Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ode to an Oft-Whiffing Shortstop

The Braves passed the halfway pole of the season yesterday by scoring five runs against Felix Hernandez (I know, I’m as surprised as you are) to complete a sweep of the Mariners in Seattle and move 12 games over .500.  Despite an offense that has been painful to watch, the Braves have a three-game lead over the field for the wild card spot.  As we learned repeatedly through the 90s and 00s, all that matters in baseball is getting your playoff lottery ticket.  When it comes to winning the World Series, William Munny was right: deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it

So why are the Braves having a good season?  The pitching is an obvious answer.  As Joe Lemire points out, the Phillies and Braves are both in striking distance of becoming the first teams in 22 years to have a team ERA below 3.00.  This morning, I want to give credit to a less obvious candidate: Alex Gonzalez.  I was not happy when the Braves swapped Yunel Escobar for Gonzalez, reasoning that we were buying high on a player who was hitting at an unsustainable level.  A year later, my fears about Gonzalez regressing to the mean offensively have been realized.  Gonzalez has a miniscule .274 on-base percentage and an OPS+ of 76, which means he is well below the norm in terms of his production at the plate.  After his 23 homers last year, he has all of seven this year.

Despite being close to Uggladom with the lumber, Gonzalez is second among the Braves’ position players in WARP (Wins Over Replacement Player).  How is that possible?  Well, according to the Baseball Prospectus, Gonzalez has been the most valuable fielder in all of the majors in 2011.  His glove work has generated ten runs of value for the Braves above and beyond what a replacement-level player would have done in the same spots; no other player in baseball is above nine runs of value.  This is one of those instances where an advanced fielding metric matches up with what our eyes tell us.  I am certainly not alone among Braves fans in having marveled at Gonzalez’s work in the field this summer.  It’s been a pleasure to follow my Twitter feed during games to see fans repeatedly compliment the guy for being an ace with the leather.  Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, and Tim Hudson – a trio of low strikeout, low walk, groundball machines – ought to be particularly grateful to be playing with Gonzalez.  If there is any justice in the world, then Gonzalez will win a Gold Glove.  It’s just too bad that he’s not in the AL so he could lose to Derek Jeter.

It’s good that Gonzalez is having such a good year, because otherwise, it’s a grim season for Braves position players.  Because of an average year at the plate and a bad season in the field, Chipper has been a tick below replacement level.  Freddie Freeman has been at replacement level, which is good by the standards of Braves first basemen since Andres Gallarraga and is forgivable for a young player in his first year as a regular in the majors, but still isn’t going to get a team to the playoffs.  Whether because of a sophomore slump or bad instruction (I refuse to consider that he isn’t going to be a great player), Jason Heyward has been one of the lowest-performing right fielders in the NL.  Martin Prado has recovered from a bad start to be solidly average, but that’s a major step down from his 2010.  Nate McLouth is only passable in comparison to his lost 2010.  And the less said about Dan Uggla, the better.  The Braves have experienced a team-wide offensive collapse.  Other than Brian McCann, every player on the team is at or below expectations offensively.  That’s a sign of a coaching failure, which means that the Braves need to be thinking about making a change with the hitting coach.  It would be a shame to waste an MVP-type season from McCann, a Gold Glove-type season from Gonzalez, and a terrific season from the pitching staff collectively because Larry Parrish has apparently told the Braves to go up there and swing at everything that moves.

The team’s weak performances with the bats make me a little leery of the idea that trading for a big bat in the outfield will be a panacea.  Normally, I would look at this team and say to myself “man, we are one bat away from being right there with the Phillies.  It makes financial sense for the Braves to push themselves over the top.  Let’s not let the desire to save money in left field be the difference between making the playoffs and staying home in October.”  That said, if Parrish can turn Dan Uggla into the second-worst second baseman in the National League, then what is he going to do with Carlos Beltran? 

I can also see an argument on the part of Liberty Media that the team’s attendance does not justify an increase in the payroll.  The Braves are 15th in the majors in attendance, despite the facts that they are coming off of a season in which they made the playoffs and they have been over .500 for the vast majority of the year.  At times, it has seemed as if the Braves have more fans on the road than they do at home, a popular team that doesn’t draw at home as well as they should.  Liberty Media is not in the business of losing money, so the argument for taking on a big, expensive bat in the outfield is less persuasive than it would be if the team were drawing 35,000 per game.

How did I start this post singing the praises of Alex Gonzalez and then end on such a grim note?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rocky Top You'll Always Be La Segunda To Me

Georgia is emerging as a chic pick to win the SEC East this fall, but I'm a little bothered by the reasoning. There is legitimate cause for optimism among Dawg fans. Aaron Murray looks like a difference-maker at the most important position on the field. There is a new, exciting option at running back. The defense is in its second year in Todd Grantham's system and finally has a natural fit for one of the key positions in the 3-4: nose tackle. In a lot of ways, last year looks like a season in which Georgia took their lumps and will come out stronger.

However, the second part of the argument is that Georgia's SEC schedule is significantly easier than those of the other contenders in the division. The broad consensus this summer is that Alabama and LSU are top five teams nationally and then Arkansas is behind them in the 10-20 range. Georgia doesn't play any of those three teams. Florida plays LSU and Alabama on consecutive weekends. Tennessee plays all three of the top teams in the West and like Florida, plays Alabama and LSU back-to-back. South Carolina's load is a little lighter, but they do have a trip to Fayetteville on the schedule. In short, Georgia comes into the season with a major advantage that has nothing to do with the team's merit on the field.

I've been struggling to come up with a way to make SEC football more equitable and it took a riot for me to arrive at a solution: two tiers with promotion and relegation. SEC football takes a back seat to nothing in terms of raw passion, but imagine if the stakes were so high that winning or losing would decide whether your team would be in the first or second division the following year? Would the results maybe match this:

Near the end of the game that doomed them, inside River's stadium many wept, and some rioted in fury. The match was abandoned after 89 minutes as seats and missiles rained on to the field. A sense of sinking was swallowing up the River support. Players were distraught leaving the field under heavy police escort. Mayhem continued in the streets of Buenos Aires. The local hospitals were busy treating wounds on fans and riot cops. Misery and depression sent Help phone-lines into overdrive - I am a River Plate fan. It's the end of the world.
Conversely, imagine the fun that rival fans would have at mocking the supporters of elite teams that got sent down. How much fun would Georgia and Alabama fans have had over the past several years making jokes at the expense of Tennessee playing in SEC-B? Also, relegation would be a useful way to punish bad management. As The Economist points out, River Plate's ignominious drop from Argentina's first division is the result of inept decisions at the boardroom level:

Since its last championship in 2008, River has tried to reinvent itself from scratch after every setback, churning through two club presidents, six different coaches and 64 different players. Its management’s desire for a quick fix and need to service its $19m in debt has caused it to sell off young talent prematurely and place too much faith in washed-up, overpaid veterans. Although Argentina’s promotion-and-relegation scheme is designed to prevent clubs from tumbling to the second division following brief periods of poor performance—the formula is based on a team’s record over the preceding three years—River was unable to halt its downward spiral. After finishing 17th out of 20 clubs in the top league, it needed to hold off Belgrano in a two-game series to keep its spot. River lost the away match 2-0, and mustered only a 1-1 draw at home, when it could not hold an early lead and had a penalty kick saved.
Doesn't Tennessee deserve the same fate for Mike Hamilton's reign? They are coasting merrily along despite the debacles that were the end of the Fulmer era and then the inexplicable decision to hire Lane Kiffin. (Note to Dave Brandon: I'd bet that Kiffin interviews really well.) They ought to be in SEC Segunda, playing Vandy and Ole Miss.

The advantage of this approach would be three-fold. First, it would make for important November games for more teams in the conference. Not only would the best teams in the conference be playing for the conference title, but the teams at the bottom of the top division would be fighting for their lives to avoid relegation and the teams and the top of the second division would be busting their tails to get promoted. Second, it would make expansion a viable prospect. Right now, it makes little sense to add attractive targets like Florida State and Texas A&M because a 14- or 16-team league would be unwieldy. However, if you break the league up into two seven- or eight-team divisions? Magic. Third, the format increases the likelihood of top teams playing one another. Right now, if there are top teams in the East and West, they only have a 50% chance of playing one another in a given year. Those odds would drop to near zero with a two-tiered system.*

* - The only way that it wouldn't happen would be if a second division team turned out to be top shelf. For instance, last year's Auburn team might have been in the second division based on the results of the past two seasons. The odds of such a radical turnaround are fairly low, so the benefits of ensuring that the best teams are in the same division outweigh the downside, but I should acknowledge that there are potential negatives to this plan.

So how would this work? Based off of last year's standings, SEC Primera would be:

Mississippi State
South Carolina

Those teams had the six best records in the conference. Florida and Mississippi State were tied for sixth and we give the nod to the Other Bulldogs based on a head-t0-head win. Those teams would all play one another, with the winner being the team with the best divisional record.* They would then play three games against teams from SEC Segunda:

Ole Miss

The games against the teams from the Segunda would be tie-breakers. Those games would also allow the preservation of rivalries, so Georgia would still play Auburn, the Egg Bowl would still happen, etc. The advantages of this approach aren't as great when power has shifted to one division, as it has in the SEC over the past several years, but in short, we would replace a number of games in which top 25 teams from the West will massacre Ole Miss with games between those teams and South Carolina. In the end, we get more good games.

Another disadvantage of this approach is the end of the SEC Championship Game, but as someone who doesn't love the idea of a playoff in which a less deserving team gets a neutral site shot at a better team (see: 2001 LSU-Tennessee), I'm not crying over this. The SEC was at the cutting edge when it went to the two division, championship game format. Every major conference has copied that format. (The Big East is arguably not major. It would certainly go to the format if it could find 12 teams worth having.) The SEC could be cutting edge again by being the first American sports league to introduce the concept of a relegation riot.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Mexican Bus

Jerry Hinnen’s comment to my admission that I don’t dislike the Mexican National Team:

Ugh, Michael. Ugh ugh ugh. It's not often I disagree with you at all, much less vehemently, but I don't get the calls to "respect" Mexico and their fans and all.

caused me to think back to why I feel this way.  So let’s play a game of early childhood memories, soccer edition.  My appreciation for Mexico dates back to seeing them in 1994.

When the US hosted the 1994 World Cup, my family got tickets to the games in Orlando.  We had three tickets per game for the five of us.  The first game for which we had tickets was the coveted clash between natural rivals Belgium and Morocco.  The crew for that game was my mom and two brothers, Dan and Jacob.    They committed the ultimate sin in my world: they got to the game late and missed the only goal.**  So, when my Dad, Dan, and I went to the next Orlando match – Mexico vs. Ireland – we got to the game very, very early.***

* – Jacob, my youngest brother, was seven at the time, so he got the short end of the stick: the two Morocco games.  As a redeeming gesture, we bought him a fez at Epcot Center, so everybody wins.

** - I am not a super punctual person, but I will always leave way too much time to spare when going to two places: the airport and a sporting venue.  This topped out when I was on the train from Notting Hill Gate to Wembley three hours before the Champions League Final.  I could have walked to the stadium and made it in plenty of time. 

*** – Mexico-Ireland was really just a cruel joke on the Irish.  It was game two for each team in that World Cup’s Group of Death (Italy and Norway were the other teams involved) and it was must-win for Mexico because they had lost to Norway in Washington, DC in their opener.  Ireland, on the other hand, had a margin for error after they had upset Italy at the Meadowlands on Ray Houghton’s famous goal.  (Every goal scored by Ireland during the Jack Charlton era could be described as “against the run of play” and as the result of a long ball not properly dealt with by the opponent.  Why people stomached that Ireland team I’ll never know.)  To cater to the European TV audience, the game was played at 12:35 EST.  In Orlando.  At the Citrus Bowl, which sits next to a dingy swamp-like spot that the locals refer to as a lake.  Now, imagine what the weather was like and then imagine how a bunch of fair-complexioned Irish players based in England fared in that weather.  The only people who were worse off were the Irish fans, who drank before the game and then turned into distressed lobsters as the match progressed, sitting in the roof-less, shade-less Citrus Bowl.  On the bright side, one guy behind us unintentionally taught me a hole panoply of ways to use the c-word and another guy implored the ref to give every Mexican a yellow card, both individually and collectively, thus giving me a saying (done in a horrible Irish accent) for the rest of my life.

With time to kill before losing my big futbol game virginity, I wandered around the stadium.*  By happenstance, I was wandering by when the Mexican bus arrived to deposit El Tri at the Citrus Bowl.  By this point in my life, I had been to plenty of sports events, but I had never seen a reaction quite like this.  The Mexican fans surged towards the fences separating them from the buses.  Men, women, and children all had facial expressions that combined innocent joy and abject fear.  As the players got off the bus, they all grinned sheepishly and acknowledged the fans.  I imagined that they were thinking “man, it’s great to be supported by these fans, but holy shit, we can’t lose this game.”  I distinctly remember noticing Jorge Campos making eye contact with the fans before heading towards the locker room and then thinking “that guy is really short.” 

* – Possibly subconsciously, I did the exact same thing before the Champions League Final.  In both instances, I went counter-clockwise without thinking about direction.

I rooted for Mexico in the match, in part because I hated that Ireland side* and in part because I was in awe of the love shown by their fans to the team when they arrived.  There was absolutely no expression of contempt for a team that had just been upset in its first World Cup match in eight years.**  Mexico scored twice*** and held on for a 2-1 win.  The atmosphere was memorable enough that I’m prattling on about it 17 years later.  I can’t say that I am a fan of the Mexican National Team, but I don’t dislike them the way that most fans of the Nats do and the expression of unbridled joy delivered to players getting off of a bus on a one-match losing streak is a formative reason why I feel this way.  So there.

* – That Ireland side competed in the ‘90 and ‘94 World Cups.  In nine matches, they scored four goals.  Four.  They played a stultifying long ball style that led to the single worst game in international football history: the 0-0 draw with Norway that followed the match against Mexico.  When people talk about the dismally boring Italia '90 (redeemed only by Cameroon, Toto Schillaci’s facial expressions, and a worthy champion), they often talk of too many knock-out matches ending up being decided by penalties or Argentina’s disgraceful display.  Me, I think of Ireland making it farther than Brazil and the Netherlands.  Any time you can make that statement about a World Cup, you know that the tournament was disappointing.

** – Mexico was barred from Italia ‘90 for fielding over-age players at a youth tournament.  So Jerry, you have that going for you.  That ban is what created the space for the US to make the World Cup for the first time in four decades.      

*** – “The Americans have been very fond of their pink caps and self-importance in running this World Cup and that’s just another example of it.”  Uh, you gave us Bono.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Beautiful Game

If I were trying to get a non-soccer fan into the sport, then I would show him a tape of the Gold Cup Final.  Cup finals have a reputation among fans as being disappointing.  At the end of a long competition, with the players both tired and under tremendous pressure not to make a big mistake that will be remembered for generations, the odds are generally stacked against a quality match.  Last night’s Gold Cup Final was a major exception to the rule.  Maybe Mexico and the US produce good finals because they aren’t really challenged by the rest of CONCACAF in the lead-up to the final (not unlike Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten of the 70s).  Maybe Mexico and the US both have go-for-it mentalities that mean that they take risks on a top stage.  Whatever the reason, last night’s match was not the first time that the US and Mexico had produced a memorable match on this stage (the ‘07 Final was also excellent, settled by Benny Feilhaber’s phenomenal volley), but this was the best.  The US lost, but I feel a sense of pride that the US was part of a spectacle that the entire futbol-loving world could appreciate.  We forget this sometimes, but sports is about entertainment.  If our team contributed to a game that entertained its audience above and beyond the norm, then the natural result should be a feeling of pride, right?

I have had this feeling of the redeeming defeat before.  Off the top of my head: ‘88 Hawks-Celtics Eastern Conference Semis, ‘91 Braves-Twins World Series, the Euro ‘04 Netherlands-Czech Republic match, and the ‘04 Michigan-Texas Rose Bowl.  The two key elements of this phenomenon: a transcendent performance from at least one player on the losing team and the winning team being a great side worthy of respect.  The latter reason is what keeps out experiences like Michigan-Northwestern ‘00 (giving up 54 points to Northwestern can never have a silver lining) and Chelsea-Barca ‘05 (losing to Jose Mourinho can never have a silver lining because the pervading sense is “we have let down the right-thinking futbol world).  Here, both elements are present, at least in modified form. 


While the US did not have a great performance from any of its players last night, it did have a surprisingly good performance from Freddie Adu.  Adu followed his turn as a decisive sub in the semifinal against Panama with a very good game against our arch-rival.  Here is Brian Phillps on Adu:

On the pitch, the strangest development in this year's tournament was the return of Freddy Adu, America's littlest international soccer zombie. Adu is, of course, famous as the teen phenom who signed with D.C. United at age 14, was heralded as the savior of American soccer, and then, after a long skid through Europe, wound up wasting away on an obscure team in the Turkish second division. At the age of 22, he was seen as hopelessly washed up. Fast forward to this June. Brought on as a surprise substitute in the second half of the Gold Cup semifinal against Panama—his first international action since the early Pleistocene era—Adu made a brilliant pass to help set up Clint Dempsey's winning goal. In the final, Adu lofted the corner kick that Michael Bradley headed in for the game's first goal. He played extremely well throughout the match, fending off two and three defenders at a time to emerge as one of the few American positives on the night. There are no second acts in American lives. There is only the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Adu isn’t going to turn into the superstar that we all dreamed he would be, but on the evidence of the last two matches, he is far from done as a player.  This is a big deal because he would fill the role that has been missing for the US for years: a central attacking midfielder.  Ideally, Bob Bradley would play a 4-2-3-1.  He figured this out after the Nats’ jaded performances in the groups stage of the tournament.  With modern football trending away from the 4-4-2 and with the US having less-than-dominant central midfielders, we cannot get away with having only two guys in the middle.  The problem then becomes the fact that we don’t have a player to fill the key role of the central attacking midfielder in the band of three.  That player acts as the bridge to the defensive midfielders, supplies the outside attacking midfielders, and should be able to hit the killer pass to the strikers.  He is the keystone for the offense.  Kaka plays this role for Brazil, Wesley Sneijder plays it for the Netherlands and Inter, and Mesut Ozil plays it for Germany and Real Madrid.  Cesc Fabregas plays it for Arsenal (hence the Gunners’ dogged retention of a player who clearly wants to leave) and as a sub for Spain. Wayne Rooney and Leo Messi both play in this area for their clubs, albeit in formations other than a 4-2-3-1.  Pep Guardiola and Alex Ferguson have both groomed their best attacking players from other positions (Rooney as a striker; Messi as a right winger) into a role where they float in between the opponents’ defensive and midfield lines, the spot of maximal irritancy to the opposition.

Bob Bradley faced a situation where he has a roster that is a better fit in the 4-2-3-1, but didn’t have a central attacking midfielder.  Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are reasonably good defensive midfielders, but struggle when they man the middle by themselves.  Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are natural outside attacking midfielders who occasionally drift inside.  With Stuart Holden out, Bradley’s only option was to play Sacha Kljeistan in the hole and he just isn’t a world-class player.  The team played better after the formation change, but it still lacked verve from this keystone spot. 

Enter Adu.  I’ll admit to being one of the people who scoffed when he made the roster.  I wondered if Bob Bradley had a death wish when he brought Adu into a deadlocked semifinal against Panama.  However, this move prove to be inspired.  Freddie had the key pass to unlock the Panamanian defense in the semifinal and then he was our best player in the Final, winning the corner for and then assisting on the opener and then playing a key role in the move that put the US up 2-0.  I started off the tournament hoping for the end of Bob Bradley, but by the end, I am giving him credit for making a gutsy decision that paid off in a major way.  The US needs a player like Adu to fill a role and if he can keep up with the form he showed at the end of the Gold Cup, then the Nats are in better shape than they would have been if they would have muddled through to a Gold Cup win with Klejstan in the lineup.

Our Friends to the South

The second element of my feeling that the loss was an honorable defeat is that it’s no shame to lose to this Mexico side.  Mexico are not especially strong in the back, especially with a third-string keeper and both Rafa Marquez and Carlos Salcido crocked.  However, they are dynamite going forward.  In six matches in the tournament, El Tri outscored their opponents 22-4.  Their lineup fits together nicely, with Chicharito playing the role of striker to perfection (I compared him to Pippo Inzaghi during the game) and Gio Dos Santos (looking way better than he did when he emerged from La Masia four years ago in Bojan’s shadow), Pablo Barrera, and Andres Guardado swarming behind him.  Add in a solid midfield and you have a team that put up scores against minnows that one would expect from a world class team.  I’m bummed that the US won’t be going to the Confederations Cup, but I have to admit that the futbol fan in me is looking forward to seeing this Mexico side up against Spain and Brazil.

I’ll also admit that, like the New Orleans Saints, I have never been able to make myself dislike Mexico as a rival.  Partly, it’s down to the fact that their playing style is attractive.  I’ll take a game based off of short, slick passing any day.  Partly, it’s down to the fact that I feel political sympathy for Mexicans, who generally come to this country to work their tails doing jobs that Americans won’t do, and are rewarded with this.  And partly, it’s down to Mexican futbol fans, who are some of the best in this country of any stripe.  If I got into soccer in the first place because the atmosphere at the games is the closest fit for SEC football, then it would only stand to reason that I would appreciate a fan base ($) that follows its team all over the country and lives and dies with the fortunes of El Tri.  You have to respect a fan base that showers such unconditional love on a team that has never made it past the quarterfinals of the World Cup or the round of 16 of a World Cup away from home.  Any SEC football fan should be able to watch Mexico play at the Rose Bowl and appreciate the atmosphere.*

* – The venue for the match also helped in producing the spectacle.  It’s rare that CONCACAF gets anything right, but they made a great move in setting up a tournament to maximize the chance of these teams play at that stadium.  There’s really nothing like the Rose Bowl at dusk.  It’s not a multi-tiered monstrosity with the upper decks in the troposphere in order to make way for a passel of luxury boxes.  Just one bowl with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background.  And as a Michigan fan, I was quite prepared to watch my pace-challenged team blow a lead and lose in the Rose Bowl to the delight of the locals.

The Stumbling Elephant in the Room   

Of course, in order to have an enthralling match with chances galore, you have to have shaky backlines and the US supplied that in spades.  Here’s what I wrote after the Nats went out of the World Cup:

The United States lost to Ghana in extra time on Saturday afternoon. In so doing, we lost a good chance to make a deep run in this World Cup. However, the primary reason why the US lost demonstrates that if the Nats would have made the semifinal, it would have represented a level of achievement that exceeds our talent. To put it bluntly, our center backs are not very good, so we can have no complaints that we are not going to finish this tournament as one of the four (or eight) best teams in the world…

In the end, it is just about impossible for a team to survive on the top international level with suspect center backs. Our three options at center back were a player who has missed the entire club season with a major knee injury, a starter for a club side in the second tier of English football who was discovered playing amateur games, and a left back for a team in Ligue Un. The U.S. has top class goalies, midfielders, and attackers; the current generation lacks top class defenders and that's why our World Cup ended in the Round of 16.

While the central defenders were the issue in South Africa, the left and right backs were the issue in the Gold Cup Final.  Steve Cherundolo, who played quite well during the tournament, got a knock early and sent the US defense completely off-kilter.  Jonathan Bornstein came on, which to the Mexicans represented an “Attack Here!” neon sign and 2-0 became 2-4.  No one in defense acquitted themselves well, but Bornstein and Eric Lichaj were routinely abused.  Part of the reason why I’ve left the “Blame Bradley” chorus for the moment is that he isn’t an alchemist, so he can’t make this collection of defenders work.  That said, they did look disorganized after the injury, so it’s not like Bradley is totally blameless.

So where are we after this tournament?  We may have a solution in the central attacking midfield spot, but the gaping hole at left back remains and the prospect of Chicharito making runs around our center backs for the next ten years is a depressing prospect. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Heisman Pundit is Mean to Kindly Old Grandmas

OK, I have no evidence to support that accusation,* but that title is no more misleading than an alleged list of the ten worst coaches in college football that instead focuses solely on whether a coach deploys the right offensive scheme and makes good end-of-game decisions, as if those are the only roles for a college head coach. It's hard to pick a starting point for savaging a list that is to college football analysis what Sarah Palin's ramblings are to American history (Blutarsky is off to a great start, although I'm highly disappointed that he discussed the Muschamp section without ripping on the assertion that a John Brantley-led offense has "incredible spread talent"), but I'll pick the fact that Heisman Pundit assumes that blue chip players simply fall off of trees. If a coach recruits great talent and only produces good results, then that coach is not an idiot. Instead, he's a guy who succeeds in one area of his job (recruiting) and is not succeeding in another (motivating players, assembling a good staff, and/or making strategic and tactical decisions).

* - Just to be clear, I am in no way alleging that Heisman Pundit (or whatever other nom de guerre he is using today) is a bad person or otherwise acts in an illegal or immoral matter. Rather, I am making an analogy to illustrate that a post titled "The Ten Worst Coaches in College Football" is totally misleading when it reduces coaching to one or two aspects that HP finds important.

Take Les Miles, the alleged worst coach in college football. I'm not Miles's biggest fan. He was very fortunate to win a national title with two losses. He stuck with Gary Crowton for way too long. He destroyed his reputation as a late-game savant with inept game management against Ole Miss in '09 and Tennessee in '10. Like Lloyd Carr, his teams play far too many close games against inferior opponents. (How is it that two Bo disciples have the same weakness of respecting the opposition too much? This was certainly not a problem for Mssr. Schembechler.) That said, the notion that he's a bad coach is absurd. Records aren't everything, but look at these results and tell me that you see evidence of the worst coach in college football:

2005 - 11-2, Sagarin Predictor #8
2006 - 11-2, Sagarin Predictor #5
2007 - 12-2, Sagarin Predictor #4
2008 - 8-5, Sagarin Predictor #22
2009 - 9-4, Sagarin Predictor #13
2010 - 11-2, Sagarin Predictor #10

And I'm just using the Predictor because I'm intellectually honest (try it sometime, HP) and I favor rankings that account for margin of victory. If I used Sagain's BCS-approved rankings, then his teams would look even better.

We're well past the time when Miles's success could be attributed to Nick Saban. Larry Coker he's not. (Coker in year six: 7-6, #49. There was no year seven.) Honestly, you have to be an utter idiot to look at those numbers and conclude "worst coach in college football!" At a minimum, you ought to have a better argument than "a potted plant" could win at LSU. Perhaps Heisman Pundit never heard the names Gerry Dinardo or Curley Hallman? That seems odd for someone who is now branding himself as "College Football Pundit." If this list is an example of what we are going to see this season when HP branches out from Heisman patter, then I no longer have to rue the fact that Terence Moore left the AJC.

After the lame insults directed to Miles, the piece doesn't get better. #5 on the list is Jimbo Fisher, who has been a head coach for all of one year and in that year, led FSU to its best season in years. HP complains about Fisher's offense, but the 2010 Noles offense - the first one for which Fisher had total autonomy - finished second in the ACC in yards per play. If you prefer advanced metrics, they were eighth in the country in both S&P and FEI. Oh, the indignity! And HP implies that Fisher only accomplished this because of Christian Ponder, but who turned Ponder - a three-star recruit whom Rivals ranked as the #14 pro-style quarterback and the #50 prospect in Texas - into a first round pick?

HP sums up the fallacy of his mindset when he asks "Fisher can recruit, but can he coach?," as if recruiting isn't part of being a head coach. The funny thing is that there is an obvious, recent, high-profile example refuting HP's worldview and yet he rolls merrily along. Rich Rodriguez is HP's dream coach. Rodriguez is one of the originator's of the Spread offense that caused HP to forsake all others. By year three at Michigan, Rodriguez had the offense humming, producing prodigious numbers with a young set of players. However, Rodriguez was also a total failure at Michigan because he screwed up all of the other aspects of being a head coach. He didn't recruit especially well, player retention, motivation, and development were issues, and most importantly, he utterly butchered the defense with a mismatched set of an inept defensive coordinator and substandard position coaches who only knew a system different than the one favored by the coordinator.* By HP's definition, Rodriguez was a great coach. He had a terrific offensive scheme and he made reasonable end-of-game decisions. By the definition of Michigan fans and just about any other sentient being, the Michigan version of Rodriguez was a disaster.

* - I don't think that these flaws are endemic for Rodriguez. He did perfectly well in the other head coaching functions at West Virginia. Rather, Rodriguez is a good coach who made a number of big mistakes at Michigan. If he has learned his lesson (and I'll bet that he's a smart enough guy to do so), then he'll do well when he's the head coach at Clemson next year. The ACC might finally have an elite worth discussing if Clemson and FSU join Virginia Tech as annual contenders. Plus, I still like the guy.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The NCAA, Wal-Mart, and Fourth-Grade Inferences

I suspect that Brian Cook wasn't intending to provide commentary on Wal-Mart v. Dukes when he wrote about the NCAA's new stance of making inferences of violations, but the following paragraph from MGoBlog's piece on Oregon overpaying for scouting reports is actually very timely in Supreme Court world:

The question the NCAA is going to have to answer soon is "how obviously fishy does something have to be before we punish someone?" Each of the three items above falls at a different place on the you-expect-me-to-believe-that scale:

Actual car purchases by Ohio State people checked out by governmental organization: not that fishy in and of itself. Add the loaners and the memorabilia and the cuddly relationship and there's still a cocktail of NCAA violations, but the actual sale of vehicles that were apparently sold for book value or above in most cases is plausibly on the up and up. The sheer concentration of sales and murky value of used cars makes it unlikely there wasn't some extra benefits going on, but proving that seems required if that particular slice of the Ohio State issues is going to produce anything.

Greg Little's ever-rotating license plate from guy serving time for money-laundering: there might be some level of plate and car swapping that is reasonably explained. Little clearly exceeds that and is hooked up with a guy who was in some dirt. Other schools monitor traffic/parking infractions closely; if UNC did so they would have ended up suspending Little a lot sooner. This should be the ground for a failure to monitor charge, one that will be part of a more general hammering for John Blake's clear knowledge of Marvin Austin, et al., and their magic carpet rides.

Oregon paying 25k for perfectly useless paper: if you had purchased a $25,000 vehicle and found out it was in fact a rabbit, you would get your money back. You would instruct your credit card company not to honor the charge or sue or something. You would not go on your way, maintaining a positive relationship with the man who sold you a rabbit he told you was an Escalade. This is fishiness that should rise to the level of a major NCAA violation in and of itself, a clear quid-pro-quo with no plausible explanation.

The NCAA dared to make inferences in the USC case, something that forms the basis for much of the Trojan outrage surrounding the case. They made a leap of logic many fourth-graders could make. Oregon obviously fails the fourth-grader test. North Carolina likely does. In this instance, Ohio State does not; with the loaners they do.

Brian's analysis is timely because the Supreme Court just grappled with a similar question, namely whether statistical and anecdotal evidence can be used to certify a class of discrimination plaintiffs. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia rejected the attempts to certify an enormous class of current and former female Wal-Mart employees. Here is the money paragraph of Dahlia Lithwick's criticism of the decision:

As the Lily Ledbetter case showed, the court's devotees of strict construction and plain meaning are so enamored of the printed word that they often seem inclined to accept no other type of evidence of pay discrimination. Just as Ledbetter never received an embossed letter from Goodyear indicating that she was being systematically underpaid, so, too, the hundreds of women with claims about sex discrimination at the hands of Wal-Mart must be wrong: After all, the company's announced policy forbids it, and the perpetrators of the discrimination don't often admit to doing it. The whole purpose of this type of class action civil rights suit is to smoke out unwritten policies and unspoken bias. The women of Wal-Mart will now have to sue as individuals, or in smaller classes, or by way of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Most of them will not be able to afford to litigate it alone, and some of them will be unable to prove it alone. Allowing women in this situation some effective means of justice is one of the rationales of class action litigation.

The federal courts and the NCAA face similar problems in addressing what to do when they see smoke, but no fire. In the Wal-Mart case, the plaintiffs sought to rely on an analysis of statistical evidence that concluded that "Wal-Mart paid men more than women, promoted males over females, and did so in numbers that could not be readily explained away." According to the plaintiffs, the aggregate numbers, along with the anecdotal evidence that they compiled, showed that Wal-Mart must be discriminating against women as a class. Scalia rejected this argument, noting that Wal-Mart devolves authority to make employment decisions to local managers, so the plaintiffs cannot certify a class when they are complaining about thousands of discrete decisions that were not made under a common policy or scheme. This is a fascinating question for which there are no easy answers, hence the fact that it ended up as a 5-4 decision at the Supreme Court.

The NCAA is faced with a similar dilemma. In the Oregon case, the Ducks paid Willie Lyles $25,000 for a report on recruits who had already matriculated at various schools. The payment was obviously not for the report, unless you accept the notion that Oregon coaches are permitted to waste Phil Knight's millions with impunity. That seems like a reasonable inference, but then the question becomes "OK, so what was Oregon buying with the $25K?" A generally favorable relationship with Lyles? A quid pro quo that he would whisper in the ears of recruits "Eugene is great!" Was he a pass-through for money to the recruits (or, unless Lyles and Oregon were buffoons, relatives of the recruits)?

It's no accident that the Supreme Court broke down on ideological lines in the Wal-Mart case. The conservative bloc of the court (Scalia, Alito, Roberts, and Thomas) sided with business; the liberal bloc (Kagan, Sotomayor, Ginsburg, and Breye) sided with employees; and Justice Kennedy cast the deciding vote, in this case for tightening the rules on class certification in the discrimination context. For me, the interesting question facing the NCAA is what its preference is with respect to rules violations? Does it come at North Carolina, Ohio State, and Oregon with a mindset of "we are tired of bad press and we are going to throw the book at these schools to get everyone else back in line?" Or does it come in with the mindset of "because there is so much money at stake, we need to see fire before we throw the book at these schools." The verdict in the USC case indicates that the NCAA is taking the former approach, but was that motivated by a general sense that a crackdown on violations is needed or was the NCAA just furious at USC specifically for the school (and Mike Garrett, in particular) thumbing its nose at the investigation? And, like the Supreme Court, are there factions at the NCAA pushing in different directions?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Stealing the Past

There are few sports topics that are more likely to provoke a reaction in me than the selective telling of baseball history in order to make the game all about a few teams in the Northeast.  I wrote about this topic in January when I noted the difference between the professional way that the NFL mythologizes its past and the way that baseball allows “an especially narcissistic generation of New York writers” (Scott Lemieux’s description) to reduce the sport to being all about the Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Giants.  I had two experiences this weekend that fall into this same category.

The first was reading a passage in Dixie about the importance of the St. Louis Cardinals as background noise at the tail end of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.  Curt Wilkie describes how most sports fans in Mississippi (and indeed throughout the South) were Cardinals fans who listened to the games, either on local radio affiliates or on KMOX.  In 1964, the Cards staged an epic rally to overtake the Cubs and win the National League.  Wilkie, who was working for a newspaper in the Delta town of Clarksdale that was (not surprisingly) riven by racial problems as the establishment fought tooth and nail against integration, writes about the fact that the Cardinals were a unifying element:

Stan Musial had retired a year earlier, and the stars of the Cardinals were now black men": Bob Gibson, the intimidating pitcher; Lou Brock, the fleet outfielder; Curt Flood, an agile centerfielder; and Bill White, the powerful first baseman.  Race did not factor into their herioics.  When Brock stole second base, it was not a black man’s exploit, but a triumph by a member of the Cardinal team.  Even as we bickered over school integration in Clarksdale, whites and blacks were united in the Cardinals’ pursuit of the championship.

The Cardinals won the pennant on the last day of the season, a showdown game that was not available on TV.  We depended on Harry Caray for the news.  His play-by-play broadcast over the radio triggered my imagination, the same way that Amos ‘n’ Andy had delighted me a decade earlier.  When the Cardinals’ catcher, Tim McCarver, squeezed the pop fly that ended the game, I could see it in my mind, and there were celebrations across the battle lines in Clarksdale.

This makes for a great story.  At the same time that Mississippi was having the most backwards, violent reaction to efforts to end Jim Crow (or at least they were 1a in that department with Alabama), the residents of the state were all rooting for an integrated baseball team from a border state.  Why is this never a part of the story of baseball’s integration.  When the topic of baseball’s color line comes up, the discussion inevitably focuses on Jackie Robinson, in no small part because of the tendency to make baseball history all about New York City.  In the time between Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 and the Red Sox becoming the last major league team to integrate in 1959 (and why does that little fact not come up, I wonder), the Cardinals had 17 black major leaguers, which was tied for the most in baseball and was one more than the Dodgers.  The role of the Cardinals of Gibson and Brock as the favorite team of the segregated South is a great story.  Why did a sports fan like me only stumble upon it when reading the memoirs of a Mississippi journalist?

Speaking of the 1964 Cards, Nate Silver wrote a great article for the Baseball Prospectus in 2007 after the Colorado Rockies mounted an amazing comeback in September to pip the Padres for the wild card.  Silver approached the question of the greatest comebacks of all time by looking at playoff odds over the course of a season and concluded that the '64 Cards made the most improbable comeback in baseball history. 

I was reminded of this article during the interminable rain delay at the Ted on Saturday afternoon.  As my four-year old and I sat under the overhang in the upper deck, watching rain pelt the field from a truly awesome, almost Biblical textured gray cloud directly overhead,* the Braves were playing an MLB documentary on the best comebacks in baseball history.  These sorts of lists are a dime a dozen, designed to provoke dumb arguments that are usually based on subjective reasoning.  Sure enough, this list caused exactly that sort of reaction in me.  According to MLB, the five best comebacks are:

5.  The New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the ‘51 pennant race;
4.  The Red Sox over the Angels in the ‘86 ALCS;
3.  The Mets over the Red Sox in the ‘86 World Series;
2.  The Yankees over the Red Sox in the ‘78 pennant race; and
1.  The Red Sox over the Yankees in the ‘04 ALCS.

Yup, the four most dramatic episodes in baseball history involved the Red Sox, with the top three involving opponents from New York.  Four of the top five involve New York teams, with the sole non-Northeastern interloper being a team from the tiny hamlet of Los Angeles.  We are all so lucky that we get to watch these stories franchises from the hinterlands of … the rest of the country outside of Peter King’s beloved Acela corridor. 

* – The whole time, I had “Chimes of Freedom” playing in my head.     

There’s no objective basis for this I-95 love-in.  Yes, the Yankees’ comeback in ‘78 was a great comeback, but it just sits in the middle of a list of improbable pennants won by teams that overcame massive odds to make the playoffs.  Yes, the Red Sox coming back from being down to their last strike in 1986 was a great moment, but is it any more improbable than a team coming back from two runs down in the ninth inning in Game Seven of the NLCS?  This crap matters in the characterization of baseball history.  I was sitting with a young, impressionable fellow.  If he is subjected the obscene concept of the Red Sox and various New York teams owning the best jewels of baseball history, then he might become a fan of one of those teams.  Smoking, early fatherhood, and drug use can be the only end result.  So please, MLB, for the good of all of your young, innocent fans, please acknowledge a world outside of a corner of the country. 

Sunday, June 19, 2011

This is why you Fail

Thanks to Bob Latinville, a lawyer in St. Louis, we now have a statistical illustration (HT: Blutarsky) of my anecdotal hunch that the schools of the Big Ten pay significantly less than the schools of the SEC for coaching talent:

The SEC paid its assistant coaches an average of $276,122 in 2010, according to figures compiled by St. Louis attorney and agent Bob Lattinville of the firm Stinson Morrison Hecker.

The Big 12 was second at $232,685 and the Big Ten a distant fourth, behind the Atlantic Coast Conference, at $187,055.

So let’s see.  The Big Ten rakes in as much revenue as any other conference.  Its schools sit in states that were never that great at producing football talent and that situation has gotten worse as population has continued to head south.  Nevertheless, Big Ten schools don’t spend their lucre on the coaches who would allow them to make up for their lack of proximity to talent.  Are Big Ten fans so stupidly loyal that they will watch whatever mediocre product the Big Ten Network chooses to show?  Do Big Ten fans overlook the fact that the conference has fallen so far behind the SEC because they can tell themselves that schools in the South oversign and pay their players?  There is a perfectly legal way to spend money to improve the product on the field and the schools in the conference refuse to take it.  Is the Big Ten a conference of Pittsburgh Pirates?

Friday, June 17, 2011

An Ode to Jonny Venters

Three thoughts triggered by this article in the Baseball Prospectus about Jonny Venters($):

1. The Braves should hold a parade down Peachtree Street for whoever made the decision to convert Venters into a reliever and convinced him to drop everything but his sinker and slider:

While it might be interesting to look forward two years and speculate about what kind of money Venters could make in arbitration, it is also instructive to turn the clock back two years. In 2009, Venters was promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett after making 12 starts for Double-A Mississippi to begin the season. He posted a 5.62 ERA in 17 starts and 91 1/3 inning,s as International League hitters averaged 10.1 hits per nine innings. Venters also walked 4.1 per nine while striking out just 5.7, and it appeared that the Braves' 30th-round draft pick in 2003 had hit the wall.

However, the Braves decided to switch Venters to relief last year, telling him to junk his changeup and curveball and stick to a sinker/slider combination. It proved to be a wise decision, as Venters has been dominant since moving to the bullpen, averaging 94.5 mph on his sinker and 84.9 mph on his sinker (hat tip to Fangraphs), rare velocity for a left-hander. Many scouts believe that Venters has the best sinker in the game because of both its velocity and its movement.

"When I was a starter, I'd get tired and just run out of gas," Venters said. "I never really learned how to pace myself. I'd go all out on every pitch, then be dead by the fourth inning. Now, I can put everything I have into every pitch, and it's more fun for me to pitch that way."

Now, can the Braves replicate this decision three more times so we no longer have to trust games to Linebrink and Sherrill?

2. I doubt that Fredi has thought this through, but the Braves are saving themselves a lot of money by keeping Venters in the set-up role because relievers get paid for saves and Venters isn't getting a chance to save games.

3. It's fun to root for a team full of players from the region:

Venters and Kimbrel, a couple of Southerners, have become best friends. Venters hails from Altamonte Springs, Fla., and Kimbrel has his roots in Huntsville, Ala. Because of that friendship, Venters says he is not concerned about who generates more publicity.

"Craig and I have just a great relationship," Venters said. "We don't really care who has what role. It's just awesome for us two to be pitching together late in the game. Craig is a great kid, and we have a lot of fun. We laugh a lot down in the bullpen and have a good time until it's time to get serious and go to work."

With Venters, Kimbrel, Heyward, Chipper, Hudson, Minor, McCann, and Uggla, this team has a connection to the region that supports them, unlike some other teams in markets that allegedly love baseball a lot more than this one.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

LeBron and Leo

Basketball and soccer are the two most popular team sports in the world.  Right now, basketball has LeBron James, a player who was supposed to become one of the all-time greats, but hasn’t quite gotten over the hump, and soccer has Leo Messi, a player who is fully on the path to becoming an all-timer. 

Evaluating LeBron isn’t the easiest thing in the world.  Cutting out the emotional feelings that LeBron created with his ham-handed move from Cleveland to Miami, he had a good season in Miami, even by his standards.  James led the NBA in PER, his Miami team won the Eastern Conference (recall that lots of pundits were predicting before the season that the Heat would not get that far because of the lack of quality on the roster after the top three), and they were in a winning position in the Finals before a strange series of events sent the title to Dallas.  (In many ways, the 2011 Finals were a mirror image of the 2006 Finals, where a superior Dallas team had the lead in the series, lost a number of close games to a Heat team dominated by one player, and then lost the title at home in Game Six.)  That said, LeBron’s bizarre disappearing act in the Finals colors everything that he accomplished this season.  It’s one thing for an NBA star to try and fail by missing shots and forcing the issue; it’s quite another for a star to simply stop shooting.  For those of us who have been watching basketball for decades, we were all witnesses to something that we hadn’t seen before, but it wasn’t what LeBron and Nike had in mind: a superstar simply vanishing in the NBA Finals.  Until he makes amends for this performance (and he is only 26, so there is plenty of time), LeBron cannot be mentioned in the same breath as Jordan, Magic, and Bird, the three greatest players of my lifetime.

In contrast, Leo Messi is being compared with Pele, Maradona, and Cruyff after another terrific season.  Like LeBron, Messi had a very productive season statistically speaking, scoring 51 goals and adding 21 assists.  He tied Ruud van Nistlerooy’s record for most goals in a Champions League campaign.  Unlike LeBron, Messi capped his season with success in Barca’s crunch games, as he scored twice in the decisive Champions League semifinal first leg at Real Madrid and then added the winning goal in the Wembley Final against Manchester United.  We often grade players based on their performances in the biggest games (unfairly at times) and Messi passed that test, while LeBron failed the final exam.  Of course, the criticism of LeBron omits the fact that he did very well in the tests before the final, specifically his performances against the Celtics and Bulls.

So where is Messi succeeding where LeBron is failing?  To me, the answer is in how much the two of them love playing their games.  Messi is the soccer equivalent of a gym rat (pitch rat?), a player who just loves to play all the time.  Messi was pouty as Barca was celebrating its La Liga title at the Camp Nou, most likely because he finds the experience of sitting on the bench while others are playing to be frustrating.  When Pep Guardiola was asked during the season why he wasn’t giving Messi a break, he answered that Messi got angry when he wasn’t included in the starting lineup.  Messi is such a soccer nerd that he spends a lot of his time off the pitch playing soccer video games.  Thus, Barca has the good fortune of having a star player who is not just talented and hard-working, but also cares about nothing other than playing.  Messi is a reluctant interview and an even more reluctant pitch-man.  Despite being the best player in the world’s most popular sport, Messi has a relatively low commercial profile.

Would anyone describe LeBron in the same way?  I am not claiming that LeBron doesn’t love to play the game of basketball.  Obviously, he wouldn’t be the player that he is today without enjoying the act of putting a ball in a basket and stopping an opponent from doing the same.  That said, LeBron is not single-minded in the way that Messi is.  He has other interests.  LeBron has a self-stated goal of becoming a "global icon."   He is interested in his profile in ways that Messi isn’t.  We cannot claim that interest in commercial opportunities is inconsistent with being an all-time great, as Michael Jordan’s repeated endorsements during his playing career make clear.  However, LeBron does seem distracted.

How does this distraction manifest itself on the court?  LeBron’s game hasn’t evolved like Messi’s has.  Watching him every week, I can see what Messi has added to his bag of tricks. He is more of a threat to score from outside the box than he was as a youngster, as Edwin van der Sar can attest.  Opponents used to handle Barca by falling off of their players and forcing them to shoot from distance.  That strategy no longer works because of the way that Messi’s game has evolved.  Additionally, Messi’s passing range has improved, such that Barca now play him as a quasi-midfielder whereas he started his career as a right winger.  Messi’s work off the pitch has created options for his manager.  Has LeBron's game evolved? I don’t pretend to watch enough NBA basketball to make an observation based on personal observation, but every time I read Bill Simmons, he's killing LeBron for not adding a post game.  Simmons also adds that his opinion on LeBron’s lack of a post game is shared among NBA writers.  Dallas was able to get away with guarding LeBron with guards because James couldn’t punish them down low.  That is a failure in development.   

The other difference between Messi and LeBron is that Messi is playing with the right supporting cast.  Messi plays in front of two great passing midfielders.  When he drifts to the right, he has the game’s best right back overlapping his runs.  When he looks to pass, he has the joint leading scorer from last summer’s World Cup in front of him.  In charge of the whole operation is a coach who has a perfect understanding of the Barca way of playing, the style on which Messi was trained for years before joining the first team.  Unless you attribute ESP to Messi’s parents when they moved their son from Rosario to Barcelona when he was 13, Messi is lucky.  He is in a situation that makes him look good.  If you want to watch the best player in the world look mortal, watch him with Argentina, where the style is a little different and the supporting cast does not mesh with Messi’s talents in the same way.

In contrast, LeBron is not in a situation that suits him.  LeBron didn't have a decent supporting cast in Cleveland, which was not his fault.  That fact weakened the criticism of his decision to leave Cleveland (although not the manner of his departure).  The Cavs had years to build around their star player and came up woefully short of assembling a championship supporting cast.  The problem for LeBron is that he chose to play in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, so his supporting cast is now on him.  Pairing up with Wade wasn't the best idea because their games are a little redundant. They’re both swingmen who are used to having the ball in their hands.  Generally speaking, NBA championship teams have had a mix of point guards, swing men, and big men, usually two stars from those categories, but not from the same categories.  When teams have had two star swing men, like the ‘08 Celtics, those guys have had different skill sets.  I can see Ray Allen and Paul Pierce meshing because Allen is a shooter and Pierce is a driver.  Wade and LeBron are both drivers who shoot from outside just enough to keep defenders honest.  LeBron adds better passing skills, but that doesn’t seem to be enough to get around the overlap in orientation.  In retrospect, LeBron should have signed with the Bulls, who already had a perfect supporting cast and had hired a better coach.  As of this summer, it appears that LeBron made a Decision that will limit his ascent into the stratosphere of legends in his sport.  It is fortunate for him that many members of the American sports media are soccer-illiterate or else they would be making a comparison with a player who is putting himself onto his sport’s Mount Rushmore in a way that LeBron is not. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Atlanta is the Worst Sports Town Ever, Heat-Mavs Edition

In an article that is becoming an annual occurrence, Tim Tucker notes that Atlanta had the 11th highest TV ratings for the NBA Finals out of 56 metered markets.  The ten markets that finished ahead of Atlanta, you ask?

Miami-Fort Lauderdale (33.7), Dallas-Fort Worth (30.7), West Palm Beach (17.7), San Antonio (15.9), Cleveland (15.8), New Orleans (15.1), Memphis (14.5), Houston (14.5), Oklahoma City (14.4) and Chicago (13.7).

You have the markets that had finalists, followed by the home of the West’s #1 seed, the market rooting for LeBron to humiliate himself (and who says that Cleveland never wins anything?), the beaten conference finalists, a beaten conference semifinalist, and then Houston and New Orleans.  Interestingly enough, Boston, the greatest sports city in the universe (is the sarcasm coming across here?), and Los Angeles are not on the list, but the other beaten conference semifinalists – Atlanta and Memphis – are. 

This raises a point that is often missed in the discussion about “best sports towns,” which is that the discussions almost always focuses on support for specific teams instead of sports or leagues in general.  Atlanta is not super-supportive of the Hawks.  Maybe we have a right to be lukewarm on the local professional basketball collective because the team has delivered so little over the years, but the team was certainly good enough that they should not have finished 22nd in attendance this year.  That said, this is a very strong NBA market, as Atlanta consistently out-performs other NBA markets when it comes to ratings for the later rounds of the playoffs.  In short, we’re not great at supporting our own team, but we are interested in other teams.  Boston, for example, is the opposite.  Personally, I’d attribute this difference to the fact that Boston is a provincial city and Atlanta is not, but I’m a little biased in saying that.

Atlanta as a college football market is somewhat similar.  The one major program in the city limits – Georgia Tech – gets good, but not overwhelming fan support.  However, there is tremendous interest here for teams all over the Southeast, as well as a number of Big Ten programs with a large number of transplants.  (Cough.)  Thus, this is a great college football market (the TV ratings consistently back this conclusion up) without being hogwild over the Jackets.  If people outside of the market could differentiate between support for home teams and support for sports in general, then this city would have a better reputation as a sports town.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I wrote last month about the apparent gaping void where proper statistical analysis should exist for major college football programs and I'm reminded of that post by Bill Barnwell's excellent piece on small market baseball teams applying Moneyball principles years after the rise and fall of Billy Beane's Oakland A's. Barnwell makes the point that MLB teams have the money and incentive to attack the difficult problem of grading fielding:

It was clear even at the time Moneyball was written that fielding would become a battleground for teams looking for an edge, but the sort of data that would be required to do robust analysis on a player's fielding ability really didn't exist. Traditional fielding statistics, such as errors, didn't do the actual act of fielding justice. Fielders with great range rack up errors on plays that mediocre fielders would never have a prayer of getting to. That makes no sense.

In 2011, that's no longer the case. Systems like Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR)3 and plus/minus4 usually disagree on the exact level of a player's glove upon team performance, but they represent a dramatic increase in the level of knowledge and accuracy in fielding analysis that's available to the public. Both UZR and plus/minus attempt to determine how many plays a fielder should have made versus a league-average player at the same position.

The "public" part of that statement is particularly relevant because so much of the work that's been done on fielding since Moneyball has been conducted inside the inscrutable walls of major league organizations, which have both the funding and motivation to sink significant sums of money into the sort of video analysis and quantitative research required to produce advanced fielding statistics.

That last sentence has two important implications for college football. First, college football programs should have even more motivation to apply advanced statistical analysis to obtain a competitive advantage. In professional baseball, teams can pay their players, so there is a natural outlet for revenue. If a team wants to win and it has money coming in from tickets and TV deals, then the blindingly obvious solution is to pay for better talent. Statistical analysis enters the picture only in determining how the team should spend its lucre. In contrast, college football teams cannot (legally) pay for talent. Thus, programs have to re-direct their revenue into other channels, like building palatial facilities to attract recruits or hiring top coaches who can then recruit and develop talent. With all of that revenue and a dam preventing it from its most natural outlet, college programs would do well to spend money on armies of nerds to help their coaches in recruiting players and then developing optimal schemes and tactics.

The second implication is that football results can be quantified. Generally speaking, baseball lends itself to statistical analysis more than football because it's a quasi-individual sport. A batter faces a pitcher and there is an outcome. Football doesn't work like that. It's very hard to isolate one-on-one match-ups because the result of a play is the product of two eleven-man units deployed against one another. That said, as Barnwell notes, defensive outcomes are harder to quantify in baseball. That mystery is what has made defense such a cutting edge topic for analysis. Because every Tom, Dick, and Harry can figure out hitting/pitching success, but not fielding success, there is an advantage to be gained by the team that figures out the best way to analyze the latter. The same is true in football. The teams that figure out the best way to grade individuals in a team sport will have a leg up.

Barnwell also touches on statistical analysis as being critical for have-nots in their efforts to compete with the haves. Doesn't this same reasoning apply to college football programs? I'm thinking of the Big Ten in particular. While the members of the conferences are haves in terms of revenue, they are have-nots in terms of access to talent, especially as compared to the SEC or the elite programs in the Pac Ten (USC) and Big XII (Texas and Oklahoma). Without a bevy of four- and five-star players close to campus, Big Ten programs need to think like the Padres, Indians, and Rays instead of the Red Sox, Yankees, and Dodgers. I have a pet theory that staid Midwestern cultural norms prevent Big Ten programs from leveraging their dollars on top coaches, but wouldn't it be a natural fit for those programs to spend money on the best available statisticians so their coaches are armed with a better way to approach recruiting and play-calling? (This assumes that the grad students and professors on campus wouldn't perform the work for free.) If the Big Ten wants to "win the right way" (i.e. remain the whore who won't do that), then what better way than by imitating Billy Beane?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Ross Barnett and Sepp Blatter

I started reading Curtis Wilkie’s Dixie on Friday morning at the gym. I bought the book years ago for $5 at a discount bookstore and then I had it sitting on the shelf until I started into it because I needed a paperback to read on the Elliptical machine. I’m now halfway into the book and I’m wondering why it took me this long to open it. Wilkie has a terrific writing style. I often find myself saying “man, I wish I could structure a sentence like that.” In terms of content, Wilkie does a terrific job of blending the personal and the political, weaving his life story in with the story of the South trying to destroy itself in resistance to the end of Jim Crow.

I always liked Howell Raines’s line about the joys of being an Alabama fan when the Bear was the coach:

And believe me, to have been in the city of Tuscaloosa in October when you were young and full of Early Times and had a shining Alabama girl by your side--to have had all that and then to have seen those red shirts pour onto the field, and, then, coming behind them, with that inexorable big cat walk of his, the man himself, The Bear--that was very good indeed.

Wilkie has a similar paragraph, one that I was immediately repeating to my wife with a look that said “see, I’m not all that crazy”:

Several passions are important to Southern men. The love of a good woman ranks slightly ahead of the exhilaration that comes from a sip of sour-mash whiskey. Other pleasures include greeting the chill dawn in a deer stand, debating the merits of barbecue from North Carolina, Tennessee, or Texas, expanding on stories that improve with age, and enjoying the bonhomie of friends. Then there is football.

Replace “sour-mash whiskey” with “bourbon” and “in a deer stand” with “on a run, trying to think of something interesting to say about the SEC” and I could put that paragraph on the back of a personalized t-shirt. Wilkie follows that paragraph by describing the highs and lows of SEC football: the famous 1959 Ole Miss-LSU game, a.k.a. the Billy Cannon punt return, and the infamous 1962 Kentucky-Ole Miss game that Ross Barnett turned into a massive rally against integration and that preceded by one day the riot/insurrection in Oxford.

Coming on the heels of Ole Miss replacing Colonel Reb, Wilkie’s book is a great reminder of William Faulkner’s line that the past is never dead, it's not even past. Part of what makes SEC football so compelling are the ghosts that are occasionally nipping at the heels of events. I was reminded of this truism not just by plowing through Dixie, but also by Tim Vickery’s recent article explaining why much of the developing world retains some otherwise inexplicable loyalty to Sepp Blatter. Here is Vickery on the 1966 World Cup:

A few months ago in Rio I saw Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez give a lecture to Brazilian coaches. The theme was on his team's recent rise and their progress to the semifinals of last year's World Cup. Tabarez, though, in addition to being a man of soccer is an academic, a teacher by trade (nicknamed "El Maestro" for this very reason), and he could not resist some historical context.

He stopped off briefly at the 1966 World Cup, held in England while FIFA was presided by an Englishman, Stanley Rous. That tournament, he said, had been a conspiracy against the South American teams.

The great Pele was brutally kicked out of the tournament by European teams while European referees did nothing. Strikingly, all but seven of the 32 matches had European referees, and the Portugal-North Korea quarterfinal was the only knockout game with an official from outside the continent. Famously, the Germany-Uruguay quarterfinal had an English referee, while the England-Argentina match had a German -- both were controversial, and South American involvement in the competition ended before the semifinals.

Tabarez is certainly no demagogue, no flaming-eyed nationalist. But he believes that the tournament was set up to exclude the South Americans.

He may well have extended his complaint, and noted that the competition was a conspiracy against the world outside Europe. There was just one place reserved for Asia and Africa combined. The bulk of the African nations pulled out in protest, their complaints given extra fuel by the support Rous offered to apartheid South Africa. The wind of change was blowing in Africa, but it could not dislodge the cobwebs in the mind of Rous, who was floundering badly in post-colonial politics he seemed unable to understand.

Vickery then explains that when Joao Havelange replaced Sir Stanley Rous as the head of FIFA, he created opportunities for countries outside of Europe by expanding the World Cup, creating youth tournaments that members of the Developing World could host, and commercializing the game to pay for the process of bringing the game to previously ignored places. Thus, the current criticism of Blatter (Havelange’s hand-picked replacement) has to be understood in context:

There was no pre-Havelange and Blatter garden of Eden -- just a different FIFA with different defects. With its lack of historical context it is unclear whether the current hysteria in the English press is motivated by a genuine desire to carry the game forward on a global basis -- or by nostalgia for when English rule was unchallenged.

The lack of accountability of the current FIFA is surely unsustainable, the quasi-feudal personal fiefdoms that develop inside the organization are disturbing and the fat-cat lifestyle of some of those at the top makes the stomach turn. But for all its flaws and problems, it is not hard to understand why much of the developing world prefers the post-Havelange FIFA to what came before.

It never occurred to me until reading the Vickery article and the first half of Dixie on the same weekend, but there is a real parallel to be made between SEC football teams and European national footie sides. Both are the representations of states/countries with significant identities. Those states/countries have a history of subjugating racial minorities that comes up from time to time in the present,* especially as their teams deploy players from groups whom they previously tried to oppress. You can't understand the politics surrounding FIFA and Sepp Blatter without knowledge of the post-colonial struggle to democratize international football; you can't understand Ole Miss's place in the SEC without knowledge of Ross Barnett and James Meredith.

* - If you want to go one step further, both colonialism and Jim Crow were ended by World War II. Colonialism ended because the European colonial powers were devastated in one way or another and replaced by two countries - the US and USSR - that had anti-colonial ideologies and therefore had to exercise power in subtler ways. (The USSR's subjugation of Eastern Europe is the obvious exception.) Jim Crow ended for a variety of reasons, but one major one was the Great Migration that kicked into high gear as a result of war mobilization. African-Americans were much harder to oppress as rural sharecroppers; not so much when they could organize politically in great urban centers in the North. Also, the experience of fighting against the Germans and Japanese illustrated where racist ideologies could take a country.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Oversigning and Competitive Advantage

Generally speaking, I think that Big Ten fans make too much out of oversigning because they have a psychological need to dismiss the SEC’s recent dominance.  It can’t be that SEC programs sit in more talent-rich states, a disparity that will only get worse as current population shifts continue, and place a greater emphasis on hiring coaches with top resumes.  No, let’s dismiss all of that and instead infer that an unethical practice employed by SEC coaches must explain the difference.  I can imagine Nick Saban bellowing “you need people like me so you can point your fuckin' fingers and say, ‘That's the bad guy.’ So ... what that make you? Good?”

That said, John Pennington’s attempt to show that oversigning does not produce a competitive advantage (HT: Blutarsky) seems weak to me.  The teams that have the greatest incentive to oversign are the middle class or lower class programs that struggle to recruit top players and therefore have to make up with quantity what they cannot acquire in quality.  Thus, we would expect that the most successful teams in the conference would not oversign because they don’t have to do so.  Therefore, looking at results and recruiting quantities is a fool’s errand because Pennington is not normalizing for program status.  In other words, if Florida signs 85 players over a four-year period and Ole Miss signs 105, we wouldn’t expect Ole Miss to have a better record because the extra players will not trump all of the other advantages that Florida has over Ole Miss.  

The Big Ten illustrates this perfectly.  Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State have sufficient prestige that they do not need to engage in oversigning because they generally have dibs on the best players in the Midwest.  Having to compete with these more popular programs, the proletariat of the Big Ten then needs to sign more players, but signing additional players doesn’t trump all the other advantages that the Big Ten elite have.  This doesn’t mean that oversigning isn’t an advantage; it just means that it is one of a number of potential advantages and it can get trumped.

Where Big Ten fans have a point is here: as between elite programs, oversigning is an advantage.  It’s one thing for Ohio State to play Arkansas, a team with a limited recruiting base and a medium recruiting profile.  Ohio State has numerous advantages over Arkansas, so all things being equal, Ohio State should expect to bring more talent to the table.  It’s another thing for Ohio State to play LSU or Alabama – teams with similar profiles and recruiting bases – and then to have to deal with the Tide and Tigers having the extra advantage of their coaches having signed more players and cut guys who did not pan out.  This has always been my point about oversigning: LSU and Alabama have no business engaging in the practice and they deserve the media criticism they get on the subject.

One by One, our Old Friends are Gone. Death, Natural or not, Prison, Deported.

In a week in which USC was stripped of their one BCS title and Ohio State continued on its merry road to NCAA hell, I’m thinking about the parallels between the two programs.  Both hired new coaches for the 2001 season.  Both had growing pains in 2001 before dominating their conferences in the rest of the decade.  Now, it turns out that both were looking the other way while their players received improper benefits. 

So here’s my hypothesis: Ohio State and USC are similar programs in that they sit in the best recruiting areas in their respective conferences.  There are more players from Ohio on Big Ten rosters than there are from other states.  Ditto for players from Southern California on Pac Ten rosters.  USC and Ohio State dominated the Pac Ten and the Big Ten in the Aughts by controlling local talent.  (If I had a nickel for every reference to Jim Tressel’s proverbial wall around Ohio.)  With fans following recruiting to an increased degree on Rivals and the like, keeping top talent at home became more of a priority for these programs.  Nothing will anger Ohio State fans more than Ohio players going to Michigan and coming back to haunt the Buckeyes.  (Ask an Ohio State fan about what state produced Michigan’s two Heisman winners in the 90s.)  Thus, both USC and Ohio State had an incentive to look the other way on rule-breaking in order to create an environment that would be attractive for recruits.  Because instate recruits are more likely to visit campus frequently and their coaches will be plugged into what’s going on at the major school in the area, a reputation that players get extra benefits will be especially valuable in keeping local talent. 

If this hypothesis is right, then members of the Big Ten and Pac Ten ought to be royally pissed at Ohio State and USC for creating an uneven playing field.  Big Ten programs rely on Ohio and Pac Ten programs rely on SoCal.  USC and Ohio State dominating in-state recruiting was a zero sum game.  Not only were they locking up top talent, but they were doing so at the expense of their conference rivals.  USC cheating to keep the best players in Southern California is different than Washington or Arizona hypothetically cheating to keep their in-state players at home because there are a lot more top players in former area.  It’s the difference between taking money from the petty cash box and robbing a bank.  Also, dominating in-state recruiting by using a reputation for extra benefits is different than cheating to to get out-of-state talent because the former is zero-sum.  Ohio State beating Florida to a top player in the Sunshine State only impacts Big Ten teams in that they have to play that player; Ohio State beating Michigan and Penn State for a top player in Ohio is worse because Ohio State gains a player and their biggest rivals lose one.  Breaking rules to keep players in the conference’s most fertile recruiting ground is a zero sum game.

If this hypothesis is right, then we ought to give extra credit to Texas, as it is the third school that fits the description of USC and Ohio State.  Assuming that this description is correct and trumps Rachel McCoy's inadvertent admission, then Mack Brown and Texas deserve compliments for avoiding the temptation to employ every means – legal and otherwise – to lock up the talent in Texas upon which the rest of the conference depends.  Texas hasn't dominated the Big XII in the same way that Ohio State and USC dominated the Big Ten and Pac Ten and Texas's apparent ethical behavior might be the reason why.  Then again, it might be a simple matter that Oklahoma has Bob Stoops, a superior coach to the guys in charge at Ohio State and USC’s traditional rivals in the Aughts.

As far as our favorite conference is concerned, the SEC has its own cheating issues, but talent is too diffuse for a similar situation to spring up.  Because there are plenty of blue chip players throughout the region, there is no one school sitting in a recruiting area upon which they and the rest of the conference relies.  Thus, no school has such a strong incentive to improve its own place and screw its rivals at the same time by ignoring rules violations that aid in recruiting.  I never thought I’d write a post concluding that, in at least one respect, there are lesser incentives to cheat in the SEC than there are elsewhere, but there you go.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

From Each According to his Ability, to Each According to his Service Time in the Majors

Tommy Hanson's outstanding performance against the Marlins last night drove home a point for me: the Braves' salaries are inversely related to their performance. Jair Jurrjens sports a league-leading 1.75 ERA and is being paid $3.25M.* Tommy Hanson's 2.59 ERA gets him $456,500. Conversely, Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe are being paid $9M and $15M and they both have ERAs a tick over four. If baseball players were paid in a truly free market, then Jurrjens and Hanson would be significantly more valuable than Hudson and Lowe, especially in light of the fact that they are younger. This would have been true even before the season (moreso for Hanson than for Jurrjens, as Jair had an injury-riddled 2010).

* - Jurrjens' ERA is unsustainable at its current microscopic level, but he is doing such a good job of preventing homers and refraining from walks that it's reasonable to think that he'll keep pitching at a high level for the Braves this year, even with a pedestrian 5.5 K/9 ratio.

A true free market does not exist because of the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the players' union, which forces players to play for six years before they achieve free agency and three years before they are even arbitration eligible. This system makes sense in that it encourages teams to invest in their farm systems, knowing that the players they produce will be captive assets for more than a half a decade, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that baseball players are paid their true worth on an open market.

I bring up the imbalance between pay and performance because it's relevant in the discussion about paying college football players. The argument against the current system (and I have made this argument) is that players generate trmendous revenue for their schools, but they are not rewarded with a cut of the revenue, except in scrip from the company store. A free education may be valuable to some players, but for others, life in a lecture hall is just not their highest and best use. However, college sports are not unique in that they have rules preventing players from capturing the value that they create. American pro sports have similar rules, although there is a difference in scale. It's one thing to be paid six- or seven-figure salaries when you deserve eight; it's another to be paid in a barter system when you deserve thousands or millions of dollars.

There is an additional analogy to be made between college and pro sports compenation: both rely on a deferred compensation element. In baseball, young players perform for lower salaries, knowing that good performances will lead to a payday down the road. Tommy Hanson knows that he's playing for a relative pittance now, but he is positioning himself for a massive deal in 2-3 years, a deal that will be especially big because he won't have to compete against pitchers who come after him because those guys will be restricted from entering the market in the same way that Hanson is now. Likewise, college football players play for classes and room & board in the hopes that their performances will lead to NFL riches. The college system seems less equitable because Ohio State and Alabama don't end up having to pay out the deferred compensation, whereas the Braves will have to do so for Hanson and Jurrjens (or their replacements if Jair and/or Tommy leave). That said, the point remains that the NCAA's amateurism rules seem antiquated, but they are not without parallels in American pro sports. This is not a situation like English footie in days of yore when clubs could not pay their players and the players had no expectation of ever cashing in. The payout may be delayed, but it's not denied.

It’s Not Either/Or

It’s rare for me to disagree with the Senator (blogosphere edition, not the recently disgraced coaching version), but this is not a productive question for Georgia fans to ask themselves:

Which leads me to ask Georgia fans the perennial water cooler question – would you trade places?  It’s a pretty good comparison.  Both schools were faced with a similar problem, although Ohio State’s was certainly larger in scope.  And at this point, both star players have elected to leave their schools for professional careers.

Georgia and A.J. Green stepped up, told the truth from the beginning and were rewarded for their efforts with a season to forget.  Knowing what you know now about Ohio State’s likely fate, would you be happier if the Dawgs had followed Tressel’s path, hidden the truth and taken the short-term rewards (12-1 season and a BCS game victory)?  Or would you need even better results to live with the aftermath of decisions by a head coach and star player to ignore the rules?

Last year, Ohio State was fourth nationally in total defense and yards per play allowed.  Georgia was 23rd and 38th in those two stats, respectively.  Put A.J. Green on the field for all 12 games and Georgia isn’t going 12-1.  The different manner in which Ohio State treated Pryor (or even the entire Tatgate Five, four of whom were on the offensive side of the ball and the fifth was a reserve defensive end) and Georgia treated Green doesn’t explain a six-game disparity in the standings.  That analysis doesn’t work in a game with 22 starters.

That said, Blutarsky does raise an interesting angle that the NCAA will face when it considers sanctions for Ohio State.  We are coming off of a season in which several teams lost key players because of suspensions for improper benefits.  Ohio State’s head coach (and arguably their compliance department, which seems unable to find evidence of wrongdoing despite media outlets finding stories like candies tumbling out of a piƱata) ignored evidence of similar violations on the part of his players.  Doesn’t the NCAA have to reward schools like Georgia and North Carolina for being proactive in dealing with improper benefits by showing that the alternative is significantly worse?  The NCAA needs to hammer Ohio State and not for punitive reasons or because the Bucks derived a major competitive advantage from its players trading memorabilia (that point is debatable), but rather to send a message to its members that self-reporting is a big deal.  The whole system, which most closely resembles a rickety dam trying to hold back a flood of money headed towards the athletes who create it, depends on honest self-reporting.  Interestingly, it’s a member of Jim Delany’s conference and not the ostensibly corrupt SEC that will need to be the punching bag.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

If Michigan's Offense Struggles this Year...

Then this chart (HT: Blutarsky) will be quite a cross to bear for Brady Hoke and Al Borges.

This season will be very interesting as a test case for how much latitude Hoke gives his coordinators. Borges is a West Coast Offense guy, but his attack has taken various different forms over the years, including an increasing reliance on the shotgun. It's plausible that he would come up with an offensive scheme that utilizes Denard Robinson's specific skill-set, although it's still going to seem a little like a scorpion pretending to be an anaconda by asphyxiating its victim. (My operative theory on offensive coordinators: if you're a spread guy, then run the spread. If you're a West Coast guy, then run that offense. If you're a scorpion, then sting. If you're an anaconda, then squeeze.) Hoke has stated that he doesn't like the spread as an offensive scheme. Thus, you have a head coach whose philosophy is at odds with the available talent and whose offensive coordinator might be able to concoct a scheme that can work for the talent. How does the situation play out?

By the way, here is the SEC:

Mississippi State - 5th - 95.68%
Florida - 14th - 90.25%
South Carolina - 19th - 87.84%
Vandy - 47th - 75.40%
Tennessee - 53rd - 73.34%
LSU - 63rd - 69.4%
Georgia - 70th - 66.40%
Arkansas - 83rd - 57.88%
Ole Miss - 92nd - 46.31%
Alabama - 103rd - 37.68%
Auburn - 110th - 31.19%
Kentucky - 118th - 24.68%

You can see a potential resurgence by the East over the horizon. You have Florida returning most of the team and getting a post-Addazio bounce. You have South Carolina returning a ton of players from a team that finally got over the hump and adding a potential difference maker at defensive end. You have Tennessee in Derek Dooley's year two, which is often the best year for a new coach. And you have Georgia returning a lot, adding a great recruiting class with key members at positions in need of a boost, not to mention the fact that the Dawgs are in year two of the experiment with the 3-4. It's quite plausible to see a shift of power between West and East, or at least a reversion closer to equilibrium.

One last point: Alabama is replacing an awful lot on offense to be preseason #1. Yeah, the defense may be so good that 20 points will be enough every week, but every national champion has a game or two where it needs a late drive to win. How confident are Tide fans that all of those new faces will come through?