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[+] Team Summaries

Friday, August 29, 2008

Quick Notes: Opening Day

Head Ball Coach has a defense. South Carolina made a statement in their opener. In beating NC State 34-0, they gave up only 49 passing yards and forced 4 turnovers. But we knew SC’s defense was good. If the 4 Gamecock turnovers and offensive hiccups were just products of first game jitters, this Spurrier team could be for real—which means they finish 4th in the SEC East.

The Runaround. Miami is fast. Really fast. Or Charleston Southern has tried to field a team of professional speed walkers. It's too bad no one was there to see the performance-even the fanciest camera angles couldn't hide all the empty seats.

What could’ve been and what can be. In January, Ryan Perriloux was the projected starter of the defending national champions. Now, LSU will start a Harvard transfer at QB and Ryan Perriloux is the starting QB at Jacksonville State. The entire town of Jacksonville couldn’t fill the visitor’s section at LSU’s Tiger Stadium.

Georgia Tech showed some potential in becoming a well-oiled Paul Johnson machine. The wide receivers were either making pancake blocks 30 yards downfield or catching goofy passes from QB Josh Nesbitt after releasing from the infamous “run haphazardly and get wide open” route. Half the time I had no idea where the ball was, and then I would find that it was 20 yards downfield and in the hands of someone I was pretty confident started the play on the sideline. Jonathan Dwyer, playing the hybrid running back/fullback B-Back position in Johnson’s scheme, will run for 1000+ yards this season and make the position a sexy one at Georgia Tech despite being only two inches from the QB’s butt.

But the Jackets still have a ways to go. The 2 fumbles and 70 yards of penalties can be reduced or eliminated. Josh Nesbitt completed only 5 of 12 passes. Last year’s Navy team hardly let the ball touch the grass on fumbles or incompletions and was penalized less than 30 yards a game.

Player that impressed. UConn’s RB Donald Brown is a stud. He is a known commodity in the Big East, but doesn’t get the recognition he deserves nationally. Against Hofstra, he demonstrated great vision and the ability to pop through the seam. He doesn’t have the bulk to carry the load for an entire game, but he won’t have to.

On the Money. I made two picks for Thursday's games and was an impressive 2-0 straight up and against the spread. The problem with achieving perfection this early in the season, though, is that I can only go down from here.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Quick Note: Texas Tech

I've said before that my biggest concern with Texas Tech this season is not their defense but their inconsistency. This concern is now a statistical fact.

In the revised version of the Matrix (I've added independent offensive and defensive results), Texas Tech ranks 86th nationally. And they are consistently inconsistent on both sides of the ball. Tech's offense ranked 86th and the defense 92nd nationally.

A little inconsistency is fine if you are satisfied with 8 and 9 wins and the occasional upset, but I sense that Raider fans are expecting a little more this season.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Games to Watch in Week 1

You should watch every game this weekend, but if you have a job or a life or a limited attention span, here's where you should focus your energies.

Legend: Team1 (line) [ATL in ‘07] vs./at Team2 [ATL in ‘07] (location)

Illinois (+8.5) [-0.42] vs. Missouri [-10.51] (St. Louis)

Why we care: It’s the only game this weekend that puts two really good teams on the same field.

What to watch for: First, how does Illinois recover from the loss of RB Mendenhall? Second, enjoy the Daniel to Maclin show.

Misc.: Missouri was better at football than Arkansas last year. In fact, matching those two up in a bowl game was an insult to the Big 12.
Missouri coaches and players have probably all invested in second homes in St. Louis to offset the hotel expenses. Regular season college football is not supposed to be played at neutral sites-only bowl games.

Pick: Missouri by 10.

Utah (+4) [-5.12] at Michigan [3.44]

Why we care: This is the first of a series of games pitting MWC teams against beatable BCS opponents, which will be important for legitimating a BYU (or Utah) run at a BCS bowl. Oh, yeah, and Michigan hired a new head coach.

What to watch for: The Michigan offense. Michigan is only two years away from a late season #2 ranking and a year away from a preseason #5. If the offense clicks, this could be a tough team (and Rich Rodriguez might just get a big head—the shame). If not, Utah will run away with this game and the year of the MWC begins.

Misc.: Last year, Rich’s team was called the Mountaineers. Last year, Rich’s new team lost to the Mountaineers. Last year, Rich’s team almost won a DI-A national championship. Last year, Rich’s new team wasn’t good enough to win the DI-AA national championship.

Pick: Utah by 5.

Troy (-6) [-9.65] at Middle Tennessee [-2.32]

Why we care: Two of the three best teams in the Sun Belt will be taking the field in Murfreesboro this Thursday. For Sun Belt teams, conference titles and a chance to knock off a BCS team are everything.

What to watch for: Last year, Troy had a legitimately good offense, averaging 453 yards a game, scoring 41 against Oklahoma State in a winning effort and another 34 against Georgia in a loss. Troy has to replace a QB Haugabook, though, and Thursday will be our first competitive look at new QB Jamie Hampton.
Middle Tennessee, on the other hand, has to replace almost everyone. Thursday’s game will help us decide whether the Blue Raiders are competing or rebuilding in 2008.

Misc.: Last year, Troy knocked off BCS foe Oklahoma State and Middle Tennessee State came a sliver from knocking off a very good Virginia team. In the next several weeks, the Troy Trojans will travel to LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State.

Pick: Troy by 10.

Wake Forest (-13) [-3.48] at Baylor [1.75]

Why we care: The beginning of the Art Briles era in Waco. Baylor has been competitive in the past under the great Grant Teaff, and could be again if Briles is able to make more out of less talent with a quirky offense (as Mike Leach has done at Texas Tech). If Baylor does become competitive again, the Big 12 South will be the best division in college football, hands down.
Some people care about ACC football, too. If Clemson slips, Wake Forest should get their shot at Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game-a game that will belong to the Atlantic representative.

What to watch for: With QB Riley Skinner, RB Josh Adams and 9 starters on defense back from last year’s team, we should know what to expect from Wake Forest. The question marks are all on the Baylor side. QBs Kirby Freeman and Robert Griffin have the talent to run a dynamic offense, but experience in the offense and the skill players around them to make it click have gone AWOL. The Baylor defense was horrible last season and we can anticipate a repeat performance.

Misc.: I probably played in 20 high school football games in stadiums larger than Wake’s Groves Stadium. One of those games was against Waco High.

Pick: Wake by 20.

Appalachian State (NA) [NA] at LSU [-4.56]

Why we care: University of Michigan 32 Appalachian State University 34

What to watch for: The QBs. Mountaineer QB Armanti Edwards is supposed to be the real deal – Wikipedia page and all. He looked like it against Michigan last year, but then again, Oregon’s Dennis Dixon looked like he could have walked on water had it been raining a week later in the Big House. LSU is reloading, but LSU recruits well enough to reload. Inexplicably, LSU will need to rely on a 47 year-old Harvard transfer at QB in Andrew Hatch. This game gives us a sneak peak of LSU’s new team and of Heisman hopeful Armanti Edwards against legitimate talent.

Misc.: Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, that App. State pulls this one out. Could they get Les Miles fired, too?

Pick: LSU by 25. (Les, your job is safe until Alabama comes to town.)

Clemson (-5) [-5.08] vs. Alabama [1.83] (Atlanta)

Why we care: The national sports media have collectively built a shrine to Nick Saban and his unachieving Crimson Tide. This game also represents Clemson’s first test.

What to watch: Line play when Clemson has the ball. The Alabama D-line is not going to win many games singlehandedly, but it just might win this one if the Clemson O-line is as poor as some fear. Clemson’s D is good enough to keep Alabama in check and the offensive skill guys for Clemson are good enough that, if given time, it could be a long day for the Tide.

Misc.: I don’t like Nick Saban.

Pick: Clemson by 10[0?].

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Ohio State University: Too Legit to Quit

Three minutes into the first half, Matt Flynn fell on his own fumble at the LSU 6 yard line. Twelve minutes later, LSU’s Harry Coleman fell on a fumbled punt at the LSU 16. In a game in which LSU was outgained, 2 turnovers were the deciding factors, but Ohio State lost the ball to LSU, not LSU to Ohio State. If those fumbled balls had proven too slippery for Coleman and Flynn, we would have a different national champion for the 2007 college football season.

Price represents the probability that Ohio State will be the BCS outright national champion in 2008.

Now, generally intelligent and well-informed, but myopic, college football commentators are making broad generalizations that Ohio State shouldn’t be allowed to compete for the national championship in 2008 because their schedule is soft and they don’t have the talent and speed to compete with the SEC. Garbage.

Here are some things to remember before we make that same mistake. First, the Ohio State team of 2007 was supposed to be a rebuilding project. Ohio State went to the Sugar Bowl because the rest of the contenders across the country missed the bus. Let’s review.

Georgia couldn’t even win their own division because they got blasted by a quality, though not title contending, Tennessee team. It is prerequisite that any team interested in playing for the title of best team in the country should first establish themselves as the best in their six team division. The same goes for Kansas.

West Virginia had a golden ticket, but they and Missouri got locked in a fierce game of hot potato and threw it away. I would agree that the Big East was probably stronger than the Big 10 last year, but WVU lost twice (which is more than once) in one of the weaker BCS conferences.

Virginia Tech was on a roll at the end of the season and suffered only two losses to two good teams, but the Hokies were already handed a 41 point loss by LSU. You don’t get a rematch when you call on the mercy rule in your first meeting.

Oklahoma could have made a strong argument, having lost twice in a much tougher Big 12. But after watching their bowl game performance, and considering their own record in bowl games recently, I don’t think we would have been any better off. And Missouri has no claim, suffering the same number of losses as OU with a softer schedule and, coincidentally, having lost twice to Oklahoma.

Here is a list of USC’s second order losses (teams that beat teams that beat USC): Notre Dame (3-9), Washington (4-9), Washington State, Oregon (9-4), Oregon State (2x), California (7-6), UCLA (2x) (6-7), Arizona (5-7), Arizona State (10-3), and TCU (8-5). It is somewhat remarkable that USC won the conference championship despite marking first or second order losses to every team in the conference. The Pac 10 may have been tougher than the Big 10, but USC’s work in the Pac 10 did not warrant a shot at the title.

(On a side note, speaking of second order losses, 4 teams accomplished the rare feat of earning a spot on their own second order loss list: BYU, UCLA, Virginia Tech, and Boston College. Oklahoma, Missouri, UCF and Tulsa could have joined this list if their conference championship games had turned out differently.)

USC and Georgia may have been better teams in January, but the beautiful thing about college football is that you have to perform from September through November, too. Ohio State, two seasons in a row, has punched their card to the title game by playing good, consistent ball throughout the regular season. If Ohio State is one of the best two teams from September to November in 2008, they should again be packing their bags for another trip to the BCS title game.

But we hear that Ohio State plays in a weak Big Ten and doesn’t actually have the talent to compete against the best teams in the country. Again, garbage. Any recruiting service worth its salt will tell you that Ohio State has had top 5 recruiting classes 2 of the last 3 years. The OSU not only has grabbed the best talent from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois (good high school football states), but they have also nicked five star athletes from the South. Their 2008 signees included 2 kids from Florida, 1 from Texas, and 1 from Maryland in the top 100 nationally, including ATH Lamaar Thomas who has the speed to make Trindon Holiday nervous in a foot race.

Florida only signed 5 kids from the South in the top 100 nationally.

Ohio State is too slow though, right? Sure the SEC is faster than the Big 10 and produces more pro talent at the speed positions, but the Big 10 doesn’t play for national championships—Ohio State does. Here’s a comparison of the average 40 time by unit for Ohio State and LSU in 2007:

Offensive Line and Tight End (starting 6):
OSU – 5.06 LSU – 5.05

Runnning Back (3 deep):
SU – 4.45 LSU – 4.45

OSU – 4.50 LSU – 4.60

Receiver (4 deep):
OSU – 4.55 LSU – 4.44

Defensive Line (starting 4, 1 reserve):
OSU – 4.80 LSU – 4.80

Linebackers (3 starters):
OSU – 4.65 LSU – 4.57

Secondary (4 starters):
OSU – 4.48 LSU – 4.53

I don’t know, but LSU has the advantage here.

Conclusion—LSU was faster but not “me vs. Usain Bolt” faster. The difference between the two teams was small.

LSU looked so much faster in the Sugar Bowl, despite not actually being that much faster, because 1) LSU’s defense was coached by Bo Pelini. Players both play faster and look faster because of good coaching and scheming under Pelini. 2) LSU was accustomed to a faster pace from playing in the SEC. Ohio State had the capacity to play and that speed, but up to that point, their competition had not inspired them to. 3) LSU has more speed on the practice squad. If Tressel had allowed his first teams to go at it more in December practices, I have a feeling we wouldn’t have been able to notice a speed difference between the two teams.

OSU's Coach Tressel is a smart guy—you can tell because he wears a sweater vest and only smart guys wear sweater vests. I’m disappointed he didn’t make the necessary adjustments from 2006 to prepare for LSU, but we need to remember that a healthy LSU was really that much better than everyone else. In 2008, Tressel will have his team ready (and they won’t have to play anyone as stacked on defense as LSU was in ’07).

All this is important because Ohio State has another team that is ready to make a run for a national championship. The team will be loaded with about 47 returning starters and a Heisman-caliber running back in Beanie Wells (who has demonstrated in both national championship games that he is not too slow to compete against SEC defenses). According to Athlon Sports, Ohio State ranks in the top 10 in the country at every unit but defensive line.

More importantly, Ohio State has a schedule that could earn them some legitimacy. They play at USC, Wisconsin and Illinois (all potential top 15 teams) and also have Penn State and Michigan (who wasn’t too slow to compete against Florida last year) on the schedule. Assuming we grant one spot in the national championship game to the SEC champ, Ohio State would have just as much claim as any remaining contender based on strength of schedule.

It would be a real shame if we kept a team out of a national championship game just because they had proven to be second best the two years before.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

How the Irish Lost their Fight

When I hear “Irish”, I think of potato famines, soccer hooligans, leprechauns, lots of green, lots of alcohol, and the NRA. When I hear “Fighting Irish”, I envision the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus, Ara, Lou, Frank, and, of course, Knute, tradition, history, championships, four horsemen (of the non-apocalyptic variety) and everyone’s favorite diminutive college football player not named Flutie.

Last year, Coach Weis and his charges left the Fight at home.

“Three-and-nine doesn't even sound right, especially in the same sentence as Notre Dame” -Senior fullback Asaph Schwapp in Athlon Sports

That’s because the Domers haven’t been that inept since 1963. Ara Parseghian arrived in 1964. Over the next quarter century, the Fighting Irish won 4 AP national championships, a couple Heismans, and a lot of football games.

Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz did as much in that run to revolutionize football as Knute Rockne himself several decades earlier. In 1966, Notre Dame and Michigan State gave college administrators, coaches, broadcasters and journalists a taste of the potential draw for college football, and thus reinvented the way the game is marketed.

Less dramatically, in 1993 a story about a steel mill worker who gets in one play for Notre Dame inspired one of the better sports movies of all time that was alternatively titled, “Notre Dame is Cooler than Your Stupid School.” It grossed over $20 million at the box office and people will forever think “Rudy” when an athlete is carried from the field.

College football is better off because of Notre Dame, its tradition, accomplishments, and fans. College football will be better off in the future if the Irish get their Fight back.

But in 2007, the neighbor boy’s pee-wee football team would have looked like the ’85 Bears against the Fight-less Irish. More important, Notre Dame football, like the variety played in Nebraska, seems to be drifting into a state of permanent mediocrity since the resignations of the most recent members of their respective coaching pantheons in the last half of the 90’s.

The old excuse for any gridiron failure is that Notre Damers are too smart to be good at football. This justification was invented with Deemphasis in the 50’s – that good schools sacrifice athletic accomplishments for academic acumen. “Notre Dame”, administrators cried, “is not a football factory”. To retain this image, Notre Dame has theoretically restricted its access to some athletes that are talented on the field, but not in the classroom.

Paul Hornung, a Domer legend, brought this excuse to the forefront when he controversially proposed in 2004 that Notre Dame lower its academic standards to attract more black athletes.

Apparently, this fine academic institution wasn’t good enough to keep Mr. Hornung from shoving a foot in his mouth.

But even if we ignore the stupidity of publicly making that kind of comment, we can see that it’s not even true. If Paul Hornung thinks it’s hard to recruit the best talent to South Bend, try recruiting 5 star athletes to Annapolis. But high standards and military commitments didn’t keep Paul Johnson and the Midshipmen of Navy from beating our dear Irish in 2007.

Boston College is the nation’s other Catholic university with tough admission standards, but while Notre Dame sent out the nation’s least productive offense, BC spent a good portion of the season in the top 5, played for the conference championship, and graduated a Heisman candidate.

And when it comes to recruiting African-American athletes, Notre Dame has an inside track paved with gold compared to Brigham Young University, a program that has won as many national championships, produced as many Heismans, and won more games than Notre Dame since the end of the 1970’s.

If Charlie Weis, a fatter gentleman competing in a world dominated by young, flamboyant coaching personalities, can pull in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes after a 3-9 season, recruiting athletes to South Bend is not the problem.

If recruiting isn’t the issue, the next potential target of our inquisition must be the coaching.

If you would have asked a solid Notre Dame football fan about the future of Notre Dame football in early 2003, it would have been all roses. Ty Willingham had pulled out a 10 win season and a top-5 recruiting class. And the guy was as snappy dresser, the snappiest in Notre Dame coaching history. If you ignored the SC beat down, all was well in South Bend.

The situation was very similar to what Ohio State had experienced a year earlier with the arrival Tressel (assuming, of course, that you also think sweater vests are snappy). The team was scrappy and tough, winning games that they should have lost. Ty Willingham won every coaching award worth accepting, and some coaching awards were invented just to make him feel even better about himself.

Notre Dame is a school of tradition, which is a synonym for myth. Listen to a Domer talk about the four horsemen and you would think they scored a touchdown on every play. Watch “Rudy” and you’ll never realize that Notre Dame was quite mediocre in Rudy’s big year. The standards, set by almost mythical creatures, are too high to live up to, but have one successful season at Notre Dame and fans will have you convinced that Rockne-like success is your birthright. You will be labeled a “Golden Boy” until you fail and start getting the hate mail—but Notre Dame is not a football factory.

Ty Willingham bought into the hype and, consequently, his team lost that scrappy mentality. In 2003, Notre Dame lost its Fight. They opened the season with a tough win over Washington State (a good team), but then got blasted by Michigan. The wheels quickly fell off and Coach Willingham was getting death threats.

In comes the next candidate for apotheosis—Charlie Weis. The program was in disarray, but he is able to get folks to rally around him. He got the Fight back. He has two very successful seasons with Ty Willingham’s players, and praise is dumped on him faster than he can dig out from under it.

Charlie Weis, like Willingham, bought the hype. Rumor has it that Coach Weis forgot in Spring 2007 that football was a contact sport, thinking he could out-scheme opponents—he was smart enough to win games with his brain. That lack of physicality in practice led to poor performances on Saturdays. Really poor performances. “Worst offense in the country” kind of performances. And offense is supposed to be Weis’s forte. In 2007, Notre Dame lost its Fight.

This was a best case scenario for the Irish. Notre Dame, like Michigan, was engulfed in its own mythology and needed a dose of reality (which, in Michigan’s case, came in the form of Appalachian State). Charlie Weis was humbled but the situation did not become unmanageable. Some players left, but more are arriving. The coaches, players and fans have reevaluated their expectations, and, hopefully, the Irish have got their Fight back.

But let this be a warning to the college football nation (including you, Alabama). A little success creates expectations and cultures of hero worship that can be self-destructive. They lead to instability and performance-inhibiting self-aggrandizement. And impossibly-high standards of success and myths of the past are much easier to build up than to bring down.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Big East Preview, 2008

I assumed the loss to Pitt had permanently scarred the West Virginia program. When Rich jumped ship, I thought we were about see a team whither away and fade into oblivion. But Coach Stewart stepped up and the Mountaineers beat down Oklahoma, stunning the world and, apparently, Bob Stoops.

This was supposed to be a sign that all was well in Morgantown, and with White, Devine, and an imposing offensive line back, the offense was going to again be unstoppable. But I think WVU lost more talent on offense in backs Slaton and Schmitt and WR Reynaud than they have picked up with a couple of recent middle of the pack recruiting classes. And the defense, which was better than most people recognized, was stripped clean. I think WVU will really get a run for its money this year in the Big East.

Question: What do Pitt and USF have in common?

Historically, these two programs have nothing in common (except for a lack of national championships in the 80's, 90's and this most recent decade), but last season they shared one important commonality - they beat West Virginia.

They have something else in common: they both have speed out the wazoo on defense. Pitt's defense was one of the best in the country, but the offense was so bad that they had to defend short fields and, consequently, gave up too many points. USF's biggest weakness on defense is that they are too speedy and lack the size to punish bruising backfields. Noel Devine is approximately 4 feet tall and weighs as much as Juice Williams did at birth. These two things - beating WVU and having speed - are not accidents.

In 2008, after losing to Auburn at home, White and Co. will need to win at Pitt and against USF the last two weeks of the season to win a Big East championship and finish in the top 15. I don't know if they will be able to pull it off. And if things don't go well in Boulder on September 18th, WVU could be looking at 4 losses in 2008.

If West Virginia falls from grace, who will take their place. In my mind, three teams in the Big East (USF, Rutgers, and Pitt) are ready to step forward while three others (Louisville, Cincinnati, UConn) have stepped back. And Syracuse is still Syracuse (relishing the glory days of Jimmy Brown and 1959).

Rutgers will have to replace Ray Rice but is now a real program with athletes that can fill in the holes as they appear. Solid quarterback play and a more open offense will help the Scarlet Knights compete, but a tough schedule will make life hard. They have to travel to West Virginia, Cincinnati, Pitt and South Florida between October 4 and November 15. If they can win three of four of those games, they should be Big East champs and BCS bowl bound. If not (the more likely scenario) they will be looking at another 8 or 9 win season, which is nothing to be ashamed of.

South Florida put themselves on the map last season (but only figuratively because most college football fans still couldn't tell you in which city USF resides). A more mature Grothe and healty RB Matt Ford should mean the offense is better than last year. They were hit bad at corner, but the defense should still be reliable. If they can win some big games at home against Kansas, Pitt and Rutgers, the skies the limit for this team.

It's about time for Pitt to break out. Three straight years now Pitt has dominated the recruiting scene in the Big East. Injuries last season held the offense in check, but watch for Sean McCoy to have a stunning season now that defenses will have to account for QB Stull and WR Kinder. The defense will be first class again, and their performance will actually show up on the score board when the offense starts clicking. They won't be great, but it won't take greatness to win the Big East this year.

And my much awaited prediction for Syracuse? They'll suck once again and forever.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Who's Afraid of the SEC?: 2008 Preview

I'm not an SEC hater. I believe that at most times and in most places the SEC is better than all other conferences; better than the Big 10 and Pac 10 combined. But this year I have my doubts. Georgia, for one, is overrated. Florida didn't play defense. LSU has no quarterback and Auburn is installing a high school offense because the last one performed at that level (I'm exaggerating, but you get the point). I will need to be convinced that the likes of Tennessee, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas and Alabama are really better than Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Colorado and Nebraska, because the top 4 in the Big 12 is every bit as good as the top 4 in the SEC. I'm not saying the SEC isn't better - I just need to be convinced this year.
The SEC championship, and possibly the BCS title, rest on two unknowns. Florida's offense will be record breaking, but its defense is a big question mark. Florida has talent on defense-Florida always has talent on defense-but last year they were exposed, abused, beaten and abandoned. The Gators lost two games in which they score 30 or more. Only Auburn held Tebow and Co. under 20.

Which brings us to the Auburn Tigers. One day the guy is trying to sell his offensive philosophy like a quack's magic tonic, the next Tony Franklin is heading up a national contender's offense. As long as Tommy is in town, Auburn will have a good defense, but what will become of the offense? If the Chick-fil-a bowl is a harbinger of things to come, Auburn could be really tough this year, or, if it isn't, Auburn's new up-tempo offense could just be another disaster that uses less clock before they punt or turn it over.
Auburn should slide into the championship game regardless, because LSU, the other West contender, has the schedule from hell. The Tigers from the Bayou have to travel to Auburn and Florida, and also have to play Georgia. Auburn gets Georgia and LSU at home and doesn't have to play Florida.
The SEC East could be decided in Jacksonville on Nov. 1 when Georgia and Florida meet up, but Florida will first need to win at Tennessee and at home against LSU. If so, and if Georgia plays up to some hefty expectations, we could be looking at a game for the ages. Florida will win if they play some defense and should be headed to the conference championship game matching a great offense against a great defense in Auburn.

And what a game that will be. When Florida has the ball, the level of play will be as good as we've ever seen in college football. When Auburn has the ball, it could be a different story. Whoever wins that battle will be SEC champs and could possibly be heading to Miami to face the boys of Troy for a chance at the big pie.
P.S. I want readers to know that I am explicitly ignoring another program that, despite selling their souls for a football coach and super recruiting classes, is yet to achieve anything - and I hope that continues, so I can watch them lose to fourth-tier teams on ESPN over and over and over again.

ACC Atlantic Preview - Whither Goest Clemson?

The ACC is an interesting conference defined in large part by a cultural preference that developed hundreds of years ago. The East Coast is marked by a unique respect for private institutions of higher learning.
Private universities, by definition, are attended by snotty-nosed pansies who think they're athletic if they can row a boat (I'm kidding, mostly; I went to a private college myself). This is a hindrance on the conference and would be more of a hindrance if the East Coast produced as much football talent as the South (including Florida and Texas) or California. Private schools are generally smaller and cannot deploy the fans or resources requisite to build a quality football program (and, consequently, are good at basketball instead)-and that is why most of the ACC sucks at football.

Clemson has been the focal point of most of the hype this year in the ACC, in part because there isn't too much else going on in the ACC Atlantic. Wake Forest established themselves last year as a good program but not one that is going to consistently make BCS bowl appearances, a Ryan-less BC will be about as exciting as Olympic pommel horse, and Florida St. is still a couple years from re-arriving.

Here are my questions for the ACC Atlantic this season:

1) Is this the year for Clemson to finally claim its birth right as ACC champs?

2) Is it geographically possible to differentiate the Atlantic and Coastal regions?
(I'm not really going to try to answer this question, it just gives me a headache)

1) Clemson fans (and everyone else) should know exactly what to expect from this Clemson team after week three. Clemson hosts the mighty Wolfpack of NC State. The Tigers will win this game, but if they do not run for more than 100 yards, trouble awaits them - and here's why.
The ACC is a relatively weak conference except at one position, defensive line. Even the crappy teams in the ACC have monster D-lines. Clemson has a monster D-line, as will NC State. NC State has produced some front fours that the Packers would have been happy to trade for straight up, and this year they will field another whopper. Clemson, though, does not have a good O-line; they lost three starters from a unit that underperformed last year. That's a big problem if you want to be successful in the ACC.

Clemson folks has a couple of things going for them. One, barring linebacker and offensive line, they are better or as good as every other team in the conference at every other position. Two, they do not have to play projected Coastal frontrunners VT, Miami, and North Carolina. Unless NC State holds Clemson under 50 yards rushing and wins that game, these two advantages should be enough to get Clemson into the ACC championship game (even after they lose to Florida St.).

When they do finally have to play Virginia Tech to claim their first conference title since my birth (figuratively, not literally), that's when they'll hit the wall. VT, like NC State before them, should be able to play in the Clemson backfield, set up camp, start a fire, roast some marshmallows, make smores, sing camp songs, tell ghost stories, rip off CJ Spiller's head while tries to dance in the backfield, and take home the conference hardware. But if Clemson's O-line learns to block this year, expect good things from this Tiger streak.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Rectifying a Stupid Conclusion - Preseason Polls

Georgia is #1, but should we care?

This time of year, we often hear about preseason polls and, in response, we hear that preseason pollsters don't know much this early and so preseason polls are just entertainment. One might point out, for example, that only 10 times since the AP started preseason polling (1950) was the final #1 in the top spot before the season (17%) and, more condemning, 6 times the eventual national champion was not ranked in the AP preseason poll.

But to use these numbers to suggest that the preseason poll doesn't mean much is premature and, well, wrong. I used a simple logistic model and data from the AP Poll Archive and found that preseason rankings are more important than you might think.

First, a team in the top spot in the preseason is 29 times more likely to win the national championship than if they weren't in the top spot. To clarify, that doesn't mean that Georgia is 29 times more likely to take it all than USC, but that Georgia is 29 times more likely to win it all than the average college football team. But that shouldn't surprise anyone--of course the Dawgs have a better shot then, say, Wyoming.

But ranking matters even for those at the top. The top dog, no pun intended, is almost 5 times more likely to be #1 at the end of the season than the average ranked team, 2.6 times more likely to achieve that result than other time top 5 teams, and 1.5 times more likely than the #2 team to be on top at season's end. And for the statistically minded, those results are statistically significant.

Finally, I present the results for the most comprehensive model I have tried:

The important numbers for our purposes are the odds ratios, in red, that detail the probability of a team with a particular rank winning the national championship relative to the average unranked team. Teams that start off on top are 200 times more likely to win the national championship than teams that start off unranked, and teams that are #2 at the beginning are 133 times more likely to win it all than the unranked teams, etc.

In other words, preseason polls matter, and they matter a lot--the numbers presented here are large and significant. It's good to be #1.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

ACC Coastal Preview 2008

I was really tempted to do only one analysis of the ACC instead of breaking it down by division because, 1) I really hate how the ACC has divided their conference—they’ve turned political gerrymandering into an art form, and 2) the ACC doesn’t warrant as much attention as the Big 12 and SEC and does not deserve more than the Pac 10 and Big 10. But I was won over after preparing previews of the teams in the Coastal division which, though not the best in football, will be interesting to watch.

Here are my questions for the Coastal:

1) Can anyone (Miami?) knock VT off its Coastal throne?
2) What can we expect from the Yellow Jackets?
3) When will the Coastal produce another national champion?

Miami last season was 5-7 last year and returned 4 starters on defense, the only unit last year that played at a collegiate level. If you take out the flukish Texas A&M game from last season, the offensive was about as productive as your local department of motor vehicles. And only 6 starters returned from that group. Does this spell doom and gloom for the half dozen die hard ‘Cane fans?

Enter Randy Shannon, who has shown that he excels at one aspect of being a college coach-recruiting.

If college recruiting classes were graded like NFL draft classes, where we look at both the total talent brought in and the ability of that talent to meet specific needs, Miami’s class would have to be tops in the nation.

Quarterback play was pitiful last season, but Shannon brings in Florida’s last two Mr. Floridas, both of whom have broken Tebow’s records from three years ago. And the improvement at quarterback may be upstaged by the fresh talent Miami will be running at linebacker and receiver.

But all this talent is laden with big, boldfaced, even italicized question marks. They are unproven at the college ranks, and, perhaps more condemning, Shannon and Co. are unproven at developing talent and fielding efficient offensive units.

Virginia Tech has also lost a lot of talent, but as with the Miami case, counting the number of returning starters is a waste unless you consider where those starters went and who is coming back in to replace them.

VT’s offense started to click at the end of last season for the first time—ever. The quarterbacking combo almost replicated the skills that had once been present in a single physical frame when Michael Vick had been a Hokie, and the results were stunning. But VT will be soft at running back and ACC teams will now be prepared for Taylor and Glennon.

Generally this team will not be as good as last year, and, if the Miami talent pans out, they could be seriously pushed to win the Coastal. Miami will especially benefit from a favorable conference schedule and a non-conference schedule that will help them get some rookie mistakes out of their system.

2) There’s a story of Barry Switzer, already a legendary coach, trying to be the “smart” coach. Having won championships out of the wishbone, Switzer looked to mix things up to match incoming talent, first with Dupree and then with Aikmen. Dupree was an epic flop and Aikmen lasted four games before suffering a boo-boo (rumor has it that Aikmen had a very low pain tolerance), and Switzer was forced to switch back to the wishbone for the rest of the season. The result was one of the most dominate offensive units in the history of college football and a national championship. (And Aikmen transfers to a school that throws the football and the rest is history).

What does this have to do with Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech? I’ll explain, but first I must digress.

As I read reviews and previews of Johnson’s first Yellow Jacket outfit, I think a lot people have a complete misunderstanding of the situation. They see the poor offensive performance at the T-Day, count the number of starters that transferred out, and fear that Johnson won’t be able to recruit ACC quality talent for the triple-option.

The truth is, if he could transfer his offense, personnel and all, from Navy and build a top caliber defense, Georgia Tech could be a power in the ACC. Paul Johnson needs two things to have success on offense—the right type of talent and execution. Because he needs a specific type of talent, he doesn’t need to try to pull the Staffords of the world from Georgia (although having a Moreno wouldn’t hurt). Because he doesn’t use a pro-style offense he doesn’t want to recruit pro-style talent that is only interested in playing in a pro-style offense.

Johnson will need at least one complete off-season (not just most of a spring) to get his players to execute. If this team hasn’t doubled its offensive efficiency by the end of the year, then call me Susie, but I warn you that the beginning could be rough. Then, he will need two years to pull in some talent, specifically quicker offensive linemen, more physical receivers, and depth at B or wing back. By 2010, Georgia Tech will be leading the ACC and in the top 5 nationally in rushing.

Until then, and beyond, the real key will be defense. Georgia Tech should be able to focus its real competitive recruiting on defense in a region of the country that produces defensive lineman galore. This year, in fact, Tech’s D-line will be as good as any in the country. With a traditional 4-3, athletes won’t need to worry about getting lost in a non-pro scheme. Georgia Tech could put a talented defense and a unique, executing offense on the field and really put some pressure on the top dogs in the ACC. But not yet.

So, what does this have to do with Barry Switzer? Execution, angles and mismatches can overcome big differences in talent. That OU team was still incredibly talented, but Switzer and Co. knew how to coach execution in the wishbone and thus had greater success after losing the greater talent. Paul Johnson knows how to get execution in the triple-option. We need not worry about passing quarterbacks transferring out or fear that he won’t be able to bring in top-notch talent. Georgia Tech is not much different than Navy except he can practice more, recruit defensive talent without worrying about Naval obligations, and he no longer works for the federal government.

Just ask Mike Leach—he too utilized a unique offense scheme and execution to build a competitive program out of a small, technical university.

And it’s just the ACC—the bottom half of the Coastal is made up of powerhouses Duke, North Carolina and NC State. I’d rather face them than Army and Notre Dame every year.

3) The Coastal is an interesting division because it is laden with talent and with more academically oriented institutions. Duke and Georgia Tech are both smaller, ritzier, smarty pants schools. North Carolina is larger, but is still a brain factory (and then a basketball factory) before a football program. And Virginia and Virginia Tech are not for a faint of gray matter. It is a testament to the qualities of Beamer that Miami does not dominate this division every year.

Virginia Tech has made runs at the Big Dance in the past, but as Florida State made too plain against a most talented Beamer squad in ‘99, VT is, and will probably always be, short of the football factories.

Personally, I’m rooting for Georgia Tech. I loved watching Navy for the last few years and to see the Yellow Jackets return to national prominence with a throwback offensive scheme and perfect execution would make me giddy like a little school girl. But I’m not holding my breath.

Miami could be a real challenger in two years. Recruiting will get a little tougher this next year when you can’t promise any high school kid with shoulder pads a starting position (just ask Zook and Illinois), but Miami Northwestern produces enough talent, and the pipeline is firmly enough established, that bringing in that year’s senior class every season might just be enough to win it all at the college level (and I’m only mildly exaggerating).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Flex Tournament for College Football

I spelled out my position on a tournament in college football a couple of weeks ago, but college football fans seem to be rather stubborn and bullheaded, bound to their myopic misunderstandings and deaf to my omniscient wisdom. Consequently, even though the popularity of a tournament isn't new--big names and small have been calling for an infernal tournament in college football for over a quarter century now--I think we may be one big fiasco (like the Auburn, USC, and Oklahoma trifecta in '04) from seeing change imposed on us.

Facing that reality, I've tried to design the best possible tournament format to satisfy three requirements that are dear to my heart: 1) It must have fewer than 4 rounds. College kids (outside of Florida State) have to go to class some time. Three rounds could be wrapped up in 15 days from start to finish, but with each additional round the size of the field and the number of games to be played would increase exponentially (literally, not figuratively, the field and number of games increase exponentially). This capped the field at 8-I will actually limit it to 6 teams. 2) No fluke champions. A team has to have a legitimate claim at the title to make it into the field. This, in my mind, means they need to win their own conference as well have a good record against solid opposition. 3) Notre Dame gets no special treatment (the Irish are already getting a break in that they don't have to win their conference). I have nothing against the Domers, persay, but I also don't understand why a group of rich Catholics should get special treatment outside of the Vatican.

I developed a format that satisfies all of those requirements and called it, in very climatic fashion, the Rlex Tournament format.

Flex Tournament Specifications:

1) All undefeated teams that finish in the top 10 of the BCS rankings are automatically granted a spot in the flex tournament unless the number of qualified, undefeated teams exceeds 6, in which case the top 6 are admitted into the flex tournament.

This is rule is where I show some love to the undefeated non-BCS teams. In the last two years, Hawaii and Boise State would have been admitted on this rule while they otherwise would not have qualified. Call it "its not my fault the rest of my conference sucks" loophole (gold lettering).

2) Only conference champions are allowed to participate in the flex tournament.

Also known as the "Michigan, you should have taken care of business when you had the shot in '06" rule, or the "you gotta not get whipped by K-State before you get a shot at LSU (and further embarrass your conference)" rule. Seven teams since 2004 would have been eliminated on these grounds, Michigan, at #3, being the highest ranked (red).

3) Teams must meet some statistical standard which gives them a meaningful claim to the title.

For the example below I have used an 80% confidence interval. In other words, based on the results from the BCS poll, if we are less than 80% confident that a team is not the best team in the country than they are invited to participated in the flex tournament. Otherwise, they are qualified to be invited (conditional on rule #4) (green). The confidence is based on a p-value (in the far right column) calculated based on some standard deviations and such.

4) No more than six teams are invited to participate.

This rule would not have come into play in the last four years if we'd been using the Flex. I have added it because I believe the top two teams should only have to win at most two tournament games to be national champions and it dramatically increases the probability of us getting the more desirable 1 vs. 2 match-up

The beautiful part of it all is that the number of teams invited to participate will vary from year to year, so only those teams that played like champions all season get a chance to play for the national championship. The fields in 2006 and 2007 would have included 6 teams, but in 2005 we would have had only three teams still in the running at the end of the season. No '07-'08 Giants, no George Masons and no Fresno States.

Below I have laid out the results from the last four season and the hypothetical brackets for those seasons.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The People's Poll: Everyone Else's Top 25

Now that all the "pundits" of the blogosphere are taking their potshots at the Coach's top 25--some well-informed and others full of cliche's and misinformation--I now present the season's first People's Poll so we can examine our own choices.

The People's Poll is a representation of voting data from prediction markets (see here). I'm a big believer in the power of prediction markets as a tool for aggregating a massive amount of data into probabilities. I've used these probabilities to generate a ranking of the top 25.

And here's the beautiful part--if you disagree, you can cast your own vote at any major prediction market with college football options (e.g. Tradesports). Just buy the teams that should move up and sell short the teams that should drop down. And if you're right, you can make you, or your favorite charity, a little money.

This early in the season, the trading is still relatively low so plenty of winnings are available to the smart investor at the margins. You might, for example, think Notre Dame should not be at 18, that Kansas deserves better than 21, or that BYU belongs in the top 25. If so, you can place your reputation or petty cash on the line.

Good Luck.

WAC 2008 Preview

Last season was not a good one for the WAC. Sure, they sent a team to a BCS bowl, made tons of money, and got plenty of time on center stage. But the WAC in 2007 was not a strong conference. Four of the 9 teams spent time with negative trend-o-matic ratings and Utah St. consistently skimmed right above the surface. Even Hawaii spent most of the season below 30—the realm of the unranked and uninteresting. Only Boise St. was strong during conference play, but they too lost to Hawaii, which then allowed Hawaii to get embarrassed by Georgia. I have never seen a team realize so quickly that they could not win a football game.

Here is my big question for the WAC:

Will Boise St. return to dominance?

The Broncos have dominated the conference in years past and have proven themselves to have a legitimately good football program. But they also lost a conference game last season and lost at Washington—who, despite its PAC 10 affiliation was not a good team last year. Most frightening, though, the Broncos only beat Nevada on a metaphorical coin toss in overtime #4—at home.

The challenger this season is Fresno State. With nonconference games at Rutgers, at UCLA and Wisconsin at home, Fresno State football could be riding the divine grace bestowed on their baseball team to a top 10 ranking and BCS bowl birth. (Could someone explain why Wisconsin agreed to play Fresno State on the road?) Its not likely, but it is possible—I think it is almost as likely that Fresno State runs the table as that BYU will do the same.

Fresno State should beat Nevada at home, and if they do, the WAC could come down to a showdown of conference unbeatens on November 28 when they travel to Boise. Fresno State will then try to do the impossible—win a conference game on the Smurf turf—and they will probably fail.

But Fresno State is the future of the WAC because, if they have a decent coach, the sheer force of demographics will buoy their ship over everyone else’s. Hawaii can challenge because it has access to native, Samoan and Tongan talent and can, therefore, continue to field good teams if administered properly (BYU and Utah have been successful because of their access to this same talent base, but that is a theological, not geographic matter in these latter cases). Boise State and Nevada have limited potential and seem to be stretched to their maximum capacity now. So Boise State should return to the front of the pack this season, but their conference domination, I believe, is at an end.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Parity in College Football - Part II

A little less than a year ago I did a piece on parity in college football inspired by the pitiful performance on top 5 teams against unranked opponents. Looking at the amount of time teams have spent in the top ten, I found real parity in college football ended with the 50's and that, although more teams rotate up at the top now than in the 60's and 70's, those teams that do make it to the top are just as dominant as those from earlier decades.

Parity, of course, can be viewed from many angles, and here I now offer two new views. Using complete team ratings from 1950 to the present, I looked specifically at how much turnover and how much separation there is between teams.

I measure year-to-year turnover using correlation (Pearson's r). The measure compares two sets of numbers to see how consistent they are. In this case, I compare a teams' ratings in 1950 to the same teams' ratings in 1951 to see how much they changed. If they didn't change at all, the value is 1. If they completely flipped over, the value is -1. If they changed randomly, the value is 0. Consequently, a higher correlation means less turnover from year to year and, consequently, less parity in that time period.

The second measure of parity is the standard deviation. The standard deviation is a measure of the average distance from one team to another team. The values can range across the map, but, for our purposes, a higher standard deviation means more separation between teams and less parity.

The dotted lines through the middle are the mean, so if the solid line goes above the dotted line, that time period experienced below average parity (less turnover or greater separation).

Both measures tend to agree that college football is now seeing greater parity than in the early 1990's, and the turnover over the last few years is higher than ever. They also agree that parity was relatively low during the mid to late 80's.

There was little turnover between the mid 60's to mid 90's during which the separation between teams peaked during the late 60's. During the early 70's, a few dominant teams separated themselves from the pack but then were brought back to earth during the late 70's and early 80's, producing a big shift from a very high to a low standard deviation.

This type of parity, though, is not what commentators are usually interested in. They call upsets parity while these measures are able to consider shifts across the board and gives us a little insight about the competitiveness of games across the country. If these trends continue into this season, we could see more teams diving into the top 10 and interesting games, if not great teams, from week 1 to Pasadena.

Big 10 2008 Preview

The Big 10 lost another championship game last year. If it weren’t for the refereeing disaster that allowed Ohio State to beat Miami, the Big 10 would be 0-3 in BCS title games. More disturbing, Ohio State would be 0-3 in BCS title games with the rest of the conference yet to be seen. The Big 10, and Ohio State, needs the rest of the conference to step up, but the future is not bright.

Can anyone else win the Big 10 year?

What can the Big 10 do to redeem itself this season?

What are the long term prospects for the Big 10?

1) The coaches of college football have voted on their favorite teams, and it doesn’t look good for the Big 10. Ohio State is again a top 5 team with a legitimate shot at a national championship, but the rest of the Big 10 is falling down on the job. In the top 15, the SEC has four teams, the Big 12 has five, but the Big 10 has only two. Only the Pac 10 is more top heavy (which is why the winner of USC and Ohio State will be in the championship game this year).

(Click here for an explanation of the performance and reputation measures.)

So, can anyone compete with the Buckeyes this season? Illinois has brought in a number of nationally competitive recruiting classes, and has shown flashes of brilliance, but a Mendenhal-less offense could be ugly. I don’t think Illinois will knock off Ohio State (which involves more than beating Ohio State once) until they find their own Urban Meyer to really take advantage of a huge potential.

Wisconsin has a sweet schedule with Penn St., Ohio St., and Illinois at home. They play Michigan in Ann Arbor, but early in the season before RichRod has really been able to plant his roots in the program. Their non-conference schedule is pathetic except for a game at Fresno State that I think they might lose. By the end of October, Wisconsin could be 8-0 with a Big 10 title almost rapped up and looking at a serious bid for a trip to the national championship game—or they could be 3-5 having lost five of their last 6. Regardless, their mascot will still be an over-sized badger that is inexplicably wearing a sweater but no shorts. If Wisconsin wants to win the Big 10, they must make their own luck and beat Ohio State when the Buckeyes come to town.

2) What can the Big 10 do to redeem itself this year? Very little. Ranked teams in the Big 10 have a total of four non-conference games of note: Ohio State @ USC, Illinois @ Missouri, Wisconsin @ Fresno State, Michigan vs. Utah. The first of these is important, but everyone knows Ohio State is good—just not national championship game good. Ohio State needs some support from the rest of the conference to gain some respect itself.

Illinois could beat Missouri, but I doubt it will. Even if it does, it won’t matter much. Because these two programs don’t have much historic legitimacy, the loser will fall more than the winner will climb.

The last two (Fresno State and Utah) are dangerous matchups. Utah will be a better team this year than Michigan and would have to be the favorite at a neutral site. Fresno State loves to beat BCS conference teams. Because Utah and Fresno State are better than people give them credit for, Wisconsin and Michigan will gain nothing if they win and drop more than they should if they lose.

Note to the Big 10—if you have respect issues, don’t schedule tough teams from lowly conferences. Schedule crappy teams from the BCS conferences. This is what the WAC and MWC figured out a decade ago and are now reaping the rewards.

3) The long term prospects of the Big 10 are dim-a simple product of demography. There is enough talent in the area to feed three programs—Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan. Illinois and Wisconsin can be competitive, but the rest of the conference is doomed to mediocrity or worse. Soon, the Big 10 will have to accept the new reality that it is no longer an elite conference.