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.


Nick said...

Good stuff Grits. That reminded me of the stuff I did for Funky on the different coaches. I checked it and a full 23% of Spurrier's games at Florida were against teams that finished in the AP Top Ten. Holz had 25% at ND; everyone else was around 12-16%. Pretty hard to go unbeaten when you play 3 games a year against teams that good.

JCgator said...

top flight anaylsis, well done spurrier does not get enough credit for beating all the teams he was supposed to at UF