Saturday, January 30, 2010

Brace Yourself for Elimination

Two years ago, the Hawks landed their first punches on the eventual champion Celtics. It was quite the shock at the time that a 37-45 team took three playoff games off of the favorites for the title. The Celtics ultimately put the Hawks back in their place in Game Seven, but the seed was planted: these Hawks can compete with the team that is the historical gold standard in the NBA, not to mention the best team at present.

Last night, the Hawks reached the summit of the mountain. I know it's a regular season game, but if ever an NBA regular season game could mean something, it should have last night for the Celtics. Several Boston players bristled at the notion that the Hawks had some sort of advantage over them when Atlanta won at the Fleet Center to go to 3-0 on the season. With KG back in the lineup and a chance to show that the Hawks don't have an advantage, Boston should have put forward their best effort last night.

By halftime, it was 51-39 Hawks and Atlanta had a 25-3 advantage in fast break points. It was a classic instance of a veteran team watching a younger usurper shoot past them. The Celtics were reduced to a collection of grumpy, bitching old men trying to deal with younger, more athletic players in a young man's game. About the time that Josh Smith beat his man down the court on the secondary break for an uncontested flush, I was thinking back to the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Bulls finally got past the older, declining Pistons who had kept them down for several years. If only the East was bipolar and not quadpolar. (Is that a word? I doubt it.)

The odd aspect of the box score is that Boston's starters all finished with positive plus/minus numbers. If last night's game was emblematic for this Celtics team, then their bench is dreadful. Boston was even in the first quarter and dominated the third quarter, but they got worked in quarters two and four, most likely because they don't have anything close to this guy:

Jamal Crawford comes into the game and scores a pile of points that the opponents' reserves can't match. (I kept pumping my fist in the second quarter and muttering "Jamal was the last piece.") Rasheed Wallace comes into the game and hoists a bevy of threes that rarely find the mark. Amazingly enough, he was over the hill last year and is over the hill this year.

So here we are. The Cavs are the best team in the East, as they were last year. Atlanta and Orlando will be fighting for the spot right behind them. The winner of the Southeast Division gets the Celtics in the second round. The loser gets Cleveland. That makes tonight's game a little important, dontchathink?

Friday, January 29, 2010

World Cup Stocks, 132 Days to Go

I've been very busy at work and finding myself without a lot of topics about which to write with college football done and European footie in a lull before the Champions League takes off in earnest at the end of February. (I should be writing more about the Hawks, who are playing well right now, but it's a little hard to get excited at any one point of an 82-game season.) So, without further fanfare, say hello to a new feature at this here blog: a weekly, stock up/stock down look at the major contenders for this summer's World Cup.

Stock Down: Brazil - The Selecao are, at present, the second favorite to hoist the Jules Rimet Trophy this summer, but there are chinks in the armor. For one thing, the last two times Brazil won the World Cup followed qualifying campaigns in which they barely preserved their streak of being the only country to appear at every World Cup. Qualifying with ease has generally been a bad sign for Brazil. More specifically, Dunga has settled on a lineup, but a number of the major figures in that lineup are injured or looking shaky. The front line is composed of: (1) Luis Fabiano, who is injured; (2) Kaka, who has been a major disappointment so far at the Bernabeu; and (3) Robinho, who just forced a transfer from Manchester City to Santos, forgetting that Brazilians are supposed to spend their primes in Europe. Felipe Melo, who was a revelation for Fiorentina last summer and for Brazil at the Confederations Cup, has been a disaster at Juventus, as has Diego, who was hoping to force his way into the Brazil side. The rest of the midfield would be Elano, who is currently playing for Galatasaray, and Gilberto Silva, who is 834 years old.

Let's be honest here: Brazil never lack for players and they can fill out a depth chart full of quality options better than any other team in the world. However, this can be a problem. Many of Brazil's first-choice players are not in-form, which means that there will be some uncertainty because the guys behind them in the pecking order are of such high quality. This is not an easy problem for Dunga to handle.

Stock Up: Argentina - Let's imagine for a moment that Argentina were coached by a replacement-level gaffer and not a guy who reminds me of Tony Montana, post-Take it to the Limit. The team's major problem during an uneven qualifying campaign was a weak backline. Now, Walter Samuel is playing at a high level and was just part of the Inter backline that completely shackled a previously high-flying Milan attack. Gabi Milito is returning to fitness at Barcelona and should be the first central defender on the depth chart behind Puyol and Pique. (It sure shouldn't be Marquez or Chygrynskiy, but that's another story.) Voila, there's a central defense pairing that could win a World Cup. Also, our replacement level coach would be able to pick between in-form Diego Milito and in-form Gonzalo Higuain to partner with Leo Messi, who is torrid right now. Argentina are still suspect at left and right backs, not to mention goalie, but the rest of the roster is rounding into form.

Stock Down: Ivory Coast - There will be a lot of pressure on the Elephants as the standard bearers for an entire continent at the first African World Cup, but they just put in an underwhelming performance at the African Cup of Nations, drawing with Burkina Faso and then losing in the first knock-out round to Algeria. Soccer365 makes the good point that Eurocentric footie fans overrate Ivory Coast (and I would include myself with that description) because it has a number of European stars, but other African sides have plenty of quality players. Personally, I don't totally buy that explanation. If there are players in Africa who are just as good as Didier Drogba, then European clubs would buy their rights. Jerrad Peters assumes the existence of a failing of the market and I would need more evidence before I believe it. Still, it's hard to argue with the results and Ivory Coast did not look good at the ANC. As in 2006, they are in a very tough group, so they will not have the luxury of rounding into form over the course of the tournament.

Stock Up: The Netherlands - Yup, it's about time for me to start deluding myself. Wesley Sneijder's move to Inter has been an unmitigated success, as he not just a regular for one of the elite European sides, but he has in fact shown himself to be the Nerazzurri's most critical player because he's the link-up player that Inter have sought for years. He ever comes with that quintessential Dutch hothead:

Robin van Persie was flying for Arsenal before getting injured in a friendly for the Dutch, an injury from which he will heal in advance of the summer and which will ensure that he doesn't have too many miles on the odometer in June. Arjen Robben is in form for Bayern. If Ruud van Nistlerooy gets his legs back at Hamburg, then the Dutch are going to have the best attacking options of any team in the tournament. I still don't like this team's backline, but the forwards and attacking midfielders should be good enough to deter opponents from taking too many risks.

Friday, January 22, 2010

I'm All Tingly

I was feeling a little glum about the 2010 Braves in the aftermath of the Javier Vazquez trade. Then the Baseball Prospectus came out with their list of the top 11 prospects in the organization and Stella got her groove back. Behold, the list of negatives about Jason Heyward:

The Bad: When asked what aspects of Heyward's game need improvement, one scout simply replied, "Nothing." The only real concern about Heyward is his health, as Heyward has played just 226 games over the past two years due to a variety of minor maladies.

Now, my task for Heyward is to come up with some sort of theme for Heyward. Godzilla seems too trite. Death Blossom? The Cobalt Bomb? Jaws? Chuck Norris in Stirrups? Any suggestions would be appreciated.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

One Thought on Georgia Going Into 2010

To simplify the Mark Richt era, there was the 2002-05 heyday in which the Dawgs won two SEC titles and three SEC East titles, and then the 2006-09 decline, in which Georgia didn't win its division even once, despite having very talented rosters. There are two primary explanations for why Georgia came down after 2005:

1. Willie Martinez became the defensive coordinator in 2005, the chinks started to appear in Georgia's armor at the end of that season (specifically, in the Auburn and West Virginia games), and then the defense went into full-on collapse mode at critical points during the next four seasons. If Martinez (and some other position coaches on the defense) was to blame and Todd Grantham is an upgrade, then the problem has been solved.

2. Richt benefited from a weak SEC. Here are the SEC's ranks (according to Sagarin) for the Aughts:

2009 - 1
2008 - 1
2007 - 1
2006 - 1
2005 - 5
2004 - 6
2003 - 2
2002 - 3
2001 - 1
2000 - 4

Richt's heyday corresponds with the conference's weakest period. Steve Spurrier had been replaced by Ron Zook, Phil Fulmer and Lou Holtz were in decline, Arkansas was in between Houston Nutt's two strong periods (the Clint Stoerner teams at the start of his tenure and the McFadden/Jones teams at the end), and Alabama was adrift under Mike Shula. The only SEC power programs that were not suffering were Auburn and LSU and Richt batted .500 against them during the glory years, including the two worst losses of the period: the 2003 SEC Championship Game against LSU and the 2004 game at Auburn. If this explanation is correct, then Mark Richt's future will be determined by whether Georgia's rivals in the conference slide. The conclusion would be that Richt is a pretty good coach who can win when he is in a decent SEC, but he cannot swim with the sharks that have been unleashed in the past four years.

Personally, I see a combination of the two explanations at work. I do think that Georgia will get better with a better defensive staff. I also think that Florida possibly declining under a chilled out Urban Meyer (or, dare we dream, Steve Addazio as the quasi-head coach, a la Mike Debord for 2007 Michigan) and Tennessee continuing to thrash about will be more important in defining the next Richt epoch.

What Do you Mean by "Substance," Tony?

I like Tony Barnhart, but he annoys me at times when the unreconstructed traditionalist in him gets loose. Such is the case with his claim that Tennessee hiring Derek Dooley is a "triumph of substance over style." Barnhart's evidence for Dooley's substance:

1. Dooley gave up on a legal career to coach. Something tells me that if I quit legal practice and announced my candidacy for head coaching positions in the SEC, I wouldn't get very far. But then again, my last name isn't Dooley, and that's the point.

2. "But in the final analysis, the younger Dooley is not only the right kind of coach, he is the right kind of MAN that Tennessee needs to lead its football program at this point in history." And your evidence for this is...what?

Look, I'd be fine if Barnhart ran a piece that said that he has a good relationship with Vince Dooley and he's happy that Dooley's son got a major head coaching gig in the SEC. I have no problem with a personal, "I'm feeling good" piece. I do have a problem when Barnhart takes his subjective feelings and turns them into a ham-handed attempt at an objective argument. There is no objective way to justify Tennessee hiring a guy whose head coaching experience consists of going 17-20 in the WAC. Tennessee just got burned by hiring a coach who was most noted for being the son of a great football mind; what in G-d's name are they doing repeating the same mistake? Maybe Dooley will do well and illustrate the maxim that we never can be sure which coaches will succeed and which will fail, but there is no good reason to think he will right now. Sorry, but I'm not persuaded by Tony vouching for Derek's character. Gerry Faust was also a great guy.

At Least We're Number One in Something

America's Gayest City!

Yes, Boston, you have all those championships, but we'll kick your ass at brunch!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Reason Number 578 why the Red Zone Channel is Life-Altering

I love American football more than most, but the Wall Street Journal went to the trouble of timing games to show how little actual action takes place:

According to a Wall Street Journal study of four recent broadcasts, and similar estimates by researchers, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes.

In other words, if you tally up everything that happens between the time the ball is snapped and the play is whistled dead by the officials, there's barely enough time to prepare a hard-boiled egg. In fact, the average telecast devotes 56% more time to showing replays.

So what do the networks do with the other 174 minutes in a typical broadcast? Not surprisingly, commercials take up about an hour. As many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps. In the four broadcasts The Journal studied, injured players got six more seconds of camera time than celebrating players. While the network announcers showed up on screen for just 30 seconds, shots of the head coaches and referees took up about 7% of the average show.

I hope I never have to listen to another football fan try to explain to me that he won't watch soccer because "nothing happens."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Catching up With the Local Professional Basketball Collective

The Hawks are coming out of an eight-game stretch in which they played Boston and Cleveland twice and Orlando and Miami once. The Hawks went 3-5 over that stretch, which might seem like a disappointment in the aggregate, but the team ended the run with wins home and away against the Celtics, so all is not lost. In fact, other than the uncompetitive losses against Miami and Orlando, the Hawks acquitted themselves reasonably well. (The Knicks loss was hard to swallow, but New York has been playing well and there is only so much that a team can do when Nate Robinson is that friggin' hot.)

The two games against Cleveland showed that the Hawks can compete with the best team in the East. Atlanta was one point down to the Cavs in the game at Philips and then led for almost the entire game in Cleveland before a positively horrendous call cost them the game. Then, the Hawks played like the veteran bunch of winners against Boston. There is a classic NBA archetype where a young team will compete with an experienced, superior team for 2-3 quarters before the experienced team turns on the jets late to snatch victory. We've seen the Hawks fall victim to that formula time and time again. So, with that context, you can imagine how gratifying it was to watch a third quarter run dispatch the Celtics on Friday night and then a fourth quarter run do the same on Monday, eradicating Paul Pierce in the process. (Credit to Marvin Williams for stellar defense? Is Pierce having mental problems? Combination of both?)

If Cleveland and Boston were the elite in the East, then life would be grand. The Hawks are 3-2 against that pair and have been in every game. If only Orlando didn't exist. After a good first half against the Magic on Thanksgiving, the Hawks have played their six worst quarters of the year against Orlando in the second half on Thanksgiving and then all game on Saturday night, when they laid a 48-minute turd on the court. The Hawks have now lost five in a row against the Magic since beating them in Orlando in the opener last season. I think it's fair to say that we have a problem with that team, which is why the half-game deficit that the Hawks face in the division seems so much bigger. As far as explanations go, I think that this one is obvious: unlike Boston and Orlando, the Hawks don't have a true center and the Magic's best player is their center. Dwight Howard controls the Hawks offense by blocking shots and, more importantly, giving assurance to Orlando's perimeter defenders so they can get out on the Hawks' perimeter players. Add in the fact that Mike Woodson has never been the best offensive tactician and you have a recipe for problems. The solution would be Al Horford developing a perimeter game to draw Howard away from the hoop, but I don't see that happening in the space of months. (You know whom the Hawks could really use? A modern-day Bill Laimbeer. Now that's a sentence that I never thought I would type.) So let's just agree that we don't want the Hawks to play the Magic in playoffs. Agreed? Excellent. Let's move on.

As usual, I agree with Mark Bradley's take on the Hawks coming out of the eight-game test:

I know it was no fun watching the Hawks lose back-to-back games to Cleveland before New Year’s or seeing the teensy Nate Robinson light them up for 41, but the NBA season is loooonnnngggg. Bad nights happen. The bottom line is that the Hawks are nearing the midpoint having had roughly twice as many good nights as bad. This isn’t the best team you’ve ever seen, but it’s the best bunch of Hawks any of us has seen in two decades.

Look, this Hawks team is probably not going to win an NBA title. With rare exceptions, NBA teams do not win championships if they don't have a truly elite player (top five or ten in the league) and the Hawks don't have one, nor do players like that fall out of the sky. As has been mentioned a time or two, the Hawks had their shot at such a player in the 2005 Draft and passed. If we accept that point and appreciate this team for what it is - a well-balanced, talented, likeable team that will win 50+ games and have a puncher's chance of coming out of the East - then this season and the seasons to come will be fun.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I May Not be a Smart Man, Layla, but I Know What Nepotism is.

Not since Forrest Gump has there been a figure who has found himself in more important positions despite having little or no aptitude for anything (other than being related to a defensive genius).

I didn't mind USC during the Carroll era. It was refreshing to watch a Pac Ten team play proper defense. It was certainly enjoyable to watch the Trojans humiliate Notre Dame on an annual basis. Now, that match-up has become a meteor game. USC - the program with its basketball program on probation for paying a player, the Reggie Bush investigation hanging over it like the Sword of Damocles, and fresh allegations that another star running back was being paid by, oh, I forgot, U.S./China Marketing - just hired a head coach who made NCAA infractions a part of his recruiting strategy in Knoxville. Did Michigan replace Steve Fisher with Jerry Tarkanian? Did Alabama replace Mike Dubose with Jackie Sherrill? Come on, NCAA, if ever a program was thumbing its nose at you, this is it. I don't root for the NCAA to hammer major programs because college football is more interesting when the major power are doing well, but I'm willing to make an exception in this instance. USC just moved to "utterly contemptible." And that's before we get to Ed Orgeron's apparent Jerry Maguire impersonation, desperately calling Tennessee recruits to discourage them from enrolling at Tennessee.

In terms of Tennessee's reaction, this is not the end of the world. Yes, the Vols are being dumped by their girlfriend, but it's not as if this lady was a keeper. If you buy the notion that a coach who commits a bevy of smaller violations is more likely to commit a big one, then Tennessee is dodging a bullet. And that's before we get to the fact that Lane Kiffin is not very good at coaching football. He's good at assembling a staff and he's an aggressive recruiter, but he was never going to be on anyone's list for the top ten coaches in the country. Isn't that what ultimately drove Tennessee fans crazy about Phil Fulmer? Assuming that he isn't tainted goods because of ElectricalShedGate, wouldn't Mike Leach be a major upgrade? After all those years of Big Orange fans suffering as Spurrier-coached Florida teams passed John Chavis's defenses to death, wouldn't a little reversal of fortune be sweet? How about an SEC with Meyer, Saban, Petrino, Miles, Richt, Nutt, Malzahn (the real brains behind the operation on the Plains), the Artist Formerly Known as Spurrier, and Leach? I was originally thinking this morning that Tommy Tuberville has to be kicking himself because he would have been a perfect fit in Knoxville, but now, I'm fixated on the coach whom Tommy is replacing.

Speaking of the coaching musical chairs this offseason and in an effort to expand from neverending World War Two analogies, does this offseason remind anyone else of Paris 1919? Old empires breaking apart, opening opportunities for smaller countries that are finally getting out from under the boot? No? Oh come on, just play along. The Pac Ten hegemon has lost its coach, replaced him with a buffoon, and has the NCAA knocking at its door, looking for reparations. The SEC hegemon lost its coach, then the coach came back, only we're not sure if the coach is going to be on the sidelines next fall. The teams that are third in the pecking orders of the Big XII and Big East had to fire their coaches for being abusive to their players. Georgia is thrashing about wildly in search for a defensive coordinator. Tennessee is now without a coach and its students are taking to the streets. For the first time in decades, Florida State (the Ottoman Empire of the aughts) has a new coach. Upheaval doesn't even begin to describe what's happening right now. G-d, I love college football.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Pac Ten Teams Raus!

2Florida 2
3Texas 1
4Boise State 2
5Ohio State 3
6TCU 3
7Iowa 8
8Cincinnati 3
9Nebraska 3
10Penn State 7
11Virginia Tech 2
12Oregon 5
13Pittsburgh 7
15Georgia Tech 4
16Brigham Young
18Clemson 1
19LSU 3
20Texas Tech 1
21Miami (Florida) 7
24Stanford 11
Last week's ballot

Dropped Out: Oregon State (#10), Arizona (#18), California (#22), Oklahoma State (#23), West Virginia (#24), Arkansas (#25).
  • This ballot was a little easier than most prior versions because we finally had some teams - Iowa, Penn State, Virginia Tech, Nebraska, and BYU - playing like good teams. I have a hard time justifying the Hokies dropping after an excellent Peach Bowl performance. The only explanation is that Iowa and Penn State both looked very good against better opponents and jumped the Hokies. Plus, the ACC took its customary hit in the bowl games.

  • The last spot on my ballot came down to a mish-mash of teams. I thought about Oregon State, but they laid such an egg against BYU that I couldn't rank them in good conscience. (Also, Sagarin doesn't like the Beavers.) I wanted to leave Arkansas in the poll, but they were very fortunate to win their bowl game. I gave Auburn some thought, but they lost to Arkansas and Georgia, their win over West Virginia lost a little luster when the Mountaineers were no longer on the ballot, and they did have that whole "losing record in conference" thing. In the end, I went with Georgia over Oklahoma State for the spot, even though the Dawgs lost to the Cowboys, because Okie State got worse as the season progressed and Georgia did leave us with a good pair of performances at the end. Sagarin agrees, as he would make the Dawgs a three-point favorite on a neutral field against the Pokes.

  • I went back and forth on Florida and Texas for #2. Texas did play Alabama tougher, even without their quarterback. On the other hand, Florida played a tougher schedule and their win over Cincinnati was better than anything on the Texas resume. I didn't give serious consideration to putting Boise State higher than #4 because their overall resume isn't as good, but that will not be the case next August.

  • In the realm of "why do I do this to myself," here was the college football discussion on The Sports Reporters yesterday: (1) Alabama wasn't that impressive in light of the fact that Colt McCoy got hurt; (2) Alabama has eight national titles, not 13; and (3) the preseason polls in college football are very important (note to Bob Ryan: Alabama opened the season behind Florida and Texas and passed them both by mid-October, despite the fact that Florida and Texas were unbeaten at the time) and Boise State should be near the top next year.

  • Alabama finished 14-0 against Sagarin's #2 ranked schedule. No team played more games against top ten or top 30 opponents. I don't think that I'm going out on a limb by saying that the two best SEC teams of the decade came in the final two years: '08 Florida and '09 Alabama. In fact, you'd have a hard time coming up with a team in the 90s that could match them. Florida '96 would be a possibility, followed by '92 Alabama. I smell a topic for the offseason.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Four on the Trot

Thoughts on Bama's Big Night in Pasadena:

  • It's fitting in a season that was marked by the holy trinity of quarterbacks - Bradford, McCoy, and Tebow - all having underwhelming seasons that the national title would be won by a team whose signal caller threw for 58 yards on 11 attempts. One of the legacies for 2009 will be that this is the year that defenses started to make a comeback. Scoring and yardage were down a little and by the end of the year, we had a defensive tackle making a serious run for the Heisman.

  • I'm not much on the "send a message to your team" school of thought, but the silver lining to Nick Saban's bizarre decision to call for a fake punt from his own 20 on 4th and 23 was that he was telling his defense "I don't care where Texas gets the ball; I have faith that you will not permit them to put it in the end zone."

  • At one point in the second quarter when the game was 7-6, I posed the question to Der Wife "do you think that Alabama could win this game if they took a knee on every offensive snap going forward, Coach Red Beaulieu style?" As it turned out, the answer was no. When we were discussing it, I put forward the thought that Texas would respond by throwing Hail Marys on every snap and inevitably, they would catch one and kick a field goal. As it turned out, their offensive success in the second half came from throwing deep. The lesson for coaches that have to deploy an understudy under center: deep passes down the sidelines. Over and over again, my love.

  • Note to the Wall Street Journal, which seems to think that the recruiting rankings are a crock: the true freshmen who were thrust into the limelight last night when McCoy and Ingram were hurt - Garrett Gilbert and Trent Richardson - were both five-star mega-recruits.

  • Alabama's totals when they beat Miami to win the 1992 national title: 267 yards rushing, 18 yards passing. Alabama's totals when they beat Texas to win the 2009 national title: 205 yards rushing, 58 yards passing.

  • Watching Nick Saban lift another crystal ball while thinking "OK, now how is it that human beings are supposed to smile?", I was reminded of a column that Ivan Maisel wrote at the outset of the SEC coaching arms race (probably after South Carolina hired Steve Spurrier) in which he noted that SEC teams should be looking for hungry, young, up-and-coming coaches instead of legends because no coach has ever won a national title at two different schools.

  • SEC national titles in the last four years: four. Big Ten national titles in the last forty years: two. This is part of why Brian Cook's attempt to limit the Big Ten's post-season perception problem to USC and the BCS is misplaced. (In Brian's defense, he does limit his statement to recent perception problems.) The Big Ten has a history of not winning national titles and any casual observer of the sport knows this. Since Bo Schembechler became the coach at Michigan in 1969 and started the Ten-Year War (or, as Michigan fans like to refer to it, the "modern era"), the Big Ten is 12-26 in the Rose Bowl. One of the basic precepts on which I grew up in the 80s was that the Big Ten champion always lost in Pasadena. When an SEC wins a national title in the Rose Bowl, it highlights the Big Ten's two big, related failings: not winning the national title and having a poor record in the Rose Bowl. Since the SEC is the Big Ten's only rival in terms of fan interest and revenue generation, it's natural that the two conference would be compared against one another (or maybe I'm just weird because I went to a Big Ten school, but grew up and live in the South).

  • My first thought when Marcell Dareus took an interception in for a touchdown at the end of the first half: Jack Squirek! Touchdown Raiders! I know that Mack Brown claimed that he was making a safe call, but what the hell are you going to accomplish with a middle screen with ten second to go in the half?

  • I'll bet that there were a bunch of crusty old Alabama fans in the crowd last night who took particular relish in finally getting to sing "Hey Longhorns, we just beat the hell out of you!"

  • To continue with the SEC/Big Ten theme, I wrote after the Orange Bowl about how Big Ten teams were dominating games, but not getting results on the scoreboard commensurate with the way that they were winning. Alabama showed how to exploit the initiative in the second quarter last night.

  • Kudos to Kirk Herbstreit for an astute point last night that Garrett Gilbert's biggest problem as an inexperienced quarterback was setting protections. Sure enough, Bama salted the game away with a fumble that resulted from a blitzer coming in totally unblocked (despite the fact that Bama was only rushing four, if I recall correctly). If only Kirk wouldn't have made the "Alabama doesn't yet have a sack" comment right before the big sack. And I wish that Kirk would quit it with the "it's pass interference if a defender doesn't turn around" canard.

  • Does anyone doubt that Musberger had points on the Horns last night?

  • I would love to know Pete Carroll's private thoughts while watching that game. Something along the lines of "I'd like my team to play defense like that again." It's interesting to me that Big Ten and Big XII teams are the constant foils for both USC and the SEC Champions, but USC hasn't met the SEC Champs (at least as long as I can remember).

  • If I were a Texas fan, I would have few complaints about the game. In a turn of terrible luck, Texas lost its star quarterback on its first series, after which they had little rational expectation of winning the game. The Horns put up a fight and gave the Tide a scare in the fourth quarter before giving in. The only aspect that would bother me would be the performance of the Texas receivers. When McCoy went out, the rest of the team needed to rally around the backup. Instead, the Texas wideouts (with the exception of Jordan Shipley) were the worst unit on the field.

  • For as long as I can remember, Alabama teams have never been centered around one player. This is one of the reasons why no Tide player had won the Heisman until Mark Ingram did so. The advantage to that approach was on display last night. Both teams lost their offensive star, but Alabama kept chugging along, whereas Texas losing McCoy was debilitating for a long stretch. No one player on the Crimson Tide was irreplaceable, which is a fitting homage to the '92 champs and all of those great Bryant teams.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

I Got Mixed Up Confusion, Man It's a Killin' Me

I have two competing thoughts in my head about the game tonight. On the one hand, the Zeitgeist surrounding this game is that Alabama is a clear favorite and shouldn't have too much trouble with Texas because Saban's defense will eat the Texas offense alive. This thinking comes from the recent success of SEC teams in national title games, along with the performances of the two teams in their conference title games. The former factor seems like a legitimate one, but the latter screams of a recency problem. Yes, Alabama looked great against Florida, but they were one game removed from escaping by the skins of their teeth on the Plains. This Alabama team is not a juggernaut like '08 Florida; their offense is too inconsistent for me to be confident that they'll roll tonight. To go all Herbstreit on you, Texas will be the team with a chip on its shoulder tonight. Also, Mack Brown has an epic record in close games and this game seems like it will be tight based on the fact that both teams have outstanding defenses and hit-or-miss offenses.

On the other hand, have we reached the point where an SEC/Big XII matchup in the title game should be viewed in the same way that an AFC/NFC matchup in the Super Bowl was in the late 80s and early 90s? Probably not because the sample size isn't as big and Texas is 1-0 in title games and 3-0 in BCS Bowls. However, I can see the analogy working. Alabama was tested this season. They played their best games on neutral fields against Virginia Tech and Florida, both of whom are better than any team that Texas played. Alabama coming through the SEC and vanquishing Florida and LSU is not unlike the 49ers coming out of the NFC after vanquishing the Giants, Redskins, and Bears. Playing Texas won't be novel for Bama, but the converse is not true. It also occurs to me that Bama has seen offenses like Texas's because there are plenty of spread-y teams in the SEC, but Texas has not seen an offense like Bama's (unless you count Nebraska and the Huskers are so bad on offense that they can't possibly count).

Anyway, I've talked myself into a quandary. If you put a gun to my head, I'd take the Tide in a close game tonight, but I'm one of those people who believes in the randomness of the universe and thus doesn't put a lot of stock in predictions. I'll just say that I've enjoyed the BCS games this year because they have been somewhat old fashioned, defensive games (after watching Michigan's abortion of a defense for 12 games, you can see why I'd feel that way) and I'm looking forward to a better version of the same tonight.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

It Turns Out That the Big Ten Wasn't Crap. Who Knew?

Thoughts on the Orange Bowl:

1. My lingering takeaway from the Orange Bowl will be the performance of the Iowa defense. Unlike Ohio State and Boise State, Iowa didn't do anything particularly new and fancy. Norm Parker rolled out the same cover-two that is his trademark, with the outside linebackers deployed a little wider than normal to account for Tech's A-backs. (In a world of constantly changing, diverse formations, it was quite the experience to watch an offense and defense oppose one another with the same formations on most plays.) Iowa tackled extremely well and they showed that Paul Johnson's offense, like any other offense, is vulnerable against defenders playing at a high level. The cover-two works when a defense has a stand-out safety or two that can cover a ton of ground, a middle linebacker who can tie the whole defense together, and a holy terror defensive end. Iowa has all three. Tech fans will remember Adrian Clayborn the way that Georgia fans remember Steve Slaton. The Hawkeyes didn't do anything revolutionary, but they have excellent personnel and they tackle really well. On both sides of the ball, they're like a meal at Eatz: basic and well-executed.

2. Even after a bowl season in which the Big Ten performed very well, I feel compelled to make one complaint about the style of coaching in the conference: Big Ten teams struggle to deliver a knock-out punch. Wisconsin, Penn State, Ohio State, and Iowa all jumped on their opponents early and dominated the first halves of their games, but they never established decisive leads, such that they all had to hang on for dear life at the end. (Ohio State is a slight exception here, but the Rose Bowl was very much in doubt for the first half of the fourth quarter.) Wisconsin outgained Miami 430 to 249 and won by six. Penn State outgained LSU 340 to 243 and won by two. Ohio State outgained Oregon 419 to 260 and won by nine. Iowa outgained Georgia Tech 403-155 and won by ten. More to the point, how exactly did Iowa lead by one score at the half when they had outgained Georgia Tech 241-32? Cheers to Iowa for dominating in such a comprehensive fashion, but jeers for not turning that dominance into a result on the scoreboard. I had the exact same feeling when watching Wisconsin, Penn State, and Ohio State. (It's a little unfair to compare these teams to Florida, but look at what the Gators were able to do in the first half when they had Cincinnati on the ropes.) I'm at a loss to explain the phenomenon. With Ohio State and Penn State, their red zone issues kept them from getting big leads. Wisconsin and Iowa had some turnover issues, but nothing obscene. I'm all ears for explanations.

3. My obligatory dig at Fox: the keys to the game were points per possession for Iowa and time of possession for Georgia Tech. Isn't points per possession the key for, oh, I don't know, every football team on the planet? Short of a Jamie Howard meltdown, how is it possible for a team to lose a game in which it scores more on a per-possession basis than its opponent? If ever there was an instance of an important stat being paired against an unimportant one, this was it.

4. The new question for Paul Johnson is going to be whether his offense will be a liability in bowl games when talented opponents have a month to prepare for it. Upon reflection, one of the downfalls of the option offenses at Oklahoma and Nebraska were high-profile bowl disasters. I suspect that too much will be made of Johnson's two bowl performances. After all, we are talking about a sample size of two. If we expand the sample size to include his career at Navy, Johnson's team put up big numbers against bad bowl opponents (7-4 New Mexico and 6-5 Colorado State) and middling to poor numbers against Boston College and Georgia Tech. Then again, Johnson had Navy talent, which gets me to my point. I suspect that Tech will do better in bowl games once they have a quarterback who can run the triple option and also present a passing threat. Josh Nesbitt is a good runner, but his passing...yeesh. Last night showed his limitations when he doesn't have the "jump ball to Thomas" option. Jimmy Johnson (a guy who knows a thing or two about stopping a triple option offense) pointed out at halftime that Iowa was using their corners against the run to create a nine-man front. When Chris Rose asked whether Tech could throw their way out of this problem, Johnson replied "that's not their game." There's your answer. (It's too late to make this request, but why couldn't Fox have put Johnson, a national title-winning coach, in the booth for an Orange Bowl?)

5. Wasn't there a point at which bowl games were all shootouts and I opined that giving offensive coordinators a month to prepare led to carnage for defenses? I take it all back.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Six Thoughts on the Fiesta Bowl

1. Yes, I'm very disappointed this morning that I touted TCU throughout November and then they played below their level in the biggest game of the season. That said, the game last night was very good. How good? Der Wife, who is a casual football fan and usually goes to bed before a game is over, watched the entire thing and kept remarking "this is a really good game." After a bowl season in which many of the games have been mistakeapaloozas, it was refreshing to watch a taut, defensive game in which the teams were making relatively few errors. Give me 10-10 going into the fourth quarter any day. And as much as I don't like Boise State, the fake punt to prolong the winning drive was the product of an outstanding play design. I've been watching football for a long time and I've never seen a fake run quite like that.

2. For me, the difference in the game was the offensive line matchup. TCU's line was apparently the team's weak link, as they couldn't run the ball all game and they struggled to protect Andy Dalton in the fourth quarter. Rushing 3-4 on most plays, Boise was able to get pressure fairly consistently, including on the final play of each of TCU's last two drives. Conversely, the TCU pass rush, which I expected to be the difference in the game, was neutered by the Boise State offensive line. TCU's defense certainly played well enough to win, but you can attribute the result to the time that Kellen Moore had to throw the ball as compared to the pressure that Dalton faced.

3. I'm going to miss Fox's coverage of BCS games about as much as parents miss the Wiggles when their kids outgrow them. It's one thing to have to listen to Sam Rosen butcher the college rules of remind us every time that Kirby Moore caught a ball that he is Kellen's brother. (Rosen and the other Fox announcers do college games the way that I would do a game in the Hungarian first division. They understand the sport, but they don't get any of the context.) It's another to become nauseous from the quick shots of the crowd and the band every three seconds. A 12-year old with ADHD would have found the cutting excessive. Fox doesn't do this when they cover NFL games, do they? I imagine that the game producer was in the truck, under an Ed Goren-imposed mandate to show "The Pageantry! The Pageantry!" Overwhelmed by the prospect of showing the TCU dancers as opposed to slovenly Philadelphians wit Cheez Whiz in their goatees, said producer gave us thousands of crowd reaction shots as opposed to, you know, the game.

4. I might be an outlying opinion, but I am giving Boise State more credit for this win than for any other win in program history. The Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma was nice, but it combined implausibility (re: the hook and ladder) and a disparity in motivation. (What exactly was Oklahoma, a two-loss team that won the Big XII in a down year, going to prove by beating Boise State?) This game, on the other hand, was against a highly motivated opponent that I and a number of other members of the blognoscenti thought was close in merit to the Texas team that will play Alabama in Pasadena. I'm also giving Boise State more credit for beating TCU than I would have if they would have beaten Georgia Tech, Iowa, or Cincinnati (especially the Bearcat team that would have showed up without Brian Kelly). I didn't take Boise State seriously when they looked like another 1980s BYU: a program that wins against inferior opponents with a great offense, but that lacks the horses on defense. Now, they look like a complete team. They're not the best team in the country, but they're closer than I previously thought. This win puts the Broncos in position to contend for the national title next year, especially because they have a springboard game against Virginia Tech in Washington, D.C. for the opener.

5. The horrendous pass interference call on TCU in the second quarter is a perfect illustration of why I like the college rule that pass interference is 15 yards as opposed to a spot foul. Can you imagine giving a line judge or umpire the power to give half the field to the offense by calling pass interference after a receiver fell backwards while pulling the defender with him? If the guys in stripes are going to consistently butcher interference calls (and this was not the only time that I've seen receiver-initiated contact called against the defense), then the stakes of the call should not be as high as they are in the NFL.

6. The first two BCS games were both won by teams whose coaching staffs implemented significant changes that rendered their opponents' film study useless. Ohio State ditched their Woody Hayes homage on offense to grab the initiative against Oregon and then rode their newly-minted modern offense to victory. Boise State deployed a new defense that confused TCU for the better part of a half, which allowed the Broncos to seize the initiative and render the Horned Frogs into a one-dimensional attack. I don't like the fact that the long layoff between the end of the regular season and the bowl games can cause teams to come out stale and sloppy; I do like the fact that the layoff allows smart coaches to make radical changes.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Random Thoughts on the Bowls

  • I watch games like Ole Miss-Oklahoma State (12 combined turnovers) and Auburn-Northwestern (a cavalcade of errors by both teams that led to an overtime in which Auburn had to win the game three separate times) and I wonder about a sport that ends its season with teams taking 4-6 weeks off and then playing in allegedly meaningful games. Rusty doesn't even begin to describe some of the play. I don't have many moments in which I think that NFL fans have a point when they tout their product over that of college football, but some of the games over the past week have given me such thoughts. How does it make sense for us to put such import on games that take place after a long layoff and in which some of the players and coaches are already checked out (not to mention situations where the coach has already checked out or seen his boss do the honors for him)?

  • I would dearly love to know what Cincinnati would have looked like against Florida with Brian Kelly coaching them. The result would have been similar because no amount of scheming can enable an overmatched corner to run with Riley Cooper. Within two drives, the Georgia-Hawai'i vibe was very strong, which led me to believe that Kelly's departure had nothing to do with the result. Florida had a terrific team. It's a shame that it took their coach going on sabbatical to get maximum effort out of the defending champions. Score one for Pat Riley's "Disease of More." (I finished Bill Simmons' book this afternoon, so this is fresh in my head.)

  • Um, the people who said that Gary Crowton was overrated as an offensive coordinator and that his attacks get worse as time goes by? One point to you. Les Miles, welcome to a mildly warm seat.

  • If the Charles Rogers Theorem wasn't killed by '06 Florida and '07 Georgia, I would be chomping at the bit to claim that Nebraska is going to be overrated next season. To a lesser extent, I would be saying the same things about Georgia, but teams tend not to get a pile of hype when they are starting a redshirt freshman quarterback. On a related note, I tried, but I couldn't make myself care about the Independence Bowl.

  • I got viscerally angry at ABC and Buffalo Wild Wings for deciding that the Boston College-Miami Hail Mary is the greatest play of all-time. What, pray tell, separates it from Stewart to Westbrook? Or Randall to Clayton? What's that? Something about a Boston team being involved? And a shrimpy Caucasian quarterback with whom middle-aged fat guys in press boxes can relate? (The David Eckstein of college quarterbacks?) Does anyone remember that the teams had combined for five losses coming into the game? Or that BC beat the worst Miami team of the 1983-92 time period? And what was so amazing about the play? Kordell Stewart threw the ball farther. LSU's Bluegrass Miracle was more improbable in terms of the distance that they had to cover, not the mention the absurdity of Kentucky students rushing the field without knowing what had happened.

  • And while I'm bitching about ABC/ESPN's angle on college football, it must be nice for Big Ten fans to enjoy Todd Blackledge calling a Penn State bowl game followed by Kirk Herbstreit calling the Ohio State bowl game. I was eagerly anticipating Kerwin Bell calling the Sugar Bowl. Instead, we got Brian Billick. In Billick's defense, he did a good job with the game. In my week of "NFL fans have a point," it was refreshing to see an objective take on Tim Tebow: an exceptional college quarterback with a slow delivery. Even better, when Thom Brennaman tried to round second base with Tebow (yet again), Billick came across like a grown up by noting that the backlash against Tebow has had to do with the avalanche of hype that he's received, which isn't his fault and which means that the anger isn't really directed at him. I'm going to miss Tebow, but I'm not going to miss hearing about Tebow.

  • One other complaint about Kirk Herbstreit: contrary to your claim, it is not a penalty every time a defensive back doesn't turn and look for the ball when a pass is approaching.

  • I'm not his biggest fan by any stretch, but kudos to Jim Tressel for an effective game plan against Oregon. When Ohio State came out slinging the ball around, I was reminded of Lloyd Carr's tendency to do the same when Michigan faced an opponent with a scary offense. That tendency drove me crazy because it led to the sense that the offense could operate at a much higher level if only the management coached every game with such aggression and fear. I suspect that Ohio State fans feel similar pangs of "we could be doing more," but Tressel's teams are better at what Carr tried to do - running and playing defense - so they don't have the resume of losses against inferior opponents that drove me bananas.

  • That said, let's cool it a little with the Terrelle Pryor hype. There's no doubt that Pryor played a good game, but 266 yards passing on 38 attempts aren't earth-shattering, nor are 72 yards on 20 carries. This was not anything like Vince Young's coming out party in the last game of his sophomore season in Pasadena, when he put on a show for the ages in a 38-37 win over Michigan. On Friday, there were still too many instances where Pryor didn't have his first read and then chose to run for his life, often to little effect. A lot of the positive reaction to his play stems from the extremely low expectations that most people had for Pryor after the disaster in West Lafayette, followed by Ohio State's conscious decision to go vanilla (even by Tressel's standards) for the remaining month of the season. Maybe I should just say that Ohio State's coaching staff did an outstanding job of getting Pryor ready to play during their time off?

  • Was I the only one who got the feeling that Oregon's players acted like they were hard as a means to overcompensate for the fact that their mascot is a duck and they have wings on their shoulders? When their whole sideline was jawing at Pryor after he was knocked out of bounds, I found myself asking "how am I supposed to take you seriously when you're wearing...that?"