Friday, September 29, 2006

The State of South Carolina, in a Nutshell

"We've got some guys who just don't think well."

A few other thoughts on the game:

1. Syvelle Newton is a very good quarterback. I hate to second-guess Steve Spurrier, whom I (and most rational Georgia fans, in their heart of hearts, like), but why was Newton not playing from the start of the year? He's certainly more accurate than Blake Mitchell and his running threat allows USC to be threatening in the five-wide set that Spurrier likes to use.

You can't throw a ball much better than this.

2. As good as he is, Sidney Rice is proving to be a limiting factor for South Carolina because USC always uses him in the red zone and opponents know what's coming. Against teams with athletes to defend the jump ball, South Carolina becomes relatively easy to handle in the red zone. The Cocks played Georgia fairly even (at least moreso than the final score indicated) and they played Auburn very even, but their inability to score touchdowns in the red zone doomed them in both games. When Mitchell was the quarterback, this was understandable because South Carolina can't run the ball. With Newton at quarterback, South Carolina can spread opponents out and then use Mitchell as a running threat inside the ten. The upshot is that they should get better as the season goes along, but Spurrier needs to get out of the "throw the ball up to the big guy" rut. In other words, Steve Spurrier needs to stop being Jeff Bowden. I will now hurl myself into a grizzly den for making that comparison.

This is not a high-percentage play.

3. I don't mean to get all Heismanpundit on you (I'd have to start by reaching into my nose and pulling out a quarter of...nevermind), but Tommy Tuberville needs to let Al Borges throw the ball a little more. Tuberville has freely admitted that he put the brakes on Auburn's passing game against LSU. Someone might need to explain to Tommy that his defense, while very good, is not impregnable. They allowed 311 yards against LSU and the Bengal Tigers were in position to steal the game at the end, after having already been turned back on a previous drive in dubious circumstances. Auburn then allowed 349 yards last night and they were a dropped touchdown pass away from overtime with South Carolina. Someone might also explain to Tommy that just because a strategy works doesn't mean that it was the right strategy. Tuberville intentionally limiting his offense and prevailing is like, oh, I don't know, Stalin purging his entire officer corps in the 1930s, but still prevailing on the Eastern Front.

There, I've now compared Steve Spurrier to Jeff Bowden and Tommy Tuberville to Stalin. Is that deranged enough for you? Shall I now pour a barrel of wine-spit on my head?

Like Spurrier's love affair with Sidney Rice, I can understand Tuberville looking at Kenny Irons, his offensive line, Cody Bliss, and his defense and deciding "you know, Woody Hayes was right!" However, unless Brandon Cox is more suspect than he looks (and Auburn averaged 9.5 yards per pass attempt last night without throwing an interception in 19 attempts) or Auburn's receivers are a bigger problem than I'm thinking, Auburn needs to throw the ball more to stay out of the nail-biting games that they've played against their two quality opponents. This limited gameplan is not going to cut it against Florida (certainly not two times) and it presents risks against Georgia and Alabama, as both teams have good defenses to keep games close (especially if Auburn is limiting itself offensively) and athletes to make the one big play at the end of a close game. Auburn looks like they have superior personnel, but when they shorten the game, they increase the chances of an anomalous result.

There was one particular instance when Auburn was WAY too conservative and that was the 3rd and two on their last offensive play. Auburn's defense had just been on the field for a 15-play, 94-yard drive. They desperately need a first down. The Tigers line up in an ace set with Irons in the backfield and three receivers split left. South Carolina had eight in the box against Auburn's six blockers. So what happens? Naturally, Auburn runs the ball and Jasper Brinkley nails Irons short of the first down. This was either a bad decision by Brandon Cox not to audible into some sort of safe pass or it was excessive conservatism by Tuberville (and possibly Borges) with the lead. I'm going with the latter possibility.

Anyway, that was a lot of negativity. Overall, last night's game was a highly entertaining Thursday nighter. South Carolina played well enough, especially under center, to lead me to believe that they pose a threat to upset Tennessee, Florida, and/or Clemson. Auburn survived a road test against a game opponent and remains perfect. For my criticism of Tuberville that he's not using his talent optimally, there's a hidden compliment in there that Tommy has done an excellent job of putting together a quality roster.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Where's Steadman Shealy?

Daniel Moore is a blessing for frustrated bloggers trying to find images of an old-school SEC quarterback.

[Ed. - This post originally referenced Stan White until a commenter pointed out that my Google Image search for Stan White had produced a picture of Pat Sullivan. Since Pat is too prominent and does not allow me to show off, we audibled to a picture of Steadman Shealy. So there.]

Since one of the themes of the year in this end of the blogosphere is ESPN whoring themselves to the Big Ten and ignoring the SEC (a subject that I can comfortably address nine years after the State of Tennessee nearly got all Operation Barbarossa on Bristol, Connecticut), it bears mentioning that the job description for color analyst for a college football game is apparently "played quarterback in the Midwest." Leaving aside the fact that Gameday's roles go to an Ohio State quarterback, a Michigan wide receiver, and an Indiana head coach (OK, Corso spent some time at Florida State and Louisville, as well) and the Scoreboard show's roles go to a Pitt lineman and a Notre Dame head coach (if there's any doubt as to Holtz's loyalty, look at his garb on the cover of his hokey autobiography/self-help manual...or read about what he says about South Carolina inside), here's the list of color analysts for the major networks:

CBS (the network that covers the SEC exclusively):

Gary Danielson - Purdue
Steve Beuerlein - Notre Dame


Kirk Herbstreit - Ohio State
Bob Davie - Notre Dame (among others)
Bob Griese - Purdue
Tim Brant - Maryland
Andre Ware - Houston
Ed Cunningham - Washington
David Norrie - UCLA


Todd Blackledge - Penn State
Paul Maguire - Annoying A&T (OK, he actually went to The Citadel. Are you as surprised as I am?)
Chris Spielman - Ohio State
Mike Gottfried - Pitt
Rod Gilmore - Oregon
Trevor Matich - BYU
Craig James - SMU

(Note that all of the #1 analysts are former Big Ten players, assuming that we grandfather in Blackledge.)

Mr. Hollingsworth would have felt better if he had a zero-accountability job in front of the camera ahead in his future.

When SEC fans get chippy about the college football media being against them, this might be a reason why. OK, that and the fact that Gameday is apparently going to follow Ohio State around like the Dead, selling rancid patchouli and tie-dyed sweater vests festooned with psychadelic nuts along the way. ABC/ESPN electing to draft analysts from the conferences they cover is one thing, but why can't CBS find someone who, I don't know, actually played in the SEC to analyze SEC games? I actually like Gary Danielson a lot, but it would be nice if some network somewhere hired someone with a Southern accent. Maybe I'm just prickly about this after Keith Jackson's retirement and Ron Franklin's ludicrous demotion. Maybe the EEOC should look into whether Southern-ness should be a protected nationality. (Yes, I have actually researched this question and the answer is "no.")

I won't trust a person if he doesn't want to see the KerwinBellstache on location in Iowa City this weekend.

My Top 25

1 Southern Cal 25
2 Ohio State 24
3 Florida 23
4 Auburn 22
5 Michigan 21
6 Louisiana State 20
7 Louisville 19
8 Texas 18
9 Oregon 17
10 Clemson 16
11 Oklahoma 15
12 Virginia Tech 14
13 West Virginia 13
14 Tennessee 12
15 Iowa 11
16 Notre Dame 10
17 Georgia 9
18 Cal 8
19 TCU 7
20 Nebraska 6
21 Boston College 5
22 Florida State 4
23 Georgia Tech 3
24 Washington 2
25 Boise State 1

Dropped Out:

A few thoughts:

1. I'm sticking with Southern Cal as my top team because their defense has been better than Ohio State's so far and I suspect they'll show more offense when faced with a more threatening opponent than Arizona. The big question with the Trojans is whether they shut down Nebraska or Nebraska shut down themselves out of fear of humiliation.

2. I'm of the opinion that there's nothing wrong with ranking a team that loses a tight game on the road slightly behind (or even ahead of) the team that beat them. For instance, no one who watched the LSU-Auburn game could have come away from it thinking that, on a neutral field, the two teams would not be very even. (Auburn fans, if you wish to dispute this point, then you're essentially arguing that your homefield advantage is worthless, or at least worth no more than a field goal. Do so at your own peril.) I have Florida ahead of Auburn solely because I'm concerned about the Tigers' passing game right now. I might just be bitter because I have Courtney Taylor on my fantasy team...but Steve Slaton keeps me warm at night.

2a. As a corollary to the point on homefield advantage, I'd have no problem later in the year ranking Oklahoma ahead of Oregon, but right now, my concerns about the Sooners' defense, not to mention the fact that they struggled with UAB and then Nebraska and Georgia both destroyed the Blazers, keep OU just out of the top ten.

3. Wake Forest and Missouri are on the cusp of the poll, only being kept out by the "yeah, but it was Ole Miss" rule. I enjoyed sticking Washington into the poll; there's something satisfying about Husky Stadium rocking again. I might still be in aferglow after going to the campus in April and deciding that it was a slightly more caffinated version of the University of Michigan. I have BC, Georgia Tech, and Florida State at the end of the poll and I'm not overjoyed to have any of them in the rankings. They're placeholders right now until some team strikes my fancy, as Washington did this weekend, and then I can dispatch them.

Assorted Football Thoughts

Tonight's blogging is brought to you by an infant who thinks that all the cool babies refuse to sleep in their cribs...

The Falcons were nothing more than the ram caught in the thicket when G-d told Abraham that he wouldn't have to sacrifice Isaac. They were on the field in the Superdome to be the foil for the Saints and they played that role beautifully. The Saints, shockingly, decided to run blitz just about every time on early downs until they had a big lead and they left their weakside defensive end at home to prevent Vick's bootlegs. Vick was not accurate enough to make the Saints pay, but that wouldn't have mattered anyway, since none of his receivers were open anyway, a point driven home by Joe Theismann in a monologue that seemed both surprisingly useful (for Joe, at least) and an apologia for Vick. (It's much better to rip the anonymous receivers than it is to point out that the QB is inaccurate.) The play-calling also failed to take advantage of New Orleans selling out on the run. Where was the play-action passing to Crumpler on early downs? The game also reminded me that before every Falcons game in a hostile environment with the entire country watching, I keep waiting for Vick to recreate the 2000 Sugar Bowl and it never happens. Just call me Lucy.

We're a month into college football and I've already gotten sick, yet again, of coaches who think that 45-yard field goals are gimmes. Bob Stoops was guilty of this in Eugene, squandering about 45 seconds that could have been used to move the Sooners closer for a game-winning field goal. He was punished by his kicker lowering the trajectory of his kick and having it blocked. On Saturday, a coach far more familiar with blunders - Mike Shula - was confronted with the following scenario:

Bama has the ball in the second half of the first OT, needing any score to win.

His quarterback, presumably scared that Two-a-Days has made his brother a biggre chick magnet, has been near-perfect on the road against a pretty good defense.

His running game has been negligible, both in the game and all season.

His kicker has a case of the yips.

So naturally, Shula elects to run the ball into the line three times and then Leigh Tiffin misses a 40+-yard field goal, causing Auburn fans to celebrate for all sorts of reasons. (Something about vengeance on Van Tiffin in this life or the next.) If Shula calls a max-protect pass play with two receivers running slants/posts on any one of the three downs, then Bama wins 23-17 and Houston Nutt is thumbing through the Yellow Pages for realtors. Instead, Shula clearly reasoned that if Bama tried to move the ball and turned it over, then he would be blamed, but if they stuck their feet in the mud for three players and then the kicker missed, then the kicker would be blamed. Adam Sandler, take it away:

Once again, I'm ignored by my teammates and all my coaches
"Go back where you came from!"
Scream 70,000 fans
Well, I know I could win their love back
By catching a winning touchdown
But, unfortunately, I was born with these very small hands

And another of my pet issues has arisen, the QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY!!! (Cue The Imperial March, which, incidentally, the Notre Dame band needs to stop playing for their defense, although I suspect that it's unintentionally appropriate since the Irish would have a hard time stopping the Ewoks.

Beware, Ambrose Wooden, they run a mean stop-and-go.

Watching the CBS pre-game show before the Bama game on Saturday, you could almost feel Tony Barnhart, Spencer Tillman, and Tim Brando quivering with joy that one of the major programs in the conference has a...QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY!!! And not just a made-up, "do we start Tim Tebow over a four-year starter who was the top recruit in the country?" controversy, but an actual, "there are competing reasons to start either one of these guys" controversy. Personally, I don't think that the term "controversy" is the right one to describe Georgia's situation because every one agrees that neither Cox, nor Stafford have a death grip on the job and that the rational thing for Richt to do is to play the hot hand.

I'm a voice in the wilderness on this subject, but I see nothing wrong with playing two quarterbacks. If it was good enough for Steve Spurrier when he shuttled Doug Johnson and Noah Brindise in for one another on every play in the '97 Florida State game, then it ought to be good enough for the rest of the mortal coaches in college football. Football talking heads act as if the other ten players on offense are complete mental basket cases who would react to different quarterbacks by losing control of their bowels and running into the stands to cower behind the hot dog stand. In so doing, the talking heads mistake cause and effect. Playing two quarterbacks is not a cause of poor quarterback play; it's usually the result of the fact that a team doesn't have a surefire starter, so it has to make do by going with a hot hand. If Georgia would have slavishly abided by the conventional wisdom that a quarterback cannot be yanked short of Security Council resolution ordering such, then they would have lost to 0-3 Colorado. Georgia has two promising, green quarterbacks. Young quarterbacks tend to be inconsistent. Given that reality, it only makes sense for Georgia to play both guys in the hope that one of them will be having a good day. There's no reason for Richt to hastily decide that either Cox or Stafford are his guy for the rest of the season. Start either one of them and then yank them if they don't play well. In the rest of the world, this is described as "competition" or "incentives." In the make-believe world of football analysis, forcing a quarterback to play well under threat of benching (just like every other position on the field) forces the signal-caller to "look over his shoulder" and then "turn into jello," as if quarterbacks are five-year olds who needed to be coddled and told they're doing great after they fingerpaint their parents' wedding albums and use Elmer's glue to close up their orifices.

Georgia's bigger problem is that they don't have a receiver who can make a play. The recent archetype for a freshman quarterback succeeding is Chad Henne and he had the "don't worry; heave it to Braylon" fallback plan whenever Michigan needed points. Matt Stafford, in contrast, has Mohammed Massaquoi as his #1. Pray for him.

Incidentally, I was listening to the end of the Georgia game with my father-in-law, who is a yankee (but still a nice guy) and had never heard Larry Munson before. Sadly, Larry didn't quite lose control like I hoped he would, although the fact that Georgia was having to rally to dispatch a 26.5 point underdog might have had something to do with that.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Thoughts from the Weekend that Do Not Involve Meconium

Michigan - Notre Dame

Being a sports fan is a funny thing. Going into the game, I felt pretty good about how Michigan matched up with Notre Dame because UM's running performance in the first two games was likely to set up deep passes against Notre Dame's suspect corners and because Michigan's front four would present problems for the Notre Dame offensive line. That said, I was feeling like Michigan wasn't going to win because they hadn't won a road-opener since I was a 3L (1999) and this ND team was certainly better than the six teams UM has lost to during that stretch. So naturally, in a venue Lloyd had never won and against an opponent far better than the previous squads that ended Michigan's national title dreams in November, Michigan played its best game since the 1997 humiliation of Penn State on JUDGMENT DAY!!! and strolled out to a 34-7 lead by the time the game was 28 minutes old.

How does this happen? How does Tennessee win a national title the year after the best quarterback in school history departs? How does Ohio State win a national title in 2002 against a very tough schedule with a team with a negligible offense that would have been soundly beaten by the Bucks' '96, '98, or '05 teams? How does Barcelona reverse their fortunes against Real Madrid as a result of David Beckham proclaiming that he wouldn't play for the Blaugrana? How did the Braves win 14 straight divisional titles and yet the one team that won the World Series in that stretch had one of the weakest offenses of any team during the 14-year run? Days like Saturday are the reason why sports fans keep their faith, against all logic and despite the fact that, for most of us, the defeats hurt worse than the victories feel good.

To illustrate that last point, the moment that I decided that Michigan wasn't going to blow the lead (not an unreasonable fear, given Michigan's habit of blowing leads in this decade, not to mention Notre Dame's ability to come from behind [see: '93 BC and '05 MSU...and they lost both of those]), I started to think about the fact that Michigan annihilated Notre Dame three years ago...and promptly sleepwalked their way out to Eugene where they dug themselves a 24-6 hole from which they could not quite excavate themselves (although a bad call on their final drive aided in the loss...sound familiar, Sooner fans?). Wisconsin is next week and I full expect Michigan to struggle for the first quarter or so. The question will be whether they dig themselves a hole or if they simply muddle their way to a 3-3 start, after which they should dispatch the punchless Badgers.

As for the game itself, for once, Michigan set up an opponent beautifully. They spent the first two games of the season showing off their fancy new toy - a zone blocking scheme that takes advantage of Mike Hart's vision and cut-back ability - and then exploited Notre Dame's response to the fancy new toy - bringing up the safeties - by unveiling a cooler, fancier new toy: the deep pass. Three long TDs to Mario Manningham and that was that. The counter-measure that future opponents will likely try against Mike DeBord's homage to Al Davis - run, run, long pass - is to bring up a safety and leave the other safety on Manningham's side to force Michigan to throw deep to Steve Breaston, who has always struggled at adjusting to the ball in the air, and Adrian Arrington, who may or may not have deep speed.

Defensively, Michigan hit Brady Quinn over and over again. I started feeling good on the first play of the game when Quinn couldn't step into a deep ball properly because Terrence Taylor had pushed a blocker back into his face. Michigan consistently got pressure on Quinn by rushing only four, especially up the middle, and UM's players are vastly more active in zone coverage than they were under Jim Herrmann. (This is more a function of Herrmann the linebacker coach than Herrmann the defensive coordinator.) Quinn became less and less accurate as the game went on, culminating (for me, at least) when he missed a wide open Rhema McKnight down the left sideline in the third quarter. Quinn did not look very good in the game, starting with the second play when he threw too hard and behind John Carlson, leading to the first of Michigan's six touchdowns (I can't believe I'm typing that), but most of his struggles are attributable to the fact that he was his over and over and his receivers could not dominate Michigan's corners physically. Troy Smith will be better protected and is more accurate than Quinn, so he'll be a greater challenge down the road.

And one conciliatory note for Notre Dame fans: the biggest reason why ND lost this game is that they don't have good corners. This fact was covered in the first game by the fact that Georgia Tech only has one good receiver and it was covered in the second game by the fact that Penn State's running game didn't merit extra defenders in the box. Against a team that could run the ball, the corners were exposed. The reason why Notre Dame has poor corners is that Ty Willingham viewed recruiting corners and offensive linemen (after his first two classes) as an optional endeavor. Down the road, when Darrin Walls & company are more experienced, Notre Dame won't be so easily beaten by players like Manningham. That said, next year is when the Curse of Ty shifts from corners to offensive linemen.

Clemson - FSU

I know I'm getting soft when I saw Will Proctor's Dad crying after his son scored on a TD run against FSU and I got all emotional. Proctor, incidentally, is at least as good as Charlie Whitehurst was and Clemson is probably the best team in the ACC as a result. That said, being the best team in the ACC this year is not unlike being the most libertarian member of a Soviet Politburo. Saturday conclusively demonstrated that the sun has set on Miami and Florida State's empires. I can't imagine how frustrating it must be to be a Florida State fan. The team struggles because they can't move the ball to save their lives, despite excellent talent on offense, but there is no light at the end of the tunnel because the offensive coordinator happens to be the fruit of the head coach's loins and the head coach has the field named after him. The problem will only be solved when Saint Bobby either retires or is willing to eat cocktail olives for a month because he fired his son and his wife has refused to cook for him.

I feel really bad for Florida State fans, but I feel worse for Mr. College Football and other assorted pundits who were unaware that Florida State isn’t what they were before Mark Richt departed, and Miami isn’t what they were when Butch Davis was in charge of evaluating talent. You think that Kirk Herbstreit would like that “Miami to the Fiesta Bowl” pick back? He should have known better than to take a team with no receivers and four new starters on the offensive line, but even moreso when that team was Miami, a team that has struggled on offense in recent years even with plenty of returning starters on the line.

Florida – Tennessee

I started to have a few pangs of concern on Saturday night when Florida started running the ball effectively on Tennessee. My whole basis for deeming the Gators to be the most overrated team in the country, per the Charles Rogers Theorem, was that their losses on the offensive line would doom their running game and cause Chris Leak to have to run for his life. So what the hell were they doing running for 168 yards at over four yards per carry against Tennessee? If the Gators can block and DeShawn Wynn can run, then FloridaÂ’s weaknesses will be strengths and the Florida-Auburn SEC Title Game that every pundit predicted in the offseason will become a reality.

Ultimately, the question is whether Tennessee is the team that shelled CalÂ’s running game or the team that gave up yards and points by the bushel against Air Force. If theyÂ’re the former, then Florida will win two of three against Auburn/LSU/Georgia, brush away the Alabama/South Carolina/Florida State no offense posse, and head to the Dome at 11-1. If the Vols are really an 8-4 team that looked better than they are against Cal (and IÂ’m leaning towards this conclusion, mainly because TennesseeÂ’s defensive line is below their normal standardsÂ…and because I want the Charles Rogers Theorem to be right again), then 10-2 or 9-3 is more likely. One thing is for certain, though: FloridaÂ’s defense is very, very good, as evidenced by the fact that the Gators allowed 24 yards rushing to the Vols. Lord only knows what the Gator defensive line does to their offensive line in practice.

LSU – Auburn

I didn’t get to watch much of this game because I was too busy grinning like a fool as Tom Hammond tried to make sense of Michigan’s detonation of Notre Dame. (“Wait, this wasn’t in the script. What about my “Charlie Weis is a genius because he…SELF-SCOUTS!!!”) From what I did see, the defenses dominated the offenses (no surprise) and the game was very similar to the tilt in 2004, right down to the immaculate weather. I was disappointed in LSU that they got to the Auburn 20 with 14 seconds remaining, but didn’t get a single shot off at the end zone. They were first bailed out by a false start penalty that prevented the game from ending on Jamarcus Russell’s inept decision to throw underneath with no timeouts remaining, and then they threw six yards short of the end zone on the final play. I guess they figured that Auburn wouldn’t possibly give up a last gasp touchdown at home from 20 yards out…

Incidentally, it did amuse me on Saturday that Gang of Six member Florida and “OMG!!! West Coast Hottnezz Al Borges!!!” Auburn combined to average 14 points and 295 yards against poor, dumb Tennessee and LSU. Could it be that SEC defenses are very good and don’t simply benefit from playing on a weekly basis against inept offenses? OK, in my heart of hearts, I’ll concede that there are a lot of atrocious offenses in the SEC this year and the depth of the conference simply isn’t very good. There are four excellent teams (Auburn, LSU, Florida, and Georgia), one link-up midfielder that might be excellent or merely good (Tennessee), a bunch of feisty, but offensively-challenged and average teams (Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Vandy) and three absolutely abysmal teams (Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Kentucky). As I mentioned last week, Georgia essentially has a three-game schedule (plus Georgia Tech at the end). This is not a vintage SEC season, although I don't know which conference can say that it's having a really good year, other than the Big East and that's a relative statement: "See, we don't suck as badly as you thought we did!"

Bucs - Falcons

Forgive me for saying so, but the Falcons' game on Sunday was incredibly boring. It was so boring, in fact, that watching Fabio Capello turn Real Madrid into an Iberian version of Bolton was more enjoyable. (One quick note on Gol TV: I'm overjoyed to be able to watch Barca and Madrid just about every weekend now, but it kills me that there is so little crowd noise in the audio feed. Half of the enjoyment of watching European soccer is the atmosphere and Gol TV deprives me of that enjoyment by giving me so little crowd noise.) It was encouraging to see the Falcons throw a deep ball to Ashley Lelie, as the result would have been pass interference to just about any official other than the one running with the play. With the usually over-sensitive pass interference calls that NFL refs make on a regular basis, there's no reason not to throw deep on a regular basis. This is doubly true when you have a quarterback who throws a beautiful deep ball and a deep threat like Lelie. Sigh.

I was very happy to see the Falcons do what I and most fans with a passing knowledge of college football wanted them to try: running zone read plays. The personnel fits the play perfectly. It was great fun watching Vick and Dunn repeatedly break big gains on the play that Texas rode to a national title and West Virginia rode to the best season in school history. Eventually, Tampa figured the play out and started blitzing on the weak side of the play to stop Vick from breaking outside, but it seems likely that the Falcons have (or will put in) a countermeasure, probably a pass play to the outside to take advantage of that sort of blitz.

And we need to note, before we're done, that the Falcons have not allowed a touchdown in two games this year. Sunday's performance benefited heavily from Chris Simms' incompetence, so it wasn't as much fun as the shelling of Carolina the week before, but the pass rush was fairly good and the coverage was excellent. DeAngelo Hall was toying with Simms by the end of the game. The net result is that the Falcons have a two-game lead on their two primary rivals for the divisional title and the Monday nighter in New Orleans this week should be a lot of fun.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Mea Culpa

If you're wondering why posting has been light this week or why I'm up at 4:30 on a Saturday morning, blame this little guy:

Monday, September 11, 2006

And a Few Thoughts on the Local Professional Football Collective

In its 2005 compendium of juicy information, the Pro Football Prospectus wrote that the Falcons win despite Mike Vick, not because of him. Yesterday was another illustration of this truism. The Falcons won yesterday because they ran over the Panthers in a manner almost absent from the NFL since the Chuck Knox era. They won because Warrick Dunn is the perfect running back for a zone blocking scheme and he always makes the right cut and then makes the first tackler miss. (He would have Hall of Fame numbers if not for having spent the first five years of his career in Tampa's neanderthal offense, suffering for Mike Shula's sins.)

Most likeable Seminole ever.

They won because Jerious Norwood is going to do a really good Dunn impersonation this year. They won because their front four embarrassed Carolina's offensive line, partly because John Abraham and Rod Coleman are great pass rushers and partly because the McKay regime has built up great depth at the position and thus, the Falcons' defensive line was fresh in the fourth quarter.

If I were Jake Delhomme, I'd also be steamed to be buggered like this on just about every passing play.

They won because the secondary had its way with Carolina's out-manned receiver corps. (I'm still waiting for Keyshawn to "physically abuse" DeAngelo Hall as he promised to Jay Glazer he would do before the game.)

The Falcons certainly did not win because their quarterback went 10/22 for 140 yards and then ran for 48 more. Vick did make some nice throws in the game, especially his first touchdown pass when he scrambled to buy time and then hit Michael Jenkins with a laser for a touchdown. He also threw a really nice ball to Jenkins over the middle earlier in the game. That said, he missed wide open receivers on at least three occasions (a totally uncovered Alge Crumpler comes to mind immediately) and also hit Julius Peppers in the hands with a screen pass that would have put Carolina right back into the game if Peppers could have held onto the ball and trucked his way to the end zone. Vick clearly knew he had goofed on that throw, as he immediately got to his feet to chase Peppers.

Facts be damned, Joe Buck credited the victory to "Mike Vick and the Falcons" when reading scores at the outset of the Dallas-Jacksonville game.

That said, there are a couple reasons to defend Vick after the game, both related to the pressure that his running ability puts on a defense. First, Vick has open targets because teams have to leave a spy to watch him and thus play a man down in the defensive backfield. Second, Warrick Dunn's oft-exploited cut-back lanes are so open because weakside defensive ends have to respect the bootleg and thus cannot crash down on the backside of running plays. In other words, I'm not sure that the Falcons would have won 34-6 instead of 20-6 with Matt Schaub under center.

Update: at least Joe Buck can say he almost certainly didn't see the game. Peter King allegedly did and here's what he has to say:

[Vick] was 10 of 22, but if you saw the game, you saw a guy who was the decisive factor for Atlanta.

Right, in a game in which the Falcons allowed the pre-season NFC favorites six points on their homefield and rushed for 250 yards, it was the quarterback who was the decisive factor. But wait, the illogical spewing continues:

I've vacillated about Vick because I think a quarterback has to give a team consistency. But consistency is not Vick's game. He's at his best when he's creating stuff on the perimeter, as he did on the scramble-and-throw that invented the 34-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins that, in essence, clinched this game. And if you neuter that, you might as well play Matt Schaub.

What on earth is he saying here? That Vick doesn't need to be a consistent passer? Why should he get a free pass when every other quarterback is graded on how good they perform over the long haul? On the other hand, if King is simply saying that Vick needs to be himself and not constrict himself by being a pocket passer, then he's right, but he's stating the obvious.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Thoughts on the Weekend

There's awesome, there's totally awesome, and then there's seeing your favorite camper from your summer as sports director at a summer camp return an interception for a touchdown for your alma mater. Michigan opponents, fear Max Pollock:

The sports instruction at Camp Judaea in 1997 was top-notch. Here's Exhibit A.

Other, less important notes from the weekend:

The Dawgs

I wish I knew how many times I have picked against the Dawgs on the road in the Mark Richt era and then realized at some point during the third quarter "Mark Richt teams never lose road conference games." Georgia completely dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage. I expected Georgia's defensive line to dominate and they did, especially Charles Johnson, who is benefiting from the attention paid to Quentin Moses. Moses and Johnson are giving me flashbacks to the Peter Boulware-Reinard Wilson tandem for Florida State in 1996 that dragged FSU to the national title game. (OK, Warrick Dunn also had something to do with that.) I did not expect Georgia's offensive line to be as good as they were, but they shelled the South Carolina defensive line time and again, opening holes for the running backs and giving Matt Stafford time to throw.

I came away very impressed by Stafford, although that's probably because I saw his terrific throws to Milner and Massaquoi, but missed two of his picks while watching the Texas game. The only pick I saw was the one thrown on a slant at the end of the first half and that was not his fault, as it was a well-thrown ball that was picked because the defender made a great play and also got away with interfering with Massaquoi with his off-arm. Georgia has only one test before the Florida game - October 11 against the Orange Horde from the North whose defenders apparently suck at assignment football (the open-ness [is that a word?] of Air Force's receivers on their drive at the end of the game was pretty astonishing). Matt Stafford will not stop being a freshman this year, which means that he'll be inconsistent (even late in the season), but he doesn't have to be great with this supporting cast. If Georgia can beat the Vols and split with Auburn and Florida, then this season will be an unqualified success. To be honest, though, if I'm going make fun of West Virginia for playing a bad schedule, I also need to note that Georgia lucks out in a major way by getting to play both Mississippi schools. With those two games, plus Vandy and Kentucky, half of the SEC schedule are guaranteed wins.

Ohio State-Texas and Penn State-Notre Dame

Troy Smith is the best quarterback in the country. I defy anyone to watch the tapes of the Texas-OSU game and the Penn State-Notre Dame game and then tell me that Brady Quinn should be the Heisman front-runner. Quinn was somewhat shaky for the first several drives for Notre Dame, including missing an open John Carlson in the end zone (which prompted me to claim "I could have made that throw," my wife to respond "you're insane," and then me threatening to take her to the back yard to be Carlson to my Quinn so I could make that throw - keep in mind that she's 38 weeks pregnant) and throwing a terrible ball over the middle that should have been intercepted at the goal line. Quinn was outstanding for the last 35-40 minutes of the game, but Troy Smith was outstanding for all 60 minutes against the defending national champions on the road. He's accuracy is simply outstanding, such that he does what Mike Vick ought to do, which is simply use his mobility to buy time to allow receivers downfield to get open. I'm not predisposed to hyping Ohio State players, but Troy Smith is too good for me to deny reality. And the funny thing is that, although he was a fairly big recruit, he was something of an afterthought when Ohio State recruited him because Justin Zwick came in in the same class and was supposed to be Craig Krenzel's heir apparent. Kudos to the OSU coaches for recognizing who their best QB was and then designing an offense that takes advantage of his talent.

As for Texas in the game, I had the same thoughts as Peter from Burnt Orange Nation: Texas's passing game was extremely timid and did not complement their running game at all. I've had similar criticisms of the Michigan passing game for years, but if your strength is running the ball, then your passing game ought to be designed to deny linebackers and safeties a first step towards the line of scrimmage. That means throwing the ball down the field. Maybe Colt McCoy isn't capable of making reads down the field, but how hard is it to look and the safeties and then decide which receiver running a fly to throw to? Why not do what Michigan did with Chad Henne when he was a freshman and let Limas Sweed be their Braylon Edwards. OK, Limas will never be Braylon and Texas fans are ill-positioned to disagree, but he could be a viable down-the-field threat on the few plays that Texas isn't handing the ball to Selvin Young or Jamaal Charles.

The good old days, when Michigan could complete a non-screen forward pass.

Come to think of it, Texas calling pass plays with those backs and that offensive line is like Hugh Grant soliciting a blow from a nasty Hollywood hooker when he has Elizabeth Hurley at home. I digress.

Notre Dame looked very good on Saturday, so instead, I'm going to complain about NBC's coverage, specifically their choice of shots. If I ever do an Notre Dame on NBC drinking game, it will be unfair if I order players to drink every time the ND band is mugging for the camera. We get the picture, NBC. Notre Dame has a band. It includes men wearing skirts. The band members are very excited all game. They play that song from the George Zipp scene in Airplane. Enough already. Additionally, NBC provides a fine illustration of Jon Chait's theory that TV producers can make or break a coach by deciding when to show his picture. NBC cut to their Weis-cam after every big Notre Dame play. While this did give me chances to quip about Charlie's otherworldly genius causing Penn State to flub a short field goal attempt or decide that lead-footed Anthony Morelli is Jamelle Holleway, it did get annoying after a while.

If you can't tell, I might work in the garden during the Michigan game this weekend...or watch one of the other outstanding games in the same timeslot. Seriously, what's a fan to do when the following games are all on at 3:30:

Michigan-Notre Dame
Clemson-Florida State

That's half the top 20 playing one another in the same timeslot. If the NFL ever had that lineup, they would surely show only Georgia Tech-Troy to the Atlanta market, leaving the 85% of the world without DirectTV waiting for highlights at halftime.

And speaking of media criticism and Troy, Kirk Herbstreit opined on Saturday night when Troy and FSU were 17-17 in the 4th quarter that Jeff Bowden would go from "hero to goat" if FSU lost that game. (I can't remember if Herbstreit actually said hero or merely implied it.) Only in the make-believe world of sports analysis where coaches are not incompetent, but rather the targets of angry bloggers could Jeff Bowden have been a "hero" on Monday night against Miami. He was a talent-squandering beneficiary of nepotism on Monday night when FSU squeaked by Miami and he was a talent-squandering beneficiary of nepotism on Saturday night when FSU squeaked by Troy. FSU might win the ACC. They might even have a very good season. If they do, Jeff Bowden will have as much to do with it as me or Jenn Sterger.

A gratuitous opportunity to show the Paris Hilton of college football.

And one encouraging thought as a Michigan fan after a weekend defined by huge wins for UM's two biggest rivals: neither Ohio State, nor Notre Dame outgained their opponents by any significant margin. The scoreboards were lopsided because of factors that tend not to repeat themselves, such as fumbles and assorted other miscues. If Phil Steele has taught us anything at all, it's that teams that win by big margins despite not outgaining their opponents are overvalued thereafter.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Utterly Terrifying

I agree with all of Stuart Mandel's picks, namely Texas narrowly winning over Ohio State (when in doubt, take the better defense), Notre Dame winning comfortably over Penn State (PSU will become one-dimensional in this game and then Morelli will turn the ball over - this is also some wishful thinking on my part because I want Notre Dame to be fat, drunk, and happy when Michigan comes to town), and South Carolina upsetting the Dawgs. Why am I picking that way? A few reasons:

1. If Georgia struggles so much with inferior South Carolina teams, then how is the game going to go when the margin between the teams is narrower?

2. I was discouraged by JTIII's performance last week and, while I think the Dawgs will be better at the end of the year, I can foresee Georgia getting behind in this game and then Stafford having to press to bring them from behind. It's never good when a team is starting one QB, but the conventional wisdom is that they would play a different QB when trailing, i.e. when they actually need to score.

3. In a tight defensive game, which this one promises to be, special teams will be very important and I was impressed by USC's kicking games last week.

4. In a tight, defensive game, which coach is more likely able to come up with a wrinkle to score a touchdown: Steve Spurrier or Mark Richt?

5. Just a hunch that South Carolina is due against Georgia.

All of these factors are causing me to pick the Cocks despite the fact that I'm violating my "when in doubt, pick the better defense" rule stated above. I fully expect Charles Johnson and Quentin Moses to be in the backfield all game long and Spurrier's play-calling to be more conservative as a result, since he won't have confidence that his line can protect deeper patterns. If Georgia jumps out to a lead, it'll likely be because of pressure on Blake Mitchell causing a turnover.

A few other spreads I like:

Central Michigan (+28) at Michigan - Michigan is notoriously terrible at covering big numbers at home, mainly because Lloyd always pulls back on the reins once he has a lead of any kind and that's not conducive to big numbers. Plus, CMU has a decent run defense, so Michigan won't be able to score as much when they start imitating their 1971 offense. Finally, big numbers are even harder to cover with college football's new "screw the fan, NFL-style" clock rules.

Auburn (-20) at Mississippi State - I expect Auburn to score at least 21, thus they will cover.

Virginia Tech (-12) at North Carolina - I expect Virginia Tech to score at least 13, thus they will cover.

In Honor of Dominique's Induction into Basketball Valhalla

Dominique, even moreso than Dale Murphy, was the ultimate icon on the Atlanta sports scene when I was a kid (especially since we moved to Georgia just as Murph's peak was ending, although he did have a terrific one-year renaissance in 1987 for a truly terrible Braves team). There was nothing more exciting on the sports scene than going to the Omni to see 'Nique do something electric. The fact that my Dad disapproved of Dominique's dunking, remarking on one occasion after Wilkins brought the Omni to a happy fit with a breakaway tomahawk number that he didn't understand what was so exciting about that, made him that much cooler.

In case you're wondering, my favorite Nique memory isn't very original, but it's the game seven against the Celtics in Boston Garden in 1987 that the Hawks lost despite Nique absolutely going off. My feeling watching the game unfold was "gosh, we're going toe-to-toe with the Celtics and Nique is matching the second-best player in the NBA shot-for-shot." Then, the Hawks acquired Moses Malone and Reggie Theus in the off-season, sending expectations through the roof, and the Hawks promptly got knocked out the following year by the Bucks. So you see, the Hawks elevating expectations and then failing to meet them is nothing new.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Assorted College Football Thoughts

I've been in depositions this week, so my apologies for the light blogging despite the fact that there are now actual games and such to discuss, but anyway, in the few minutes that I haven't been arguing with witnesses who think that they're Bill Clinton and can redefine words like "frustrate" and "learn":

Why is Ted Ginn wearing a punter's facemask? Is he the first position player to wear a kicker's helmet since Joe Theismann? Is this the new cool thing?

The crowd at Gameday's set at Tech was a nice representation of Atlanta's status as the college football UN. I counted signs for at least eight other programs in addition to Tech and Notre Dame. Also, credit to Tech fans for some creative signs, especially the "Calvin: Defeating Catholics since 1509" sign. Compare that level of reference to that of their arch-rival:

Saturday was my first day ever with Gameplan and it made my head spin, first with rage when the games weren't popping up and then with a deep bliss when I could skip to and fro between about ten different games. I got to see Oregon whip up on Stanford, using a variant of the Texas/Northwestern run-based spread. (I think they're the first team in the Pac Ten to take this approach.) Oregon's defense really impressed me, as Stanford has talent on offense (ask Notre Dame) and they shut the Cardinal down. I got to see Alabama's broadcasters in ridiculous Hawaiian shirts. (The Tide's broadcast also included their jumbotron intro, which is cool as hell, especially because it makes the Bear sound especially drunk.) I got to watch some of the Florida-Southern Miss game and marvel at Sun Sports' ability to mess up the color on the screen. I got to watch Steve Slaton tear shit up for three quarters. Speaking of Steve, here's my fantasy team for the year. Pray for the health and production of the following upstanding individuals:

John David Booty
Shawn Bell
Mark Sanchez

Steve Slaton
Yvenson Bernard
Antonio Pittman
Courtney Lewis

Joel Filani
Courtney Taylor
Greg Carr
Dominique Ziegler

Joe Newton
Kellen Davis

Texas Defense
Auburn Defense

And if you're asking yourself "who the hell are Shawn Bell and Dominique Ziegler?," we are betting hard on Guy Morriss's Leach-ification of the Baylor offense. Seven points against TCU isn't an overly encouraging start, but the Bears did throw for almost 300 yards against one of the better opponents they'll play this year. With USC off this week, the AirBear offense had better click against mighty Northwestern State. And one other fantasy note: after franchising Maurice Clarett, Mike Williams, and Vernand Morency for the past three years, a sole tear of relief cascaded down my cheek when Steve Slaton took his first handoff on Saturday, as he was the first franchised player to play for Team Peace/Elkon in ages.

Strangely enough, I got a dirty look from a female Tech fan at Taco Mac in Decatur on Saturday night when I shouted "SALADS!!!" every time Charlie Weis would appear on the screen.

And speaking of females, the line of the weekend from the wife after I opined that Hawaii doesn't really run the ball, but instead uses the shovel pass from the shotgun in place of a running game: "Is that a cultural thing?"

Monday, September 04, 2006

Half-Assed Liveblogging (and interspersed thoughts on the weekend)

YOU ARE LOOKING the Embassy Suites in Orlando, where I just got to my room after not thinking through my flight plans and scheduling a flight during the Miami-Florida State game. Thankfully, I got to watch the first couple of drives on the flight because I was on Song (naturally, Delta is phasing Song out) and the loyal wife updated me in the cab ride over to the hotel. Her impressions: Miami is inept on offense, they managed to screw up on a punt with 12 men on the field, half the crowd is rooting for FSU, and Miami's band is either inaudible on not at the game. We then started devising a Miami-FSU drinking game, based on punts, turnovers, personal fouls, beleaguered expressions from offensive coordinators, aimless fly routes down the sidelines, and offensive tackles waving at defensive ends like torreros.

Naturally, when we got off the phone and I checked the score on my phone ten minutes later while grooving to "Careless Whisper" in the cab, Miami was en route to a touchdown. My wife's timing is as good as mine.

9:29 p.m. - Kyle Wright does not need to be taking hits like that.

9:35 p.m. - Holly Rowe to Edgerrin James: "All offseason, people have been saying that Miami has lost its swagger. What do you think?" File that one away under "questions that have only one possible answer." Where are sideline reporters all taught to ask obvious questions?

9:38 - Bobby Bowden finishes scribbling his no doubt helpful notes before his halftime speech. Suggested content: "Fire Jeff. Tell wife that it's never too late to start tough love approach. See what Mickey knows about offense." He then tells Holly Rowe that his team couldn't block in the first half and Rowe, completely unable to diverge from her script, then asks what else can be done to improve the running game. Other than your husband getting shot, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?

Speaking of the Civil War, I decided this weekend that in a prior life, Lloyd Carr was General George McClellan. McClellan's generalship was most noted for timidity in the face of opportunity. McClellan had more troops than anyone else in the field, but he made decisions based on fear and was always convinced that the enemy had twice as many troops as they actually did. Carr has better talent than just about any of the opponents on Michigan's schedule, but he too coaches by fear of what can go wrong, rather than taking the initiative and imposing his will on the opponent. If McClellan coached a college football team, he would surely be terrified of letting his quarterback throw over the middle more than five yards down the field because he would worry that opposing linebackers and safeties are 17 feet tall and have tractor beams in their lungs. If Carr was in charge of the Army of the Potomac, he would have prosecuted the Peninsula Campaign with the same glacial speed, no doubt figuring "I'm in Virginia, so that means I'm leading. There's no reason to take any risks."

Would have seen great merit in punting from a field goal formation.

If Carr truly is McClellan, then that means that Bill Martin will get to play the Abe Lincoln role by firing Carr and hiring Bobby Petrino as UM's U.S. Grant. Carr will then run for athletic director against Martin on a "make peace with Ohio State" platform and will be doing well until Petrino takes Atlanta and all is right with the world.

And we're back.

10:05 - The decision to cut 15-20 plays off of college games while keeping the 20-minute halftime ranks right up there with Mark David Chapman's decision to unload six shots into John Lennon and not sparing one of them for Yoko.

10:08 - I liked The Guardian the first time I saw it...when it was called Top Gun. (Hat tip: Der Wife.) Somehow, Navy pilots learning to fight the Commies is a more promising premise than Coast Guard...special ops (?) saving freighters in the North Atlantic, but that may be me.

10:09 - Bernie Kosar looks good.

10:12 - Paging Michael Powell, the Miami fans aren't really singing along with the Tomahawk Chop.

10:17 - Mike Patrick obliquely brings up a good point: what ever happened to the Bobby Bowden trick plays? They were one of the defining characteristics of the rise of FSU to superpower status in the late 80s.

10:23 - The jokes about the mistakes and lack offense aside, there's something incredibly satisfying about an elemental struggle like this. There is no rivalry that features better hitting.

10:28 - "De'Cody Fagg kept his eye on the ball." As Axl Rose sang, it's so f***ing easy.

10:32 - Just as I was going to make a "poor Lorenzo Booker" remark, he gets free on a swing pass. It's a testament to these defense that they are dominating offenses that are full of athletes like that.

10:45 - I'm pretty confident right now that Kyle Wright is a better quarterback than Drew Weatherford, but Florida State has better skill position players. That last touchdown drive was essentially a jump ball and a swing pass on which FSU's players made terrific athletic plays.

10:48 - Is it just me, or have the refs turned into Stanley Cup Playoff refs in overtime and swallowed their whistles. Roughing the punter is now apparently legal in the ACC, not unlike roughing the passer was in 1996.

Phone conversation with wife ensues. She does not like Holly Rowe's outfit or the hula skirts of the Miami cheerleaders. She also offers a detailed critique of Cory Niblock's blocking technique.

11:12 - Florida State's offense has been reduced to jump balls exclusively. Remember when this offense was, you know, good? Chris Rix is sitting somewhere right now, nodding with a smile and saying "and now you see." Jeff Bowden should get a bunch of blame, but there's only so much that one can call when assuming that two of four rushing defensive linemen are going to beat their blockers and eat the quarterback. And in Fredo's further defense, the designed roll and short pass to Antone Smith to set up the go-ahead field goal was a clever call.

11:17 - This game has, by far, the highest ratio of "running backs hurled to the ground" to total running plays.

11:22 - Dare we posit that Louisville and West Virginia are at least as good as Miami and Florida State (probably not because their defenses are roughly equivalent to these offenses), that Rutgers won at North Carolina and Pitt buried Virginia, and therefore that the Big East is as good or better than the ACC?

11:25 - And Florida State ends the game, fittingly, with a four-man rush that generates direct pressure on Kyle Wright as Miami is completely unable to handle the stunt and Kyle Wright is forced into a quick throw that is picked off.

And while we're at it, a few snap judgments on college football from this weekend:

I'm not feeling good about that pick of Georgia to win the SEC. Manufacturing Joe Tereshinski into a David Greene or D.J. Shockley is apparently not so easily done. I am, however, feeling good about that pick of USC at #1. I guess it's not that hard to reload when every one of your recent recruiting classes were ranked in the top three on Signing Day. John David Booty is very accurate. Apparently, Evangel Christian products aren't inevitably doomed to failure.

I've never been much of a Vol fan, but watching Tennessee absolutely bury Cal on Saturday led me to have a sh**-eating grin for three-and-a-half hours that one of the "Gang of Six" was unable to cross midfield against an SEC defense while a backwards, retrograde SEC offense moved the ball at will against Cal. Not surprisingly, Heismanpundit, imitating George Bush by ignoring facts on the ground when they contradict his presupposed worldview, has excused Cal's performance because they opened on the road. Uh, I don't recall him making excuses for Tennessee last year when they struggled on the road against Florida, LSU, and Notre Dame. Or Arkansas last year when they laid an egg in the Coliseum. (Wasn't that supposed to be proof that SEC defenses weren't very good?) And should we ignore the fact that Tennessee is going to Cal next year?

He also chases windmills by vaguely complaining that the media is unfair in making Cal a poster child for the Pac Ten, but helpfully, he has created a straw man without links. HP, no one ever criticizes the SEC? Maybe you missed this or this. The irony is that HP whines about the media falling back into the "Pac Ten teams are soft and don't play defense" stereotype...and responds by delving into the "SEC teams don't play anyone" stereotype by defending Cal as having the guts to play on the road, unlike others (read: SEC teams). And finally, please note that HP creates a strawman in media criticism of the Pac Ten to deflect from the fact that his theory that sophisticated West Coast schemes would be too much for athletic, but ineptly-coached SEC teams (save for, uh, Florida and their high-powered offense?) was first ripped to shreds in the 2005 Boise State-Georgia game (speaking of which, how did Dan Hawkins' unsolvable offensive juggernaut fare in game one in Boulder?) and then again in the 2006 Tennessee-Cal game.

Delightfully oblivious.