Monday, November 30, 2009

That didn't take long

We all knew it was coming, but Notre Dame made it official within the last couple hours:
Charlie Weis is out after five seasons as Notre Dame coach. A member of Notre Dame's coaching staff told ESPN's Joe Schad on Monday that the staff was informed of the decision in an afternoon meeting.
Shocking. Athletic director Jack Swarbrick apparently has no plans to name an interim coach until the players vote on whether or not they want to play in a bowl game (I'm not sure why they wouldn't), but nobody really cares whether Corwin Brown or Jon Tenuta serves as coach for a game. The focus will now turn toward The Search, which will undoubtedly result in 487 denials in the next month by Bob Stoops, Brian Kelly, Jim Harbaugh, et al.

I've stated before that I don't see Harbaugh as a serious candidate, and despite the Chicago Tribune's repeated insistence that ND really wants Bob Stoops, it'll take a minor miracle for him to leave Oklahoma for Notre Dame. I really want to win Powerball; that doesn't mean it has any real chance of happening. As I said two weeks ago, I think it's extremely likely that Brian Kelly ends up at ND when all is said and done, regardless of whether he's the first choice.

I suppose it's not entirely out of the question that Stoops would listen to an offer -- he's set the bar so high for himself that fans call for his head now anytime Oklahoma isn't winning the national title -- but there are lot of things working against Notre Dame here. Stoops is second in college football in total compensation only to Pete Carroll, so he'd wouldn't be getting a raise to go to Notre Dame (even if he did, Oklahoma could easily match any offer). He's also recruited very heavily from Texas for much of his tenure and would have to shift to a much more national approach; getting the best players from Dallas and Houston won't be enough anymore, and Stoops knows that. I think it's possible that he might be looking for a new challenge, but if he's tired of the pressure at Oklahoma, Notre Dame isn't the logical place to escape. I'd put the odds of Stoops being the next Irish coach at about 10 percent -- not that it'll matter when it comes to unsourced speculation.

What about Urban Meyer? Has anyone asked if he might be interested?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Don't blame Tebow

In the last 48 hours, I've seen/read no less than a half-dozen columns or retrospectives on Tim Tebow's career at Florida. This is fairly appropriate for a player who has been praised and fawned over more than anyone in college football history; Gary Danielson and Thom Brennaman (just to name the most egregious) have lost all credibility in the past three years by verbally making love to Tebow for three hours during every Florida game they've been assigned to, and ESPN has basically turned Tebow into a caricature of himself.

But there's a reason the media goes bonkers for this guy. He has Florida on the verge of its second straight national title (and the third in which he'll have been a significant part) despite missing most of last year's offensive weapons, and it's not out of the question that he could become only the second player ever to win two Heismans. He also holds the all-time SEC record for rushing touchdowns and touchdowns scored, and he's not far off the NCAA records for both of those categories as well as pass efficiency and combined touchdowns. All things considered, it's hard to argue that he's not one of the best players in college football history.

Or so I thought. This debate came up the other day, and I was surprised and disappointed by the responses from some fellow fans who I normally consider fairly knowledgeable. I heard various arguments about why Tebow isn't a great player, but none that made much sense or explained what does constitute a great player. For example:
  • His numbers are greatly inflated by playing in a spread offense.
  • He has to do everything for Florida, so he ends up with all the touchdowns.
  • He has to do very little except "distribute" the ball to the talented playmakers around him.
  • He's a terrible passer and therefore not a good quarterback.
  • His win-loss record isn't important.
  • Leadership can't be factored in, because it isn't a quantifiable thing in football.
The last two statements on that list are so ridiculous that they aren't even worth disputing, so I'll focus on the first four.

Are his numbers "inflated" because of the offense? In a way, yes, but that's because the offense is designed around him and his abilities. Florida's offense now is similar but nowhere near identical to what Urban Meyer was running at Utah and Bowling Green, and that's because of Tebow. He's a power runner with a quarterback's arm, and there aren't many comparable players in the history of football. Saying that Tebow's numbers are inflated is like saying that Ron Dayne's rushing statistics were inflated because Wisconsin gave him the ball a lot. The bottom line is that if those players didn't dominate at their position, the offense wouldn't revolve around them.

I'm also consistently amused by the idea that Tebow is a poor passer. This probably comes from hearing Mel Kiper talk about Tebow's future as an H-back in the NFL (although a number of scouts have publicly disagreed), but the facts simply don't support that assertion. In fact, as surprising as this may be, Tebow is statistically one of the best passers in college football history. Here are his career numbers:
  • Completion percentage: 65.9% (610-for-925)
  • Yards: 8,556
  • Yards per attempt: 9.25
  • TD passes: 84
  • Interceptions: 15
  • Pass efficiency: 170.37
I don't care what system he's in or who he has around him; those numbers are impressive. When you watch him drop back to pass and you see the awkward foot movement and the funky throwing motion, it's hard to figure out how he's so effective. He doesn't look like an NFL quarterback -- especially when you compare him with Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen -- but that shouldn't overshadow the actual results.

The other two arguments basically contradict each other. One camp says Tebow gets all the touchdowns because he's the primary running back (refer above to the argument about inflated numbers) while the other camp says Tebow just has to distribute the ball and let the offense work its magic. There's no debate that Florida has had some very good players the past two years (mostly last year), including Percy Harvin. But doesn't every great player -- especially at quarterback -- have some help from those around him? Tommie Frazier (a great QB despite being a below-average passer) had Lawrence Phillips and one of the best offensive lines ever. Matt Leinart had Reggie Bush and a ton of other NFL talent. Vince Young and Michael Vick had a little less help (no other superstars around them), but each of those guys played on an all-around very good team and had one HUGE year, not three years of dominance like Tebow.

By the time I got done disputing all these arguments, I was baffled. How could anyone who has watched Tebow play and seen his statistics, intensity and remarkable win-loss record not consider him one of the best players ever? What's not to like?

That's when it hit me: People aren't arguing against Tebow so much as they're arguing against the media hype. The reasons listed above don't make a lot of sense because the critics are mostly grasping at straws, trying to explain why they're so sick of someone who doesn't really do anything wrong on or off the field. He's the person we all wish we could be -- elite athletic ability, good-looking, unselfish, true to his beliefs -- and we don't really want those people to exist. It's too hard to root for the guy who's better than us at everything; that's why America loves the underdog and the disgraced celebrity.

One of the many, many downsides of the ESPN Era is that everything gets overplayed and then overplayed some more and then beaten into the ground until we can take no more (see Brett Favre). Eventually, we stop liking the people at the center of these stories because we just don't want to hear about them anymore. The less success they have, the less coverage we'll be subjected to. When you throw in the fact that 90% of the college football universe thinks Urban Meyer is a douchebag, you've got a combination that makes it extremely hard to root for Tim Tebow (and Florida, by proxy).
In other words, dislike for all the things surrounding Tebow eventually bleeds into dislike for Tebow, which is kind of ironic when you consider that he should be one of the most likable people in sports.

I've heard people say that we really don't know what kind of person Tebow is, that his volunteer work and religiousness don't mean anything because we don't really know what his private life is like. I suppose this is true -- the general public never really knows what a person does behind closed doors -- but that's kind of like saying, "Pacman Jones could be a great guy who just has a lot of problems with guns, strippers and police." I find it extremely unlikely that Tebow's extensive charity work and displays of faith are part of an elaborate scheme to make people think he's a good guy.

Getting back to the point, though, what I'm trying to say is this: Don't confuse hatred for the Tebow hype train with hatred for Tebow himself. There are two games left in his remarkable career; just hit the mute button and try to appreciate that you're watching one of the greatest college football players in history.

The status quo leaves something to be desired

It seems weird that in a season with six legitimate undefeated teams and national title contenders, the final month has been as anticlimactic as any I can remember. We keep waiting for that crazy upset that throws everything into chaos or the surprising loss that knocks a contender out of the race, and it's become clear that those things just aren't gonna happen.

Since the third week of the season (when USC lost to Washington), the top three teams in the polls have remained unchanged. Since Iowa lost to Northwestern, the next three teams after them have stayed the same, too. The yearly craziness that consumes late-season college football has given way to an obvious pecking order and the realization that the season will end just as everyone has expected since about three months ago: Florida or Alabama will play Texas for the national title.

I'll have no real complaints if that happens -- the goal is to get the best teams playing each other, and there's no way to argue that Texas and the survivor of the SEC championship game aren't deserving -- but it's disappointing, in a sense, that we won't get to see a "Cinderella" play for the BCS title. It's not that I have any particular affinity for Cincinnati, TCU or Boise, it's just that there's no way to know how those three compare to Florida, Alabama and Texas.

I don't think there's ever been a season in which a non-BCS school could make a legitimate claim to playing for the national championship, so it's both remarkable and incredibly inconvenient that now, in a year with THREE elite mid-major equivalents (I know Cincinnati is in the Big East, but their football history is all but nonexistent), there are also three undefeated BCS conference teams.

In 2007, Cincinnati (assuming a win over Pitt) or TCU would be headed to the national title game in place of two-loss LSU. In 2001, Nebraska's pathetic loss to Colorado in the final week of the regular season opened up a spot that was so lacking for candidates that Nebraska still was voted in to serve as Miami's sacrificial lamb. I think it's safe to say that Cincinnati, TCU and Boise would all have been welcome that year.

We'll still end up with some very good bowl games this year -- the loser of the SEC championship game will probably play either TCU or Boise in the Sugar Bowl -- but matchups like Cincinnati-Georgia Tech and Boise-Iowa really won't tell us a whole lot about the non-BCS teams and how good they really are, and there'll be something unsatisfying about finishing with, let's say, three undefeated teams.

I hate it when people look at a particular hot team and say, "See, this is why we should have a playoff," but in this case, it's true. Not a four-team playoff -- no tournament without TCU or Boise would be worth anything -- but the six-team playoff originally recommended by Brian at Mgoblog that I've supported in the past.

Let's say, just for argument's sake, that Florida beats Alabama in the SEC title game and Cincinnati beats Pitt to win the Big East. In that case, the final BCS rankings would probably look like this:

1. Florida
2. Texas
3. Cincinnati
4. TCU
5. Alabama (schedule strength would probably keep them from dropping below Boise)
6. Boise

In the six-team scenario, the top two teams earn byes (this maintains the importance of the conference title games) while the rest participate in a four-team playoff for spots in the semifinals. Your first-round games would be as follows (either at the higher-ranked team's stadium or at a bowl site):
  • Boise at Cincinnati
  • Alabama at TCU
Not bad, eh? And going on the assumption that the higher-ranked teams win, the semifinal games would be:
  • TCU at Florida
  • Cincinnati at Texas
Wow. Every team in the top six would be able to prove itself against the rest, and there'd be no doubt at the end about which team was most deserving.

I've always been a little hesitant about the idea of a college football playoff, primarily because I don't want to see a 16- or 32-team bracket where a demonstrably mediocre team gets hot and wins the national title at 12-4 or something. But when we have so few comparison points and often can't determine with any accuracy which of the top six or 10 teams is truly the best, it's irritating to have to sit and hypothesize. I can only imagine how Gary Patterson, Brian Kelly and Chris Petersen must feel.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Making sense of things

So Jimmy Clausen got punched in the face by a Notre Dame fan outside a South Bend bar. You already know this. The fact that he didn't fight back -- at all -- tells me pretty much everything I ever assumed about Clausen, as do the pictures (and pictures) that, um, don't exactly paint a flattering picture of his toughness.

But if you really needed to punch a Notre Dame player to get your frustrations out, wouldn't you pick somebody other than the team's best player and a future top-10 draft pick? Maybe the guy just likes to punch emus and got confused. I dunno.

I'm just thankful Photoshop and GIF expert LSUFreek (seriously, the guy is awesome) was able to show us the aftereffects and prove what really went down:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

2,193 days is a long time

In 2004, when Chad Henne and Mike Hart were freshmen, Michigan lost to Ohio State in one of the day's early games. Three hours later, when Iowa had finished beating Wisconsin to send Michigan to the Rose Bowl, I didn't really care anymore that UM had lost. I was over it, because at the end of the day, I still got what I wanted -- Michigan was the Big Ten champion.

That won't happen this year. It's win or go home (or stay home, in this case) for Michigan against Ohio State. A loss ends the season, which in a sense would be a merciful finish. But let's go over, just one last time, what a win would do for UM:

* End a losing streak to Ohio State that has spanned 2,193 days.
* End a six-game losing streak against FBS competition (the last win was against Indiana).
* Give Rich Rodriguez by far his biggest win at Michigan.
* Send Michigan to a bowl game.

So yeah, a win would be nice. Will it happen? Probably not, but let's break things down anyway.

I've been repeating the mantra all season that Michigan can run the ball against pretty much anybody, but that "pretty much" qualifier is included specifically for teams like Ohio State. They're fourth in the country in rush defense, and the only team that's had much success on the ground -- Wisconsin -- does things much differently than Michigan, basically pounding it down your throat instead of spreading you out and trying to slice and dice. I still thought Michigan could have some success, though, until I saw this on the weekly injury report:
Brandon Minor (shoulder)
Crap. Nothing against Carlos Brown, but Minor is an absolute beast who takes Michigan's rushing attack to another level. It'll be a hell of a lot harder for UM to move the ball consistently without him.

Tate Forcier might be able to help make up some of the difference with his arm, probably throwing a lot of slants to Roy Roundtree and a lot of 5-yard hitch patterns to Kevin Koger, but I'll be surprised if Michigan completes anything over 25 yards all day. The protection just doesn't exist, and I can't envision a scenario in which Forcier is taking a bunch of seven-step drops and airing it out downfield, because that will result in his death.

I'm envisioning somewhere between 17 and 24 points, depending on the effectiveness of Carlos Brown and Vincent Smith. I'm also expecting a few plays designed for Denard Robinson, including something crazy where he takes a handoff or a pitch and throws deep or laterals back to Forcier. They've been on the field at the same time on several occasions this year, and I have to believe Rodriguez has been saving something for this game.

As for the Michigan defense against the Ohio State offense ... ugh. I didn't think it was possible a few weeks ago, but UM's defense has somehow gotten worse in the past month. The run defense is still somewhat competent, but the pass defense is just abysmal. I'm convinced at this point that the linebackers are blind.

Fortunately, if there's any offense Michigan is built to defend, it's Ohio State's. Running up the middle is the one thing that doesn't usually work too well, and the ginormous, elephant-in-the-room weakness -- covering tight ends and receivers over the middle -- is something OSU never even tries to exploit because of Jim Tressel's goal to never, ever, ever let Terrelle Pryor make a potentially dangerous throw. Michigan will mostly line up in a 4-4 front, and while OSU has been running the ball more effectively the past few weeks, I'll be surprised (and worried) if Dan Herron and Brandon Saine are consistently ripping off four or five yards per carry.

That said, I still expect a fair number of big plays. If Ohio State ends up with only one or two runs of more than 30 yards, UM has a good chance of winning. Pryor will probably also find someone wide open deep; this happens a lot when your free safety (Jordan Kovacs) is a freshman walk-on with the speed of a linebacker. The key will be whether UM can limit these plays -- giving up a few big gainers is manageable, but giving up five or six would be too much to overcome. A couple forced turnovers would also be nice, but for a unit that's 89th in total defense and 84th in scoring defense, I'll take my victories where I can get them. The goal should be keeping OSU's point total in the low to mid-20s, which would give UM a legitimate shot to win.

The other thing Michigan absolutely can NOT do is turn the ball over and give Pryor a short field. OSU rarely moves the ball in sustained drives -- I don't feel like looking up how many of their touchdowns this year have been set up by the defense/special teams or have come on big pass plays, but it's a lot -- so if the Michigan offense helps out by not making any terrible, backbreaking mistakes, I don't think Ohio State's offense can blow it open.

Am I asking too much? Probably. My heart tells me Michigan can pull off the upset, but my brain has been telling me all week that this one will end up somewhere in the 30-17 range. Given Tressel's tendency to close up shop as soon as he has a comfortable lead (see the 2007 game), it might be a little lower-scoring than that, but the end result will probably be about the same.

Prediction: Ohio State 27, Michigan 17.
. . . . .
The top picture was taken in 2003, when I was 21 years old and attended the 100th game between Michigan and Ohio State. Michigan won 35-21 to clinch the Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl. That was the last win over OSU. The bottom picture is from September 26, when Michigan beat Indiana 36-33 on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Forcier to Martavious Odoms with 2:29 left in the game. That was UM's last win over an FBS team, and it came 56 days ago.

Please prove me wrong, guys. It's been long enough.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Is Terrelle Pryor still the next Vince Young?

When Ohio State plays Oregon (probably) in the Rose Bowl on January 1, we'll undoubtedly be subjected to three hours of comparisons between Terrelle Pryor and Vince Young.

Young has been used as a reference point ever since Pryor emerged on the national stage as a junior in high school, and the reason is obvious: There aren't many 6-6, 230-pound guys with elite speed and rocket arms. But I've been wondering this year whether the two have actually been similar in terms of performance, especially as people have written off Pryor's sophomore struggles with arguments like "Well, Vince Young wasn't a good passer either until he was a junior." I remember this being the standard scouting report at the time, but has Pryor been any better? And while both have ridiculous athleticism, how do their rushing numbers stack up?

Before I get into the stats, two disclaimers:

1. Pryor has one regular-season game left, and it's entirely possible that he goes off for about 400 total yards against Michigan's craptacular defense.
2. Mack Brown was smart enough to adjust his offense to suit Young's athleticism, turning the zone read into the Longhorns' base running play. Jim Tressel ... well, you know. More on that later.

Anyway, here are the numbers from each QB's freshman year (Young split snaps with starter Chance Mock for most of the season in a pro-style offense, so the comparison here is particularly applicable):

Young Pryor
Rush attempts 135 139
Rush yards 998 631
Rush average 7.4
Rush TDs 11 6
Completion % 58.7 60.6
Passing yards 1,155 1,311
Yards/attempt 8.08 7.31
Passing TDs 6 12
Interceptions 7 4
Pass efficiency 130.64 146.5

Despite actually having fewer rushing attempts, Young had an additional 367 yards and five touchdowns. He also didn't have less than 50 rushing yards in any game all year, which is remarkable when you consider that there were five games in which he had single-digit rushing attempts. Pryor, meanwhile, averaged under 49 rushing yards per game but was actually a slightly better passer (although it should be noted that seven of his 12 touchdown passes came in massacres of Troy and Northwestern).

Now let's go to the sophomore totals:

Young Pryor
Rush attempts 167 123
Rush yards 1079 633
Rush average 6.5 5.15
Rush TDs 14 7
Completion % 59.2 56
Passing yards 1,849 1,761
Yards/attempt 7.4 7.31
Passing TDs 12 15
Interceptions 11 9
Pass efficiency 128.37 130.47

Young's rushing attempts slightly increased along with his playing time and the system change, and it showed in his numbers, particularly the 14 touchdowns. His passing numbers also improved slightly (a higher completion percentage and a better touchdown-to-interception ratio), but his pass efficiency stayed about the same due to a drop in yards per attempt. Pryor's rushing numbers have been almost identical to his 2008 totals, but his passing has actually dropped off significantly. His completion percentage is four points lower, he has more than doubled his interception total and his pass efficiency is 16 points lower.

I think what we can glean from all this is that Young, as both a freshman and a sophomore, established himself as an elite running threat who was productive despite his lack of refined passing skills. His vision as a ballcarrier and extra gear in the open field were always underrated, as he averaged over 80 yards per game on the ground in his first two years. When the light bulb went on as a junior and he threw for 26 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards, he was utterly unstoppable.

Pryor, on the other hand, has a total of three career 100-yard rushing games and is averaging almost exactly 50 yards per game. As much as his athleticism scares people, he hasn't come close to replicating Young's production in that area. The passing numbers are pretty similar between the two: Pryor's cumulative pass efficiency has been a little better than Young's, but that's primarily due to the two huge games as a freshman that included seven TD passes. Young's completion percentage and yards per attempt were both better, but he was a little more interception-prone. In short, both were marginal passers through two seasons.

I don't doubt that Pryor is an incredible talent, but there's one thing in particular that I think will stop him from ever approaching Young's junior-year awesomeness: the offense. Watch Young as a sophomore and look at the space he had to work with in the running game and the aggressive vertical routes that went beyond the cheating safeties, resulting in a lot of big pass plays. Every part of that offense was designed for Young.

Pryor, of course, is stuck in the 19th century with Ohio State's let's-do-whatever-won't-result-in-a-turnover offense. He'll never be an intimidating threat from the pocket the way Troy Smith was; neither was Young, but Mack Brown adjusted accordingly. The only pass Pryor is trusted to throw right now is a rollout out pattern to the sideline, because Jim Tressel absolutely can't stand the idea of letting his young QB screw things up.

But what you don't see from Vince Young's high interception total early in his career is that he was actually trusted enough to make those mistakes while learning a system that utilized his skill set, and he benefited from those things in his breakout junior year. What is Pryor learning other than to throw an 7-yard out pattern? I realize that there's a reason Jim Tressel makes $3 million a year while I blog from the friendly confines of my apartment's living room, but common sense tells me that if you don't trust your QB to throw the ball, you might as well build your offense around the one thing he can do.

As for the original question -- has Pryor's career path been as similar to Young's as everyone claims? -- the answer is no, not really. The passing numbers are similar, but Young's running ability manifested itself from his very first game and forced defenses to account for him as a second running back, and I don't think you can say the same about Pryor. He's a concern, but not a guy who'll put up 300 total yards and carry his team offensively, which Young was able to do on a regular basis.

Is that his fault? Not necessarily; Tressel deserves just as much of the blame as Pryor, if not more. But when TP is still an average quarterback as a senior and we're wondering why he never made a Young-esque leap, it won't matter much who's responsible. It'll just be a disappointment (Michigan fans not included).

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Weis Era (error?) nears its inevitable end

Charlie Weis has to be done, right? I mean, 9-3 was pretty much the absolute, no-questions-asked, must-be-achieved minimum this year, and that probably didn't include a home loss to Navy for the second time in a row.

The ironic thing is that Weis probably did his best job of coaching this year. He was able to adjust his gameplans to mitigate injuries to Armando Allen, Jimmy Clausen and Michael Floyd, and I don't think there's much in any of the losses that could be pinned on him directly. Weis didn't fumble twice inside the 5-yard line against Navy, let Tate Forcier escape the pocket time and again in the final two minutes against Michigan or call an obvious incomplete pass a fumble against Pitt. It doesn't take much stretching of the imagination to see Notre Dame at 9-1 right now.

But on the flip side, there's no reason the Navy game was as competitive as it was given ND's massive talent advantage on offense, and when you look at how fortunate the Irish were to beat Michigan State, Purdue and Washington, it's also not hard to envision this team being 3-7 right now.

And at the end of the day, that's the one thing that's been obvious about Notre Dame under Weis: They don't dominate mediocre teams the way they should (far too often losing to Syracuse, Navy, etc.) and they NEVER beat the elite teams, even when they play well. This was supposed to be the team for Weis, the year when everything would be in place for a national title run. Even if you ignore everything from the previous four seasons (obviously you can't do that), the underachieving finish is a microcosm of Weis' entire tenure.

It probably doesn't matter if he wins out; there's nothing victories over UConn and Stanford would tell us that would override the past five years of mediocre performances and lack of player development. The death certificate has already been written, and NDNation is in the midst of an autopsy.

This quote is from five years ago and has nothing to do with Notre Dame, but it seems incredibly appropriate:
"What must be done eventually should be done immediately."
That's from Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, and he's referring to the firing of Ron Zook. If it's clear that a guy isn't the long-term answer (and I think Weis has established that), there's no point dragging your heels and delaying the inevitable transition. Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick must realize by now that the Irish will never be a true national contender under Weis, and I -- like everyone else -- will be stunned if he still has a job in three weeks.

So what's next? Well, as with every major job opening, big-time names have been thrown about with reckless abandon. Bob Stoops, Brian Kelly, Jon Gruden, Kirk Ferentz, Urban Meyer, Mike Shanahan and Jim Harbaugh are just a few of the names I've heard so far, and that list will certainly be growing.

If I'm Swarbrick, I'm on the phone with Kelly every morning, afternoon and night figuring out what it'll take to get him in South Bend. I've covered this before (right before the season, in fact): Kelly is one of the best coaches -- if not the best -- in all of college football. His track record is as good as anyone's, and as an Irish Catholic guy with Midwest roots who's never denied interest in a possible opening at Notre Dame, everything about him makes sense. There are only two questions:

1. Will ND be smart enough to offer him the moon?
2. If Cincinnati is unbeaten and looking at a potential 13-0 season and top-three finish in the polls, will Kelly leave?

I've gone back and forth on this over the past couple days, but it's hard to see Kelly passing up the job if it's offered to him. Cincinnati isn't a bad place to coach -- fertile recruiting area, manageable expectations, relatively weak conference that's ripe for a few years of domination -- but running the show at Notre Dame is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You don't think a guy with Kelly's background dreams of having his name mentioned in the same breath with Ara Parseghian, Frank Leahy, Knute Rockne and Lou Holtz?

Stoops and Meyer are also interesting propositions. Both are approaching a transitional period (Oklahoma's has already started, while Florida's will begin next year once Tebow and many of the defensive starters have left), and while neither coach has expressed any interest in leaving, moves are often a matter of timing more than a matter of fit. The problem is that both guys are already making in the range of $5 million a year; Notre Dame pays well, but it won't be a step up financially. And when you factor in the stringent admission standards, the overwhelming national attention, the sky-high expectations and the fact that Indiana isn't exactly a hotbed of NFL talent, Meyer or Stoops would have to really want to coach at ND to take the job, because their current positions are better in almost every aspect. Meyer is probably a pipe dream -- especially since he said just a few months ago that he would never coach at Notre Dame -- but I wouldn't be surprised if Stoops at least listens to an offer, primarily because of the discontent that's crept into the Oklahoma fanbase as Stoops' "Big Game Bob" reputation has been blown apart the past few years.

Ferentz and Harbaugh seem like reaches, Plan B guys who would be acceptable and represent a change in philosophy but wouldn't have the alumni and fans digging for their checkbooks to subsidize Weis' $18 million buyout. It's also worth mentioning that both guys have baggage: Harbaugh just loves to stir up controversy -- he's no Lane Kiffin, but he isn't far off -- and has a DUI in his recent past, while Ferentz has overseen an Iowa program that's had a ridiculous 26 players charged with crimes (including his own son -- twice) in the past two years. He was also accused of helping the school cover up an extremely shady sexual assault investigation, and while nothing official ever resulted from those accusations, even the most loyal Iowa fans were ashamed at the information that was brought to light.

As for Gruden and Shanahan ... meh. I don't see why a lot of Notre Dame fans are so in love with Gruden. He's never been so much as a college coordinator, he hasn't worked in the college game since 1991 (he was a receivers coach at Pitt) and he's considered just the type of offensive "guru" Charlie Weis was when he took over. Oh, and he just signed a long-term contract extension with Monday Night Football. Shanahan has slightly more college experience but has been in the pros since 1984, which is well before any current college athlete was born. He doesn't strike me as the type of guy who would enjoy sucking up to 18-year-olds year-round, and the only connection I can find to Notre Dame is that his last name is Irish-sounding. Shanahan might be coaching somewhere next year, but it won't be in South Bend.

So ... my guess is that Stoops and Meyer are at the top of Swarbrick's list (as they should be), but Kelly is still the most likely option. And if Irish fans are smart, they'll be rooting hard for Alabama and Florida the next couple weeks; their worst-case scenario is one in which Cincinnati ends up playing for the national title, because even an Irish Catholic boy wouldn't pass up that opportunity.

Ignoring the facts

I don't write about the NFL, but there are some things that cross the college/pro median and are relevant to football in general. In case you've been under a rock for the last 72 hours, Bill Belichick decided to go for it Sunday night on fourth-and-2 at the Patriots' 28-yard line with a six-point lead over the Colts and 2:08 left to play.

They didn't get it (well, they did, but the officials gave Kevin Faulk a terrible spot), and the critics (read: sportswriters and ESPN analysts) jumped at the chance to extol their own brilliance, rant about why the Patriots should have punted and explain why Belichick is an idiot.

I have just one response to those criticisms: Bullshit. The basic argument is that Belichick should have punted because it was the "safe" play, the thing most coaches would do. And this is true ... the problem is that those people are ignoring the fact that punting would have given the Patriots less of a chance to win.

I know what you're thinking: Punting would have given the Patriots less of a chance to win? Let’s go to the numbers (courtesy of Advanced NFL Stats):
Historically, in a situation with 2:00 left and needing a TD to either win or tie, teams get the TD 53% of the time from the 28-yard line. The total win probability for the fourth-down conversion attempt would be: (0.60 * 1) + (0.40 * (1-0.53)) = 0.79 WP

A punt from the 28 typically nets 38 yards, starting the Colts at their own 34. Teams historically get the TD 30% of the time in that situation. So the punt gives the Pats about a 0.70 WP.
So the Patriots had, based on average NFL numbers, a 79% chance of winning by going for it and a 70% chance of winning by punting. It’s obviously close, but saying that going for it is the WRONG move is statistically incorrect. If anything, the numbers -- based on the quality of both offenses (a higher chance of getting the first down but a higher chance of the Colts scoring) -- should be skewed more in favor of the Patriots going for it in that situation, because Indianapolis had been moving the ball at will and it seemed extremely likely that, regardless of field position, Peyton Manning was going to lead the Colts to a touchdown.

Just for argument’s sake, let’s say the Patriots had a 70% chance of getting the first down while the Colts had an 80% chance of scoring from the 28-yard line and a 50% chance of scoring from their own 34.

In that case, the numbers would be adjusted to (0.70 * 1) + (0.30 * (1-0.80)) = 0.76, or a 76% chance of winning by going for it. In the event of a punt, it’s 50/50. In other words, based on the way that game was played and the quality of each team's offense, going for it gave the Patriots much better odds of winning.

The only reason not to do so there is to avoid criticism, and anyone in the media who doesn’t acknowledge this is just demonstrating their lack of football knowledge. Decisions like the one Sunday are why Belichik is one of the best coaches in football, and in a way, I’m glad it didn’t work. All the criticism will just cause the brain-dead coaches to continue to "play it safe" while the truly smart ones – guys like Belichick in the NFL and Brian Kelly, Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez and Urban Meyer in the college game -- will keep taking advantage of the conceptual edge they have over everyone else.

It's all come down to this

I've obviously been out of commission for about the last week and a half. I didn't intend to stop writing smack dab in the middle of the best time of year, but getting sick twice in a week right after finding out I'll soon be losing my job has taken its toll, and Michigan isn't exactly sparking my creativity.

What can I say? The defense has somehow gotten worse over the last month, which I didn't think was possible, while the offense has sort of stagnated. It hasn't been bad, but teams are loading up to stop the run and UM is too often settling for field goals in the red zone, and that won't get the job done when the other team is scoring a touchdown on every possession. Since allowing 26 points in the overtime loss to Michigan State, Michigan has given up (not including the Delaware State massacre) 30, 35, 38, 38 and 45 points. Pathetic. When you score 28 against Iowa and 36 against Purdue, that should be plenty (and 24 against a good Wisconsin defense should certainly keep you in the game).

I still feel like UM can beat just about anyone, but I'm also aware that the only time the defense has a chance to make a stop is when the other team screws up or tries to run up the middle repeatedly. Wisconsin ran the ball with some success, but that was after kicking the crap out of UM's linebackers by throwing right at them and demonstrating their complete inability to cover anyone (or any area). John Clay had 109 of his 151 rushing yards in the second half, while the solid but unspectacular Scott Tolzien ended up with four passing touchdowns and a rushing score, pretty much all of which were a direct result of the middle of the field being undefended (hooray for stupid linebackers and safeties).

At this point, I've just about checked out emotionally; I don't think there's any other way to retain my sanity. I set my expectations lower and lower every week, and yet I'm somehow still disappointed with the epically bad defensive performances. Another poor season (more on that momentarily) is all but in the books, and the only thing that can salvage it is a win over Ohio State. Beyond that, I'll just be glad it's over.

Beat Ohio State and everything changes. The last five weeks might not be completely forgotten, but they'd be just as far in the past as the memorable win over Notre Dame. People wouldn't be talking about losing seasons and the never-ending losing streak against OSU; they'd be talking about Rich Rodriguez's biggest win at UM and which bowl Michigan would be invited to, while all the heat would once again shift toward Jim Tressel. Rose Bowls are great, but do you think OSU fans would be happy with a nine-win season and a loss to Michigan? If you're not sure, go ask John Cooper.

From a realistic standpoint, though, things don't look good this weekend. Ohio State is a 12-point favorite, and the way Michigan has lost the last few weeks doesn't give me much hope that they can win a close game in which every play counts. It seems that when something goes wrong, the team's attitude is, "Well, we're fucked," and it's hard to believe things will change drastically against a team with the exact opposite mentality that makes so few mistakes (and has one of the best defenses in the country to top it off).

I've been trying to figure out exactly how much of an improvement this season will be if UM ends up 5-7, and I've come to the conclusion that as far as an overall assessment, not much has changed since the middle of the year. The offense is still miles ahead of last year's (in every area) and the special teams have gone from bad to pretty good, but the defense is an embarrassment that desperately needs talent in the back seven and position coaches that can explain the seemingly simplistic idea of playing an assignment.

I've heard at least three people in the national media say this week that Rodriguez will be fired, and I would like to clarify the issue right now: The chances of that happening are zero. Unless RichRod goes on a Gary Moeller-style rampage and publicly humiliates himself and the school in some way that's completely unrelated to football, he'll be back on the sidelines in 2010 and probably 2011, if not longer. UM President Mary Sue Coleman came out just last week and said this about Rodriguez:
"I don't think it's fair to coaches to bring them in and say, 'We're going to give you three years,'" she said.
Both Coleman and athletic director Bill Martin have said repeatedly that they're 100% behind Rodriguez and intend to give him time to get through the transition and rebuild the program, and I've been saying all along that UM's administration has no interest in going through another coaching search until it's absolutely clear that Rodriguez isn't the answer. There's no way that can be said right now, and even if the people in power do start to lean toward that decision, I highly doubt Coleman would sign off on a firing after publicly coming out and saying that it'd be unfair to do so within three years.

If Michigan somehow misses a bowl game next year (which is highly unlikely given the schedule and the minimal losses on both sides of the ball), I think a change becomes a possibility -- a very small one, but a possibility. But in just about every other scenario, Rodriguez will get until at least 2012 to show what he can do.

Is that a good thing? Probably. I have to be willing to admit that there's a possibility RichRod doesn't end up succeeding, but if that happens, it won't be due to his coaching; it will be due to his inability to find a quality defensive coordinator. I'm not saying Greg Robinson won't end up being a success, but it's a lot more likely than Rodriguez not having success offensively, particularly because there isn't a young reservoir of defensive talent. It's easy to see Tate Forcier, Michael Shaw, Vincent Smith, Daryl Stonum, Martavious Odoms and Roy Roundtree being the makings of a great offense in two or three years, but I can't say the same thing on defense. The personnel is lacking, and I have yet to see evidence that the coaches can overcome that.

This all brings me back to one more reason it'd be nice to win the Ohio State game: There will be at least five four-star defensive back recruits in attendance, all of whom have Michigan as a leader or among a leading group. Getting two or three of those guys would be a great start toward getting that defense to the same level as the offense, and that would make me a hell of a lot more confident about UM's (and RichRod's) eventual success.

But for now, just beat Ohio State. I haven't seen a Michigan win since September (the Delaware State game wasn't televised), and I don't know if I can make it another 10 months.

Monday, November 16, 2009

USC's Pac-10 reign ends decisively

It's been pretty obvious for most of the season that this year's version of USC isn't your typical Pete Carroll juggernaut, but to the casual observer, USC is still USC. They reload every year, beat up on the Pac-10, win 11-12 games and go to a BCS bowl. There's been no deviation from that script since Carroll took over back in 2001.

I've been saying all season, though, that every team eventually has a true rebuilding (not reloading) year, and this would be USC's. Talent can only do so much when you've got 10 new starters on defense and a freshman quarterback. My expectations for this team were tempered.

But did anyone see that coming? And by "that," I mean a 34-point loss at home to Stanford. I know Stanford's playing well and has been surprisingly potent on offense this year, but WTF? We're talking about USC's worst loss in 33 years -- worse than any loss in the '90s, when they dropped off the college football map -- and the most points allowed in Carroll's tenure. Everything about that game was shocking, and Pete Carroll obviously MUST BE FIRED!!!

Seriously though, Jim Harbaugh has done a great job with the Cardinal offense this year and deserves credit for turning Stanford around quickly from the dregs of the Walt Harris era. It should be noted that Stanford is now 10th in the country in scoring (36.2 points per game), just one spot behind Oregon. I also hope he enjoyed the last few minutes of that game, because at some point in the near future, he's gonna regret the way it went down. Going for two with 6:47 left when you're ahead by 27 points is just plain classless, and that won't be forgotten when USC is back to be a Pac-10 wrecking ball that destroys everything in its path (and that will happen -- just look at the number of underclassmen in USC's starting lineup).

It'll be strange, though, seeing USC in the Holiday Bowl or something that isn't a huge game to end the year. There's not really anything wrong with going 9-3 -- wins over UCLA and Arizona, both at home, are still pretty likely -- but when 11 victories and a BCS bowl beatdown of Oklahoma or the Big Ten champion has been your baseline, that's a steep dropoff.

I think we're finally seeing not only the youth factor take effect, but also the constant turnover on the coaching staff that's been brought on by USC's remarkable success. I mentioned the loss of defensive coordinator Nick Holt to Washington as a factor in the Huskies' upset six weeks ago, but it's obviously done a lot more damage than just that one game. And look a little further back: Norm Chow, Steve Sarkisian, Lane Kiffin, DeWayne Walker, Ed Orgeron ... and so on. You can only lose so many elite assistants and maintain the same level of player development. Five-star talent will only get you so far; just ask Notre Dame.

As for who wins the Pac-10, Oregon is the clear frontrunner -- wins over Arizona (in Tucson) and Oregon State (in Eugene) would send the Ducks to Pasadena. Stanford and Arizona each have an outside shot if a crapload of things go right, but if you make the bold assumption that Arizona won't beat Oregon and USC, the Oregon-Oregon State game on December 3 will decide who goes to the Rose Bowl. Not a bad way to wrap up the regular season.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The best games won't be pretty ones

Some moron said this a little over two months ago:
" ... there's a good chance that the winner of the game in Happy Valley on Nov. 7 will run the table against the rest of the conference and finish 12-0."
Ummm ... yeah, not so much. Penn State has been about as good as expected -- the Nits would be 9-0 and probably No. 4 in the country if the offense had shown up against Iowa -- but Ohio State has obviously been a disappointment. The loss to Purdue was the culmination of weeks of frustration with Terrelle Pryor, Jim Tressel and the offense in general, and easy wins over Minnesota and New Mexico State don't do a whole lot to ease concerns.

It's possible that the offense really is improving, but even if that's the case, don't expect it to continue against Penn State. I'll bet you didn't realize that Penn State -- not Florida, Alabama or TCU -- leads the nation in scoring defense. A schedule full of dismal offenses helps, but 9.33 points per game is still pretty damn good.

I hesitate to compare games from different seasons because teams are often totally different, but I think last year's all-defense battle in Columbus gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect Saturday. Both offenses were completely shut down until the fourth quarter, when the Lions -- playing without a concussed Darryl Clark at that point -- marched down the field with seven straight running plays to score the game-winning touchdown in a 13-6 victory.

The obvious differences this year will be the full-time presence (presumably) of Clark, the absence of Beanie Wells -- who carried 22 times for a whopping 55 yards in that game -- and the location of the game. Considering that Penn State totally shut down OSU's offense in Columbus last year with Wells and that the Buckeyes were dominated by the only comparable defense this year (USC), it'll take a minor miracle for Ohio State to score 20 points on offense.

The only question is whether Clark can avoid making the killer mistakes he made in the Iowa game, when he threw two second-half interceptions in Hawkeyes territory (one of which led to an Iowa touchdown) and lost a fumble that resulted in a safety. In other words, he was singlehandedly responsible for at least nine Iowa points, and Ohio State has a defense perfectly capable of replicating that. The Wisconsin game serves as a good example: OSU completed five passes and was outgained by almost 200 yards, but two interception returns and a kickoff return for a score would have been enough to win even if the offense hadn't chipped in 10 points. The Buckeyes don't need a good offensive performance if they have help.

But here's the thing to ask yourself about this game: Is it more likely that a senior QB (Clark) gives the game away at home or that a turnover-prone sophomore QB (Terrelle Pryor) with little help from his running game tries to do too much and makes a potentially game-changing mistake on the road against one of the best defenses in the country?

Yeah, I thought so. Prediction: Penn State 20, Ohio State 13.

I also planned to break down the LSU-Alabama game, but it occurred to me as I started looking at the two teams that they're almost mirror images of Ohio State and Penn State (albeit slightly better versions). In SAT terms, Alabama is to Penn State as LSU is to Ohio State. All four schools have elite defenses, but the fundamental difference in each game should be that one team has an offense with a pulse -- Alabama in this case -- and one team doesn't.

It's actually pretty remarkable how similar OSU and LSU are statistically, from the decent-but-still-not-very-good running game to the recent statistical improvement to the "dual-threat" sophomore quarterback who doesn't really scare any respectable defenses with his arm. Ohio State's defense is slightly better, but it's a negligible difference, especially when you consider that the Buckeyes still have to play three of the toughest games on their schedule.

Jordan Jefferson always does something that makes you think, "man, that guy makes some incredible plays," but the passing game just hasn't been able to produce points against quality teams (no touchdowns against Georgia or Florida). The primary reason: the offensive line. When you have an athletic QB like Jefferson and you've still allowed 23 sacks in eight games, you have a problem. And when you have Jefferson, Russell Shepard, Charles Scott and Keiland Williams in the backfield and you can't do better than 69th nationally in rushing, you have an even bigger problem. This isn't something that will suddenly solve itself two-thirds of the way through the season, especially against Alabama's awesome-at-everything defense.

The concern for Alabama has to be that while Mark Ingram has been consistently excellent, Greg McElroy and the passing game have become an afterthought, and the offense has suffered on the scoreboard because of it. See if you notice a trend here in Alabama's point totals: 34, 40, 53, 35, 38, 22, 20, 12. That's not good. The defenses have obviously gotten better in that time -- Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee are all tough -- but it's not like LSU, Auburn and (potentially) Florida will be any easier. You have to be able to score some to win, and that's a problem right now for the Tide.

All that said, I still don't think LSU can win this one without a lot of things going right (a defensive or special-teams score, a big touchdown early to grab momentum and take the crowd out of the game, etc.). In Baton Rouge, maybe. In Tuscaloosa, no way. Prediction: Alabama 23, LSU 10.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Ummmm ...

I know I'm a week behind, but whoever came up with this Tim Tebow costume wins Halloween:

Catching up: Spikes suspends himself

* After the media lost its collective shit over Urban Meyer giving Brandon Spikes only a half-game suspension for his eye-gouging incident against Georgia, Spikes did the right thing on his own Thursday and announced that he'll sit out the entire game Saturday against Vanderbilt. I won't go as far as Pat Forde and claim that "nothing, not even thuggish behavior, will be allowed to substantively interfere with Florida's pursuit of a repeat national title," but I do think Spikes deserved at least a full game. Reaching through a guy's facemask to jab at his eyes is obviously dangerous and is often cited by players as one of the dirtiest under-the-pile transgressions. It does happen more than people realize, but that doesn't mean it isn't cheap and stupid. Spikes should just feel fortunate that Washaun Ealey didn't suffer any sort of gruesome eye injury; imagine the sort of "distraction" that would have created.

* I took notice about a month ago when I saw Syracuse's Mike Williams near the top of the NCAA receiving categories, partially because it showed what a difference a quarterback (Greg Paulus) can make and partially because I just didn't realize what a great season Williams had been having. That season ended in shocking fashion on Monday, though, when Williams abruptly quit the team with four games left. No reason has been given publicly, but Williams was suspended for all of last season due to "academic dishonesty" (cheating), and the rumor-mill consensus is that he was most likely struggling in the classroom to the extent that he would have been declared ineligible. Syracuse isn't going anywhere this year, but it's unfortunate for everyone that the Orange lost their best offensive player -- a junior who could have had a big impact again next season -- and college football lost one of its best receivers because the guy wouldn't put his brain to use. It seems extremely likely that Williams will end up entering April's draft.

* Also entering the draft: Dez Bryant, who lost his final eligibility appeal to the NCAA on Thursday and told ESPN immediately afterward that he's headed to the NFL. It's hard to blame him -- this year was obviously a disaster, but first-round money is first-round money (and a guy with Bryant's talent who has never been considered a troublemaker will go in the first round). As for Oklahoma State, the offense will take a big hit next year minus Bryant and senior Zac Robinson, but talented running back Kendall Hunter -- a sophomore who has missed most of the season with a sprained ankle -- should finally be healthy and able to shoulder most of the load.

* Ohio State announced Wednesday that it will honor the school's 1954 national championship team by wearing throwback uniforms that will be unveiled against Michigan -- in Ann Arbor -- on November 21. I'm not really sure what to think about this; a lot of schools (Georgia, Notre Dame, etc.) have worn alternate jerseys recently in rivalry games, but it seems weird for Ohio State to pull out a one-time Nike marketing ploy (the announcement reads like a freakin' Nike press release) for the Michigan game. Against Purdue or Minnesota, sure. But against Michigan? In Ann Arbor? And who celebrates the 55th anniversary of a championship team? The whole thing just seems strange on a number of levels. Maybe it's one of those "get everybody fired up" ideas like Georgia's all-black uniforms, but I doubt Jim Tressel needs a whole lot of motivational help for The Game.

* Florida State defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews officially announced Wednesday that he'll step down after the season. His impending retirement had been rumored all season and wasn't a surprise, but this part was:
Bobby Bowden didn’t mince his words when asked on the ACC weekly teleconference who will name Mickey Andrews' replacement. The Florida State head football coach said he will have the final word.
Nobody knows whether Bowden plans to stick around for another year, but either way, Jimbo Fisher will be taking over at some point in the next 14 months and should have the authority to decide the future of the FSU coaching staff. Why should Bowden get to pick the next defensive coordinator when he might never even coach with the guy?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

That was a definitive weekend

It seems like the last month or so has been all about the top few teams surviving while generally looking like crap, but that changed in a big way Saturday (Iowa not included).

Florida destroyed a solid Georgia team in Jacksonville while Texas absolutely obliterated 14th-ranked Oklahoma State, removing the last serious regular-season roadblocks for those two teams. Given the rest of the Longhorns' schedule, only a shocking, what-the-hell-just-happened upset could keep Texas from playing in the national title game. Florida has a similarly smooth path until the SEC championship game, and while Alabama has a fairly challenging stretch ahead -- LSU at home on Saturday and the Iron Bowl on November 27 -- it appears that the only way we won't see Texas against the SEC winner is if Alabama loses to Auburn and then beats Florida (keep in mind that if LSU beats 'Bama on Saturday, the Tigers would likely win the SEC West and earn the opportunity to lose to Florida for the second time this season).

Basically, unless Alabama gets schizophrenic, the remainder of the unbeatens -- some collection of Iowa, Cincinnati, TCU and Boise State -- will be left scrambling to find President Obama's phone number in hopes of putting together and implementing a playoff system in a span of about three weeks.

The other team that'll be on the outside looking in is Oregon, which is somewhat unfortunate. As much as I hyped up the Ducks going into the USC game, they dominated even more thoroughly than I anticipated (613 yards?!?). It's hard to find anyone who's playing better right now ... but it's also hard to forget that they were pretty thoroughly manhandled just two months ago by Boise State. I end up getting my brain stuck trying to figure out this transitive mess: I think Oregon is a little bit better than Cincinnati, but I think Cincinnati is just slightly better than Boise and I think Boise is just slightly better than Oregon. So ... yeah. Follow the staircase:
I've seen a couple people/publications mention that even an undefeated Boise State team will likely get left out of the BCS in favor of Notre Dame or USC, and if that happens, the offending bowl game might as well just rename itself the We Want The Most Money Bowl. I do NOT want to see a solid but uninspiring two-loss team in the BCS while an unbeaten team with a legitimate argument for national title consideration plays in the Liberty Bowl or whatever.

The argument we'll hear from Colin Cowherd and his douchebag equivalents is "nobody wants to watch Boise-Cincinnati because I'm a casual fan and I don't know their players and they can't be good because their names aren't USC," but that's all horseshit. I would fucking schedule my day around Boise-Cincinnati because those are two of the six or seven best teams in the country this year, and what I want to see -- as a college football fan -- are the best teams playing each other, preferably with a lot on the line. I will shed a tear if the Fiesta Bowl picks Oklahoma State or the Sugar Bowl picks USC, leaving Boise to beat up on some second-tier team in a game that will give us no indication as to just how good the Broncos really are. If there's ever a year to eschew tradition in favor of quality, this is it.

Anyway, this week's top 10 (as always, these rankings are based on which teams I think are the best right now, not necessarily how I think they'll finish):

1. Florida
2. Alabama
3. Texas
4. Oregon
5. Cincinnati
6. Boise
7. TCU
8. LSU
9. USC
10. Iowa

Yes, I know Iowa is undefeated, but I've watched the Hawkeyes get outplayed this year by Northern Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Indiana, and there's no way I'd pick them to beat LSU or USC. I wouldn't be surprised at all if they lost to Northwestern this week, and it's not a good sign when you're basically on par with the middle of the Big Ten. Could they finish 12-0? Sure, especially if Terrelle Pryor plays like Terrelle Pryor in two weeks. But even with a strong defense and a ridiculous wave of luck that hasn't been seen since Ohio State ran the table in 2002, there's no way Iowa's offense (Ricky Stanzi! Brandon Wegher!) could keep up with anyone in the top five.

Monday, November 2, 2009

I hate Juice Williams

It was as bad as it looked Saturday for Michigan. The first half was fine, and it was basically what was expected coming in: Michigan controlled the line on both sides, taking a 13-7 halftime lead that could have been a little bigger if not for a couple drives that ended with short field goals rather than touchdowns. I was unconcerned.

Then, on the third third play of the third quarter, Roy Roundtree caught a 76-yard pass and was tackled at the 1-yard line. Michigan ran into the line four times and got stuffed (with two touchdown calls getting correctly overturned), Illinois went 99 yards in six plays, and that was that. The rest of the game was a blur of Michigan players getting tackled in the backfield and fumbling while Juice Williams and the Illinois running backs cruised up and down the field at will. Apparently, when it was all over, the Illini had racked up 433 total yards and 29 points after the aforementioned goal-line stand. Michigan didn't score again.

I haven't been that angry about a Michigan game since RichRod took over, for reasons that I've documented many times -- the offense is still full of freshmen and sophomores and the defense had two walk-ons starting Saturday because of an embarrassing lack of depth that's been evident for about three years. Those problems will only be solved with time. But what can I say about a 25-point loss to a 1-6 Illinois team that hadn't beaten an FBS team all year, with every loss coming by double digits? Everyone has been better than Illinois this year, and they just beat Michigan as badly as they beat Illinois State.

It was also the second year in a row Juice Williams absolutely lit up Michigan's defense. Fortunately, it will never happen again (he's a senior, so it can't). He apparently includes some sort of Jedi mind trick with his ball fakes, because every freaking play against Illinois over the last two years has involved a Michigan defender tackling someone who didn't have the ball while everyone else completely ignored the guy who did have the ball. It's hard to figure out how Illinois doesn't put up 400 rushing yards a game.

I read a comment along these lines on a message board, and it seems to pretty accurately summarize Michigan right now:
This team is really good when it's on and terrible when it's off.
Very simple but very true. The Michigan team that played Saturday was not the same one we saw against Western Michigan, Notre Dame and even Iowa. Does that mean things are going backward? Maybe, but I don't think so. There are still plenty of stretches where that team from earlier in the season shows up, and unlike last year, UM can run the ball pretty consistently against almost everybody. The most telling number I can come up with is that despite a 28-yard outing against Michigan State and the absence of starting center David Molk for most of the season, Michigan is 14th in the country in rushing, just behind Oregon and Alabama. That's pretty good.

The thing I just can't figure out is why, in each of the last two weeks, the team has completely fallen apart once things have started to turn against them. Is it coaching? Is it youth? Is it that the offense just isn't built to come from behind (pass protection has been an obvious issue all year) and the defense is terrible, which really exacerbates the bad performances? Yeah, it's probably the last one.

I think it's also evident that as the season has gone on and teams have gotten more tape of UM on both sides of the ball, the weaknesses have been exploited more and more. Blitzing off the right side (the weak side) of the line? Check. Bringing a safety up in press coverage on the slot receiver to limit bubble screens? Check. Using tight ends in the passing game and misdirection in the passing game to take advantage of the overaggressive (and usually poor) linebacker/safety play? Check. These are things that have become a regular part of opposing gameplans over the last four weeks, and Michigan doesn't yet have an answer.

Next week's game against Purdue is now crucial. A sixth win would guarantee a bowl game, and that's all most of us really hoped for at the beginning of the year. Get to the postseason, get that extra month of practice and hopefully get a momentum-building victory like Notre Dame had last year against Hawaii. The two games after Purdue -- at Wisconsin and home against Ohio State -- aren't looking very promising, so UM needs that sixth win ASAP.

There will be a lot of heat this offseason if Michigan ends up 5-7 (and 1-8 in Big Ten play), and a bowl game next year would become an absolute necessity for Rodriguez to keep his job. My concern is not whether he can reinstate Michigan as national power -- as I've said all along, his track record is too good to ignore -- but whether he'll really get the chance. If injuries and a fairly difficult schedule combine to make next season another rough one, with UM finishing 6-6 or something similar, will that be it? And if so, what's next? Bringing in another coach with a different system (non-spread, I assume) would just mean another two or three years of rebuilding with an entire roster built for the spread 'n' shred, and at that point you're risking dooming the program to a decade or more of mediocrity. If you care about seeing Michigan succeed at some point in the near future, you should NOT be calling for a coaching change right now.

Something needs to be done with the defense, though. I don't know if firing Greg Robinson is the answer, because then you're running into the same problem you'd have with the offense if you fired Rodriguez -- it's hard to do much of anything without some opportunity for development and continuity. He also has a pretty respectable track record when he's not coaching Syracuse. But even with the depleted depth at a lot of positions, there's no excuse for this defense being as bad as it is. In Big Ten play (I'm including Notre Dame here to differentiate quality competition from cupcakes), UM is giving up 32.7 points per game and has allowed no fewer than 26. That is just not good at all.

I expect some changes among the positional coaches in the offseason, specifically linebacker coach Jay Hopson. Hopson was new to the staff last year and, unlike every other coach on the staff, had no previous experience at Michigan or under Rodriguez. Despite having respectable talent -- Obi Ezeh, former five-star recruit Jonas Mouton and former starting safety Stevie Brown -- linebacker play has been an extreme weakness the last two years. With Robinson shifting to a hybrid 3-4/3-5-3, I expect him to bring in a linebacker coach who has either worked with him in the past or has extensive experience in the 3-4. Hopson staying on the staff would be a surprise.

One other thing that has to get fixed: turnovers. Seriously, what the fuck? I don't have a problem with the interceptions (Tate Forcier has thrown nine touchdowns and five picks this year, which is pretty good for a true freshman), but the fumbles are out of control. Michigan has lost EIGHT fumbles in the last three Big Ten games, and you're just not gonna win when you're making those mistakes. Too many drives have been killed and too many easy scores have been set up for the opponent. The easy answer is that this just an effect of RichRod's offense, but that's not the case. Here are his turnover margins at West Virginia:

2001: -8
2002: +19
2003: +16
2004: +3
2005: +14
2006: +7
2007: +13

Case closed. If anything, a run-based offense that isn't reliant on pitch plays should have fewer turnovers than most. However, this gives me no explanation for the current problems. I guess all I can do is hope that as the young players get more familiar with the offensive schemes and what they're supposed to be doing, they'll be able to pay more attention to simple things like holding onto the ball.

So ... where does that leave us? Again, Michigan needs one win in three games to become bowl-eligible. If UM beats Purdue but finishes 6-6, that's fine. If UM loses to Purdue but beats Wisconsin, that's fine too. I don't really care which game Michigan wins, but anything that doesn't end with a bowl game will result in a long offseason full of incoherent message board rants about firing Rodriguez, and I don't even want to think about that scenario.

What I want is for Michigan to get back to the point where I'm excited every Saturday rather than worried about which team will show up, but I won't feel that way this year until the sixth win is in the bag -- the sooner the better.