Monday, November 27, 2006

The Return of Michael's Pinata

I was feeling frisky this afternoon, so I decided to click on HeismanPundit for a giggle. Lo and behold, he just can't help himself when discussing the SEC:

Some pundits like to rave about how much talent LSU has. Best in the SEC, maybe the nation, they say. I agree they have talent, but no one ever takes the next logical step to ask: If they are so talented, why do they have two losses? And why do they underperform so regularly? And Les Miles? He gets a pass, the alternative being to get yelled at--just ask Tracy Wolfson.

You're right, HP. No one ever criticizes Les Miles...except for just about every blogger who pays any attention to the SEC. Other than that, spot on, Mr. Mencken.

Fact is, LSU lost a snoozer--not a classic--to an Auburn team that has itself been blown out twice this year at home. It also lost to Florida, a team that has yet to have an impressive outing against a good opponent.

So much fun here. First of all, what difference does it make whether LSU's loss to Auburn was a snoozer or a classic? HP's somnambulent state every time he sees a defense that can tackle aside, LSU lost a road game against a quality opponent by four points. They outgained Auburn and ended the game in Auburn's red zone. What difference does it make if they lost 7-3 or 45-41...other than the fact that teams with great defenses are more likely to win the national title and thus, the game was not inconsistent with the conclusion that LSU and Auburn were legitimate national title contenders? Second, HP pretty much illustrates tautological thinking by claiming that Florida hasn't had an impressive outing against a good opponent. The only way he can prove that LSU isn't that good is by claiming that Florida doesn't have any good wins, but he has to prove that LSU isn't good in order to make that statement in the first place. Chase your tail much, pussycat?

Its two marquee wins were narrow ones against Arkansas--a team whose best passer is a tailback--and Tennessee--a team that was playing without its starting quarterback.

Uh, USC's best win was also over that Arkansas team, only they didn't play the Hogs with that aforementioned tailback at full strength. They also played Arkansas with their fourth best QB, since HP would presumably rank the Arkansas passers McFadden-Dick-Mustain-Johnson. And yes, LSU beat Tennessee with Erik Ainge sidelined, but they did manage to exceed Cal's offensive output against the Vols by over 100 yards and that didn't have anything to do with Erik Ainge's absence. Furthermore, that figure includes the garbage time yardage put up by Cal after they fell behind 35-0. (Oh, I do love bringing that game up.)

LSU athletic director Skip Bertman raved after today's game about how tough the Tiger schedule was. Four top 10 teams on the road, never been done, he said. Yada yada yada.

On Seinfeld, yada yada was a euphemism for "more than I wanted to know" details. For HP, it's a substitute for trying to argue against the incredibly obvious conclusion that a team that played four top ten teams on the road in one season actually played a difficult schedule...unless we're being tautological and have decided with no evidence that no one in the SEC is worth a damn and the conference is soon to be dominated by Urban Meyer's offense...or not.

What he doesn't mention is that the other eight games the Tigers played were at home against teams with a combined record of 37-50. So, the Tigers had a four-game season and merely had to go 2-2 on the road to ensure this 10-2 mark everyone is so impressed with now. So LSU is asking what if? Good grief, man. What if they had hadn't played eight home games, or what if they had to take on Erik Ainge at full strength?

Incidentally, one of those eight games was against Arizona, a team that beat BYU, Oregon, Washington State, and Cal. Let's play the comparative score game for fun:

LSU 45
Arizona 3

USC 20
Arizona 3

Arizona 24
Cal 20

Arizona 37
Oregon 10

So if Arizona is a crap team, then what does that say about the rest of the Pac Ten?

Oh, and one more crowning insult: HP has cited Sagarin's rankings as definitive all year because they show that the Pac Ten is the best conference in the country. For the record, I don't necessarily disagree because the Pac Ten was a lot deeper this year, as it had only one bad team while the SEC had several. If you're simply taking the average ranks of the teams in a conference, then the Pac Ten will come out ever so slightly ahead. That said, I would also argue that the SEC was a more dangerous conference for a team with national title aspirations because it had more top teams. LSU illustrates this point. Five of Sagarin's top 12 teams are from the SEC. LSU is one of those teams and they had to play the other four on the road. Sagarin has LSU at #4 in his rankings; LSU's prime conquests Arkansas and Tennessee are #8 and #9; and the two teams that beat LSU, Florida and Auburn, are #6 and #12.

Top 25

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

Dropped Out:

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Monster's Ball

My thoughts on Tech-UGA, in non-sensical numbered form, as per usual:

1. It's pointless to pile onto Reggie Ball at this stage. His ineptitude was on full display yesterday afternoon and you don't need to click on this site to get a greater apprecation of it...but I only get to do it for two more games, so bear with me. Bolstered by a highly effective running game and the best receiver in college football (although Dwayne Jarrett certainly gave him a run for his money in the 8 p.m. game), Ball managed a sterling 1.9 yards per pass attempt, he threw two picks, and he also added for good measure a fumble that Georgia returned for a touchdown. I kept wondering during the game whether Tech was employing the obvious counter-measures to Georgia keeping Calvin Johnson in double coverage, such as running a tight end or slot receiver deep down the middle or on a crossing route into the area vacated by Johnson. As the game progressed, I decided that: (1) Tech was surely making such calls and Ball was not able to make the resulting throws; and/or (2) Georgia wasn't doubling Johnson and Ball was still missing him. Ball missing Johnson on a deep fly pattern was the most obvious instance of "quarterback screws receiver," but one mistake that CBS's crack b-team missed was Paul Oliver's excellent break-up of a pass to Johnson in the end zone on the possession that Tech narrowed the Georgia lead to 7-6. On second and goal, Georgia blitzed and Johnson, lined up in the slot, was open on a slant. All Reggie had to do was lead him (I suspect that Tech fans have started sentences with "all Reggie had to do..." a lot over the past four years), but instead, Ball threw the ball high and behind Johnson. Calvin being Calvin, he leaped and reached back to get the ball, but Oliver was able to knock it out of his hands. It would have been a great catch and instead, it was a great defensive play, but what was missed in the analysis was that an inaccurate pass made the break-up possible.

1a. Reggie Ball: worst four-year quarterback starter at a major program since...?

1b. I loved Steve Beuerlein's explanation that four-year starter Ball's 47.6 completion percentage was a function of the Tech offense. Steve, you might want to, you know, watch a tape or two to recognize that Tech has plenty of short passes in the offense, but Ball is highly inaccurate and thus, doesn't complete half his passes.

2. I had a feeling of trepidation when I saw Jack Childress and an ACC crew (call it flashback after the '03 Florida-Florida State game, which featured the most one-sided refereeing I've ever seen in favor of the Noles by an ACC crew), but they did an excellent job. Case-in-point: Tony Taylor's fumble return. They correctly judged that Reggie Ball fumbled and then the entire crew resisted the urge to blow their whistles when the ball disappeared into the pile. If a ref would have blown the play dead, then G-d knows how they would have awarded the ball, but Georgia would not have scored a touchdown. Since the Dawgs had previously come away empty after a Ball interception set them up on the Tech 25, letting the fumble return run its course was the right call and it helped the Dawgs significantly.

3. How does John Tenuta feel right now? His defenses have allowed 19, 14, and 8 points to Georgia in the past three years and the Jackets are 0-3 in those games. Cincinnati would be making a smart move if they replaced one successful former Ohio State defensive coordinator (Mark Dantonio) with another (Tenuta). If Tenuta leaves, then it will be the equivalent of Ralph Friedgen leaving Georgia Tech after the 2000 season; the head coach will be totally exposed as having ridden the coat tails of a smarter coordinator. If Tenuta stays, however, then Tech will be quite good next year. They lose one offensive lineman, one defensive lineman, one linebacker, and one defensive back. Losing Calvin Johnson will be tough, but it won't be unlike an Australopithecus losing his toaster oven because Johnson has been criminally underutilized for three years. I hope that NFL Network has a show that follows Johnson around in his first mini-camp so they can capture his face when he has a quarterback throw to his hands as opposed to an area five yards away.

3a. Speaking of next year, I'm not bullish on Georgia right now. I like Matthew Stafford, but I'm not convinced that he's especially accurate down the field. (He misfired on all three deep balls against Tech.) I have absolutely no idea who is going to play offensive tackle for the Dawgs and one need only watch tape of Auburn this year to realize the importance of good pass-blocking tackles. Furthermore, if Charles Johnson goes pro early, then Georgia will be replacing six of seven starters in its front seven. Most Georgia fans will not miss Danny Verdun or Jarvis Jackson, but are their reserves going to be much better. (Note: the same reasoning could be used to puncture my belief that Tech will get better play at quarterback last year, but I genuinely think that Taylor Bennett [or Taylor Dayne, for that matter] would be better than Reggie Ball, but that Chan Gailey was committed to Ball after having started him as a true freshman.)

Tell it to my heart, I can count to four.

4. Was I the only one who was seriously dismayed by the performance by Craig Bolerjack and Steve Beuerlein during the game? Maybe I should have known we were in for a long afternoon when they managed to refer to "Mike Richt" and "Jim Tenuta" in the first half. Heck, I should have known after the first play from scrimmage, when Beuerlein mixed up Georgia's safeties and gave Kelin Johnson credit for a play made by Tra Battle. Or maybe I should have muted the TV after Beuerlein implored Tech to go for a 4th and one at the end of the first half, then complimented Chan Gailey on his decision when he ran the clock down and punted. And Bolerjack, when he wasn't making inept puns based on the fact that Tech's tailback has the last name "Choice," decided that Georgia's first play from scrimmage, a simple zone read play, was some sort of trick play. (Maybe he missed every Texas game from the past three years.)

5. When Tech embarked on their last drive with 1:45 left, I gave Tech a 20% chance of getting into field goal range and then asked Der Wife what odds she would give the Jackets. She pronounced their odds as 1,000 to 1, which then led to a disagreement between the two of us after Ball's interception as to whether she was "right."

6. Right before Georgia scored their winning touchdown, I got the sense that Mark Richt had something up his sleeve. The two running plays that led up to the winning pass seemed very vanilla, almost as if Georgia was bleeding the clock knowing that they would score on third down. Sure enough, the playcall to Massaquoi in the back of the end zone was a gem. Credit the offensive line on that one because they gave Stafford enough time to pump and then throw. Also, credit to Richt for guessing that Tech would not blitz. (As it turns out, Mike Bobo was calling the plays on Saturday, so credit goes to him for the final sequence. That's an interesting move by Richt and a piossible acknowledgment that he had too much on his plate this season.)

7. Tech had 188 yards of total offense, 146 of which came from Tashard Choice. Am I the only one who is reminded of Georgia winning a certain game with a similar distribution:

You'll Never See a Better Goal

Not bad for a player in a slump.

Incidentally, the greatness of YouTube is fully demonstrated by the fact that I watched this goal yesterday and then this morning, I was able to pick between descriptions of the goal in Dutch and Arabic for your viewing enjoyment. Speaking of which, does it sound to anyone else that the announcer celebrates by saying "Yah Allah! Yah Saddam!"?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Herbstreit Ignores Convention...So Surprising for an Ohioan

I was generally impressed by Kirk Herbstreit for maintaining objectivity about his Ohio State Buckeyes. Most Michigan fans and I would be all too prepared to jump on Herbie for any perceived injustices to the Maize and Blue, but he was extremely professional in his comments towards the Wolverines. (LD is right that Herbstreit spends way too much time picking and analyzing games based on intangibles like "emotion" and "focus," but I suspect that he is doing so under the whip of his corporate masters, who dumb down Gameday and just about every other program designed for mass consumption. The assumption is that your average fan will glaze over if he hears that USC's pass defense allows relatively few yards per pass play, but allows a lot of yardage per game on an aggregate basis because opponents throw so much on them. I digress.)

I thought that Herbstreit's best moment on Saturday was when he compared Troy Smith to Drew Brees, presumably because both quarterbacks are slightly undersized (by quarterback standards), but they're extremely accurate in a spread offense, they make good decisions, and they're both mobile. (Brees was a good runner at Purdue, but didn't get credit for being "mobile" or "athletic.") Herbstreit's comparison was jarring in its originality because he broke the first rule in comparing quarterbacks: he compared a black quarterback to a white one. This tendency is most pronounced in the lead-up to the NFL Draft, when black quarterbacks are pigeonholed into certain categories so NFL fans can easily digest their abilities. Call this the Plessy v. Kiper Maxim:

Small, mobile, and destined to play receiver = Antwaan Randle El

Small, mobile, and destined to hold a clipboard = Shaun King or Seneca Wallace

Average size and mobile = Michael Vick

Large and mobile = Vince Young, Steve McNair, or Donovan McNabb (depending on whether the quarterback in question went to a small school or a big school and what sort of offense he ran in college)

Large and average mobility = Daunte Culpepper

Large and no mobility = Byron Leftwich (although black quarterbacks are never described as immobile)

Any size, not a college star, and a game manager = David Garrard (Garrard is the Rosa Parks of the "he won't screw it up" genre. He's broken down the barrier where once only Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson dared to tread.)

Any size, not a college star, and not a game manager = Aaron Brooks

The best illustration of the Plessy v. Kiper Maxim will be in the treatment of Troy Smith. Because he's black and 6'0, he'll be compared to Michael Vick. (The ability to play well on the biggest stage will cement the comparison.) However, Smith has nothing in common with Vick as a passer. Smith is accurate, he makes good decisions, and he has a sixth sense for how long he has to get rid of the ball. Vick has none of these qualities. Additionally, Smith is prepared for the NFL by virtue of having run an offense that forces him to make multiple decisions on every play. Vick was groomed with "look at first option and then throw or take off" at Virginia Tech.

If you can't tell, I'm extremely high on Troy Smith right now. I know that this seems like a knee-jerk reaction, but I said last year that he's miles better than Brady Quinn and this year has confirmed that. Part of my lack of anger or sadness after Saturday is based on the fact that Michigan was beaten by a great player on top of his game. Rationally speaking, there's no shame in that. I doubt that his height will present a major problem in the NFL, provided that there are offensive coordinators willing to re-design their systems in the same way that Jim Tressel did, but I might need to think about that argument this spring.

My Top 25

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

Dropped Out: Maryland (#21), Oregon (#22).

Just so we're clear, I'm totally fine with USC, Arkansas, or Florida go to the national title game ahead of Michigan, but one of my rules when ranking teams is not to drop a team for losing by one score to a team ahead of it, especially on the road. I genuinely think that Michigan is the second-best team in the country, but if USC wins out, they'll have the same record against a tougher schedule and they'll have earned the shot. Likewise for Arkansas if they beat LSU and Florida, although I don't think that their schedule is demonstrably tougher than Michigan's. I'd be OK with Florida being in the title game as well if they finish at 12-1, although they seem to be the least threatening of Ohio State's potential opponents.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

I'm Sick of You

Oddly enough, I was not especially bothered by my alma mater losing the GAME OF THE CENTURY!!! yesterday because it seemed acceptable to lose by three on the road to a wire-to-wire #1. The defense was disappointing, especially the safeties who were unable to execute their assignments on Ohio State's two long runs or their second and short bomb that should have surprised no one. On the other hand, the offense performed beautifully, lighting up a team that was leading the nation in scoring defense. If there's a rematch, then that's fine, but if USC, Arkansas, or Florida win out and get the nod, then Michigan shouldn't have too many complaints.

I was far more bothered by the Falcons game today, even though I don't exactly love the Falcons. Also, as my wife points out, I'm often happier being right than anything else and I said before the year that the Falcons were an average team. That said, it was really annoying watching the game today. Maybe I was bothered because my in-laws are all Ravens fans and now they have bragging rights over me. And maybe I was bothered to see the defense make Jamal Lewis look like a functional running back for the first time in years. (Douglass High School's finest had two touchdowns through nine games this year and then managed three in the second half.) Maybe it's the fact that there are few fates in life worse than shots of a celebrating Brian Billick. Maybe I'm feeling anti-Raven these days after reading the cover story on Ray Lewis and deciding that Ray is defensive, self-aggrandizing, and sanctimonious even by athlete standards.

But predominantly, I have just had it with Michael Vick. I know that the receivers drop a lot of passes, but Vick makes their lives more difficult because he never throws very accurately or with much touch. I know that the offensive line is terrible at pass blocking, but Vick makes their lives more difficult because he does not drop back in a straight line and he dances in the pocket, with the end result being that the offensive line doesn't know where he is and where they can direct opposing pass rushers. I know that the defense has been hit with injuries and that they are ill-positioned to get opposing offenses off the field. Vick should not get the blame for that.

All that said, Vick, unlike the rest of the team, got a $22.5M signing bonus last year and is the highest paid player on the team. A team's star player is supposed to be able to overcome the shortcomings of his less talented compatriots. A team's star player is supposed to at least perform at a high level so if the team loses, he can legitimately say that he did his best to compensate for injuries or ineffectiveness of other players. A team's star player isn't supposed to fumble untouched with the game on the line because he;s obviously fatigued. A team's star quarterback should average more than 5.23 yards per pass attempt over a three-week stretch. A team's star quarterback is supposed to break 200 yards passing every now and again. In short, Michael Vick is not responsible for all of the Falcons' shortcomings, but he's paid to be a star and he's playing like a below-average quarterback. If you would like specifics, here are the conclusions of the Falcons final three possessions:

On the Falcons' second-to-last possession, Vick missed an open Alge Crumpler in the end zone on second down and then managed to throw into triple coverage on third down, never reading the defense and moving off of his primary target.

On the Falcons' next-to-last possession, Vick took a 17-yard sack on third down that pushed the team out of field goal range.

On the Falcons' final possession, Vick basically threw the ball away...on fourth and eight.

I will add in that Vick is not helped in any way by the playcalling. For instance, on the sack that took the Falcons out of field goal range, the Falcons were trying to set up a screen and Baltimore was completely prepared for the play, so Vick couldn't make his throw and ended up getting sacked. Likewise, the third down throw to the back-up tight end on the right side of the end zone was so surprising that the Ravens blanketed the play. That said, for the third straight week, Vick was inaccurate and made poor decisions, which is like a surgeon who has a shaky hand and doesn't know anatomy very well.

The most frustrating thing is that he'll occasionally show glimpses of fantastic play. On a macro level, he looked great against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. On a micro level, he made a beautiful throw to Roddy White in the third quarter today to set up the Falcons' field goal. He does just enough to remind you what he's capable of, and then follows it up with a couple plays that just drive his fans crazy. From now on, I've given my wife instructions to kick me in the groin every time I let Vick get my hopes up. I'm hoping that some Pavlovian training will cure me of my optimism.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

And while I'm picking on Ivan...

His logic for arguing that the Auburn-Alabama rivalry is the best in college football is pretty weak. He argues that because Michigan and Ohio State aren't in the same state, their fans don't have as much interaction with one another, so it doesn't have the same emotional impact that Auburn/Alabama does. He's mostly right about that, although there is a significant overlap of fans in northern Ohio. Also, Michigan and Ohio State grads tend to spread out around the country, which means that there are plenty of Michigan and Ohio State grads in offices to fight with one another after Saturday. (Actually, since Michigan grads tend to scatter all over the country, but Ohio State grads do not, the dynamic is typically Michigan grads and native Ohioans who went to another school. OK, I'm speaking from personal experience here with a limited sample size, so take my statement with a grain of salt.)

Anyway, overlap of fans is certainly a factor for a rivalry, but it's not the only one. "Big stakes" would have to be part of the equation and Michigan-Ohio State has it all over Auburn-Alabama. Let's look at the games in the past decade that had an impact on the national title race:

Michigan-Ohio State

2003 - Michigan win prevents Ohio State from being in position to make the BCS Title Game.

2002 - Ohio State win sends the Buckeyes to the Title Game.

1998 - Ohio State win keeps the Buckeyes among the one-loss teams in contention for the Title Game.

1997 - Michigan win sends the Wolverines to Pasadena as the #1 team in the rankings.

1996 - Michigan win denies Ohio State a shot at the national title, opening the door for Florida. (Orson, you're welcome.)


2004 - Auburn win keeps the Tigers in contention for the Title Game.

That's it. If you open up the sample size to include the '92 and '94 Auburn-Alabama games, then the rivalry has a little more oomph, but that increase in sample size also brings in the '93 and '95 Michigan-Ohio State games, both of which were Michigan wins that deprived unbeaten Ohio State teams of shots at the national title.

Having grown up in the South and attended Michigan for four years, I can say with some experience that the level of intensity for Auburn-Alabama is higher than the level of intensity for Michigan-Ohio State. There is a religious quality to that rivalry that makes it unique. Maisel is right to point out that there are factors that make Auburn-Alabama a greater rivalry. However, what he ends up doing is he simply takes one factor - frequent contact between the fan bases - and elevates it over every other factor that matters to a rivalry. Using his rationale, Celtic-Rangers is the biggest rivalry in European football, since the fan bases share Glasgow and they hate each other with a passion that's probably unrivaled in Europe (and that says something). Most Europeans, though, would point out that Celtic and Rangers rarely make a major impact outside of Scotland and therefore, rivalries like Juve-Milan, Real-Barca, or Liverpool-Manchester United are better because they are contested by true titans. Auburn and Alabama are not quite Celtic and Rangers, but they aren't quite Juve and Milan, either. They're #9 and #22 in winning percentage over the past 20 years; #21 and #39 over the past 10 years.

In short, I'm happy that one prominent writer has pointed out this week that there are rivalries other than Michigan-Ohio State and that these rivalries could, gasp, be just as great, if not greater. I just wish that Maisel would have been a little more persuasive in making the argument. In his defense, the "For Argument's Sake" format doesn't exactly lend itself to a factor-by-factor analysis.

Ivan Maisel as Soviet Historian

I generally like Ivan Maisel's work (and not just because he e-mailed me during my days to say that he really liked the column I wrote after Alabama's sanctions were announced). He's a good writer and his takes on college football are typically well thought out and well argued. That said, he has soft spots and the most prominent one is that he comes close to Vitale-ish levels of defending coaches even when they're clearly in the wrong. As if on cue, as Florida State plummeted to last place in the profoundly underwhelming ACC Atlantic several weeks ago, Maisel wrote stepped in to inform Florida State's boosters that they have no grounds to be upset that their once-great coach is taking the program straight to the toilet. (Click on the "Soapbox Moment" tab for his discussion of Florida State.) Here's what he wrote regarding their wretched offense:

The bottom has not fallen out. The Seminoles are 4-3 despite an incredible rash of injuries. There are noninjury issues, sure. Sophomore quarterback Drew Weatherford hasn't progressed as quickly as expected. The offensive line is young and thinly talented.

Most Florida State fans would give anything to see Bowden replace his offensive coordinator. But Bowden has made it clear that his son, offensive coordinator Jeff Bowden, isn't going anywhere. Hasn't Bowden put enough good will in the bank at Florida State to allow him to draw on it?

I read Maisel to be making two arguments here: (1) Florida State has been unlucky with injuries and has some personnel issues; and (2) Bobby Bowden should be allowed to retain his son because of accumulated goodwill. Maisel doesn't explicitly defend Jeff Bowden, as he has more sense than to defend the indefensible, but he does imply that the offensive problems are not Jeff's fault. Maisel explicitly says that the boosters who are paying thousands of dollars every year to Florida State's athletic program have no right to expect Bobby Bowden to remove the anchor around the program's neck (or at least one of the anchors).

Anyway, here is Maisel after Jeff Bowden's resignation: "It has been obvious to everyone but the Florida State head coach that he needed a change at the top of his offense." Really? It sure wasn't obvious to you three weeks ago, was it? You were busy making excuses for Bobby Bowden and claiming that he has the right to make decisions against the interests of the program that compensates him in the seven-figure range. Your new perspective reminds me of Rush Limbaugh defending the Republican Congress for years as they betrayed just about every core conservative value and then announcing after Election Day that he was happy to no longer have to carry water for those who don't deserve it, i.e. make arguments that he did not believe were right.

And then Maisel pulls out the violin for a closing flourish: "Jeff Bowden has moved on, effective end of the season. We will watch closely to see how long it takes Bobby Bowden to move on from this heartbreak." Gee, Ivan, do you think that Bobby might have avoided this "heartbreak" by not employing his incompetent son in a critical and high-profile position? Didn't Bobby set himself up for this failure?

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Major National Title Contenders, Strictly by the Numbers

I decided to take a look at the yards per play numbers for the major national title contenders because yards per play is a nice, basic number to take into account the strength of an offense or defense and it normalizes for offensive and defensive tempo in the same way that yards per possession stats do in basketball. (The one difference is that yards per possession in basketball takes turnovers into account, whereas yards per play stats in football do not.) To do this analysis properly, I would need to index the numbers against the offensive and defensive averages of the teams' opponents, but for the time being, here are the results:

Ohio State - 6.19 ypp on offense, 4.4 ypp on defense, margin of 1.79

Michigan - 5.6 ypp on offense, 3.91 ypp on defense, margin of 1.69

USC - 5.89 ypp on offense, 4.58 ypp on defense, margin of 1.31

Arkansas - 6.67 ypp on offense, 4.51 ypp on defense, margin of 2.16

Florida - 6.25 ypp on offense, 4.59 ypp on defense, margin of 1.66

Notre Dame - 5.72 ypp on offense, 5.32 ypp on defense, margin of 0.4

Rutgers - 5.34 ypp on offense, 3.96 ypp on defense, margin of 1.38

A few thoughts on these numbers:

In addition to all the other factors that make this weekend's tilt exciting, Ohio State and Michigan look to be two very evenly-matched teams, especially when you take into account that Michigan puts the brakes on its own offense when leading more than your average college football power. (An unprovable assertion, I know, but I've watched a lot of football and I feel pretty comfortable in saying that no one employs the Milton Berle approach more than Michigan.) Michigan is a little better on defense, Ohio State is a little better on offense, and they both have wild card returners who can alter the balance of the game.

I might have been a little harsh on Rutgers in my dismissal of their merits after they beat Louisville, as their defensive numbers are outstanding. Admittedly, they haven't played a murderer's row of offenses, but they're the kind of team that is often unappreciated: a team reliant on a terrific defense. Then again, they're also a team from the NYC media market, which means that nothing they do will be unappreciated.

Notre Dame has no business being in the national title discussion. Against a relatively unimposing schedule (forgive me for not being tingly about a team whose biggest win was over Georgia Tech), their defensive numbers are signficantly worse than those of any other national title contender and their offensive numbers are not nearly enough to make up for the shortcoming. USC should bury Notre Dame, especially if the USC team of Saturday night that can run the ball and play defense is the USC team that shows up on November 25. Furthermore, if Notre Dame did make the title game, they would either be there against a team that beat them by 26 in South Bend or in place of that team with the same record.

Arkansas's numbers are very impressive, but I'll have to see what indexing for their quality of opponent will do to them.

Despite looking pretty pedestrian over the past two weeks, Florida's numbers match up nicely with those of Michigan and Ohio State and they've played a tougher schedule than either the Buckeyes or the Wolverines. If the Gators win out, they'd be a deserving participant in Glendale.

Lose at Home to Vandy, Lose to Kentucky...Clobber Auburn at Jordan-Hare?

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

Dropped Out: Virginia Tech (#25).

As per usual, my stream of consciousness follows:

1. For those of you inclined to question why Rutgers is still behind Louisville, there are two responses. First, Louisville lost by three points on the road, so at best, Rutgers established that they are roughly equivalent with Louisville. Second, the game struck me as a good team getting momentum on a better team and riding that momentum out of a half. On a neutral field with that sort of momentum swing far less likely, I think that Louisville would beat Rutgers by at least a touchdown. I'm willing to consider Rutgers for the national title game if they run the table, mainly because a road win over West Virginia would show me a lot, but right now, Rutgers is a team that muddled through a very easy schedule and then caught fire for a half against the first good team they played.

2. Everyone who was criticizing Phil Steele for picking Arkansas #13 might want to re-frame their criticism and attack him for having the Razorbacks too low. Arkansas looked like a complete team on Saturday night, although since I've already gone on record as saying that Tennessee was a good passing game and little else and the Vols were missing the triggerman for that passing game, I'm probably reading too much into the rout of Tennessee. The Arkansas-LSU game is going to be enormous. Arkansas is going to have a shot at Glendale on the line, while LSU is going to have a BCS bid looming as a possibility. LSU's run defense is going to be the best that Arkansas has seen all year, which will force the Hogs to show whether they've figured out that whole passing thing with Casey Dick under center. Conversely, LSU leads the SEC in yards per pass attempt by over a half a yard over second place Florida, but they'll be facing an Arkansas pass defense that is second in the conference in yards per pass attempt allowed (trailing only LSU, natch). And then add in the fact that the game is going to be at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, where Arkansas has a freaky ability at pulling games out. (Interesting note on that stadium: I wrote a column for four years ago criticizing CBS for not having a goal line angle on a critical "did he get in?" play in an Arkansas-LSU game that decided the SEC West. A few days later, I got an e-mail from someone on the production team for the game saying that such an angle was impossible at War Memorial because there is so little room between the stands and the field that they can't get a rolling camera in there. So take that for what it's worth. I digress.)

Michigan-Ohio State is going to take all the available oxygen this week, but the Thanksgiving weekend is going to feature two other rivalry games that will be as big as they've ever been: Arkansas-LSU and USC-Notre Dame (assuming that USC takes care of Cal this weekend). Hog fans are going to be rooting for the Irish in that one, because no matter how far Arkansas has come this season and no matter that they were starting their second-best tailback and third-best quarterback against the Trojans, there's no way around 50-14 in Fayetteville if Arkansas and USC are the two teams vying for the spot opposite the Michigan-Ohio State winner.

3. Phil Steele alert: Ohio State led Northwestern 33-10 at halftime last week, but the yardage in the game was almost even. The Bucks led by 23 because Northwestern had three fumbles and an interception. Ohio State is leading the nation in scoring defense, but they have given up yardage in chunks on occasion this year. If Phil the Lawgiver is right about yardage being a more reliable indicator of a team's merit than points and that turnovers are random...

4. Major kudos to the Georgia Sports Blog for throwing out the possibility of a return to 2001 one week before Mark Richt reached the same conclusion. Georgia ran the ball and then hit Auburn on play-action fly routes. Matt Stafford made the throws and the receivers held onto the ball, which was something new. The simplicity of the approach probably explains why Richt didn't like the gameplan on Friday night:

"I was as low as I have been," Richt said. "I looked at the game plan and
thought, 'This is the worst thing I have ever seen.'"

That's telling, isn't it? It reminds me of Hugh Freeze, the coach of Briarcrest Christian School in The Blind Side (an excellent book, by the way). Freeze was in love with the notion of out-thinking his opponents and had achieved considerable success as a high school coach by doing so, but confronted with a team that had Michael Oher at left tackle, he had to be browbeaten by his assistants into running a one-play offense that ultimately took Briarcrest to a state title. Similarly, Mark Richt wants to beat opponents with the fast-break offense he used at Florida State. He doesn't want to win games with a basic I-formation, run-run-throw deep offense, but that suits this offense best because it reduces the chances for Matt Stafford and the receivers to make mistakes and it simplifies matters for Mssr. Stafford. It also better utilizes Kregg Lumpkin, who is the best player on the offense.

Defensively, the Dawgs obliterated Auburn's offensive line and then picked on a series of wounded ducks from Brandon Cox. The game left me asking questions like "has Cox's arm always been this weak?" and "did Tuberville show highlights of the 2003 USC game to his offensive line before the game?" It's hard to say whether Auburn's offense is really that bad (I knew their passing game was suspect, but not "can't complete a forward pass to anyone not named Tra Battle" suspect) or if the Georgia defense suddenly played up to its potential. Anyway, the Auburn-Georgia series has been filled with suprising results, usually favoring the road team, so we shouldn't be totally shocked. Wait a second, this is a Georgia team that lost to Vandy and Kentucky; we should absolutely be shocked.

5. I dropped Virginia Tech out of the rankings in part because they were leading Kent State 6-0 at halftime, in part because I was impressed by BYU's resume (especially after Arizona has righted their ship), and in large part because I'm mad at this guy:

6. I don't know what to do with Texas A&M. They've lost three games, all at home in dramatic conclusions, but they also lack a good win and they have combined a cake out-of-conference schedule with a Big XII schedule that has them playing every quality opponent at home, at least until the season-ender against Texas.

7. Alabama: worst red zone team since...? Georgia '03 doesn't hold a candle to this year's Crimson Tide, who have moved the ball well against good opponents, but they can't score touchdowns to save their lives. On Saturday night, they gained 398 yards, which is more than any team has gained on LSU this year, but they ended up with only 14 points because they had an interception after driving to the LSU 25 and a missed field goal after driving to the LSU 23. (I know those aren't technically red zone trips.) Ultimately, as with the 2003 Georgia team, this needs to be put on the Tide's offensive line, which simply can't get enough of a push to run the ball effectively on a short field and they are unable to handle the increased pressure that opposing defenses throw at them when the defenders have their backs to the wall. Something tells me that the Alabama-Auburn game Saturday is not going to be a paean to the "blocking" part of General Neyland's maxim on blocking and tackling.

7a. How angry are Auburn and Alabama fans that their chief opponent for the title of "best college football rivalry" - Michigan/Ohio State - is going to be hyped beyond belief this week, while few outside of Alabama will pay much attention to the Tide and Tigers because they have combined for seven losses and this is one of the few seasons in which there are no implications for the SEC title. OK, that last sentence was a bit of an overstatement as most Southern college football fans would care about Alabama-Auburn if both teams were winless, not to mention the "one for the thumb" and "Mike Shula: how thin is the ice?" dynamics that are in play this year.