The Ballad of Bryce Brown is Over

March 17, 2009

This year’s Terelle Pryor, at least in terms of length of recruitment, has chose to cast his lot with Al Davis’ BFF up in Knoxville. Is it a good or bad thing for Tennessee? Depends on whose colors you wear.


The Oakland Raiders Put Tennessee On Notice

March 14, 2009

onnotice

“As you are undoubtedly aware, Mr. Kiffin is involved in arbitration with the Raiders. Not withstanding the fact that Mr. Kiffin must have told you about the pendency of this proceeding, we want to put you on notice of it, and the University’s involvement in some of the underlying facts.”

The Raiders have been feuding with Lane Kiffin since before they fired him near the beginning of the 2008 NFL season. The team believes that Kiffin broke NFL rules, breached his contract, and “induced” assistant coach James Cregg to breach his contract by leaving before the end of the season to work at Tennessee.

CBS Sports managed to get a copy of a letter the Oakland Raiders sent to the University of Tennessee, and the quote right at the beginning is in it. It details the team’s list of grievances against Kiffin, but that’s not all.

The Raiders apparently plan to use some of the statements that Kiffin and Tennessee Athletics Director Mike Hamilton made about the Raiders. At Kiffin’s introductory press conference, the two laughed about Oakland and called it “dysfunctional.” The team, however, says any dysfunction was a direct result of Kiffin’s alleged rule breaking and lying to the team and media.

The letter is also notice to Tennessee that the Raiders plan to get access to all of Kiffin’s employment agreements with the university. They feel those documents are necessary evidence for sorting out the grievance Kiffin filed with the NFL over whether he was entitiled to the remainder of the money in his contract. Oakland’s front office refuses to give him any of it since it believes he breached his contract.

That request for documentation really isn’t the biggest deal of this whole thing. UT is a public university, and those documents can probably be obtained as a part of whatever freedom of information act the state of Tennessee has.

The biggest accusation is that the team believes that it is “quite possible” that Kiffin gave information about the Raiders to opponents while unemployed. The Raiders also estimate that the arbitration process will occupy some of Kiffin’s time over the next five months.

The idea that Kiffin would give inside information to opponents should not sit well with any fans, and it certainly wouldn’t go over well in the SEC if proven. For instance, a contingent of Alabama fans became vocally upset last December when news broke that former Utah and current Florida head coach Urban Meyer discussed Alabama with his friend and current Utah head coach Kyle Wittingham.

The idea of devoting time to this case over the next few months will also probably chafe Kiffin himself. After all, he was the person who (fictitiously) said he fired someone over being 25 minutes late to pick him up from the airport to illustrate how much time he wanted to devote to his job.

Whether much comes of this, I can’t say. It seems to me that at this point, just about everyone has his or her mind made up on both the Raiders and Kiffin. If you read the letter it will become clear though that Oakland will drag Tennessee into this arbitration process, and the team practically advocates for UT to fire him:

“It cannot be in the best interest of the University to continue to serve as his ally in his personal, though misplaced, war to rewrite the past.”

I think this will be a story worth watching regardless of what Kiffin has said and done over the past couple of months. I cannot remember ever seeing an NFL team publicly feud with a university, so this fight makes for a unique precedent.

All those who were cheering Kiffin on as he made Tennessee “more interesting” had no idea just how right they were.

UPDATE

Kiffin and his lawyer have fired back:

“Starting with Al Davis’ nationally televised press conference publicizing the firing the head coach Lane Kiffin last fall, the Raiders have continued to attack coach Kiffin in the media…

“Starting next Tuesday at a hotel in Oakland, the Raiders will no longer be able to rely on unsupported allegations made in the media, as a key Raiders personnel, starting with Al Davis, will finally have to answer questions under oath at their depositions, a process that coach Kiffin is confident will demonstrate that he was fired by the Raiders without cause and show that the continuing assault of allegations being made against him are false.”


Looks Like Phillips Will Be Back

March 10, 2009

In a case of the rich getting richer, it looks like Florida’s place kicker Jonathan Phillips will be back for another year.

The SEC granted him a medical hardship for missing nearly all of the 2007 season, clearing the way for his return for a sixth season. He wasn’t even going to return for last year if it wasn’t for Urban Meyer convincing him to postpone law school. It looks like the head coach is getting two years for his efforts.

Phillips was 12-of-13 on field goals last season, though his longest was just 40 yards. He made all of his 79 extra point attempts except the fateful one that was blocked against Ole Miss (and the Swiss cheese line was at fault for that one).

I would expect to see him work on his range to become a threat from beyond 40 yards. His backup is true sophomore Caleb Sturgis, a guy with a big leg who at least last season didn’t have adequate accuracy yet.


Five Things I Love About SEC Football

March 3, 2009

Recently, ESPN’s SEC blogger Chris Low did a list of five things he loves and hates about SEC football. It seemed like a good idea, so here are my votes on what I love. Feel free to leave yours in the comments, and it doesn’t count if a thing you love is your team. That’s obvious. The hates are coming up soon.

1. The camaraderie

Fans from other conferences hate it, and it can get tiresome from time to time. Even so, I love the collective spirit within the conference. The schools are like 12 brothers: there’s rivalries and resentments, but in the end we’re somehow all in this together.

My favorite example from last year was when College GameDay went to Vanderbilt. A lot of people barely even consider the Commodores part of the conference in football thanks to their historical struggles, but the “S-E-C” chant came out loud and clear. Even the nerdy brother is in on this.

2. The high level of competition

The SEC had a down year in 2008, but that’s forgivable considering the amazing run of success this decade (and it still produced the national champion). For as long as I can remember, it’s been an “any given day” conference.

I mean, even in 1996 when Florida set a record by winning five SEC games by 30 points or more, one of the close wins was by seven over 2-9 Vanderbilt. If you don’t show up ready to play, you can get a run for your money or even beat.

3. Bryant-Denny Stadium on game day

I’ve only been once, and it was in 2005 when Alabama massacred Florida 31-3. The feeling before the game was that the fans were eager to prove that Alabama was “back,” and it sure seemed like they did on that day. As it turns out, they feel like they need to prove that they’re “back” every four or five years.

Anyway, the Tide fans brought their A-game that day and it was the closest I’ve ever heard to the Swamp’s A-game in another venue. When they yelled “we just beat the hell outta you!” near the end, I cringed for the young ears in attendance, but it was impressive to hear as a visitor. If I ever go back to see a game without my Gators involved, I’ll be cheering for the Tide.

4. The insanity

To thrive in a high pressure environment, it often takes a special kind of crazy. It just so happens that there isn’t a higher pressure conference than the SEC.

You’ve got the intense, all-business types like Nick Saban and Urban Meyer (and Dan Mullen, I’ll predict). You’ve got Steve Spurrier, who had to be at least a little nuts to bring his pass-first style into a run-first league. Lane Kiffin can’t resist stirring the pot it appears, and he is employing Ed Orgeron, a man who probably shouldn’t be trusted with a properly sharpened pencil.

Rich Brooks has his famous, ahem, vocabulary. Houston Nutt is crazier than a sack of weasels. Everyone agrees Les Miles is crazy, but I’m with those who say he’s crazy like a fox. Gene Chizik may not be crazy (yet), but the people who hired him in the Auburn athletic department sure are. Bobby Petrino apparently has a pathological need to switch jobs every so often.

Just about everyone is nuts, and I love it. It’s never boring around these parts.

5. It’s always football season

There are four seasons in the SEC: football season, recruiting season, spring practice, and summer workouts. Sure, there’s other diversions along the way like basketball and baseball, but in the end, it’s all about football.

There are probably a million reasons why, but it pretty much has been that way forever for the whole league except Kentucky. When you win a national or conference championship in football, you just say you’re national or conference champion. Every other sport requires you to say that sport’s name along with the champion part. That just about says it all.


How I Would Explain the BCS to Mack Brown

February 27, 2009

Texas head coach Mack Brown is bringing in some BCS experts to explain the system to him and his players. Since the BCS poll was used as the Big 12 divisional tiebreaker (and that system has yet to be overthrown), it makes sense that he’d want to understand it better.

Coaches in general make a lot of flippant remarks about how they don’t understand the BCS, so I give Brown a lot of credit for wanting to know more. He’s going about it in a logical way by bringing in experts.

He’s also going about it in an expensive way. Just taking an afternoon and reading some old posts by the BCS Guru would probably be enough. Or, he could just read this guide that breaks it down within its component sections.

The Coaches’ Poll

The Coaches’ Poll should be very familiar to Brown. He was a voter in it last year.

It’s the oldest component of the formula and carries the most tradition. On the surface, it makes sense to poll the coaches. Most are getting paid millions of dollars to teach the game to the fine collegiate athletes of this nation, so wouldn’t it make sense to ask the experts for their opinions?

It’s all great until you take a peek at the coaches’ schedules. I personally have not, but Brown can look at his. I’d be willing to bet that everything on it during the season is in some way related to helping the Texas Longhorns win football games.

In short, the Coaches’ Poll is getting the opinion of people who don’t actually watch many college football games. They know their team and they study their opponents. They have no way of making an informed opinion on all 119 teams, or even just the 66 BCS conference teams, because they don’t have the time to do so.

When pondering what kept his team out of the Big 12 title game Coach Brown asked, “[i]s it margin of victory? Was it not scoring more because if it doesn’t matter to the computers it does to the human vote?”

Well, I know he didn’t watch the Alabama vs. Georgia or Florida vs. Georgia games because Texas was playing Arkansas and Texas Tech, respectively, on those days. Which do you think he probably thinks was more impressive, Alabama’s 41-30 win or Florida’s 49-10 win? I’d bet he’d say Florida’s victory, but really each was about equally as dominant. Alabama just allowed window dressing points while Florida did not.

That’s the problem with the Coaches’ Poll. The coaches don’t watch many games other than their own, which makes their ballots mostly guesswork. They’re also prone to lazy voting where guys move teams around solely on one week’s results instead of stepping back and doing thorough evaluations.

The solution, as Texas found out, is to go Oklahoma’s route and run up huge scores to impress those people who have no idea what really went on in the games.

The Harris Poll

The Harris Interactive Poll replaced the traditional AP Poll, something Brown is probably also very familiar with. It’s not quite so simple to figure out as its predecessor, which simply consisted of sportswriters. Harris Interactive, a polling agency, describes its poll as follows:

“This year, the BCS has again commissioned Harris Interactive to construct a panel of former players, coaches, administrators and current and former media who are committed to ranking the college teams each week during the 2008 college football season. Panelists have been randomly selected from among more than 300 nominations submitted by the conference offices and the independent institutions. The panel has been designed to be a statistically valid representation of all 11 Division I-A conferences and institutions participating in the Bowl Championship Series.”

Basically, every conference and independent in Division I-A gets to nominate some people with ties to the game. Harris then selects a group of them to give everyone proportionate representation. Sounds good, right?

The first problem is that there’s no quality control on the nominations. The conferences can put up anyone they want and Harris doesn’t screen them after that. They could put up a former player who’s been selling insurance for the last 30 years, and that person would have a legit shot at voting.

The second problem is that no one keeps up with the voters to make sure they are actually following the sport. They could be watching even less football than the coaches do. We saw this with Pat Quinn, a 2008 Harris Poll voter who last December thought that Penn State was still undefeated.

The “Computer” Polls

People call the final element “computer” polls for convenience, but they are really just math formulas. They are included as a check against the human polls, which can be influenced by things like allegiances and tradition of schools.

They are supposed to be impartial, but they’re not. They emphasize what their creators believe to be important, reflecting the bias of the mathematician who put it together. That’s fine if the person is reasonable, but it’s bad if the person is not.

They also are limited because they are required to ignore margin of victory. Brown was right about that in his comment that I quoted above. However, that means that the people who put the polls together (most famously, Jeff Sagarin) don’t get to release what they feel is correct.

There are six formulas. Each team’s highest and lowest ranks are tossed out to get rid of any outliers, and the rest are added together to form the third part of the formula.

These formulas are not be able to account for who’s hot, see head-to-head results, or react to injuries. However, that’s exactly their point.

In All

One third of the system is people who know a lot about football but who watch almost no games.

One third of the system is people who may or may not know football that well anymore and who may or may not even pay attention to the scores and standings.

The final third is aggregated formula results that are crippled by the restriction against margin of victory and in at least one case, by its maker’s alarmingly incoherent methodology.

Makes perfect sense, huh?


How to Setup a Perfect Option Play

February 25, 2009

As unbelievable as it would have sounded in 1996, Florida has turned into one of the best option football teams in the country. The Gators use it about as effectively as anyone else, and it is a major part of the offense.

Since Florida doesn’t use the option as its primary offensive play like Nebraska used to or Navy currently does, it can be even more effective than normal if the Gators set it up properly. Of course, having devastating backfield speed helps it succeed as well.

Here I’ll show you how Florida set up an option play against LSU this past season to score a back breaking touchdown.

thesetup

This is the play prior to the option. TE Aaron Hernandez is lined up on the left side of the line, but the formation’s prominent feature is the bunch of receivers on the right. RB Chris Rainey is in the backfield to QB Tim Tebow’s left.

What ends up happening is a rather pedestrian hand off to Rainey who gets a rather pedestrian three yards. The receivers did a pretty good job of blocking for him, but the middle linebacker followed Rainey the whole way and made the stop.

The next play is from the right hash in practically the same formation.

theformation1

This time the running back is Jeff Demps, and he lines up on Tebow’s right. Otherwise, the formation is identical. It’s an unlikely proposition though that Florida would run the same play twice in a row, especially since the right side is now the short side of the field. Urban Meyer’s philosophy is to get players into open space, after all.

Anyway, LSU lines up in exactly the same defense and prepares to defend the formation exactly the same way. The Tigers are in a basic 4-3 defense with the safeties in cover 2. Each safety will move forward to provide support on his side.

Hernandez will peel off of the line immediately to block the outside linebacker. LT Phil Trautwein will go upfield to take on the middle linebacker. The two guards will go for the two defensive tackles, but C Mike Pouncey pulls away and shoots between the defensive end and left DT. His target is actually the left safety.

As is often done on option plays, the defensive end will not be blocked. He must decide to play the quarterback or running back, and if all goes according to plan for the offense, whoever he doesn’t go for will spring for a big gain.

thepitch

Here we can see Hernandez engaging the linebacker on the left, and he will drive him towards the sideline. Trautwein has already taken out the middle linebacker. Mike Pouncey can be seen running through the line to go take on the safety.

Right guard Maurkice Pouncey tried to cut block his defensive tackle by diving at his feet. After all, since the play is to the left, he doesn’t have to get much of a block. However, the tackle sidesteps the cut block and can be seen pursuing Tebow.

At this point, LSU would seem to have defeated the play because the tackle can go for Tebow and the end can go for Demps. The only problem with that is that the end doesn’t know it, and he stays locked on the quarterback.

Tebow pitches to Demps, and the running back uses his speed to go right by the defensive end. There’s plenty of open space ahead for him to run in.

thecutback

Now out in the open field, Demps is running towards the sideline. He had to swing wide of the DE, and that is also the direction the blockers are going in.

Demps is not content simply to head out of bounds for a big gain though. He knows he has excellent speed to get even more. So, he cuts back once he has cleared the DE and is behind the blocks. Hernandez has done a great job of keeping his man contained and Mike Pouncey is about to push the safety over.

In the upper right you can see a couple other LSU defenders coming over to try to help, but it is far too late at this point for them to be of assistance. Demps is too fast for that.

thefinal

The safety that Mike Pouncey blocked is in the bottom middle, getting back up to his feet after having been knocked over. All of the defensive linemen and linebackers who had been in pursuit can be seen in the bottom right as they slow down. They know they can’t catch up.

That leaves one man to beat: the other safety. Once he recognized that the play was not to his side, he made a beeline to the other and as you can see, he took an excellent angle.

Unfortunately for him, Demps turns on his afterburners at about the 15 yard line. The diminutive ball carrier also changes his angle to go more towards the corner to escape the oncoming defender. The safety finally catches up at the one yard line, just in time to give Demps a helpful shove in the back as he crosses the goal line.

Here’s the play in real time from both the normal camera angle and the blimp shot. Gary Danielson does a quick rundown of what I laid out here in depth. I like how instead of discussing angles at the end, he opts instead just to say “ZOOM!” If I wasn’t a Gator fan, I’d probably hate him by now.

This touchdown put Florida up 34-14 with a minute to go in the third quarter, effectively icing the game away for good.

Wrap Up

Two main factors helped make this play a success. One is the outstanding speed of Jeff Demps. A slower back would likely have been tackled by the defensive end at the cutback stage, as that window was very small. Plus, someone with less speed would definitely have been tackled short of the goal line by the second safety.

The second factor was the setup for the option with the previous play. That one made it appear that the bunched receivers were there to serve only as blockers, and by running behind them, it drew the defense’s attention like a magician’s beautiful assistant.

While they were blockers the first time, the second time they were only there to keep four extra defenders on that side. It opened up the rest of the field, and by having the quarterback be a threat to run, Florida created a numerical advantage on the left.

Most modern offensive football theory one way or another revolves around creating a numerical advantage. The option is one way to do that, and if you set it up correctly, it can be devastating.


Points per Drive in 2008

February 23, 2009

Perhaps the most important thing you can do in football is to maximize the return of your offensive possessions. You only get so many per game, and you don’t fully control how many you get. If your opponent is determined to sit on the ball for most of the contest, you simply won’t get as many chances to score as you otherwise would.

Some people may disagree with that though. They may argue that the most important thing you can do in football is to ensure your opponent gets the least out of their possessions as possible. A stifling defense can make up for offensive struggles and give the offense more possessions with which to work.

Regardless of which side you believe in, the same stat can be used to figure out how well your team is doing at both: points per drive. It’s not perfect since things like special teams and turnovers can affect that stat, but I think I can show that it’s pretty darn good at measuring how good a team is.

To calculate points per drive, you need two parts: points and the number of drives. Figuring out points is the easy part since you just look at field goals, rushing touchdowns, and passing touchdowns. That filters out special teams and defensive touchdowns.

I left out extra points and two point conversions because they have little to do with how offenses and defenses truly perform over the course of a game. I had no choice but to leave in lost/gained fumbles in special teams situations since there are no stat sources that separate them out. I’m mostly fine with that though since gaining or losing a fumble in special teams results in gaining or losing a possession. PATs on the other hand do not have anything to do with possession counts.

To calculate number of drives, I added up the following categories: punts, fumbles lost, interceptions, failed fourth down conversions, field goal attempts, and touchdowns of the rushing and passing variety. The NCAA official stats only have the offensive version of these stats and a few of the defensive, but the fantastic site cfbstats.com fills in the rest.

The top ten teams in offensive points per drive were the following:

  1. Texas Tech – 3.27 points per drive
  2. Oklahoma – 3.24
  3. Florida – 3.22
  4. Texas – 3.17
  5. Tulsa – 3.12
  6. Oklahoma State – 2.92
  7. Missouri – 2.89
  8. Penn State – 2.80
  9. Rice – 2.70
  10. Ball State – 2.698

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If you read any of my pieces on pace, this list will look familiar. All of these teams were either in the top ten of yards per play or points per play. The fact that they appear here should not be a surprise.

Here are the top ten teams in defensive points per drive:

  1. USC – 0.65 points per drive allowed
  2. Boise State – 0.75
  3. TCU – 0.79
  4. Iowa – 0.95
  5. Alabama – 0.98
  6. Ohio State – 0.99
  7. Florida – 1.00
  8. Boston College – 1.02
  9. Penn State – 1.09
  10. Utah – 1.13

Interestingly enough, Florida and Penn State are the only two teams in the top ten of both. If I said earlier that there were two teams were in both, I’d imagine many people would pick out UF, but probably not Penn State.

In any event, these two measures are not infallible predictors of great success. Houston (8-5) was 11th and Arizona (8-5) was 14th in offensive points per drive. Tennessee (5-7) was 11th and Clemson (7-6) was 13th in defensive points per drive.

In order to find out how good of predictors of success these measures are, I decided to run correlations for them with winning percentage.

I fully expected to see the negative correlation of defensive points per drive to be stronger than the positive correlation of offensive points per drive with win percentage. After all, how many times have we all heard that defense wins championships? Probably more than we can count.

Having been a believer in that myself, what I found shocked me.

The correlation of offensive points per drive and win percentage was 0.715. The correlation of defensive points per drive and win percentage was -0.711. In other words, there basically is no difference in their ability to predict success. Offense and defense are equally important.

Now, that is only one year’s worth of data at work. I can really only say that offense and defense were equally important in 2008. I am in the process of running data on past years to try to get a better idea of how they relate. For now though, they’re equal.

The next obvious step was to try to synthesize these two into one measure to see how high a correlation I could get. It is not as simple as adding the two numbers together because with one, a high number is good and with the other, having a low number is good.

I chose to go the route of deviation from the mean. So for offensive points per drive, I simply subtracted the mean from the team’s number. For defensive points per drive, I subtracted the team’s number from the mean. I then added those two together.

That process gave a single number to correlate with winning percentage. For now I’m calling it combined points per drive, but if you have a better name, leave it in the comments.

First, here are the top ten teams in combined points per drive:

  1. Florida – 2.12
  2. USC – 1.90
  3. Texas – 1.68
  4. Oklahoma – 1.65
  5. Boise State – 1.63
  6. Penn State – 1.61
  7. TCU – 1.46
  8. Tulsa – 1.25
  9. Texas Tech – 1.222
  10. Utah – 1.220

The worst record among them is Tulsa’s 11-3 mark. All eleven teams with a winning percentage above .800 are contained in the top 13 spots.

Given those observations, it should come as no surprise that the correlation between combined points per drive and win percentage is 0.923 for 2008. That is an extremely high correlation and about as high as you can expect for just two stats put together.

The important thing to remember is that this describes what teams did in the context of their opponents. This stat has not been adjusted for strength of schedule, so it would not make sense to take the above list and proclaim that Boise State is better than Penn State because of a 0.02 difference between them. A WAC schedule just doesn’t compare favorably to a Big Ten schedule, regardless of what you think of the current state of the Big Ten.

The top four beg some sort of interpretation though. It puts Florida and USC well ahead of the top two Big 12 teams, Texas and Oklahoma.

One way to interpret it is to say that Florida and USC were the two best teams and should have played for the national title. After all, there really isn’t that big a difference between the top five or six conferences.

Another way to interpret it is to point out that the Pac-10 and SEC were down, while the Big 12 had perhaps the best year of its entire existence. Of course Texas and Oklahoma would be lower; they played in the season’s toughest conference.

As I said I haven’t adjusted for schedule strength, so until and unless that happens, the debate will remain open. For what it’s worth, the NCAA says Oklahoma, Florida, and Texas (in that order) had the top three toughest schedules. USC’s slate clocked in at No. 38.

Regardless, the stat of combined points per drive seems to be a very accurate indicator of what degree of a winner a team was. I plan to explore this one further to see what else it might hold in store.


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