards per play allowed, while Michigan plummeted to 100th.  The contrast was especially stark this weekend, as Texas A&M and Florida State both notched impressive wins over their arch-rivals, while Michigan was dominated (again) by Ohio State.  Yes, Ohio State is much better this year than Florida or Texas, but is there much doubt that Michigan would make John Brantley and Garrett Gilbert look like their predecessors under center?

This example can cut one of two ways when evaluating Rich Rodriguez.  On the one hand, he made a major staffing mistake unlike two other offensively-minded head coaches and that mistake would be a legitimate basis for termination.  On the other hand, if Rodriguez got another shot and found his version of Tim DeRuyter or Mark Stoops, then Michigan’s defense could show similar, marked improvement in 2011.

Random Thoughts on the Iron Bowl

  • What is it with Auburn and the late rallies?  I get the fact that the Tigers sub liberally, so their defense is fresher in the fourth quarter.  That said, how does one explain their tendency to get torched by star receivers for two to three quarters before shutting them down in the fourth?  Does it take Ted Roof a while to realize that maybe he should be shading his coverage toward A.J. Green and Julio Jones?  And will he learn his lesson when the Tigers get a second crack at Alshon Jeffery this weekend?  On offense, Auburn and Oregon share a tendency to get better as the game goes on.  I see two explanations here.  First, their no-huddle offenses play at a fast pace and wear opposing defenses out.  (Maybe the Auburn and Oregon defenses are especially well-conditioned because of practicing against their offenses?  Can the Spread be an advantage to a defense?)  Second, Gus Malzahn and Chip Kelly are both very bright offensive minds, so they adjust to what the defenses are throwing at them over the course of 60 minutes.  That said, Auburn got back into the Iron Bowl on the strength of two basic fly patterns, one of which was badly misplayed by Mark Barron.  Jeff Bowden would be so proud.
  • On the list of things that Gary Danielson got wrong this year, let’s add in the fact that he wanted Auburn to punt on fourth and three from the Alabama 47 on what turned out to be the winning drive of the game.  Anytime you have a team with a great offense and a merely decent defense, you want the game to come down to the defense instead of the offense, right?
  • The personal foul on Nick Fairley in the first quarter was insane.  Ohio State was also the victim of a pair of dreadful “too much happiness” calls on Saturday, which makes me dread a world in which refs will have increased powers to make meaningful excessive celebration calls next year. 
  • 36, 102, 69.  Those numbers represent Alabama’s rushing totals in the Tide’s three losses this season.  Remember before the season when the discussion was whether the Ingram-Richardson tailback pairing was the best in college football history?  The most interesting inquest following the 2010 Alabama season is what happened to the running game.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Barnhart's False Dichotomy

Professor Tom Collier, one of my favorite teachers in college, addressed Harry Truman's decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan by saying that the answer all depends on the question that you ask. If the question is "was dropping the bombs better than invading Japan?," then the answer is obviously yes. If the question is "was dropping the bombs (and especially the second bomb over Nagasaki after we had already made the point that we had an unprecedented weapon) better than letting the diplomatic process play out?," then the answer is a lot less clear because there is a lot of evidence that the Japanese were about to surrender anyway.

I was reminded of that lesson when I read Tony Barnhart's "what if Auburn loses to Alabama and beats South Carolina?" piece yesterday because Barnhart frames the debate in such a way that it inherently favors Auburn:

If the choice is among 12-1 Auburn, 12-0 Boise State and 12-0 TCU for a No. 2 vote, who do the pollsters choose? Do they take a one-loss team from the conference that has won four straight national championships? Or do they use the controversy surrounding Newton as an excuse to give one of the little guys a chance?
In other words, do the voters make their decision based on precedent (the SEC's performance in BCS Championship Games) or conjecture (the swirling rumors about Cam Newton's recruitment)? If you pose the question that way, then the answer is obvious. However, Barnhart ignores the possibility that if Auburn loses to Alabama, then Boise State will have a better resume and would therefore be the more deserving team to go to Glendale. By ignoring the "which team is better if Auburn loses to Alabama?" question, Barnhart controls the answer.

If we ask the right question, then the Broncos come out ahead. Boise has dominated their schedule to a sick degree. They are #2 in the nation in yards per play gained and #1 in yards per play allowed. Their yards per play margin of +3.85 is unlike anything that I've ever seen. (By comparison, 2004 Utah, which is the other recent mid-major team that was deserving of national title consideration, was +1.8.) The major computer polls that account for scoring margin - Sagarin, Massey, and SRS - all place Boise State at #2 behind Oregon. In short, Boise State has a case to play for the national title even if Auburn doesn't lose. Personally, I'd still have Oregon versus Auburn if both finish unbeaten, but it's not a foregone conclusion if you look at the numbers. If Auburn does lose one of its last two games, then the Broncos have to hurdle the Tigers, not because of Cecil Newton, but because Boise State is a great football team with a compelling resume.

Barnhart's precedent point has a number of flaws. First, Boise State can equally point to precedent since they are 2-0 in BCS bowls (and I think that they were underdogs both times). Second, none of the four SEC teams that have won the last four national titles were anything like Auburn on defense. (And let's remember that this is Tony Barnhart we're talking about, the guy for whom the '80 Georgia/'09 Alabama model of tough defense, great running, and a game manager quarterback is positively arousing.) Third, this edition of the SEC isn't quite as good as the last four, mainly because the SEC East has been a disaster zone (as evidenced by the fact that South Carolina won it).

I'm as much of an SEC homer as the next resident of the Peach State, but columns like Barnhart's rein in that tendency. To be worthy of the title, Mr. College Football ought to acknowledge what Boise State has put together this season. I'm no fan of the Broncos, but it's hard to argue with their results.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Auburn Defense is Neither Auburn, nor a Defense. Discuss.

It’s been a fun few weeks reading stories about Alabama’s underground economy,* but Camkampf has obscured a more pressing issue for those of us who love SEC football: is the Auburn defense good enough to win a national title?  We know that the offense is outstanding.  We know that Nick Fairley is both inappropriately named and also an immovable object in the center of the defensive line.  We know that the Auburn secondary is suspect and facing a senior quarterback, Julio Jones, and a road game against the defending national champions.  So where does this defense stack up?  As ESPN’s Eliminator points out, the defense makes Auburn dissimilar from recent national champions. ($)  But I don’t like their numbers, so I thought that I would use a few of my own.

* – The story of the various scandals involving Auburn’s and Alabama’s NCAA violations would make for a great fourth section in Eric Schlosser’s Reefer Madness.  An economist would look at college football in Alabama and would not be surprised in the slightest that the state’s two major programs have both been hit by major sanctions on numerous occasions.  You have a state where there are no pro sports teams, so all of the sports interest is funneled into college football.  Evolution has given the state a bipolar set-up in which there are two major programs: a historically successful alpha program and a not-quite-as-good, but striving oh so hard second program.  The state is relatively poor and looked down upon by the rest of the country, so its college football teams become a matter of great importance and pride.  Put on top of that cauldron the ineffective lid of the NCAA’s weak, subpoena-free enforcement apparatus that isn’t a major deterrent to paying players and you have a situation in which it would be surprising if Auburn and Alabama were not forking out $200,000 for quarterbacks.  As my copy of Fab Five looks down from my bookshelf and snickers, I’m not saying that Auburn and Alabama are the only schools that flout NCAA rules.  I’m just saying that the state’s set-up makes that phenomenon likelier than in other places.

Last summer, I took a look at the yards per play numbers for national champions over the course of the decade.  Here’s what that list looked like in terms of yards per play allowed (with 2009 Alabama added in):

2009 Alabama – 4.05
2008 Florida - 4.46
2007 LSU - 4.42
2006 Florida - 4.32
2005 Texas - 4.39
2004 USC - 4.27
2003 USC - 4.41
2003 LSU - 4.02
2002 Ohio State - 4.66
2001 Miami - 3.93
2000 Oklahoma - 4.14

And here is yards gained per play:

2009 Alabama – 5.96
2008 Florida - 7.13
2007 LSU - 5.84
2006 Florida - 6.34
2005 Texas - 7.07
2004 USC - 6.33
2003 USC - 6.49
2003 LSU - 5.89
2002 Ohio State - 5.61
2001 Miami - 6.57
2000 Oklahoma - 5.99

And here’s what those ten national champions looked like in terms of yards per play margin:

2009 Alabama – 1.91
2008 Florida - 2.67
2007 LSU - 1.42
2006 Florida - 2.02
2005 Texas - 2.68
2004 USC - 2.06
2003 USC - 2.08
2003 LSU - 1.87
2002 Ohio State - 0.95
2001 Miami - 2.64
2000 Oklahoma - 1.85

Auburn is currently gaining 7.6 yards per play and allowing 5.18,  giving the Tigers a yards per play margin of 2.42.  So there are two conclusions to be made here.  First, Auburn’s defense is weaker than any of the ten teams to win national titles in the aughts.  The Tigers allow a half a yard per play more than any of those ten teams.  On the other hand, Auburn’s offense is better than any of those ten teams.  Only 2005 Texas and 2008 Florida gained over seven yards per play; Auburn is almost a full half-yard per play better than either of them.  (Note for Gary Danielson: what do 2005 Texas and 2008 Florida have in common?  You know, in terms of the offenses that they ran?  Take a wild guess.)  So while Auburn’s defense doesn’t look like a national championship defense, the team as a whole would fit in with 2008 Florida, 2005 Texas, and 2001 Miami in the cluster of the best national champions of the decade.  (Caveat: Auburn hasn’t yet played the toughest game on its schedule.  After the Iron Bowl, the SEC Championship Game, and a bowl game, one would expect the Tigers’ number to be lower.)  Despite playing several close games against inferior opponents, 2010 Auburn does not have the statistical profile of the insanely fortunate 2002 Ohio State team.

So here’s the takeaway (and one that I was not thinking when fingers hit keyboard this morning): the focus on Auburn’s defense is a little myopic.  A defense doesn’t exist in isolation; it’s part of a team.  If the team is producing great numbers overall, then do the individual components really matter that much?  This is the problem with ESPN’s Eliminator analysis.  It penalizes Auburn for not meeting certain defensive benchmarks, but it doesn’t reward the Tigers for blowing past the offensive benchmarks like Usain Bolt at middle school field day.  It’s possible that a team could be so extreme in terms of offensive strength and defensive weakness that it could have a good yardage margin, but would still be unlikely to win a national title.  A team that gained 13 yards per play and allowed ten would be better in yardage margin than any of the last ten national champions, but we would expect a team like that to lose a game or two 63-59.  It doesn’t seem to me that Auburn is quite that extreme.

By the way, this post has done nothing to push me off the position that Gus Malzahn is more valuable than Gene Chizik.  If Auburn were faced with a choice between the two, it should keep the former.  It would be insane for the Tigers to fire a coach who just won the SEC, but there is a precedent for that from their friends in Tuscaloosa. 

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Sunday Splurge is Thinking about Lucky Charms

Maybe Close Games Aren’t Random

One of the basic tenets of my football philosophy is that teams that win a disproportionate share of close games are “lucky.”  Ohio State 2002 didn’t have some sort of magical clutchiness; they just benefited from a series of fortunate events en route to becoming the weakest national champions of the decade.  I’m not sure if it was the LSU game on Saturday or the Falcons game yesterday, but I’m starting to reevaluate my beliefs.  Part of the reason why the notion of certain teams being clutch is silly is that the sample sizes are inevitably too small.  But then let’s think about how consistently LSU has won close games under Les Miles.  Saturday’s late win over Ole Miss pushed the Tigers to 25-9 under Miles in games decided by one score.  For college football purposes, that’s a reasonably large sample size.

So how can we explain this consistent success?  Let’s come back to the Falcons game yesterday.  Every set of downs seemed to follow the same pattern.  Mike Mularkey would send Michael Turner plodding into the line for a couple yards.  Then, when the team really needed yards, Matt Ryan would find Roddy White for nine yards to move the sticks.  That’s how a team ends up going 10-17 on third downs.  (Yes, Turner did end up with a good stat line in the game, but his line was 25 carries for 86 yards before the final drive in garbage time.)  The Falcons are 8-2 despite the fact that they don’t always play to their strength on offense, which is Ryan throwing the ball.  The Falcons are 5-1 in games decided by one score.  (Over Mike Smith’s tenure, the number is 15-7.)  To a certain extent, this is the result of good fortune (hi, Garrett Hartley!), but it’s also because the team is forced to play to its strength at the end of a close game.  So in a strange way, the team’s success in close games is actually a criticism of its approach.  If Mularkey called plays as if every possession were the final possession of a close game, then the Falcons wouldn’t be in so many close games in the first place.

Can we describe LSU in the same way?  Not exactly.  After all, a team with a dreadful passing game like the Tigers shouldn’t be criticized for relying heavily on the run.  Rather, LSU’s success in close games speaks to Gary Crowton’s incoherence as a playcaller.  There are a lot of good criticisms of Crowton; one of the best is that he doesn’t have a defined style, but instead calls a pastiche of plays that don’t fit together.  At the end of a tight game, he’s forced to go away from the grab bag and instead call the plays that work the best.  Voila, LSU can move the ball when their backs are against the wall. 

Maybe this approach was taught on Bo Schembechler’s staff in the 1980s, because Lloyd Carr had the same pattern.  Over 13 seasons, Carr went 46-27 in games decided by one score, including a perfect 4-0 in overtime.  Michigan fans often joked that Carr’s repeated mantra that the game would be decided in the fourth quarter was a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The 1999 team is the best example of this phenomenon.  With fifth-year senior Tom Brady throwing to David Terrell, Marquise Walker, and Aaron Shea and protected by an offensive line featuring Steve Hutchinson, Jeff Backus, and Maurice Williams, Michigan went 7-2 in games decided by one score because whenever Michigan really needed points, they would throw for them.  When they didn’t really need points, they would run Anthony Thomas between the tackles.

So here’s the modification of my theory.  In some instances, a team wins a lot of close games because they are lucky and the small sample size of success in tight games doesn’t tell us anything.  In other instances, a team that plays in a lot of close games and wins a high percentage of those games is underutilizing its talent.  Thus, it ends up in close games repeatedly and then wins those close games because the coaches stop dicking around in the last five minutes.    

Gainesville Gary Rides Again

Remember in October when the final minutes were ticking off in Columbia and Gary Danielson remarked that Alabama would need to go undefeated to have a shot at the national title.  At the time, I found the statement odd because Danielson will never miss an opportunity to pimp a one-loss SEC team for a spot in the title game.  Sure enough, the drumbeat started on Saturday night when Danielson was extolling the difficulty of beating Ole Miss (yes, the same Ole Miss team that lost to Jacksonville State) and opining that a one-loss SEC champion should get to play in Glendale.  Yes, Gary, a one-loss LSU team that (according to Sagarin) would be a 15-point underdog against Oregon, a 14-point underdog against Boise State, and a ten-point underdog against TCU should go to the national title game over at least two unbeaten teams.  And what measure could possibly lead you to conclude that LSU is more deserving for a spot in the title game than Stanford is, seeing as how Stanford has the same record, they’ve played a better schedule in an equivalent conference, and the Cardinal have destroyed all comers without requiring 13 men on the field or a magical lateral bounce to a running kicker to get where they are?(Actually, I think he’s setting up a soapbox moment in the SEC Championship Game in the event that Auburn loses on Friday.)  Maybe you should also explain to us how the Spread offense is receding … during the Iron Bowl that Auburn enters unbeaten because of its offense.

Everything is Coming up Boise

Boise State beat Fresno State 51-0.  Nevada got to the end of its schedule at 10-1, which means that Boise will be able to send voters to the polls with a win over a legitimate team on Friday.  (If the Broncos don’t win, then this is all moot.)  Virginia Tech hasn’t lost since dropping a game against the Broncos and then having a hangover special the following week against James Madison.  Meanwhile, TCU had to survive against San Diego State and its big non-conference win over Baylor has been devalued over the past several weeks.  We can only assume that Auburn is facing another week of Cam Newton allegations in the lead-up to playing Bama in Tuscaloosa.  All that leads to the conclusion that we are going to end up with an Oregon-Boise State national title game that will cause a rash of suicides in Bristol, Connecticut.  In a 1789 season, that would be a fitting conclusion.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

BCS, Please Stop Discriminating Against Smaller Programs by Following my Advice

Hey, Gregg Easterbook, contradict yourself in the space of two paragraphs:

And with TCU and Boise State undefeated but disfavored by the BCS setup, there's huge potential for a BCS title game that will be seen as completely bogus. The BCS insiders will do everything in their power to keep TCU or Boise State out of the title contest, and BCS insiders pull the strings.

Regardless, the obsession with style points and victory margins has gotten out of hand. One-third of the BCS ranking is based on the USA Today poll of coaches -- and most coaches are voting on hype and victory margins, since they can't possibly have time to watch film of any contenders they don't face. Retired college coach R.C. Slocum contends this poll of retired college coaches should replace the USA Today poll in the BCS formula, since retired coaches do have time to take a close look at film of every contending team.
First of all, Easterbrook, you're too smart to ignore the importance of margin-of-victory. If statisticians swear that, empirically speaking, rankings with scoring margin have greater predictive power and Vegas sharps who have skin in the game all base their models off of scoring and yardage stats, then someone who claims to have an appreciation for science and knowledge ought not dismiss scoring margin for purely aesthetic reasons.

Second, I guess it didn't occur to Easterbrook that including scoring margin is a saving grace for mid-majors like Boise State and TCU. Those teams will never be able to stay with major conference teams when computer rankings only take strength of schedule into account because their schedules aren't strong enough. The only way for them to keep pace is for the ranking to account for the fact that the Broncos and Horned Frogs are destroying their inferior opposition. The current set of Sagarin rankings proves my point. Boise State and TCU are #4 and #5 in Sagarin's Predictor, the ranking that accounts for scoring margin, and they are #12 and #6 respectively in his ELO-CHESS, the mathematical abomination that Sagarin produces for the BCS because he is required to do so.

Easterbook has two competing ideologies that are in tension with one another. On the one hand, he is a dime store moralist when it comes to scoring margin, suggesting that Wisconsin shouldn't have kicked extra points in the fourth quarter against Indiana. On the other hand, he is a critic of the BCS and major college football programs. The way for the BCS to open the door to smaller programs would be to allow its computer rankings to account for scoring margin. How does Easterbrook resolve the tension? He is either blissfully unaware of it (and I think he's too smart for that to be the case) or he willfully ignores it.

My Top 25 is Utah-free

So if I were to tell you before the year that one of Texas, Florida, and USC would be missing from the top 25 in mid-November, you would not have guessed that the Lane Kiffin team would be the one, right?

I went back and forth on TCU and Boise State. I like TCU more as a team, but I can't really justify ranking the Horned Frogs above the Broncos when TCU had a close call at home (and in the process gave up 35 points, thus cutting against the image of TCU having a dominant defense) and TCU's two big scalps - Utah and Baylor - both fell out of the rankings. Meanwhile, Boise State trucks right along, albeit against a really bad Idaho team. If they hold serve by dominating Fresno State and Nevada, then they'll be in poll position to play for the national title if Oregon or Auburn loses.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Clay Travis on Camkampf

I've enjoyed Clay Travis's writing on the Cam Newton story, but yesterday's column rubbed me the wrong way in a couple respects. Here's the first:

6. Cam Newton is, however, neither guilty nor innocent.

Those are terms reserved for criminal trial defendants. Right now Newton is something entirely different -- either eligible or ineligible. So please stop with all the Duke lacrosse e-mails about how people are innocent until proven guilty. These situations have nothing in common. Zero. The Duke lacrosse players faced years behind bars and were charged with a serious crime. Right now, all Newton faces is ineligibility in football. Let's be clear about this, there is nothing illegal, yet, about these Newton accusations.

What's more, saying that we need to reserve judgment until the "facts" are in -- as SEC commissioner Mike Slive did on Friday -- isn't fair because college football judgment is based upon our perceptions of the relative strength of teams. College football isn't a sport that's judged on "facts," it's a sport judged on our perceptions. Would Slive say it's unfair, for example, not to elect someone to the Senate if they faced a serious ethical charge during the campaign? Probably not, right, you should allow that to influence your opinion.

If my perception is, rightly, that Newton and Auburn aren't going to be able to keep any titles or awards they win this season, why is it then inappropriate to react based upon that perception? After all, every bit of the college football season is based upon perception. There's no playoff to determine which are the best teams, we have to come to a conclusion based upon what we see.

If anything, not reacting to these allegations is the irresponsible thing to do. That requires us to ignore what we clearly see before us -- that Newton and Auburn are in a world of trouble. Why is pretending that nothing is the matter better than considering that something is the matter?

It isn't.

You have to make a judgment in this situation. Either you believe Newton and Auburn are completely in the clear and you can support their title run or you believe that they aren't and you can't. Failing to make any decision at all isn't noble, it's the height of stupidity.
I was with Travis on the guilt and innocence point, but he goes off the rails with the perception point. Yes, college football has a two-team playoff and therefore perception matters, but it is perception of the teams' merits that matters. There is no Sagarin ranking for elgibility questions. There is no yards per game stat that accounts for Cecil Newton. If Auburn, the SEC, and the NCAA say that Cam Newton is eligible, then voters have an obligation to vote accordingly. There have been plenty of NCAA scandals that have not resulted in the forfeiture of games, so it is incumbent on us to see how this process plays out. It is possible that the NCAA will determine that Cecil Newton did ask for money from Mississippi State, but it won't force Auburn to forfeit its wins because Auburn neither knew, nor should have known about the issue. (I'm honestly interested in the answer to that question. Is Auburn strictly liable for its players' eligibility issues? Or does there have to be some level of negligence on Auburn's part?) In short, Travis is conflating relevant perceptions - how good is Auburn relative to other teams in college football - with irrelevant perceptions - how will the Newton story play out - in an effort to justify ... not voting for Auburn in the top 25?

And then this argument is really naive for someone with a legal degree:

11. Do you blame the Newton family if allegations of soliciting cash prove true?

Here's the rub: no, I really don't. As I've written and said a thousand times, my position is simple. If you're 18 years old, you should be able to make a living pursuing your chosen talent. The only people who can't in the entire United States are college football and basketball players. For some reason, we require that they serve an apprenticeship at college that makes universities a ton of money.

Again, we don't demand that Taylor Swift sing in the Vanderbilt chorus. Nope, we let her go pro.

This claim would be news to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. There is a collective bargaining exemption to the Sherman Antitrust Act. A union is free to bargain with an employer to set guidelines for entry into the workforce. The NFLPA has negotiated with the NFL to require that football players be three years out of high school before playing in the NFL. The NFLPA can do this in the same way that IBEW can create apprenticeship requirements for electricians. Stepping out of the union context, when I was 18, I wasn't permitted to start representing clients and trying cases. I had to go to college, then law school, then pass a bar exam. That's called a licensing requirement and I'm pretty sure that it's constitutional. I'd prefer a society that does not allow any 18-year old to perform surgery. So no, Clay, football players aren't the only people who can't do whatever they want when they're 18.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Sunday Splurge is Happy to Have a Heel

For much of the season, it felt like something was missing. Without most of the major powers in contention for the national title, I had a hard time working up the energy to dislike a team in the Glendale mix. Outside of Seattle, how does someone work himself into a lather about Donald Duck? Or about TCU and Boise State? We've lacked a really hateable program in the BCS discussion. We've also lacked a star player who gets so force-fed to us by the media that we all rebel and root against that player. Then, Saturday provided us with what the season has been missing: a heel. Say hello to this season's Snidely Whiplash: the Auburn Tigers. I'm not sure if it was: (1) the fawning coverage of Cam Newton having to go through the trauma of multiple credible reports suggesting that Auburn paid handsomely for his services; (2) Nick Fairley's attempts to mimic Darnell Dockett (what is it with outwardly religious coaches who preside over teams that seek to maim opposing quarterbacks to the echo of the whistle and beyond? And where is Chaz Ramsey when Auburn opponents really want him around?); or (3) Auburn fans showing their (cl)ass by booing an injured Georgia player, but at some point Saturday, I decided that a fifth straight SEC national championship is not worth the feelings of nausea that I would have rooting for this Auburn team.

Some of my frustration from the game was caused by the realization that Auburn is a Pac Ten team in disguise. SEC fans have routinely mocked teams from the Left Coast and, more recently, the Big XII for being offense-heavy units that are not truly great because they can't stop their opponents. Does that remind you of any team you saw on Saturday? Auburn's defense isn't exactly '98 UCLA, but if an opponent can block their front four, there are options aplenty going on in the secondary. Mike Bobo drove me crazy on Saturday because he didn't recognize that Georgia needed to be scoring touchdowns on every possession and the surest way to do so would be to keep throwing the ball to A.J. Green until Auburn showed that they could stop him by shifting their secondary. Green had a monster first half and then Georgia seemed to forget that they had the best NFL prospect on the field. The third down screen pass at 35-28 was an especially egregious example. If Auburn can't stop your downfield passing game generally and A.J. Green specifically, then why would you ever go away from it? If Steve Spurrier has something working, he'll call it ten times in a row until the opponent stops it. To use an example from another sport, Coach K is the same way. Bobo was either too cute or too committed to balance to realize that he had one major advantage and that he should just keep using that advantage. The Senator concurs:

But then there are the times when Sharp Bobo defers to Dogmatic Bobo, and we saw that yesterday when the Dawgs got the ball back in the second quarter leading 21-14. That’s the Bobo who reminds himself about things like time of possession, balance and number of plays run and forces his offense into an ideological straightjacket, because there’s a book on what an offensive coordinator is supposed to do to be successful and it’s important not to stray from those principles.

The thing is, Auburn’s defense has its flaws, too. The single worst unit I saw on the field yesterday was the Tigers’ secondary. As Danielson noted, they literally couldn’t cover A.J. There were several pass plays during which you could see on replay that Georgia had multiple receivers running open. And Murray was getting decent protection for the most part. The strategy there should have been to stick with what was working in the first quarter (at one point, Murray’s average yards per completion was an eye-popping 21.3) and damn the time of possession and number of plays stats. But that’s not what Bobo elected to do, and Georgia’s scoring pace slowed considerably from that point forward through the rest of the game.

I’ve always believed that the first rule of being a good offensive coordinator is to take what the defense gives you. In his heart, I think Bobo believes that as well. The difference is that he doesn’t trust his judgment enough to stick with it for an entire game. That’s what separates him from a coordinator like Malzahn. In the end, I think it’s the biggest (although not the only) reason for yesterday’s loss. And the question for Mark Richt is whether he can get Sharp Bobo to convince Dogmatic Bobo to take a hike.

The Malzahn comparison is dead on. Auburn didn't throw a single pass in the third quarter. Why? Because their basic running plays were working and there was no reason to deviate. Dan Mullen did the same thing against Georgia this year. To use a counter example, in the 2006 Rose Bowl, USC went from 3-3 at the half with Michigan to 32-10 ahead by abandoning the running game and throwing 29 straight passes. There's no need for balance when one aspect of your offense is working beautifully. Bobo needs to learn that lesson. I suspect that he's too traditional and would be offended by the notion of throwing 29 straight times, but that was the way that Georgia was going to avoid losing its sixth game of the year.

Speaking of Malzahn and Mullen, I kept waiting for Gary Danielson to acknowledge that his never-ending claim that the Spread is dying might be a tad weak in light of the fact that Auburn has overcome a mediocre defense to go 11-0 on the basis of an unstoppable Spread attack. Crickets.

A few other thoughts from the weekend:
  • I love the way some members of the media uses the term "style points" with such disdain when describing TCU's close call against San Diego State. Leaving aside the fact that "style points," a.k.a. scores, are statistically significant, how exactly does one separate unbeaten teams without them? Does anyone really want to parse out TCU's and Boise State's schedules?
  • Another benefit to Auburn losing one of their last two games: a non-AQ conference team will almost certainly make the national title game, which will puncture the air out of Mark Shurtleff's balloon.
  • Just to show that he does have something in common with Bo Schembechler, Rich Rodriguez mimicked Bo's decision to kick twice to Rocket Ismail by leaving his right tackles one-on-one with Ryan Kerrigan. Kerrigan repeatedly blew up Michigan's passing plays while Michigan's right guard Patrick Omameh looked for someone to block.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I Can’t Help it if I’m (un)Lucky, Michigan Edition

Following on my post arguing that Georgia is better than their record, I thought that I would do the same analysis for Michigan. This has been a strange year for Michigan fans to grasp. The offense and defense are both record-setting ($) in their own special ways. The team is hard to evaluate, especially in the context of deciding whether the future under Rich Rodriguez is promising enough to retain him as opposed to placing a call to Palo Alto. It’s strengths are so pronounced, as are its weaknesses. But is 6-3 a fair reflection of Michigan’s merit. On the one hand, Michigan is 4-0 in games decided by one score, so the record flatters them. On the other hand, Michigan yardage numbers are good, so maybe this team has been undone by sometimes fluky factors like turnovers, red zone performance, and special teams. To the chart we go!

YPP Off.YPP Def.YPP Mar.SagarinSRS
Ohio State6.14.2+1.988.2215.36
Mich. State6.05.2+.879.5612.16
Penn State5.55.9-.473.845.02

(Note: the yardage numbers come only from games against BCS conference opponents. This includes games against Notre Dame.)

The “Michigan has been unlucky” case is more of a mixed bag than the same case for Georgia. If you rely on yards per play margin, then Michigan is better than their record. By that measure, the Wolverines are in the conference’s second tier with Michigan State and Wisconsin, behind Ohio State and Iowa. Additionally, Michigan has only played one team in the bottom tier of the league (Indiana), so they should be even better in yards per play normalized for schedule. (Naturally, Michigan doesn’t play Northwestern and Minnesota, so the Big Ten’s schedule rotation has the Wolverines avoiding half of the bottom tier. If you want to know whether a Big Ten team is going to have a bad year, check to see if they are playing Michigan.) On the other hand, if you look at the computer ratings, which focus on points and strength of schedule, then Michigan and Penn State represent the proletariat of the conference, beneath Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Coming back to the one team from the Big Ten’s lower class that does appear on Michigan’s schedule, the Wolverines beat Indiana on a touchdown in the final minute despite outgaining the Hoosiers by a significant margin on a per-play basis. Yardage dominance did not translate into dominance on the scoreboard.

This gets back to an issue that vexed me on the morning after the “it’s not you, it’s me” loss to Penn State: Michigan’s poor special teams (namely their kickoff returns, kickoff coverage, and field goal kicking) and turnovers (namely the bad defense’s inability to force a turnover) meant that Michigan was not converting yardage into points:

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.

As you can gather from this paragraph, Rich Rodriguez can’t say that it’s purely a matter of luck that Michigan loses to teams that it outgains. The special teams problems should be fixable going forward. It’s not surprising that a team that has to start a bevy of underclassmen on defense would struggle on special teams, since those underclassmen would normally be focusing on special teams tasks. Likewise, a better coaching staff on defense, combined with natural maturation of young defenders, should improve the turnover numbers. For the purposes of this season, there are non-luck explanations for why Michigan’s points and record slot the team a tier below where their yardage says they belong.

The Wisconsin game becomes very important for Michigan. Assuming that Michigan doesn’t spit the bit this weekend in West Lafayette, Rich Rodriguez will have reached the seven wins that most people think will get him a fourth year in Ann Arbor. If Michigan can beat one-loss, top ten Wisconsin in the home finale, then the season will move from inconclusive to a success. (I know it’s dumb to put so much on any one game; I’m talking about the way that Michigan fans will feel emotionally about the season.) If you look at the team’s yardage margins, then Michigan is slightly better than Wisconsin and with homefield advantage, should be a slight favorite in the game. If you look at the computer ratings, then Michigan should be a 2-3 point underdog, which still gives the Wolverines a good chance in the game. Michigan-Wisconsin is not unlike Georgia-LSU; one team has had a much better season, but the yardage numbers reflect that they are quite close in terms of total merit. The problem is that Michigan has already played two teams like Wisconsin this year – Michigan State and Iowa – and lost by a combined total of 27 points. We’ve been here before.

Other thoughts from the numbers:

  • Ohio State and Iowa are the class of the conference. The game between those two teams should decide the conference title. Ohio State is a little better by every measure (although the yards per play number flatters them because they have played the three worst teams in the conference), but Iowa is at home. That should be a fun game. Also, it’s interesting that Iowa’s offense was their albatross last year, but it’s second in the Big Ten in yards per play this year.
  • The SEC is a little better than the Big Ten this year, but not by that much. The differences are that the SEC has three elite teams – Alabama, Auburn, and Arkansas – while the Big Ten has two, and the Big Ten has three terrible teams – Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota – while the SEC has only one that truly meets that definition. That said, the middle classes of the two conferences look fairly similar.
  • I’ll say the same thing about Michigan that I said about Florida and LSU: they’re a coordinator from being elite. If Michigan had the defenses of either Illinois or Michigan State, then their yards per play margin would put them up with Iowa and Ohio State at the top of the conference. Michigan’s defense probably has as much talent as those of the Illini and Spartans, although UM is definitely younger. I’m going to shill for Rodriguez yet again, but if he could just find a defensive staff to make the defense average, then his teams would contend for the Big Ten title.
  • The yards-per-play numbers don’t correlate with the computer rankings as tightly in the Big Ten as they did in the SEC.
  • If Michigan State and Wisconsin win out, they will be the worst 11-1 teams since … 2006 Wisconsin?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Barnhart: Mike Slive Should Take a Page from Carmelo Anthony's Book

I heartily co-sign on the Senator's post suggesting that Mike Slive needs to get SEC coaches together and deliver a Stop Snitchin' rant. What a classic good ol' boy response from Barnhart. Let's not worry about the fact that #2 ranked Auburn may have paid $200K for its star quarterback. (If I were Mississippi State's coaches, I'd be livid. There's a very good chance that Mississippi State would be unbeaten if not for the alleged payments by Auburn.) Let's not worry about the fact that the SEC is extremely successful on the field, but that success can be tarnished if the media narrative changes to "they're cheating again!" Let's instead worry about the fact that coaches are running their mouths to the press. (And it's interesting that Barnhart assumes that a coach is the the source for the allegation that Newton was accused of cheating at Florida. There are any one of a number of potential Deep Throats in Gainesville who could have leaked the information, most of whom would not be in the room when Slive reads the riot act that Barnhart recommends.)

Here's a better idea: Mike Slive convenes a meeting of SEC program decision-makers and tells them that paying players is a bad idea.

My Top 25 Will Need More than a Scholarship

Random Thoughts on the Ballot

To be totally consistent with my love for computer rankings that take margin-of-victory into account, I should have TCU over Auburn. In the end, I can't drop an unbeaten SEC team out of the top two, even if the Tigers did need late heroics to beat Clemson and Kentucky. I suspect that the issue will be mooted when Auburn loses one of their final three games, at which point we'll have to split hairs between TCU and Boise State.

Upon reflection, I don't have enough Pac Ten teams on my ballot. The Pac Ten has been good this year, so I ought to have more than three teams on my ballot. USC would make sense, but on the other hand, they escaped from a game with Arizona State by the skin of their teeth, so is that really much of an oversight? Oregon State is good, but they are 4-4. Cal can't win a game on the road and nearly gave Washington State their first conference win in a dog's year. At least one of those teams should have gone in toward the end so I could stop alternating SEC and Big XII teams.

I probably put Florida too high. And I feel dirty for ranking a Mike Sherman team. This is surely going to end badly for Texas. By the way, what deal with the devil did people in Texas make to get the Rangers to the World Series?

Brian Cook pointed out last week that I had Arkansas three spots higher than anyone else. We'll see if that remains true after the Hogs looked great in Columbia. Sagarin and SRS both slot Arkansas at #13, which is lower than where I have them on the ballot. Consider this vote an endorsement of their good yards-per-play margin.