Thursday, February 26, 2009

Spurrier and Risk

I highly recommend this typically thought-provoking piece from Chris at Smart Football regarding the importance of taking risks in football, especially for underdogs. This paragraph is especially interesting to me:

In the 1990s, Steve Spurrier's Florida Gators were undoubtedly some of the most talented teams of the decade. They were also some of the most aggressive. As a result, they absolutely destroyed some teams. Of course there were the seventy-point blowouts of Kentucky, but what about when they scored more than sixty against Phil Fulmer's Tennessee Volunteers? Yet, Spurrier never once went undefeated with the Gators: his teams always seemed to drop a game or two that maybe they shouldn't have. And those losses almost always had the same profile -- too many interceptions, couldn't run the ball at all, and too many big plays given up on defense. I can't believe I'm inclined to say this, but maybe Spurrier should have been more conservative? He might not have won as many games by sixty or seventy, but maybe they would have gone undefeated and won more than one title?

It's rare for me to disagree with anything that Chris writes, but as the resident defender of all things Spurrier (the first online column I ever wrote was in the summer of 2000 and was entitled "Why everyone in the SEC should love Steve Spurrier"), I's going to have to step in to defend SOS (or at least the Florida incarnation). As with most of my college football posts, it will end with a complaint about Lloyd Carr's worldview.

1. The major reason why Spurrier never went unbeaten is that Florida's schedules were brutal. Florida played Florida State and Tennessee, the #1 and #5 major conference teams during Spurrier's tenure, every season. In even-numbered years, Florida would play both on the road, which made an unbeaten season just about impossible in half of Spurrier's 12 seasons. That reduces our sample size down to six seasons in which Spurrier had a non-trivial chance of going unbeaten. Additionally, Spurrier's Florida teams typically had to play Florida State the week before the SEC Championship Game. Those games amounted to asymmetric warfare. Florida State could spend weeks getting ready for the Gators because the ACC was so pedestrian. In contrast, Florida would be coming off of the SEC death march and had to fight Florida State with one eye on the Seminoles and a second eye on a trip to the Georgia Dome the next week.

It is no accident that Urban Meyer has won two national titles at Florida and he has as many unbeaten seasons as Spurrier did: zero. It is very tough to go unbeaten when you play the entire SEC East, LSU, Florida State, and a conference title game. The upshot is that this schedule typically gives Florida an advantage in comparisons with other one-loss teams. [/still annoyed about 2006, subsequent evidence be damned].

2. Spurrier's best shot at going unbeaten was the 1996 season. Florida lost the season finale at Florida State not because Spurrier took too many risks, but rather that he was too dogmatic in his refusal to put Danny Wuerrfel in the shotgun against Florida State's intense pressure. I would want to re-watch the game to figure out if Florida was insufficiently conservative, but that's not my recollection. Florida had little ability to block the 'Noles in that game, so a more conservative, run-based approach would not have worked. If you're averaging 2.5 yards per carry, the solution isn't more running.

3. I would venture a guess that when Chris wrote his post, he was thinking about the 2001 Florida-Auburn game. In that game, a clearly superior Florida team went down to Auburn because they kept throwing the ball on a very windy night and ended up losing because of turnovers and a one-dimensional offense. However, that game was a rare occurrence. In Spurrier's 12 years at Florida, the Gators lost exactly three games to teams that finished with four or more losses: the 2001 Auburn game and then Spurrier's two trips to Starkville in 1992 and 2000. Florida never lost to a team that finished at .500 or worse in Spurrier's entire tenure. The evidence of the Gators losing to inferior teams is pretty sparse.

In constrast, if you assume that Lloyd Carr is the anti-Spurrier in that Carr was exactly the risk averse, turnover-hating coach that Spurrier was not, Michigan lost 17 games to teams that ultimately lost four or more games. In Carr's 13-year tenure in Ann Arbor, Michigan lost three games to teams that finished at .500 or worse: 3-8 Purdue in 1996, 6-6 UCLA in 2000, and 6-6 Notre Dame in 2004. There was also a loss in 2007 to a I-AA team that got a little bit of press. In sum, Michigan's risk-averse strategy led to more upset losses than Florida's aggressive strategy. One could always counter that Florida was better overall under Spurrier than Michigan was under Carr, but the overall difference in winning percentage - .816 vs. .753 - isn't especially pronounced and could be an effect of Carr's risk-averse mindset.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lyon 1 Barca 1

1. Barcelona started their run to the 2006 Champions League title by conceding first on the road at Chelsea from a left wing set piece before they equalized from a header. Manchester United started their run to the 2008 Champions League by going behind 1-0 at Lyon and then fighting back for a 1-1 draw. If you believe in omens, this was a good start.

2. Barca's two biggest goals this season - the winner against Real Madrid and the equalizer against Lyon - were both corners from Xavi that were headed into the goal mouth by defenders and then knocked home by forwards. If you want a major difference between this Barca side and the versions of the last two years, it is the attention to detail on set pieces.

2a. Another difference with this team: they're in great shape. Pep only made one sub all game because the players showed no signs of fatigue. I'll be interested to see the line-up this weekend for a big match at Atletico.

3. I'll quote myself from last night:

Victor Valdes had an absolute howler to gift the Pericos their second goal. If he loses confidence as a result, then he could single-handedly give Lyon a result.

Is Victor Valdes Catalan for David Seaman? It's not so much that he surrendered a direct free kick goal from a horrible angle on the left wing as it is the fact that he was nowhere close to the ball. His feet were never underneath him, so he couldn't even jump for the ball. Valdes then made a hash of one or two additional chances. He officially has a crisis of confidence. In his defense, he did a great job cutting out a hard cross later in the first half that would have been a guaranteed second goal for Lyon. Valdes was better as the match went on, although nowhere close to the standard set by Lloris at the other end.

4. Barca were a little unlucky in two instances. First, Samuel Eto'o's shot crashed off the post with Thierry Henry sitting right there for the tap-in, only the ball caromed off in the wrong direction. Second, Fabio Grosso's deflection of a Dani Alves free kick was palmed out by Lloris, but if he deflects the ball anywhere towards the yawning net, then Barca equalizes earlier.

5. Barca's man of the match was Xavi. He was outstanding in the middle of the park from start to finish. He's the fulcrum around which Barca can dominate possession and get various players involved. Although I'm not his biggest fan, Rafa Marquez was fairly good after a nervy start. Then again, the same can be said for the entire Barca defense, who collectively appeared to be surprised that Lyon were daring to attack them and were correspondingly vulnerable for the first 20-30 minutes. Assuming there is no upset in the second leg, Lyon lost the tie by not going two up when they had Barca on their heels.

6. Benzema and Messi both had one instance in which they put their head down and dribbled while missing open teammates to their right sides. Those of you who thought that Boumsong could handle Messi in open spaces, raise your hands. That's what I thought.

7. Kudos to Lyon's support, who made for an outstanding atmosphere. I thoroughly enjoyed the game, other than the slow death that is watching one's favored team trail for an hour.

8. Lyon employed the defensive strategy that succeeded against Barca last year: clogging the middle and daring Barca to attack wide. It worked just fine aside from Barca's new-found ability to score from corners. Barca did attack at speed on a couple occasions, which is also something they struggled to do last year. I'll be interested to see how Guardiola approaches Lyon in the second leg, as well as other opponents who use this old strategy.

9. EPL sides allowed three goals in 14 knock-out matches against non-EPL sides last season in the Champions League. They're two matches in this year and have barely allowed a quality chance. Maybe the talk of the English sides other than United looking suspect is inaccurate. Maybe the EPL is good enough to make good teams look average. I hate admitting it because of my preference for La Liga, but I'm also a numbers guy and these numbers are impressive.

10. Jose Mourinho, you had weeks to set your team for United and you came up with Nelson Rivas? Really?

Because Posting Video of the Wehrmacht Marching under the Arc du Triomphe would be Uncomfortable...

Mel Gibson's oeuvre ought to come in handy in later rounds.

This will be a little awkward if Henry hits the winner.

Was Raul Mondesi not Available?

Say hello to the Braves' new left fielder: Garret Anderson. Garret enjoys candle-lit dinners, long walks on the beach, and never taking a walk. Now, instead of having one outfielder who swings at everything, the Braves have two. Moreover, because Anderson is a wily veteran, he will almost certainly find his way into Bobby Cox's heart and will be impossible to remove from the lineup, regardless of whether he represents an upgrade over Brandon Jones. Anderson has been marginally below league average in terms of OPS in three of the past four seasons, all while playing a power position. Sure, you don't exactly expect huge numbers for $2M per season, but what are the Braves going to get for that money that they couldn't have gotten from the pupu platter of minor leaguers competing for at-bats in the outfield? I suppose that Anderson putting up a .775 OPS in 450 at-bats against right-handed pitchers wouldn't be the end of the world. If you buy into chemistry as being important, he'd probably be a good guy to have around a bunch of young players.

Joe Sheehan at the Baseball Prospectus made an excellent point regarding the Braves' failure to acquire a good left fielder: the team's smart purchases in free agency (which have to be attributed in large part to the lucky breaks that A.J. Burnett and Rafael Furcal elected to spurn the chance to play in Atlanta) have put it on the precipice of being a playoff team, so additional spending on a left fielder could have paid for itself by getting the team back into the playoffs. Here is the two-sentence thesis:

I don't mean to peg the Braves as penurious overall, just to point out that they stopped spending money at exactly the point where they might have gotten the most bang for their buck. Buying a left fielder like [Adam] Dunn would have helped make the significant investments in the rotation — more than a third of the payroll is tied up in the three new starters — pay off.

Sheehan suggests that the team would benefit from Josh Anderson in center and Gregor Blanco in left to maximize on outfield defense. Personally, I can't imagine that outfield defense could be so valuable as to make up for the holes in the lineup that those two would represent, especially when the Braves are already getting relatively little from first base and right field.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Quick Champions League Thoughts

United-Inter - This is going to be disappointing. These two teams are stocked with talent and are each about to win their third straight domestic league title. They also have cagey coaches who will take few risks, which means that the games will be slogs in the midfield. Expect a lot of Cambiasso and Zanetti running into Carrick and Fletcher or Giggs. Do not expect a lot of Ibrahimovic and Ronaldo galloping at defenders. In the end, I like Inter because of Mourinho's record against Ferguson, the injuries to United's back line, the recent track record of defending champions losing in the round of 16, and Adriano rounding into form. 1-0 Inter at the San Siro and 1-1 at Old Trafford.

Chelsea-Juve - A few weeks ago, I was certain that Juve were going to knock the Blues out of Europe. Now, I'm having my doubts. Guus Hiddink is a proven knock-out tournament manager. Chelsea were always going to get a bounce from their new coach; that bounce will be stronger when that new coach is Hiddink. Ranieri is a nice guy and all, but he is also far more likely to make the tactical blunder that will decide the match. Juve have been stuttering in Serie A, allowing Inter to build a huge lead. The Bianconeri don't have the depth that they once did because of Calciopoli and this is the time of year that their thin bench will show. 2-0 Chelsea at the Bridge and 1-1 in Turin.

Arsenal-Roma - Hell if I know. Arsenal fans are getting what their team (does not) pay for. The squad is thin and young, as it's been for the past four years. They do have enough quality to win a tie like this, but Roma are the hotter team and they have the second leg on the banks of the Tiber. Give me the Giallorossi to score one for Serie A. 2-1 Arsenal at the Emirates and 3-1 Roma at the Olimpico. This will be the best of the four ties involving English teams because Arsenal and Roma have styles that will play well together. Speaking of which, I'm not often inclined to agree with Arsene Wenger, but he's spot on when he complains about Premiership sides doing precious little to attack. This has not been an especially attractive season in England. Honestly, can you pick out one team that has produced exciting games, week in and week out? Paging Senor Valdano...

Liverpool-Real - For me, this is like Notre Dame and Ohio State playing. On one side is the detestable arch-rival; on the other side is my least favorite team in the sport. At least I can root for my conference by cheering for Los Merengues. So, uh, hala Madrid?!? In the end, it won't matter because the 'Pool are going to win this tie. Benitez is hard to beat in a knock-out competition and doubly so when he has the second leg at home. He can park the bus at the Bernabeu, grind out a result, and then rely on the Kop intimidating an opponent and the ref for the second leg. I'm angry already just thinking about it. Juande Ramos is a fine tournament manager in his own right, but he isn't quite defensive enough to beat Benitez at his own game. Honestly, would you bet on the team that has made three Champions League semifinals in the past four years or the team that has lost at this stage in each of the past four years? Plus, as is usually the case, Liverpool have only Europe to play for. 1-1 at the Bernabeu and 1-0 at Anfield.

Barca-Lyon - I'm not worried. I might have cause to be after Barca lost a home match against last-placed Espanyol over the weekend, but the team had a clear case of "look ahead!" and they were thrown off by a horrendous red card decision. Barca created almost every chance in the match. If there is an acceptable way to lose, that's it. There are two causes of concern for the Blaugrana. First, Victor Valdes had an absolute howler to gift the Pericos their second goal. If he loses confidence as a result, then he could single-handedly give Lyon a result. Second, the injury to Eric Abidal could force Puyol to play left back, which weakens Barca at both left back and in the middle. I'm OK with either Pique or Marquez; I'm not OK with both. All that said, in Messi I trust. As far as Lyon is concerned, they have been underwhelming domestically, but they've been playing defensively and that style will work against Barca. Benzema could be a tremendous counter-attacking weapon against a side that get farther forward than any other. However, Lyon always come undone at this stage and Jean-Alain Boumsong is going to be prominently involved. I have a good feeling about Toure Yaya choking the life out of Lyon. Finally, Barca have a sterling record when they have the first leg on the road in recent years. They can wait for the opponent to come attack them without pressing too hard. Lyon are faced with a Hobbesian choice: sit back and blow the home leg or get forward and risk road goals. I'll bet they do the former. 0-0 at Stade Gerland and 3-1 at the Nou Camp.

Atleti-Porto - I've changed my mind on this tie. Atleti looked dead and buried at the start of the year, shipping goals by the bushel. They have a horrendous record against quality opponents in La Liga. That said, they have talent and they should get a bounce from new coach Abel Resino. He'll organize them enough defensively that a moment of magic for Kun Aguero will get them through. This being Atleti, they'll do just enough to get their fans' hopes up before crushing them. 1-0 at the Calderon and 2-1 at Estadio do Dragao with Atleti going through on road goals.

Villarreal-Panathiniakos - There's always one surprise team in the quarterfinals. Last year, it was Fenerbahce. This year, it's the Turks friends from across the Aegean. I have a soft spot for Henk ten Cate and Villarreal are stuttering just enough to let Panathiniakos become the team that everyone wants to play in the quarterfinals. 1-1 at El Madrigal and 1-0 at the Olympic Stadium.

Bayern-Sporting - Surely Die Bayern aren't this bad. 2-2 at the Alvalade and 2-0 at Allianz Arena. Bayern then get a couple weeks to sort out their alarming drop in form before they play one of the big boys in the quarters. Maybe Der Kaiser will think next time before he opines that the team's best player can move to Real if he so chooses. Since when was Beckenbauer such a softie?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Messi vs. Ronaldo

[One programming note: with football and Signing Day over, the NBA in a bit of a lull, and baseball in the "what does Jeter think of A-Rod!?!" silly season, we're probably going to be a little footie heavy over the next several weeks. With the Champions League about to heat up, this is as good a time as any to starting picking up with soccer. To those of you who are new readers, I recognize that a detailed discussion about Barcelona's options at the defensive midfield spot isn't exactly an Atlanta sports issue. I've completely transitioned from listening to sports talk radio to the World Soccer Daily podcast on my iPod in the 40 minutes or so that I'm commuting to and from work each day, so I have soccer on the brain a lot more than anything else sports related. My apologies to the readers who don't like soccer. I promise the occasional college football, Hawks, and Braves post when a subject strikes my fancy.]

There is some debate as to the best player in the world right now between these two guys:

Here is the debate hashed out last spring when the two players met in the Champions League semifinal. Here is a 76-page thread on the subject at Big Soccer.

You won't be surprised that a Barca supporter like me would come out on the Messi side of the debate. Because we like lists, here are the reasons why:

1. Messi is better at creating goals. When arguing first, one should always start with the positive case for one's proposition. When arguing second, one should negate the opponent's best or most dangerous argument right off the bat. Because I like rebutting, I'll start with the primary argument for Ronaldo: he is bigger and can score with his head. That's a little like saying that a Jeep is better than a Ferrari for driving across the country because the Jeep can go off road. To quote Bob Dylan in "Lay Lady Lay" (the Hard Rain version), who really cares? To quote Dietrich from Raiders of the Lost Ark, only your mission for der Fuhrer matters. Does the player produce goals for his team by scoring them himself, by setting up his teammates, and by attracting defenders to create open space? The means don't matter as long as the end entails the ball in the back of the net. Right foot, left foot, head, knee, hands (if you're Argentine), they all look the same in the dark. Put another way, Maradona couldn't score with his head, but his reputation seems pretty secure.

This season, Messi has 25 goals in 23 starts for Barcelona. In his ballyhooed 2007-08, Ronaldo had 42 goals in 45 starts for Manchester United. Messi is on pace to beat Ronaldo for goals, regardless of the fact that his mop top rarely makes contact with the ball. Messi has 13 assists, which is five more than Ronaldo scored in the entirety of his 2007-08. Leo is a better passer, full stop. So, let's ask this question again: who creates more goals?

2. Messi's skills translate better against top opponents. The rap against Ronaldo that he's not a big game player should have been somewhat dispelled by his goal in the Champions League Final last May, not to mention his fine performance in the road leg against Roma in the quarterfinals. That said, Messi's skills are more useful against a great opponent. Quality defenses will close down the space afforded to attacking players. Messi's primary skill - a ridiculous ability to dribble in tight spaces with the ball attached to his boot - comes in handy in the conditions that a great player will face against a big opponent. Though a fine dribbler, Ronaldo is more noted for galloping into space with the ball. He doesn't have Messi's ability to get around in a phone booth. To Ronaldo's credit, his heading ability does come in handy against good defenses.

3. Messi is more valuable. The gnawing concern that I and most Barca fans have about the current version of the Blaugrana is that they are Messi-dependent. On a number of occasions, Barca have looked mortal without Leo and then dominant as soon as the Flea has come onto the pitch.

Exhibit A: at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, Barca trails 1-0, Messi comes on and scores twice, and Barca wins 2-1.

Exhibit B: home against Basel in the Champions League, Barca cannot break down a poor Basel side until Messi comes on and promptly scores. The game finishes 1-1.

Exhibit C: at Racing Santander in La Liga, Barca trails 1-0, Messi comes on and scores twice, and Barca wins 2-1.

Exhibit D: at Real Betis in La Liga, Barca trails 2-1, Messi comes on and Barca equalizes in a 2-2 draw.

Messi's not only playing for the best team in the world, but he is essential to their success. Barca are full of great players, but one is especially useful. The uncomfortable conclusion for me is that Barca are very vulnerable to a Messi injury. In fairness, it must be said that Ronaldo is bigger and more durable than Messi. On the other hand, Messi is far less likely to miss a game with knob rot. (HT: Gareth Keenan.)

4. Messi is younger. This one is self-explanatory. A 21-year old dominating is a little more impressive than a 23-year old dominating.

5. Ronaldo is a complete prat. Google agrees 75,800 times. Cristiano spent the summer whinging about being a slave and doing all he could to force a transfer to Real Madrid, where he will fit in perfectly. He can be a black hole with the ball. He dives at the drop of a hat and immediately looks to the ref upon contact with the ground. He poses like a fucking model before taking free kicks. If we're comparing Messi and Ronaldo, shouldn't Messi's ability to refrain from being a chemistry-killing ass matter? After the Ronaldinho flame-out, I'm quite conscious of the importance of having unassuming guys who just want to play as opposed to hedonists with too much product in their hair.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Taking Stock of the Hawks after the All-star Break

1. Overall, if you would have told me before the season that the Hawks would be 31-21 and firmly in the #4 spot in the East, I would have been overjoyed. The consensus before the season was that the team would be in danger of not making the playoffs, in light of the fact that they only won 37 games in 2007-08 and several non-playoff teams in the East had gotten better, namely the Sixers and the Bulls. The Hawks are on pace for 49 wins and their record is consistent with their scoring margin, so it cannot be said that the team has been especially lucky. I was a tad skeptical coming into the year because of Josh Childress's departure and the retention of Mike Woodson, but everything has worked out. The young players have developed, the bench hasn't been the disaster that we feared, and Mike Bibby is having a career year.

2. What do the Hawks do well? According to the numbers, they shoot the ball well, they don't turn it over, and they have a good assist rate. Does that sound like a team whose point guard is having an outstanding season? What do the Hawks not do well? Rebound. The Hawks are an above-average offensive team and an average defensive team, but they struggle to get rebounds on either end. Does that sound like a team playing a power forward at center? Or a team with only one quality reserve big man (Zaza)? Oh, and the Hawks are also 29th in the NBA in free throw percentage, which is very hard to explain for a team with a number of good shooters. The primary culprit has been Josh Smith, who gets to the line more than anyone else on the team (good!), but is shooting a woeful 58% (bad!), which is well below his career average.

3. And speaking of our local talent/enigma, Smith has shot the ball better this year than he has in years past, but all of his other numbers - blocks, rebound rate, assist rate - have gone down slightly. It is worth noting that Smith has the second-best plus-minus among the Hawks' regulars. Maybe we should see his performance this season as a "less is more" situation? His scoring, assists, and turnovers are down because his teammates are seeing more of the ball (and why not with Marvin Williams and Bibby having good scoring years?), so maybe Josh is a slightly more efficient player?

4. If I had to point at one reason why the Hawks are where they are, it would be Mike Bibby. Take a gander at these numbers. The Hawks rank in the top ten in the NBA at two positions; they get the sixth best production at shooting guard and the seventh best production at point guard. Bibby shoots the ball well, his assist rate is good, and he never turns it over. His performance has created an interesting dilemma for the Hawks in the off-season. Do they re-sign a player coming off of a great year (in a contract push) who is in the decline phase of his career? As with most free agent topics, the question comes down to the money and the length of the contract.

5. One thought on the rebounding issue: Zaza is a better rebounder than Horford. In light of that fact, it's not especially surprising that the Hawks' best unit (and the fifth best unit in the NBA) is the Bibby-Johnson-Evans-Smith-Pachulia lineup. There are major sample size issues with that lineup, but it would be worth Mike Woodson giving it a little more time to test it. With the back court scoring so well, it stands to reason that the Hawks putting their best defensive/rebounding front line on the court would work out.

6. This stat is, without a doubt, the most surprising one of the season for the Hawks. Not only has the bench not been the disaster that John Hollinger and others predicted before the year, but it's actually been a net positive and ranks 11th in the league in plus/minus. Interestingly, the Hawks' bench has played the second fewest minutes of any NBA bench, but they are third in points per possession. So here's the question: is Mike Woodson making a mistake by not using an asset enough or is that asset valuable because he's using it sparingly. In any event, it would be worthwhile for Woodson to dial back on the starters' minutes a little in the coming weeks, especially if the team has a solid lead for the #4 spot in the East.

7. Because I won't stop being contrary and pointing out that Billy Knight wasn't a bad GM (despite the Chris Paul mistake), note that the Hawks have three of Bill Simmons' top 40 players and none of his 25 worst contracts.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Welcome to the Dark Side, Mark Bradley

If this is what we can expect from Mark Bradley now that he has made the move to blogging, then the future just got a little brighter. Complaint about the media deifying a figure for BS reasons? Check! Use of data to support the argument? Check! Sufficient levels of snark? Check! Insult directed to Peter King? Check! All Mark is missing is a back-handed joke at King's weight and he'll truly be ready for a Darth prefix on his name.

Now, if Mark can just moderate his tendency to make excessively optimistic predictions about the local teams. We don't need the burden of a "Hawks over Celtics in the second round of the playoffs" jinx.

How about a Fourth Reason

The audience for USA-Mexico on Univision dwarfed the audience for Duke-Carolina on ESPN.

You have to appreciate the passion of Mexican futbol fans. El Tri are playing miserably right now. They're coached by Sven Goran Eriksson, who is most noted for an inability to beat Big Phil Scolari. Eriksson has one foot out the door already. Mexico's captain starts for Barcelona and was last seen getting red-carded in Santander, a feat that he repeated on Wednesday night. Despite all of their struggles, Mexicans turned on their TVs in droves to watch the match against El Tri's arch-rival. You have to admire that loyalty.

I'd be very interested to know what ESPN's upper management thinks of those numbers. Duke-UNC is supposed to be the pinnacle of the college basketball regular season, but it just drew a little more than half the audience of a World Cup qualifying match. Duke-UNC's 3.3 million viewers was also a little more than half of the audience for the Cavs-Lakers game on Sunday, despite the fact that the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels were both in the top five coming into the game. I understand that college basketball is a valuable property to fill up airtime, but how much value is bound up in a high-volume product that doesn't get ratings? I don't know what the alternative is. It isn't as if ESPN can put hockey games on and get bigger numbers. My overall point is that college basketball's regular season doesn't move the needle and it probably gets more attention from ESPN than the ratings can justify.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Top Three Reasons why UNC-Duke isn't a Truly Great Rivalry

ESPN's endless hype compels me to make three quick points:

1. Duke and Carolina aren't playing for anything. They're both going to be in the tournament, so they're basically playing for a slightly better geographic placement. Still my beating heart. Even if most fans cared about the college basketball regular season, which they don't because the tournament has killed it, the game still wouldn't be for big stakes because the ACC pretentiously declares the winner of its postseason tournament to be the champion. Thus, the Heels and Devils aren't even playing for a championship. Instead, they're playing for the right to play Maryland instead of Boston College in the first round of the tournament. Texas-Oklahoma this is not. Call me if they meet in the ACC Tournament Final.

2. There are no Duke fans in the State of North Carolina. Or so I've been told by every friend I've ever had from UNC. The jokes about the University of New Jersey at Durham are funny and all, but they do detract from the incessant "they're eight miles apart!" bullshit. Duke is a little oasis of Connecticutians in a sea of Tar Heel and Wolfpack fans. If this isn't a border war and it isn't a civil war, then what the hell is it?

3. The entire country (save for those of us who are luckily in the Raycom footprint) has to watch the game on mute. You can't seriously think that anyone can listen to Dick Vitale perform verbal fellatio on these two admittedly fine programs for more than five minutes without hitting the mute button. And for all the talk about the game's atmosphere, how much of that comes across when confronted with a choice between silence and the brutal rape of one's own ear drums by the man who personifies the term obnoxious yankee?

I watched USA-Mexico tonight, followed by Juno. Piss off, I'm a man and I can do what I want.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Post-Signing Day Thoughts

1. I cut myself shaving and got lifeblood all over my undershirt. Seriously, has any person at any time in human history ever used the word "lifeblood" in a sentence in which they were not talking about recruiting?

2. I was composing this post in the shower this morning and wanted to start by saying that Nick Saban's two #1 classes have had everything but an elite quarterback, but Dr. Saturday had beaten me to it. To me, there are a few possibilities. One is that there hasn't been an elite quarterback in Saban/Alabama's recruiting sweet spot: Alabama, Mississippi, Memphis, and the Florida Panhandle. A second possibility is that Saban is slightly hamstrung in recruiting a quarterback because his offensive systems aren't as attractive to high school players and he doesn't have a track record of putting quarterbacks in the NFL. A third possibility is that Saban doesn't prioritize recruiting quarterbacks in the same way that he prioritizes recruiting other positions because he's won with game managers. With quarterbacks, he could be a Bobby Knight who would rather have a player who follows instructions and runs a system than a headstrong talent who is likely to freelance.

Regardless of the explanation, Saban's offenses are going to need to be a little better in order for Alabama to truly achieve parity with Florida. We know that Meyer's offenses and Saban's defenses will be top shelf, so it's quite possible that SEC titles in the near future will come down to whether Meyer's weak suit is better than Saban's. As long as Meyer has Charlie Strong and a pile of defensive talent, his defenses will be almost as good as his offenses. Saban is assembling excellent talent on offense, but if he is going to continue to go the conventional running/play-action route with game manager quarterbacks, he is going to be half a step behind Florida.

2a. All that said, Saban is absolutely living up to the description from Michael Lewis's The Blind Side of being a super recruiter. I always thought that Alabama was at a disadvantage compared to Florida, Georgia, and LSU because it's local talent base isn't as good and they have to share some of it with Auburn. What I'm realizing is that there is more talent in Alabama than I had previously thought and Saban is getting all of it. If Auburn's decision-makers knew that a second straight whitewash of in-state recruiting was coming, then their decision to fire Tuberville makes a little more sense. I still don't agree with it, but it's not as irrational as I first thought.

3. If you want an illustration of the disparity in talent between the Southeast and the Upper Midwest, check out the number of four- and five-star recruits in the following states:

Florida - 61
Georgia - 22
Louisiana - 14
Alabama - 12

Ohio - 16
Michigan - 11
Pennsylvania - 9
Illinois - 9

These numbers come from Rivals, but one can reach a similar conclusion from Scout's or ESPN's rankings.

Yeah, down year in the Midwest, blah blah blah blah. What you're seeing is the effect of population draining from the Upper Midwest to the Sunbelt. I'm going to write a lot more on this subject over the summer, but one subject that I specifically want to cover is whether the socio-economic groups that are moving South are more likely to be the same groups that tend to produce blue chip prospects. What you're also seeing is a justification for Michigan going with Rich Rodriguez because Michigan needs a coach who: (1) runs a specialized system that can be an equalizing factor for lesser talent; and (2) can recruit the Sunbelt.

Also, I have to begrudgingly give some respect to Jim Tressel for pulling a second straight top five class out of a region that doesn't produce a ton of talent. In the past two years, Ohio State has pulled 19 recruits rated by Rivals as a 5.9 or higher; 11 have come from outside of Ohio. The stereotype of Ohio State as being a plodding Midwestern team might be apt in terms of scheme, but it will not be true in terms of talent in the coming years as these two classes emerge. If Ohio State keeps losing to Sunbelt teams, it won't be because of a lack of speed.

4. I liked Georgia's class, although I would have liked to see more than three offensive linemen in light of the problems that Georgia has been having at the position. I'm excited to see what Richt will do with Aaron Murray, who is a bit more mobile than the average Richt quarterback (save for D.J. Shockley). I'm also excited to see what Georgia can do with 6'5 Marlon Brown opposite 6'4 A.J. Green. How many teams have two big corners? And is there anyone who isn't penciling Branden Smith in for a starting spot by the end of September?

5. If you wonder whether Notre Dame still has pull in the media, look at the way that ESPN treated Manti Te'o signing with the Irish - updates on ESPN radio, front page of, mention on SportsCenter - with other top players who announced on Signing Day, such as ESPN's #1 DB (Dre Kirkpatrick) and #1 RB (Trent Richardson), both of whom signed with Alabama.

6. There is no other way to put this: Lane Kiffin looks like an absolute amateur when he rips on Urban Meyer for an alleged NCAA violation and then has to apologize because there was no violation. At first, I simply thought that Kiffin was going to get shown up by Florida in Gainesville in September. Now, Kiffin resembles a little kid who was scolded by his elders and then put in his place. Andy Staples nails it:

If Kiffin didn't intend to offend Meyer by calling him a cheater, what did he intend to do? Kiffin had better hope his coaching staff -- which is excellent, by the way -- whips the 5-7 team he inherited into shape by Sept. 19. That's when the Vols visit The Swamp, where Meyer and the defending national champs will be waiting. And in case Kiffin isn't clear on how Meyer handles slights, he can call Georgia's Mark Richt. Richt's players flooded the end zone on the first touchdown of the Bulldogs' victory against the Gators in 2007. Despite the fact that Richt spent the next 12 months apologizing for the incident, Meyer still burned two late timeouts to rub in a 49-10 beatdown when the teams met again. If Meyer humiliated Richt, a coach he respects, for that transgression, imagine what he wants to do to Kiffin.

My hatred for Tennessee had dwindled over the past several years because they were no longer good enough to despise, but Kiffin has managed to renew all of those feelings in a short amount of time.

7. Are we beginning to see the first signs of Pac Ten programs starting to compete with USC in recruiting? G-d forbid! After Signing Day 2007, I wrote this:

Pac Ten programs not named USC took two of the top ten players in California this year. They took one of the top ten in 2006. They took three of the top ten in 2005. They took four of the top ten in 2004. Thus, in a four-year period, USC has signed 25 of the players on the California top ten list and the rest of the conference has signed ten. The argument that SEC fans should be making to belittle USC's success is not that USC would go 8-3 in the SEC, a totally unsupportable claim given the ridiculous amounts of talent that USC deploys. Instead, the argument should be that USC benefits from the fact that no one else on the West Coast can recruit worth a damn.

This year, USC signed four of the top ten players in California and the rest of the conference signed five. In USC's defense, they did sign three of the four five-star players in-state and the fourth decommitted on Signing Day. We shouldn't shed any tears for USC, as they will still be significantly more talented than any other team in the Pac Ten for the foreseeable future.

Here's a little stat to illustrate that point: Rivals' database goes back to 2002. In the eight recruiting classes covered in the database, USC has finished in the top ten in the last seven seasons after finishing 13th in 2002. Collectively, the other nine teams in the Pac Ten have three top ten finishes in that eight-year period: UCLA's #9 finishes in 2002 and 2004 and Cal's #9 finish in 2005. USC's last seven recruiting classes have all finished higher than any recruiting class by any Pac Ten program over the past eight years. That's why it's hard for me to take the Pac Ten seriously. The conference may be well-coached, but the aggregate level of talent is poor outside of one major program. Hopefully, this year is a step towards the other nine members of the conference doing a little better on Signing Day.

Monday, February 02, 2009

This One Goes to 11

1. Remember when there was serious concern about the Super Bowl being an annual blowout? For whatever reason, the last two Super Bowls have been classics and there hasn't been an uncompetitive game since the Tampa-Oakland Super Bowl ending the 2002 season. The only factor detracting from this game were the constant penalties, which annoyingly broke up the flow of the action. I prefer not to see every other pass play get called back for holding. That said, it would stand to reason that a Pittsburgh game would have a ton of holding penalties because the Steelers pair a bad offensive line with two unblockable outside linebackers. Beyond the holding penalties, there were several penalties in the game that resulted from players just being stupid and forcing the hands of the officials. Roughing the holder? Punching a prone blocker after a punt is away? Really?

2. I will never again listen to an NFL talking head pronounce that you can't win without running the ball. Arizona and Pittsburgh couldn't run their way out of paper bags. Pittsburgh was painful to watch in the red zone. The game wouldn't have been competitive if the Steelers could run the ball inside the five. Maybe they'll make some use of Dennis Dixon in those situations next year?

3. Troy Polamalu routinely makes plays that cause me to exclaim "how did he know that the ball was going there?" He has terrific instincts and uses those instincts to show up in places where he is least expected. That said, the Larry Fitzgerald touchdown to give the Cardinals the lead showed the flipside of Polamalu's freelancing. Pittsburgh was in cover-two and Polamalu decided to jump an outside route. Unless Dick Lebeau coaches the cover-two different than every other coach on the planet, Polamalu was not following instructions. Thus, the middle of the field opened like the Red Sea and Fitzgerald scored on what would have been one of the most famous plays in NFL history if not for Pitssburgh's subsequent heroics. Polamalu also whiffed on a couple tackles during the game. That said, I'd bet that he was heavily involved in the defensive effort that made Fitzgerald a spectator for three quarters.

4. Arizona seemed way too scared of Pittsburgh's pass rush in the first three quarters. I get that the Steelers' blitzes are hard to block, but what was with all the running plays and short passes?

5. Did anyone else see James Harrison's interception at the end of the first half and immediately think of Florida intercepting Sam Bradford at the end of the first half of the BCS National Championship Game? The scores were almost identical (7-7 vs. 10-7), the route was the same (slant to the left), and both passes were picked, swinging momentum away from the team with the ball. Arizona could not have enjoyed the two-hour halftime with the taste of that pick six in their mouths.

6. I've been watching the Sunday night English Premier League highlight show for months. The highlights of just about every game are followed by interviews with the two managers, which inevitably involve the losing manager bitching about a penalty, a free kick, a card, and/or the ref's lack of hair. (They all imitate Sir Alex, who is the master of this tactic.) With that context in mind, it was refreshing to watch Ken Whisenhunt acknowledge after the game that Santonio Holmes made a great catch to win the game, despite the fact that the winning touchdown was a close call.

6a. What is it with Steelers receivers and amazing catches in the Super Bowl?

7. Ben Roethlisberger is truly the perfect quarterback for this Steelers team. Specifically, he's great at making late throws after buying time with his feet and his size. This is a necessity with a suspect offensive line. The sacks that he takes as a result of holding onto the ball are more than outweighed by the big plays that he creates by forcing a secondary to cover for five seconds.

8. With every big play that Darnell Dockett and Lawrence Timmons made in the game, I was reminded of Greg Easterbrook proclaiming that Florida State linemen generally and Timmons specifically are not worth high picks in the Draft.

9. Jeff Hartings' holding call in the end zone mooted the issue, but Pittsburgh would have been smart to take an intentional safety if they would have been confronted with fourth down from their one one-yard line. The difference between a four- and six-point lead in that spot pales in comparison to 25 yards of field position. Given Mike Tomlin's strategic conservatism (see: the field goal on the opening possession), I doubt that he would have done so, but that would have been the right call in terms of risk and reward.

10. Pittsburgh's final play on offense was a catch by an Ohio State product and its
final play on defense was a sack and forced fumble by a Michigan product. Anecdotally, that's a piece of evidence against my theory that Big Ten teams need to coach as if they are operating with a talent deficit.

10a. Speaking of the final defensive play, there ought to be a rule that any celebration penalty should be ignored if the play that led to the celebration is overturned on review. Pittsburgh would have been put in a tough position if the call would have been overturned and Arizona would have gotten a 15-yard bonus tacked on to the play. And speaking of celebration calls, it was amusing that the refs called everything in the game, but missed Santonio Holmes using the ball as a prop (an automatic 15-yard penalty in the No Fun League) after his touchdown catch. You think that Arizona would have felt better about their chances if Pittsburgh were kicking off from the 15?

11. Can we pass a rule that Kurt Warner has to play in every Super Bowl?


Pep Guardiola started Messi on the bench yesterday because Messi had played midweek against Espanyol in the Copa del Rey quarterfinals. An hour in, Barca hadn't created much in the way of offense and were trailing 1-0 because of an idiotic decision by Rafa Marquez to attempt a slide tackle from behind in the box. (I do not trust Marquez at all. If Barca get knocked out of the Champions League, I'm willing to bet right now that he and/or Gerard Pique will be prominently involved.) Messi comes on and promptly scores twice to give the Blaugrana their ninth straight win on the road in La Liga. The evidence that Barca is dependent on Messi continues to grow.

Super Bowl thoughts are coming...