Thursday, September 27, 2007

Vickkampf: the Voice of Reason is...Terrence Moore?

I'll give credit where credit is due: Terrence Moore has an outstanding column this morning regarding the Vick supporters that ESPN crammed into the Georgia World Congress Center to create as much drama and division as possible. Here's the highlight:

So, after several hundred folks on Tuesday night represented many among the “they” by embarrassing themselves and an entire city on national television with senseless booing and hissing during what was supposed to be a civil debate, they couldn’t care less.

This is beyond disgusting, and it needs to stop. Those nationally and locally who keep suggesting that Michael Vick has become a martyr around Atlanta because of the city’s legendary ties to the civil-rights movement are spitting on the graves of Martin, Malcolm, Sojourner, Rosa, W.E.B., Booker T and Frederick.

I only caught about 20 minutes of the Town Hall Meeting when I got home from work the other day, but my prevailing reaction was that the people in the audience have formed a cult of personality around Michael Vick and are completely blind to any form of rational thought on the issue. I'd like to think that the story should not be viewed through a prism of race and that it's just about one guy with remarkably poor judgment pissing away a promising career, but that's a hard position to take when he is backed by the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP. The people in the audience hooted at anyone who said anything remotely critical of Vick, including Terrence Moore (black), Terrence Mathis (black), and Chuck Smith (black). I won't even begin to discuss their outrage at the notion - advanced by Chuck Smith, John Kincaid, Neal Boortz, and just about anyone else with an ounce of clear thinking - that Vick should play again, but that he won't do so in Atlanta. OK, I'll say one thing about that. One of the first statements out of Vick's mouth after he pled guilty was to apologize to Arthur Blank and the Falcons for lying to them and letting them down. How in the world could Vick possibly come back to a team that he screwed, as himself acknowledges?

Overall, I'm happy that ESPN wasn't able to find our white racists to create a Geraldo atmosphere, although I'm sure that it's not for lack of trying. I'm happy that the panel of speakers was multi-racial and demonstrated agreement as to the seriousness of Vick's predicament and the future for him and the Falcons. And in a weird way, I'm happy that the extreme wing of der Vickgruppen were exposed as being totally irrational. All that said, I'm sad that the NAACP (or at least the Atlanta chapter) has stooped to this level, I'm sad that ESPN thought that this show would be a good idea, and I'm sad that I watched 20 minutes and then spent 15 minutes writing about it.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

We're Not Biased...Except When We're Biased

One of my first thoughts when I saw Mike Gundy's diatribe at Jenni Carlson (right after thinking "Coach Knight would be proud of you, Mike") was that Gundy has made a cardinal mistake: he's taking on the media. Unless you have the backing of an entire apparatus of TV, radio, and print minions to back you up in this endeavor (and I'm not making any sort of political point here [heavy sarcasm]), it is never a good idea to declare war on the media. Why? Because they're the media. They always get the last word. They have the ability to shape perception. It was not at all surprising to see a number of college football writers close rank by defending Carlson and arguing that Gundy should be fired/suspended/censured/drawn and quartered.

One such writer is our old friend Stewart Mandel. However, Stewart being Stewart, he defends Carlson in such a ham-handed way that he ends up contradicting himself and confirming the distaste that many college football fans have for the media. Here is his discussion of writers and their biases from this week's Mailbag:

Regarding Mike Gundy's postgame rant, it seems that sportswriters have almost all condemned Gundy's overly emotional defense of his player and fail to grasp the distinction Gundy was trying to make between fair criticism of on-field performance and petty personal attacks. Your response was admittedly measured, but other national writers have gone as far as to suggest that Gundy be fined or fired. Meanwhile, almost all fans, players, and coaches support Gundy. Could it be that the actual bias in sports media is actually in favor of ... other sportswriters?
--Russ, Manhattan

Ding, ding, ding. I've tried futilely over the years to diffuse the wide-spread notion that mainstream journalists hold "biases" toward certain teams in the same way fans "hate" their rivals. I gave up on that lost cause long ago, other than to occasionally point out that if you truly believe a professional journalist would let his "inner-fan" hold more sway than the most basic tenant of his profession -- objectivity -- than you might as well assume your doctor is sharing your confidential medical information over drinks with his colleagues, and that your bank teller is secretly "borrowing" half that deposit you just made.

That said, writers are humans, and we like to be treated with the same level of dignity as any other humans. So yes, when Gundy steps out in front of a podium in a room full of people, points his finger at a specific writer and screams at her for several minutes with the kind of maniacal look on his face that suggests he's so angry he could hit somebody, is it any surprise to see fellow writers rallying behind the attacked journalist? Maybe that's how he dresses down his players in the locker room or on the sideline, but what person in any other walk of life voices their professional displeasure toward someone in that manner? Gundy's certainly entitled to disagree with her, and he's certainly entitled to defend his player, but I don't believe anyone -- from writer to football coach to stock trader to busboy -- deserves to be treated with such lack of basic human decency.

From the moment I first saw the Gundy clip, I knew immediately that such extreme-reaction columns as the ones you mentioned would soon be spewing forth across the country, regardless of whether or not Gundy had a valid point. It's the same "defense mechanism" that causes many writers to hold "grudges" against schools whose coaches or sports information staff have treated them like crap. It's human nature. And it's a much more likely cause of "bias" among writers than any team allegiance.
When I read that first paragraph, I was trying to decide whether I should take the time to write a post explaining why Mandel's analogy was so inept. He compares sportswriters letting their biases affect their writing with instances of outright illegal conduct by bank tellers and doctors that involve intentional malfeasance. Stew, I'm interested to know how you made it into Northwestern in spite of what must have been an 0-fer on the section of the SAT that tests analogies. I'm also interested in how sportswriters have "tenant[s]" that govern their professional conduct, but the rest of us have "tenets."

By the time I got to the third paragraph, I was wondering whether has editors, whether those editors read Mandel's work, and finally whether they have any sort of requirement that arguments be logically consistent. Mandel first argues that writers do not let their biases infect their work and compares that to employees stealing, violating federal law, or acting in violation of the basic ethics of their profession. He then says that writers do indeed carry biases against coaches or SIDs who don't treat them well. That's comforting. The next time that Mandel writes something unfairly negative about Michigan, I'll be much happier knowing that he's doing so because Lloyd Carr or Michigan's SID didn't give him cookies and punch as opposed to the fact that Mandel went to Northwestern and therefore doesn't like the Wolverines. (I don't think that Mandel has it out for Michigan; I'm speaking hypothetically here.)

It's hard for me to get my head around the notion that Mandel actually advanced this argument with a straight face. He inadvertently explained exactly why I don't like a lot of college football writers: they get paid to do work that most college football fans would do for free and yet they do a piss poor job of it. Why can't I get paid by America's pre-eminent sports publication to argue that college football writers aren't biased, except when they feel disrespected by a school's SID, in which case they are and I'm supposed to be fine with that.

Don't Do This to me

The Braves are ever-so-slightly getting my hopes up that they can stage some sort of miraculous rally into the Wild Card. They've won nine of 11 to creep to within three games, although the fact that they trail three teams makes a recovery a virtual impossibility. With a three-game set against the Phillies and the Padres collapsing, a last-gasp run would be possible, but the Rockies presence in the mix two games ahead of the Braves makes the playoffs a pipe dream. Incidentally, the Braves are tied with the Rockies right now for the best Pythagorean record in the NL. If both sides miss the playoffs, would that be a further argument for the weakness of the NL that its two best teams are not in the mix?

Even if the Braves don't make the playoffs, their run at the end of the year is gratifying on a couple levels. First, if they take care of business the next two nights (and with Smoltz and Hudson throwing, it's quite possible that they will), then they'll likely keep the Phillies out of the playoffs. While I was not especially geeked this weekend that the net effect of the Braves winning three of four would be to send the Cubs to the playoffs (I'm still bitter about '03), it would be especially satisfying to deny the worst fans in American sports October baseball for the umpteenth year (and I'm still bitter about '93). Second, finishing with 87 or 88 wins is better than finishing 82-80 because the Braves can say to themselves that they had a good season. The complaint that the team got screwed by its Interleague draw will have validity if the Braves miss the playoffs by a game or two, although there really is no counter to "forget the Red Sox; you went 1-6 against the Reds." Third, Liberty Media is more inclined to open the checkbooks this off-season if they perceive that the Braves are on the cusp of being a contender in the National League again. While I would be fine with the team letting Andruw walk, one of the messages of this season is that it's very hard to get quality pitching on the cheap, so the team will hopefully suck it up and pay some of the outrageous sums that pitching commands on the open market in the winter. Average pitchers cost an arm and a leg, but the alternatives are Mark Redman and Kyle Davies.

My Top 25 Violates One of my Pre-season Rules

2Southern Cal--
4Ohio State 1
5West Virginia 2
6Florida 2
7California 1
8Boston College 2
10Rutgers 2
12Clemson 11
13Kentucky 1
14South Carolina 4
15Georgia 6
16South Florida 1
17Alabama 4
18Cincinnati 6
19Miami (Florida) 7
21Penn State 9
22Virginia Tech 3
23Arizona State 3
24Missouri 2
25Kansas 1

Dropped Out: Louisville (#16), Arkansas (#17), Washington (#19), Georgia Tech (#22).

I told myself before the season not to rank any teams from the Big XII North until they gave me a good reason to do so. I was skeptical on Nebraska and that proved to be correct. For some unknown reason, I lumped Texas A&M in with the North on the assumption that Dennis Franchione belongs back in Kansas and I was right on that as well. This week, when I was getting to the end of my ballot, I was scratching my head trying to find two teams to put into the poll and I unfortunately went with Kansas and Missouri. Kansas belongs because, unlike some teams in the AP and ESPN top tens (read: Wisconsin), they have dominated their cupcakes. I oughta penalize Kansas for playing such an amazingly easy non-conference schedule, but after a while, I'm a sucker for repeated 55-3 scores. With K-State, Baylor, Texas A&M, and Colorado coming up, 8-0 is a possibility for the Jayhawks. As for Missouri, they have no defense whatsoever as evidenced by the 34 points and 435 yards they surrendered to an Illinois team playing its back-up quarterback, but they can score and their win over Ole Miss in Oxford went up in value this weekend when Florida struggled there.

The team people are sleeping on right now is Ohio State. They ought to be very close to the discussion of LSU, USC, and Oklahoma as the three best teams in the country. Unlike the other contenders to that trio, they can play defense (although West Virginia is showing a sneaky ability to stop some teams). The offense that everyone thought would sputter without Troy Smith and the rest of the skill position players has been excellent after a sputtering start. (More evidence for Mandel's point on the importance of experience and quality on the offensive line.) What's really keeping Ohio State from entering the conversation is the weakness of the Big Ten and the Bucks' wretched performance in Glendale last year. Just as voters didn't want to see a Michigan-Ohio State rematch last year, they don't want to see Ohio State on that stage again, especially because of the mostly correct perception that the Bucks would not face nearly the same challenges in getting to New Orleans as compared to USC, LSU, or (to a lesser extent) Oklahoma. The Bucks needed Washington to play well, so they were hurt last week by the Huskies' egg in Pasadena.

I was tempted to put Oregon ahead of Cal in advance of what I think will be a win for the Ducks this weekend, but I decided to hold off and let events run their course. Interestingly, one of the headlines on's college football page is "Saturday's Oregon-Cal game will be one for the ages, no matter where you live." So naturally, it will only be broadcast to the West Coast while most of the country will get Clemson/Georgia Tech and Michigan State/Wisconsin on ABC and ESPN. I'm sure that the decision to show USC/Washington nationally instead of Cal/Oregon is a ratings-driven decision and Disney is, after all, in the business of making money, but boo to Mickey Mouse for televising the best match-up of the weekend to a small sliver of the country.

Clemson was the big mover in my poll. It might not make much sense at first glance to provide such a reward for beating a bad N.C. State team (although the Pack beat Wofford who beat Appalachian State who, as you may have heard, beat Michigan, so I might be careful with what I say), but the N.C. State game was the kind of game that Clemson could never win under Tommy Bowden. The fact that they not only won, but wiped the floor with the Pack is impressive. Speaking of Clemson, Tommy Bowden was on Mayhem this morning. The first two questions were Steak asking/stating "you must be pretty happy with the season so far" and Bell asking "are you happy with your talent level." Then, to further illustrate the difference between a good interviewer and a bad one, Chris Dimino asked about Clemson needing to identify gaps in the Tech defense to get their running game going and Bowden responded with a thoroughly useful answer about how Tech can give up big plays because they typically rush five and have three shallow and three deep in zone behind the initial line. Bowden explained that Tech's zone behind the front has a lot of gaps that runners can exploit and that Clemson will have to use motion and shifts to cause Tech to leave gaps uncovered. It was a great answer that was only made possible by a host who actually asks questions that don't have only one possible answer.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Another Classy Hokie

It was probably fitting that in the Falcons' first home game after the Summer of Vick, the dominant story is his Virginia Tech buddy DeAngelo Hall acting like a total jackass and single-handedly swinging momentum in a game that the Falcons were leading. Here's the drive chart from Carolina's tying drive:

1st and 10 at CAR 20
(9:09) J.Delhomme pass incomplete deep left to

PENALTY on ATL-D.Hall, Defensive Pass Interference, 37
yards, enforced at CAR 20 - No Play.

1st and 10 at ATL 43
D.Williams right end to ATL 37 for 6 yards (C.Houston).

ATL-D.Hall, Personal Foul, 15 yards, enforced at ATL 37.

1st and 10
at ATL 22
(8:29) D.Williams right tackle to ATL 20 for 2 yards

2nd and 8 at ATL 20
(7:52) J.Delhomme pass
incomplete short middle to J.King.

3rd and 8 at ATL 20
J.Delhomme sacked at ATL 29 for -9 yards (J.Abraham).

Penalty on
CAR-T.Wharton, Offensive Holding, declined.

Unsportsmanlike Conduct, 15 yards, enforced at ATL 29. Unsportsmanlike conduct
called after the play.

1st and 10 at ATL 14
(7:26) D.Foster
right end pushed ob at ATL 5 for 9 yards (C.Crocker).

2nd and 1 at
(7:19) J.Delhomme pass short left to J.King for 5 yards,

J.Kasay extra point is GOOD, Holder-J.Baker.

It's really an accomplishment for a player to accumulate 67 penalty yards on a 80-yard drive, but the Falcons' "star" corner managed that feat yesterday. Part of me feels like the refs overreacted to Hall. The 15-yard blow to the face penalty was marginal, at best, and I've never seen a player get flagged for talking shit to another player, especially when that second player is talking back. In general, the refs gave the impression that they had money on the Panthers in the game, as they carried out a campaign against Hall on the one hand and on the other, let the Panthers take cheap shots on John Abraham (Fox's cameras caught this on Carolina's go-ahead touchdown) and make late hits on Joey Harrington. And I cannot fathom how they flagged Hall for talking too much when Steve Smith couldn't shut his mouth for the entire game. Moral of the story: I hate the Panthers.

All that said, DeAngelo put the refs in the position to screw him by totally losing his cool. It is the nature of the corner position that Hall is going to get beat every now and again. The fact that he completely lost his cool after Steve Smith beat him deep and then allowed his tantrum to affect the rest of the drive is unforgivable. Hall is no longer a rookie. This is his fourth year in the league, but he still acts like a child. He's a pretty good corner (although his technique is poor, as Rod Woodson explained on the radio last week), but he's a lousy teammate right now.

While Hall is a good player who can't control his id, Keith Brooking, another player who commands a good chunk of the Falcons' cap space, is simply not a very good player. If NFL Network re-runs the game, watch Brooking on DeShaun Foster's big runs. He's either blocked out of the plays or he over-runs them. Arthur Blank gets flak for getting too budd-buddy with Michael Vick, but Blank befriending and then overpaying Brooking might be a bigger sin.

All that said, there were a lot of positives for the Falcons yesterday, starting with Joey Harrington turning in a vintage Chris Miller-esque performance under center. Is this really the guy who was so bad in Detroit and Miami? He was accurate all day, he moved well in the pocket, and he didn't make mistakes. The slant pass that Roddy White turned into a long touchdown was something absent from the Falcons' arsenal when Mike Vick was the quarterback; he never hit receivers perfectly in stride like Harrington did on that play. Oh, and Harrington's 361 passing yards are 24 more than Vick's career high. Vick went over 300 yards passing exactly twice in four seasons as a starter. It took Harrington three games to do so. It's interesting that Harrington played so well in a week in which the Falcons brought in Byron Leftwich to push him for the position. G-d forbid, maybe competition at the quarterback position doesn't send football teams into emotional tailspins.

The rest of the offense played well around Harrington. Todd Weiner did a fine job on Julius Peppers and the rest of the offensive line blocked nicely for Harrington. The receivers made some plays, especially Roddy White, who has emerged as the go-to guy. The running game was fairly good in limited carries. Best of all, Bobby Petrino showed the ability to morph an offensive approach to an opponent; his pass-heavy game plan was very productive and would have produced a good number of points without a couple fumbles and a botched field goal.

And while his groin is still functional, how about a few nice words for John Abraham, who has been outstanding this year. He completely owned Travelle Wharton from start to finish. His performances have been excellent so far this season, although that doesn't really tell us anything we didn't know before. The rap on Abraham is that he plays this well and then gets hurt.

Overall, the Falcons are better than their record. They've been competitive in all three games. They're gaining almost as much yardage as they're giving up, so if you believe that yardage is a better indication of a team's merit than record, they look more like a 7-9 team than a 5-11 team. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they beat the Texans this week.

Forgive Lloyd. Pardon Lloyd. Grant Lloyd Atonement for Never Running the Clock Out.

For those of you who have not had the intense pleasure of watching 12-13 Michigan games every fall for the entirety of Lloyd Carr's tenure, you may not quite understand the basic tenets of Lloydball. For the uninitated who haven't seen all 153 of Lloyd's games as coach in Ann Arbor, here's a basic primer:

1. Running the football is the preferred way to progress down the field. Passing is fun when behind, in long yardage, and/or to loosen up defenses, but the default call on offense should be a run between the tackles.

2. Anything that can be used as an excuse to keep the ball on the ground will do so. Inexperienced quarterback? Slight protection problems? A gentle breeze?

3. When Michigan has the lead, the function of the offense is to bleed the clock, churn out a couple first downs, and then punt the ball so the opponent has to drive the length of the field to get a winning score.

4. Execution is more important than unpredictability. It should not matter that personnel, formations, and motion give away the nature and direction of a play; the players should still execute it.

5. Preventing big plays is the primary goal of a defense. The converse is not true. Avoiding turnovers and possessing the ball are the primary goals of the offense. The converse is not true.

As you might be able to tell, Lloyd's basic tenets often frustrate me. Such was the case on Saturday afternoon. I left for the concluding Yom Kippur service at 6 p.m. with Michigan nursing a 7-6 lead heading into the fourth quarter. I then spent the next two hours praying and seeking forgiveness for various things, such as losing my temper too easily and saying negative things about other people. I was confronted with an interesting philosophical question: can I repent for a sin that I was sure was going to take place when I got home? Can one repent for sins that are mere hours from taking place?

Fortunately, this remained a mere hypothetical because Michigan was opposed on Saturday by the one major power coaching staff with even more old-fashioned values. (There are probably Tennessee fans jumping up and down right now, screaming "Remember us!?!") Occasionally, Lloydball does work. It works when Michigan has a dominant defense (1997 and 2006) and it works when an opponent's style hews perfectly to the way college football was played in the 70s. Penn State does absolutely nothing unconventional on offense, which means that Michigan's defense is perfectly situated to stop it. Penn State is rock-solid on defense, but they do not disguise coverages or generate tremendous pressure to force turnovers. Thus, Michigan got away with running almost exclusively on downs other than second and third and long. (Excluding its drive that started with 90 seconds to go in the first half and its kneel-down at the end of the game, Michigan had 34 first and tens in the game and threw on exactly eight of them. How Carr and Debord think it's a good idea to "protect" a true freshman quarterback by forcing him to throw mostly on obvious passing downs is beyond me.) Michigan also got away with forgoing the chance to kill the game off on its final offensive possession, mainly because Anthony Morelli is not a good quarterback and Penn State's offense is fairly easily defended.

In this salvo of negativity, I should probably say a few nice things about Michigan saving its season, beating a top ten team, and emerging as a contender in the emasculated Big Ten. First, Mike Hart is an absolute titan for grinding out 153 yards against a defense that knew what was coming time and again. Second, Ryan Mallett already has more ability to move in and out of the pocket and make improvisational plays than Chad Henne does. With a predictable offense, that ability to buy time for receivers to get open is critical. Mallett's scramble and throw to covert a 3rd and 11 on Michigan's last drive was a great play and covered up for some truly wretched play-calling that asked for Penn State to get a good chance to come back and win the game. Third, the defense isn't better solely because it isn't seeing the run-based spread anymore. With Brandon Graham healthy and living up to his tag as the next Lamarr Woodley, Donovan Warren doing a good job at corner as a true freshman in place of the dearly departed Johnny Sears, and Brandent Englemon providing a significant upgrade over the not-ready-for-primetime Stevie Brown at safety, Michigan is better at three spots than the unit that was torched by Armanti Edwards in the first half of the opener. It isn't a foregone conclusion that Michigan will soil itself when it sees the spread again from Illinois.

Other College Football Thought-dreams

1. I wish I had something exciting or innovative to say about the Georgia game, but I really don't. It was a great win for the Dawgs because it keeps the Dawgs in the race in the conference. Matthew Stafford still relies on his arm too much to the detriment of proper footwork and his long passes therefore sail on him. His great throw in overtime should not obscure that fact. The offensive line performed above expectations, giving Stafford time to throw and opening holes for Georgia's backs. Knowshon Moreno is outstanding. The defense played very well, with the exception of Alabama's last drive in regulation when they promptly forgot everything they have been doing well all season. If John Parker Wilson was a better quarterback, then that would have been a two-play drive because Keith Brown was pretty open deep. I was mildly perplexed that Terry Grant only got 11 carries, as he looks like the real deal much as Moreno does. I was also perplexed by the sudden appearance of Roy Upchurch late in the game, but that was a really bright maneuver by Nick Saban and Major Applewhite.

Two other random notes:

a. Gotta love the class of Alabama's students for pelting Georgia's players with cups after Mikey Henderson's winning touchdown catch. THIS IS ALABAMA FOOTBALL!!!

b. Isn't it amazing that Mark Richt is 23-3 in SEC road games even though he doesn't go all Woody Hayes on his players?

2. MANDEL!!! Hopefully, our friend Stewart was light-headed after fasting for penning an entry about how every team in the SEC other than LSU has at least one major flaw. Gee, you think the same can't be said about every other conference? You want to discuss Oregon's and Cal's defenses? (I probably shouldn't be saying anything about Oregon after September 8 other than that Mike Bellotti was sexier than Magnum P.I. when he had a mustache, but 31 points conceded to Stanford? In one half? Really?) Or West Virginia's, for that matter? Or Rutgers's schedule? Or South Florida's offensive line? Or the entire Big Ten save for Ohio State? Or Texas's pass protection problems? Mandel is seeking to hold the SEC to a standard than no other conference can match. He also ignores the fact that the last two weeks have demonstrated that there isn't an easy out in the SEC, which is a testament to the depth of the league. Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Vandy are all frisky, which makes life tougher for the powers in the conference because they will get no breathers this year. This could be a tough year for the embattled coaches in the league (read: Fulmer and Nutt) because they won't be able to get the free, record-padding wins that the conference's peasantry sometimes provides. Just as Jim Donnan lost his job for losing to Georgia Tech rather than Tennessee and Florida, Nutt and Fulmer might lose their jobs for losing to Vandy or Mississippi State instead of Florida or LSU.

For the record, I don't necessarily disagree with Mandel's assertion that the conference has LSU first, Florida second, and then a mish-mash of good, but not great teams thereafter. I just don't like that being a criticism of the league, especially in a year in which it looks so balanced.

It also bears mentioning that Mandel was right on the money when he noted last week that Texas and Oklahoma illustrate the importance of offensive lines. There's a good argument to be made that the start of this season is illustrating that returning quarterbacks are overrated in pre-season predictions. LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State, and Florida all look outstanding on offense with new starters. Michigan (pre-Henne injury) and Tennessee look pedestrian with four-year starters under center. Penn State has a senior under center and they can't pass their way out of a paper bag.

3. Maybe there's a reason why Taylor Bennett sat behind Reggie Ball for all that time. Maybe my prediction of a good season for Virginia won't turn out to be complete idiocy after all. Wouldn't it be something to see Michigan win the Big Ten after losing its opener to Appalachian State and Virginia win the ACC Coastal after getting blown out in its opener by mighty Wyoming. Who the hell am I kidding with that last sentence?

4. Blake Mitchell did about as well in Baton Rouge as we all thought he might. Let the Smelley era commence! Seriously, it's hard to take a team seriously when it's led by this guy:

I'll admit that I didn't see too much of the South Carolina-LSU game between the Michigan game, Barca-Sevilla (the Blaugrana's defense was impenetrable; this team looks great, even with Thierry Henry a shell of his former self), and religious observance. LSU dominated statistically and the 28-16 score doesn't really do justice to how good LSU looked (again).

5. If you want an undervalued team right now, take Arkansas. They've lost two games, both of which they led in the fourth quarter. Their dreadful passing game is going to take a step forward when Marcus Monk returns. The only qualifications to my optimism are the possibility of an implosion as the summer of Nuttkampf takes its toll and the defense, which misses Chris Houston and Jammal Anderson badly.

6. Am I the only one who is amused that the Mississippi State-Gardner-Webb game pitted the Bulldogs against the Runnin' Bulldogs?

7. The bell tolls for thee: Mike Stoops, Dennis Franchione, and Dave Wannstedt. The bell would toll for Charlie Weis if not for the cost of buying him out. I'm perfectly happy with Charlie getting the full five years in South Bend.

8. Signs that the media and coaches polls suck, take 23: Wisconsin remains in the top ten, despite all evidence that the Badgers are a mediocre team. The latest evidence: a four-point win over a stumbly-wumbly Iowa team that featured two open receivers behind the secondary on Iowa's last drive, both of whom were missed by Jake Christiensen. At some point, shouldn't a team have to either beat a good team or look good against a bad team to justify a top ten ranking? Wisconsin is in the top ten, while Michigan is out of the polls (and deservedly so), but does anyone think that Michigan wouldn't be, at worst, a very slight underdog to the Badgers on a neutral field?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Vickkampf: Let's Have Kurt Waldheim and Yuri Andropov Debate the Implications

I've got that Cracker song What the World Needs Now song stuck in my hear right now. You know, the one that says that the world needs a variety of things "like I need a hole in my head."? The cause of my humming is ESPN's decision to convene a town hall meeting to discuss the racial impact of Vickkampf. And to ensure that Atlanta is portrayed to be a short step away from Sarajevo after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the panel will include Terrence Moore and Neal Boortz. Does anyone doubt that Bob Ley (whom I normally like and respect) and company sat around trying to decide who the biggest bombthrowers would be on the racial issue and came up with Moore and Boortz? And oh how they'll giggle when Moore asserts that Atlanta is too racist to host a Super Bowl or Boortz whips out the "ghetto trash" line that he used to describe Cynthia McKinney (the only instance in which I felt sympathetic to Ms. McKinney). Gee, I wonder why ESPN invited Terrence Moore as opposed to Mark Bradley (assuming that they didn't invite Bradley).

I typically have serious reservations about employing anything close to the "the races get along down here, but the Yankee media is stirring up trouble," since that was typically the line used by just about every white racist in the South in the 50s and 60s. In fact, I heard that line from a white resident of Jena, Louisiana on the radio this week, so apparently, it's still on the first page of the "don't pay attention to the fact that our town prosecutes blacks and not whites" playbook. That said, I am definitely not pleased by ESPN's approach. I don't recall them convening a racial town hall to discuss Barry Bonds (another issue on which opinion split on racial lines). Why? Because the narrative concerning Atlanta and the South involves race, but the same narrative doesn't apply to national issues like Bonds. G-d forbid anyone suggest that San Franciscans or New Yorkers might also feel differently about Bonds on the basis of racial experience. Similarly, there hasn't been a racial town hall in Philadelphia regarding Donovan McNabb's perception that he's treated more negatively than white quarterbacks.

Like Jeff Schultz's inept "let's use pop psychology to explain why Georgia can't score in the red zone" explanation, ESPN's approach also highlights a real failing of the modern media: the tendency to find the most diametrically opposed points of view and air them in the interest of "balance." This comes up all the time in the political context. The Supreme Court will issue a decision on, say, gun rights and CNN will go to the split screen with Wayne Lapierre in one box saying crazy things, someone from a pro-gun control group saying something less crazy, and then the anchor in the third box egging the two of them on. As a result, the viewer gets two extreme views as opposed to a measured, intelligent take. I can guarantee you that Moore and Boortz will do the same on the Vick issue. One caveat: Moore didn't really write anything incendiary about the Vick case and he smartly didn't turn Vick's travails into a referendum on race relations. Maybe ESPN won't get the Racial Dresden that they're clearly pining for.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

If my First Son is Samuel, Should my Second be Yaya?

Thanks to the Mediapro-Sogecable dispute in Spain that has prevented GolTV from showing Barca and Real Madrid matches this year, last night's replay of the Barca-Lyon Champions League match was the first time that I got to see the Blaugrana this year (other than an unexpected half against Athletic Bilbao). Barca came into the match on the heels of drawing its first two road games in the Primera 0-0. The opening to the game featured a translation of an ESPN Deportes reporter saying that Frank Rijkaard went on a six-minute monologue in the pre-game presser about how the team have had trouble integrating their new players and that some of the lapses in concentration from last year had returned. Rijkaard was almost certainly talking about Thierry Henry, since the other three signings - Yaya Toure, Eric Abidal, and Gaby Milito - have all performed well on the field and Barca fans have quickly taken to Toure and Abidal. Anyway, Barca's fine performance changed the story from this:

to this:

Leo Messi gets the cover and he deserves it for an outstanding performance. While Thierry Henry looks either rusty, washed up, or still injured and Ronaldinho is still off of his top form (although he still made several nice passes last night, none of which went to Henry because Ronnie and Henry don't [yet] know how to play with one another), Messi has picked right up where he left off at the end of last season. His control and pace make him almost unstoppable. The only criticism of his play is that he isn't a very good passer, as evidenced by one break last night when he should have released Henry and instead chose to dribble into no-man's land himself.
Collectively, the team looked excellent last night. With all of the pre-season concern on how Henry would mesh with Messi, Ronnie, and Eto'o, combined with a pair of 0-0 draws in Barca's first three Primera matches, the focus of criticism was on the offensive approach. However, Barca was let down by their defense as much as their offense last year. The team allowed two goals to Liverpool in the critical first leg, five to Real Madrid in two matches, and three apiece to Valencia, Sevilla, and Chelsea in two matches with each. The only clean sheet that Barca keps against any of those foes was in the second leg at Anfield when the Scousers were protecting a lead.
This year, the defense is outstanding. Barca have conceded one goal in four competitive matches and that was down to a Victor Valdes error. (With Gio gone and Marquez back in form, Valdes becomes the defensive question.) They shut out both Bayern and Inter in pre-season friendlies. Last night, Barca not only kepy a clean sheet, but they didn't allow Lyon a shot on goal. Lyon's chances were essentially limited to a header from the penalty spot and a tight-angle shot from a corner that was blocked. Barca's signings have resolved the team's weak spots from last year. Yaya Toure is an absolute revelation in the center of the midfield, as he combines defensive ability with solid passing and a surprisingly good shot. Gaby Milito is solid at the back and gives the team depth to cover for injuries so they don't have to rely on Lilian Thuram. Finally, words can't describe how much better Eric Abidal is at left back as opposed to Gio von Bronckhorst. Abidal was Barca's danger man for a significant period in the first half and he can actually play defense. Opponents can no longer attack Barca's left with impunity.
One other good note from last night was a real team goal:

The test for Barca's new defense will be this weekend when they face an angry Sevilla side that laid an egg at the Emirates. Shutting out Lyon (14 scored in seven Ligue 1 matches) was impressive, but doing the same to Sevilla would officially show that Barca are back from their 06-07 malaise.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

My Top 25 Still Loves Les

2Southern Cal 1
3Oklahoma 1
4Florida 1
5Ohio State 8
6California 1
7West Virginia 1
8Rutgers 1
9Oregon 2
10Boston College 8
11Texas 7
12Penn State 2
13Alabama 8
14Kentucky 12
15South Florida 7
16Louisville 8
17Arkansas 1
18South Carolina 6
19Washington 5
21Georgia 2
22Georgia Tech 7
23Clemson 3
24Cincinnati 2
25Virginia Tech--

Dropped Out: UCLA (#17), Nebraska (#19), Auburn (#24).
I picked LSU as the best team in the country and I'm sticking by that statement, regardless of the fact that USC looked outstanding on Saturday night. I don't think much of Nebraska (and wish I would have stuck by my guns of having them unranked last week), but then again, the same criticisms of the Huskers can also apply to LSU's one marquee victim. Still, LSU deserves some credit for shutting out a team that scored at will on Louisville, so it isn't as if they were static over the weekend.
The prevailing consensus is that USC, Oklahoma, LSU, and Florida are clearly the top four teams in the country. Personally, I think that Florida is a little short of the other three. I never put much credence into the notion that Tennessee has a good team, so I'm still thinking that Florida has some questions to answer on defense. I'm probably being unfair to the Gators, as any team can be picked apart by saying that the teams it beat aren't very good, but I came into the season with reservations about Florida's defense, whereas there were very few reservations about the other three (save for Oklahoma's quarterback situation and I'm confortable that Bradford's excellent performance against a good Miami defense answers that question). Florida is clearly the second-best team in the SEC and will be overwhelming favorites in 2008, but it seems to me that they are being set up for a fall at Baton Rouge.
I'm certainly drinking the Boston College kool-aid right now. They look to be a good bet to go to Blacksburg unbeaten. At this stage in the season, I'm looking for teams that don't have obvious weaknesses and BC is one of the few teams that falls into that category. They probably lack a game-breaking running back or receiver, but with a quarterback throwing for 300+ yards per game, they can probably do without. The million dollar question is whether they would be looking this good with Tom O'Brien still in charge.
Don't ask me why I bumped South Florida up the week after their big win over Auburn was significantly devalued. I'm probably just rewarding them for looking like a balanced team. I might also be confusing them with Central Florida and giving them credit for the developing story that the landscape is changing in America's Wang.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Felix Legion 38 French Crusaders 0

Really, with Russell Crowe giving the pre-game pep talk, was there any doubt that Michigan would notch win number one on Saturday? Shouldn't the point spread have reflected that the game pitted this:

and this:

and this:

against this:

and this:

and this:

What? You wanted actual football content? Cheap jokes involving Google images aren't enough? Fine.

This past weekend caused me to have a real "I was wrong" moment regarding Charlie Weis. I defended the extension that Notre Dame gave him, I defended the blow out losses to quality opponents, and I pre-emptively made excuses for the Irish being sub-par this year. The moral of the story is that I should stop trying to defend my least favorite college football program. I'm just no damned good at it. I expected ND to struggle to about 8-4 this year, with offensive line problems proving a difficult, but not insurmountable obstacle. I didn't expect the world's worst offensive line, one whose primary achievement yesterday was allowing me to joke to Der Wife about giving sacks in quarters because of the number of Michigan rushers who were piling on the Emu simultaneously. I didn't expect some half-assed attempt to take advantage of Michigan's problems against mobile passers in the spread by lining up Armando Allen as some sort of cut-rate Darren McFadden on the first play from scrimmage. I didn't expect a variety of spread formations that served to emphasize ND's blocking problems by removing tight ends and running backs as pass protectors.

Notre Dame clearly looks like a team that has spent a minimal amount of time on basic fundamentals. Sophomores and juniors are supposed to struggle to a certain degree, but the Irish have too much talent to be as bad as they are on offense. The explanation has to be that Weis spends so much time putting in a variety of plays so he can tailor each gameplan to the opponent that he and his staff haven't spent nearly enough time over the past three years teaching their young players basic techniques. For all of my complaining about Michigan running the same five plays over and over again and expecting that perfect execution can overwhelm the effects of predictability, I now see what the opposite extreme is. Frequent commenter and suffering Irish fan Ed explains in greater detail in the last comment to my watercolor from last weekend.

Another criticism of Weis is his staffing decisions and I have to say that I was unimpressed with Corwin Brown on Saturday (even if he is a Michigan grad and therefore impeccably educated). Michigan's game plan was transparently simple on Saturday: run Mike Hart into the ground, mostly behind Jake Long and the shuffling fullback/telegrapher. (Why the shuffle came back after a year off is an absolute mystery to me. I get angry every time I see it and Michigan football is theoretically supposed to be a happy use of my free time. I digress.) The runs were so predictable that Paul Maguire figured out when they were coming and where they were going. Stew on that for a moment. The monotony of HartLeft was broken occasionally by deep balls from Ryan Mallett. The logical defense against Michigan's offense would have been eight in the box at all times, combined with physical bumping on Mario Manningham, who has been contact-averse this year. On any play with a fullback and especially on plays involving a shuffle, every Irish player should have been crashing towards the line of scrimmage. Instead, Notre Dame inexplicably left two safeties back on a significant number of plays. Perhaps Corwin Brown, coming from the NFL, assumed that there was no way that the Michigan offense could really be that predictable. Penn State will probably not be as forgiving and will penalize Michigan for throwing mostly on obvious passing downs.

Speaking of Ryan Mallett, I reserve the right to change my mind the first time he throws an interception, but I'm enjoying finally having a quarterback who isn't an automaton. (His post-game quote - "I don't get nervous" - made me thinking about cueing up Take it to the Limit from Scarface.) I worry about an emotional guy who likely has supreme confidence in his ridiculous arm, but after Mike Hart is gone, Michigan will be lucky to have another spark plug. Mallett can also throw nicely on the run, which is another improvement over Chad Henne. Whether he avoids Henne's pocket panic is another matter entirely. Speaking of which...

Random Thought-Dreams

1. I've been on a kick over the past couple weeks in thinking that a quarterback's ability to sense a rush and get rid of the ball quickly is a critical skill that often gets overlooked in evaluating a quarterback. These thoughts started during Michigan's first two games when Chad Henne melted down every time he was pressured. They coalesced today when I was flipping between the Falcons game on Fox and the Colts-Titans game on CBS. There was a major contrast between Peyton Manning, who almost never gets sacked and has a perfect understanding as to how long he has to get rid of the ball, and Joey Harrington, who doesn't. I'm probably not breaking any new ground by concluding that Manning is better than Harrington, but it led me to think that quarterbacks who get sacked a lot aren't necessarily the victims of bad offensive line play. If a quarterback is slow in making a decision or doesn't immediately recognize where to throw the ball, then a play will often end in a throw-away or a sack (and color guys seem to invariably compliment quarterbacks for throwing the ball away), but most fans don't respond to that sort of play as an indictment of the quarterback the way they do for interceptions or obviously inaccurate throws. In other words, we pan quarterbacks for bad actions, but not bad inactions.

If you want further evidence of the importance of evaluating inaction as well as action, look at the Texans. For years, I assumed that David Carr got sacked a lot because his line was crap. Now, with a quarterback who makes quicker decisions, the Texans' offense is humming. Matt Schaub has been sacked twice in two games, including a game at Carolina. Why can't the Falcons have a quarterback as good as Schaub? Wait a second... VICKKAMPF, ALL IN MY BRAIN!!!

By the way, I might just be coming to a realization on the subject of quarterbacks avoiding sacks that most of you already knew, so just indulge me my moment of self-realization.

2. I listened to about ten minutes of the Georgia game on Saturday and Larry Munson sounded bereft of energy. I think he didn't want to come back, but decided to do so out of a sense of obligation. It was sad to hear, because his enthusiasm has always been one of his calling cards. Has this been going on for a year or two and I'm just noticing it now? The one game I listened to on the radio last year was the Colorado game, so I might have gotten a false sense of Larry still being excited.

3. Resolved: John Tenuta's defense feasts on bad quarterbacks, but a smart signal-caller who doesn't panic when blitzed can have his way with that defense.

4. During the second half of Ohio State's boa constrictor performance against Washington, I was thinking about how boring and efficient Ohio State is and it caused me to wonder whether Michigan is viewed in the same way (when Michigan is, you know, good). Watching Ohio State (pre- or post-Troy Smith) is like watching Italy or Chelsea; they almost always ground out a result, but the process is reminiscent of Bismark's quote about politics and sausage-making.

5. My predictions of Notre Dame to win eight and Virginia to go to Maryland 7-0 don't look so hot, but I'm feeling good about picking Phil Fulmer to be gone at the end of the year. When Tennessee under Fulmer was good, he was said to be an old-school coach who emphasized blocking and tackling, just like General Neyland did. Has anyone noticed that the Vols have been varying shades of bad at running the ball ever since the Travises departed? And John Chavis's expression on Saturday was probably not unlike that of General Gamelin in May 1940, a general seeing his tactics from the previous war laid to waste by a new way to skin a cat.

Speaking of which, as Urban Meyer (a guy who listed Michigan, Notre Dame, and Ohio State as his three dream jobs when he was at Utah) was laying waste to Tennessee, I was thinking about the approach of SEC powers to hiring coaches as opposed to the Big Ten. In comparing the two conferences, the SEC starts with a talent advantage because there are more good players in the Sunbelt than there are in the upper Midwest. Now, SEC teams have added a coaching arms race to their talent advantage. Florida hired the hottest coaching prospect in the country three years ago (and were swifter in canning Ron Zook than anyone in the Big Ten would have been). Alabama hired a coach with a national title on his resume, as did South Carolina. LSU hired a coach who had been successful at a BCS conference school. Tennessee will almost certainly do the same if and when they off Fulmer. I can't think of a single Big Ten hire in recent memory that comes close to South Carolina hiring Spurrier, Alabama hiring Saban, or even LSU hiring Miles. Instead, you have Big Ten teams hiring SEC wash-outs (Ron Zook), college defensive coordinators (Mark Dantonio [with three years as the head man at Cincinnati thrown in] and Bret Bielema), NFL position coaches (Tim Brewster), and college position coaches (Pat Fitzgerald). This is not to say that one or more of the Big Ten's recent hires won't be good coaches, but you can see why a gap might emerge. On a strict resume basis, the SEC is hiring much better coaches.

6. Going into this year, the CW was that Sylvester Croom was on a hotter seat than The Orgeron, probably because Croom was going into his fourth year and wasn't recruiting as well. That said, Croom has now beaten Alabama, Auburn, and Florida, whereas The Orgeron's SEC wins have come against 3-8 Kentucky, 3-9 Mississippi State, and 4-8 Vandy (in a game that Vandy outgained Ole Miss significantly). The Rebs got dominated over the weekend by Vandy and now have Florida and Georgia back-to-back.

7. The Alabama-Arkansas ending, followed in short succession by the Kentucky-Louisville ending, were great advertisements for college football in general and the SEC in particular. Who knew that Bobby Petrino would leave Louisville and the defense would collapse instead of the offense?

8. Someone needs to explain to me why John David Booty is a Heisman front-runner. He was decent, but nothing special last year, and he's shown no signs of being any different this year. On Saturday night, with a dominant running game in tow, Booty averaged a whopping 4.8 yards per pass attempt. His candidacy reveals the Heisman to be nothing more than a popularity contest for the best running back and quarterback on the top teams in the country. (Another newsflash on par with "Manning is better than Harrington.") It's relevant to casual fans and therefore, gets covered excessively by the major media outlets. I'm not entirely sure why I just spent a paragraph on it. I should have just said that Booty is average and left it at that.

9. Blake Mitchell threw three picks against South Carolina State over the weekend. This came on the heels of a performance against Georgia that can best be described as one near-disaster after another. I can't imagine what's going through Steve Spurrier's mind this week as he prepares Mitchell to play LSU on the road.

10. I think we can safely file Kirk Ferentz under the heading "being a hot coaching prospect is fleeting."