Alabama is in Trouble, But is it Really That Bad?

March 6, 2009

In a turn of events that would surprise no one, Alabama found itself in hot water with the NCAA. The Tide has undeniably had some problems with staying on the right side of Myles Brand in recent history.

The good folks at Roll Bama Roll have an in-depth look at what happened, but basically athletes were giving out textbooks to non-athletes for free. They explain that the ordeal could have stemmed from some athletes misunderstanding the way the textbook distribution process works, but in the end it’s up to the university to make sure the players know that very process.

I’m sure some people out there might read the headline and first paragraph of the AP story and assume that this is just another example of flouting authority by Alabama or the SEC in general. Is it really, though?

I mean, this has to do with players providing textbooks to friends. This is not about hundred dollar handshakes from boosters or the old “if you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying” culture. Bama didn’t mind its store well enough, and a small number of customers took advantage.

The graduate of business school in me agrees fully that this sort of thing shouldn’t be happening. However, the recently-graduated student in me sympathizes with the intent.

Dealing with the textbook cartels is one of the worst part of being a student. Even going totally with used books a semester’s load generally costs hundreds of dollars, and inevitably a professor or two will have chosen the newest edition of which no used copies exist. As students well know, authors and publishers tend to have this habit of changing roughly a chapter a year in order to pump out new editions and make money from every new class that goes through a university.

The online textbook market has helped some, and of course there’s the old strategy of sharing books among friends. Neither is really an ideal situation.

After discovering what was going on, Bama decided to put compliance officials on the job during textbook distribution time for the time being. They fixed the problem and they’ll probably pay some sort of price from the NCAA for it.

Maybe next we can sic the NCAA on the textbook cartels. After all, they negatively affect students nationwide far more than anything that went on while Alabama’s storekeeper was asleep.

Advertisements

Best or Most Deserving?

January 3, 2009

After eight years of practice of arguing over the BCS, the ninth season’s controversy finally boiled it down to two options. Do you vote for who is the best team by the eyeball test, or who is most deserving based on everyone’s resumes?

The ninth season was 2006, and Michigan represented the “best” team, while Florida was the “most deserving.” The Gators were helped out by two other factors, namely that voters didn’t want to see a rematch and wanted to honor the value of winning a conference championship. Anyway, that year the “most deserving” team barely won out and got to go to the national title game.

In 2007, LSU jumped from seventh to second in the final ballots because of the “most deserving” argument. However in 2004 undefeated Auburn was the “most deserving” team (having won the toughest conference), but the Tigers lost out to the two “best” teams in USC and Oklahoma.

Since human votes dominate the system, it should be no surprise that the choice of best or most deserving hasn’t been applied evenly. Oklahoma passed Texas in the second to last BCS rankings thanks to being the “best” of the two despite the “most deserving” Longhorns having beaten the Sooners in the regular season.

The fact that “best” won out over “most deserving” this year makes me feel better about the possibility of Florida winning the national title on Thursday. The reason? I have a hard time saying that Utah is not the most deserving.

By the BCS’s own criteria for determining which leagues get automatic bids, the Mountain West was the fifth-best conference, ahead of the sixth-place Big East and seventh-place Pac-10. Utah has defeated four teams that will finish the year ranked in Oregon State, TCU, BYU, and Alabama. Florida has defeated only two that will be for sure in Georgia and Alabama, and maybe a third in FSU (the third-highest in also receiving votes). However, the SEC rated as the second-best conference.

A lot of football is about timing, which is why season-long stats don’t predict the outcomes of bowl games precisely. If Alabama had played Utah the way it played Florida, the Sugar Bowl could have ended much differently. The Tide did not however, and here we sit with a 13-0 Utah team with probably the best resume of anyone.

If you’re going by the eyeball test, then I still say Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas are better. They have better players almost across the board, and on a neutral field I’d take them. There’s a reason all of them finished ahead of Alabama in the final poll, and right now I’d give USC an edge over the Utes as well. None of them had close scrapes with teams as bad as Michigan and New Mexico, two teams that Utah beat by a field goal or less.

We’ll never know, of course, who would win for sure since the university presidents and conference commissioners who run Div. I-A football think that a two-team playoff is adequate. The Coaches’ Poll has no choice about its national champion, but if the AP Poll was to vote Utah No. 1 at the end, I would have a hard time being upset with it. They’ve earned it.

I doubt it will happen, though, since people’s memories are increasingly short these days. Some people who were ready to give USC the national title after the Rose Bowl are ready to give it to Utah now, and they might give it to Texas after the Fiesta Bowl just before crowning either Florida or Oklahoma after the BCS Championship Game.

When history looks back at this year however, it will always remember this Utah team. When the system of determining the champion is such a joke, being remembered forever isn’t a bad consolation prize.


Some BCS Final Score Projections

December 31, 2008

Just for the record, here are my projections for the first four BCS games. They were arrived at via the same method I used for the hypothetical BCS title game scenarios and to project a 35-21 Florida win in the SEC title game (which would have been 34-20 if Phillips didn’t miss his field goal).

I’ve run several bowl games, and it seems to be more accurate for good teams. It projected a 21-17 Boise State win over TCU (actual final: 17-16 TCU win, five total points off), but also a 34-31 Central Michigan win over FAU (actual final: 24-21 FAU, 20 total points off).

Anyway, I’ve used the absolute number projections rather than the percentages because time and again they are the more accurate ones. If you’ve read up on how this works, that has meaning to you. If you haven’t, then don’t worry about it.

Rose Bowl: USC 25 – Penn State 21

Orange Bowl: Cincinnati 19 – Virginia Tech 18

Sugar Bowl: Alabama 25 – Utah 24*

Fiesta Bowl: Texas 37 – Ohio State 18

For what it’s worth, this method has always projected the scores too high except for the obvious outliers (take a bow, Notre Dame) in every bowl I’ve run them for so far.

A bonus pick for tonight: Georgia Tech 31 – LSU 30 in the Chick-fil-A (Peach) Bowl.

*Originally said 25-23, but I noticed an error on the spreadsheet. It now says 25-24 because I don’t want to predict a tie, but since the raw numbers are Alabama 25.29 – Utah 24.93, it technically projects a 25-25 tie.


This is It

December 5, 2008

We’ve been waiting for this matchup since the night of November 8. That was the day when both Alabama and Florida clinched their divisions to lock in the title game matchup at the earliest point in a season ever.

People kind of knew it was coming for longer than that though, because you could see LSU’s decline begin with the losses to Florida and Georgia in October and Florida’s big win over Georgia on November 1.

I’m not going to quote a bunch of stats now because most people have already done that and because most of them are in Florida’s favor anyway. Of all the standard statistical categories, Florida is higher ranked in about 75% of them. Alabama partisans would say something along the lines of the Gators not being tested by a team of Bama’s caliber, while Florida fans would probably counter with the fact that Florida’s schedule strength is much stronger.

Because of those facts, folks picking Alabama have cited qualitative attributes of the team. They point out things like Alabama being a tough team that will not back down. Many regardless of their choice have perpetuated the storyline of the contest being about Alabama’s power versus Florida’s finesse and speed.

I have news: both teams are powerful, and both teams are fast. Alabama might hold a slight edge in power and Florida an edge in speed, but this is not a game of elephants versus gazelles. Florida’s fast backs often run through gaping holes between the tackles, and the defense has been known to deliver some punishment.

Just ask Knowshon. It’s a powerful defense.

It is true that Florida doesn’t run straight up the middle as often as the Tide does, and sometimes they employ misdirection. But since when does trying to gain an advantage by fooling an opponent indicate you’re not tough? Will it mean that Alabama has gone soft when they run a play action pass or a disguised blitz?

Of course not, and the fact that the offensive line and Glen Coffee like the power running game doesn’t mean that other players, or even Coffee himself, aren’t fast. Terrence Cody’s monster push up the middle doesn’t mean that guys like Rashad Johnson run around like they have cement shoes.

I suppose power and speed are the marketing messages that the two coaches like to put out, especially with Urban Meyer’s well known desire to have the nation’s fastest team, but it’s a lazy oversimplification. Those who keep talking about pace also apparently aren’t familiar with the two teams either because neither of them run their offenses in a big hurry. Alabama is usually deliberate as we all know, and Florida is on the edge of getting a delay of game more often than not.

I’m not going to tell you this game comes down to one thing, because both teams do everything well. It’s going to come down to execution in every phase of the game. I don’t think one team will lead the whole game, nor do I think either will win by more than 14 points because they are so close.

If Alabama wins, you could point to the recent rash of injuries to Florida and the motivational situation of Alabama being undefeated yet a big underdog as ways you could have seen it coming. If Florida wins, you can point to their large run of success and slight edge in speed, talent, and depth as ways you could have seen it coming. We will see a lot on the field that will decide the game too, as it’s not played over the course of a few weeks but over the course of a few hours.

I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. Tonight’s MAC Championship Game is like getting to open a candy cane the night before all the real presents appear under the tree. It’s something, but it pales in comparison.

I really do feel that excited. I’ve been trying everything I can to make tonight go faster, from burying myself in planning for my honeymoon next July to Mario Kart Wii. It has still felt like an eternity, though not as long as tomorrow before 4:00 will feel. GameDay will help, but between noon and kickoff will be nigh unbearable.

I have gone back and forth on this game all week. As it has been getting closer though, I have felt better about it even as the announcements of Patchan and Antwine being out for the year surfaced, no announcements of any kind about Harvin have surfaced, and the news of Rainey’s groin injury broke. There’s a special feel to this team that I haven’t felt about a Florida team in a long time. For comparison, I didn’t believe the 2006 team could win a national title until after the win over Arkansas.

I have believed this team could do it since the win over LSU. We have since found out LSU isn’t as good as we thought, but it was a big statement game. They destroyed Georgia by a larger margin than I thought possible. They put Kentucky and Vanderbilt away in basically one quarter’s worth of work in each game. They made South Carolina’s tough defense look like a Sun Belt Conference defense.

Since the start of October they have played like a Titan. No one has come close, while Alabama has struggled at times. It is not a fluke that Florida won those game by such large margins. No luck was involved. It was the Gators executing at an unbelievably high level.

No matter what happens from here on out, this will be the lasting image of the season. Two plays after FSU fans cheered Percy Harvin’s injury, Tebow pushed his own linemen and the then-best defensive line at tackles for loss in the country four yards into the endzone from four yards out. Thanks to the rain and paint, he came out looking like a bloodstained gladiator, and he was asking for more.

This man is the number one reason why I feel good about this game. Tebow is as much a force of nature as there is in the college game today. He was not the reason the Gators lost four games last season, and the reason they did has improved by leaps and bounds.

I believe Tebow will find a way to win. I believe he won’t let his team lose. I know Alabama fans have the same special feelings and beliefs about their team and players, but they don’t have Tebow. Florida may not have been hit in the mouth in the way Alabama will hit them, but Alabama hasn’t been hit this year in the way that Florida will hit them.

Tebow will get hit and get up asking for more. He will relish the contact as he so often does. He will not get rattled; he will instead look for someone else to go hit to the horror of the Florida coaching staff.

As he has done each of the past eight games, he will not only do things on his own but he will get the ball in the hands of his playmakers at the right times. He won’t try to do it all himself, but rather be the straw that stirs the drink. And this is one powerful drink.

Many things in this game will even out, but Alabama cannot even out Tebow. Florida will win and go play in the BCS title game. If you press me for a score, I’ll pick the numerical score I produced earlier this week of 35-21.

Whatever happens though, this is the most remarkable team I have ever seen in orange and blue. They have dominated their opponents through this part of the schedule in ways that not even the 1996 team did. It has been a blast to follow them, and I can’t wait for tomorrow.


A Debate with a Bama Blogger

December 5, 2008

Cocknfire over at Team Speed Kills organized a debate for this weekend’s game with Todd from Roll Bama Roll, SBN’s Alabama blog. It is up over there and contains a lot of what I would write in a preview.

Enjoy.


Some Numerical Predictions for Saturday

December 4, 2008

It’s always interesting to see everyone’s predictions for a game. However, they’re not always justified. They’re often backed up solely by emotion, hunches, selective memory, and just plain old guessing.

So, I’ve devised a method for predicting the yards and points for Saturday’s SEC Championship Game. I looked at all the games Alabama and Florida have played against BCS conference teams and found out how the teams’ offensive and defensive performances differed in comparison to what you’d expect.

So for instance, Clemson gains an average of 339.33 yards and scores 25.5 points a game. Against Alabama, the Tigers got 188 yards and 10 points. Therefore, Alabama held Clemson 151.33 yards and 15.5 points below their season averages. On the same token, Miami gives up an average of 315.75 yards and 24.2 points per game. Against Miami, Florida got 345 yards and 26 points. Therefore, Florida gained 29.25 yards and 1.8 points more than the Hurricanes’ season averages.

Overall, Alabama allowed an average of 79.43 yards and 9.78 points per game fewer than you’d expect given the Tide’s opponents’ season averages. Alabama also gained 57.62 yards and 9.97 points per game more than you’d expect given the opponents.

Overall, Florida allowed an average of 53.45 yards and 12.63 points per game fewer than you’d expect given the Gators’ opponents’ season averages. Florida also gained 125.81 yards and 22.53 points per game more than you’d expect given the opponents.

In order to turn these numbers into predictions, I looked at both sides of the game to come up with reasonable ranges for the two teams. I think it’s easier to show it in table form than explain it, so that’s just what I’m going to do. By the way, “Pred.” is short for “prediction.”

Alabama SECCG Predictions
UA For UF Effect Pred. 1 UF Allowed UA Effect Pred. 2 Avg. Pred.
Yards 370.33 -53.45 317.38 275.67 +57.62 333.29 325.34
Points 32.08 -12.63 19.45 12.3 +9.97 22.27 20.86

So for Alabama, we get a range of about 317 to 333 yards, with 325 being right down the middle. We also get a range of about 20 to 22 points, with 21 being right down the middle.

Now, let’s do the same thing for Florida.

Florida SECCG Predictions
UF For UA Effect Pred. 1 UA Allowed UF Effect Pred. 2 Avg. Pred.
Yards 449.2 -79.43 369.77 248.5 +125.81 374.31 372.04
Points 46.33 -9.78 36.55 11.5 +22.53 34.03 35.29

So for Florida, we get a range of about 370 to 374 yards, with 372 being right down the middle. We also get a range of about 34 to 37 points, with 35 being right down the middle.

Based on what these teams tend to do to their competition, one would expect Florida to win 35-21, with the Gators holding a 372-325 advantage in total yards. Honestly, those figures don’t seem outlandish in any way to me.

Obviously though, there’s a reason why they play the games. On top of that, the game will be played in the Georgia Dome rather than a sterile laboratory where the teams will play exactly as their averages suggest. And besides, each team’s averages cannot yet include the game against each other, and every new data point generally makes them more accurately reflect the true team underneath.

Even so, this method at least measures how the teams have done relative to their opponents. If you prefer looking at the effect that the teams’ offenses and defenses have on their opponents by percentages rather than by absolute numbers, then here you go.

Alabama SECCG Predictions
UA For UF Effect Pred. 1 UF Allowed UA Effect Pred. 2 Avg. Pred.
Yards 370.33 84.4% 313.12 275.67 118.2% 325.91 319.52
Points 32.08 50.3% 16.13 12.3 145% 17.84 16.98

Not a whole lot changes for the Tide. They lose about six yards and a field goal in this case. What about Florida?

Florida SECCG Predictions
UF For UA Effect Pred. 1 UA Allowed UF Effect Pred. 2 Avg. Pred.
Yards 449.2 76.7% 344.36 248.5 140.4% 348.83 346.59
Points 46.33 58.7% 27.19 11.5 200.8% 23.09% 25.14

Wow. The yardage drops by nearly 30 and the expected scoring drops by 10 points. I think a 25-17 game is more what most folks who are calling the game things like “Ali vs. Frazier” may be expecting.

I think it is worth noting that while Alabama has a slight edge in real scoring defense, giving up 11.5 points a game to Florida’s 12.3, the Gators hold their opponents to a smaller percentage of their normal scoring output. Also consider that when you throw out the game against the Citadel, in which the Bulldogs scored 19 meaningless points against backups, UF’s scoring defense drops to 11.6 points allowed a game. That makes the Tide and Gators basically even, though with Florida allowing an even smaller percentage of opponents’ norms.

I’ve been wrong every time I’ve said this since October began, but I don’t expect this to be a blowout. Alabama is a very capable team, and their style of play along probably prevents Florida from winning by more than about 21 in anything but a fantasy scenario.

Alabama can win this game, no doubt about it. If the teams play a rough approximation of how they have the whole year though, it appears Florida will win.


Upsets in the SEC: General Information

November 13, 2008

I have been running some numbers lately on upsets in games between two SEC opponents. I have restricted it to just the past five seasons for reasons I’ll get into in a later piece, but it has to do with limited data availability more than anything else.

Since what constitutes an upset can be subjective, I have defined upsets using the following assumptions:

1. You are what your record says you are.

I bring out this old chestnut from Bill Parcells to say that teams’ final records are what I used to judge them. Specifically, it was their win total for the year. I know that it’s not always an accurate way to gauge the difference between teams since their non-conference and inter-division slates can differ.

However, no one in the league generally kills themselves in their non-conference scheduling, and division opponents rotate while the quality of the teams varies as well. It’s fairly random, and I can accept that.

2. Teams with the same final win count plus or minus one are basically the same.

Is there really a difference between two six win teams? How about a six win team and a five win team? Or a six and a seven win team? Of course there is because no two teams are identical, but chance does play a role in football.

If teams are within one win of each other, then I say the difference between them is not significant enough to call one winning over the other an upset. When teams that are within a win of each other played, I classified those games as tossups. It is only from the mismatches, where the difference of the final win totals of the two teams was two or greater, that I classified games as upsets.

These are not perfect rules, but I think they are acceptable compromises. You have to draw the line somewhere because analyzing every game is not feasible.

Overall

In the 225 SEC mismatch games of the past five full seasons, there were 22 upsets. That is 9.78% of them, so about one in every ten SEC mismatches turns into an upset. There was no real pattern as to whether home favorites or road favorites got upset, as 12 of them were home favorites losing and 10 were road favorites losing.

Most people think of upsets as being close, last-minute wins by the lesser team against the better team. That is not really the case, as only 12 of the 22, or 54.55%, of the games were decided by a touchdown or less. Essentially, that’s random.

Despite the conference being known for parity (i.e. teams “beating each other up”), fewer than a quarter (23.47%) of the conference games were tossups. In addition, only 2007 saw more than four real upsets:

upsetsbyyear

The low of two upsets in 2004 is largely due to Auburn going undefeated. When the conference champion loses, it’s almost always via upset according to my accounting methods here. Therefore, an undefeated champ (2004) will cause there to be a lower number of upsets, and a two loss champ (2007) will cause there to be a higher number.

The other culprit causing 2007 to have more upsets was South Carolina. Early wins over eventual eight-win teams Kentucky and Mississippi State count as upsets because the Gamecocks collapsed to a 6-6 final record.

You could argue whether they were truly upsets or not, considering how hot SC was at the beginning of the year, but you can’t really measure “hot” objectively and as I said you have to draw the line somewhere. I can’t discount those games without analyzing every other one. No thanks.

Frequent Upset Participants

Some teams are more likely to be involved in upsets. If you’re a Florida fan like me, you’re probably nodding your head and for good reason: the Gators head up the list along with Kentucky and South Carolina.

6 Upsets: Florida (3 wins, 3 losses), Kentucky (3 wins, 3 losses), South Carolina (5 wins, 1 loss)

5 Upsets: Georgia (1 win, 4 losses)

4 Upsets: LSU (0 wins, 4 losses)

3 Upsets: Auburn (2 wins, 1 loss), Miss St. (2 wins, 1 loss), Tennessee (1 win, 2 losses), Vanderbilt (2 wins, 1 loss)

2 Upsets: Alabama (1 win, 1 loss), Arkansas (1 win, 1 loss)

1 Upset: Ole Miss (1 win)

You can thank Ron Zook for Florida being at the top, as four of UF’s upset games were under his watch. At least he had a 3 wins/1 loss ratio, though the one loss was the game that got him fired. Urban Meyer presided over two upset games, and both were losses (South Carolina 2005, Auburn 2006).

Kentucky finds itself up there thanks to dueling with fellow traditional bottom-three teams of the SEC East South Carolina and Vanderbilt. It has an upset win over and an upset loss to Vandy and two upset losses to South Carolina. The only other series of games with more than one upset was Florida and Georgia. Upset wins over Arkansas (2002) and LSU (2007) round out the Wildcats’ slate.

I have covered South Carolina’s existence at the top fairly well.

I bet folks would have expected Mississippi State to be involved in more upsets, given Sly Croom’s reputation, but the two games where an opposing coach got Croomed (Zook in ’04, Shula in ’06) were the school’s only two true upset wins. Same goes for Arkansas, since Houston Nutt has a reputation for winning a game he shouldn’t every year. Turns out the upset win over LSU last year was his only true upset of the last five seasons.

Ole Miss’ win over South Carolina in 2004 marks the only upset it has been involved in over the past five seasons. Under David Cutcliffe and Ed Orgeron, the Rebels won the games they should have won and lost the games they should have lost. Score one for Nutt in 2008 though if Ole Miss fails to finish within one win of UF this season, an overwhelmingly likely scenario.

A Preview of Coming Attractions

Considering that Alabama dropped in both the BlogPoll and SEC Power Poll this week, folks apparently weren’t overly impressed by the Tide’s narrow overtime win over LSU. When the opposing quarterback throws four picks, one of them for a touchdown, and you only win by six in overtime, you’re not going to impress a lot of people.

But it was on the road! But it was in Tiger Stadium! But it was the Saban Bowl!

Alabama will finish with greater than one win more than the Tigers, and that’s likely true even if the hosts had won, so an LSU win would have been an upset on my parameters. That made Alabama a true road favorite.

For games that have been kicked off between 3:30 and 5:45 (inclusive) over the past five seasons, road favorites have a .913 winning percentage. Alabama had a better than 90% chance of winning based on that, and it took them to overtime to seal the deal.

The overall attitude of not being overly impressed is probably justified. Alabama should win that game nine out of 10 times under the circumstances. They didn’t give a performance that meshes with that stat. Now in games with a road favorite, the probability of a close game is 56.52%. That lets them off the hook some since it was slightly better that pure chance that a close game would occur.

But seriously… four picks, one a pick-six, and you need overtime to beat an overmatched team? Well, I suppose three turnovers of your own and two missed field goals will make that happen. Sometimes you don’t need fancy stats to diagnose a game.