Monday, August 31, 2009

My Two Cents on L'Affaire Rosenberg

So that was an eventful day, huh? The winningest program in college football, a program that has never been placed on probation, was accused of NCAA violations with respect to players practicing too long. A million words flowed forth in cyberspace. Rich Rodriguez choked up at the podium. At the start of the day, I worried that my one fear regarding Rodriguez - that a swirling storm of fan and media discontent would railroad his efforts to build his program at Michigan before the project could bear fruit - would come true. By the end of the day, I have decided that the Michigan fan base is now going to coalesce around Rodriguez, the players are going to thrive off of the "us against the world" dynamic that a hatchet job of a story has created, and Michael Rosenberg is going to meet the sports media equivalent of another Rosenberg. What's that? I proved Godwin's Law again? Don't worry, there's more coming.

I have lots of thoughts. You read.

1. "Let's put our heads together, let's put old matters to an end."

The Michigan fan base is not noted for being uniform or religious in its fervor for the program. Years ago, I wrote a comparison between the crowds at an Alabama home game and a Michigan home game as I went to both within the space of two weeks. The chief difference is that Michigan fans take a detached, ironic, sometimes pessimistic view of the team. They are as likely to joke about play calls as they are to cheer with gusto. For Alabama fans, a game is a religious revival. There is good and there is evil; the role of the fan is to scream his head off so that good may prevail or the earth will open up and swallow him whole. If you want to play cheap political psychologist, the Michigan fan base tends to be blue politically and thus sees everything in shades of gray, while the Alabama fan base is red and sees things a little differently.

This is a very long way of saying that Michigan fans tend not to be a unified bunch. Some fans liked Lloyd, others didn't. Some think that Bo should be on Mount Rushmore; others point out his record in Pasadena. Some think that Michigan State is the arch-rival; others think that Ohio State is. Some love the Fab Five; others think that they brought dishonor upon the school. Today was one of those rare instances where the entire fan base was united. Between message boards, e-mails, and calls, it was damn near impossible to find anyone who was expressing anything other than contempt for the Detroit Free Press, Michael Rosenberg, and Mark Snyder. The Michigan fan base can be criticized in many ways: arrogant, spoiled, not especially loud at games, etc. However, it cannot be said that the fan base will not be critical of its programs when criticism is not deserved. It is not a fan base that circles the wagons and defends its coaches and players, right or wrong. So, it's a fairly significant fact that I was unable to detect any support for the Freep's desperate grab for clicks over the past two days.

2. "Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press."

Why are Michigan fans so uniform in their support for the program? I'll give you two links. Here is Jon Chait on the article. Jon is an actual, respectable journalist, so these words come with a bit more punch than they would from the average blogger in his mom's basement:

Now, here's why Rosenberg's opinions matter so much. In an article like the one he wrote, the readers have to place a lot of trust in the author. We have to trust that he interviewed the sources fairly, and didn't solicit answers that confirmed his prejudices. We have to trust that he granted his sources anonymity for good reason - not because they had an axe to grind. And we have to trust that he looked for evidence to undermine his thesis, and if it didn't appear in his article, it's because none could be found.

Rosenberg, with his deep connections to the anti-Rodriguez community, would be a good source of leads for an enterprising reporter to follow up on. Letting him write and report the article himself is journalistic malpractice.

And here is MGoBlog's Brian Cook, sticking in the knife as only he can:

The Free Press systematically overstated their case by omitting contextual information and misrepresenting quotes about voluntary workout programs. They have repeatedly raised the specter of major, program crippling sanctions. They took a side, and if that side turns out to be wrong the people responsible for the story should be held responsible for their errors in judgment.

They won't, of course. If and when Michigan releases the results of its internal probe and announces they've come up with either nothing or a pu-pu platter of secondary violations, people will laugh at NCAA enforcement, cite the Jerry Tarkanian quote, and laud the journalistic effort that went into proving football players play a lot of football.

In a nutshell, Rosenberg and Snyder presented quotes from a number of former players to show that Michigan players spend a lot of time on football. They then reach the conclusion that the program must have violated NCAA regulations because the players devoted more than 20 hours per week. Rosenberg and Snyder never make the slightest attempt to address whether the hours spent by Michigan players count towards the 20 hour limit. There are numerous categories of exceptions, but G-d forbid that they actually discuss the rules that Michigan supposedly violated.

3. "You think you'd like to play ball with the law?"

There have been a number of legal analogies thrown around today. Several lawyers have commented that the article reads like a plaintiff's complaint rather than a proper piece of reporting. Others have noted that if the article were a complaint, it would be subject to an immediate motion to dismiss because one can accept everything in the complaint as true and it still doesn't state a cause of action because it does not properly allege that the hours spent by the players count towards the 20 allowed per week.

I'm going to chime in with one more analogy just to lawyer this matter up further. In employment discrimination law, a plaintiff alleging that he was fired because of his race has to show a prima facie case of discrimination, namely that he is a member of a protected class, he suffered an adverse employment action, and the action was taken because of his race. At that point, the employer has to show that the action was taken for a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason. If the employer does so, then the employee has to show that that reason was pretextual. This is where all the fun begins. Let's say an employer claims that it fired an employee for failing to submit expense reports in a timely manner. The employee is going to have a field day with that explanation if he can show that dozens of co-workers of different races didn't turn in their expense reports and no action was taken against them.

Rosenberg and Snyder are the inept employer offering pretext to cover a discriminatory motive. They are trying to attack Michigan for conduct that is routinely accepted when done by other programs. A simple Google search returns a bounty of articles where coaches and players openly talk about how much time they spend on football-related activities and how the players aren't going to see the field if they do not attend "voluntary" workouts. If it is so easy to show that Michigan engaged in a practice that is wholly common for every major college program, then where does the Free Press get off alleging that this behavior when done by Michigan is a major violation? Its motive is laid absolutely bare when it attacks Michigan for conduct that is routine in major college football.

4. "To memorizing politics of ancient history."

I'm of two minds on Tony Barnhart's piece in the AJC this morning. Here is his key point:

But here is my real concern if I’m a Michigan fan. What does it say about the state of a program when your own players, albeit a small number of them, will rat you out to the media in a story that runs one week before your first game? It could turn out that these players are simply lying in order to be vindictive. A certain number of players always balk and complain when a new staff comes in. But it could also be that they are telling the truth. An internal investigation will have to determine if that is the case.
On the one hand, the Freep article's use of anonymous sources makes it impossible to determine how many current players are providing this information. It's fair to say that the majority of their sources are former players, players who do not need to remain anonymous. It's also fair to say that two of the sources are freshmen who unwittingly provided the squibs that Rosenberg and Snyder pretend are live ammo when they talked about how hard the team has been working. It's possible (likely?) that the grand total of current players who are intentional sources is one. And that's before we get to the fact that there's a real possibility that Rosenberg and Snyder obtained evidence in a misleading way by telling interviewees that they are supposed to work for only 20 hours per week, while omitting the fact that a great many hours worked do not count towards that limit.

On the other hand, it's impossible to deny that there was dissension last year and there may be some residual dissension this season. The explanation, I think, lies in the way that Rodriguez came into the program. I have a pet theory that the best way to end a war is to march to the enemy's capital and plant your flag. The Allies did not do that in World War I and as a result, the Germans never felt as if they were truly beaten, hence the popular Dolchstoss myth that sprung up in later years. The Allies did do that in World War II, thus convincing the Germans and Japanese that they needed to behave after the war. (One counter: the fear of the Soviets is what really forced the Germans and Japanese to stay in line. I digress.)

When a coach gets fired, the remaining players typically realize the flaws in the prior regime. I doubt that many Alabama players were pining for Mike Shula and viewing Nick Saban as an illegitimate leader. When a coach resigns, however, the feelings have to be different. There would be far more skepticism directed towards the new coach. This is especially true when the retiring coach is as popular as Lloyd Carr was amongst his players. Thus, it's easy to see how Rodriguez met resistance from his new players, especially when year one went so poorly. It cannot be fun to bust one's ass and go 3-9. I have a good feeling that Rodriguez has the team pulling in the same direction in year two, but Barnhart's point does illustrate an issue that he faces.

5. "The words to say I'm sorry, I haven't found yet."

Although the Rosenberg/Snyder article is flawed in a host of ways, it does highlight one uncomfortable fact for all college football fans. Major programs like Michigan bring in a number of players every year who would never be admitted on their academic records alone. Many players come from failing schools that do not come close to preparing them for college. Those players then play a physically demanding sport that has the time demands of a full-time job. We often like to tell ourselves that college football players are paid by receiving expensive educations that working stiffs like myself will spend the better part of our careers to give to our children. How much can they really take advantage of that education when they are working 45 hours per week on blocking and tackling? If I weren't using the Dylan theme tonight, Michael Corleone's "we're both part of the same hypocrisy, Senator" line would be a good way to conclude.

Friday, August 28, 2009

It's Too Bad That SEC Offenses Aren't Fancy Like the One That Featured Ron Dayne

If you want to see a great instance of shifting rationales, check out HeismanPundit's latest effort at defending the useless award about which he bases his existence. HP's initial argument was that SEC teams haven't thrown the ball enough over the past 30 years to win a Heisman Trophy. After a critical review from the Senator, the rationale has now shifted:

The point isn’t so much that the offenses need to be cutting edge, but if you are going to produce Heismans in a quarterback-dominated era, you’d better have guys who can throw the ball and put up numbers. And if you have a great running back, he’d better get a lot of yards. The SEC hasn’t been doing enough of that in the last 20 years and that’s why its Heisman production has not kept up with its prominence in the team rankings.

In case you're wondering why that rationale shifted, it's because HP is trying to glide past the Senator's citation of Ron Dayne, who played in an offense that was anything but sophisticated. So now, the argument is that you need an offense that puts up a lot of numbers, either at the quarterback position or at running back. Really? Heisman winners need gaudy statistics? That's a revolutionary concept.

And why do SEC players not put up gaudy numbers? I'll give you two reasons, none of which will have anything to do with Cro Magnon offenses in the Deep South:

1. SEC defenses do not permit opponents to run up huge numbers. Ask Sam Bradford.

2. SEC teams are more likely to rotate running backs. This is because there is more talent in the South and most top teams have multiple running threats. In this respect, SEC teams are more advanced than their counterparts in other conferences, as the majority of offensive coaches in the NFL have figured out that rotating backs makes sense. (The coach of the local pro football collective could stand to learn this lesson.) The fact that Heisman voters fall for ruses like Javon Ringer putting up numbers because he gets the ball 30+ times every game against average defenses is an indictment of the award, not of SEC offenses.

I'll also make the point that the characterization of SEC offenses as being less likely to throw the ball is simply wrong. Off the top of my head, SEC offenses of the past 20 years have included: David Cutcliffe's offenses at Tennessee and Ole Miss, Terry Bowden's offense at Auburn (especially when he had Dameyune Craig), Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher's offense at LSU when they rode Rohan Davey and Josh Reed to an SEC title, the Air Raid offense at Kentucky, the offense that Rich Brooks built around Andre Woodson at Kentucky, the 1994 Georgia team with Eric Zeier, the adaptation of the Fast Break that Mark Richt has employed at Georgia, and Steve Spurrier's offenses at South Carolina and Florida. Yeah, other than that, no one throws the ball in the SEC.

And then HP turns his loving attention to my post. Initially, notice the unsubtle attempt to bait and switch. My argument is this: it cannot be a coincidence that the two SEC teams in the all-time top ten in winning percentage - Alabama and Tennessee - have combined to win zero Heismans while the other eight programs have combined to win 35. Knowing that he has absolutely no chance when discussing Tennessee, a program whose two best candidates lost to the only Heisman winner from a losing team and the only Heisman winner who played defense, he just ignores them and instead focuses on Alabama. He makes a decent point when noting that Alabama did not produce a lot of runners with gaudy stats in the 1970s because the wishbone tended to disperse carries. (This would be an instance of an SEC offense being too advanced for simple-minded Heisman voters.) HP then challenges me to come up with an Alabama player who should have won the award. Since Don Hutson left Alabama just before the first Heisman was awarded, I'll vote for Shaun Alexander.

In 1999, Alexander ran for 1,383 yards and 19 touchdowns, while also catching 25 passes for 323 yards and four touchdowns. He played on an Alabama team that won the SEC while playing one of the hardest schedules in the country and became the first SEC team to win in the Swamp, a game in which Alexander was unstoppable. The award was instead won by Ron Dayne, who ran for 1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns, while catching exactly one ball for nine yards. Dayne did not break 100 yards against Michigan (Wisconsin's albatross at the time), he did not play Penn State, and Wisconsin played their typically ludicrous non-conference schedule.

So let's see: Alexander totaled 1,706 yards and 23 touchdowns against a very difficult schedule and had a huge performance in Alabama's biggest game of the year, while Dayne totaled 1,843 yards and 19 touchdowns against a relatively easy schedule. If you apply the rationale that was used to defeat Peyton Manning's Heisman campaign - Florida was Tennessee's bete noire and his poor performance at the Swamp killed his chances - then Dayne had no business winning the award after gaining 88 yards on 22 carries against Michigan (including a big fat goose egg on eight carries in the second half) and his team lost 21-16 with Wisconsin's last touchdown coming against a prevent defense in the final minutes. Alexander then went well before Dayne in the NFL Draft and had a far better pro career, a fact that I mention only because any reasonable person could have looked at the two of them at the time the Heisman vote was conducted and predicted that result. Alexander was a great runner and Dayne was a fat tub of goo who was great at running through giant holes at top speed like a giant boulder, but lousy against defenses that could force him to change direction. If Heisman voters couldn't figure out that Dayne was a product of his system and that Alexander was a far better player, then the award isn't worth much. Which it isn't.

HP, please mention the idea that Dayne won the award as a career achievement reward. Please please please.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Bear Bryant: Neanderthal

I was in the mood to write about a gross generalization this morning, so G-d bless HeismanPundit for providing me with one. To pile onto the Senator's criticism, this post confirms that HeismanPundit doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground when it comes to football history. HP claims that other conferences were "opening it up and putting up fancy passing numbers, the SEC (until recently) was content to run off tackle and play defense." If that's true, then HP is apparently talking about the 1980s and onward, which omits the first four decades and changes of the Heisman's existence. I doubt that Notre Dame was "opening it up and putting up fancy passing numbers" when Paul Hornung beat Johnny Majors for the award. I'd love to see HP defend the notion that Woody Hayes was doing so when Archie Griffin won two Heismans.

I'd also be intrigued to hear HP's argument that Bear Bryant's offenses at Alabama were unsophisticated for their times. In the 60s, Bryant produced Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. One might surmise that his offenses at that time were a little more than "run[ning] off tackle and play[ing] defense." In the 70s, Alabama went 103-16-1running the wishbone, which was certainly not a vanilla offense in its day. As a USC fan, maybe HP should research what happened when Bryant unveiled Bama's version of the offense in the Coliseum. Naw, that would involve actual use of research and facts as opposed to pulling a sweeping generalization from his rear end.

Here is the list of the ten winningest programs in college football history, along with the number of Heismans that each program has claimed. See if you can spot a trend:

1. Michigan - 3
2. Notre Dame - 7
3. Texas - 2
4. Oklahoma - 5
5. Ohio State - 7
6. USC - 7
7. Alabama - 0
8. Nebraska - 3
9. Tennessee - 0
10. Penn State - 1

Hmmm, what do the two programs on that list that have never won a Heisman have in common. I can't imagine. I guess Alabama and Tennessee should have thrown the ball around like Nebraska and they too would have three Heisman winners.

Finally, the argument that the Heismans won by Florida, Florida State, and Miami players proves that there is not a bias against players from the Deep South is just wrong because Florida isn't culturally part of the Deep South (or at least large portions of Florida aren't). I don't know if Mike Lupica has a Heisman ballot, but to take him as an example, if you played word association with him and said the word "Florida," he'd probably think of relatives who have retired to Boca Raton. If you said "Alabama" or "Tennessee," the result would be a little different.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Yes, My Love, I Can Hear You Knockin'

1 Florida
2 Texas
3 Southern Cal
4 Oklahoma
5 Alabama
6 Virginia Tech
8 Ohio State
9 California
10 Georgia
11 Iowa
12 Clemson
13 TCU
14 Oklahoma State
15 Penn State
16 Brigham Young
17 Georgia Tech
18 Mississippi
19 Oregon
20 Illinois
21 Texas Tech
22 Boise State
23 Arkansas
24 Notre Dame
25 Rutgers

A few thoughts on my rationale, such as it is:
  • I was tempted to go with USC at #2. At one point, I thought that this could be a down year for them (meaning two losses) because of a true freshman under center. Now that I'm thinking that Aaron Corp will be fine for the season, I'm very high on the Trojans. For one thing, it's dumb to ever not be high on them. For another, if there's any coach whom I trust to handle the loss of eight starters on defense, it's Pete Carroll...and his hydra of five-star badasses. And at some point, they have to end this habit of losing to mid-table Pac ten teams, don't they?
  • I don't love Alabama at #5 because of the offensive line, but they seem a little more balanced than Virginia Tech (there is no Julio Jones on the Hokies' roster) and they were so much better than LSU last year that I can't put the Tigers ahead just yet.
  • I like Cal over Oregon in the Pac Ten because they just strike me as a more balanced team. How exactly did SI pick the Ducks as a team to watch when they lost their head coach, as well as 13 of 22 starters. I guess that Jeremiah Masoli has magical powers that will allow him to overcome a defense that returns only five starters from a unit that allowed a mere 390 yards per game last year. So no, I'm not high on the Ducks. I am, however, intrigued by a Cal team that returns 15 starters from the best defense of the Tedford era. A Pac Ten team that plays defense and isn't named "USC?" Color me fascinated.
  • I've already explained my reasoning on Iowa; the reasoning for Clemson is much the same. They have 15 starters coming back overall, eight on a defense that allowed only 300 yards per game. This vote is not a vote in favor of Dabo Swinney. Rather, it's a vote in favor of the recruits that Tommy Bowden left, combined with a year one boost for a player's coach. This year will be the high-point of the Swinney era, but the trip to the title game should be fun.
  • Could someone explain to me why Texas Tech isn't ranked? Does anyone really think that Mike Leach is going to struggle moving the ball with new faces on offense? What, the Raiders are going to average 500 yards per game instead of 530? They averaged 496 yards per game in 2005 when they returned four starters. They averaged 530 yards per game when they returned five starters in 2007. Oklahoma State is preseason #9 and Oregon is preseason #16; can someone set forth a rationale for why either of these teams would be ahead of the Red Raiders?

A Eulogy for My Favorite Podcast

I had a great relationship with my wife's grandfather, Bernie. One of our running jokes was that whenever I would watch a football game with Bernie, he would ask where the ball should be spotted after an instance in which a receiver made a catch and was then pushed back. Bernie died in April 2008 and now, I think of him every time a receiver makes a catch and the ref spots the ball at the point that the catch was made. It's an odd feeling, a combination of humor because of the running joke and sadness that Bernie is no longer with us.

In a weird way, this soccer season is going to provoke the same emotions in me because World Soccer Daily won't be around. For those of you who were not listeners, the show was extremely successful, ranking as one of the top sports podcasts on iTunes for an extended period of time. It got huge numbers because the hosts - Steven Cohen and Kenny Hassan - were reasonably knowledgeable and had a very good rapport with their listeners. Between taking phone calls and reading and discussing e-mails, the show created a feeling of community among its listeners. It had also developed a tremendous roster of regular guests: Tim Vickery on South America, Andy Brassell on Europe, Graham Hunter on Spain, Kris Voakes on Italy, Derek Rae on the Champions League, Robbie Earle on the EPL, Graham Poll on refereeing, and several more whose names are escaping me right now. The podcast was invaluable for people like me to become educated fans on the world's game.

Between commuting, cooking, and working out, I probably listened to World Soccer Daily about five hours per week over a span of more than two years. I became a listener in May 2007 upon the recommendation of frequent commenter Klinsi. Over the course of months and years, I learned that a podcast can become a part of one's life because one can listen to it whenever one is doing something boring, i.e. a lot of the time. I don't mind doing dishes or cleaning the garage because of the podcast.

When I think back on my time listening to WSD, I have vivid memories of places and topics. I remember listening to the discussion about David Beckham's first game for the Galaxy when driving back from the beach. I remember listening to the story of Jose Mourinho falling out with Roman Abramovich as I ran past the Chevron on the corner of Clairmont and North Decatur. I remember hearing the glee expressed by Cohen when Liverpool drew Inter in the 2007-08 Champions League as I walked from my car to the Hartsfield-Jackson terminal. I remember Steven reading out a congratulatory e-mail on the birth of my second son from Klinsi as I worked out at the local Y. I remember Steven reading my Barca all-time XI and commenting that that side would be very hard to beat as I drove back to the office from lunch with a client.

It's very sad when something that has become a part of one's life is no longer there. I don't mean to make this sound like losing a loved one or a job. It's not that important and I don't pretend that it is. Still, I got a great deal of happiness from this daily show. That happiness turns to anger when I think about the show's demise, which was caused by a boycott from Liverpool fans after Cohen made several remarks about the culpability of Liverpool fans in the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium Disaster. For the record, I think that Cohen was mistaken about the role of Liverpool fans in the episode. However, I can only say this because Cohen's comments became controversial and I decided to read up on the episode a little. This should have been the end result of the controversy: Liverpool fans raising their voices and neutrals like me learning more about the disaster as a result.

Instead, Liverpool fans boycotted the show's sponsors and tried to gather in as many other supporter's clubs as possible. Ultimately, the reaction by Liverpool supporters was successful. To me, this is short-sighted. Soccer is growing in this country because of outlets like WSD that allow people like me to go outside the mainstream media to get sports news and opinion. I'm no longer confined to what the AJC and the two local sports talk stations think are relevant topics. I love that freedom. That freedom is growing the game of soccer in this country. The game is poorer without WSD.

What's so irksome about the episode is that a podcast is essentially an extension of the talk radio format and talk radio is replete with instances of hosts saying outrageous, incorrect, oft-defamatory statements. (I'm not saying this to be politically partisan; there is plenty of blame on all sides.) Assuming that Cohen was incorrect in his statements about Hillsborough, he made a historical mistake. That happens on a daily basis. I really have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that this one statement was so thoroughly punished, while the dozens of more erroneous and vile statements that are made on a daily basis about subjects weightier than soccer are permitted to drift into the ether without any repercussions. People whose livelihood depends on providing original and interesting opinions need to have the freedom to make mistakes. In this instance, that did not happen.

In the end, this whole episode does illustrate one of the dark sides of soccer. I often say that one of the reasons why I like the sport is the passion that comes across when I watch a game. European soccer is the closest relative to the SEC football on which I grew up and which I still love. However, the flip side of intense passion can be an excessive reaction to opinions that groups find disagreeable. In fact, I can't think of a college football parallel to the ultimately successful boycott of WSD. (The reaction in Alabama to the Saturday Evening Post story alleging that Bear Bryant and Wally Butts conspired to fix a game comes to mind, but the Post's demise was caused more by the libel verdict that Butts obtained as opposed to a boycott. It's not as if Tennessee fans dented ESPN and ABC after those networks so obviously conspired [along with the Florida defense, I guess] to deny Peyton Manning his Heisman.) In the end, my world is a little darker without WSD and I should accept that this episode is sadly a reflection of a game that I choose to love.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The War on Ole Miss Rolls On

For the record, I'm thrilled that Football Outsiders is writing about college football. It seemed inevitable that they would eventually do so. The game is too big for FO to pass on all of those potential clicks. There was a dearth of good number-crunching sites for college football, so it's cool to now have FO on the job. Their major contribution to date has been to advance the theory that it makes sense when making predictions to look at a team's past five years as opposed to only one season. FO starts with a drive-based statistical measure (FEI) and then weights projected FEI based on a five-year average, along with returning starters and a conference adjustment. (I feel like I'm in second grade again in Ms. Watkins class delivering a book report.) This approach jibes with something that I've been thinking, but can't quantify with numbers nearly as well as FO can: the simplest way to spot overrated teams is to pick against the nouveau riche teams in the top ten.

The upshot of this methodology in the SEC is that FO is high on Auburn and down on Ole Miss($). This stat is scary for Ole Miss:

Since 2003, seventeen teams have registered a one-year improvement of at least six wins. Only three improved again the following season. Of the five BCS-conference teams to do the deed, all regressed by at least two wins the next year. The two most recent examples -- Illinois and Kansas in 2007 -- both regressed by four wins in 2008.

The caveat attached to it is reassuring:

Lucky for the Rebels, there are no clauses in the FO projections for "a potential Heisman darkhorse (Snead) transfers in to play quarterback" or "former head coach Ed Orgeron may have been historically bad at his job." Because of that alone, they may have a better chance than most at bucking what is a pretty solid statistical trend.

But screw their caveat; I'm still higher on Arkansas this year.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Bobby and the 'Pen

This post from Mark Bradley about Bobby's good handling of the starting rotation and his complete abuse of Messrs. Soriano, Gonzalez, Moylan, and O'Flaherty does a great job of summarizing what I've been thinking about the Braves' pitching staff. Money 'graf:

My problem with Cox isn’t that he leaves his starters in too long — the business with Lowe on Tuesday was an obvious exception — but that he wears his relievers to a frazzle without cause. (It wasn’t always this way. At no other time in this decade have the Braves had more than one reliever among the top 10 in games.) The Braves have three relievers with 60-plus appearances. The Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers have none.

It's interesting that Bradley references the Dodgers in his post because overuse of set-up guys was the biggest criticism that Yankees fans had of Joe Torre when he was managing in the Bronx. Maybe he's changed his ways? Maybe he has a deeper bullpen this year?

The one flaw in Bradley's otherwise excellent argument is his claim that the Braves' volume of quality starts mean that the bullpen should be less taxed. The consistent quality starts have kept pitchers like Kris Medlen from racking up appearances, but even when a starter throws six or seven good innings, Bobby still needs some combination of Moylan, Gonzalez, and Soriano for the final outs. Also, the Braves' offense, which was mediocre at the start of the year and has progressed to pretty good by August, has had a hand in the relievers piling up appearances. The team hasn't scored a ton of runs, which has meant a lot of close games and high leverage situations that require Bobby to deploy his best relievers.

The concern for me is whether the bullpen could derail this team, either in September if they pull closer to the wild card lead or next year when one or more of these four relievers may see their arms fall off mid-pitch. Bradley is right that the Braves are shaping up to be very, very good in 2010. The one red flag is that they rely upon pitchers whose arms will be shot after a Bataan Death March of appearances in 2009. I suppose it's possible that Jason Heyward is going to hit four home runs per game next year and the Braves' closer will have seven appearances over 162 games, but in the unlikely event that that doesn't happen, we now have something about which to worry this winter.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Five Outlandish Predictions, Take Five

As per tradition, my friend Ben, the irrationally optimistic Georgia/Saints fan, and I will make five loopy predictions for the upcoming college football season. Thanks to the incredibly convenient label that I created for the posts, you can revisit our previous hits and (mostly) misses. In 2008, Ben took the 0-fer and yours truly got two out of five, hitting on Ole Miss's big season and East Carolina beating West Virginia.

Ben's Five

1. Charlie Weis keeps his job this year, but loses it the following year. I think his entire offensive line is composed of seniors. [Three seniors and two juniors, but who's counting? -Ed.] You are looking at a huge drop off the next year. Also, they will have the sexy players back, Tate, Floyd and Clausen, meaning they will be overrated in the pre-season. I don’t think much of that win at Hawaii last year, and remember the total domination by USC as a greater indicator of their progress under “Schemer.” As a side note, what if they lose to Nevada in the opener? Remember, the Wolfpack are coached by a Hall of Famer and have fielded some decent teams recently. Plus ND did lose to the ‘Cuse last year, at home no less. If that happens and he loses to your beloved Wolverines the next week, does Tenuta become the interim coach by week 3?

[I'm not sure what to think about Notre Dame. On the one hand, Weis strikes me as a bully whose teams get punked every time they pick on someone their own size. Notre Dame fans are generally a clever bunch and will figure or have figured this out. On the other hand, so much talent!]

2. BC crashes very very hard. They lost a lot when Jags left and I think the bottom out this year. The ACC is slowly getting better, in large part to Butch Davis getting things going in Chapel Hill, Tom O’Brien implementing his program at State, and Bowden pursing the Paterno model and letting Jimbo run things in Tallahassee. (I do have an issue with the Swinney hiring, but I really like his hiring of Steele to coach the D, so I will give him two years). Firing a dynamic coach who was making chicken soup with… is a huge mistake. Matt Ryan was a talent, but he blossomed under Jags and what BC did last year with all the injuries was very impressive. BC has killed all of that with their principled stance.

[Way to go out on a limb by predicting bad things for BC, a team picked to finish fifth in a six-team division. After last year, this is Ben picking out a streak-breaker at closing time. Let's hope she doesn't order the double pork chop platter at the Waffle House.]

3. UGA far exceeds Vegas’s expectations, which are 8 wins, by winning 10 games. They win at Stillwater and at Knoxville. They also beat LSU at home, South Carolina at home and on the road in Fayetteville. They lose to Florida and possibly Tech. People seem to forget that Richt keeps pumping in these top ten classes while Tennessee has been down and SC has been average. Talent will win out and UGA has it.

[This is not unreasonable. I'm on record as thinking that Georgia will do well in the opener. Hell, with Georgia's record against defending national champions, I'm surprised that Ben doesn't foresee glory in Jacksonville.]

4. Pete Carroll’s tree will not take root yet. (Ask Nick Holt and Ed Orgeron.) Kiffin in Tennessee and Sarkisian in Washington will do horribly this year. Washington may have the hardest schedule in the country and will struggle to win 3 games. Kiffin has no QB in Tennessee and even though he recruited well, those guys are way too green to play in the SEC. They will not win 10 games between the two programs.

[I agree with this, as well. USC's regression on offense after Norm Chow left does not speak well of Kiffin or Sarkisian. Vegas has these two combining for 11 wins, so going nine or fewer is a smidge of a risk.]

5. Michigan will far exceed expectations and will win 9 games. Their schedule is a joke, and they should be 3-1 OOC, at least. If they beat ND in Ann Arbor, than 10 wins is clearly attainable. That means that they only have to go 6-2 in the Big Ten to hit the number. Outside of PSU and Ohio State, who scares you as a Michigan fan? Iowa is in Iowa City and they play Sparty at East Lansing. Color me unafraid. Maybe Illinois, but just look at the coach on the other side. It is cliché by now, but Rich Rod turns things around in year two. He has the schedule to do it.

[From your lips to G-d's ears. As will be clear from my first prediction, I'm high on at least one team on Michigan's schedule...]

Michael's Five

1. Iowa finishes ahead of Penn State and in the top two in the Big Ten. I don't quite understand why Iowa isn't getting more love this preseason. Did they win nine games last year solely because of Shonn Greene? The line in front of him, which returns three starters and plugs two seniors into the open spots, had nothing to do with it? The defense that allowed 16 points per game and 97 yards rushing per game in Big Ten play and returns eight starters had nothing to do with it? Iowa wins in State College and the game of the year in the Big Ten is November 14 when the Hawkeyes travel to Columbus.

2. Arkansas finishes ahead of at least one of Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU. They have 18 starters back, one of the best coaches in college football on the sideline, two legitimate SEC running backs, and an enormous upgrade at quarterback from Casey Dick to Ryan Mallett.

3. Georgia Tech loses four games and is out of the race in the ACC Coastal by November. I'm banking on Negative Grohmentum here, along with ACC defenses being a little more savvy to Tech's offense. The games against Virginia and Virginia Tech in the second half of October will be the Jackets' Waterloo (or Kursk, if you're Eastern Front inclined like I am). Tech has a dreadful record in Charlottesville and if there's one team you'd trust to slow down the Tech running game, it's the Hokies.

4. Baylor makes a bowl game. If Indiana, Vandy, and Arizona have all made it in recent years, it's time for the Bears to break their duck. After watching their performance in Lubbock at the end of last season, I'm fully on the Robert Griffin bandwagon. How about a trip to El Paso to play Stanford?

5. Steve Spurrier retires at the end of the year and is replaced by Charlie Strong.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


I wonder if the commenter who said that he was not going to come back to this site after he figured out that I write about soccer (the 161 posts regarding "the Other Football" must have been confusing to him) is now going to boycott Bill Simmons. A couple thoughts on a very strong piece:

1. I think the correct analogy for Mexico's playing style is not a football team that controls time of possession with a brutal running game and a short passing game. Mexico's tempo is faster than that. At least when playing at the Azteca, El Tri seem more like a football team with an excellent defense that forces a lot of three-and-outs and then runs a no-huddle on offense. They didn't strike me as playing a very deliberate game last week. They're more the Saints with a better defense than they are the Giants.

2. I quite liked this paragraph describing the reaction to the winning goal:

I will remember the reaction afterward: Complete and utter delirium. Everyone just threw whatever drink they had as far as they could. It was like watching a new Pixar movie called "A Snowstorm of Drinks" crossed with a full-fledged prison riot. Then and only then did we realize exactly how much that game meant to the Mexicans. As Hopper said right after the final whistle (Mexico 2, USA 1), "I guess the upside is that we're going to live."

The one sports experience that I can remember that was similar was Charlie Peprah's interception return for a touchdown for Alabama against Georgia in 2002. Peprah's TD was the second Bama TD in quick succession that turned a 24-12 deficit into a 25-24 lead. I've never seen a scene quite like that. Drinks flying everywhere. Noise like you wouldn't believe (amplified for us by the metal overhand right above our heads). I'll always remember looking at my wife and the two of us exchanging looks of utter disbelief at the anarchy going on around us. And two possessions later, Georgia drove down the field and Billy Bennett kicked the winning field goal.

3. I'm not buying the following paragraph:

The good news for U.S. fans? Our boys hung for two hours in Mexico without disgracing themselves. The bad news? The defeat reinforced some basic problems with our soccer program. We have only a few world-class players (Donovan, Oguchi Onyewu, Clint Dempsey and goalie Tim Howard) and lack a franchise guy who could swing any game, even one being played in Estadio Azteca. For instance, I watched Sunday's Liverpool-Tottenham battle, and Steven Gerrard was so ridiculously, dominantly good in so many different ways -- some overt, some subtle -- that I couldn't get over it. He makes difficult plays seem effortless; you never forget he's on the field. America doesn't have anyone like that. Just like in basketball, you can't win championships in soccer without a LeBron/Kobe-type player.

I watched the Spurs-Liverpool match on Sunday and Gerrard was mostly peripheral because Liverpool miss Xabi Alonso pinging the ball around behind him. It was not a dominant Gerrard performance because he lacked support, thus illustrating the fact that soccer, moreso than basketball, requires that the entire team function in order for a superstar to dominate a game. There are few soccer equivalents to a LeBron single-handedly winning games for his team.

4. Amen to this:

Whatever happens, the stars seem to be aligning for soccer in the United States. Subtle factors have made soccer a potential breakout sport for the next decade: high definition; few commercial breaks; games that almost always end within two hours; improved camera angles; increased exposure to international play; a generation of adults weaned on the 1994 World Cup; even the near-death of passing in basketball, which led people like me to gravitate toward soccer simply because I miss seeing telepathic connections between teammates and will take it any way I can get it. I don't think I'm alone.

I have the same thoughts on passing. Maybe it's a result of watching the Gretzky Oilers during my formative sports years?

5. Did you ever think that you would read a Red Sox nut like Simmons type the two sentences that conclude the piece?

As for the Mexicans, they averted a national disaster and reignited their Cup chances. On the way back to our hotel, driving in our bulletproof car, we passed under a bridge on the highway and noticed one lone Mexican man happily swinging a flag back and forth. He had to have been 45 minutes from the stadium. There was nobody around him. He just kept swinging that flag with a joyous grin on his face. I remember thinking to myself, "Nobody in America will ever care about a sport that much." And we won't.

Me neither.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vickkampf: Werner von Braun Is Now Making Rockets for the Other Team

Michael Vick returns December 6. You think there might be a little coverage of that event at the Georgia Dome? G-d help us all if the Falcons are struggling at that point.

I have to admit that I'm interested to see what Andy Reid does with Vick. He's clearly not bringing him in to compete for the starting spot. Donovan McNabb is entrenched as the starter and the Eagles spent a second round pick on Kevin Kolb in 2008. The Eagles' primary offense is a variant of the West Coast Offense, which proved to be a poor fit for Vick's skill-set when Jim Mora and Greg Knapp were calling the shots here.

Rather, I suspect that Reid is going to deploy a version of the Wildcat. College fans should be familiar with the offense that Reid is going to use, as it will most likely look a lot like the Spread 'n' Shred that is all the rage in college football right now. NFL types will look confused and call this offense the Wildcat, but Vick is an actual quarterback and the Wildcat (as I understand it) usually involved a running back or wide receiver taking the snap. If Reid does his homework and watches enough college tape, he could create a devastating offense using Vick as the quarterback, Brian Westbrook as the runner, and Jeremy Maclin and Desean Jackson as the slot receivers. Imagine the pressure a defense would face with Vick and Westbrook running the zone read and Jackson and Maclin working into plays as pitchmen. This wouldn't be the Eagles' base offense, but for 15-20 plays per game, it would be incredible. Additionally, the Eagles would avoid the main reason why Vick couldn't run the Spread 'n' Shred in the NFL: the injury risk. If Vick is running the offense for 15-20 plays, then he isn't going to take the same pounding that he would if he ran the offense full-time.

I have all sorts of questions about the implications of the Eagles running a college offense with Vick. First, Andy Reid is a West Coast Offense guy. Can he figure out how to run a different offense now that he has the right personnel for it? Second, NFL teams have a lot of practice time, but do they have enough to deploy two very different offenses? Third, if the Spread 'n' Shred is successful for 15-20 snaps per game, will there be pressure on the Eagles to expand the package? If Vick is doing well for the Eagles, does Miami create a bigger package for Pat White? Will another team in the NFL go to the Spread for 50% of its snaps? Or all of its snaps? Will this create a bigger draft market for college quarterbacks who run the offense? Like that guy in Gainesville whose name escapes me right now?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Don't Say I Didn't Warn You

Thoughts on El Tri 2 Nats 1:

1. Landon Donovan is one of the fastest players on the US team. Ordinarily, players don't run past him. Efrain Juarez did exactly that to get into the penalty area and set up Mexico's winner eight minutes from time. That one play illustrated why a game at the Azteca isn't a true measuring stick for the Nats. They were playing in conditions that had a major impact on the performance of our players. I wouldn't judge the US for slipping and sliding around if they played on a glacier; I would judge them for failing to make proper crosses while playing in a typhoon; and I won't judge them for being a gear slower than the Mexicans in Mexico City. The US players often looked like they were in quicksand. The altitude had the greatest effect on the US midfielders because they play the position that requires the most running.

2. That said, there were several Americans whose performances were disappointing. Clint Dempsey was completely absent from the game. Carlos Bocanegra's positioning was dreadful at times. Collectively, Dempsey and Bocanegra represented the American left, which explains why every attack that Mexico mounted on its right flank seemed dangerous. I've seen Gio dos Santos on plenty of occasions because he came up through the Barca youth system. He's the same guy who couldn't get off the bench for mid-table Spurs this pas season. He isn't Marc Overmars, but our defense made him look as such.

3. Charlie Davies, holy hell! I'd barely heard of him before this summer, but he was terrific at the Confederations Cup and he was excellent in the game today. His run and finish for the goal were perfect and he came oh so close to nodding Stuart Holden's inviting cross goalward in the second half when Mexico gave the slightest signs of pushing too far forward.

4. You would have to say that that was an eventful game for Landon Donovan. He set up the U.S. goal, then his giveaway in the midfield started the move for Mexico's equalizer, then he was beaten like a drum for the winner (although I'm willing to cut him some slack as described above). Donovan was certainly more of a threat than Dempsey on the opposite wing, but he still has weaknesses.

5. Between the excitement of Andres Cantor and the atmosphere at the Azteca, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching the game. That game, in a nutshell, is why I find soccer so compelling.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Don't Get Your Hopes Up

There are a bunch of reasons why the Nats have never won at Estadio Azteca. Mexico City is at an elevation of 7,350 feet. (I guess the nickname "1.4 Mile High City" never stuck?) The air is polluted. El Tri's players and 100,000+ fans are never more motivated when they get a chance to repay the U.S. for James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, and Winfield Scott. (One can make an argument that the Mexican War contributed to our Civil War by bring vast new territories over whose slave/free status the North and South would bicker vehemently, so maybe Mexico already got its revenge? I digress.) Oh, and Mexico has historically had better players and teams than the U.S. does. Its history at the World Cup is longer and more consistent. Its players have made a bigger impact in Europe. Its domestic league is better than ours.

With the one exception that the U.S. has closed the gap significantly with Mexico in terms of the quality of our teams, the remaining statements are all true. I fully expect the U.S. to lose tomorrow. The game means more to Mexico because they need the points badly. Our players are going to be sucking wind by the end of the first half, not because they aren't fit, but because of the conditions. If Argentina, a team with a smidge more skill than the U.S., can lose 6-1 at La Paz and 2-0 at Quito, then there's probably something to the altitude thing. This just is not a good test for the Nats. Wiping the pitch with the African champs was a yardstick. Beating Spain was a yardstick. Staying with Brazil was a yardstick. Playing our arch-rival in incredibly difficult conditions when we only need to finish third out of six to make it to South Africa is not.

All that said, it would be considered poor form for the U.S. to refuse to come out of the locker room with Bob Bradley demanding air:

So how should he play the game? Here are the maxims:

1. 0-0 is a great result. The formula for qualifying for the World Cup is three points at home and one point on the road. (In CONCACAF, three points at home and none on the road is fine, but let's pretend that we're in a difficult situation as opposed to the self esteem-boosting Hex.) A draw is normally a good thing; it's a great thing in this situation because it would deprive one of the Nats' rivals for an automatic qualification spot of two points.

2. Mexico's desperation can be used against them. Remember how the U.S. took advantage of Spain's offensive tendencies to score a great counter-attacking goal? The principle is the same here. Imagine how the Mexican players will react if the game is 0-0 with 20 minutes remaining. Their fans will be onto them with every pass or shot that misses the mark. They'll feel the humiliation of dropping points at home against the U.S. for only the second time ever. They'll be absolutely desperate to score. Does that sound like a team that can be hit on the counter by Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore?

3. Speaking of Jozy, I would not start him. With endurance at a premium, Brian Ching is a better option because he is in the middle of his season, whereas Altidore is not. Additionally, Ching is better at holding the ball up and the U.S. is going to need that if they are going to play a low energy game for the first hour. Ching should not see the field next summer as a starter, but he's the right striker for this particular time and place.

4. If I could steal from Tim Vickery for a paragraph, there are two keys when playing at altitude. The first is that the road team needs to be as compact as possible, leaving little space between the forward line, the midfield, and the back line. This constricts the game and reduces the amount of running that's required. The second is that the defenders cannot play too deep because the shots from distance are a bigger factor in the thin air. This latter maxim presents a major problem for the U.S. because our central defenders aren't the most nimble players on the planet. They are reliable at heading crosses out of danger, but they can be exposed for pace, especially by the smaller, quicker Mexicans and especially if Demerit and Gooch have to get right up on the attackers. Thus, the midfielders are going to have to provide as much defensive assistance as possible.

5. If you can't tell from the preceding paragraph, I'd like to see two defensive midfielders in the match, most likely Ricardo Clark and Michael Bradley in a withdrawn role. Bradley cannot afford to make the mistake of playing too expansively. I felt great about Bradley's evolution over the course of the Confederations Cup; let's see where he is now.


So I click on this morning to take a look at the headlines and who was staring back at me but Derek Jeter. The headline story on ESPN was about the Yankees going to the top of the network's power rankings after a big week. To tease the story, ESPN ran a quintessential picture of Jeter giving a fist bump to a teammate, steely eyes of determination fully deployed. Leader Leader Leader!!! The picture struck me a little funny because I saw the highlights of each of the Yankees-Red Sox games over the course of the weekend (they were hard to avoid) and I don't remember Jeter doing much in those highlights. So I took a quick gander at the OPS of the Yankees starting position players over the past week:

Teixeira - 1.241
Posada - 1.196
Damon - 1.160
Swisher - 1.098
Cano - 1.097
Rodriguez - .833
Matsui - .833
Jeter - .433
Cabrera - .425

It must be nice when the Worldwide Leader in Sports brands you as the reason that your team ascended to the top of its baseball rankings following a week in which you went five for thirty with no walks, one extra-base hit, and six strikeouts. Gillette will be so pleased.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Thoughts After the Big Weekend in Mannywood

Mark Bradley proclaimed that the Braves needed to go 5-2 on the West Coast trip to stay in contention. Lo and behold, the team honored his request and Atlanta is now 3.5 games back in the wild card standings, although it must be said that the Braves are behind four teams, so that 3.5 games is bigger than it appears. Random thoughts on the weekend:

1. I stayed up on Thursday night to watch the end of the game and ended up muttering about Cox's decision to pitch Rafael Soriano at the end of a four-run win over a punchless Padres team on the preceding day. I'm not quite sure why I stayed up until 1:30 on a work night to watch a ballgame, other than that I wanted some sort of throwback to the late summer of 1991. I also muttered about Cox letting Peter Moylan pitch to Manny Ramirez with the tying runs on in the seventh and Matt Kemp in the same situation in the eighth, but Moylan got strikeouts on both occasions. Moylan has been excellent since the All-Star Break. Finally, I muttered when Brian McCann took a foul tip off of his throwing hand. There are very few baseball technique subjects upon which I can comment intelligently, but I did play catcher in little league and I remember being taught to keep my throwing hand behind my back when receiving the pitch. That seems like a relatively low-cost way to avoid breaking a bone in one's hand, no?

2. Remember when Jeff Schultz wondered why the Braves wouldn't trade Yunel Escobar and Kelly Johnson in addition to Jeff Francoeur? I thought about that sage piece of wisdom on Saturday night (OK, Sunday morning watching highlights) after seeing Johnson hit the game-winning homer and then Escobar saved the game in the bottom of the tenth with a sterling defensive play. Johnson and Escobar were both excellent this weekend. Kudos to Frank Wren for not doing something impulsive and stupid in off-loading them, not that there's any evidence that he considered doing so.

3. Anyone who thought that the Braves were going to win on Saturday night with the weakest of their five starters on the hill and Chipper and McCann both out of the lineup, please raise your hands.

4. I am pasting in full an e-mail that I got from frequent commenter Peacedog on Sunday morning regarding Jason Heyward:

2008 Braves (A) 9.80% 16.50% 0.66
2008 Braves (A+) 8.30% 18.20% 0.50
2009 Braves (A+) 10.00% 15.90% 0.70
2009 Braves (AA) 15.20% 10.70% 1.67

That's BB%, K%, BB/K

This year, he has 12 assists and 3 errors in 68 games (he's DHed ten games); last year it was 9 and 9. He has played 11 games in CF, but it's not a viable long term option. That said, one of the things people say about him is how well he moves for a guy that big. No, that's not quite right; he's got real speed. He's 21-25 career on SBs, and they say he just flies around the bases. He doesn't have Ricky-type speed, obviously. It bodes well for his defense, of course.

He turns 20 this month, IIRC. (Freeman won't until September.) I think it's actually next week.

29 doubles and 11 homers last year in 471 AB.

24 doubles and 15 homers this year in 286 AB.

91 AB now in AA. It's still not a huge sample size, but a month is a month. As the above chart shows, he's markedly better. His K% has improved at every level after A-, as has his Walk Rate. He may be a guy who walks more than he Ks at the major league level, if he gets near his potential and after he settles in. The 11k in 97 AB is a wonderful number. If that keeps up. . . I think it means he's started to find strikeouts quaint, and wanted to try baseball without then. I'd *love* to see his contact rate, but I'm pretty sure it's going to be in the 80s.

The real downside here, I think, is that it's very likely he will eventually have to leave Atlanta to go fight in Ragnarok.

The Braves could be very, very good next year.

5. Wouldn't it be amusing if the Phillies collapsed after winning the division because of collapses by the Mets in 2007 and 2008? It seems unlikely, but so did the Mets' implosions.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

"You're Not Impressed That We Beat Chris Zurbrugg?"

What Thomas Friedman is to a Manhattan Project for alternative energy, I am to the BCS/non-BCS conference contretemps that have erupted since Utah whipped an Alabama team missing its best player. I just can't stop writing about it. I was worried that I was becoming a bit of a stuck record, but our old friend Mandel weighed in with a piece so rife with problems that writing about it makes me feel like a naval aviator at the Marianas Turkey Shoot. And what are those problems?

I'll cut to the chase: the biggest problem running through the entire article (and much of the criticism of the BCS) is the notion that the BCS is some sort of conspiracy to deprive mid-majors from the ability to play for the national title:

The BCS, which began in 1998, was designed to avoid situations like the one in '84, when the top two teams in the polls could not meet in a bowl game. However, because the system was founded by the six major conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC) and Notre Dame, it's become significantly harder for a team from outside that group to rise to No. 1 or 2.
Stewart seems to have a hard time with logic, so I'll make this as plain as possible: under the current rules of the BCS, BYU would have played for the national title in 1984. The Cougars were #1 in the polls going into the bowls. They would have been #1 or #2 in the BCS rankings, especially the current incarnation of the polls that minimizes the role of computer ratings and emasculates those computers by denying them the right to use margin of victory.

So what has changed? The voters take strength of schedule into account far more than they used to. Think about it. Your average voter in 1984 got his news from the local paper. When he wasn't covering a game live, he had few options for watching them on TV. Thus, he would not have seen BYU or the teams that they played. Your average voter in 2009 can watch just about any team in the country because of the proliferation of televised college football. He is probably getting his news from ESPN,, and/or the blogosphere, all of which cover the entire country and expose the voters to a vast ocean of data. In short, voters are far more educated now than they used to be, which means they can look behind a shiny record. I wouldn't say that voters are smart, but they are smarter than they used to be and they are starting to get the concept that a 10-1 team can be better than an 11-0 team, or that teams don't have to move in lockstep as long as they keep winning. Mandel starts the story as follows: "Twenty-five years ago this fall, BYU hijacked college football. The sport has been fighting back ever since." Who is doing the fighting? The coaches and the voters in the Harris poll. If anyone is the villain, it's them.

And why is it some sort of nefarious conspiracy that voters are more interested in strength of schedule than they used to be? Mandel acts as if the BCS conferences and Notre Dame are some sort of mini version of the Freemasons or the Trilateral Commission for allegedly convincing the voters that they should take the "whom did you beat?" question seriously. This is a bad thing?

The story that Mandel tells about the '84 Cougars illustrates why voters are (or should be) skeptical about gaudy records. BYU beat #3 Pitt and then a Baylor team coming off of a bowl season in their first two games, which launched BYU into the top ten. As Mandel admits much later in the article, Pitt and Baylor both finished with losing records, but beating them gave BYU an early, misleading boost. BYU then struggled with two WAC opponents, leading back-up quarterback Blaine Fowler to whine "We felt like we had to win by 40 every week." Uh, when you're playing teams that a national champion should bury, then yes, you should win by 40.

Mandel then moves into a discussion of BYU ending up in the Holiday Bowl against the worst of Bo Schembechler's 21 Michigan teams:

Writers from the nation's major papers began descending on Provo to profile Edwards' improbable team. Rumors began to swirl that BYU would get out of its contract with the Holiday Bowl to play in the higher-profile Fiesta Bowl. That didn't happen, but officials from the six-year-old San Diego game (which had hosted BYU every year of its existence) tried feverishly to find a worthy opponent for the top-ranked Cougars.

Executive Director John Reid, hampered by his game's $500,000 payout, later recounted seven schools turned him down, including Doug Flutie-led Boston College. The selection committee settled on 6-5 Michigan, which had risen as high as No. 3 early in the season before QB Jim Harbaugh broke his arm in the fifth game.
Am I the only one who sees something missing here? Mandel takes a shot at the "seven schools" who were apparently afraid of playing BYU in the Holiday Bowl, but he glides right past the question of why BYU didn't try to play in the Fiesta Bowl, which ultimately pitted 8-4 Miami against 8-3 UCLA. In other words, two non-WAC teams that finished with winning records, a category of opponent that BYU didn't play in 1984. And we're supposed to believe that it's a bad thing that "college football" fought back? At the end of the article, BYU quarterback Max Hall makes the very reasonable statement that the way for a team like BYU to win the national title in the current era would be to beat "an Oklahoma, or a Florida or a Texas" and then go unbeaten. He's right about that. No mid-major has done that before, but that can't be the reason why there hasn't been a mid-major playing for a national title since 1984. No, it must be because of those bastards at the Harris poll taking strength of schedule into account.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Time to Secede! South Carolina, Lead the Way! This Is Your Specialty!

In an off-season that has been marked by intense focus on the differences between the BCS conferences and the rest of the Bowl Subdivision, Andy Staples' piece on the growing financial gap fits right in. Staples does a good job of summarizing the findings of Dan Fulks, a Transylvania University accounting professor:

Fulks, who just completed a study of 2008 financial data to update his 2006 study, said 25 of the 120 FBS athletic departments generated more money than they spent. That's up from 19 in 2006, and the median surplus for the departments turning a profit jumped more than $1 million to $3.9 million. Now for the bad news. The other 95 departments ran a median deficit of $9.87 million. For public schools, taxpayer dollars usually cover that deficit. Fulks expects the gulf between the profitable and unprofitable departments to grow more next year because of the recession.

It's a useful divergence from the David vs. Goliath narrative to point out that the major conference powers direct millions of dollars back to their universities, while the non-BCS conference members suckle at the public teat to pay for their pads. Senator Hatch, you're supposed to be opposed to the latter behavior, are you not?

In a way, the BCS conferences find themselves in the position of the top league of English football in the early 90s. The solution for the top clubs was to essentially secede from the English FA to form the Premier League. As a result, the top league would now negotiate its own TV contracts and distribute revenue to its members, rather than having the FA do so for the top league as well as the number of leagues below. If the political pressure continues from low-revenue programs gets too great, then the high-revenue programs will react the same way that Arsenal, Manchester United, and Liverpool did: we're going to form our own league so we can control the bushels of cash that we generate.

The irony of such a move is that it would make a playoff more likely, only it wouldn't be the playoff that Senator Hatch wants (unless Utah and BYU end up going with the high revenue group, in which case Hatch's new-found affection for the little guy will almost certainly evaporate). The primary obstacle to a playoff right now is control of revenue. Under the current system, the six major conferences and Notre Dame get to divvy up the pie as they see fit. (This is the major difference between college football right now and the English top division before the advent of the EPL.) They are opposed to a large playoff (certainly a large playoff) because of the possibility that they will lose control of the purse strings to the NCAA. If the 66 major programs form their own league, then they can make a playoff and distribute the money as they see fit.

[It probably bears mentioning that the BCS Conference schools are affiliated with the NCAA for reasons other than football. A full break from the organization seems radical and unlikely. Rather, what I'm imagining is that these schools assert control over their football division and shrink it.]

Hell, while we're imagining a better future, let's add in better out-of-conference match-ups as a second benefit to a smaller top division. Assuming that there are limits on playing teams from the lower divisions, the quality of non-conference games would shoot up if the BCS conference teams have to play each other more than once or twice a season. You think that the networks wouldn't be enthusiastic about this idea? In addition to a more lucrative playoff structure, major college football would have bigger TV contracts. Then again, with the BCS Conference teams playing each other in non-conference games, they will end up playing fewer home games, so there is a revenue downside to a smaller Bowl Subdivision.

In conclusion, Senator Hatch, please keep pushing. Free market conservatives are big on the law of unintended consequences; you have a great chance to illustrate the maxim.

I Can't Help It If I'm (Not) Lucky

After today's win, the Braves are 55-53, five games behind San Francisco in the wild card standings and 6.5 games behind the Phillies in the NL East. The Braves have outscored their opponents by 27 runs on the season, a margin that ought to leave the team two games better than their actual record at 57-51. This imaginary Braves team with a record to match its run differential would be only three games out of the wild card and with fewer teams to vault to get to October.

Normally, the conclusion would be that the Braves have been unlucky and they stand a slightly better chance of making the playoffs than a normal team in their position. Unfortunately, this whole "we're unlucky and that luck will even out" mantra has become an annual refrain. The Braves have been two games below their expected record; they were six games below last year and five games below in 2006 and 2007. In other words, this is the fourth straight year in which the Braves have been "unlucky" by having a record that is poorer than their run differential. At a certain point, we have to look at explanations other than luck? How long are we going to have to wait for a season in which Atlanta wins a crazy share of one-run games and outperforms their actual merit?

So what's the explanation for why the Braves have consistently underperformed their expected records? Normally, one would point the finger at the bullpen, since it has a disproportionate impact on a team's performance in close games and a bad record in close games is the surest way to fail to match an expected record. While there have certainly been years in which a bad bullpen has hurt the Braves, this year is not one of those years. The pen hasn't been dominant, but it's at least a tad over average, so it wouldn't explain why the team has been unlucky. Sure enough, the Braves are 6-3 in extra innings and 18-15 in one-run games, so the miserable failings in close games have not popped up this year. (Did you know that the Braves were 48-88 in one-run games from 2006-08? 40 games under .500 in games that are supposed to be a coin flip? Yeesh.) We have to look somewhere else.

I'm loathe to attribute a big role to any baseball manager because the tactical aspects of the position are colossally overrated, certainly compared to football or basketball coaches. I'm also loathe to ever say anything negative about Bobby Cox, the best coach/manager that this city has seen, full stop. With those two caveats out of the way, are we hamstrung by a manager making tactical mistakes in tight games? Does anyone else have a better explanation for why the Braves are underperforming their expected record for the fourth year running? The sample size is getting a little big to be a fluke. I'm honestly open to any thoughts from the peanut gallery. I prefer any explanation other than "it's Bobby's fault." Bonus points for assigning blame to Kent Hrbek, Ed Sprague, Jim Leyritz, or Brad Ausmus.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Back From Vacation

A few quick thoughts:

1. I heartily co-sign on Tony Barnhart's argument that college football coaches should be judged by conference titles and not national titles. The one caveat that I would add is that this is true for top conferences, but it isn't necessarily true for weaker ones. I have two coaches in mind here. The first is Jim Tressel, whom I see as a little overrated because he's had the good fortune of coaching in the Big Ten while Penn State has been coached by the Queen of England and Michigan was coached by Lloyd Carr with one foot out the door. (On the other hand, if Tressel's reputation is defined by the recent losses to Florida, LSU, and USC, then he's underrated.) The second is Frank Beamer for the same reason as Tressel: the other two major programs in the ACC have been down this decade, so beating out Boston College and Clemson for conference titles is not the greatest achievement.

2. I'm a little disappointed that the Braves' momentum petered out this week. As currently constituted, the team is playoff-caliber for the first time since the end of the dynasty. Frank Wren has done a good job of covering the team's weaknesses over the course of the season, to the point that there isn't an obvious weak point on the team. (Was I the only one who was very surprised that the Red Sox, a well-run team, traded Adam LaRoche to the Braves for Casey Kotchman? To my untrained eye, LaRoche is a significantly better hitter and he's always finished seasons well, so the Red Sox are giving up on a potential asset. Are they solely in the market for a defensive first baseman, in which case Kotchman is a slight improvement?) The outlook for the team in 2010 is very good because just about every major contributor is under contract for next year. The question is whether the team gets hot at the end of 2009 and makes a run at the Wild Card. I was feeling good about that possibility, but the team are now five games out and have a number of rivals to vault.

3. I finally read Friday Night Lights on vacation. It was a terrific read from start to finish, although Bissinger's take on the conservative politics of west Texas came across as condescending (and I say that as someone who is left-of-center). Generally speaking, Bissinger was amazed that the residents of Odessa would be so obsessed by their high school football program, but that's a quintessential attitude for someone living in the Northeast who is more interested in pro sports and college/high school sports don't register.

Bissinger did a great job of describing how the collapse in oil prices damaged the economies of Odessa and Midland and the context that the downturn created for the Permian-Lee rivalry. I'd be shocked if there isn't a similar plot line in the TV series this season. I was also especially interested in the three-way tie in the region that was resolved by a coin toss at an undisclosed truck stop. For those who think that the Big XII's use of the BCS rankings to break a three-way tie was a bad idea, there are more arbitrary ways to do things.