Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Top 25 and Blah Blah Blah

1 Ohio State --
2 Michigan --
3 Florida 2
4 Texas --
5 Tennessee 2
6 California 3
7 Auburn 1
8 Southern Cal 5
9 Louisville 1
10 West Virginia 1
11 Arkansas 2
12 LSU --
13 Boston College 1
14 Notre Dame 2
15 Oklahoma 4
16 Clemson 8
17 Rutgers --
18 Oregon 7
19 Boise State 1
20 Washington State 3
21 Wisconsin --
22 Texas A&M 2
23 Wake Forest 1
24 Penn State 2
25 Georgia Tech 1

Dropped Out: Nebraska (#15), Missouri (#18).

I was fully intending to drop Michigan from their #2 spot after a truly putrid offensive performance against Northwestern. 17 points against one of the worst defenses in the country is impossible to justify, regardless of injuries, wind, and whatever else Lloyd would use to defend an inept showing. The game had me having flashbacks to 2001, when Michigan's tricks were figured out mid-season by Iowa and could barely get a first down for the second half of the year in a stumbly wumbly march to getting annihilated by Tennessee in Orlando. I've now convinced myself that it isn't so much that the offense has been figured out, but rather that Michigan is intentionally not using parts of the offense...the passing parts. I'm reminded of the line from one of the nutbags to Ed Harris in The Rock: "So they don't think we're gutless; they think we're incompetent."

Anyway, my anxious desire to show my "I'M TOTALLY OBJECTIVE!!!" credentials by docking the Wolverines and then every other candidate for the #2 spot looked similarly uninspiring. Florida's performance did nothing to disabuse us of our assessment of their weaknesses: minimal non-frill running game, timid passing decisions by Chris Leak, a complete inability to kick field goals, and silly mistakes in the form of penalties and turnovers. Texas spotted Texas Tech a 24-7 lead, gave up an insane 512 yards passing, and then still gave the Raiders two chances at the end to burnish their pirate credentials by beating their state rival. (Why isn't Texas better at running the ball? Two excellent tailbacks and bunches of quality returning starters on the offensive line, and yet they rely on a redshirt freshman quarterback to pull their chestnuts out of the fire time and again.) Tennessee looked reasonably good against South Carolina, but there is a significant luck component when your first two touchdowns come from deflections, and you avert your opponent's first touchdown in the same fashion. Tennessee strikes me as an illustration of the importance of the passing game over all else. Seemingly more than any team in the Pac Ten, Tennessee is a terrific passing game and a number of average units. They don't run especially well and their defense hasn't shut anyone down, but Erik Ainge, those receivers, and those pass blockers have the Vols en route to the BCS. So anyway, at the end of the day, I couldn't find a team to take Michigan's place at #2.

Getting back to the Florida-Georgia game, the Dawgs got behind with two of their repeated defensive failings under Willie Martinez. The first touchdown was set up by a long run by Tim Tebow because the Dawgs, taking a page out of their brilliant Sugar Bowl gameplan, decided to defend an obvious run-from-the-spread formation with six in the box. (Maybe it was seven, but it wasn't enough to defend the one play that Tebow runs over and over again.) The second touchdown came from a wide open receiver streaking through a zone defense that had enough defenders to make plays, but no one was active enough to cover him. To the Dawgs' credit, the defense tightened thereafter, leaving the burden of losing the game to the offense, which combined a dropathon from the receivers and a no-blockathon from the offensive line. I also have slight reservations about Matt Stafford, who did play fairly well for a true freshman with no receivers, but who is prone to bouts of inaccuracy. Does accuracy get better in the same way that decision-making does?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Please Accept my Apologies in Advance as a Michigan Grad for the Coming Month of Excessive Hype

1 Ohio State --
2 Michigan --
3 Southern Cal --
4 Texas --
5 Florida --
6 Auburn 1
7 Tennessee 1
8 Clemson 2
9 California 1
10 Louisville 1
11 West Virginia --
12 LSU --
13 Arkansas 3
14 Boston College 11
15 Nebraska 6
16 Notre Dame 2
17 Rutgers 3
18 Missouri --
19 Oklahoma 2
20 Boise State 1
21 Wisconsin 2
22 Wake Forest --
23 Washington State 3
24 Texas A&M 2
25 Oregon 12

Dropped Out: Georgia Tech (#15), Pittsburgh (#24).

A few thoughts:

1. Do you think that John Swofford, when he was putting together his ACC with greater Lebensraum, envisioned that in year two of his new and improved conference, his three ranked teams in late October would be Clemson, Boston College, and Wake Forest? And on the subject of conference title games, a year after Florida State won the ACC despite being the third-best team in the league, at best, and having a 5-3 conference record, this year in the ACC could end with Clemson not playing for the ACC Title despite the fact that they are obviously the best team in the league. Although conference title games are exciting, they do present the potential for an NFL scenario of the most deserving team not winning and the ACC might illustrate that again.

2. Poll question: when C.J. Spiller went into hyperspace on his two touchdowns against Georgia Tech, you thought of _______. For me, Reggie Bush was too obvious, so I went with Devin Hester's punt return against Louisville in 2004 during Miami's epic comeback. That was the last time I saw a football player move that fast on a field, certainly in relation to the other players out there. Honorable mention goes to Michael Vick's overtime touchdown run in Minnesota in 2002 and Raghib Ismail's punt return against Colorado in the January 1, 1991 Orange Bowl.

3. I appreciate the constants in the world. Reggie Ball melting down. Michigan State stringing together inexplicable performances. Notre Dame improbably coming from behind to obscure their weaknesses. Tennessee and Alabama playing a tight, defensive thriller, no matter the location of the game. (Could someone explain to me why we've never had a Tennessee-Alabama, LSU-Florida, or Georgia-Auburn SEC Championship Game? Those are the three best inter-divisional rivalries in the SEC, those six teams have taken every single Title Game spot other than three [two appearances for Arkansas and one for Mississippi State], and yet they've never met. Who wouldn't love a Tennessee-Alabama sequel?)

4. Speaking of Mssr. Ball, my affection for Todd Blackledge as an analyst grows. He was on the ball on Saturday night in ripping Reggie a new one for missing Calvin Johnson over and over again. I appreciate an analyst who is actually willing to say what's going on on the field as opposed to making excuses for every player out there. I know that these are only college athletes and they aren't getting paid (outside of the free education and room and board), but when 85,000 people cram into stadia to watch them play and millions sit at home to watch the game, it's naive to think that criticism of a player's performance is going to be out of bounds.

5. Given ESPN's ability to beat subjects into the ground, I am shuddering to think about what the next several weeks are going to be like in the lead up to the Michigan-Ohio State game. ESPN is in love with the Big Ten to begin with and it's fairly rare that a Big Ten team makes the national title game, so now, with one of the conference's two marquee teams virtually assured of a spot in Glendale, the hype machine is going to kick into overdrive.

In a way, this is a game that will deserve it. Michigan and Ohio State have shown themselves to be the two most complete teams in the country. Michigan can be somewhat pedestrian on offense, especially without Mario Manningham, but they're in the top ten in scoring defense, total defense, run defense, sacks, and turnover margin. Ohio State is in the top 30 in every major category and they're in the top ten in scoring defense, turnover margin, sacks, and pass efficiency. Both teams have played challenging schedules. (Michigan is #7 and Ohio State is #22, according to Jeff Sagarin, although those rankings will drop as the teams make their way through the sisters of the poor over the next three weeks.) The confluence of the two teams' merits, along with the facts that they have a great rivalry, the conference title will be at stake, and they play at the end of the season make this a legitimately enormous game. My trepidation comes from the fact that ESPN already overhypes stories that aren't especially important, so G-d knows what they're going to do with this one.

5a. OK, and I also have a few concerns about Michigan going into the game and that contributes to my uneasy feeling. My pessimism about Michigan at the start of the season came out of the fact that Lloyd Carr had elected to solve his team's offensive woes by elevating Mike DeBord to offensive coordinator. DeBord was Michigan's offensive coordinator from 1997-9, when the team was extremely successful (32-5 over three years with a national title, two major bowl wins, and three top ten finishes) but the offense underachieved, given the amount of offensive talent on hand. DeBord was then a failure at Central Michigan, which isn't so bad in and of itself, but the fact that CMU didn't have decent offenses with an allegedly offensive coach was further concern. Flash forward to this year, where most of the criticism has died down because Michigan is unbeaten and playing very well. The offense was not a concern until the past two weeks. Scoring 17 points at Penn State with Manningham out was acceptable, especially since Michigan didn't turn the ball over against a good defense in an insane road atmosphere. Scoring 20 points against an Iowa team that just allowed 31 to Indiana? Not so good. And what made Michigan's offensive performance worse was the way they went about trying to score. On the first two possessions of the game, Michigan predictably ran their stretch plays into Iowa's massed fronts and went nowhere. The rational response would be to then throw the ball and Michigan indeed did this, but the way they did it was idiotic because UM passed from obvious passing formations, especially a four-wide set with Mike Hart offset in a blocking/receiving position. Thus, Iowa could comfortably remove their phalanx of players from six inches away from the line of scrimmage and defend Michigan's pass plays while knowing what was coming. Maybe Michigan was employing the "I only pulled out enough to win" approach, knowing that Iowa couldn't move the ball on them and that style points are not important at this stage. Anyway, thanks for indulging my kvetching about 8-0 Michigan. (Incidentally, I'm bitching about their performance even though Michigan covered the spread. I'm hard to please.)

6. Another sign that the human polls suck: how does Nebraska drop from 17 to 20 in the AP and from 16 to 20 in the Coaches Poll after losing to #5 Texas by two points on a last-second field goal? Isn't the expected result that the #5 team will beat the #17 team? And when the #17 team almost beats the #5 team before fumbling the game away (literally), doesn't that confirm that the #17 team is pretty good (or that the #5 team is not that good)? Nebraska's loss to Texas did more to confirm for me that the Huskers are a good team than any of their wins have this year.

7. A thought on the rankings: Jeff Sagarin has two sets of rankings, one with margin of victory included (the Predictor ranking) and one without (the BCS ranking). Sagarin swears that the margin of victory rankings are empirically more accurate and he only has the second set because the BCS requires him to do so. (There are a few great analogies to the Bush Administration and its oversight on research done by the EPA and NASA, but I'm going to leave that one alone.) Anyway, there were a few games this week that illustrated why margin of victory is important:

a. Michigan was a huge favorite over Iowa in Sagarin's BCS rankings, but only an 11-point favorite using the Predictor ranking. UM's 14-point win was exactly what the predictor foresaw.

b. Notre Dame was a large favorite over UCLA using the BCS ranking, but the Predictor had the teams even. Anyone want to argue that the teams aren't even after Saturday?

c. Clemson was a slight favorite over Georgia Tech in the BCS ranking, but a large favorite over Georgia Tech using the Predictor. Uh, score one against the BCS.

Anyway, I think it will be interesting for the rest of the season to chart the teams that have significant disparities between their BCS and Predictor rankings. The teams in Sagarin's top 50 that the BCS rankings like more (by at least seven points) and are therefore more likely to be overvalued are:

Southern Cal
Notre Dame
Georgia Tech

(Tech's very low ranking in Sagarin's best set of rankings is what caused me to drop them from my Top 25 altogether.)

The teams in Sagarin's top 50 that the Predictor rankings like more (by at least seven points) and are therefore more likely to be undervalued are:

Oklahoma (although the rankings don't know about Adrian Peterson's injury)
Florida State

Let's see how these teams do for the rest of the year.

8. And before we conclude, how about a shout out for Florida State. What more confirmation do we need that the Noles are fully in the toilet (at least in a relative sense) than the fact that they broke out all-black uniforms for a home game against Boston College...and they still lost the game. What's worse, the fact that they needed uniform excitement to get up for mighty BC or the fact that even the uniform excitement wasn't enough to prevent Drew Weatherford from throwing an especially idiotic pick six at the end of the first half?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Excitement Builds

At least this victim didn't play along, unlike the patrons of open mike night at that country & western bar in Tuscon...

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Just a Thought on Strength of Schedule Ratings

I've often thought that the best way to evaluate the strength of a national championship contender's schedule is not to average the rankings of the team's opponents, but rather to evaluate based on the following questions: how many teams did the team in question play that could legitimately beat it and where did it play those games? This measure illustrates why Florida faced a more difficult schedule than USC, or at least it has so far, despite the fact that Southern Cal has a higher-rated schedule, such as by Jeff Sagarin.

Florida has played road games against Sagarin's #6 and #7 teams, the most likely games to produce a loss for a title contender. Southern Cal, on the other hand, hasn't played a team higher than #20 Nebraska and that was at home. By the end of the season, they will have played Sagarin's #3 (Cal), #14 (Oregon), and #18 (Notre Dame) teams, all at home, so they will have a good argument by that point, but now, they have a top strength of schedule not because they've played teams that were likely to beat them, but rather because they didn't play #112 Central Florida.

By either measure, Tommy Tuberville needs to stop complaining, since he has a schedule that is both laden with cupcakes AND is bereft of road tests. It isn't his fault that Alabama and Georgia are down this year, but this isn't the right year for him to complain, especially in light of the fact that Auburn is heading into the Tulane-Ole Miss-Arkansas State portion of the schedule. Or should I mention that, according to Sagarin's ratings (which, as I said above, are not perfect, but they aren't too shabby), Auburn has played the weakest schedule of any of the top seven teams. If Tuberville is preemptively complaining about an unbeaten Big East champion, then I'm willing to listen, but otherwise, he should have learned his lesson during the Arkansas game.

Top 25 - Let the Countdown Begin

1 Ohio State --
2 Michigan 1
3 Southern Cal 1
4 Texas 3
5 Florida 3
6 Tennessee 1
7 Auburn 4
8 California --
9 Louisville 3
10 Clemson 1
11 West Virginia 1
12 LSU 2
13 Oregon 1
14 Notre Dame 1
15 Georgia Tech 1
16 Arkansas 3
17 Oklahoma 1
18 Missouri 1
19 Boise State 4
20 Rutgers 6
21 Nebraska 3
22 Wake Forest 4
23 Wisconsin 3
24 Pittsburgh 2
25 Boston College 3

Dropped Out: Georgia (#20), Washington (#21), Iowa (#23), UCLA (#25).