Thursday, December 31, 2009

Let the (real) games begin

Now that such compelling matchups as Minnesota-Iowa State and Marshall-Ohio are out of the way, we can get down to the good stuff: four equally meaningless games -- but with really good teams involved -- followed by one game for all the marbles.

I don't have the time or energy to do an in-depth preview of all five BCS games in one sitting, so let's go through them one day at a time. First up: Oregon-Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and Cincinnati-Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

On a related note, why are there four shitty games on January 2? The post-New Year's Day period used to be reserved for one or two elite games, and now we're being presented with a full day of games that includes a total of ONE ranked team (Oklahoma State finished 19th). I don't have a huge problem with playing 34 bowl games, but at least give us some semblance of order and save the best games for last.

Anyway ... Oregon and Ohio State. If you're looking for two polar opposites, look no further. On one side you've got a light-speed spread running game, super-modern uniforms, a (relatively) young and inexperienced coach and a generally average defense. On the other side you've got a dominating defense, an old-school coach who has no interest in doing anything worthwhile offensively and about 100 years of tradition. I guess both schools like the letter "O," but that's about all they've got in common.

Actually, there is one other thing: Both coaches want to run the ball. The difference, of course, is that Oregon actually does so very successfully. It's kind of ironic that the star QB in this game -- Jeremiah Masoli -- is the one nobody had ever heard of until 18 months ago. He might not be Dennis Dixon, but Masoli has always been a weapon with his legs (he has 659 yards and 12 touchdowns this season) and has developed into a surprisingly effective passer (58.9%, 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions). In other words, Masoli is a 5-foot-11 version of what Terrelle Pryor could have been had he gone to Michigan or Oregon, which were two of the four finalists -- along with Ohio State and Penn State -- in his ridiculous recruiting saga.

You know about Oregon's offense; it's awesome. The Ducks haven't scored fewer than 37 points in a game since beating UCLA 24-10 back in the second week of October (when Masoli was injured) and are ranked sixth in rushing offense, 25th in total offense and seventh in scoring offense. Since the bizarre debacle against Boise State in the season opener and the emergence of freshman LaMichael James as the starting running back, nobody has been able to stop Oregon's running game. It won't hurt that LeGarrette Blount returned against Oregon State and showed that he hadn't lost much in his time off (all future running back recruits should take note and add a "La" or "Le" prefix to their first name).

Howeva ... no team on Oregon's schedule had a defense even remotely comparable to Ohio State's, which is as dominant as ever. OSU is currently fifth in the country in total defense, scoring defense and -- perhaps most importantly -- rushing defense, allowing an average of 83 yards per game on the ground. That's pretty good, and it includes impressive performances against the quality spread run offenses of Michigan, Penn State and Illinois, none of whom reached 100 yards on the ground.

Here's the problem for Ohio State: The offense just isn't good. It's easy to look at the stats and say, "OSU finished 19th in the country in rushing! That's pretty good!" And that's true in a very general sense, but when you look at the next category and see that it took a whopping 512 team carries to get to that number, you realize that the run game was very average (4.66 yards per carry) on a down-to-down basis.

The reason they run twice as much as they pass, of course, is Terrelle Pryor's tendency to arm-punt; some of his throws look like they're intended for either a teammate on the bench or an invisible man about 5 yards in front of the nearest receiver. If OSU falls behind and has to rely on Pryor's passing to get back in the game, it'll be ugly. I wouldn't be surprised to see a little bit of the zone-read offense OSU broke out (with good success) against Michigan. Jim Tressel has to know that his defense isn't gonna hold Oregon to 10 points, and trying to run the ball down the Ducks' throat usually doesn't work -- just ask Jahvid Best and Jacquizz Rodgers.

So who wins? As much as I love Ohio State's defense, I can't see Oregon's offense getting completely shut down to the point that OSU's typical 20-point performance will be enough. I realize OSU averaged 29 points a game this year, but against teams with a pulse on defense -- Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa, Michigan (debatable) and USC -- they had 10 touchdowns in five games. That's pretty bad.

I think it'll be a very good game if for no other reason than the extreme contrast in styles and strengths, but from a simplistic standpoint, a team that's great on one side of the ball and average on the other side obviously has an advantage over a team that's great on one side of the ball and terrible on the other side. In other words, Ohio State will have to play one of its best offensive games of the year (or get three non-offensive touchdowns, like against Wisconsin) to have a realistic chance of winning.

Prediction: Oregon 27, Ohio State 23.

A few hours later, we'll be treated to the Urban Meyer Drama Hour ... I mean the Tim Tebow Farewell Tour ... I mean Florida-Cincinnati, which includes about 100 bizarre storylines. Cincinnati has already lost its coach permanently and will lose its interim coach, Jeff Quinn, to Buffalo after the game. Florida is about to temporarily lose its coach -- with no specific idea of when he'll be back -- and will lose defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to Louisville after the game. Oh, and arguably the greatest quarterback in the history of college football will play his final career game, which will probably be mentioned by the announcers at some point.

I'm gonna be honest: Without Brian Kelly, this game just doesn't have the same intriguing vibe. I know the up-and-coming offensive coordinator (Quinn) will still be going against the up-and-coming defensive coordinator (Strong), and we'll still get to see Tony Pike (or Zach Collaros) and Mardy Gilyard against Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Spikes and Joe Haden, but is there any chance Florida doesn't take control of this game by the third quarter? Between the players wanting to send Meyer and Strong out with a win and all the "end of an era" talk surrounding Tebow's last game, it just seems like the emotions are gonna be overwhelmingly in Florida's favor.

And it's not like they'll need the help: Florida was pretty damn good at everything this year (except passing, which was rarely necessary). Unless the UF players are distracted by all the craziness and just don't really care -- which seems doubtful, even if they are disappointed not to be in the national title game -- a Cincinnati team playing without its coach and playcaller will be facing by far its toughest test of the season. This seems like a bad confluence of events.

I don't think it'll be the complete massacre a lot of people are predicting, but Florida is just a terrible opponent for Cincy to get matched up against. I can't find a single area where Cincinnati can realistically expect to have an advantage. Even the Bearcats' awesome sixth-ranked passing game has to face the Gators' third-ranked pass defense, while the other side of the ball sees Florida's 10th-ranked rushing offense facing Cincinnati's 59th-ranked rush defense.

I'm not really sure what else to say. All things considered, this is one of the easiest picks of the bowl season; anything other than a relatively comfortable Florida win would be a shock. Prediction: Florida 34, Cincinnati 20 ... and the Superdome will get awfully dusty afterward for Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer.

It might not be the end of Florida's dominance in college football -- Meyer has turned the program into a recruiting juggernaut -- but you don't just lose the guy who's been the focal point of your entire offense for the past three seasons without a significant drop-off and a difficult transition. There's a lot of uncertainty facing Tebow (in the NFL), Meyer (regarding his health) and Florida's future ... but not for one more day.

Thank you, Dallas Morning News

I cast some pretty harsh judgment on Texas Tech yesterday, basically saying that the school was looking to fire Mike Leach because of some internal dispute and would have done so regardless of the outcome of the Adam James investigation. I didn't have any proof, of course ... but I do now.

The Dallas Morning News dug into last year's contract dispute and gained access to all the relevant internal emails, and the results are verrrrry interesting. It was obvious at the time that the negotiations were contentious, but some of the comments from the board of regents and the school chancellor really shed light on just how uninterested the school was in retaining Leach as coach. The most telling email, sent on January 9, 2009, included this prophetic remark:
I hope he doesn't sign, that gives us a full year to find another coach after we fire him after next season and pay off the remaining year on his contract.
O RLY??? I'm not claiming that Texas Tech has been plotting his termination for the past 11 months, but the fact that it was already under consideration way before the recent allegations of player mistreatment says a lot.

It's also extremely amusing how deluded the Texas Tech administration is regarding Leach's ability and the, um, "appeal" of coaching in Lubbock:
I promise you our prospects for getting a better coach are much higher than Mike's prospects of getting another job.
Sure they are. This one's pretty ridiculous too:
I know about all the "courting" of other schools, but I know, you know, and Mike knows there are only 10 or 12 better jobs in the country, and, you would only say better because of recruiting possibilities because of tradition.
I can think of about 30 better jobs off the top of my head, including some that aren't even in a BCS conference -- and the only reason there aren't more is because of what Mike Leach has done over the past decade.

But I guess the school administrators are pretty confident that they can find someone better than Leach. We'll find out.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Terrible matchup, great game

I'll bet you didn't expect the Roady's Humanitarian Bowl -- between Idaho and Bowling Green -- to turn into the best bowl game of the season. But man ... if you didn't see the the ending, please watch it.

The two teams combined for nearly 1,000 total yards and 50 first downs, and there were five touchdowns in the fourth quarter alone. Neither team led by more than a touchdown at any point, and the final 32 seconds of the game saw 117 passing yards, two TDs and a game-winning 2-point conversion.

Final score: Idaho 43, Bowling Green 42. It was an awesome game as long as you weren't one of the defensive coordinators.

And while I don't think bowl statistics should count toward season totals, I have to congratulate Bowling Green receiver Freddie Barnes. He came into the game needing five catches to set the all-time single-season receptions record (Houston's Manny Hazard had 142 in 1989); he finished with a ridiculous 17 (!!!) for 219 yards and three touchdowns, giving him 155 catches this year. Not bad -- especially when you consider that he had a total of 143 receptions in his first three years. That's called going out on a high note.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The weird coaching news continues

Mike Leach is -- how shall I say this? -- an odd character. He also has had his fair share of run-ins with the administration at Texas Tech, one of which led to his near-firing last offseason over a contract dispute. So this news ...
Texas Tech fires Leach short of bowl game
... is not entirely surprising. But the whole story is really weird, and it all stems from an allegation of improper treatment by a Texas Tech player.

After suffering a mild concussion in practice back in October, redshirt sophomore receiver Adam James (son of ABC analyst and former SMU player Craig James) was told by a team doctor not to practice. Leach had a trainer send James "to the darkest place, to clean out the equipment and to make sure that he could not sit or lean. He was confined for three hours." The same scenario played out again two days later, with James being told that if he left the equipment room, he would be kicked off the team.

Leach and his attorney, meanwhile, aren't disputing the facts; they say that the player is correct but that he was placed in that particular location because "it was much cooler and darker," as this would presumably be a benefit to someone suffering from a concussion. Former Texas Tech receiver Eric Morris came out and supported this account, saying that the equipment room isn't an uncommon place to go because it's often used for media interviews after practice. He's right, as KCBD in Lubbock actually did some investigation (gasp!) and videotaped the controversial location:

And then there are the emails received by CBS Sports, which call into question James' motives and credibility:
Inside receivers coach Lincoln Riley was particularly critical of James in his e-mails. Riley said that James was one of three receivers sent to run stairs as discipline for unsatisfactory work.

"He [James] complained to me that we were not doing our jobs as coaches and that his effort was just fine ... It's just another example of Adam thinking that he knows more about coaching than people who have been coaching their entire lives. I have no doubt that anger from this led to where we are today ... and is his way of trying to "get back" at us coaches."
That changes the situation a bit, doesn't it? I also think it's safe to say that Leach isn't a doctor, so it seems plausible that he really was trying to find a secluded place for health reasons; sensitivity to light and noise, for example, are common problems after a concussion. But then there's this:
"He told me he would never do anything" to harm a player, Morris said. "He was trying to hold someone accountable."
Held accountable for a concussion? Held accountable for not being a hard worker (as several other players have claimed)? Nobody knows. From that statement, though, it's hard to draw the conclusion that Leach was simply trying to get him somewhere out of the heat and light because of his concussion, which is what Leach's attorney is saying. It seems more likely that this was a combination of getting the player off the practice field, which seems logical, and removing a problematic player from the sidelines because Leach was tired of his complaining. There are three sides to every story -- the two opposing sides and then the truth -- and the truth probably lies somewhere between James' allegations and Leach's justifications.

Were his actions appropriate? Probably not. Were they bad enough that he deserved to be fired? No.

But I think it's been clear for a while that there's more going on than just this investigation. When the school offered Leach a contract extension last year and he balked at signing it because of a clause that said he would be fired if he interviewed for another job, athletic director Gerald Myers said that the offer would be pulled off the table and that the school's board of regents would discuss whether to fire Leach as football coach. This made no sense at the time -- Leach has never seemed particularly interested in leaving Lubbock -- and he said as much:
"I am prepared to finish out the last two years of my contract. I am not familiar with the notion of firing someone for failing to sign an extension to a contract. That notion to me is mind-numbing. But I guess stranger things have happened. I don't know what part of this is based in rumor or fact, but I can't fathom it. Maybe there are reasons I don't know about," Leach told Schad.
Leach eventually did sign a five-year, $12.7 million deal ... and it lasted all of 10 months, ending one day before he was set to be paid an $800,000 retention bonus (what a coincidence, right?). When the threats from the school came up again this past week, it all started to make a little more sense: It seems clear that there's someone in administration (probably Gerald Myers, if you believe Tech fans) who doesn't get along with Leach. There's no other reason you'd try twice in less than a year to fire the most successful football coach you've ever had and a guy widely regarded as one of the best coaches in the country. No one of comparable quality will be knocking at the door to take over the third- or fourth-best program in the state of Texas, especially in a poor panhandle city like Lubbock. We're not talking about San Diego; everything you need to know is encapsulated in the camo jacket worn by Leach's lawyer in the video toward the top of this post.

I also think Leach got to a point where he'd had enough. Had he apologized and not filed an injunction against the school, he might still be coaching. I have a feeling that the investigation would have resulted in his firing regardless of the actual results (the school was looking for an excuse, in my opinion), but he could have helped his cause by cooperating. Instead he decided to make a power play, refusing to sign the university's letter detailing the complaint, filing the lawsuit and basically saying "fire me or let me do things my way."

Texas Tech made its choice.

As for Leach, he won't have trouble finding a job, either as an offensive coordinator for a year (the position he held at Oklahoma prior to coaching at Texas Tech) or as a head coach at a school looking for a shot in the arm and a chance to turn its program into an instant contender. And if you're not sure how good Leach actually is, just consider that he became Tech's all-time winningest coach in just 10 years (going 84-43), went to a bowl game all 10 years, won eight games or more in each of the last eight seasons and helped design the Air Raid passing game that has become the base offense at places like Oklahoma and Houston. He didn't really build Texas Tech (the program was pretty decent during the Sonny Dykes era), but he took the Raiders to the never-before-seen heights of Big 12 competitiveness.

I've never believed Leach would want a high-pressure, high-intensity head coaching job -- his flaky personality and odd statements wouldn't go over quite as well at a place like Texas or Florida -- so Texas Tech, a place with minimal talent but a desire to compete against the conference's elite, was a perfect fit. It's too bad they couldn't make it work, because at the end of the day, everybody loses (especially the fans).

But I have a feeling that in a few years, Leach will once again be doing his thing -- throwing the ball all over the place and turning some other program into a power -- while Texas Tech will once again be a Big 12 afterthought.

I stand corrected

This statement seemed relatively safe about six months ago ...
I know it's only June, but we have a runaway winner for the Least Surprising Headline of the Year Award:

BCS rejects Mountain West's playoff proposal
... but I was soooooo wrong. With only three days left in the year, I present to you the just-in-time winner of the aforementioned Least Surprising Headline of the Year Award:
Poll shows fans want to dump BCS, get playoffs
REALLY??? It's good to know that the researchers at Quinnipiac University are using their endowment for such groundbreaking studies.

Pam Ward is truly awesome

Pam Ward has the ability to suck all energy from a college football game with her robotic man voice. She also has no compassion whatsoever:

I don't have a problem with her because she's a woman -- she's very knowledgeable, which is more than can be said for most announcers -- but she's so dry and emotionless that her play-by-play is borderline unbearable. An inappropriate reaction to a serious on-field injury is just another log on the "WHY IS THIS LADY AN ANNOUNCER???" fire.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A brief retirement

I guess we won't have to worry about a coaching search:
After announcing Saturday night that he would step down after coaching Florida in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day, Urban Meyer said Sunday that he will instead take an indefinite leave of absence following the bowl game. Offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will take over the Gators and will coach until Meyer is ready to return.
The question now, of course, is when Meyer will be back. Will he be coaching again by the start of fall practice? Will he be gone for two or three years? Nobody knows for sure, although Meyer said he believes he'll be on the sidelines for the start of next season. An interesting question came up at Sunday's press conference along the lines of "How do you plan to adjust your coaching so you don't have the same health problems you've been concerned about?" Meyer hesitated a bit and then said, "That's something I'll have to figure out." It doesn't sound like he knows exactly what the future holds or what he'll do differently, and if (for whatever reason) his absence lingers on, it'll be an odd cloud hanging over Steve Addazio's every move.

Speaking of Addazio, his ascension to the top job hasn't exactly inspired a lot of confidence in Florida fans. It has inspired some quality comments at EDSBS, though, such as this one ...
Addazzio as the interim HC?? By god, what did Brantley do to deserve this? Eat the entrails of living babies?
... and this one ...
At least when Addazzio only pulls off 7 wins next season there will be no one else to blame, and he will go back to coaching the offensive line like he is supposed to.
Yikes. Florida's offense obviously was pretty bad this year with Addazio at the nominal helm, but one thing I've learned from years of following college football is that being a great/poor coordinator does not necessarily make a guy a great/poor head coach. There are a lot of different qualities involved, and if Meyer feels that Addazio is the guy to steer the ship in his absence, that should be enough for Gator fans to show a little faith -- especially when you consider that he might never even coach Florida in a game.


Is Urban Meyer really retiring? Even the people at Florida don't seem to be sure:

Florida coach Urban Meyer, who announced Saturday night that he would step down after coaching the Gators against Cincinnati in the Allstate Sugar Bowl on New Year's Day, is now having second thoughts about retirement, a source close to the situation told on Sunday.

Under a plan being discussed, Florida offensive coordinator Steve Addazio would coach the Gators in the Sugar Bowl. Meyer, who cited health concerns as the reason for his retirement, would take a leave of absence and return to the team before the 2010 season.

However, a source close to the program told ESPN senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen that Meyer would take a leave of absence for the entirety of the 2010 season. Adazzio would take over as interim coach for the season.

If Meyer is truly facing debilitating health problems, it doesn't seem like stepping away from recruiting for a few months or giving up coaching duties for one season is going to help a whole lot. Everything we've read since the story first broke is that the stress and impact of being a 24/7 coach finally wore him down to the point where chest pain, headaches and not eating became a part of his daily life. What happens if he returns and the problems continue just as before? Or -- and this would be just as problematic for Florida -- what if the only way he can return is by dedicating himself only half-heartedly to the job? Meyer's a great coach, but is 75% of Meyer better than 100% of Bob Stoops (just as an example)?

On the other hand, this would represent a way, WAY less painful transition for Florida. Recruiting might take a slight hit with the uncertainty surrounding Meyer's future, but Steve Addazio would be able to maintain everything as-is until Meyer's return. The insanity of a coaching search would be eliminated, the coaching staff (minus Charlie Strong, obviously) would remain intact and Meyer would be comfortable knowing that he'd have a spot reserved if/when he's ready to return. It's not like he'd have a hard time finding a job if Florida went another direction, but he probably doesn't want to be hounded for the foreseeable future with questions about if, when and where he'll be back on the sidelines.

A press conference is scheduled for 4:30 Eastern time today, and I'll be watching. There hasn't been a more interesting one in a long time.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Urban Meyer did what?

Raise your hand if you saw this coming:
Florida coach Urban Meyer, who was admitted to a hospital because of chest pains following the Southeastern Conference championship game, is stepping down because of health concerns.
Admit it: Your first thought was either "he's going to the NFL" or "Florida's about to get hit with some NCAA violations." But unless he's been putting together a remarkably detailed scheme for the past several months, it sounds like his resignation is legit:
"There was no heart damage," Meyer told the New York Times, referring to the night he was admitted to the hospital. "But I didn't want there to be a bad day where there were three kids sitting around wondering what to do next. It was the pattern of what I was doing and how I was doing it. It was self-destructive."

Last month, Sports Illustrated chronicled Meyer's coaching career and reported that he suffered from persistent headaches caused by an arachnoid cyst that becomes inflamed by stress, rage and excitement.
If I'd have asked you yesterday to come up with the most shocking story possible in the world of college football, where would "Urban Meyer resigns" have ranked? First? Second? I can't think of anything else more shocking or with more potential ramifications, with the possible exception of Pete Carroll stepping down at USC.

The guy has an .841 winning percentage, has won two national titles in the past four years, is 45 years old and has never faced any accusations of impropriety. His resignation is an absolutely seismic event that was so unexpected that when I first heard the news, I literally didn't believe it; I assumed it was a joke until I saw a quote from Meyer himself.

It's debatable whether he's the best coach in the country -- Carroll and Nick Saban have to be in the discussion -- but when you stack everything up, the numbers are pretty impressive. I've gone over Brian Kelly's track record repeatedly in the past month to demonstrate just how good he's been throughout his career, and even a resume as impressive as Kelly's has weaknesses when compared with Meyer's. In fact, you could make the case that Meyer has been one of the best college football coaches of all-time; he's the only coach in the BCS era with two national titles (a remarkable stat), and just take a look at his win-loss records since being hired as head coach at Bowling Green in 2001:

2001: Bowling Green 8-3
2002: Bowling Green 9-3
2003: Utah 10-2
2004: Utah 12-0
2005: Florida 9-3
2006: Florida 13-1
2007: Florida 9-4
2008: Florida 13-1
2009: Florida 12-1
Overall: 95-18

Keep in mind that while success at Florida now seems like a foregone conclusion, Ron Zook was an outstanding recruiter and couldn't do better than eight wins in any of his three seasons in Gainesville. Hell, even Steve Spurrier hadn't won more than 10 games since 1996, so anyone who tells you what a great program Meyer inherited at Florida is using a bit of revisionist history. And just for reference, Utah had gone 5-6 the year before Meyer took over. Bowling Green had gone 2-9.

There's really not much else to say; even if he never coaches again, Meyer's legacy is secure.

Unfortunately for Florida, his departure means somebody else has to take over ... and if you thought all the craziness surrounding the Notre Dame coaching search was overwhelming, just wait. We're talking about arguably the best position in the country coming open, and other than Carroll and Saban, there's not a coach in the sport who won't represent a drop-off in quality. Florida has some absolutely MASSIVE shoes to fill; I don't think I'd wanna be Jeremy Foley right now, because there's just no way to get through this without hiring someone a lot of people won't be happy with.

The list of candidates presumable includes Bob Stoops, who was the defensive coordinator at Florida under Spurrier before heading to Oklahoma; Dan Mullen, Meyer's former offensive coordinator who left Florida last year to take the top job at Mississippi State; Charlie Strong, Florida's defensive coordinator (he has agreed to take over at Louisville but has not yet signed a contract); and Bobby Petrino, a brilliant passing-game strategist who isn't averse to changing jobs. Other names I've heard mentioned include Spurrier (maybe the one guy who wouldn't cause fan depression), Boise State's Chris Petersen (doubtful), Rich Rodriguez (just as doubtful despite the similar offensive systems) and Utah's Kyle Willingham (an interesting candidate in part because of his connection to Meyer).

If I had to take a wild-ass guess without really looking at the pros and cons, I'd probably go with Stoops; Spurrier is a definite dark-horse possibility. But there'll be plenty of time for that speculation in the weeks ahead, especially as the Sugar Bowl (and Florida's inevitable three-touchdown win) approaches. For now, let's acknowledge that we're losing one of the great coaches in recent history and a guy who could have gone down as an all-time legend. I've never really liked Meyer -- especially after his public lobbying for a spot in the 2006 national title game (which came at Michigan's expense) -- but there's no denying his success.

EDSBS speaks for Florida fans everywhere:
In the meantime, we hope he spends some time without shoes familiarizing himself with the wonders of daytime television, of golf, of all of the things he has the money and time to investigate now. He owes Florida nothing after giving all, and can marinate in his own personal slice of Bali H’ai for now. For Florida fans, we can only be thankful for the time we got to spend in the islands, and make indefinite plans to visit them again in the future.
What a stunning end to a bizarre year.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Walking between the raindrops

There's a verrrrry fine line between being out of the loop and turning a blind eye, and which side of that line you think USC falls on pretty much depends on your allegiances. If you're a USC fan, players are just getting away with what they can; everything internally is on the up-and-up. If you're not a USC fan, it's become more and more clear that Pete Carroll and the rest of the administration are ignoring the extra benefits being bestowed upon almost every star player.

From Matt Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett to Reggie Bush to Joe McKnight (who has been seen on several occasions driving a Land Rover registered to an area businessman), USC has been walking between the raindrops when it comes to NCAA investigations. One guy donates money to a charity to cover the damage, the next guy won't talk, the next guy changes his story as soon as the facts comes out, etc.

A year ago, I probably would have said that all the talk about USC was overblown; each individual case could be brushed aside as a minor issue. The Leinart-Jarrett thing (sharing a high-end apartment in L.A.) didn't amount to much, and even if Bush was involved with an agent or marketing firm, it was hard to know whether or not the school was involved or had any knowledge of it. But when Yahoo started digging and found out that agents were regularly inside the USC practice facility and locker room and that running backs coach Todd McNair was aware of Bush's connections prior to the 2005 national title game, that raised the ante. And when basketball coach Tim Floyd resigned after allegedly making a cash payment to O.J. Mayo's handlers, that did nothing to ease concerns about the culture at USC.

I very rarely call out a coach for off-the-field problems among players -- it's completely unrealistic to expect one guy to monitor 85 teenagers at all times -- but when we're talking about a pattern of several similar incidents with players living well above their means, it makes it a lot harder to believe that those incidents are just a string of random events that evaded detection. Did Pete Carroll know? Your guess is as good as mine. But it seems increasingly likely that he just ignored everything going on around him because he didn't WANT to know.

When you've got agents circling your practices like vultures, something bad eventually will happen. When a star running back is seen milling around in front of the practice facility while the four-ways are flashing on the Land Rover he couldn't possibly afford, that's not something you just overlook. Carroll's not an idiot; he understands extra benefits.

Bill Plaschke at the Los Angeles Times had an excellent column the other day, with a headline that pretty much says it all: "Trojans are playing with fire." He basically says exactly what I've been trying to say, except he does it with better metaphors:
More smoke here, strange smoke, scary smoke, stupid smoke, adding to a cloud that ensures the NCAA will keep looking for that illegal burn. ...

It's all knucklehead stuff, embarrassing stuff, but it does make one thing official. The USC football program now leads the nation in recklessness.

Heisman Trophy winner's family home? No idea. Star receiver's rent? What? Star running back's car? Who?

C'mon now. It's one thing to evade those gumshoes at the NCAA, it's another thing to insult them.
Yes, it's possible that the businessman who owns the aforementioned Land Rover, Scott Schenter, is telling the truth about letting a "longtime family friend" get a loan in his name, but it seems just a tad suspicious for someone who claims to be an entrepreneur to indirectly associate himself with Joe McKnight by buying a vehicle for his girlfriend -- and I'm not even mentioning the remarkable coincidence that he owns domain names and (which we're supposed to believe stands for "U.S.-China marketing" despite the fact that almost all the other domain names he owns are related to Los Angeles-area sports). Whether there's anything inappropriate going on or not, any intelligent person would raise an eyebrow at that series of events.

The unfortunate thing is that just like every other investigation, this one will assuredly end with nothing being done. McKnight will turn pro immediately after the Emerald Bowl, USC will deny knowledge of any wrongdoing and the NCAA will be powerless to do much of anything. Oklahoma and Alabama have received fairly severe punishment in the past few years for self-reporting academic and work-related violations, but USC has realized that as long as everyone denies everything, the NCAA's options are limited. We're not talking about the FBI.

The only problem with that philosophy is that if someone ever does come out and talk -- which is what happened in the O.J. Mayo case -- and the NCAA discovers that USC was knowingly covering up (or at least ignoring) a variety of violations, the punishment will be extreme. No school will ever again receive the death penalty after what happened at SMU, but just about everything else would be in play. Forfeitures? Oh yeah. Loss of a national title (or two)? If Reggie Bush was ineligible, absolutely.

And the most damaging punishment: Pete Carroll would be gone immediately. A boatload of wins and national titles are all well and good, but not at the expense of destroying a program (see Steve Fisher, Ed Martin, the Fab Five and Michigan basketball). Coaches who oversee dirty programs don't make it through the cleaning process, regardless of how involved they were. And while I don't have anywhere near the hatred for Carroll that some people do, he's either overwhelmingly naive or he's skirting the rules, and neither one of those is good enough when you're in charge of a controversial program like USC.

As long as questionable perks like cars, condos and houses keep turning up in association with Trojan athletes, the NCAA won't be going away. And as long as their investigators are snooping around, all it takes is one disgruntled person with some evidence -- like Lloyd Lake, for example -- to destroy everything.

Will that happen? Probably not. I'm sure I'll look back on this post in a year or so and think, "I guess nothing ever came of that Joe McKnight investigation," which is pretty much the same thing that comes to mind when I look at all the allegations in the Reggie Bush case. I suppose it's also possible that I'll look back at all this as the beginning of the end of the USC dynasty. But it seems that at USC, everything conveniently fades away ... or at least fades into some NCAA compliance folder, never to be seen again.

I don't know much about Pete Carroll, but I know that his legacy as USC's coach rests in that folder -- and it's getting bigger every season.

Monday, December 21, 2009

An epic defensive battle ... sort of

If you didn't like yesterday's post -- if 125-point, double-overtime thrillers aren't your thing -- I've got something that might be a little more up your alley.

Despite its name, the 1950 Snow Bowl wasn't actually a bowl -- it was the annual Michigan-Ohio State season finale -- but it has a name for a reason. This was before the days of easily accessible snow plows and huge stadium crews, so when a blizzard descended on Columbus, there wasn't a whole lot that could be done.

The results were as ridiculous as you'd imagine: There were 45 punts, many of those coming on first down just to try to avoid a turnover (yes, you read that correctly). Michigan did not achieve a first down or complete a pass, which is made more remarkable by the fact that Michigan won 9-3. The points came on an Ohio State field goal (a hell of a kick given the conditions), a safety and a touchdown off a blocked punt.

Thanks to the wondrous interwebs and the glory of Youtube, highlights are available for your viewing pleasure:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Crappy bowl games aren't always crappy

There are way too many bowl games. This is not debatable -- schools like Marshall and Wyoming that finish 6-6 in mediocre conferences should not be playing in the postseason.

But sometimes, you luck into an unbelievable game that makes you glad for that little bit of extra college football. Fresno State and Wyoming played a fantastic game Saturday night in New Mexico to open the season's bowl schedule: Wyoming rallied from 11 points down to tie the score with a field goal in the final minute of regulation, stuffed Fresno State (and Ryan Mathews, the nation's leading rusher) four times from the 1-yard line in overtime and then watched their kicker shank the potential game-winning field goal. But freshman quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels made a fantastic play in double overtime -- escaping the pocket and threading the needle to David Leonard on third down for a 13-yard touchdown that proved to be the game-winner -- and Wyoming held on for a stunning win to conclude Dave Christensen's first year as head coach. Not a bad game, right?

It paled in comparison, though, to a seemingly crappy bowl game that I still consider one of the best college football games I've ever seen: the 2001 GMAC Bowl between East Carolina and Marshall.

I originally planned to write a little bit about some of the mind-boggling stats and give somewhat of a play-by-play to explain how ridiculous the game was as a whole, but I just can't do it justice (here's a link if you want more info). All I'll say is that East Carolina led 38-8 at halftime, at which point Marshall began an incredible comeback that led to one of the most entertaining finishes ever.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Kansas finds a pretty good replacement

My first-ever post on this blog (after the introductory one, anyway) was very column-ish and argued against the institution of a "Rooney Rule" in college football. My belief is that schools should be able to interview and hire whoever they want; if a black candidate is qualified and deserving of consideration, he'll get a shot. No school is going to bypass a potential head coach who could generate a lot of wins and, by proxy, money. This isn't 1952.

Kansas was nice enough to prove my point last week, reaching waaaaay to the northeast and hiring Turner Gill from Buffalo. My first thought: Great hire. The guy is young, has run a successful pro-style offense and just turned Buffalo from a doormat's doormat into a MAC contender. My second thought: Why am I calling a guy with a 20-30 career record at a MAC school a great hire? Considering how decent Buffalo has been the past couple years, I was surprised that Gill's record wasn't at least close to .500. Was I overestimating his success?

The short answer: no. The long answer: no, definitely not (is that long enough to be a long answer? No? Oh well). Here's a number that should give you an idea of just how ridiculously terrible Buffalo was before Gill's arrival: 9-69. That was Buffalo's record from 1999, when the school joined Division I-A, until Gill took over. At no point in that time did the Bulls beat a team with a winning record. Buffalo was arguably the worst program in the country for close to a decade.

In Gill's first year, Buffalo set a school record with 220 points scored despite finishing 2-10. The next year, the Bulls went 5-7 ... and Gill was named MAC Coach of the Year. Read that sentence again. Going 5-7 at Buffalo in 2007 was considered the best coaching job in the conference. The next year, Buffalo went 8-6 -- winning almost as many games as they had in their first seven years combined in I-A -- and beat undefeated Ball State to win the MAC championship and earn a berth in the International Bowl.

The fact that Buffalo's 5-7 record this past season was a disappointment is less of an indictment of Gill's coaching as it is a testament to how far he brought the Bulls in a relatively short period of time. He might not be Brian Kelly, but he's a very good offensive coach and led a three-year turnaround at Buffalo that was almost as impressive as Kelly's at Central Michigan.

As for Gill's offensive acumen, you might notice a trend in Buffalo's national ranking in total offense during his tenure (the Bulls were 112th the year before he arrived):

2006: 109th
2007: 89th
2008: 54th
2009: 43th

He also turned Drew Willy into the school's all-time leading passer (and holder of every meaningful passing record) and James Starks into the school's all-time leading rusher at the same time. To say he pumped life into the Buffalo football program would be an understatement, and if it was possible to find a coach with as impressive of an offensive background as Mark Mangino (who developed Jason White and Josh Heupel during Oklahoma's resurgence), Kansas did it. And it seems safe to say that Gill is a more likable guy who doesn't verbally abuse everyone around him, which should help in recruiting even if the 17-year-old kids are too young to remember him as the awesome QB at Nebraska.

Carl Torbush, the man Gill hired away from Mississippi State to be his defensive coordinator (and who also was head coach at North Carolina and Louisiana Tech and defensive coordinator at Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M), had this to say:
“Anybody who’s ever been around him, there’s no fake about him,” Torbush said. “He’s the type of man I want to be around each day of my life.”
There probably weren't a lot of comparable comments made about Mangino the past few years.

It also says something about his status within the college football world that despite a relatively short career, Gill was able to reach out and quickly bring in Torbush and offensive coordinator Chuck Long, the former Oklahoma O-coordinator who just a few years ago was recognized as one of the hot young assistants in the sport before struggling as head coach at San Diego State. I've held a long-standing belief that a coach's most important decision is who he hires as coordinators, and Gill did pretty well for himself in that regard.

I really don't know if Gill will be able to improve on Mangino's success at Kansas -- it's easier to go from bad to good than it is to go from good to elite -- but I feel comfortable saying that as long as he sticks around, the Jayhawks will never again be as irrelevant as they were for the 20 years pre-Mangino.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Big Eleven wants one more

So the Big Ten wants to expand. You already know this, and the reasons are obvious:

1. Conference championship games generate a nice chunk of revenue.
2. The conference is tired of being irrelevant for the last two weeks of the regular season.

I'm somewhat neutral on the idea because of the potential scheduling issues -- I think moving the entire conference schedule forward one week would be just as beneficial -- but it sounds like the outspoken support from Joe Paterno, Barry Alvarez and Ohio State President Gordon Gee has finally persuaded Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney to put the process in motion.

Let's cut to the chase: Notre Dame isn't coming. Yes, there are rivalries in place with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, and it's true that the Big Ten's revenue-sharing program distributed about $22 million to each school last season (this comes from the ABC/ESPN contract, the Big Ten Network and the redistribution of bowl payouts). But Notre Dame's contract with NBC runs through 2015 at a reported $15 million a year, and the people who say NBC is desperate to get out of that deal because of ND's recent struggles are smoking crack: NBC just extended the contract and increased the payout last year, despite record-low ratings. Notre Dame's value has nowhere to go but up. And rather than having to split bowl money 12 ways (as the Big Ten does with 11 teams and the conference office), ND gets everything to itself, just as it does with its payout from the neutral-site games scheduled in the near future at Yankee Stadium, Cowboys Stadium, the Meadowlands and the Superdome.

Notre Dame isn't in the overwhelmingly advantageous financial position some people assume, but it's certainly doing as well as -- or better than -- almost everyone else. Joining the Big Ten would be of little to no benefit financially, and there are so many benefits of being an independent -- being able to market their own logo and apparel, being able to schedule games wherever money can be made, having regular rivalries with schools such as Navy, Boston College and USC -- that there's no reason to think ND would be interested in joining any football conference. That doesn't mean the Big Ten won't make an offer -- Notre Dame will probably always be the first choice -- but I'll be stunned if ND seriously considers the possibility.

So let's move on. There's been a lot of information flying around about conference requirements and bylaws, but this info comes from ESPN's Adam Rittenberg:
Contrary to popular belief, a candidate doesn't need to be a member of the Association of American Universities or be located within the Big Ten footprint or in a bordering state. Though the schools must fit what the Big Ten looks for, "there’s no prescription that you have to have 30,000 undergrads or you have to be a major research institution," a source tells me.
If a school is attractive enough, one or two factors could be overlooked. But Delaney has made it clear that the conference isn't expanding just to get expand -- the goal is to legitimately strengthen a number of areas -- so for the purposes of this discussion, let's assume that the only serious candidates are ones that are reasonably well-respected academically and bring competitive football and basketball to the table (the Big Ten is essentially a mid-major in baseball and does not have an organized hockey conference). Crimson Quarry explains this better than I could:
Expansion is not something that the Big Ten undertakes lightly. Penn State joined in 1990. Michigan State joined in 1950. Before that, the last new members to join were Indiana and Iowa in 1899. The University of Chicago is the only school to leave the Big Ten permanently (per Wikipedia, Michigan left the conference from 1907-1916, but was a charter member when the conference was formed in 1896). All current and former members of the Big Ten are major research institutions ranked in the top 100 by US News & World Report and are members of the Association of American Universities. The Big Ten cares about its brand, academically and athletically.
In other words, you can throw out suggestions like Cincinnati, West Virginia and Kentucky right off the bat. The chosen school might not have to be elite academically, but it can't be University of Phoenix either. On top of that, none of those schools brings in a major TV market. There'd be no real benefit outside of one consistently good athletic program at each school.

An "outside the box" candidate that's been mentioned several times recently is Texas, which would be great for the Big Ten but is probably even less realistic than Notre Dame. It's easy to see the appeal -- Texas is a national power in football, basketball and baseball and would add a huge market while expanding the Big Ten's reach into the Southwest -- but the thing people keep forgetting is that whatever teams gets invited has to actually want to join. Texas would gain nothing by going from the Big 12 to the Big Ten (baseball would actually suffer significantly) and would lose rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M as well as a ton of history in the Southwest Conference/Big 12. Travel costs would be a bitch, and the athletic department would probably lose a significant chunk of money (at least in the near future) because the Big 12's revenue-sharing program is far less democratic than the Big Ten's. Chances of happening: 0.001 percent.

Nebraska has been brought up for similar reasons but is really just a slightly less desirable version of Texas; only the football program would be an exciting addition. And while they might be more willing to jump than Texas, they'd still be giving up rivalries with Colorado and Missouri and have no meaningful connections with anyone in the Big Ten. I don't think there'd be a lot of motivation for either side.

And while we're in the Big 12, I think we can also eliminate Iowa State. The academics are mediocre and both major sports are terrible; you don't add Iowa State just to put a conference championship game on the field when it means weakening everything and giving $22 million in revenue to a school that wouldn't even approach that in value.

The list of serious candidates that would be legitimately interested in joining the Big Ten is a short one: Pitt, Syracuse, Rutgers and Missouri.

Brian at Mgoblog put together a handy-dandy chart that breaks down each team's strengths and weaknesses, and while I don't agree with every individual rating, the overall conclusion seems accurate: The two most likely candidates -- by far -- are Pitt and Missouri.

The problem with Rutgers and Syracuse is pretty much purely athletic. While Syracuse would be great for basketball, the football team hasn't been relevant nationally since Donovan McNabb left a decade ago, and Rutgers had been a black hole in both sports until Greg Schiano came along and made the football team decent. Both schools are very good academically and would expand the conference's footprint into the New York area, but I doubt that'll be enough to add another version of Northwestern (Rutgers) or a slightly better version of Indiana (Syracuse). It's also unclear if Syracuse would even want to join: Jim Boeheim apparently is to the Big East what Gary Danielson is to the SEC, and I imagine Boeheim has more pull in the athletic department than just about anyone else.

Missouri, on the other hand, is much more interesting. The football and basketball programs are both very good -- not elite, but good -- and while the school isn't great, it'd be about on par with Michigan State, Iowa, etc. It also brings a major TV market (St. Louis) into play and sets up a natural rivalry with Illinois that's already being played as a nonconference game. In other words, there's no single aspect that makes Missouri a slam-dunk pick, but there are also no real weaknesses. I think Missouri will receive strong consideration; the only question is whether they'd be interested in moving, which apparently depends on who you ask.

Another thing that could get in the way: Pitt. I didn't realize it until I had looked at all the relevant information, but man, I can't see any team -- other than Notre Dame, obviously -- being a more perfect fit. Pitt has very good football (both currently and historically), very good basketball, good academics (the school is ranked 56th nationally by US News & World), an endowment of $2.3 billion (which would top everyone in the Big Ten other than Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota) and a major TV market, although Penn State already brings in a good chunk of Pennsylvania. Oh, and speaking of Penn State, renewing a once-great rivalry between two consistently excellent football teams would do nothing but help the conference's national prestige. There are a ton of good reasons to add Pitt and no good reasons not to, and if you think they'd rather be in the watered-down Big East than in the Big Ten with Penn State and a big-time national TV deal, you might want to take another look at each conference. If the Big Ten calls, Pitt will listen.

It's hard to know exactly how the decision-making process will work, but I'll be stunned if Pitt and Missouri aren't the top two candidates when all is said and done (assuming Notre Dame still isn't interested). My prediction: Pitt joins the conference for the 2011-2012 academic year and football season.

As I stated at the beginning, my biggest concerns about the whole expansion issue are the divisional alignment and scheduling (which would obviously be related to the alignment). This topic has come up on various blogs and message boards for years, and there are always 1,000 different scenarios laid out to try to balance the two divisions geographically and competitively; I'm not sure it can be done.

The problem is that there are a crapload of traditional rivalries in the Big Ten, and you're pretty much forced to split some of them up. I've heard people suggest that one nondivisional game could be "locked" each year, but that wouldn't work. Each team would then have six locked games (the other five teams in its own division and one nondivisional rival), leaving two open spots and five available teams in the other division. There's just no way to evenly rotate five teams through two spots on a regular basis, so you'd end up with one team having to play the same nondivisional opponents for a three-year period (or a one-year period), and the inevitable byproduct of that arrangement is an uneven number of home/road games against particular opponents during that time. It'd be a mess.

The only realistic scheduling option is having each team play everyone else in its own division and rotating the six nondivisional teams through the three open spots every other year, meaning no team goes more than two years without playing any other team (I should note that if the Big Ten relents and goes to a nine-team conference schedule, a locked nondivisional rivalry game becomes perfectly plausible and maybe even ideal).

The other problem is competition. Similar to Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12, Michigan and Ohio State absolutely MUST be kept in the same division. If they're split up, you face the likelihood of consistent rematches in the title game that render the regular-season games meaningless. This would be terrible for the rivalry and for the conference as a whole. And assuming that those two are in the same division, you face a dilemma: If you put Penn State in the same division to preserve rivalries, you have one power division with all the best teams. If you don't, there'll be years when Penn State plays neither Ohio State nor Michigan during the regular season. This would be somewhat disappointing, but I could live with it in order to avoid a Big 12 North scenario.

Assuming that the choice for expansion is Pitt and that the conference is more interested in competitive balance than geographical balance -- which seems likely due to the minimal travel required in Big Ten play -- I see the alignment looking something like this:

Division A
Ohio State
Michigan State

Division B
Penn State

This obviously is less than ideal for rivalries: You have to keep Purdue and Indiana together and you have to keep the Iowa-Wisconsin-Minnesota clump together, so there's no way to get Illinois and Northwestern in the same division. The same is true with Michigan State and Penn State. Unfortunately, some rivalries will have to be sacrificed in favor of better ones (or, in Northwestern's case, the greater good). You could put Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota in a region with Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State, but that would be ridiculously unbalanced; it'd be Pitt or Penn State in the conference title game every year from now until the end of time.

All things considered, I've never been a huge fan of conference championship games -- I don't like the idea of an 8-4 team winning the title over an 11-1 team, because that just doesn't make sense -- but the Big Ten obviously needs to do something to improve its perception. I mentioned moving the schedule forward a week, but nobody wants to do that (for academic and weather-related reasons). If they can get Pitt, I'm on board. The conference would get a significant upgrade in both major sports and could boast two legitimately strong divisions, which means the conference title game would be something the Big Ten hasn't had in a while: an event that even people outside the conference's footprint would be interested in. Missouri would also be acceptable, as the conference would be slightly better as a whole. No one else (outside of the unrealistic suggestions like Texas and Notre Dame) piques my interest.

Are the Big Ten presidents smart enough to realize that there are two clear levels of candidates? Well ... I don't have a lot of faith based on past decisions, but I guess we'll find out in 12-18 months.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Who deserved the Heisman?

Congratulations to Mark Ingram, the 75th winner of the Heisman Trophy and (remarkably) the first from Alabama.

I would have voted for Ndamukong Suh -- I honestly believe he was the best player in the country -- and most of the Southwest part of the country did vote for Suh, but it wasn't nearly enough. He finished fourth in every other region while Ingram, Toby Gerhart and Colt McCoy were first, second and third in varying orders.

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are a lot of voters out there who just wouldn't put a defensive tackle at the top of their ballots, which is pretty lame. If he's the best player, vote for him. When you don't really watch the games, though (which most voters don't) -- when 95% of what you know comes from Sportscenter highlights or box scores -- all you know is which guy put up the best numbers and which teams won the most games. In my opinion, that's why the Heisman is more of a beauty contest than anything else.

One of the positives of living in the 21st century is that information is more available than ever, and it seems like this should have an effect on voting. I've watched literally dozens of game this year after midnight during the middle of the week on CSTV or ESPNU or ESPN Classic, and a torrent of just about every televised game can be found online. People (specifically voters) can see whatever they want to see, yet this doesn't seem to have had any effect on the Heisman.

Charles Woodson is still the only winner who wasn't an offensive skill-position player, and he probably wouldn't have edged Peyton Manning if not for his effort in Michigan's season-ending victory over Ohio State that completed an undefeated regular season. In that game, Woodson caught a long pass to set up Michigan's first touchdown, returned a punt for a TD (Desmond Howard deja vu) and intercepted a pass in the endzone. He did EVERYTHING in a game EVERYONE was watching; if he had just been a standout corner, he'd have finished a distant second (or lower).

A voter by the name of Bud Poliquin for the Syracuse Post-Standard explains the problem pretty well ...
The Heisman Trophy is pretty much a wonderful thing, but the body of deciders includes too many who are swayed by the packaging and even by the pre-packaging . . . who bow to the hype machines . . . who never seem to consider that the “most outstanding college football player” in all the land might play for a mediocre club whose overall talent load won’t allow that athlete to fully flower.
... and then proves his own point:
Anyway, for the record, my 1-2-3 official ballot read like this: Tebow-Ingram-McCoy.
Amazing. How can you write something so logical and then completely disregard it? How can you watch the SEC title game (maybe he didn't) and put Tebow ahead of Ingram? I have a lot of questions I'd like to ask Bud Poliquin, and the last one will probably be if I can use his ballot next year.

Regardless, since Suh was never going to receive serious consideration from some voters, the question is whether the right running back won. Toby Gerhart had the more impressive numbers, but that's not the only factor (otherwise Case Keenum would be your runaway winner). You have to look at what each player did relative to his opportunities and the defenses he was playing against, and that requires a little more in-depth analysis.

The raw totals:

Player Gerhart Ingram
Rush yards 1736 1542
Rush yards/game 144.67 118.62
Carries 311 249
Yards/carry 5.58 6.19
TDs 26 15
Receptions 10 30
Receiving yards 182 322
Receiving TDs 0 3

It's pretty clear, as mentioned above, that Gerhart had an impressive statistical season. But what I noticed right away is that he had a ridiculous 311 carries, 62 more than Ingram despite Ingram playing one extra game (the SEC championship). Everything else being equal, Ingram would have finished with 1,926 yards if he had been given the same number of carries as Gerhart (311 carries * 6.19 yards per carry). The difference between a 6.19 average and a 5.58 average might not seem significant, but we're talking about an additional 400 yards for Ingram.

What about the schedule difficulty? Were SEC defenses significantly tougher than those in the Pac-10? Here are the rush defense rankings for each player's opponents:

Gerhart Ingram
117 52
82 116
119 104
66 67
60 100
25 55
22 46
18 58
39 44
42 63
27 120
90 80


Surprisingly, the Pac-10 actually had noticeably better rush defenses than the SEC; Gerhart's average opponent had a rush defense ranked 59th, while Ingram's average opponent was 70th. To give you a numerical idea, that means Stanford's opponents allowed about 5 percent fewer rushing yards than Alabama's.

Both played several terrible defensive teams, but Gerhart had a stretch of six games where no opponent was ranked lower than 42nd. This was obviously offset somewhat by Ingram's game against Florida, by far the most difficult defense on either team's schedule (Arizona State was relatively close at 18th in rush defense, but the defenses as a whole -- and the situations -- aren't really comparable). In those six games, Gerhart averaged 31.8 carries (!!!) and 149 yards, or slightly more than his season average. His yards per carry, though, dropped to 4.69. In Ingram's six most difficult games, his average was 154 yards -- significantly more than his season average -- on 24.3 carries, or an average of 6.38 per carry.

In other words, Ingram's numbers were actually dragged down by games against Florida International, North Texas and Chattanooga; he had a total of 29 carries in those three games. He was by far his best against Alabama's toughest opponents, including 113 yards and three touchdowns in the biggest game this year in all of college football.

I was curious what the numbers would have looked like if Ingram had been given Gerhart's carries against Stanford's opponents and vice versa -- I wanted an alternate universe where the two guys swapped roles -- and here's what I came up with:

Player Gerhart Ingram
Rush yards 1463 1829
Rush yards/game 112.53 152.42
Carries 249 311
Yards per carry 5.87 5.88
Rush TDs 21 18

That's fairly definitive. Even against slightly tougher defenses, the additional carries Ingram would gain in this hypothetical scenario make the stats a landslide. Ingram would have gained almost 100 yards more than Gerhart did in reality, while Gerhart would have gained about 100 yards less than Ingram did. Yards per game would swing from 26 yards in Gerhart's favor to 40 yards in Ingram's favor. Yards per carry, while closer, would remain in Ingram's favor despite the adjustment for opponents' defenses. Gerhart's only advantage is in touchdowns, but it's a small advantage; it certainly wouldn't be enough to ignore Ingram's edge in every other category.

Simply put, while Gerhart's raw numbers were impressive, Ingram was actually a little better when you remove some of the statistical noise. If you'd have flipped the number of carries, Ingram's stats would have been so superior that the Heisman vote wouldn't have even been close. When you throw in the fact that team success has always had (and should continue to have) some effect on the voting, it's really no contest: Ingram was a huge part of Alabama going 12-0, and while it certainly wasn't Gerhart's fault that Stanford lost four games, it didn't help that he was held 35 yards under his average in those games.

I still think Ndamukong Suh should have won, but if it had to be an offensive player, the choice was clear. The right running back got the trophy.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Notre Dame finally gets it right

In early August of 2002, I was stringing for a paper in west Michigan during my sophomore year at Grand Valley State University. I got a call one afternoon from the sports editor asking if I'd like to cover the school's preseason scrimmage and write a feature on coach Brian Kelly. I couldn't do it; I believe it was scheduled for the same day I was moving to Arizona, which obviously was somewhat of a conflict.

Just over seven years later, Kelly is the head coach at Notre Dame. That is a fucking meteoric rise, and it didn't happen because he's just a lucky guy. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Kelly is one of the best coaches -- if not the best -- in the country.

Let's go through his background one more time:
  • He went 118-35-2 at Grand Valley State, including back-to-back national titles in his last two seasons (2002 and 2003) and a 41-3 record in his last three seasons. It's also worth noting that Grand Valley set the NCAA all-division scoring record in 2001 -- when they lost in the title game after QB Curt Anes blew out his knee in the semifinals -- with 58.3 points per game (lol).
  • He took over a Central Michigan team that had won a total of 12 games in the previous four seasons and went 4-7, 6-5 and 9-3 in three years, winning a MAC championship in 2006.
  • He left for Cincinnati, which had never won the Big East nor been to a BCS bowl game, and went 10-3 in his first year, 11-3 in his second year (when Cincy won the conference and went to the Orange Bowl) and 12-0 this year.
I'd been hoping for close to a month (or however long it had been since we all realized Charlie Weis was done) that the ND administration would somehow overlook Kelly or reject him because of his offense-focused background, and I was optimistic for a while. Bob Stoops? He's obviously very good, but Kelly is a lot more terrifying in the long term. Randy Edsall? Ummm ... sure.

But Jack Swarbrick apparently isn't as much of an idiot as I'd hoped. He said during Kelly's press conference on Friday that Kelly was the first coach he talked to and the only coach he offered the job to, and while there's no way to know if that's true, he'll certainly look smart when Notre Dame is winning BCS games in the near future (which they will be).

I remember reading an interview way back in about 2000, when Kelly was still at Grand Valley and was asked (I think by a writer for the student newspaper) about his Irish-Catholic background and whether, if the opportunity ever came up, he'd be interested in the Notre Dame job. I don't remember the exact wording of his response, but it was pretty clear that it was something he aspired to and would never turn down.

He reiterated that at his introduction Friday:
Kelly wisecracked that he didn't "doodle the ND diagram" at his other jobs, but he hoped he could one day run the Irish and called the job the "culmination" of 19 years of coaching.
Elite head coach with national championships on his resume? Check. Irish-Catholic? Check. Views the Notre Dame job as the pinnacle of coaching? Check. At the end of the day, he was the slam dunk of slam dunks.

Notre Dame fans ought to be thrilled ... but they're not, of course. Brian at The Sporting Blog pulls some of the best responses from ND Nation (and based on my observations from the past two weeks, this is a pretty accurate sample of the consensus opinion):
ND has said no to Gruden Saban and Stoops in the last decade
That's the kind of institution it is.
If and when Kelly is named, the focus should be on how and why we failed with Stoops.
Yeah, it was ND that turned down Nick Saban and Bob Stoops. It obviously had nothing to do with the fact that those guys had no interest in leaving better jobs to go to South Bend.
Gruden who wanted to be here and they f----- it up.
Meyer who wanted to be here and they f----- it up.
Stoops who wanted to be here and they f----- it up.

How fecking tough can it be? I think I should be the next AD. I don't know s--- about college sports, but I love ND, know how to talk to people and can close a sale.
This is a problem with the Notre Dame fan base in general: It's collectively so delusional that it's convinced EVERYONE'S dream is to lead the Irish back to glory and that the only issue involved is money. There's absolutely no grasp of reality, which is that ND has some obvious disadvantages, sky-high expectations and a ton of pressure that really doesn't align with their recent history.

You just hired a truly elite coach who has desperately wanted to coach at Notre Dame for most of his life. Stop complaining. The one concern I've heard that's somewhat valid is that Kelly's lack of experience at the D-I level limits his "network" of potential assistants, but there are two things that will probably render that irrelevant:

1. Kelly calls his own plays, so he doesn't need (and wouldn't want) a high-profile offensive coordinator.
2. It's unclear who Kelly will hire as defensive coordinator, but there's a guy by the name of Chuck Martin who was DC under Kelly at Grand Valley State, then took over as coach when Kelly left and has gone 74-6 with four perfect regular seasons and two national titles in six years.

Martin was asked just a couple days ago about the possibility of being offered a job on Kelly's staff at Notre Dame, and this was his response:
“No, I wouldn’t turn that down,” Martin said. “But I’ve turned down D-coordinator at Central and D-coordinator at Cincinnati. He may be done asking me. ...

"I wouldn’t want to be a D-coordinator (just anywhere), but I am a Chicago Catholic -- if he wasn’t already in South Bend, I’d probably beat him there.’ I grew up and that was my team.”
I never dreamed of a scenario where Grand Valley's coaching staff would be reunited at Notre Dame; I'm not quite sure how to feel about that. I don't think I'll ever be able to root for ND to be a dominant program, but my rooting interests don't have any effect on reality. They will win -- a lot -- and all the Irish fans who are sobbing over the inability to get Bob Stoops will be glad somebody else was in charge and hired Brian Kelly.