Monday, October 31, 2011

This One Goes To Seven

Thoughts on the weekend:

  • This was a very easy ballot to put together for the first seven spots.  After that, it was total anarchy.  That ought to tell you how many legitimate national title contenders we have this year.
  • One of the big winners of the weekend has to be Boise State.  Right now, they are sitting right behind Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma State, and Stanford on most ballots.  Clemson and Kansas State have been knocked out of the picture.  Stanford passed their first big challenge this weekend, but only barely.  The odds of the Cardinal beating Oregon, Notre Dame, and an opponent in the Pac Ten Championship Game don’t seem great.  Oklahoma State looked very good, but then again, so did Oklahoma.  The odds seem fairly decent that both teams will lose, at which point the Broncos will just need to fight off the one-loss contenders to book a spot in the title game.  There seems to be a fair amount of political sentiment for Boise State to play in New Orleans, as that would establish that a program outside of the major conferences can indeed win a national championship.  Interestingly enough, Georgia’s performance the rest of the way will be critical for BSU’s campaign.  If the Dawgs win the East and put up a good fight in the Dome, then voters will think back to the Broncos’ comfortable week one win over the Dawgs and decide “yeah, this team can play with the big boys.”  And the irony of the whole discussion is that this isn’t an especially good Boise State team, at least by their recent standards.
  • My prevailing sense from the Cocktail Party (other than yes, I was right): inconclusive, just like Georgia’s season.  Yes, the Dawgs won a big game that puts them in a great position to win the East.  No, they did not look good in winning the game.  Aaron Murray was especially disappointing.  Murray’s yards per attempt is down by a full yard this year, his passer rating is lower, and his TD/INT ratio has regressed.  On Saturday, Georgia survived despite Murray disappearing late.  (His overthrow when he had Orson Charles wide open late in the third quarter was especially galling.)  His two touchdown passes were both of the “throw it up to my receiver and have him make a play” variety, which doesn’t scream “great play!” by the quarterback.  So without much of an offense, Georgia prevailed.  They are giving off a major whiff of a team that is going to win the East without looking especially good, a division winner who can thank one of the easiest SEC schedules in recent memory.
  • Follow-on thought #1 from the Georgia bullet: is Mark Richt’s seat warm in the offseason if the Dawgs win nine in a row and then lose to Tech, get handled easily in the SEC Championship Game, and then lose the bowl game?  In that scenario, Georgia would likely finish the season 9-0 against unranked opponents and 0-5 against ranked teams.
  • Follow-on thought #2 from the Georgia bullet: the SEC is really shallow this year.  It’s giving off a whiff of 2006 Big Ten, although Alabama and LSU both have non-conference scalps to put us at ease.  Also, they haven’t had anything resembling a close call, nothing like Michigan surviving an upset scare from Ball State or Ohio State winning by seven at 2-10 Illinois.  Below Alabama and LSU, you have a South Carolina team that no longer has an offense without Stephen Garcia and Marcus Lattimore, an Arkansas team that just barely escaped games against Ole Miss and Vandy, a Georgia team that wins without much of an offense, and a Florida that can no longer block.  Keep all this in mind when the Alabama-LSU loser is in the running for the second spot in New Orleans.  Yes, the SEC has won five national titles in a row.  No, this is not a vintage SEC.
  • Follow-on thought #3 from the Georgia bullet: I didn’t realize that Florida’s offensive line was as big an issue as their quarterbacks.  The Gators moved the ball early in the game, but those yards were empty calories.  As soon as Georgia figured out that the Gators couldn’t run the ball and John Brantley was a sitting duck, the pass rush teed off and the Florida offense ground to a halt.  Florida has bigger issues than Brantley’s ankle or Charlie Weis’s scheme. 
  • All hail, yards per play margin.  I told you that Clemson and Kansas State didn’t belong and lo and behold, they don’t.  I had a good chuckle listening to 790’s morning show yesterday and one of the hosts was relating a story about how he and some friends at a house party had expressed surprise that Clemson was such a slight favorite against the Jackets.  One of the friends sagely opined that that reason was that Paul Johnson’s offense has never been shut down three weeks in a row.  Yes, that must be it.  That’s the sort of reasoning that would motivate a sharp to put $50,000 on Georgia Tech.  It can’t be that on a yardage basis, the Jackets are better than Clemson.
  • The line that jumps out at me: Michigan –4.5 at Iowa.  According to the Sagarin Predictor, Michigan would be a 17-point favorite on a neutral field.  According to SRS, Michigan would be a 14-point favorite on a neutral field.  Michigan is .8 better in terms of yards per play margin.  Unless Kinnick Stadium is worth more than any homefield in college football history, there is something amiss there.  Residual concern on the part of bettors about Michigan’s collapses in 2009 and 2010?  Residual concern that Michigan has been insanely lucky in recovering fumbles?  Residual concern that Iowa has a good performance deep in their loins?  I’ll be interested to see where this line goes during the week.
  • Bryan Stinespring versus Jim Bollman in…?  This was what I was pondering as the Hokie defense gutted out a 14-10 win against Duke with the usual minimal contributions from the offense.  I especially enjoyed the idea of the two playing Axis & Allies, building up forces on a constant basis while refusing to attack.  They would play for three days before declaring a stalemate and heading out for milkshakes.   

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Tim Tebow Makes Football History!

After previously butchering his description of the Chip Kelly spread in every way imaginable, Gregg Easterbrook has another gem describing Tim Tebow's two-point conversion against the Dolphins on Sunday:
On the all-important deuce try with 25 seconds showing in regulation, the Broncos came out five-wide and Miami took the field in a dime. Tebow noticed nobody behind the defensive linemen on the offensive right and audibled to a quarterback sneak right, a move reflecting football IQ.

(Emphasis added.)  Yes, Gregg, Tebow became the first quarterback in football history to run the sneak from the shotgun.  No, the play couldn't have been the basic power play that is a staple of the spread offense.  It couldn't have been the play that Tebow ran a million times at Florida, or the play around which Michigan designed its 2010 offense to make Denard Robinson into a single-wing tailback. 

Easterbrook may know about space exploration, military spending inefficiencies, the dangers of SUVs, the Progress Paradox, and dozens of other important subjects, but the spread offense is clearly a bridge too far.

Jeff Schultz’s Solution for Georgia: Martin Seligman*

If you’ve read this blog for any period of time, you know that I hate explanations grounded in pop psychology.  They are the refuge of the lazy.  They are a substitute for thinking and analyzing data.  Did Team A break a losing streak to Team B?  If yes, then it’s because they wanted it more and they spent all offseason thinking about it.  If no, then it’s because Team B is in their heads.

It’s Georgia-Florida week, so it’s time to trot out an array of unprovable assertions.  Step on down, Jeff Schultz:

The numbers are dizzying: three consecutive losses, 11 of 13, 18 of 21.

Vince Dooley went 17-7-1. His 25-game winning percentage: .700. Since then, Ray Goff (1-6), Donnan (1-4) and Richt (2-8) have gone 4-18. Their 22-game percentage: .182. 

How can players and coaches not think of that history, even if they weren’t here for most of it?Some players weren’t even born yet. Murray? He actually was born Nov. 10, 1990 — the day Steve Spurrier’s Gators tortured Goff’s Dogs, 38-7. That’s when this 21-game stretch started. So it’s all Murray’s fault.

When one signature program loses 18 of 21 games to another, it’s not just about talent. At some point, it’s between the ears.

Georgia’s starting quarterbacks in the past three meetings have thrown nine interceptions. Florida’s, one. The Dogs have committed 12 turnovers. Florida, one.

That not about athleticism. That’s one team being calm and the other having a meltdown.
Schultz presents a binary proposition: Georgia’s lack of success in Jacksonville can either be the result of talent or mental strength.  It can’t be a combination of the two.  More importantly, it can’t be primarily the result of a totally obvious, more likely explanation: for the most part, Florida have had better teams!  Maybe Georgia players, instead of getting PTSD the moment they cross the border into Florida, are up against superior opponets?  Whether that is the result of Florida having better players, better coaches, or a combination thereof, is a matter for debate.  Again, it’s probably a mix.

So, Jeff, let’s test my little hypothesis since I'm operating in the world of facts and you are in the ether.  Let’s look at to see every year since 1990 in which Georgia has either finished with a better SEC record than Florida (excluding the Cocktail Party) or had a better SRS rating.  Here is the complete list:


In contrast, Georgia had an inferior record and SRS rating in 1997 and had the same record (excluding the Cocktail Party) and an inferior SRS rating in 2007.  So really, Georgia fans can point to all of three games over a 21-year period where they had a better team and should have beaten Florida, but didn’t: 1992 (although in retrospect, Spurrier versus Goff was a huge equalizer), and the two Zook disasters in 2002 and 2003.  Georgia was better overall in 2005, but not without DJ Shockley.  Florida fans can point to 1997 and 2007 as years in which their teams were at least comparable, if not marginally better than Georgia and they lost both games.  (A simple question for Georgia fans: how much of your fond memories of the strengths of the ‘97 and ‘07 teams are bound up in the wins in Jacksonville?  After the Florida game, the ‘97 team was solidly beaten at home by Auburn and then required a last-second touchdown to beat Georgia Tech.  The ‘07 team came on like gangbusters at the end of the season, but was mediocre for the first six games.)  So Georgia should be, what, 5-16 against Florida since 1990?  6-15, maybe?  Would we all feel better about the game is that was the tally instead of 3-18?

Since 1990, Florida has finished first in the SEC nine times.  They have won the East ten times, or slightly more than 50% of all available titles.  They have played in 11 major bowl games.  They have three national titles.  In the same time period, Georgia has won two SEC titles, three divisional titles, and no national titles.  Georgia has played in three major bowl games.  Schultz’s mistake is starting from the premise that Florida and Georgia are both “signature programs,” implying some sort of equality.  Georgia has the potential to be equal to Florida, especially if Florida State and Miami pose credible recruiting threats to the Gators in-state, but that potential has not been realized over the past 21 years.  That, more than some imaginary mental block, is the reason why Georgia has struggled in Jacksonville.

The good news, then, is that Georgia is a better team than Florida in 2011 (Georgia is almost five points better in SRS and about 5.5 points better according to the Sagarin Predictor) and the margin isn’t close if Jeff Brantley is either out or limited.  If Georgia loses this year, then we may have to examine what’s going on upstairs with this team, as probability is pointing in the Dawgs' favor.**
* – Here’s the title reference for those of you who aren’t married to psychologists who interned at Penn.

** - Come to think of it, the most precise way to determine what Georgia's record should have been against Florida over the past 21 years would be to come up with retroactive point spreads using SRS (and Sagarin for the years for which it is available) and then assign percentages to the games. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Time To Cower, BCS; Rick Reilly Is On Your Case!

I implore you to read Rick Reilly's complaint about the BCS.  If you are wondering how it is that Rick Neuheisel got a head coaching gig at UCLA after bombing out at Colorado and Washington (with NCAA sanctions, to boot) or Greg Robinson got the defensive coordinator job at Michigan after disastrous spells with the Kansas City Chiefs and Syracuse, just look at their magnificent coifs.  Imagine a middle-aged decision-maker who drives a Lexus, listens to Jimmy Buffett to unwind, spends way too much time futzing with his investments, and views golf as a sport.  That guy is just going to look at Neuheisel or Robinson and say "that guy looks like a coach," in the same way that the Oakland A's scouts said "that guy looks like a player" in Moneyball.  That guy is also going to click on the front page of and say to himself "awesome, a new column by Rick Reilly!  He just looks so friendly and unthreatening!  I'm in the mood for a bunch of dumb one-liners that would be beneath Jay Leno!  And I don't like data or cogent, orderly arguments in my sportswriting.  Explain the world of sports to me, Rick!"

How else can one explain ESPN giving prominent space to a column that contains the following gems:

  • Reilly complains about the fact that there could be six unbeaten teams by the end of the college football season, as if all six were likely to run their respective tables.  As if to show how ludicrously short-sighted his argument was, Oklahoma and Wisconsin lost on Saturday night, cutting Reilly's nightmare scenario down before the column had been up for 48 hours.

  • Reilly argues against an imaginary strawman, namely that an unbeaten Oklahoma or Oklahoma State would be jumped by the one-loss loser of the Alabama-LSU game.  Rick, now that you are writing on the Internet, you might be expected to learn about the concept of a hyperlink.  If you are going to argue against a proposition, then you might want to link to someone making that argument.  Or at least give us a name?  Is that too much to ask?  It seems relevant when you are arguing against an all-SEC BCS Championship Game, an event that has never occurred and in fact has never come close to occurring.

  • How about this gem:
True, trying to win a national championship by beating Big Ten teams is like trying to get drunk drinking non-alcoholic beer, but what do you want them to do? They can only play their schedule and they've fricaseed every team they've played, 301-58. It's enough to make a Wisconsin fan hurl his lunch, which would be known as Bielemia.

What do we want Wisconsin to do?  Oh, I don't know, maybe play a non-conference road game against a team more threatening than UNLV, Fresno State, or Hawaii?  Rick, if you knew anything about college football other than the fact that it provides you with fodder for an annual complaint about the BCS, then you would know that programs get to pick their non-conference schedules.  A program like Wisconsin that has a large home stadium and supportive fan base has near-total latitude in making scheduling decisions.  Wisconsin doesn't just play their schedule; they make 33% of their schedule.  So yes, I want Wisconsin to start acting like the college football power that they pretend to be. 
  • Reilly complains about the computers not showing any love to Stanford.  You want to know why the computer rankings are so bad, Rick?  Because the BCS kow-towed to bitchy columnists after Nebraska pipped Colorado and Oregon for the right to get slaughtered by Miami in the 2001 national title game on the basis of margin-of-victory.  You want to take a wild guess what position Reilly, a Colorado alum who hates Nebraska, would have taken at that time?  I am going out on a limb and say that Reilly wasn't motivated by a rigorous commitment to empiricism and math.  Also, Reilly complains about Stanford's low computer ranking and then cites their schedule going forward.  You know, the part of the schedule for which the computers are not yet accounting.

  • I can't believe that Reilly gets paid to write sentences like this gem about Boise State: "And yet every time they play a big-conference school they tend to win, including Georgia this year and TCU coming up."  He's unintentionally paraphrasing Brian Fantana: 60% of the time, they win every time.  And that's before we get to the fact that TCU isn't yet a big conference school. 

  • Reilly also got paid to write this: "If the [Clemson] Tigers go undefeated, they'll have beaten everybody but the Chinese army -- Auburn, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Florida State and South Carolina."  Boston College?  Are you too f***ing busy to click on the ACC standings and notice that Boston College is 1-6?  Would you prefer to cite the Packers' accomplishment in going unbeaten against a schedule that has included the winless Rams?  Or, since you seem to like shallow geopolitical analogies, maybe you should tout our armed forces' triumph over Grenada? 
Rick, if you feel like college football is crucifying you, then might I suggest you find another religion?  The CIMB Asia Pacific Classic is ready when you are.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Alabama-Stanford? The Trash-talking Before That Game Would Be Delicious


Random thoughts from the weekend:

  • What would the spread be for a national title game between the Alabama/LSU winner and Clemson?  At least ten points, right?  The assumption would be that the SEC Champion would slow down the Clemson offense and would be able to do whatever they choose to do on the other side of the ball.  If North Carolina can manage 6.6 yards per play in a game at Clemson (albeit with six turnovers), then what would Alabama and LSU manage?  An Alabama/LSU game against Stanford would be more interesting because Stanford is a balanced team.  Plus, with the media’s obsession about quarterbacks to the detriment of paying attention to anything else (Exhibit A), there will be some distorted sense that Stanford is favored because they have Andrew Luck.  With the runaway popularity of the NFL and the ability to sell a storyline based around and individual, ESPN would be thrilled to pair a traditional power against Stanford in the title game, certainly as compared to Clemson or Oklahoma State taking the second spot.
  • So who thought that Ole Miss would be competitive with Arkansas?  The sad thing for Ole Miss is that they played their best game of the year, they led for the majority of the game, they rallied back when Arkansas took the lead, and then when they recovered an onside kick and had a chance to win the game, they left their fans with a rotten taste in their mouths.  Ole Miss ran two plays after recovering the onside kick at 29-24.  The first play was a sack.  Then, after an interminable delay getting lined up, Randall Mackey threw an interception into double coverage.  The prevailing sense I got from the conclusion was that Ole Miss has never thought to practice a two-minute drill because they assumed that they would never have the chance to use it.
  • Bo Pelini, the vintage Nebraska teams would not have allowed a 34-0 halftime lead over an overmatched opponent turn into a 41-14 final.  Tom Osborne would have beaten Minnesota by at least 65-3.
  • Georgia Tech was leading the nation in yards per play through their first six games.  In the last two weeks, they have gained 507 yards total on 4.1 yards per play.  Apparently, it’s not just teams with byes that can stop the Jacket offense because Miami had their way with Tech.  Now, a game that previously looked like a chance for the ACC to take the national spotlight has instead turned into a match-up between one team contending for the national title and a second trying to play spoiler.
  • In case you are wondering, I took great enjoyment from watching Gene Chizik on the sideline on Saturday.
  • And speaking of Instant Karma, Wisconsin got a taste of it on Saturday, as well.  You wait until October 22 to play a road game?  How about losing on a final-play hail mary, all while your coach makes a series of inexplicable tactical decisions?
  • How bad does Northwestern’s defense have to be to allow 34 points to Penn State in three quarters?  And why exactly was Pat Fitzgerald seen as such a great coaching candidate for Michigan (among other jobs) during the offseason?
  • Brian Kelly, how does it feel to get outcoached by Lane Kiffin?  Lane Kiffin!  Notre Dame built everything towards this game against USC – night game, huge recruiting weekend, four-game winning streak etc. – and then got totally dominated.  USC outgained the Irish by 176 yards and won the turnover battle 3-0.  31-17 flattered Notre Dame.

Friday, October 21, 2011

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other

The national title contenders, broken down by yards per play:

Team OPP* DPP Margin
Alabama 6.8 3.2 +3.6
LSU 5.5 4.0 +1.5
Oklahoma 6.7 4.6 +2.1
Wisconsin 7.8 4.4 +3.4
Oklahoma State 6.6 5.4 +1.2
Stanford 7.2 4.6 +2.6
Clemson 6.3 5.6 +0.7
Boise State 6.5 4.8 +1.7
Kansas State 4.8 5.3 -0.5
Oregon 7.5 5.1 +2.4
Arkansas 6.5 5.5 +1.0

* – Yeah you know me.


  • Alabama’s number is just silly.  The defense is as strong as always, although I am going to reserve judgment on their place historically until they have played the more challenging half of the schedule.  Through seven games, the only above-average offense they have seen has been Arkansas.  They are terrific at stopping opponents, but they don’t force too many turnovers or sacks.  They can be thrown on,* which is going to put an awfully big onus on Jarrett Lee when LSU comes to town.  However, the Alabama offense has really evolved during the Saban era, getting better each and every year.  (Bama’s yards per play progression from Saban’s first year forward: 5.1, 5.5, 6.0, 7.0, and now 6.8 with an offense that is replacing a two-year starter at quarterback and three first-round picks.)  Maybe it’s more the residue of great recruiting as opposed to clever scheming, but Bama is statistically right up there with teams that are more known for their offenses.  Moreover, because they are run-based, they are achieving a great yards per play number with relatively low variance, which is the crown jewel of offensive production.

* – It’s interesting that the defensive strategy that should work against Alabama – committing extra defenders to squash the run – is exactly what the Alabama defense does.  In other words, mimic what the Tide does on defense to stop their offense.  Then again, their offense should be prepared for this approach since they see it in practice every week.

  • You see what I meant earlier in the week about Clemson?  They just aren’t in the same category as the other contenders on defense.  The conventional wisdom is that they can win a game on defense as evidenced by the win in Blacksburg, but in retrospect, that game looks like either an outlier or a truly epic screw-up by Bryan Stinespring.


  • If I could sell shares of Kansas State, I would.  They make Clemson look like Alabama by comparison.  They are a nice story and all with Bill Snyder bringing the program back after the Ron Prince debacle, but in no way do they belong in the national title discussion.  I wouldn’t be shocked if both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State take them to the woodshed.  In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if Oklahoma blowing K-State out next week isn’t the third instance of the Sooner bubble getting inflated, after wins over Florida State and Texas that both turned out to be conquests of overrated opponents.


  • Boise State’s number just aren’t where they would need to be to justify inclusion in the national title discussion.  Plus, Wisconsin has already taken the mantle of the dominant team that plays no one.  Stanford too, I suppose.


  • Man, LSU’s offensive numbers do not look good in this company.  I would take their special teams units over anyone else on the list and they have played a very tough schedule, but that pedestrian offense could be their undoing.


  • Stanford-Oregon looks like a terrific match-up of evenly-matched teams.  Thankfully, they are in the same division of the Pac 12 or else their game would just be an appetizer.


  • Arkansas looks just like you would expect a mature  Bobby Petrino Arkansas team to look like: a good team with a very good offense and a decent, but not great defense.  One would expect this because of Petrino’s prowess as an offensive coach, combined with the facts that Arkansas does not sit in a good recruiting area and defense is more about talent than anything else.  (Cue Spurrier’s maxim about scheming on offense and recruiting on defense.)  Now, if you put Petrino somewhere like Texas A&M where he would have more access to fertile recruiting areas… 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A History Lesson for Brady Hoke from the Ol’ Ball Coach

In 1996, Florida played at Florida State in a #1 versus #2 match-up.  Florida State won the game 24-21.  In the process, the Seminoles engaged in a fairly clear campaign to injure the eventual Heisman Trophy winner, Danny Wuerrfel.  The famous phrase that emerged after the game was that FSU defenders pursued Wuerrfel “to the echo of the whistle.”  How did Spurrier respond?  Take it away, Orlando Sentinel:

One after another, the hits come to Danny Wuerffel. Steve Spurrier's VCR hums on, and the longer it runs, the more punishment his quarterback absorbs.

This, Spurrier insists, isn't right. Which, of course, is why this videotape exists in the first place.

Spurrier asked his videographers to splice tape of plays that show Florida State defenders delivering late hits to Wuerffel, the newest Heisman Trophy winner. The tapes, taken from end-zone cameras used by schools, generally are unavailable to TV networks or reporters.

Joined in his office last week by several reporters for an invitation-only viewing session, Spurrier grimaces or shakes his head at the conclusion of each play--eight in all--from FSU's 24-21 victory over Florida last month.

"I don't know what we've got to do about it, but that kid's not going to be somebody's tackling dummy," Spurrier said.

Following FSU's hits are some selected plays from Florida's victory over Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game. In terms of punishment to Wuerffel, there's a noticeable difference.

A spear by an unidentified Florida State tackler on a sack--"That's criminal," Spurrier said--and a forearm hit by nose guard Andre Wadsworth draw particular attention.

Because of Texas upsetting Nebraska in the inaugural Big XII Title Game, Florida got a second shot at the Seminoles in the Bowl Alliance Championship Game.  Spurrier’s media campaign put the Seminoles’ pass rush at the center of attention going into the game.  Florida got an early late hit penalty against FSU.  The attention to the Noles’ pass rush, combined with tactical adjustments by Spurrier (most notably increased use of the shotgun) and the basic fact that Florida was simply a better team (Danny Wuerrfel versus Thad Busby?), led to the Gators winning in a rout.

Contrast Spurrier’s reaction to Brady Hoke refusing to comment on Michigan State engaging in a similar campaign to injure Michigan’s star quarterback.  In both instances, Hoke’s and Spurrier’s teams were visiting their in-state rival in a big game.  In both instances, the rival elected to engage in an apparent (obvious?) effort to injure the opposing quarterback.  In Spurrier’s case, he went on the offensive and got what he wanted: (1) media attention on the tactics of his opponent; and (2) a more favorable refereeing environment the next time the teams played.  Florida won the next two games against the Seminoles.  In Hoke’s case, he has chosen to say nothing.

Now, there are several distinctions to be made here.  First, Michigan did actually get several calls from the refs on Saturday, although they didn’t call all of the potential personal fouls and, most inexplicably, they did not eject William Gholston from the game when they had two obvious opportunities to do so.  Michigan certainly got more protection than Florida got against FSU, although I would also add that FSU did not go quite as far as Michigan State did.  Second, Florida was playing FSU again in the same season, so there was a more immediate reason to try to get the Noles on the defensive.  Third, at the time that Spurrier called reporters into his office to show them video clips of the illegal abuse that his quarterback had taken, he had a massive amount of political capital.  Spurrier had just wrapped up his fourth straight SEC title and his team was playing for the national title for the second consecutive year.  In other words, when Spurrier talked, people listened.  In contrast, Brady Hoke has been coach of Michigan for all of seven games.  His career record is barely over .500.  Michigan has now lost four straight games to Michigan State for the first time in a half-century.  Hoke might feel, with some justification, that he is the new guy to the party and it isn’t his place to speak up.  In four years, if Hoke has re-established Michigan as a Big Ten power, then he might be in more of a position to instruct Michigan staffers to splice together footage of Michigan State acting outside of the rules against his players.  Given that the Spartans are doing all of the heavy lifting* to make the rivalry one of the dirtiest in college football, Hoke needs to do something. 

* – I would not have guessed, by the way, that Auburn-Georgia has been the dirtiest rivalry game over the past five years.  Last year’s episode of escalating retaliation was not an outlier.  And if you want to know why ACC football is dreck right now, the fact that Miami-FSU is not on this list, but Duke-UNC is should tell you all you need to know.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gholston Hyperventilating and Other Thoughts from the Weekend

Random thoughts from the weekend:

  • Shouldn't there be a rule that a player is automatically ejected when he commits two personal fouls? Or at least two late hit/unsportsmanlike conduct penalties? What does more damage to the image of the game: a punter holding the ball out as he scores a touchdown or this:

It just seems comical to me that coaches are apparently worried about bad sportsmanship in the form of taunting and not worried about bad sportsmanship in the form of intending to injure opponents, including one opponent who was utterly defenseless.  Or maybe the better explanation is that most coaches are concerned about sportsmanship and square-jawed, Bible-on-his-desk-so-he-must-be-a-moral-guy Mark Dantonio is not.  I like that latter answer.
  • Speaking of Michigan State's display on Saturday, the passive reaction of Michigan coaches in response to an avalanche of dirty play from their rivals was a major contrast to Todd Grantham's reaction in defense of his players on Saturday night.  After years of watching Bobby Cox develop loyalty from his players by getting ejected on their behalf, I am predisposed to like coaches who stand up for their players.  Grantham did that, as did James Franklin.  The substance of their defense doesn't matter so much as the message that is conveyed.  Dantonio continues to stand up for his players in a situation that is completely indefensible.  Meanwhile, Michigan continues with its ethos of "we're above petty disputes, like an opponent engaging in a campaign outside the rules to injure our star quarterback."  Lloyd Carr engaged in the same line of thinking when he did not campaign for Michigan to get a spot in the national title game in 2006.  Now, Brady Hoke is following in Carr's footsteps by saying nothing in defense of his players.
  • To the extent that bullets one and two contradict, I'll say two more things.  First, a coach generally needs to defend his players in public.  My concern with Dantonio is what he will apparently tolerate (or encourage?) from his players privately.  Second, I don't see Grantham and Franklin as defending obviously dirty play from their players.  There are certain acts that are beyond the pale for any coach to defend.  The LeGarrette Blount punch comes to mind.  Gholston's "jump on the pile late and twist your head" move is in the same category for me, although I will admit to some bias in the matter.
  • I saw Moneyball on Saturday night.  It's well worth your time.  It was also a useful tonic for me after the competition between Hoke and Dantonio for who could be the biggest puntasaur.  In that respect, those two would fit in nicely in Moneyball as the scouts who think that you can judge a player on whether he has an ugly girlfriend.  ("He lacks confidence!")  Between their attempts to give David Romer a heart attack, the offense-free zone that was Illinois-Ohio State, and Penn State gumming their way to another narrow, defensive win over a bad opponent, Saturday seemed like a nadir in terms of the Big Ten being behind the times.  Maybe this is what happens when you allow the state of coaching in the conference to slip so far that Brett Bielema is your answer to Nick Saban and Bob Stoops.  (And who the hell is the second-best coach in the conference?) 
  • Speaking of a worthwhile coach, it was a treat listening to Urban Meyer call the Michigan game.  He's great for anyone who likes analysis of what's going on on the field instead of schtick and storylines.  In other words, he's great for a minority of football fans.  We should enjoy him while he's around.
  • Al Groh's return to Charlottesville: 407 yards allowed at 6.2 yards per play.  (That pre-season prediction of UVA finishing second in their division is showing the slightest bit of spunk.)  John Chavis's return to Knoxville: 239 yards allowed and 4.9 yards per play.  
  • It's so quaint watching an underdog like Tennessee get all excited when they can keep up with LSU for a quarter, knowing that they have no prayer of moving the ball on the Tigers and the moment that LSU goes up by two scores, the game will degenerate into a rout.  It's like watching Real or Barca play a road match in La Liga.  The crowd is really into the match for the first 20 minutes or so as their team is flying into tackles and occasionally getting two players forward.  Then, the first goal goes in and everything falls apart.  
  • I will write more on this when I have the time, but Clemson doesn't belong with the other unbeaten national title contenders.  Their resume is impressive because they have played a tough schedule, but they are only outgaining their opponents by .7 yards per play.  That number is far lower than the other contenders and strength of schedule does not account for all of the gap.  Clemson gave up 45 points, 468 yards, and 5.6 yards per play to a Maryland team that couldn't move the ball on Temple or Georgia Tech.  The 45 points and 468 yards were out of character for Clemson, but the 5.6 yards per play was not.  This team does not have the defense to go unbeaten.  Then again, I said the same things about Auburn at this point last year.  Good fortune can take a team a long way.   

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Cam Newton and the Death of a Meme

Remember when Georgia fans touted Mark Richt's pro-style offense as a recruiting advantage vis a vis Urban Meyer's spread?  Remember when Matt Stafford going first in the Draft was a big deal for the future success of the Georgia program, just like Tim Tebow's anticipated struggles in the NFL would be a big deal for Florida?  I do.  Meyer may be gone and replaced by a coach who favors a pro-style offense, but the question of whether the spread offense is a recruiting disadvantage remains relevant.

We are close to getting an answer on the question, at least as far as quarterbacks are concerned, and the answer is not an affirmative one for Georgia fans.  While Tebow's NFL status is indeed murky, Cam Newton, the reigning top pick in the Draft, is sixth in the NFL in yards per attempt as a rookie.  He is actually leading Drew Brees in that statistic.  He is fourth in the NFL in yards passing, trailing only the holy trinity of Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady.  If you use more advanced stats, then Newton drops down a little towards the middle of the pack, but he is still performing extremely well for a rookie, especially one on a team that went 2-14 last year.

Newton is almost single-handedly destroying the trope that pro-style coaches use on the recruiting trail that their way is the only way to prepare a signal-caller for Sundays.  This argument shouldn't have carried too much weight as NFL offenses have evolved.  A high school quarterback can watch Brady, Rodgers, and Brees play and will almost certainly note that they are regularly in the shotgun with three- and four-wide receiver sets.  The NFL has transitioned to a pass-based version of the spread, which invalidates the argument that a quarterback has to be under center with a fullback behind him in order to simulate what he will see on Sundays. 

However, there was still a valid criticism that the run-based spread - as practiced by Rich Rodriguez, Urban Meyer, Chip Kelly, Gus Malzahn, and numerous imitators - is not used in the NFL.  That offense makes a quarterback's job easier because the threat of the QB as a runner puts all sorts of pressure on opposing defenses and therefore makes the passing game simpler and easier to execute.  I will admit that I was skeptical of Newton as a pro prospect, especially early in his career, because Malzahn's offense made things so easy for Cam.  Newton has shown that these concerns were totally misplaced. 

In the old days, the play that made college football unique was the option.  Whether it came from the wishbone, the I, the veer, or the flex, college option quarterbacks didn't stand a chance in the NFL because they didn't learn anything beyond the most basic passing concepts.  The college run-based spread has replaced most of those old college offenses.  It's unique in that we have not seen it on Sundays as anything more than a change of pace, but because it uses spread formations and more advanced pass routes, a college spread quarterback has options in the pros that his option predecessors did not.  We all thought that Tim Tebow would be the test case for whether run-based spread quarterbacks could succeed in the NFL, but as it turns out, it's his back-up who is proving the point.      

A Lion in Winter

I am almost done with Winston's War by Max Hastings* and one of the dominant themes of the book is how irrelevant Great Britain became as the War reached its final stages.  The British deserve great credit when they were the last bulwark against the Germans after the fall of France in 1940.  However, by 1944, they were spent.  They didn’t have the population to take casualties, the industrial base to put thousands of tanks and planes in the field, or the money to pay for expansive military action.  Churchill wanted to occupy the Aegean islands to get Turkey into the war, but the US would not go along, so the British had to send an under-strength force and the campaign turned into a fiasco.  Churchill wanted to commit more forces to Italy and then push on to Vienna, but the Americans wanted to focus on landing in and then pushing through Normandy, so Italy became a sidenote.**  By 1944, the Americans did pretty much whatever they wanted and Churchill’s strategic impulses were rendered irrelevant.  He went from leader of the Western World to bystander.
* – For the record, Hastings and Antony Beevor are my two favorite WWII historians.  I will buy just about anything that they write.  If you are interested in getting into WWII as a subject, then their books are a great starting point.

** – In both instances, Marshall and Eisenhower were correct and Churchill was wrong, so it’s just as well that Great Britain did not have any pull.  That’s the funny thing about the image of Churchill as the great opponent of Stalin.  If Winston would have had his way, then D-Day would have been delayed, the push for the breakout from Normandy would have had less oomph, and the Soviets would have had more time to occupy more of Western Europe.  And that’s before we get to Hastings’ discussion of Yalta, where Churchill didn’t exactly stand up to Uncle Joe as is sometimes portrayed in the popular imagination.

Saturday, around 5:30, the image of a once-great and inspirational leader being shunted off to the side, ignored by those who once listened to everything he said, suddenly popped into my head in a completely different context…