Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Drinks are Ready and the Dogs are Going to War

The title, in case you are keeping score at home.

  • In the department of fun with Sagarin, Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona team now has two wins over teams in the top 30, which is as many such wins as can be claimed by the entirety of the ACC.  Notre Dame has four top 30 wins, which equals the Big Ten’s tally for the year.  Suffice it to say that I haven’t seen much this year to shake my belief that the ACC and the Big Ten are a tier below the Pac Twelve and Bix XII and two tiers below the SEC.
  • According to the Sagarin Predictor, Harvard would be favored over one-third of the ACC: Maryland, Boston College, Wake Forest, and Virginia.  Now I could walk back from that stat by pointing out that a computer ranking will always struggle to put a value on FCS teams and especially Ivy League teams because of the lack of connections between the Ivy League and FBS programs, but that stat is too much fun for such caveats.  If FSU would not have lost to NC State, then we would have had a very interesting debate as to whether a team can contend for the national title on the back of a schedule that started with two FCS opponents and then wound its way through a truly dreadful conference.
  • And speaking of the Noles, I have had a good time watching Danny Kanell go to war on Twitter to argue that the SEC is overrated.  If ever there were someone who could speak from experience about a weak conference producing national title contenders, it would be someone who played for Florida State in the 90s when the ACC looked like, well, like it does right now.  Kanell infers some sort of bias that has the SEC on top of the conference ratings again, while Sagarin has the league second behind the Big XII and SRS has the SEC first.  Oh those computers and their pesky objectivity.  (To Kanell’s credit, he does engage Twitter followers, so at least he’s willing to defend his hard-to-defend statements.)
  • Speaking of the SEC, there’s really no good way to separate the LSU-Florida-South Carolina-Georgia quartet without putting a team behind a team that it beat.  There’s an argument to be made that Georgia is the best of the four when its defense comes to play, but it is also one of the two in the group that was on the losing end of a blowout.  LSU and Florida have the most limited offenses of the four, but they are also the ones who have been in every game.  My confidence in Alabama as the best team in the country remains unshaken, but it’s worth noting that the Tide have not played any of the foursome who are chasing them in the conference.  It’s hard to imagine LSU moving the ball on Bama this weekend, but the Tigers do come in with the advantage that they are more battle-tested.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Texas & Arsenal: Does Anyone Buy a T-shirt for Turning a Profit?

When I started writing college football columns while studying for the bar exam in the summer of 2000, part of the appeal was to get feedback from readers.* Having just spent three years learning through the Socratic Method, the idea of having other fans test my arguments and theories appealed to me.

* - The columns were for PigskinPost.com, which was subsequently bought by CollegeFootballNews.com. Thus, the columns themselves are gone, although I can occasionally find pasted versions of the piece that I did comparing college football teams to European soccer clubs. That piece needs a little updating, which I suppose is the point of this little mental exercise.

Over the course of the next two years, I wrote pieces roughly once a week and three columns stood out as generating the most heat. One was a piece in which I had the temerity to state that I personally believed that Alabama had paid for the services of Albert Means. Needless to say, I learned the lesson that Alabama fans’ support of their team runs on the hotter side of the spectrum. A second was a piece that I wrote criticizing the NCAA’s penalties levied against the Crimson Tide, a column that led the same people who derided me as a biased, yellow journalist to proclaim that I was one of the few people writing about SEC football who had any credibility. Go figure. And the third was a piece defending Mack Brown at the height of the “Mack can’t win the big one” meme after Texas lost the 2001 Big XII title game to Colorado.* My thesis was simply that Mack had taken Texas well beyond where it had been under his predecessors and that a number of coaching legends – Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne, Joe Paterno, Dean Smith, and Mike Krzyzewski, to name a few – had all had the “can’t win the big one” tag, which just establishes that the label is a crutch for lazy analysts. Despite repeated losses to Oklahoma, Texas fans were quite happy with Brown ten years ago and they wrote in to say that they loved the sentiments of the piece.

* - For those younger readers, there was in fact a time when Colorado fielded a competitive football team that could, on occasion, win championships.

I suspect that I would not get the same reaction today if I wrote a piece defending Mack. In his fifteenth year in charge in Austin, Brown has all of two conference titles and off to a 2-2 start in conference play, title number three does not appear to be over the horizon. Brown is now 5-9 against Bob Stoops. Stoops recently added a picture of a scoreboard reading 63-21 to the 55-17, 65-13, and 63-14 shots that no doubt hang over his rocky mantelpiece. It’s one thing to lose to a rival; it’s another to be humiliated on a semi-regular basis at a neutral site.  Texas then followed that humiliation with a 56-50 win at home against Baylor, further cementing the fact that the gap between the Horns and their traditional whipping boys in Waco is too small for comfort. 

And yet, despite the fact that 2012 will mark a third straight season in which Texas is clearly outside of college football’s top tier, the consistent popularity of Texas football ensures that the UT athletic department remains the most profitable program in college sports, earning roughly 12% more in revenue than second-place Ohio State. Mack Brown’s teams may struggle to bring hardware to Austin, but Horns fans have remained steadfast in their willingness to pay high ticket prices and make huge donations for the privilege to see their teams lose to Oklahoma. If the ultimate referendum on a program is winning conference titles and contending for national titles, then Brown’s Texas has been a mild disappointment (at least once the measuring stick is Texas’s natural advantages and not the tenures of John Mackovic, David McWilliams, and Fred Akers). If the ultimate referendum is the willingness of fans to part with their cash, then Brown’s Texas is unparalleled in its success.

In this respect, Texas has a direct comparator across the pond (and a fitting one, given the state’s love for firearms): Arsenal Football Club. Arsenal are one of the three most popular clubs in the English Premier League (Manchester United and Liverpool are the other two, although the latter is debatable), the most popular sports league in the world. In Deloitte’s most recent money league rankings of European clubs, Arsenal finished fifth in revenue generation behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, and Bayern Munich.

However, while Arsenal generate cash like other superclubs, they don’t win on a commensurate level. Arsenal have not won a major trophy since the FA Cup in 2005; they haven’t won the Premier League since 2004; and they have never won the Champions League. By contrast, in the same time period, the four clubs above them on the revenue list have won major trophies (their domestic league, their primary domestic cup, or the Champions League) regularly. Barca have nine major trophies since 2005-06, Bayern Munich have six, Manchester United have five, and Real Madrid have four. In short, Arsenal are great at revenue generation, but they have not been able to turn those financial advantages into trophies in the cabinet. Does that sound familiar, Texas fans?

Texas and Arsenal supporters find themselves in a similar bind: “am I supposed to buy a t-shirt based on my team’s profits from last season?” Texas fans like the fact that their team wins consistently under Mack Brown, but rightfully wonder whether a program with the recruiting and financial advantages that Texas enjoys should be winning a conference title every six or seven years. Arsenal fans like the fact that Arsene Wenger keeps their club in the Champions League and has created a youth system that churns out top quality players, but they wonder whether they should be entitled to a major trophy every now and again, especially as they are paying the highest ticket prices in Europe. Both fan bases are stuck on the question considered by Andy Staples – what do we do with a coach who is good, but not great? – but they have the overlay of their teams being financially successful. Does all that lucre mean that we give our coach more time because our team is healthy or does it mean that the coach is squandering an advantageous position?

No analogy is perfect, least of all one between two different sports on different continents. Soccer clubs can win by pouring money into talent acquisition. If Arsenal spent more in the transfer market and they upped their wages so as to retain players like Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, then they would win titles. Although Nevin Shapiro may disagree, the NCAA has rules against paying for talent, so the effect of Texas spending money is more indirect. DeLoss Dodds can spend on the stadium, workout facilities, academic centers, and the best coaches that money can buy, but all of that expenditure is an indirect way around paying the players directly. On the other hand, Arsenal’s problem is that their owners do not plough money into the club. The Swiss Ramble explains:

The price of Arsenal’s self-sustaining model has been to regularly sell the club’s best players, while charging the highest ticket prices in the country, so this is not quite the financial Utopia that has often been portrayed in the media. For the fans, it must be particularly galling that the club’s two majority shareholders, Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov, are both billionaires, but there is little sign of either making any investment into the squad.

Arsenal’s financial results are undoubtedly impressive and they have done well to consistently finish in the top four, but whether the current strategy is enough to bridge the gap to the leaders and actually win an important trophy is debatable.

Texas, on the other hand, has no issue with wealthy benefactors spending money on the program. In the end, Arsenal fans who do not want to blame Arsene Wenger can point their fingers at the club’s owners for not giving him money to spend as the billionaire owners at Chelsea and Manchester City do; Texas fans who do not want to blame Mack Brown can point their fingers at the NCAA’s efforts to restrain a free market.

Ranking Based on Records Instead of Resumes

We have reached the point in the season where it starts to become enjoyable to pick on the human polls for slavish obedience to records and names as opposed to actual resumes.  When you look at the reasoning behind some of the placements in the AP and Coaches Polls, you understand why fans are so excited for the idea of a committee to pick playoff participants, regardless of the fact that we do not know who will be on the committee, what their criteria will be, or whether we have any good reason to think that a small group of humans will do a better job than a larger group.  To wit:

  • Georgia is five spots ahead of South Carolina.  Yes, the same South Carolina team that beat the Dawgs like a drum two weeks ago.  Why is South Carolina behind Georgia?  Because the Cocks’ record is one game worse than that of the Dawgs.  Is it possible that South Carolina playing at Baton Rouge and Gainesville might have something to do with that disparity in record?  According to Sagarin, South Carolina has played the #23 schedule in the country while Georgia has played the #65 schedule.  It seems likely that Georgia will lose in Jacksonville this weekend, run the table against Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia Southern, and Georgia Tech, and thus finish 10-2 without beating a single ranked opponent.  In other words, they will have repeated their 2011 season almost exactly.  Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative and Mark Richt.  The fact that Georgia could pull of consecutive ten-win seasons without a victory over a ranked opponent says a lot about the lack of depth in the SEC (certainly relative to past years), Georgia’s fortunate draws from the West, and that “we played an SEC schedule” doesn’t mean anything in certain instances.
  • Ohio State is #9 in the AP Poll based on … what, exactly?  One-score wins over Cal, Michigan State, Indiana, and Purdue?  As with Georgia, Ohio State is where they are based on their name and their record, ignoring the quality of their performances.  Here’s a simple hypo: if Michigan (ranked eleven spots behind Ohio State in the AP Poll) and Ohio State switched schedules, then what would their records be?  Michigan would be unbeaten and Ohio State would be 5-2, right?  So then why the gap between the two?  For the record, the Sagarin Predictor agrees with me here, as it has Michigan as a field goal better than the Bucks on a neutral field. 
  • Another example of paying too much attention to a record: Texas A&M.  The Aggies are 5-2 with the two losses being tight games against top ten Florida and LSU.  Otherwise, they handed Louisiana Tech their only loss, won at Ole Miss, and have blown out everyone else on their slate.  Hand Mississippi State’s schedule to A&M and they are almost certainly unbeaten.  So why are the Aggies nine spots behind the Other Bulldogs?  According to Sagarin, the Aggies would be a ten-point favorite on a neutral field.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Two Trips Down Memory Lane

I wrote a pair of recent columns for SB Nation Atlanta and the common thread, as best I can tell, is their focus on the past, which is par for the course for me.  The first is a defense of Braves fans for littering the field with debris during the eighth inning of the loss to the Cardinals on Friday night.  The dreadful invocation of the infield fly rule is getting more attention because of the reaction, so mission accomplished. 

I was interested to see what the local reaction would be and what I got this morning on Mayhem was Chris Dimino saying that the reaction was borne out of playoff frustration (maybe, although I walked out of the game with a hop in my step as a result of Braves fans giving a finger to MLB, so I certainly didn't feel that way) and Nick Cellini claiming that 75% of the fans didn't know what had happened (utter BS based on my experience, as everyone is Section 431 knew what had been called; Cellini's claim struck me as a quintessential sports radio attempt for attention by being outlandish).  My happiness with the reaction of Braves fans come from being prickly about the criticism of the city as not caring about the Braves during the playoff debacles in the late 90s and early Aughts.  My opinion was colored by experience.

Likewise, my column about the Georgia-South Carolina game is an extended analogy between that loss and the third straight loss to Georgia Tech in 2000.  Both were blowout losses against programs that Georgia had historically dominated.  I'll be interested to see how this loss plays out.  On the one hand, Georgia needs South Carolina to lose the next two games to have a realistic shot at winning the East.*   However, if that happens, then the egg that Georgia laid in Columbia becomes even harder to explain.  If South Carolina does well in its next two games (say, a win and a close loss) and finishes 11-1, then the loss can be rationalized, but would the implication also be that South Carolina has passed Georgia as a program?  After all, this was not supposed to be a once-in-a-decade South Carolina team.  Georgia returned more starters this year and has recruited better over the past five years. 

And lastly, is winning the East an imperative for Georgia if the reward is a date with Alabama, a team against which Georgia fans will likely have little confidence in light of Georgia's pattern in big games over the past several years?  So, assuming that "Georgia runs the table, South Carolina loses twice, Georgia beats Alabama and then Oregon, and then Mark Richt ascends to heaven as a beam of pure energy" is off the table, wouldn't the best result this year be that Georgia runs the table and ends up in a BCS Bowl against some hapless Big Ten team?  Or maybe Georgia goes 10-2 and gets to accomplish the same thing?

* - I suppose that a Florida win over the Gamecocks in the Swamp would do the trick by itself because it would create the possibility for Georgia to beat the Gators in Jacksonville and then end up in a three-way tie in the East.  However, the tie-breaker for three teams at 7-1 and 1-1 against the other two would be the BCS Standings, so Georgia would have to be hoping that neither South Carolina, nor Florida win their in-state rivalry games at the end of the season, as a win in either of those games would likely push the winning team ahead of Georgia in the human polls.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Lashing Myself to the Mast

If any of you have had the misfortune of reading me for any extended period of time, this paragraph could come off of an assembly line:

As the Braves futilely chased the Nats over the course of the summer, I got grand visions of revenge in my head. For all of those years in which the Braves lost to inferior teams (often teams that did not win their divisions), they would get their revenge this year by turning the tables. Then it occurred to me that these dreams made me a hypocrite. If it was wrong to view the Braves as a failure for winning 106 games and then losing in the NLCS, then it would be no better to proclaim them kings for beating a team that finished ahead of them, fair and square. Winning in the playoffs would be a nice coda to the season, but it should not be the end-all, be-all. Playoff success is mostly about luck and just because our coin kept coming up tails when we called heads, that means neither that our odds are suddenly better on the next flip, nor does it mean that we should be too emotionally invested in a game of chance.
And the funny thing is that I was either going to write this column or I was going to Fisk Dan Wetzel's column claiming that the four-team playoff is going to make non-conference scheduling better, at least in part by arguing that he is a stuck record on the same old line: everything bad is the result of the BCS. Physician, heal thyself.

Part of why I have these "it just doesn't matter" thoughts in my brain is just a Pavlovian reaction to the Braves being in the playoffs.  We have seen this dance before and we know how it ends.  I got my hopes up in 2010 that an absence from the playoffs would change the Braves' luck, but they lost the NLDS to the Giants in the Braves' typical, excruciating fashion.  It would be just like the Braves to come into the game today on a record-setting winning streak in Kris Medlen starts and then to blow the game, most likely on a bloop by one of the assembly line Ecksteins that St. Louis rolls out. 

Another reason why I am thinking these thoughts is the identity of the opponent.  It still offends my sense of propriety that the Cardinals got to call themselves "World Champions" last year after they entered the playoffs with the fewest wins of any team that made the postseason.  Now, here they are again.  In prior years, they wouldn't even be in the playoffs, but as the lucky horseshoes in their butts continue to pay dividends, they get a one-game shot against a team that finished six games ahead of them in the standings.  I don't want to give the Cardinals the satisfaction of thinking that they have accomplished something big or great if they win today and go on another run that does nothing more that illustrate that the American pro sports method of crowing a champion bastardizes the very word "champion."

One last thought: I was unaware until I was writing this last night that Baseball Prospectus backed off of their position that defense and a great closer are the keys to postseason success. Apparently, the past few years have not been kind to the secret sauce theory. Thus, I can't even get excited about the fact that the Braves are strong in both categories.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Jim Delany Hates my Ballot and Wants it to Die

If conferences had fight songs, then I have a suggestion for the Big Ten:

Matt Hinton had a great comment on Twitter that he often struggles to think of 25 deserving teams to go into his rankings, but this week, there were about 35 good candidates.  I had the same feeling this morning.  I wanted to rank Texas Tech for getting out to a 4-0 start and showing a good defense, but I decided to punish them for playing a terrible non-conference schedule.  I wanted to rank Arizona State, but those wins over Cal and Illinois don’t look especially good right now.  I’ll admit that my feelings about those two coaches also played into my reasoning.  Baylor is a perfectly rankable team.  Miami is 4-1 and getting a lot of production from Stephen Morris.  And how much should I punish Michigan for losing to the #1 team in the country and then losing a tight game at top ten Notre Dame, a game in which Michigan outgained the Irish, but took a Gatling Gun to their own feet when they hit the red zone?

Anyway, a few thoughts on the teams that are not dearly departed from my ballot:

  • It seems way too predictable and easy that we are headed towards another Alabama-LSU showdown.  Neither team is playing especially well right now.  I am starting to see why Nick Saban got so annoyed at the media for puffing his team up, as both the Tide and Tigers seem to have significant motivational issues getting up for anything other than big name opponents.
  • I really ought to punish Oregon for a comical non-conference schedule.  They are truly the exception to the rule that Pac Ten teams play stronger foes outside of the league.  However, they are the exception that proves the rule in the sense that Pac Ten teams generally play tougher opponents because their lukewarm fan bases will not turn out to see North Texas.  Right now, Oregon has the most inelastic demand for tickets in the league, so it would stand to reason that they think that they can get away with playing tomato cans.
  • Don’t think that I didn’t enjoy two separate pieces in ESPN blaming the Big Ten’s current woes at least in part on cheapness with respect to coaching salaries.
  • I listened to the Texas radio feed of the fourth quarter of Texas-Oklahoma State on Saturday night driving back from Athens.  Shockingly enough, they did not mention Joe Bergeron’s fumble on the winning touchdown.  I only learned on the following day that there was controversy concerning the ending of the game.  I also listened to the Wisconsin radio feed of the final five minutes of their game with Nebraska and needless to say, their announcers sounded borderline suicidal that the game ended with Monte Ball fumbling/getting stuffed on fourth and one.  G-d bless homers.
  • So do I make a hat, a brooch, or a Pterodactyl out of Ohio State potentially going unbeaten against a schedule that might not feature a single ranked team?  Let’s see how good the pollsters are at evaluating a team with a big name, a gaudy record, and no big wins. 
  • I will freely admit that my decision to put Louisiana Tech on my ballot and my love of the Sagarin Predictor have irreconcilable differences.