Thursday, November 29, 2007

Busting the "LSU is Uber Talented" Meme

The most commonly-deployed argument against Les Miles right now is that he is benefiting from ludicrous amounts of talent bequeathed to him by Nick Saban and he's merely rolling a collection of future Pro Bowlers out onto the field to do their thing. As this nifty post from the ostentatiously-named blog Blue reveals, that simply isn't the case. LSU's starting lineups on offense and defense are not especially loaded with blue chip recruits. In fact, LSU starts exactly one five-star player - Early Doucet - and Doucet has been injured for much of this season, as has LSU's best defensive player, Glenn Dorsey. (Thanks, Auburn!)

For the record, here are Nick Saban's 2003 and 2004 classes that were both ranked in the top two and are allegedly the source of Les Miles's success at LSU. Do you see a bevy of five-star recruits who are causing the Tigers to win this year? Do you see analogous talent to what Pete Carroll has assembled at USC (and Carroll has the same record as Miles in 2006-7)? Put another way, do you see classes that haven't been adequately replaced by Miles's subsequent classes?


Yesterday morning, I wrote about how pollsters are exhibiting a total lack of critical thought this year in blithely placing West Virginia, Missouri, and Ohio State in the top three spots in the polls simply because they have one loss and certain teams chasing them have two, even though several of the two-loss teams have played markedly tougher schedules. As if on cue, our old amigo Stewart Mandel arrived on the scene to illustrate what uncritical thinking looks like:

Not only have I been anti-playoff, but I've also been pro-BCS since it's inception (I can, in my mind, justify every title game participant). If Ohio State backdoors its way into the title game, then it's off to the playoff bandwagon I go. Please tell me you agree that putting Ohio State in the title game (and not just because of last year's performance versus Florida) is a bad, bad idea. A loss to Illinois isn't bad ... but beating absolutely no one of real significance is.
--Jared, Lawton, Okla.

First of all, that's very brave of you, Jared, to admit your fondness for the BCS in a public setting. I believe in certain states you can be fined and imprisoned for such a thing.

While I'm certainly not crazy about the idea of a team advancing to the national-title game while sitting on the couch for two weeks, I fail to see any grave injustice were the Buckeyes to make it. A month ago, when we were talking about then-undefeated Ohio State's credentials versus more accomplished one-loss teams like LSU and Oregon, I was right there with you. But I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't care what conference you're in; if you can't make it through your schedule with less than two losses, you're just not national championship material.

Has Georgia played a tougher slate than the Buckeyes? Absolutely. USC? Yep. But by no rational measure are either more deserving than Ohio State. The Dawgs lost at home to 6-6 South Carolina and by three touchdowns at Tennessee. That's the equivalent of OSU losing to Michigan State and getting destroyed by Illinois (rather than losing by a touchdown). USC lost to Stanford. Can you imagine if the Buckeyes lost to Minnesota? I think we can all agree that in neither scenario would OSU even remotely enter the national-title discussion, yet because of the backlash that still lingers from last year's Florida game, there are no shortage of people who would rather see 10-2 Georgia or 10-2 USC in the title game instead of the 11-1 Buckeyes. That's just silly.

I hate to break it to the masses, but guess what? Ohio State? That's not a bad football team. I don't necessarily think it's the best team in the country, but it's up there. Last we saw them, the Buckeyes went to Ann Arbor and held Michigan to 91 total yards. No, it was not a great Michigan team, but holding any team to less than 100 yards of offense is pretty darn impressive. LSU did not do that this season. Neither did Oklahoma, nor USC, nor ...

I think OSU is in the exact right spot in the pecking order as of now -- last of the remaining one-loss teams, but ahead of any two-loss teams.

I'll agree that there would be no "grave injustice" if Ohio State made the title game in place of a series of two-loss teams. However, the question is whether a good case can be made for those two-loss teams ahead of the Bucks. The pollsters seem to think that the answer is no, as they uniformly put the one-loss teams ahead of the two-loss teams without a care in the world as to the schedules played by those teams.

Mandel claims that "no rational measure" could put Georgia or USC ahead of Ohio State. None of us should be lectured about rational thought by Mandel, especially since the centerpiece of his argument is completely irrational. He claims that he was willing to consider ranking one-loss teams with better schedules ahead of an unbeaten Ohio State team that hadn't played anyone, but he's not willing to rank two-loss teams with better schedules ahead of a one-loss Ohio State team. In what universe does this make sense? The analysis is exactly the same: can a one-game disparity in record be overcome by a significant different in schedule strength and if so, how big does the schedule gap have to be? But don't take my word for it that a two-loss team can be ranked ahead of a one-loss team on the basis of having faced a more difficult schedule; Mandel himself employs this reasoning by ranking one-loss Kansas behind two-loss Georgia, LSU, USC, and Oklahoma.

Leaving aside the irrationality of a hard and fast "two-loss teams cannot play for the national title," Mandel's arguments regarding those two-loss teams are weak as hell. I'm going to leave USC aside because their strength of schedule isn't much better than that of Ohio State. Georgia's SOS is much better than that of the Bucks, but Mandel thinks that Georgia's losses were worse. That's probably true, although deriding a loss to a 6-6 South Carolina team is very misleading, as the South Carolina team that Georgia played in September had Captain Munnerlyn and Jasper Brinkley in it. This was the South Carolina team that started the year 6-1 and beat Kentucky handily, rather than the South Carolina team that collapsed after blowing the Tennessee game in ludicrously unlucky fashion. On the other hand, Ohio State doesn't have a win that comes close to a 12-point win over top ten Florida at a neutral site or a 25-point win over a top 20 Auburn. Should we focus on the quality of wins or the quality of losses? Seems like an interesting question to me, but Mandel and the voters are unwilling to consider it.

Comparing Georgia and Ohio State is instructive because it illustrates the importance of scheduling. Georgia and Ohio State both came into the season with inexperienced players all over their rosters. Georgia's young players were thrown into the fire with games against Oklahoma State, South Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee in the first half of the season. Ohio State didn't play a bowl team until its sixth game of the year. It didn't play a team that would finish better than 7-5 until the 9th game of the year. They played one team that finished with fewer than four losses all year and lost that game. At home. Could that breeze of a schedule in the first half of the year possibly explain a one-game gap in record?

Even if Mandel is right that Ohio State deserves to be ahead of Georgia because Georgia's losses are bad, he's omitting another two-loss team that played a markedly more difficult schedule than Ohio State and also happens to have better losses: LSU. The Tigers' two losses were both to quality teams in three overtimes. LSU's wins over Florida, Auburn, and Virginia Tech are better than anything on Ohio State's resume. If LSU beats Tennessee this weekend, then the Tigers will have an additional quality win and their strength of schedule will go even farther past that of Ohio State. Is there "no rational measure" that would put the Tigers in the title game?

Again, for the record, I have no problem with Ohio State playing for the national title. They have an excellent defense and their schedule, while weak, isn't Hawaii weak. I do have a problem with the fact that pollsters don't seem to be critically evaluating their resume against that of LSU and Georgia. College football's silly post-season structure requires hair-splitting between teams, but if Mandel is any guide, the media are either refusing to split hairs or they are doing a crappy job in that task.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Random Thoughts on the College Football Weekend

1. I'm not a huge playoff advocate, but can anyone tell if the pollsters who determine which teams will play for the national title are making any effort beyond ranking teams according to record? The three teams in contention right now are the three major one-loss teams: Missouri, West Virginia, and Ohio State. (Kansas is the fourth one-loss team, but they violate another irrationally sacred rule of pollsters: don't lose late.) The message is clear: regardless of your strength of schedule, we the pollsters group teams based on their record. The "nightmare scenario" regarding West Virginia and Missouri losing this weekend is only a nightmare scenario because it would break pollsters out of their "one loss = contender; two-loss = untouchable" stupor and force them to consider LSU, Georgia, and USC. Why is it so unthinkable that LSU (10-2, SOS of 26 [and likely to go up if they beat Tennessee this weekend]) or Georgia (10-2, SOS of 22) should play for the title ahead of Ohio State (11-1, SOS of 56)?

1a. And after bagging on Ohio State, I think it deserves mentioning that the "they sucked against Florida" argument against the Bucks playing in the title game is ludicrous. Unless the Fiesta Bowl against Miami been erased from the collective memory, Ohio State has typically played very well in bowl games under Jim Tressel. He's one of the better big-game coaches in the country. Ohio State has an excellent defense and a match-up against Missouri or West Virginia's spread offenses would be a football nerd's delight. Ohio State did lay an egg against Florida last year for a variety of reasons, but that doesn't change the fact that Bucks have been better-than-average in bowl games this decade and have enough speed to play with the big boys.

2. You would think that I would enjoy a Gregg Easterbrook screed that starts with a dig at Ohio State's abysmal academic record for its football players and then continues with shots of comely women in various barely there outfits, but then Gregg has to go and screw it up by opining on Les Miles:

When You Hire a Coach Who's Only in It for Himself, You Get a Coach Who's Only in It for Himself: Lloyd Carr retired at Michigan, and early last week, Les Miles of LSU refused to say whether he would return to LSU or
seek the Michigan job. A few days later, LSU lost to Arkansas, surrendering its
pole position for the BCS title game. True, Miles can't control that Carr
stepped down in November or that columnists are linking him to the job. But he
didn't deny interest in the job, either, nor did he emphatically embrace LSU,
which sure seemed to indicate he already was thinking ahead about the Michigan
post, which he has long been believed to be seeking.

This brings up a point Tuesday Morning Quarterback perennially makes about coaches campaigning for other jobs when their current seasons are not complete, or halfheartedly pretending they are not campaigning. My point: When you hire a coach who's only in it for himself, you get a coach who's only in it for himself. Dennis
Franchione, Mike Price, Bill Parcells (when the mid-'90s Patriots were close to
the Super Bowl), Chuck Fairbanks, Herm "I Honor My Contract When I'm In The
Mood" Edwards and Little Nicky Saban are all examples of coaches who either
officially quit on their teams with a season still in progress or halfheartedly
denied doing so. All of them, after arriving at their new gigs, had bad years.
If a player openly angled to leave for another team, late in a season that was
still in progress, we'd be outraged. Why is it OK for coaches to do this,
shafting their entire team, not just causing a one-man problem like when a
player drops his loyalty? Michigan, should you hire Miles, bear in mind you're
getting the sort of person who sure seemed to place his own career goals ahead
of a national championship run last week.

First of all, what exactly is Les Miles supposed to say? He's obviously interested in returning to his alma mater, but he doesn't want to screw his existing team at the end of the season. He can either: (a) take the Nick Saban approach of denying any interest in the new job (and thus lie and earn the enmity of all of the Easterbrooks of the world when he takes the Michigan job in December); or (b) say nice things about Michigan and LSU while refusing to answer questions about his future, which is exactly what Miles has done. How in the world does Easterbrook suggest that Miles handle the questions?

Second, Easterbrook is getting up on his high horse regarding Miles being "only in it for himself," while ignoring the fact that Miles is interested in the Michigan job for non-monetary reasons. If he wanted to cash in and keep getting cracks at the national title, then he would take an extension at LSU and continue to profit from that school's incredible recruiting base. Instead, he apparently wants to coach at an institution about which he feels strong affection. Shouldn't the guy who wrote The Progress Paradox, a book about how we all make more money and have more cool possessions, but are still less happy, approve of that sort of thinking?

What Miles is doing is no different that what Bear Bryant did when he left Texas A&M, right down to the fact that the Aggies fell out of title contention with an upset loss to Rice when rumors of Bryant returning to his alma mater began to swirl. How did Alabama's hiring of an "only in it for himself" guy like the Bear work out? If you prefer a more recent example, Urban Meyer took the Florida job at the end of Utah's 2004 regular season after he had been rumored for a variety of positions in the weeks leading up to his departure. How has that hire worked out for Florida?

3. And speaking of my LesCrush, I'm still waiting to hear all the people who ripped on Miles for going for the win against Auburn instead of settling for a field goal acknowledge that there is risk in playing for a field goal. Exhibit QQ: the Kentucky-Tennessee game. Kentucky picked off a pass on Tennessee's possession starting the second overtime. At this stage, the Cats are completely in the driver's seat. Kentucky has an outstanding quarterback and a passing game that has run roughshod over the Tennessee defense ever since halftime. Tennessee will obviously be playing aggressively on defense to push the Cats back as far as possible. So what does Rich Brooks do? Three runs to set up a field goal attempt that the Vols block. Is there any criticism of Brooks the way there was of Miles? No. Why? Because the conventional wisdom overrates certain unlikely risks (turning the ball over or a simple one-read pass play taking eight seconds) and underrates certain far more likely risks (a missed or blocked field goal).

4. Steve Beuerlein, Georgia is coached by Mark Richt. Mark. Not Mike. Mark. Seems like something an SEC announcer should know.

5. I wish I had something interesting to say about the Georgia-Georgia Tech game, but I don't. Mark Richt showed why it's important to have two quality running backs, as his hot hand turned out to be Thomas Brown and not the freshman who had been setting the world on fire. Georgia Tech shot themselves in the foot on numerous occasions, which indicates that Reggie Ball isn't the only Jacket who lost his cool when he sees silver britches. Ultimately, Georgia Tech was done in by their dreadful passing game, a fitting coda to the Chan Gailey era. Gailey came in with the reputation as a sharp offensive mind who worked very well with quarterbacks, but his teams were almost uniformly good on defense and spotty on offense.

6. I thoroughly enjoyed the Missouri-Kansas game. The neutral site environment added a great deal to the atmosphere, as there was a roaring crowd reaction to just about every play. College football could use more neutral site games like that. Here are some impractical ideas that will never come true, but are fun to bounce around:

Michigan-Notre Dame rotating between Chicago and Detroit
West Virginia-Penn State in Pittsburgh
Maryland-Penn State in Philadelphia
South Florida-Florida in Orlando
Louisville-Ohio State in Cincinnati
LSU-Texas in Houston
Auburn-Virginia Tech in Charlotte

Of course, part of what makes most of these games unrealistic is the fact that pollsters are so slavish in their reliance on record that there is little or no benefit to playing difficult out-of-conference games if the sole focus of a program is on winning the national title.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Smoked Bird

When I finished my yardwork around 3:00 last Sunday and eagerly plopped onto the couch to watch the last part of the second half of the Falcons-Bucs game, I was initially annoyed to see the Falcons punting with a 24-0 deficit and the crowd booing lustily. After I had a few moments to think about the situation, I was happy for two reasons:

1. This Falcons team is obviously not going anywhere, so it's probably good to lose some games to put the team closer to the Jake Long-Darren McFadden range.

2. It meant that tickets to the Colts game would drop in value and I would get a chance to see Peyton Manning play live. I'm one of those fools who always wants to say that he saw great players play in person. I've seen Tom Brady play live. Specifically, I got to see his first pass in college, which came at the tail end of a blowout of UCLA in 1996 and was returned for a touchdown for UCLA's only touchdown of the game. With the Falcons out of contention, I got to see Manning in the flesh without paying through the nose.

Seeing Manning in person isn't that different from seeing him on TV: he's really good. His internal clock for how long he has to throw is unbelievable. His ability to make accurate throws off his back foot or while being mauled is outstanding. That said, he's not playing at the same level this year that he has for the past several years. My best guess is that he is a little unsettled without Tarik Glenn protecting his backside and thinking more about pressure than on his reads down the field. He made at least two throws that he never made in previous years. The first was on a post pattern to Reggie Wayne in the second quarter. Manning had hit Wayne for the Colts' first touchdown after Wayne had roasted Chris Houston on a post pattern. (Welcome to the NFL, Chris. Houston didn't play badly when you take into account the fact that he was being targeted by QB1 or QB1a in the League.) The Colts ran the same play when they were threatening for their second score. On this occasion, Mike Zimmer had the right call on and had Chris Crocker providing deep help for Houston. Manning didn't see the safety (how often do you see that?) and threw a ball that Crocker should have intercepted, but didn't. The second instance in which Manning made a bad decision was on the first drive of the third quarter when he underthrew a ball in DeAngelo Hall's direction and was picked off. The play was in the opposite corner of the stadium and I didn't get a great look but the throw defeintely looked as if it lacked Manning's normal zip. Aside from those two mistakes, Manning played well. Maybe I'm being excessively harsh and assuming that Manning never threw bad passes before, but the enduring image I took from the game was Manning failing to look off a safety because it was so surprising.

As for the Falcons, they played well for about 20 minutes and then rolled over when they got jobbed on a running into the kicker call. The offense doesn't really threaten its opponents down the field when Joey Harrington is in the game. Harrington did have a nice deep touchdown pass to Roddy White when he caught the Colts out of their customary cover-two and White burned Dante Hughes down the sideline, but otherwise, the Falcons tried precious little down the field. You can see why Bobby Petrino wanted Byron Leftwich to start. The Falcons' tackles are not good, but we knew that already. On defense, John Abraham and Keith Brooking did precious little and they're the two most highly-compensated Falcons on defense, so what does that say. Abraham has played very well this year, so he gets a pass. Brooking, not so much. Michael Boley was the Falcons' best player on the field, although Mike Zimmer deserves some credit for dialing up blitzes that freed Boley up on blitzes.
One other thought: the crowd was really good for the game. I hadn't been to a Falcons game since the 2003 debacle, in part because my recollection was that the atmosphere in the Dome was really drab. Despite the fact that the team is poor, that was not the case on Thursday night. The crowd was lively from the start before reality beat it down. The noise on the Colts' first series when the Falcons got a lot of pressure and forced a three-and-out was positively SEC-esque. (OK, it was more Arkansas or Kentucky than LSU or Florida, but still.) The Dome was also full, which was nice, although the prevalence of Colts fans in the building certainly helped.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

People are So F***ing Stupid

Far be it from me to defend a coach who lost to Louisiana-Monroe, but what the f*** is the deal with the hyperbolic reaction to Nick Saban invoking Pearl Harbor and 9/11 to make a point? The only way to get exorcised about his comments is if one takes them hyper-literally, but it is plain to any sentient human being that Saban was not saying that losing to Louisiana-Monroe is the same thing as flying planes full of unarmed civilians into buildings full of more unarmed civilians. Rather, Saban was making the simple point that sometimes, people respond to well to significant adversity.

If the media was correct in losing their minds over Saban's remarks, then historical analogies would never be appropriate. I make analogies all the time at work comparing litigation to historical events, usually with the result being that my co-workers roll their eyes and mutter "nerd" as they walk away. I've compared opposing counsel's approach to discovery to Stalin's "not one step back" order in 1941, but I wasn't saying that opposing counsel is a ruthless monster who murdered millions of his countrymen in the Gulag Archipelago. I've compared another opposing counsel's moves to Hitler ordering around imaginary German divisions from the bunker in the final days of WWII, but that doesn't mean that I thought that opposing counsel was about to poison his dog and wife before blowing his brains out. Law tends to lend itself to military analogies. More generally speaking, part of the value of history is that it's a wonderful guide as to how humans react in various situations. Saban, in his own uncertain way, was trying to make a legitimate point.

So why did the media jump all over him? There are a few factors at play here. First, there is a certain degree of political correctness that attaches to 9/11, such that any reference to it comes loaded with baggage in the same way that any reference to race does. Second, Saban makes a lot of money and is coaching an underperforming football team, which makes him the most inviting target imaginable. Third, the media is actively rooting against Saban because they don't like the fact that he lied about his intentions in taking the Alabama job. Thus, Saban has brought a lot of this criticism upon himself, but that doesn't make the criticism at all valid.

LD, If You Wonder Why Michigan-Ohio State is Hyped by ESPN...

Here is your answer. For the second straight year, Michigan-Ohio State was the highest rated regular season college football game. (And for people who think that college football's lack of a playoff is an unmitigated disaster, find me a regular season game from the MLB or NBA that comes close to a 6.4.)

Reading Sports Media Watch this year has been fairly illuminating for me. The biases of ESPN make more sense when one reviews the ratings and sees that, yes, Michigan and Ohio State do draw higher ratings than other teams. Similarly, the Yankees and Red Sox draw banner ratings when they play one another. ESPN drives me absolutely crazy when they focus all of their attention of the Yanks and Sox, but in the rational part of my brain, I have to tell myself that they are simply giving their customers what they want.

My Top 25 Doesn't Like the Way you're Looking at it

2Kansas 1
3Arizona State 4
4Ohio State 4
6West Virginia--
7Oklahoma 3
8Georgia 1
9Southern Cal 1
10Oregon 8
11Florida 1
12Texas 8
13Boston College 10
15South Florida 1
16Texas Tech 10
17Virginia Tech--
19Cincinnati 8
20Virginia 1
21Boise State--
22Auburn 3
23Clemson 8
24Kentucky 11
25Connecticut 1

Dropped Out: Michigan (#22).
I gave Ohio State a bounce not so much because they beat a good or healthy team on Saturday, but rather because their defense is outstanding and I'm always a sucker for teams that play great defense. Say hello to the pre-season #1 next year, assuming that the Bucks don't lose too many of their juniors. Gholston and Malcolm Jenkins seem to be the most likely departures and that might cause some concern on the defensive side of the ball, but the Buckeye defense has a Hydra thing going on right now and I hate it.
I also gave Arizona State a bounce because they are easily the quietest one-loss team from an excellent conference this year. The Pac Ten is vying with the Big XII for the #2 spot in the conference pecking order this year (I suppose the Big East is in the picture, as well) and Arizona State has run through the conference impressively with the only blemish at Oregon. Why exactly aren't the Sun Devils in the discussion for a shot at New Orleans?
I gave Oklahoma less of a hiding than I did Oregon in part because losing to Texas Tech is more respectable than losing to Arizona (suck it, Klinsi!) and in part because Sam Bradford will return this year, but Dennis Dixon won't. Oregon presents a real "Cincinnati without Kenyon Martin" problem. Their resume is very impressive, but they are dependent on Dennis Dixon and without him, they aren't a top ten team. I basically split the difference between their resume, which would have them at about #6, and their merit as a team without Dixon, which would have them in the mid-teens. Dixon's absence is going to illustrate that they never had a championship-caliber defense. Dixon's absence also illustrates a failing of the spread option: the quarterback is a little more likely to get knocked out when he gets hit a lot and quarterbacks who can properly run and throw as required by the offense are not easy to find, which means that there will often be a major drop-off to the back-up.
I'm probably being a little harsh on Kentucky for losing a competitive game at Georgia, but I'm getting the sense that their lack of depth is coming back to haunt them. The offense has really lost its mojo after the Florida game and the likely culprit is the fact that they can't replace injured starters in the same way that their conference rivals can. I've been selling the meme all year that the Cats would usher Phil Fulmer out of the ranks of the employed by passing the Vols silly, but now that everyone seems to be predicting a victory by the Cats, my suspicions have been raised. On the other hand, Tennessee has been the luckiest team west of Charlottesville this year and that has to end at some point, right? Here's a question for Georgia fans to ponder before Saturday: if a Tennessee victory is the difference between Phil Fulmer keeping or losing his job, is a Kentucky victory really worth a trip to the SEC Title Game? The answer is probably "yes," but it's not at all clear-cut.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I’m Not Supposed to Be Like This

But it's OK.

I listened to Green on Saturday morning and that line, wailed by Michael Stipe, was stuck in my head throughout the game on Saturday. Lloyd Carr's last game in Michigan Stadium was not supposed to be a record-setting show of offensive ineptitude, but it was and that's OK. I wasn't overly upset watching the game. For one thing, I've gotten painfully used to Ohio State being the better team, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. (More on that in a moment.) For another, the injuries that Michigan suffered did present a convenient excuse. A healthy Chad Henne would have made the game closer, although it would not have necessarily changed the result. And finally, knowing that this was Lloyd's last home game made the occasion sad, but it blunted my anger because there was no fear that he would respond to failure by retrenching and demanding greater execution in a completely predictable offensive scheme.

So how did Michigan end up being held below 100 yards of offensive on Saturday. The faux-scientific phrase I kept using to friends on the phone, my wife, and my 14-month old son was "multi-systemic breakdown." Typically, the message board discussion after the game was "it's because of this and not that!" No, it was this and that. The offense collapsed because of a variety of factors, mostly related to complete domination of the line of scrimmage. Why did that happen? I'm glad you asked:

1. If you're a college football fan with Internet access, then you have probably heard Michigan fans complain about strength and conditioning coach Mike Gittelson. I don't pretend to understand weight lifting. My approach at the gym is typically to see what weights are available for the muscle group I've randomly chosen for that day and then to do them in no particular order. That said, Michigan is employing a weight training approach using more machine exercises and fewer power cleans and squats. Michigan's approach has been rejected by every major program other than Penn State. Swirl that around in your mouth so the full bouquet of "we do it just like Penn State" flavor can wash over your palate. When John Beilein was hired as the basketball coach, he immediately created his own weight training program for the basketball team and wanted Gittelson to have no involvement.

As a result, Michigan's offensive linemen typically look like sickly beached whales being pushed around by the tide. This might seem like an odd criticism in a year in which Jake Long is going to be the first lineman drafted, but Long has been excellent since his freshman year. How much development did he really require? Michigan's S&C program didn't fail Long or Adam Kraus, but it does fail players who need more help.

One other thought on S&C: Michigan's one good drive on Saturday was accomplished using a no-huddle offense in the first quarter and then UM didn't use it again until the game was over. I'd prefer not to think that Michigan's coaches are that dense, so is it possible that they went away from the no-huddle because the offensive linemen did not have the stamina to perform without 25 seconds off between plays?

2. Michigan's offensive line coach is Andy Moeller. You may recognize that last name as being very similar to that of former Michigan coach Gary Moeller. That's because Gary is Andy's father. What will follow next won't surprise you in the least. Andy Moeller has been Michigan's offensive line coach since 2002 and Michigan has not had a complete offensive line in that period. Michigan has had a weak right side for three years running. How does that happen at a major program? Is it really that hard to find a decent right guard? Michigan linemen just don't seem to get better. Fundamentally, Lloyd Carr went out with a whimper because he's loyal to a fault and he kept his friend (Mike Debord) and another friend's son (Moeller) on staff in critical positions. It's usually good to be loyal, but in Lloyd's case, loyalty became cronyism.

The contrast between Michigan's coaching and Georgia's was quite evident as I flipped between the two games on Saturday. Georgia started the season with a brand new offensive line full of underclassmen that caused one idiot to proclaim them the most overrated team in the country. Michigan started the season with three seniors (including a top five pick) and two sophomores on the line. By November, Georgia is ripping off huge rushing performances and protecting Matt Stafford on a weekly basis while Michigan couldn't run the ball on Wisconsin's dreadful run defense or protect a gimpy Chad Henne from being pillaged. When Georgia had issues on the offensive line, they went out and hired Stacy Searels, the excellent offensive line coach at LSU. When Michigan had issues on the offensive line, they left the former head coach's son in charge. QED.

3. Steve Schilling, a five-star recruit from Washington State, was a good bet to start as a true freshman in 2006, but he contracted mono and had to be redshirted. Not surprisingly, he lost a good deal of weight when he had mono. He was then injured and missed spring practice. When you think of Vernon Gholston throwing him around like a rag doll on Saturday, keep that fact in mind. Michigan has done a poor job of developing offensive linemen over the past several years, which forced them to rely on Schilling so much, but I'd be lying if I did point out a luck factor involved.

4. Michigan's running scheme is totally predictable. The zone stretch play that was so successful in 2006 was useless in 2007, mainly because opponents figured out to slant their linemen on the plays and shoot into gaps to blow plays up. Northwestern completely shut down Michigan's running game in late September by taking this approach. Michigan being Michigan, little changed. Michigan occasionally had good rushing games because Mike Hart is five feet and nine inches of awesome, but when Hart's ankle went out against Purdue in the second quarter on his 21st carry of the game, the running game went kaput.

5. Ohio State's defense is very good. That's not an excuse for Michigan gaining fewer yards against OSU than any other Buckeye opponent all season, but I need to avoid the fan tendency to assume that my team controls its own fate. Ohio State is strong in every defensive position group, but maybe this shouldn't surprise us since the Bucks had a very good defense in 2006 and then returned nine starters. In retrospect, the "Ohio State is rebuilding" meme from this past summer was complete crap because it assumed that skill position players are the only important players on the field. Ohio State returned almost the entire defense, as well as three starters on the offensive line and an excellent running back. Should we have all thought that the Bucks would collapse simply because they had a new quarterback (and I hesitate to call Boeckman "new" since he's about 37 years old) and new receivers?

Overall, Saturday was an illustration as to why Jim Tressel has asserted control in the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry: his teams are simply better on the lines. Michigan dominated prior to Tressel because Michigan almost always had better quarterbacks; Ohio State has dominated since then because Ohio State has better offensive lines. (Florida fans, please stop laughing uncontrollably. Let he who has not put on 40 pounds before a critical bowl game cast the first stone.) Ohio State had absolutely no passing threat whatsoever on Saturday, as Boeckman was spooked by the weather. Nevertheless, they won comfortably because they dominated Michigan on the line of scrimmage. Bo and Woody would have been proud.

(FYI: I feel bad being so negative on the day that Lloyd retires. For the record, I see Lloyd as a solid B+ coach and I'll have some nice things to say about him when I have a little distance from Saturday.)

Michael's Travels: Louisiana

Der Wife and I took a mini-vacation last week to Louisiana. We took in Baton Rouge on Saturday and then New Orleans on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday morning. I had been to New Orleans on a number of previous occasions, but my blessed Yankee wife had not yet seen the City that Law Forgot. I give you photographic evidence:

Baton Rouge

I liked Tiger Stadium a lot, mainly because it still has a traditional feel on the exterior. Der Wife and I both had flashbacks to see a game at the Nou Camp when we walked it, probably because of the concrete structure and all of the internal ramps in the end zones. The game was fairly loud early, which I suppose is what you would expect for the team about to be elevated to #1 in the polls. The crowd petered out in the third quarter, as the game was uncompetitive. Strangely, LSU didn't look overly impressive, despite winning 58-10. The hallmark of this LSU team appears to be that they never look that great (except against Virginia Tech), but they keep winning (often big) and they are at or near the top of most statistical rankings.

The crowd probably also petered out because they had been drinking since noon and had more slabs of grilled meat to consume. I've been to a bunch of different college football venues and I've never seen anything like the tailgating scene at Baton Rouge. In terms of sheer volume, the entire campus was covered with tailgaters, as well as several massive parking lots near the stadium. There is a definite emphasis on tailgating at LSU, as opposed to going to restaurants or bars before the games. Some of the memorable sights:

1. An RV with a ceiling fan rigged out over the side to cover the sitting area.

2. A dance floor with a mixed-race crowd doing country line dancing.

3. A buffet set-up outside an RV complete with silver covered trays for the food.

4. A dog dressed up like a tiger:

New Orleans

I can't get enough of New Orleans. Between the eating, the drinking, the architecture, and the people, it's one of the great cities in the country (despite the best efforts of the federal government to the contrary). I had forgotten how friendly the natives are, but just about everyone wanted to talk to us and they almost invariably brought up Katrina. It certainly is not a "suffer in silence" culture.

The pride that natives have in New Orleans comes out in their love for the Saints. Just about every man, woman, and child on the streets on Sunday had a Saints jersey on his/her back. They have the same losing tradition as the Falcons. They have a love for college football that predates the arrival of the NFL, just as Georgians do. They have a domed stadium in a good climate, just like the Falcons do. And with all that context, they certainly love their team more than Atlantans do. Here are my best explanations:

1. Atlanta, unlike New Orleans, has a major transplant factor. People in Louisiana often stay in Louisiana and there isn't an influx of business and resettled Yankees like there is in Atlanta. Thus, it's much more likely that people in New Orleans will pull in the same direction, sports-wise.

2. People in New Orleans have a major esprit de corps right now because of Katrina.

3. The Saints went to the NFC Championship Game last year, while the Falcons are at a nadir after Vickkampf.

I suppose the moral of the story is that I'm very good a justifying the fact that fan support waxes and wanes in this town for the pro sports collectives.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

My Top 25

1LSU 1
2Oregon 1
3Kansas 1
4Oklahoma 1
5Missouri 1
6West Virginia 1
7Arizona State 1
8Ohio State 7
9Georgia 5
10Southern Cal 1
11Cincinnati 13
13Kentucky 6
14Illinois 12
15Clemson 11
16South Florida 4
17Virginia Tech 1
18Tennessee 8
19Virginia 6
20Texas 3
21Boise State--
22Michigan 9
23Boston College 7
24Connecticut 14
25Auburn 16

Dropped Out: Alabama (#15), Arkansas (#22), Wake Forest (#23).

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Greatest 2-2 Start Ever

When I first looked at the Hawks' opening five games this year - Dallas and Phoenix at home, Detroit, New Jersey, and Boston on the road - I had visions of all my optimism about the team getting crushed in a 1-4 or 0-5 start. So needless to say, I'm pretty tickled to look at the standings today and see the Hawks headed to Boston at 2-2 after beating Phoenix last night. The best part is that the Hawks haven't been winning fluky one- and two-point decisions. They beat Dallas and Phoenix by a combined 16 points and lost an absolute heartbreaker to Detroit (to the extent that any game in an 82-game marathon can be a heartbreaker). The Hawks have had two home games so far and both have been lively sell-outs. Shockingly enough, fans in Atlanta will support a team going in the right direction.

A few thoughts on the game last night:

1. I'm waiting for Terence Moore to take back his statement last year that the Hawks do not have sufficient depth of talent. Through four games, there have been new heroes just about every night. Josh Childress was dreadful in the opener, but last night, he was instant energy and he killed Phoenix on the glass. Al Horford was forgettable against New Jersey, but he pulled down 15 rebounds last night and helped the Hawks dominate in the paint. Josh Smith was bad in the opener (after the first quarter) and excellent last night. Joe Johnson was excellent in the opener and sub-par last night (3/17 from the field, although he did dish out ten assists). The point is that there are a lot of good players on the team, giving the Hawks a lot of different possibilities for a hot hand on a given night. Contrast the Hawks' depth to the luxury tax/cheap owner-imposed lack of depth for the Suns. With Stoudemire out, here were the Suns' reserves (after sixth man Leandro Barbosa): Sean Marks, Marcus Banks, Brian Skinner, Eric Piatkowski, Alando Tucker, and D.J. Strawberry. What is this team going to look like in April if its starters have to play 40 minutes per night for 82 games?

2. The Hawks destroyed Phoenix on the glass, just as they did Dallas. Does that say that the Hawks are going to have an identity as a great rebounding team or is that a commentary on Dallas and Phoenix (without Amare) being soft?

3. I know that Steve Nash is an all-star and all, but the Hawks didn't do much to disabuse me of the notion that they struggle to defend the point guard position last night, as Nash went for 34 points on 19 shots. Interestingly, Josh Smith proved to be the best defender against Nash, as he turned him over twice late in the fourth quarter when the Hawks iced the game. Combined with Marvin Williams defending Chauncey Billups on the last possession against Detroit, you get the sense that Mike Woodson knows that his guards aren't his best defenders and that Smith and Williams are needed to defend opposing point guards on crunch possessions. (I don't think that Williams was on Billups on a switch, but I could be wrong.)

4. Marvin Williams through four games: 71 points on 43 shots. Suck it, Chris Paul! Two years ago, I sooner would have penned an ode to Jim Leyritz than right that last sentence.

5. Shelden Williams isn't getting any time, despite the fact that Zaza is out. Hmmm.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Is LSU Really Lucky?

Before Mayhem dashed to commercial at 7:33 this morning after their opening to Tony Barnhart's segment (brought to you by BMW of South Atlanta, just north of your expectations!), Mike Bell and Barnhart were joking that they need to go to Las Vegas with Les Miles because Miles is really lucky right now. Since I'm already in the position of defending everything the guy does on the chance that he ends up as the next head man in Ann Arbor, I'm going to dispute the notion that Miles and LSU have been lucky. I am also doing so because I enjoy taking positions that can be supported by facts and logic.

On the evidence, there's not much of a case to be made that LSU has been lucky this year. The Tigers have been in four close games and won three of them, which isn't especially reflective of luck. They most certainly aren't Virginia (winners of five of six games decided by one score), Ohio State '02 (winners of all seven games they played decided by one score), or Georgia '02 (winners of five of six games they played decided by one score). Moreover, if you look at LSU's four close games, you can't point to any of them as being instances in which the lesser team won. Here are the yardage and first down totals from the four games:

LSU - 391 yards, 25 first downs
Florida - 314 yards, 19 first downs

LSU - 403 yards, 22 first downs
Kentucky - 375 yards, 26 first downs

LSU - 488 yards, 23 first downs
Auburn - 296 yards, 16 first downs

LSU - 475 yards, 21 first downs
Alabama - 254 yards, 20 first downs

If anything, LSU's opponents, especially Auburn and Alabama, were lucky to be in their games against the Tigers. LSU has won the yardage battle in all four games and has had more first downs in three of the four games (with the one exception being the game that LSU lost). The better argument is that LSU was unlucky to be in close games because the fluky factors (turnovers, special teams returns, their kicker having the worst night of his career, etc.). There is an argument to be made that special teams and turnovers are not necessarily random. I'll buy that special teams aren't random, but LSU's special teams aren't bad at all. The case is weaker that turnovers are not random. Phil Steele says that they are random and he's never wrong about anything. Yardage and first downs are better indica of a team's merit and LSU kicks ass in those departments.

Finally, take a gander at LSU's statistical rankings. They're in the top ten in every defensive category and in the top 25 in scoring offense and total offense. Bearing in mind that LSU has played a very difficult schedule, do they really look like a lucky team? I didn't think so.

Finally, let's compare LSU's yards per play gained and allowed against the other contenders for the national title:

LSU - 5.93 gained, 3.67 allowed, 2.26 margin
Oregon - 6.61 gained, 5.4 allowed, 1.21 margin
Oklahoma - 6.56 gained, 4.43 allowed, 2.13 margin
Missouri - 6.42 gained, 5.02 allowed, 1.4 margin
Kansas - 6.35 gained, 4.19 allowed, 2.16 margin
West Virginia - 6.7 gained, 4.17 allowed, 2.53 margin
Ohio State - 5.96 gained, 3.56 allowed, 2.4 margin

Since LSU has played a demonstrably tougher schedule than any of these teams, save Oregon, it can't be said that LSU is lucky to be where they are. Only West Virginia and Ohio State are ahead of LSU in yards per play margin and they haven't come close to LSU in terms of quality of opponents. The best conclusion from this comparison, by the way, is that Oregon and (to a slightly lesser extent) Missouri are poseurs as national title contenders because of their defenses.

(PS - I did this dance last year and reached the startling conclusion that Notre Dame was a fraud. Actually, in retrospect, the analysis was fairly useful, as it flagged Florida as being in the class of the top contenders and it spied USC's weakness.)

And one other thought: how does Tony Barnhart confidently state out of one corner of his mouth that "if [LSU] play[s] Ohio State, the Tigers will win" (call me crazy, but Barnhart is never this assertive except when he's playing to his audience and mocking the Big Ten) and out of the other corner of his mouth deride LSU as lucky? If LSU is lucky and therefore not as good as their record, then how can it be such a certainty that they would beat Ohio State?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Tony Barnhart Needs my Sidebar

Mr. College Football on Ohio State:

I’ve always said that the best time to play Ohio State is the week before Michigan. Don’t be surprised if Ohio State gets a scare from the Zooker.

Ohio State's record in the last 20 years before the Michigan game: 15-4-1

And the record of those four Ohio State teams that lost the week before Michigan: 8-4, 7-5, 6-6, and 6-4-1.

And while we're on Barnhart, I'm not wild about this take on Oregon's offense, either:

The question is: How would this team match up against LSU’s defense? If Ohio State stumbles in the next two weeks, we just might find that out.

The LSU defense that surrendered 34 points to Alabama, 24 to offensively challenged Auburn, 24 to Florida, and 27 in regulation to Kentucky? I think Oregon could score some points. Whether they could stop LSU from moving the ball at will is another matter entirely.

My Top 25 Has Given Up

1Ohio State 25
2LSU 24
3Oregon 23
4Kansas 22
5Oklahoma 21
6Missouri 20
7West Virginia 19
8Arizona State 18
9Auburn 17
10Connecticut 16
11Southern Cal 15
12Florida 14
13Michigan 13
14Georgia 12
15Alabama 11
16Boston College 10
17Texas 9
18Virginia Tech 8
19Kentucky 7
20South Florida 6
21Boise State 5
22Arkansas 4
23Wake Forest 3
24Cincinnati 2
25Virginia 1

FYI, the Delta in my ratings is screwed up because I was swamped at work last week and didn't get a ballot in.
I wanted to be the guy who ranked LSU #1 for the entire season, but as I wrote on Saturday night, this LSU team is living right now more on reputation and the effects of its domination of Virginia Tech and South Carolina than it is on actual performance on the field right now. The defense seems to be less than the sum of its parts and Matt Flynn does not exactly inspire confidence. I bet they struggle at Oxford in two weeks. That said, I also bet that they look good against Arkansas and then really good in the SEC Championship Game. If I were an LSU fan, Florida would be the one team that would scare me in Atlanta because they could compel LSU to play a shootout. Kentucky doesn't have the depth to be excellent in December and I'm not sold on either Georgia or Tennessee standing much of a chance if LSU is really paying attention.
The bottom of my ballot was a difficult proposition. As I went through the list of teams alphabetically, I kept putting teams into the poll and saying "they'll be #25" so by the end, I had about eight candidates for that spot. I leaned on the Sagarin Predictor rankings pretty heavily, although I should have had the guts to put Texas Tech (Sagarin #15) ahead of Virginia (Sagarin #50) in the #25 spot. Consider Virginia's ranking this week to be the equivalent of Spurrier ranking Duke at #25 before each season.
If you want an example of the imperfection of human rankings, when I put Arkansas in the poll, all I was thinking about in my mind was Darren McFadden's Bo/Herschel impersonation on his 80-yard touchdown run on Saturday night. I forgot about Arkansas's suspect defense, their negligible passing game, and the fact that they haven't beaten a top 30 team all year. All my mind could see was Humanity Advanced and that thought went directly to my keyboard. Speaking of the flaws of mortal man, here are some teams that are rated significantly higher by humans than by Sagarin's Predictor and vice versa:
Test Group One
Boston College - 8 AP, 24 Sagarin
Georgia - 10 AP, 28 Sagarin
Virginia Tech - 11 AP, 29 Sagarin
Hawaii - 14 AP, 32 Sagarin
Virginia - 23 AP, 50 Sagarin
Test Group Two
Florida - 17 AP, 7 Sagarin
Auburn - 18 AP, 11 Sagarin
Cincinnati - 27 AP, 13 Sagarin
Arkansas - 31 AP, 12 Sagarin
South Florida - 33 AP, 14 Sagarin
Texas Tech - unranked AP, 15 Sagarin
Kansas State - unranked AP, 17 Sagarin
Pay attention to how these teams perform over the last month of the season. We'll have a nice, unscientific mini-test as to how humans perform as compared to one particular computer.