Monday, August 29, 2011

Spurrier Versus Urban: Who Had the Bigger Impact?

My pissing matches with Heisman Pundit are usually just for fun.  My tiny niche on the Internet is the Statler & Waldorf role, usually by criticizing other writers and media types.  I like arguing, so this is an easy role to fill.  It also generates chances for cheap, lazy posts, so it is consistent with my half-assed approach to this endeavor.  However, my latest exchange with the college football blogosphere’s favorite PR guy actually led me to an interesting question: did Steve Spurrier have a bigger offensive impact on the SEC than Urban Meyer? This point seemed self-evident to me:

The funny thing is that HP could actually tell the story he’s trying to spin if he set 1990 as his starting point instead of 2005.  When Steve Spurrier came to the conference, it was in the throes of basic I-formation football.  The 80s were dominated by Vince Dooley early and Pat Dye late, with Johnny Majors having some success sprinkled in the middle.  Running and defense was the dominant style.  Spurrier’s passing attack took the conference completely by storm and his teams proceeded to finish first in the conference for six of the next seven years.  Spurrier’s success led the rest of the league to innovate, with such examples as the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach Air Raid offense at Kentucky, Auburn going spread-ish with Dameyune Craig, and Tennessee modernizing its offense with David Cutcliffe.  Spurrier had a massive impact on the SEC and opponents either imitated or died.  Thus, the conference that Urban Meyer joined 15 years after Spurrier’s arrival was anything but the backwater that HP imagines.

HP rebutted in the comments section:

1. If Spurrier started an offensive revolution in the SEC, it sure didn't show up much in the offensive data for other teams…

7. Your claim that Spurrier changed offenses more than Meyer did in the league is absurd. The proof is in the offensive numbers, the titles and the Heisman winners. For instance, the Heisman is only won with superb offensive numbers. That's a truism. So, it's no shock that the only SEC Heisman winner between 1986 and 2007 came from Florida, the only SEC school that had outstanding offensive production. Of course, since 2007, there have been three SEC Heismans, which coincides with the league's offensive explosion (as I demonstrated by the numbers in my post). Do you think it's all just a cosmic coincidence?

8. I grant you that Spurrier did introduce the forward pass to the SEC. But those offenses that started passing were nowhere near as innovative as Spurrier's and they did not keep up with some of the other leagues and that is reflected in the national offensive numbers during that time (as I pointed out, only 1 SEC team averaged over 35 ppg from 1998 to 2005, and 10 have since...another coincidence?)

The crazy thing about sports arguments is that there are usually numbers to help resolve arguments.  With the help of the ESPN SEC Football Encyclopedia* and the invaluable college football section at, as well as heavy usage of Microsoft Excel, I created a chart to measure a number of factors over the past 31 years of SEC football:

  • Points per game scored by SEC teams collectively;
  • SEC teams finishing in the top ten nationally in scoring offense and total offense;
  • Consensus offensive All-Americans from the SEC;
  • SEC offensive players who finished in the top ten of the Heisman voting; and
  • The SEC’s SRS Rating and conference rank based on SRS.

I included the last two categories because I wanted to compare the overall strength of the conference with its offensive numbers.  Normally, I wouldn’t care about individual awards in assessing overall conference strength, but HP suggested them as a yardstick and they do have some value in assessing the subjective opinions of the media regarding SEC’ offenses.  I would have liked to have included yardage figures on the chart, but I couldn’t find those figures for the 80s and since the point of this exercise is to test whether the 80s were more of an offensive dark age than the first half of the Aughts, I couldn’t use yardage as a measuring stick.  If someone knows where I could find those figures, I’d be all ears.  

* – I bought the Encyclopedia on my last trip to Borders because “everything must go!”  Yup, my last purchase at one of my favorite stores was shaped by one of my online Newmans.

To steal a line from Brian Cook, chart?  Chart.     

Year PPG Top 10 Total Offense Top 10 Scoring Offense Offensive All-Americans Offensive Heisman Top Ten SRS SRS Rank
2010 30.88 2 1 2 2 8.20 2
2009 28.2 1 2 3 2 10.35 1
2008 25.22 0 1 3 1 6.83 2
2007 30.06 0 1 3 2 9.78 1
2006 25.2 0 1 1 1 9.02 1
2005 23.83 0 0 2 0 4.61 5
2004 24.69 0 0 2 1 4.85 5
2003 27.15 0 0 1 1 7.10 1
2002 25.43 0 0 1 0 6.32 2
2001 27.56 1 1 5 1 8.57 1
2000 26.35 0 1 0 1 5.32 4
1999 24.68 0 0 3 1 7.71 2
1998 25.51 1 1 3 2 5.52 4
1997 25.58 2 1 3 2 10.68 1
1996 24.38 1 1 3 2 6.04 2
1995 26.67 2 4 0 2 5.86 3
1994 26.17 2 1 1 2 6.98 2
1993 24.33 2 2 1 3 6.13 4
1992 21.63 1 1 2 1 4.96 3
1991 24.26 2 0 0 1 5.74 2
1990 23.15 1 1 2 0 1.89 6
1989 23.07 0 0 2 1 7.17 1
1988 22.06 0 0 1 0 4.52 2
1987 24.74 1 1 2 2 8.47 1
1986 23.18 1 1 2 1 6.26 2
1985 22.72 0 0 3 1 9.24 1
1984 23.98 0 0 2 0 8.91 1
1983 21.91 1 1 1 1 11.22 1
1982 23.43 0 1 1 1 9.09 2
1981 19.63 1 1 1 1 7.49 2
1980 21.94 0 0 1 1 9.80 1

There are two major points to be made here.  First, look at the difference between the SEC before and after Spurrier as compared to the SEC before and after Meyer:

Before and After Spurrier

Year PPG Top 10 Total Offense Top 10 Scoring Offense Offensive All-Americans Offensive Heisman Top Ten SRS SRS Rank
1980-89 22.66 4 5 16 9 8.21 1.4
1990-2001 25.02 15 14 23 18 6.28 2.83

Even accounting for the fact that we are comparing a ten-year period against a 12-year period, there can be no argument that Spurrier wrought a massive change to the SEC.  Look at 1995.  That year, there were four SEC teams in the top ten nationally in scoring offense, or one fewer than the SEC produced in the entirety of the 80s.  So much for the claim that only Florida was moving the ball in the 90s.  Tennessee, Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina, and Kentucky all appeared in the top ten in scoring or total offense during the decade, with Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia all appearing multiple times.  Also in 1995, SEC teams averaged a touchdown more than they did in 1991 and a half a touchdown more than they did in the last season before Spurrier.  That is some fast, significant change.

If you want the kicker, look at the SRS numbers.  Despite the fact that the SEC was a defense-heavy conference in the 80s, the league was better in that decade relative to the rest of college football.  According to SRS, the SEC was the best conference in the country six times in those ten years and second in the other four years.  During Spurrier’s 12 years, the league finished outside of the top two six times.  The conclusion here is simple: offensive success does not correlate to overall strength.

There is also a conclusion to be drawn that success in the form of national titles isn’t necessarily evidence of a strong conference (although I certainly take that position a lot when the topic of the Big Ten comes up).  The SEC was extremely strong in the 80s, but the decade did not produce a national champion for the conference after Georgia’s title in 1980.  There were certainly close calls, specifically for Georgia in 1982, Auburn in 1983,* and possibly Tennessee in 1985, but no SEC team even played in a bowl game billed as a national title game after 1982.  Maybe the conclusion to be drawn is that a defense-heavy super-conference is less likely to produce a national champion than a more balanced one.     

* – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the fact that Miami was a unanimous national title in 1983 is indefensible.  Auburn finished with the same record and played the toughest schedule in the nation.  According to SRS, the Tigers played five of the top ten teams in the country.  Miami didn't play a single team in that category until they had the good fortune to play Nebraska on their home field in the Orange Bowl.  In short, the voters overrated Nebraska in 1983 (dominated a schedule that turned out to be fairly soft) and then overreacted to Miami upsetting Nebraska.  And to think that we might have been spared the entire era of Da U if voters were more rational.   

Take Auburn as an example.  In 1988, the Tigers had an epic defense and missed out on a shot to play Notre Dame for the national title in the Sugar Bowl because of the Earthquake Game, which Auburn lost 7-6.  Fast forward to 2010 and Auburn went unbeaten and won the national title despite playing in more close games than the ‘88 team.  The team with a great defense and average offense lost a game did not play for the title; the team with the great offense and the average defense did.  Is this a lesson that a defense-oriented conference is less likely to produce national champions?

Before and After Meyer  

Year PPG Top 10 Total Offense Top 10 Scoring Offense Offensive All-Americans Offensive Heisman Top Ten SRS SRS Rank
1999-2004 25.98 2 2 12 5 6.65 2.5
2005-10 27.23 3 6 14 8 8.13 2.0

Yes, there is a difference, but it is not as pronounced as the difference pre- and post-Spurrier.  Scoring has gone up, but not as much as the Spurrier era versus the 80s.  SEC offensive players have been more likely to receive individual accolades, but how much of that is because the offenses are better and how much is because the teams are outstanding?  (Counterpoint: SEC teams were excellent in the 80s, but they didn’t have a raft of award-winners, so simply winning isn’t enough.) 

That said, the last four years have seen an offensive explosion.  In two of the past four years, the SEC’s scoring average exceeded 30 points per game.  There is a strong parallel to be made to the Spurrier era.  Offensive change does not occur overnight.  It takes time for other programs around the conference to look at what the Gators are doing and ramp up what they are doing offensively.  In the Spurrier era, it took five years.  By 1994-95, SEC teams were scoring 3-4 points more per game than they had in the 80s.  In the Meyer era, it took only three years for the conference’s offenses to see similar progress, followed by a major regression in 2008 (apparently, Meyer’s influence isn’t complete) and then a progression back to 30 ppg in 2010. 

Coming later this week, an answer to a follow-up question: did the changes in scoring in the SEC after Spurrier and Meyer track offensive changes in college football overall?  In other words, did scoring go up simply because of a rising tide of points in college football generally?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Steak Shapiro Knows How You Should Feel

One of the virtues of writing for a major newspaper as opposed to an eclectic (read: marginal) blog in the hinterlands of the Internet is that a writer can gauge how a fan base is feeling at a given time.  Because of his position, Mark Bradley gets to interact with tens of thousands of Atlanta sports fans by e-mail, Twitter, and the comments sections of his articles.  So, when Bradley writes that his sense is that Falcons fans aren't especially excited for the upcoming season, he is making an interesting observation.  I can watch the same games that Bradley does and come to my own conclusions as to what I just saw.  I can’t, however, claim to have my finger on the pulse of how Atlanta fans are feeling about a given issue. Bradley can, so when he says that Falcons fans don’t seem as excited about the upcoming season as one would expect for a team that just went 13-3, he is performing a useful function.

Based on the emotionally incontinent* reaction of Steak Shapiro, we should feel differently.  It was hard to tell from his rant whether Shapiro is mad with Bradley for reaching an incorrect conclusion (although, this being sports talk radio, Shapiro didn’t offer any evidence for his assertion) or whether he is mad at Falcons fans for feeling this way.  The claim appeared to be something along the lines of “the franchise is in much better shape than it was before, so how can you people not be fired up!?!  Have I mentioned that we are the new home of the Falcons?”  (I’m not pretending to be quoting him directly.)  Well, yeah, but saying that the franchise is exceeding its historical norm is damning with faint praise. 

* – I stole that term from Graham Hunter, who used it to describe Jose Mourinho.

I found the rant to be remarkably lacking in self-awareness for a couple reasons.  First, Shapiro was mockingly citing the names of the fans that Bradley cited in the article.  Hello, you’re a sports talk radio host!  Your whole format is based on giving a voice to average fans.**  The implication of your criticism that Bradley put quotes from Average Joes on the front cover of the paper is that a newspaper is a more legitimate format than sports talk radio and should not reduce itself to quoting the ticket-buying proletariat.  Second, your whole view of the sports world is buzz-based.*  Is buzz only legitimate when you agree with it?  When the buzz isn’t against your commercial interests?

* – Man, it’s odd to read what I wrote six years ago and say to myself that I was once an unapologetic fan of the format.  I guess that was the age before podcasts.  

** – And for f***’s sake, please stop referring to commenters on AJC articles as “bloggers.”  The people who call your station are not hosts or analysts, so why would you make the equivalent mistake about people using the Internet?

Personally, I’m not overly excited about the Falcons season for two main reasons.  First, my two loves are college football and European soccer and both are starting their seasons at the same time as the Falcons.  With a finite amount of intellectual and emotional energy, thinking about the Falcons’ pass rush comes in behind Al Borges designing an offense for Denard Robinson, the prospect of Isaiah Crowell tearing through holes, and Cesc and Alexis Sanchez fitting into the best XI in the world.  I’m unusual in liking soccer so much, but I am hardly unusual in this market in thinking that the NFL is dessert after the main course is served on Saturday.  That’s how this market operates.  Second, my view is that the Falcons were a mirage last year, a nine- or ten-win team masquerading as a 13-win team.  I doubt that there is wide-spread belief that the Falcons were not a great team last year because of their yards-per-play margin, but I do suspect that there is a general sense that the team wasn’t as good as its record.  Fans in this market watch enough NFL to know that there are often teams that have great records in a given year and then regress to the mean.  I would guess that the Falcons fan base is taking a wait-and-see approach because they remember that at this time last year, the Vikings and Cowboys were coming off of seasons where they were the second- and third-best teams in the NFC.  Those teams both finished 6-10 in 2010.  But why should historical memory get in the way of a good buzz?

And one last, related point: it’s hilarious to me to listen to a sports talk radio host try to use the “don’t overrate the importance of a small sample size playoff over the large sample size regular season” argument when it suits his purposes.  Shapiro constantly rants about the fact that there is no playoff in college football.  He killed the Braves for their postseason failures in the first part of the Aughts.  Now, his personal affection for the Falcons and the people who run the franchise has caused him to see the light that putting all importance on playoff results might not be the most rational way to evaluate a team or a season. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pep Will Make His Players Sweat Milkshakes and Poop Brisket

Yes, the “Barcelona is revolutionizing football” articles can be a little much even for me.  Here is Exhibit A.  Peter Staunton’s theory is that Pep Guardiola acquired Cesc Fabregas not to replace Xavi in the next several years, but instead to replace Carles Puyol because Barca are moving towards a lineup where every player is a de facto midfielder.  Here is Staunton’s thesis:

The players at Pep Guardiola's disposal, their utter adherence to the ideal and a work-rate unmatched by any team in Europe mean that Barcelona could be about to bring Sacchi's prediction to bear. And the acquisition of Cesc Fabregas, quite aside from being a trophy signing, could prompt the evolution. With Cesc in the ranks, Barcelona can play, in effect, with a team of midfielders; amalgamating the separate strands of defence, midfield and attack into one. Total domination of possession, total domination of space.

Fabregas' arrival could mark the gradual elbowing from the first team of Carles Puyol, not Sergio Busquets or Xavi or Thiago Alcantara. A natural leader, a primordial tour-de-force, the heartbeat of the team he may be, but Puyol is irrevocably in decline. Each passing year chisels another chip from the man of granite. His replacement in the team, gradually at first, totally later, will be Fabregas.

For those of you who are uninitiated, this is wrong for a host of reasons.  First, Guardiola’s insistence on having versatile players is borne out of a desire to have a small squad.  Pep lived through the downfall of the Cruyff-coached Dream Team in the mid-90s.  He was also the coach of Barca B when Ronaldinho and Deco lost the will to play, thus causing the end of the Rijkaard cycle.  Pep knows what happens when players lose their hunger and start fighting with one another.  One way to prevent this phenomenon is to maintain a lean squad.  If there are relatively few players and every player is getting regular appearances, then it is less likely that squad members will become cancerous by complaining about a lack of action.  In short, Pep doesn’t want a large, Real Madrid-style squad because of the potential effects on morale.*  Thus, he wants players like Adriano, Abidal, Mascherano, Iniesta, and Busquets because they can play multiple positions and can therefore give Pep mix-and-match possibilities.  Puyol fits within this rubric because he can play anywhere on the back line.  Puyi’s time might be dwindling at Barca, but that’s because of his health, not his lack of versatility.

* – Though he may be an incorrigible douche bag, Jose Mourinho is a master at maintaining the morale of a large squad.  His players love him and will run through walls for him, even when they are banished to the end of the bench.  Like Charlie Weis’s recruiting acumen, this is one of life’s unanswerable mysteries. 

Second, Pep’s system requires a defensive midfielder who can drop back into the defense.  In order to give his fullbacks license to get forward and provide width, Guardiola’s system requires that one midfielder be able to play between the centerbacks so the latter can fan out and cover the space left by the fullbacks.  Unless I am missing something, Cesc cannot play central defense.  Busquets and Mascherano can and the question is whether Keita will join them in the rotation for the position.  In short, I seriously doubt that we are going to see a Cesc-Xavi-Iniesta midfield unless Barca are playing a hopelessly overmatched opponent that presents no threat whatsoever.*  Again, Pep’s system has a requirement for versatility, but Staunton doesn’t have it right.

* – Those three can play on the pitch at the same time, but only with Iniesta playing forward. 

If you want examples of why Staunton sees a scheme where none exists, look at the list of players that he cites as part of the move away from specialization.  First of all, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Dmytro Chygrynskiy were players that Pep specifically requested in the summer of 2009, so if he is moving towards universal players, it is a change of course.  Second, none of those players left because of a lack of versatility.  Ibra left because he could neither get along with Pep, nor function in a pressing system that required defensive aggressiveness and quick movement off the ball.  Chygrynskiy was sold (over Pep’s objections) because he was simply too slow for La Liga.  And the third player listed by Staunton – Martin Caceres – is, in fact, a versatile player who can play left back and central defender.  He was supposed to be a replacement for Puyol because of his multitude of skills.  Meanwhile, Pep sold Yaya Toure in the summer of 2010, despite the fact that Toure can play central defense, defensive midfield, and occasionally an attacking midfield role.  (He filled the latter role for Manchester City last year.)  Toure was arguably the most versatile Barca player and yet the club sold him.  Seems like evidence against Staunton’s thesis, dontchathink?

As has been covered in this space before, the Cesc signing makes sense for Barca because it gives them cover at a hard-to-fill position.  Additionally, there is a political component to the move because Barca, a club owned by the members and run by an elected president, could not allow a Catalan product of its youth system to flourish for another, prominent club.  Finally, the fact that Cesc wanted to return and had friends on the team meant that the club could buy his services for a slightly below-market price, as Arsenal was forced into a one-buyer negotiation.  None of those motivations have anything to do with Barca chucking the idea of defensive midfielders and central defenders.  Pep has modified his system over the years, but I don’t see this change in the cards.  Catalans are opposed to bullfighting, so I hardly expect Guardiola to wave a big red cape in front of opponents and scream “attack my team right through the middle!”   

Monday, August 22, 2011

This is Going to be a Boring September

Consistent with how the rest of the pennant races in baseball are shaping up, the Braves are looking at the prospect of a no-drama close to the regular season.  7.5 games behind the Phillies, but eight games up on the Giants in the Wild Card standings, the Braves are a virtual lock for the Wild Card and a first round match-up against the Brewers.  According to the Baseball Prospectus, the Braves have a 96.5% chance of making the playoffs.  Barring a Mets-style collapse, we will have October baseball for the second year in a row.  Taking six of seven from the Giants and D-Backs saw to that.

One of the explanations for why wild card teams seem to out-perform their expected results in the playoffs has been that wild card teams are typically fighting until the end of the season to qualify for the postseason, so they enter October in form.  The best teams in baseball, by comparison, lose their edge in September as they go through the motions, knowing that their places in the playoffs are secure.  At least, this is something that I told myself when the Braves consistently lost playoff series to inferior opponents over the latter part of the 90s and the early part of the Aughts.  If this phenomenon is true, then the Braves are not going to be in great shape in October because they will have nothing to play for in September. 

It’s important that the Braves use the final month of the season to get ready for October.  Here is what Fredi Gonzalez needs to be doing to ensure that the Braves have the best possible lottery ticket:

1. Get Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens back into form.  Hanson and Jurrjens were among the best starters in baseball up to the All-Star Break.  Jurrjens was a candidate to start the All-Star Game, whereas Hanson was unjustly omitted from the roster by Bruce Bochy, a factor that made the Braves’ success against the Giants last week even sweeter.  Since the Break, Jurrjens and Hanson have been injured and ineffective.  Because the Braves’ farm system has an embarrassment of pitching riches, the team has been able to steam merrily along, plugging Mike Minor and Randall Delgado into the rotation.  However, to have a good chance in October, Jurrjens and Hanson will have to be back.  The last 35 games should be used to get them the rest they need and then gradually get them back to form.  A late-season injury break could be good for both of them, as they will arrive in October with less mileage on their tires, but that only works if they come back from their current doldrums.

2. Give O’Ventbrel a Break.  This is self-explanatory.  With Aroldys Vizcaino emerging as a relief option and Peter Moylan on his way back, the bullpen is deeper.  Fredi needs to use that depth to reduce the workloads of his three top relievers.  The Braves haven’t had a bullpen like this since 2002, but they have to make sure that their modern day version of the Nasty Boys isn’t sucking wind at the end of the season.

3. Has anyone seen Jason Heyward?  Jose Constanza is a great story.  It’s rare for a 27-year old career minor leaguer to come to the majors and put up a .923 OPS in the course of almost a month of play.  That said, there is a reason why Constanza kicked around the minors for years, while Jason Heyward was a first round pick, one of the top prospects in baseball, and then an outstanding rookie in 2010.  There is no comparison, talent-wise.  Who would we rather see starting in right field in October?  To the extent that a manager can have an effect on these things (a debatable point), Fredi needs to be thinking about getting Heyward’s head right for October.  As with Jurrjens and Hanson, a late-season break could be good for Jason; the Braves need to exploit the chance.

4. Figure out the error of his ways on the basepaths.  There is a natural tendency for successful people to think that everything about their routines is the cause for their success.  Fredi has led the Braves to the fourth-best record in the Majors this year, right behind three teams with significantly higher payrolls.  He very well may think that his managerial style has caused this result.  He certainly deserves some credit, but he is not without flaws.  The most obvious is that he over-manages.  The Braves are fourth in the NL in sacrifice hits.  They are 14th in stolen bases, but fourth in times caught stealing, thus leading to the fact that only the Cardinals have a worse stolen base percentage.  Outside of Michael Bourn, this just isn’t a fast team, as evidenced by the fact that they are dead-last in the NL in triples.  The Braves bunt too much, they try to play hit-and-run too much, they squeeze too much, and they generally make too many outs on the basepaths.  This is a big deal for a team that isn’t great at getting on base and it is especially important headed into the playoffs where every chance to score is critical.  Fredi claims to be a stathead.  His management style reflects that he hasn’t processed many of the basic findings of the SABR revolution.  It would be nice if he took a critical look at the Braves’ stats and changed his style.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

ESPN, the SEC, and the False Specter of Lawsuits Aplenty

Prior to Charles Robinson dropping a hydrogen bomb on Coral Gables, the big topic in college football as we while away the time before actual games has been Texas A&M potentially moving to the SEC. A&M is annoyed by the prospect of Texas using the Longhorn Network to increase its in-state recruiting advantage, so they are eying a move to a conference that isn’t dominated by their arch-rival. This sort of result was always likely as Texas increased its control over the Big XII. First, Nebraska and Colorado bolted, thus making Tom Osborne into a seer as he had worried about the southern members (especially the one in Austin) dominating the Big XII when the Huskers joined in the mid 90s. Now, A&M is seeing the same factors that pushed the Huskers and Buffaloes to new destinations.

Because of the legal issues involved in a major school decamping from one conference to another, this story has spawned all manner of commentary regarding the possibility of various parties ending up in court. Much of the commentary has been poorly reasoned. Exhibit A is the blogosphere’s Lionel Hutz, Clay Travis. Much of Travis’s writing on SEC expansion has been worthwhile. He claims to have sources that have told him that the SEC will not expand into any states in which it already has a member, which is an interesting and useful contribution to the discussion. That said, Travis’s claim that ESPN has a legal conflict of interest in its dealing with the Big XII and the SEC is simply wrong for a host of reasons. Here is the keystone of Travis’s theory:

OKTC hasn't read the entirety of the Big 12's agreements with ESPN, but every contract has a boilerplate "good faith" provision that obligates a party to act in the best interests of its partners. Would it be in good faith for ESPN to be negotiating with the SEC about increased payouts to a current Big 12 member that would lead to a breach of the Big 12 contract when that member leaps? Of course not.

Like Travis, I have a law degree from a good school in the South that starts with the letter “V.” Unlike Travis, I have a lot of experience litigating contractual disputes. That said, it does not take a law degree and experience to figure out why he’s wrong here. OK, maybe a legal background is necessary to figure out that a contractual agreement between two commercial parties does not create a fiduciary relationship as Travis claims. ESPN and the Big XII would be seen more as independent contractors and that sort of relationship does not create any fiduciary duties unless the contract creates such duties.

A legal background is not necessary to conclude that, unless its lawyers were committing malpractice, ESPN would never agree to the sort of provision that Travis describes. Think about ESPN”s position. They cover college football and have agreements with all six BCS conferences. Every week during football season, they make decisions that favor some teams and leagues over others. Which teams get plum timeslots? Which players and coaches are going to get puff pieces on College Gameday? Which highlights are they going to feature on SportsCenter? Moreover, ESPN has a dedicated news wing that is (at least in theory) separate and free from the commercial side of the business. In Travis’s world, ESPN's news apparatus would be forbidden from presenting a critical story on any Big XII team.

Assume for the moment that ESPN found evidence that an Oklahoma booster has been paying Sooner players for years and hosting orgies in the shadow of abandoned oil rigs. The implication of Travis's inference is that ESPN agreed to a contractual provision with the Big XII that would prevent it from running with the story because doing so would be antithetical to the Big XII’s interests as it would have negative consequences for one of the conference’s marquee members. ESPN has been accused of many things over the years, but being commercially naive is not one of them. So when Clay wrote the following embarrassingly self-congratulatory remark about how he’s the only one reporting this critical issue:

This is a massive story that OKTC is reporting, one that goes to the very essence of college sports in a televised era. The conflict brought on by Texas A&M to the SEC is just the tip of the contractual iceberg for the worldwide leader in sports. Texas A&M's situation isn't unique, it's just the first one to expose the internal hypocrisies and conflict of ESPN's college sports coverage.

This is a massive story that will be integral to all reporting on conference realignment for the foreseeable future.

…there’s a reason why Travis is the only one writing about the “massive story:” he’s almost certainly wrong. He’s right that ESPN has an inherent conflict of interest in that it is a business partner with a number of conferences that are in competition with one another, but this is a business conflict, not a legal conflict. Travis is right that ESPN will want to appear passive in A&M’s potential move by simply answering questions posed by the interested parties as to what it would pay in various scenarios, but this is almost certainly not because of contractual language.

The second legal issue that has been analyzed incorrectly is the claim that the SEC would face a tortious interference claim if it induced Texas A&M to join the Big XII. Again, we are going to have to make inferences as to the content of agreements that are not publicly available, but there are three problems with a tortious interference claim.

First, it is likely that the agreement between A&M and the Big XII sets out a procedure for A&M to leave the conference. That's fairly standard in conference-school agreements. If the agreement between A&M and the Big XII establishes that A&M can leave the conference based on certain notice and/or paying a certain amount as a penalty, then the SEC cannot be tortiously interfering with the contract because there is no breach in the first place.

Second, even if one assumes that the contractual provision says that A&M has to provide two years notice (or something to that effect) or else they have to pay a penalty, then that penalty should be the extent of the Big XII’s damages. In order to enforce a liquidated damages provision, the Big XII would have to establish that it would have a hard time calculating damages resulting from A&M breaching the agreement and therefore, the liquidated damages provision is a good faith estimate as to what its damages would be if A&M left the conference without complying with the notice requirement. Thus, the Big XII is committed to the position that its damages for early withdrawal are a certain number. If that number is the right number for A&M, then how could the SEC cause different, greater damages? The Big XII would be left arguing that a provision of its own contract is unenforceable. If the Big XII were at risk of losing $1B in the event that A&M left, then its agreement with A&M should have reflected that reality.

Third, the Big XII would have a duty to mitigate its damages caused by the actions of A&M and the SEC. If the issue is as simple as the ESPN/Big XII contract being voided by the league dropping below ten teams, then there is an incredibly basic way for the Big XII to keep its deal in place: add a new team. I wonder what the withdrawal penalty/procedure is for TCU with the Big East? Even if TCU is not an option, there would be a host of schools that would line up for the privilege of being in a BCS conference. I can immediately think of a school in Idaho whose recent football success far outstrips that of Texas A&M that would love the chance to move to an Automatic Qualifying Conference. In order to recover for the full length of its TV deal (which is how Burnt Orange Nation comes up with the $1B figure), the Big XII would need to establish that it could not find another school to bring its numbers back up to ten. Good luck with that.

One final caveat: the fact that I am pooh-poohing the legal claims that the Big XII would have against ESPN and the SEC does not mean that the former will not threaten or even bring claims. Parties posture in negotiations. Additionally, a plaintiff does not need a fully meritorious claim in order to initiate a lawsuit. There are some fairly complicated issues involved in a dispute that would ultimately be addressed by a judge or jury, which is a prospect that would scare any defendant, let alone two out-of-state defendants in a Texas court. ESPN and the SEC would like to avoid that fate and they are almost certainly governing their actions accordingly. That said, the claims that Outkick the Coverage and Burnt Orange Nation are describing are overblown.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Barca Strikes Back

With apologies to Lawrence Kasdan, here are five thoughts on Clasico Nos. five and six of 2011:

1. There is a great disturbance in the force.  Real Madrid went toe-to-toe with Barca for 180 minutes, outplaying the Blaugrana for long stretches of time, including at the Camp Nou.  The occasions where opponents have truly taken it to Guardiola’s Barca have been few and far between over the past three years: Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in ‘09, Arsenal in late game situations at the Emirates in ‘10 and ‘11, Inter for stretches at the San Siro in ‘10, and Real for the first half of the Copa del Rey Final at Mestalla in ‘11.  No team has been able to trade punches in Catalunya, but Jose Mourinho now has that team.  It’s not that he made any huge changes in terms of the personnel.  The starting XI for the first leg on Sunday was the exact same as the unit that got drilled 5-0 last November and he made only one change for the second leg, inserting Fabio Coentrao for Marcelo.  However, his team seem to have a better understanding of Mourinho’s favored tactics, they are in terrific shape after a productive preseason,* and they now have the confidence to press Barca high up the pitch.  Gone are Mourinho’s tactics of stuffing his players with defensive instructions and hoping to nick a 0-0 or 1-0 against the run of play.  He has a team that is almost equal to Barca.  I wouldn’t be shocked at all if this Real side win either La Liga or the Champions League.  On the evidence of the Copa del Rey matches, these are the two best teams in the world and by some distance.

* – The one counter: Barca did not have a good preseason.  They lost preparation time by touring the hot, humid Southern US, they had several players out because of the Copa America, and their two big signings arrived late.  If Real were ever going to beat Barca, this was the time and they missed the chance.  Also, the ever-gracious Mourinho referred to the Supercup as a “tiny little title,” so who knows if he will retain his new-found balls when the team meet again with more significant silverware on the line.

2. You’ll find I’m full of surprises.  Dani Alves has the reputation as an attacking right back who is a defensive liability.  He may have had a disappointing Copa America, but he was outstanding in both legs of the Supercup, mainly defensively.  He was able to blunt Cristiano Ronaldo’s bursts forward repeatedly and he didn’t let the sprinter-fast Ronaldo beat him for pace.  I’m not sure of Alves has improved defensively or if he has always been this good but was always too far forward to tackle.  Regardless, he showed that he’s not just a defender in name.

3. Control, control, you must learn control!  Too bad about Real, they showed so much promise as an attacking, pressing force that play the right way and then they slowly degenerated into a collection of dirty f***s by the end of the match.  Actually, that’s a little unfair.  Pepe and Marcelo were dirty f***s,  getting away with an assortment of kicks and elbows that clearly had no purpose other than to inflict injury.  How amusing that Mourinho believes that there is a conspiracy in favor of Barca and yet his players repeatedly dare refs to send them off.  And speaking of Jose, he was just a bundle of class in the melee that resulted from Marcelo trying to end Cesc’s Spanish career after 10 minutes:


You can see the source for Pepe’s and Marcelo’s ideas.

4. There is another.

So that’s what it’s like to have an impact sub.  Barca’s two signings this summer – Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez – are both technically surplus to requirements.  The club’s front five did not need improvement.  That said, they do need depth and tonight’s match showed why.  With Xavi looking a little off his game, Barca’s pace picked up immediately when Cesc came on and they closed strongly.  Barca have faded at times over the past two years, most notably twice at the Emirates.  Now, their import from North London (along with the new winger from Friuli) makes that a less likely prospect.  

5. Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you?  Barca won another trophy despite Real’s impressive, high-tempo performance because the Blaugrana have the best player in the world, full stop.  I don’t like simple explanations, but sometimes, there is no need to say anything more.  Barca won 5-4 on aggregate with Messi scoring three and assisting on the other two.  Moreover, the quality of the goals was outstanding.  His goal at the Bernabeu was a ping pong effort where he bounced off of Sami Khedira and Pepe before finishing.  Tonight, his opener was a ludicrous chest-pass off a corner to Gerard Pique, who then back-heeled the ball back to Messi, with the little Argentine then finishing after a dribble.  (Honestly, how many goals have ever come from the following sequence: corner, chest pass, back-heel, dribble, shot?)  Finally, Messi won the trophy with three minutes remaining by receiving a pass from Cesc, picking out Adriano (who is quite a useful little engine down the flanks) and then darting to the net to slam home Adriano’s return cross (a goal that was very similar to Messi’s opener against Real in the Champions League first leg).

Additionally, the opening 15 minutes showed the difference between Messi and Ronaldo.  Within three minutes, Ronaldo had already fired three shots on goal, missing twice.  12 minutes later, Messi got loose and delivered a defense-splitting ball to Iniesta for the opener.  One player shoots from everywhere; the other both scores goals and constantly creates chances for his teammates.  Switch those two players and Real are the team of the moment.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My Sentiments Exactly

If you haven't figured it out yet, I grew up in Macon and a lot of my choices in life and my disposition have been formed in rebellion against that experience. There were aspects of Macon that I liked. It was relatively safe. Our synogogue was a warm, familial place. The Macon Mall was a nice space to kill a couple hours. Stratford Academy did a good job of preparing me academically for bigger challenges. All that said, I found the mentality of the place (and especially the social scene at my high school) to be backwards.

Macon's attitude was visible in a number of different respects - the local paper, the political scene, etc. - but the one that stands out in my memory is the fact that the only options for buying books in Macon were B. Dalton's and Waldenbooks at the Mall. For a metro area of around 250,000, this was something of a problem. To me, it signaled a place where people simply were not interested in ideas. For an adolescent with a burgeoning interest in World War II, this was a source of major frustration.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, the oasis in this desert was Oxford Books in Atlanta. In contrast to the options available in Macon, Oxford Books seemed like a university unto itself, a huge store in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center where I could get lost for hours. For me, a perfect summer weekend was going with my family to Atlanta, staying in a hotel, taking in a Braves game, eating dinner at Mick's, and spending an afternoon at Oxford Books. When I left Macon for college in 1993, my plan was to go to Michigan, then law school, then come to Atlanta to become a lawyer. Oxford Books helped to form my perception of Atlanta as a place where I would want to spend my professional life.

Likewise, my decision to go to Michigan was formed, at least in some small part, by spending the summer before my junior year of high school in Ann Arbor for debate camp (like band camp, only nerdier). Ann Arbor was exactly what I had imagined a college town to be and a major reason was the original Borders, located at the intersection of Liberty and State Streets. (The conservatives on campus joked that Liberty ends at State.) Borders was like Oxford Books, only with two levels instead of one and instead of having to drive eighty miles to see rows of shelves, I could walk from my dorm whenever I wanted to do so. In the same way that Oxford Books helped form my impression of Atlanta, Borders helped form my impression of Ann Arbor.*

* - It also helped that I didn't get into Dartmouth. My impression of Hanover, New Hampshire was formed when my Dad asked a random passer-by on the street for hotel options and the passer-by used the word "panoply" in response.

That's a long introduction for me to say that I heartily co-sign on John U. Bacon's post on his feelings regarding Borders' passing. As someone who believes that a love of reading is one of the most important values that a parent can instill in a child, it seems clear to me that a great bookstore makes its community better. It gives an outlet for readers to browse and then to learn about subjects that might have never crossed their minds before. As such, a proper bookstore is tool for self-improvement. (Now I sound like a Whig.) Without them, the world is a little darker.

I had a similar experience to Bacon in my last visit to the Borders on Ponce. I lived in the neighborhood for six years before Mrs. B&B and I started procreating and even now, it's not far from our house. Being a geek, I bought my groomsmen books on a Friday night at that Borders and had a great time scouring the shelves to find something that spoke to seven different personalities. I bought my first history of the Eastern Front - Alan Clark's Barbarossa - there and devoured the book on flights while the future Mrs. B&B and I were dating long distance. When we had kids, the children's area of the store quickly became one of our boys' favorite places (although our youngest is more interested in the toys and Mrs. B&B isn't always amused when I say "can I just go check out one book really quickly?" and then disappear for 15 minutes). Walking out the doors one final time was an emotional event. It's great to live in a world where a 12-year old in Macon can now order any book under the sun online at a reasonable price and have it arrive at his doorstep within a matter of days, but we're also losing something when the experience of aimlessly flipping through titles before picking out a tome on a previously-unconsidered subject becomes rarer and rarer.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ennis Del Mar Wouldn’t Have Georgia in his Top 25

Oh, Stewart, you had been doing so well.  You were writing Mailbags full of logical and interesting thoughts.  You weren’t contradicting yourself.  I was looking for grist for the mill and finding none.  And now this.  So here we are again, pasting your prose to show a massive inconsistency.  Here is Mandel explaining why he picked Alabama #1:

My preseason favorite is Alabama, and the reason is pretty simple: The Crimson Tide have the most talent in the country, period. As much as some like to dismiss them, there's actually a pretty strong correlation between recruiting rankings and on-field performance. To that end, has ranked Nick Saban's last four classes as follows: No. 1 (2008), No. 1 ('09), No. 5 ('10) and No. 1 ('11). That's the type of dominance we last saw from Pete Carroll at USC (five straight classes ranked No. 1 by at least one major service) and Urban Meyer at Florida (four top-three classes in five years), and both men parlayed those hauls into multiple national titles. Saban (whose classes look even better after some of his patented oversigning and roster purging) is in prime position to do the same.

The problem with this reasoning is that Meyer and Carroll both won their first national titles and then hauled in their #1 classes.  However, I agree with Mandel that there is a definite correlation between recruiting success and wins on the field.  That’s not the problem with Mandel’s Mailbag. 

Here is Mandel describing why he thinks that LSU is overrated:

This is a team that caught every imaginable break en route to 11 wins last season -- the last-second mulligan against Tennessee, the fake field goal that bounced just right against Florida, the remarkable Les Miles fourth-down reverse against Alabama. I know many feel Miles is immune from typical football karma, but generally speaking, teams that eke out so many close wins one year tend to go the other way the next.

For example, Iowa, which went 11-2 in 2009 with a slew of comebacks and last-second miracles, then, with mostly the same core of players, reverted to 8-5 last year with several last-minute losses.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this reasoning.  I wrote last November that LSU might not be lucky based on the number of close games that they had won over Miles’s tenure.  Bill Connelly noted the same phenomenon this summer and put together numbers showing that most major programs have a winning record in close games, which shows that they aren’t entirely random.  LSU is particularly good in close games, whereas Iowa is not, so Mandel’s comparison doesn’t work.  Les Miles is either a much smarter tactician than Kirk Ferentz or his teams are far more talented and when their coaches finally call the go-to plays when the Tigers’ backs are against the wall, they succeed whereas the less talented Hawkeyes fail.  But that’s not the big problem with Mandel’s post. 

This is the big problem:

Beyond the absurdity of Georgia being ranked coming off a 6-7 season and Florida being ranked coming off a mediocre season followed by a drastic coaching change, the most remarkable aspect of the SEC having eight teams ranked in a poll is that Tennessee is not one of them.

Let’s see.  Mandel has already extolled the importance of recruiting rankings in predicting success.  Here are Georgia’s recent recruiting ranks according to Rivals:

2011 – 5th
2010 – 15th
2009 – 6th
2008 – 7th
2007 - 9th

That ought to be enough talent to finish in the Top 25, don’t you think?  Mandel has also advanced the theory that close games tend to even out from year to year.  Georgia finished 6-7 in 2010, but they were 1-4 in close games and that does not include the South Carolina and Mississippi State games that were close and finished as two-score results.  Using Mandel’s Alabama and LSU rationales, Georgia is positioned for a significant bounce-back in 2011.

Moreover, Mandel complains about Georgia being ranked in the preseason coaches poll, but says nary a word about Texas being ranked.  Texas finished 5-7 last year and didn’t have any of the bad luck that Georgia experienced.  Rather, Texas was simply a bad team, as evidenced by the home thrashing they took from UCLA followed by a home loss to Iowa State.  What’s the reasoning for Texas being in the poll, but not Georgia?  Recent success?  Both teams have it, although Georgia’s is a smidge more dated.  Recruiting rankings?  Both teams evidently have talent.  Star freshmen running back to fill a major hole?  Both teams have that.  Renown with Montana ranch hands?  Now we’re on to something.  OK, this is a little unfair because Mandel is also skeptical of Florida and Penn State – two programs that made his cut for being national – being ranked, but how else do we explain the remarks about Georgia in light of the arguments that came before them?

If Ronaldo Knocks Pep Over on Sunday Night, Then That's a Bad Omen

After reading Graham Hunter's description of the difference between Barca and Real's preseasons, I couldn't help but think of this scene from Rocky III, complete with Guardiola as Mickey, disgruntled because the champ's training is a circus. The fact that Barca were kicked off the Mall in DC is just perfect.

That said, there are two important differences that Hunter misses. First, Real are a much deeper squad than Barca, by design. Real view player acquisition like Manchester City do; they buy any player who looks interesting because money is no object. As a result, they have two teams worth of quality. Barca, on the other hand, buy for need (this is the first summer that Barca bought big-name players when the starting XI was already settled) and rely on the youth team to provide depth. Thus, Real ought to look better in preseason friendlies when they are playing the reserves. Hunter mentions the 4-1 defeat to Chivas, but doesn't mention that Barca led 1-0 and were playing well after an hour and that Chivas's rally was against a side consisting mostly of Barca B players.

Second, Barca never start seasons well. The 2009 treble-winning side lost its first match to Numancia, a team that would ultimately be relegated. After two matches, the Blaugrana had one point and the white hankies were already out. The 2011 double-winning side lost its home opener 2-0 to Hercules, another team that would ultimately get relegated. The point is that Barca train their players to peak physically in November and December (when they play Real and the crunch Champions League group stage matches; this year also will see Barca playing in the Club World Cup in Japan, most likely against a formidable Santos side starring Neymar and Ganso) and then again in April and May (when they play Real again and have the season-defining Champions League semis and final, Messi willing). The team just is not in peak condition in August and September and that's by design. From whom did I learn of this scheme? Graham Hunter, who has described on numerous occasions on World Football Daily.

This makes the Spanish Supercup matches against Real a fairly interesting proposition. Barca can never dismiss Clasicos in any form, but they don't put a priority on being in top form at the start of a marathon. So how do they approach these matches? We find out Sunday.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Cesc Bomb

Unless numerous media reports are all wrong (and thankfully, the media reports are not just coming from the Barcelona-based sports dailies that have pages and pages to fill every day), the long-running Cesc-to-Barca odyssey is finally about to reach Ithaca.  The final price: €29M up front, €6M in performance bonuses (the remaining negotiations are supposedly about the terms of those bonuses), and €5M from Cesc himself.  That’s the real kicker in the whole situation.  Arsene Wenger has so mismanaged his Arsenal project over the past several years that his star captain is willing to pay €5M out of his own pocket to make a transfer happen.  Arsenal has sold players before, but usually, they have taken Barcelona to the cleaners for players who were at the tail-end of their useful years (Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, and Thierry Henry) or just weren’t very good to begin with (Alexander Hleb).  This time, Arsenal are selling their captain at the start of his prime years and they are doing so for less than their valuation.*

* – Arsenal fans have pointed to a number of the ludicrous sums paid for various players - usually by Manchester City and Liverpool – and made arguments like “if Andy Carroll is worth £35M, then Cesc is worth a billion!”  The problem with this argument was that City don’t set the market prices because they have to pay over the moon for players as a result of being an ascendant side rather than an established preferred destination for top players.  Liverpool is paying through the nose because of a fetish for British.  The rumors regarding Wesley Sneijder heading to Manchester United for £36m were telling.  Sneijder is older than Cesc, but he was also on the verge of being the FIFA Player of the Year.  He has performed at a higher level than Fabregas.  Moreover, Inter can sell Sneijder to the highest bidder, whereas Cesc wants to go to one club and one club only.  If he’s worth £36m, then Arsenal’s dreams of getting £50m for Cesc were dead.

ArseBlog takes stock of the implications for Arsenal:

It’s not just us, of course, there’s Barcelona, there’s Cesc’s desire to go there, but I look at this sorry mess and it’s hard to think we’ve dealt with it as well as we should have. On every level. From this summer, to the way we’ve failed to invest properly in our team which has resulted in two of best players wanting out, and doubts over others not too far in the distance. Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott will reach next summer and only have one year left on their contracts. I would suggest that right now there’s little chance of them signing new deals.

The players we have – with the exception of one or two – clearly aren’t stupid and they’ll be looking closely at what’s going on. It was Arsene Wenger himself who said that you cannot be considered a big club if you sell your best players. Well, we’re about to sell one of them – and maybe Nasri too (although I think the Frenchman could stay simply because AW won’t let both him and Cesc go) – and from a purely footballing point of view it’s not good for Arsenal.

Wenger has let his pride get in the way of clear thinking.  His best player has wanted to leave since last summer.  Wenger fought and fought to keep him, but in the end, he is having to sell him for less than Arsenal’s valuation.  More importantly, Arsenal are going to make the sale with only three weeks left in the transfer window, which means they are going to have to scramble to bring in the sort of replacements who will convince the next crop of potential free agents that they should stay in North London.  The irony of the whole situation is that Wenger, a trained economist, is almost certainly one of the smartest, most rational thinkers in club football, but he has made mistakes over the past several years that seem to be borne out of stubbornness and commitment to an ideology.

As for Barcelona, the club have managed to sign their two summer targets – Cesc and Alexis Sanchez – while staying within their stated transfer budget of €45M.  They will end up paying €55M up front for Cesc and Sanchez* and with the sales of Bojan, Jeffren, and Oriol Romeu bringing back about €20M, the total summer spend comes in below budget.  This is the advantage of Barca being on top of the world right now while also having much-publicized debt issues: players want to play for the club and other teams know that they can’t take the club to the cleaners.  Barca have added quality depth in the midfield and attack.  They will now be insured against the event that would have derailed their past three seasons: a major injury to Xavi or Messi. 

There are two questions now for the club.  First, how is Pep Guardiola going to dole out playing time?  This has always been a strength of Jose Mourinho – keeping all members of a deep squad happy – and now Pep is going to have to show the same ability.  He now has three established stars – Xavi, Iniesta, and Cesc – and a burgeoning prospect in need of playing time – Thiago - for two spots in the midfield.  Normally, a manager could rely on using a substitution to keep the players happy, but Pep usually uses Seydou Keita as the late sub for the last 15 minutes to kill off games, so this isn’t really an option.**  Iniesta can play at left forward, so it is possible to put three on the pitch at once, but that only creates a logjam in the forward line where Barca now have four established players for three spots.  The interesting question is how this new depth fits in with the Cruyff thesis that teams usually have a four-year cycle.  Will Cesc and Sanchez prolong the cycle by creating competition for spots and thereby ensuring that the incumbents don’t get stale?  Are they replacements in the event that one or more of the incumbents get tired of their current situation?  Are they likely to cause strife that will speed the end of the cycle?  Time will tell. 

* - This does not account for the €17M in performance-based incentives that Barca is likely to pay if the players perform and the team stays close to its current level of success; those funds should be applied against future transfer budgets.

** – This assumes that Barca is leading at the end of a match.  Over the past several seasons, this has been a safe assumption.

The second question is whether Barca has enough cover defensively.  Right now, the club have only two established center backs: Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique.  There are a number of players at other positions who can cover in the spot.  When Puyol was hurt last year, Eric Abidal, Javier Mascherano, and Sergi Busquets all played the position with Mascherano emerging as the preferred option late in the season.  Is Pep comfortable going into the season with his current depth chart?  Is he planning on relying on youth team product Andreu Fontas for depth?  I suspect that the answer to both questions is "yes, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if a top center back (Thiago Silva?) isn’t the major transfer target next summer.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I Invented a Tag Just For This Sort of Occasion

Perry Laurentino this morning (and I'm paraphrasing): Jarvis Jones being eligible is very important for Georgia because the pressure in a 3-4 defense comes from the outside linebackers and Georgia didn't have that last year. Really, Perry?

That's OK. Georgia football isn't big in this market. I'm sure that no one else noticed.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Vegas Meets the Commentariat

NPR Morning Edition just had a terrific episode of Story Corps about a local bookstore employee who described her love affair with reading at a young age.  Her line that stuck with me was that she was an “extrovert without friends,” so she eagerly got a membership at the public library on Ponce at age six and then spent all of her free time either reading or listening to audio books.  The feature ended with an especially poignant story of the girl crashing her bike, breaking an audio book, and then tearfully presenting it at the library along with her library card.

The story struck me because it sounded a little like me growing up in Macon, only with college football previews in the place of actual books.  I was never keen on doing my summer reading, but I always had a stack of previews on my bed stand.  At my apex, I probably bought nine previews every summer, obsessing over returning starter numbers and projected All-American lists until the Fall when all of the names and numbers would come to life.

College football previews have always fascinated me, initially as a way to pass the time in the summer during the dead hours in the afternoon when TV was a wasteland* and now as an intellectual matter.  To the extent that I have any original thinking on college football, it’s in trying to find the flaws in preseason prognostications.  That’s where the Charles Rogers Theorem came from and when it died, Negative Grohmentum replaced it.  In short, I think that most writers take the lazy route and make subjective predictions because deep analysis of teams is a hard task, as is looking back at prior predictions to find trends of mistakes.

* – Watching The Price is Right was such a bittersweet experience.  On the one hand, I loved that show during summer mornings.  On the other hand, it meant that there would be nothing on TV for the rest of the day.  Ah, the days before 900 channels. 

Because I like comparing the unscientific judgments of college football writers against the judgments of people with actual skin in the game, I prepared the following handy-dandy chart comparing the consensus rankings from the preseason magazines* against the over/under lines for total wins.  This is not a true applies-to-apples comparison because wins do not necessarily correlate to rankings, but it is pretty close.  This comparison is more peaches-to-nectarines than apples-to-oranges.

* – Not all preview magazines are subjective in their rankings.  Phil Steele stands out as an exception.  That said, he is only one of many and my sense is that the Athlon’s of the world just put their writers around a conference table and talk their way to a top 25..

Team Preseason Ranking Over/Under
Alabama 1 10
Oklahoma 2 10
Oregon 3 9.5
Boise State 4 10
Florida State 5 10
LSU 6 9.5
Stanford 7 8.5
Nebraska 8 10
Texas A&M 9 8.5
Oklahoma State 10 8
Virginia Tech 11 10
Notre Dame 12 9
Arkansas 13 8.5
Ohio State 14 9
South Carolina 15 9
TCU 16 9
Wisconsin 17 9
Georgia 18 8
Missouri 19 7.5
Michigan State 20 7
West Virginia 21 9.5
Mississippi State 22 7
Florida 23 8
Southern Cal 24 7.5
Texas 25 8

A few random thoughts on the numbers:

  • Boise State strikes me as a little overrated.  The fact that Vegas is giving them the same odds as five major conference teams, all of which play demonstrably tougher schedules, indicates that Vegas sees this Boise State team as a little inferior to its predecessors.  Boise State hasn’t been under ten wins in a regular season since 2005.  Is the step up from the WAC to the MWC minus Utah and BYU really that pronounced?


  • At the end of the 2008 season, Florida, Texas, and USC looked poised to dominate college football for the foreseeable future.  Those three teams were ruling recruiting in the three most talent-rich states in the country, they had stable, able coaching staffs, and they were producing consistent results on the field.  Three years later, those programs are included at the very bottom of the preseason top 25, almost out of a sense of obligation.  This all happened in two seasons.  That’s a long way of saying that Texas seems a little undervalued by the commentariat right now.  Unless there was a massive flaw in their approach to recruiting, their roster is way too talented to be at the bottom of the top 25 and unlike Florida and USC, they have the same coach who had them at the summit of college football at the end of the Aughts.  Compare Texas to Texas A&M.  A&M is way ahead of the Horns in the rankings, but Vegas sets the Aggies’ over/under at 8.5 and the Horns at 8.  That smells to me like the sharps being skeptical of Texas A&M, which matches my admittedly subjective sense that the Aggies are this year’s version of Ole Miss. 


  • Vegas is also skeptical of Oklahoma State, pegging them for eight wins despite an easy non-conference schedule.  I suspect that Vegas sees Dana Holgorsen’s departure as a big deal. 


  • Vegas is also skeptical of Stanford.  The commentariat sees a team that went 12-1 last year and returns the presumptive #1 pick in the Draft at quarterback.  Vegas sees a team that is returning 11 starters and has a new head coach.  Again, I am in the Vegas camp.


  • Vegas loves Virginia Tech.  Despite the fact that they sit outside of the preseason top ten, Vegas pegs them for ten wins, which is equal to the projections for Alabama and Oklahoma.  The Tide and Sooners play tougher schedules than the Hokies (VT’s non-conference schedule: Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State, and Marshall.  If you want to be treated as a major program, Hokie fans, then maybe your team should schedule like one.  And might I remind you that you play in the ACC and miss Florida State in the regular season?), but that is a lot of faith in a team returning 12 starters.


  • Vegas is feeling Negative Grohmentum for Michigan State.  The Spartans are pegged for seven wins, the same as their in-state rivals who are not in anyone’s preseason top 25.  Michigan State and Mississippi State are both pegged for seven wins, but the Bulldogs can point to playing in the brutal SEC West.  The Spartans just seem like a team that Vegas sees as one that was way lucky to win 11 games last year and faces a major regression to the mean.  Many in the Midwest have debated whether Nebraska or Michigan State should be favored in their half of the Big Ten, but to the sharps, there is no question at all.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

An NBA Owner Provides

And he does it even when he's not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he's an owner of a local basketball team.

The Hawks have been purchased by Gus Fring! I can hardly contain my excitement! I've been in a major Breaking Bad phase this summer as Mrs. B&B and I have ploughed through the first three seasons and asked ourselves the same question that we asked last summer when we were catching up on Mad Men: what took us so long? I have been ruminating on an "SEC Coaches as Breaking Bad characters" post (Gus is obviously Nick Saban, Bobby Petrino is Tortuga, Les Miles is Tuco, Houston Nutt is Saul Goodman, Mark Richt is Walter White [with 2007 Evil Richt as Heisenberg], etc.), but now, Atlanta Spirit has saved me the trouble by selling the team to a Latino restauranteur.* If only Alex Meruelo were from Chile instead of Cuba. Josh Smith might want to keep an eye out for boxcutters in the dressing room if he keep hoisting up 21-footers early in the shot clock.

* - Because a sample size of one tells me that people from Southern California can be prickly about analogies made for rhetorical or humorous purposes, let me make clear that I am not accusing Meruelo of being a psychopath like Gus Fring, nor am I making the claim that his other business interests include an industrial cleaning facility with a meth lab in the basement. I heard Pizza Loca and immediately thought of Pollos Hermanos.

As far as my actual opinion of the purchase, it sounds good. Anything is better than the irretrievably broken Atlanta Spirit. The Hawks might get some local goodwill as a result of a new ownership face. They can certainly use the boost after a disappointing year at the box office. I have little time for the idea that team ownbership requires one face. The Braves' solid performances over the past two years on mid-level payrolls illustrates that corporate ownership can be just fine. Conversely, the people who claim that they wish that the Braves had an Arthur Blank-style face of the franchise might consider that Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder are also the faces of their franchises. That said, Atlanta Spirit was a disaster, so Meruelo is a welcome addition. As long as he has the money to run the team without cutting corners, then I'm happy. The story that he started with one pizza restaurant when he was 21 and turned it into a business empire speaks well to his acumen.

Hopefully, that acumen has identified the Hawks as a neglected asset. For most of its history, the franchise has struggled to convert its place as Black Hollywood's home team into butts in the seats. Atlanta remains a good basketball town and a very good NBA market without being crazy about the Hawks. The roster is fairly good, outside of the colossal disaster that is Joe Johnson's contract. If Jeff Teague's playoff burst is not ephemeral, then the Hawks have a good starting lineup, a notch below Miami and Chicago, but not too shabby. The team lacked depth last year, which is a problem that an emotionally invested owner with a checkbook can remedy. Also, if a new labor deal has retroactive effect to erase (or at least ameliorate) insane agreements like the Johnson deal, then Meruelo will be in great shape. Mike's services will not be required.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Brady Hoke and Mahmoud Ahmadinedaj

The complaints of Michigan fans about Lloyd Carr seem quaint at best after the Rodriguez-apocalypse, but this seems like a good time to revisit the primary gripe, which was the existence of the “non-scoring offense.” Carr’s teams had two offenses. The first was the offense that was actually designed to maximize scoring. This offense would come out when the team was behind and/or playing an opponent that frightened the coaching staff. The second offense was a bland disaster that would be deployed against inferior opponents and/or when Michigan had leads (and not necessarily substantial leads, at that). In the last two years of Carr’s tenure, the non-scoring offense was marked by endless zone left runs where Mike Hart would predictably get the ball, take it behind Jake Long, and then find 11 defenders waiting for him. It was the existence of the two offenses that led to one of the more amazing stats of Carr’s tenure: Michigan was more likely to win a game when trailing by one score going into the fourth quarter than they were when they were leading by one score in the same situation. (HT: I Blog for Cookies.) In retrospect, Michigan fans (and I include myself in this group) should have given Carr more credit for recruiting great offensive players and overseeing the implementation of a scoring offense that could be so successful against top opposition. Instead, we took that for granted and griped about the fact that Carr seemingly chose not to maximize the potential of his offenses.

Here is what I wrote about the “scoring offense” phenomenon in 2008*:

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

* – That post should be interesting to Georgia fans in retrospect. The impetus for writing it came from Georgia eking past the inept 2008 Auburn team on the Plains. In it, I found that Georgia was more likely to play close games than other top programs (five per year during the Richt era) and they had a very good 26-14 record in games decided by one score. 2009 continued with this pattern, as Georgia went 4-2 in one-score games, but then 2010 was completely against type as Georgia went 1-4 in such games (and that doesn’t include the losses at South Carolina and Mississippi State, both of which were tight games that were ultimately decided by more than one score). The 2010 team was completely against type for Mark Richt. That ought to be encouraging for Georgia fans going into 2011.

Well, meet the new boss, same as the old boss:

Possessing the ball, running it, and taking care of the football is an important part of team's success. "Mike Martin I'm sure would love to get zone-blocked all day long."[ed: bler.] The pro-style offense brings a different physical aspect that helps build team toughness. They need to hold onto the ball to help the defense, and the pro-style offense brings that. "We like points, don't get me wrong," they aren't going to hold the offense back from scoring, though, except in end-game situations.

“We like points, don’t get me wrong.” The fact that Hoke feels it necessary to include that caveat is telling. You know how you can tell that something insulting is coming as soon as someone starts a statement with “with all due respect”? You know how someone is about to whine when they say “I’m not a whiner, but…”?* You know how you know that something racist is coming when someone says “I’m not prejudiced, but…”? (Some of my high school classmates were masters of this technique. My ears always perked up when I heard it so I could have a reminder as to why I was supporting Bill Clinton.) The fact that the speaker has to make a disclaimer is the giveaway.

* - Heath Evans used that clause in the aftermath of the 200 Citrus Bowl as a prelude to claiming that the Michigan offensive linemen must have been holding because Michigan was able to run the ball on Auburn. Yes, Heath, an offensive line with one future NFL perennial All Pro (Steve Hutchinson) and two future NFL starting tackles (Jeff Backus and Maurice Williams), all blocking for a future NFL offensive rookie of the year (Anthony Thomas) had to hold to run the ball. How was a Michigan team with that amount of offensive talent in the Citrus Bowl with an 8-3 record? Take a look at the start of this post.

College football is great for a host of reasons, one of which is the scarcity of product. We only get three months and change of games, so we go crazy in anticipation. By August, we are totally stir-crazy, like kids at the end of a car trip, and we end up over-analyzing every utterance of our coaches. In the same way that foreign policy analysts pore over the statements of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and opine on the implications of his statements for the rivalry between Iran and Israel, people like me look for evidence of a head coach’s style based on tiny snippets of press conferences. In both cases, we ask the questions like “does he really mean this or is he just saying it for domestic political consumption?” and “surely he realizes that this is a terrible idea, right?” We do this because what else is there to discuss in August?